Bumming around British Columbia

Hello family and friends!

This email marks about the two-month mark of our expedition. A lot of uncertainties still hang in the balance, particularly around the US border and whether or not Covid will explode once cooler weather hits, but we are still having fun and getting along and we still have so much country left to explore! These past two weeks have been all about the province whose license plate tagline says it best: Beautiful British Columbia. I’d offer another: Everything’s Bigger in BC. From slugs to plants to trees, it seems like every living thing benefits from the relatively temperate climate – and that includes people, who are infinitely more active here than anyplace else in the country.

While we’re out here, I’m working on a unified theory of the country, which is coming together piecemeal. For instance, the frequency of A&Ws and Pizza Huts increases the further you drive west in an inverse proportion to the number of McDonald’s and Pizza Pizzas. Another thing I’ve noticed is that despite Ontarians bitching about how expensive our alcohol is, it actually doesn’t really vary much from province-to-province: all Canadians have miserable beer prices, and while the regional craft offerings may vary, there’s a pan-Canadian fondness for the same old Molsons and Labatts. Oh, and the most constant factor in any Canadian town is the ring of old men hanging out at the local Tim Horton’s – though due to Covid and seating restrictions, we’ve been seeing them cropping up in Walmart parking lots. They bring their own camp chairs, pick up their double-doubles, and sit in well-spaced circles behind their pick-up trucks to chew the fat and watch outsiders like us emerge from our vans.

In that vein, while driving through BC, I’ve really noticed that we’ve left the lake country of central Canada and have entered the territory of river valleys: the Athabasca, the Fraser, the Thompson, etc. In Ontario, most cities sit on a Great Lake or a smaller cousin. But here, the lakes here are little specks on the map, mostly polar-temperature pools fed by mountain glaciers. The days of warm, sandy lakes are long gone. Instead, we’ve been driving alongside river valleys that furrow deep into the landscape, often with a railway clinging to one side of the river and a highway to the other. Unfortunately we are mistimed to see the salmon runs, but we are still enjoying the vistas and swimming, letting the currents float us downstream. And with the prevalence of rivers comes the veneration of a certain river-based way of life, especially linked to the lumber industry and all those small, riverside industry towns that didn’t even have roads in or out until the 1970s. We drive past hotels shaped like steamboats, billboards for lumberjack competitions, and luxury log-cabin homes sitting high on the banks of river valleys.

BC sunset

It’s impossible to forget that we’re in gold rush country, too. Many gas stations and tourist traps use the wild west font of spaghetti westerns, as do small-town rodeos (which have been regretfully cancelled for 2020). Small towns promise that if you pan their rivers you’re apt to find flakes of gold. We found a couple of nuggets of fool’s gold while panning at a defunct copper mine, though I suspect those were planted. In the lowlands, ranches with square-frame entry-ways hearken back to the days of cowboy riders out to seek a fortune in the rivers of the backcountry.

Once we started heading south from Prince George, we entered fantasy landscapes of buttes and hoodoos. Closer to Kamloops, the green farms of the river valley contrasted against the dry brown hills of sagebrush and scrub. We even camped on one such hill and had wild horses pass by our van: skittish to be called, but absolutely free to roam. Kamloops was a delight, camping a few nights by the river and spending our days visiting craft breweries and hiking in the sweet-smelling silt cliffs. The city sits in a valley, so you can see the suburban sprawl of park model trailers rising up the hills. BC may be a province of trees and rivers, but in my mind it’s also home to the highest per-capita concentration of trailer parks.

When we left Kamloops, we drove the Sea to Sky Highway down through Lilloet to Whistler, a rollercoaster of a road, up and down steep grades that left both our engine and our brakes strained. I noticed signs noting tire chains are mandatory from October 1 onward – an indicator that winters here are long and tough. Nights are already getting cold, too cold to spend much time outside. Aren’t I glad that we decided to insulate every surface of the van!

No shortage of gorgeous places to park

In this corridor of the province the drylands of Kamloops have given way to ancient forests: moss-bedecked hemlocks, cedars with root systems like pipe organs, and craggy-barked Douglas firs that stand so straight and tall they resemble the masts of pirate ships. We spent some time in Whistler exploring the forests, including one home to a derailed train that has been coated in many layers of graffiti to create a sort of open-air art gallery. While Whistler isn’t necessarily to my liking – we visited on a weekend, and the crowds combined with the alpine shopping mall vibe of the village made it feel a little bit like a Swiss Disneyworld – it was cool to visit a place I’ve only ever seen in the dead of winter. Plus it was sort of neat that at our backroad camping spot that night, a curious adolescent black bear came within a few metres of us, obviously used to scavenging the garbage of irresponsible campers.

After Whistler we headed to Squamish, an outdoors-person’s paradise. The city sits under a huge granite formation called Chief Stawanus, a slick-looking face that is supposed to have some of the hardest climbing in Canada. We spent a few hours watching the crazed dance of kitesurfers out on the ocean sound, and marvelled at the Walmart parking lot: from sundown to sunrise, it’s almost full of vanlifers, dirtbags and transient rock climbers. Everyone here seems to also be living out of their truck or minivan or sprinter van, chasing thrills all over the region.

The glacial lake atop Mt. Wedge

Of course, we’ve been doing some amazing mountain hiking in the past two weeks. We scaled Mt. Bowman, a peak in the Marble range, which tortured us with its many false summits and sliding rock surface. Outside of Whistler we hiked up Mt. Wedge, a peak in the Garibaldi range, to the turquoise lake just below its glaciers, for a 1,200 metre elevation gain that pretty much shredded my legs for a few days. In Squamish we hiked the Smoke Bluff; the trail runs below sheer granite faces that are crawling with rock climbers, their belts of carabiners tinkling in the breeze like wind chimes. This morning I did the famed Grouse Grind without Eric, feeling pretty good about myself crushing the 3km, 850m ascent in an hour until I saw the record holder did it in less than 30 minutes! But BC is such an adventurer’s paradise that we feel so limited in just hiking. Golf courses, mountain biking trails, kitesurfing, rock climbing, slacklining, disc golf – all of it publicly accessible and affordable!

Now we’re spending a bit of time in and around Vancouver. Already we are marveling at how so many homes have been squashed into such a small space. The wealth is palpable here: luxury cars, mansions nestled in forests, oceanfront real estate with unfathomable price tags – we are feeling a bit shabby in our beat-up van. From here we will ferry over to Vancouver Island and spend a good chunk of time there, visiting Victoria and other towns. Though we already went for a dip today in the ocean, we look forward to a lot more ocean swims and beach days; we have to enjoy the tail end of summer while we can!

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