NB – Reader beware, this is long! I tend to go on.
We’ve been back from our South American bike trip for six months now. Being home has been great. Seeing our kids, extended family and friends was the first priority. Within days of getting settled, we rode the classic Sea to Sky Trail from Whistler to Squamish with Nina and Nico. It was an awesome day and a great way to get back into the kind of things that make living where we do, so special. It truly is a spectacular corner of the globe. Canada is envied around the world for its political stability, economic opportunity, tolerant, ethnically diverse society and rich, clean, abundant, natural environment. Moreover, BC is arguably the most beautiful province in the country and our town, little ol’ Squamish, is very much at the epicentre of outdoor recreation. We have world class rock climbing, mountaineering, assorted wind and paddling sports, mountain biking (the best), hiking, trail running and more, all outside our door. We are privileged and very lucky to call Squamish home.
These past six months have been very full. Numerous projects around the home, some needed, others less so, kept us busy. Our two e-mountain bikes, purchased after selling Claire’s car, have reinvigorated our passion for mountain biking. They also double as eco-friendly transport for grocery shopping and the like. Claire, at age 63, decided to take up rock climbing. We joined the local climbing gym and slowly, as our upper body strength and technique improves, are getting the hang of it. We are both looking forward to getting out on the rock next summer. We also managed to get away on a couple of fine canoe trips – the 3 day Sayward Lakes circuit on Vancouver Island and the 5 day Powell Lake circuit up the Sunshine Coast. Canoeing is the quintessential Canadian way of exploring our country. Paddling mirror smooth lakes, that seamlessly reflect the coastal sky and mountains, skinny dipping whenever we wanted, with only the call of the loon and the rhythmic dip of our paddles to disturb the stillness is all quite magical.
My 90 year old Mom passed away. Her final five years, spent in a nursing home, saw declining mobility and increasing isolation, so, I believe she was ready to go when the time came. We were lucky to be home and was with Mom the day before she passed. My sister provided my mother excellent care and attention during those years. Much less so, her absent son, for which I will be eternally grateful.
This summer also saw our much anticipated purchase of a small RV trailer. We figured it is about time to upgrade from sleeping in a tent when on road trips. Shortly after our return we started scoping Craigslist for a small, 10’ fibreglass trailer. These were all the rage many decades ago and have seen a revival in recent years and accordingly, are both hard to find and command, quite a price. To make a long story short, we finally found a number of trailers to check-out in the Okanagan. We did the long drive up, came to terms with the seller of a nice little Trillium, spent the night in it, got insurance and the electrical hook-up figured out in the morning, then headed home. Just before the Port Mann Bridge nearing Vancouver, in heavy traffic, a small car in front of us slammed on its brakes. We couldn’t stop in time (the added momentum of the trailer), ploughed into it and three more cars piled into us from behind. Thankfully, no one was hurt, other than my pride, but the trailer was written off by our insurers, after owning it for less than four hours! It was a hell of a start to life as RVers.
Undeterred, we persisted, bought another trailer, spent a month converting and/or repairing all the unforeseen shortcomings and, exactly one year after our departure for South America, left for an extended road trip to California. November is typically a bit grim weather-wise in Squamish and therefore a good time to head south. Claire, despite having travelled to well over 60 countries, had never visited the Golden State. I have always wanted to see the redwood forests so, off we went.
Once again, our last-minute planning left something to be desired. Our first night was spent in an interstate rest stop, sandwiched between two big semitrailer trucks. One of which, with Walmart emblazoned on its side, left its engine running all bloody night! We hoped for more agreeable surroundings as we continued south.
The Oregon Coast was as scenic as ever but other than one long bike ride down a deserted stretch of beach, we didn’t linger. We pushed on to Northern California and a much anticipated visit to the redwoods. Less than 5% of the coastal redwood forests remain of which maybe one third is protected in a disjointed string of National and State Parks. We spent three days hiking in various parks and, what can I say….we were blown away! I have always been intrigued by old growth forests and have visited many remnant stands in BC but nothing prepared me for the magnificence of these forests. To walk amongst these dense stands of giants (the tallest trees in the world), all so straight, seemingly healthy with many well over 10’ in diameter (some up to 20’) and up to 2000 years old is truly breathtaking. They evoke such strength and vitality, and in me, reverence and humility. Who needs a God when one can walk amongst redwoods! The understory of azaleas, rhododendrons and carpets of sword ferns is a beautiful backdrop to the powerful trunks soaring a 100’ to the first branches. It was an experience that made me, more than ever, lament our local logging practices, that kept cutting old growth like it would never end. (NB – If interested, The Wild Trees by Richard Preston is an absorbing read about redwoods)
The following days, as we continued south, things got a little more complicated. With daylight fading fast, we were heading for a campground that appeared on Google Maps, maps.me, and a paper map we had, but was nowhere to be found in reality (a local informed us it had closed decades ago!). We ended up spending the night at a quiet spot at the end of a rural road. The level of homelessness in California is such that the nearest neighbour immediately came to ensure we’d move on in the morning. The following night, as we neared San Francisco, was even more frustrating. Unable to find an open/available campground in the progressively more urbanized environment, on and off chaotic interchanges with rush hour traffic flying by as we poked along, trailer in tow, was demoralizing. We finally chose a random road that headed into the hills, located a somewhat level pull off and crashed for the night. Our last minute/seat-of-the-pants style of travelling can be trying!
The next day we headed for the fabled Yosemite Valley. I had visited the Valley 40+ years ago on an unsuccessful climbing trip. On that trip, my confidence was blown after a couple of short climbs, both beyond my skills, with sketchy partners (met on site) and consequently, I only stayed a few days. This time was different. Driving into the Valley, as we rounded a corner, El Cap came into view with the radiant Dawn Wall, aglow with the morning light, above a valley floor carpeted in warm autumn colour. Then……the Three Brothers, Cathedral Spire, Bridal Veil Falls, the Royal Arches, Washington Column, each an iconic feature, with the towering Half Dome dominating the head of the Valley. It is truly awe inspiring and a visit to the Valley should be on everyone’s bucket list.
We spent the morning soaking it all in and peddling around the bike friendly trails. I also wanted to show Claire the climber’s campground, Camp IV, where, 40 years ago I witnessed the legendary John Bachar, solo Midnight Lightning, the world-famous boulder problem in the middle of the campground, a route that only one other climber had done. To our delight, another legend, John Sherman (he introduced the V-scale for bouldering) was there attempting to be the first 60 year old to climb the route. We watched for an hour as John and two young climbers, all extremely fit looking, attempted the route. None of them got beyond the first move and the crux was still two moves away. We finished our lunch and moved on.
We planned a hike for the following day. It was a long go (23.5 km) including a +/- 1000 M climb (& then descent) but it must rank as one of our favourite day hikes. We passed three spectacular waterfalls for which Yosemite is famous, had jaw dropping views of endless, towering granite walls while walking beautifully built trails through open, old growth pine and fir forests. The trails, built during the Great Depression as part of FDR’s make work projects for the gangs of unemployed men, had originally been paved in asphalt, carried by mules deep into the forest. Though, for the most part, little remains of the asphalt the trails are a wonder, a far cry from the ones I scratch through the bush. The next day we crossed the Sierra Nevada via the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows, over the high Tioga Pass (9,944’). We were lucky it was snow free so late in the season. The clear weather held and by the end of our trip we had crossed at least two more high passes that would be typically closed in November.
Once over the mountains we dropped down, way down, into the dry, stark desert of Death Valley. At Badwater Basin it is the lowest point in North America – 260’ below sea level. The area is, for the most part, a very inhospitable, lifeless environment and not a place to which I am drawn. Nonetheless there is an austere beauty, gorgeous light and profound stillness to the desert that is undeniably attractive. We hiked Telescope Peak (11,043’ – the highest point in the Park) and along the way discovered the pinyon pine, the source of pine nuts. It was strange how vegetation increased with elevation. Though typically harvested directly from the pinecone, the cones were so covered in sap that we picked the husk covered nuts off the ground and ate our fill. The laborious process of shelling the nuts explain their high cost. The last 1000’ of elevation was dotted with the, spectacularly gnarly, bristlecone pine. Despite their tortuous shape and the harshness of their environment they are quite beautiful. And they are old. A bristlecone in the nearby White Mountains, named Methuselah, is an unfathomable, 4750 years old!
The following day we moved camp and then did a tiring hike on loose gravel, in the heat of the day up into a, steep walled, box canyon. It was time well spent but after some of the brilliant colours and fascinating geological formations we had recently seen in the Andes, we found the canyon somewhat lacklustre. Clearly, we’re a bit jaded in our old age.
After three nights in Death Valley we continued south through the Mojave Desert to where it abuts the Colorado Desert (no relation to the state) at the lovely Joshua Tree National Park. It is a unique environment renowned as a winter destination for rock climbers and one day we hope to return…..maybe on a rock climbing trip. (Aspirational thinking at its best!) We camped at a rustic but scenic site tucked in amongst the fantastic boulder formations beloved by climbers. We spent our time wandering amongst the rocks and imprudently scrambling to the summits of some. One must be especially careful walking off trail. Every second plant has either vicious thorns trying to hook you (the ‘Wait-a-minute’ Bush) or long spines ready to impale you. The shrike (a small bird) skewers its prey of mice, lizards, etc., on the long, razor sharp spines of the Joshua Tree.
A longer hike through the desert into the historic Lost Horse gold mine, with its well preserved, 19th century ‘10-stamp’ mill was of special interest. In 1994 I had worked with Zimbabwean gold miners still using this technology. Despite their antiquity, the most sophisticated stamp mill I saw amongst the miners I worked with, was a rudimentary ’3-stamp’ affair. Organizing a cooperative amongst these marginalized miners while introducing more modern and efficient technology was the most challenging and interesting project of my time overseas.
We turned north and headed for Sequoia National Park. Traversing the Great Central Valley of California is to witness industrial agriculture at its most productive. Orchards stretching to the horizon are a testimony to the productivity of the region, the power of big business and ultimately, how divorced we are from food production. To visit the Park, we climbed up out of the valley and back into the high Sierras. The small pockets of remaining Giant Sequoias are found between 4000’-6000’. They require a unique ecosystem to thrive which includes periodic fires, essential for seed germination and dispersal. Once again, the immensity of the trees was something to behold. The walk into see the world’s largest tree (the General Sherman Tree) is usually packed with tourists but what with the late season, very chilly nights with most campgrounds closed and services very limited, there was hardly anyone about, which made our visit all the more special.
We continued up the spine of the Sierras until Lassen Volcano National Park. Another beautiful environment and, with the lateness of the season, deserted. We camped in the parking lot of the visitor center (6,707’) and had a fun evening sharing our fire with some young Americans. We only managed a couple of short but lovely hikes in the two days we spent in the park but, in the end, decided to push on north. The cold, damp, and for the first time, threatening, weather at elevation was not something we wanted to contend with.
Travelling with a small trailer in tow has been a learning curve. Forgetting to close the roof-top fan cover while driving, trying to find parking in the bigger cities, figuring out how to back up the damn thing and worse, opening the trailer to find the door of the small fridge has popped open and there’s salsa all over the carpet (the trailer smelt like a Mexican cantina for the rest of the trip) are just some of the challenges . Out of necessity, we spent a couple of nights in RV Parks. Typically, the RVs are slotted in like sardines and the ‘parks’ are located on commercially zoned land adjacent to highways. Our unit tucked in amongst the typically, super-sized rigs could be mistaken for a re-cycling bin. Despite RV Park amenities I much prefer ‘boondocking’ – RV lingo for wild camping.
North of Lake Tahoe, we stopped in the small, funky, outdoor-rec town of Truckee. I enquired at a bike shop about the local riding and possible wild camping options. The only legit campsite, the State Park, was closed. So, we downloaded trusty Trail Forks for Oregon, found a quiet spot for the trailer and headed off on a ride. Claire wanted to ride JP’s trail, so with scant info we rode to the trailhead and into the unknown. We got back to camp just as the light died. I thought it a bit audacious, if not risky, but when Claire gets something into her head….well, you know.
The further north we went the colder it got. We wild camped just outside of lovely Bend, Oregon for a night, did some riding then pushed on to Yakima for our coldest night to date, a chilly -5 C. Crossed the Cascades over the Snoqualmie Pass before the snow flew, spent a lovely night with old friends in Seattle then, as we passed Customs and crossed into BC, it started raining. How fitting!
Last but not least, our very best wishes to you all during this Holiday Season!