It was one of those late summer weekends, the kind that makes you feel as if you have been granted a reprieve from the onset of fall. Or perhaps it has been raining for a while and it cleared again in mid or late September to surprise and beguile.
It had been quite a Gypsy season for me, having clocked about 10,000 kilometres on my motorcycle, riding all through northern BC and Alberta. It was a period of change in my life and I was really spending a lot of time alone, on the road. I was working just enough to pay for road trips on the bike and to keep my rent paid back home while I was gone.
I had been through a break-up earlier in the year, I was partying way too hard and my life had become almost unmanageable. I was in my mid thirties and I suddenly realised I had largely wasted the last 10 years of my life. I mean, I had achieved some things along the way but I now came to the conclusion that I had been acquiring some really bad habits, personal and inter-personal.
Like an injured animal, I thought it best to just limp off into the wilderness and lick my wounds. These wounds were mostly self inflicted but they were very real and needed some immediate attention before they got too much further down the path.
In the spring I had rode the motorcycle North, to Fort St. John, to fulfil a two week contract with some friends, installing fibre optics in the ceiling of a new casino. I had been working for six months straight, 12 hours a day, on a TV show and it was really good to load the bike and ride out of the city toward the wilderness. I was not expected in Fort St. John for a week, so I was going to spend the time camping and riding my way up there. I have always cherished the natural beauty of this province and I have spent many thousands of kilometres upon it's roads and highways.
After the four week excursion through Northern BC and Alberta, I returned to the city to log some more time on some low budget films and save some more money to escape back into the solitude, as I felt my summer of solitary exile and inner exploration was not yet complete.
Before I knew it, August had surrendered to September and the road and the forest called out to me from beyond. I loaded the bike with a pack sack stocked with a week's provisions and rode, once again, out of the city and up through the Fraser Canyon, toward Lytton and my destination, Stein Valley. ( Nlaka'pamux )
When I ride my bike, I take the time to drink in my surroundings in full. When you are riding a motorcycle, the travelling experience is more real somehow. The senses are more heightened and the road in front of you is more connected to you than if you were behind the wind screen of an automobile. The pavement under you is also more tangible, every bump and curve is felt with more awareness.
And acceleration is the most gorgeous feeling in the world, banging up through the gears, as you reach the RPM ceiling at the top of each shift.
The sun was setting as I reached Lytton and I still had to stop at the local general store to purchase some Sambuca, which has always been my sip of choice when I am hiking in the wilderness. It is sweet and delicious and it goes unbelievably well with a shot of coffee and a campfire.
I pulled over at the store on the main drag, which also happens to be the only drag in town. The population of Lytton is less than 500 souls, so there are only a couple places where a person can get supplies and the choice is pretty limited.
I got the Sambuca, some beans, rice, a few vegetables and some coffee for the hike. Coffee is very key to me on these trips. I always take the time to make a nice brew, no matter where I am. It is very grounding when you are on the trail or on the road and it is a very nice treat.
I once hiked the Cape Scott Trail and realised I had forgotten the coffee when we were 18 kilometres from the trail head. I swear, that really fucked up the trip for me. I was out of sync with my natural surroundings for the whole trip without my ritual of percolating the coffee. I use one of those little Italian espresso makers that make one cup at a time and I have had it for years. It is all black and burned from countless camp fires.
When I came out of the store, a First Nations dude was standing next to the bike. He looked about 40 and he was swaying back and forth, trying to stay on his feet. He was completely pickled. His name was George. At least that is what he told me his name was. He instantly launched into a drunken story about when he was young and had a motorcycle but had crashed it and never got it repaired.
He asked about my bike and where I was going. I said i was going to the Stein Valley to spend some time in the woods and he said that it was really nice there and his ancestors had been living in that area for hundreds of years.
Then he asked if I had any cigarettes and could I give him a couple. I said that I did and I gave him a whole pack because he seemed like a sad soul and a whole day's worth of tobacco could really brighten a guy's day if he had no money. He seemed happy alright and told me to stop at another little store on the way to the Valley and pick up another pack, courtesy of some of his family that ran the store. All I had to do was mention his name and I would receive the pack for the same price as someone with a status card. I said that would be good and got on my bike and started it up. I could tell George was a bit lonely and drunk and just wanted to talk the rest of the daylight away. I was short of time because I still had to find some ground to pitch my tent on and the night was fast approaching.
I bid him goodbye and rode away down the street. I did stop at his family's store to buy some more smokes but I did not mention George because I always felt that using someone's status card to purchase cigarettes was a little disingenuous. The little store was just beautiful in it's simplicity and rural charm. It was used as a location for the movie The Pledge. I can see why they used it.
I arrived at the river ferry as it was getting dark. Now, this ferry was a sight to behold. It was a single car ferry that crossed the river by using the current of the river itself. It had no engine, only a cable to navigate its's way across.
It was run by the First Nations band that lived on the other side of the water. All I had to do was ride onto the deck and away we went. The crossing took less than 5 minutes and I was unceremoniously spat out onto the shore on the other side.
The park was only a couple clicks up the gravel road and I reached the parking lot in no time. There were only a few other cars in the lot and there was not a soul around. I could hear the thundering rush of the river down below.
I removed the spark plug from the engine and loaded my pack onto my back. I was really pressed for daylight and I did not want to be hiking in the dark, looking for some good ground on which to place my tent.
As I reached the trail head, there was a rock face that was decorated with paint, stones, trinkets, foliage and cairns. It really took me aback. I thought that people must leave things here for sentiment or as messages to one another. There were even un-smoked cigarettes left on ledges of the rock face. It reminded me of the old Stoupas in Nepal, where people would leave offerings to their Gods, as they passed by in their travels.
Then I came to the conclusion that this rock must be some sort of sacred place. The surface of the rock was worn thin in some spots so I knew that people had been spending time here for hundreds or even thousands of years.
After spending as long as I could at this place, I started out along the Stein River. It was a roaring river, fed by many glaciers from upstream in the Coastal Mountains. I pumped some water from the river into my bottle and continued along the shore of the river. By now it was dark and I needed to find a place to camp for the night. After walking only for a couple of kilometres, I found an ideal spot, nestled in the firs, right beside the river. The roar of the river was comforting, though I knew that it would drown out any noise that I may hear in the night from approaching people or, more likely, animals. I decided I would live with the noise and my paranoia would take a back seat.
When the tent was set up, I made a tomato pasta and had a few sips of the Sambuca by the light of a few candles. I could not have a fire because it had been a hot summer and the fire ban had been in effect for months. I also think that there are not any fires allowed within that park, which is a good thing because there are a lot of idiots that let fires get out of control every year and thousands of hectares of forest gets burned to the ground.
I pulled my MP3 player from the pack and selected a few of the songs to play as I enjoyed some sweet liquor and gazed up at the clear night sky. One of the advantages of getting out of the city is to leave the light pollution behind and that allows you to see the stars in their intended glory. The greater the distance from lights, the more clear the night sky will appear.
In times like these, I prefer Dylan. The music always gets me reflecting and thinking about the world at large. I only listen to a few songs because I have to conserve battery power. The songs are only played at select times of the day, rationed out like post war sugar.
When the few songs were sung and the drinks were drunk, I shuffled off to the tent to find some sleep. The constant roar of the river put me to sleep instantly and I slept the night through, waking early with the birds.
The site was cleaned meticulously and all the gear and stores fit into my pack and the pack went on my back and then I hit the trail. The trail ascended up the hill side almost immediately and I was sweating heavily by the time I reached the first summit of the day.
I walked past two park rangers that were heading down and out of the park. We stopped and exchanged pleasantries and were quickly on our respective ways. I didn't come all the way out here, alone, to make friends, I can promise that much.
They reminded me of the fire ban and I promised there would be no fires started by me.
The trail crossed the river back and forth a few times and the steep grade of the glacier fed river dictated the rise in altitude of the path. I still smoked at the time and I occasionally stopped to inhale a few puffs of glorious tobacco. I always loved smoking out in the wilderness, it gave me such pleasure. If there is a time to smoke, it is when you are resting at the top of a mountain or sitting in a boat on a quiet lake. These are the times that cigarettes were practically designed for. Fortunately, i quit shortly after that trip, so I now enjoy a coffee or tea beside the trail for capturing the moment.
I had removed my pack and knelt by the river to catch some water for my canteen, when a couple came along. They said hello and stopped to talk for a bit. They were in their forties and were French. They looked like rugged campers and hikers. I can always tell the real, hardy outdoors people from the weekend warrior types. The yuppie hikers always have the most expensive, least worn gear. All of their gear is from MEC and it looks like they just bought it yesterday. Still shiny. The price tags practically still on.
The rugged camper usually has good gear that is terrifically worn, dirty and well used. It may even be sewn or have duct tape holding it together. Or, like me, the rugged hiker has crap gear that is terrifically worn as well but they are too lazy or cheap to buy new stuff. You see, things have sentimental value after a while. "This pack has been to Annapaurna, the Yukon, the Queen Charlotte Islands and six summits in the Strathcona Park". You cannot part with a pack that has been this good to you for so long. I get like that about boots, too. It is hard to let go of a good pair of boots. It can take a year to break a pair in properly and at least another year for them to really hit their stride. And don't even get me started about my ten year old tent that I got for $130 from Canadian Tire. If it isn't leaking too much, why replace a good tent like that? You can easily patch the campfire holes that get burned into it over the years…
The couple talked briefly and, like me, they were not out here to strike up a friendship, and were on their way. I gave them a few minutes head start before I decided to follow up the trail.
It was another hot day and I felt blessed to have such great weather this late in the fall. I knew there would only be a very limited time that this weather would stick around, so I was enjoying every minute of it.
Later on, up the trail I could hear an axe, chopping a tree or a log. As I walked toward it, I thought that the couple from earlier must have stopped to chop some wood for a fire. The sound of cracking timber permeated the forest.
As I neared the couple, I wondered to myself why they would be cutting wood for a fire when there had been a province-wide fire ban in place for two months?
Maybe they were going to hike up above the tree line, where a fire would be a lot less likely to get out of control. Or maybe they were just careful and were just going to have a small cooking fire. Many people who spend time in nature can be trusted with a fire but there are a lot of dumb people out there and those are the people the rules are there for.
As I crested a small hill, the sound of the chopping was just on the other side. When I reached the top, I expected to see the couple on the downward side.
What I saw was a young male bear, tearing a log apart, looking for bees or wood bugs or something else that was tasty and lives in logs.
I stopped short and so did he. He was absolutely frozen still, save for his nose, which was sniffing the air with tenacity. I could not move. He did not move. We were still and silent in that position for what seemed like an eternity but was more likely five seconds.
He rose up on his hind legs to get a better look at me and get a better sense of my size. Bears don't have the best long range eye sight, from what I understand, so they rely heavily on their powerful sense of smell to get them through their daily lives.
I remembered all my previous bear encounters and from what I could remember, bears generally always run away at the sound of a human but this bear had been lost in tearing apart his log and did not hear me coming. The roar of the river had also covered the sound of my approach. This is the one thing that i do not like about travelling along a river, especially in the fall, when the salmon are spawning. Bears love salmon. The only thing that is good about the fall is that the bears are well fed by this time of year and are less likely to look for a snack in you.
The bear came down off of his laurels and put his head down. From what I knew, this was a sign of aggression. He did not move toward me, but was sizing me up a bit.
I took this opportunity to show him that I was in no mood for a confrontation. I looked away, to avoid eye contact, and slowly backed up in the direction from which I had come. He held his ground as I retreated. I could hear him breathing, he was so close. He could have taken two or three strides and he would have been on me.
As I moved back up the small hill, I started to talk to the bear. I asked him that he not eat me today. It sounded like a nightmare fairy tale from when I was a kid. But I thought this would scare him off.
It didn't. But he didn't follow me as I backed away. He looked at me quizzically, he may not have had many encounters with humans in his young life.
I always have a whistle on a string around my neck when I am in the bush, just for these occasions and I blew into it when I was far enough away from him.
He may have remained still for no more than one second and then I heard him crashing and smashing through the bush as fast as he could carry himself.
After thirty seconds I figured he must have been a kilometre away. Once again, all I could hear was the rush of the river and the beating of my own heart.
It was the closest, longest affair I had ever had with a bear. I mean, I have had many a bear encounter but this one took some time and caused both parties some stress.
I am pretty sure that bear tells his friends the same story around the camp.
That night at my camp site, I reflected on the day's events and thought of the bear with fondness. I felt a strange kinship with him. I know i had startled him as much as he did me and we kind of shared that moment with one another.
I spent five days in the park until I got back to the motorcycle. Before I got to the lot, though, I had to pass that rock at the entrance to the valley. I knew immediately what I would offer the spirit of the Stein River Valley. The whistle was removed from my neck and i placed it on the rock, with the cigarettes and flower petals that were lying there. If there was a sprit here, my reason for the offering was to give thanks for my safe passage. The whistle had been with me on many trips and it was one of those things that had that sentimental value, but I felt that was even more reason to give it up. If it meant nothing, it would mean nothing to give it away.
As I rounded the last bend, I prayed silently for my bike to be unmolested and be in good running order for the trip back home. As far as I could tell, it was. I replaced the spark plug and she fired up right away. It was the most trusted bike I have ever owned. A 1984 Honda Shadow. Such a beautiful ride.
She purred sweetly as she sat there, idling, as I packed the gear into the saddle bags.
There were no other cars in the lot, so I was virtually alone out here and i liked the thought of that. I liked to be alone to sort through my thoughts. I need that from time to time. Even the most healthy of minds needs time alone to collect itself.
I picked up a fir cone, put it in my saddle bag, straddled the seat and rode down the gravel road to the ferry. There were no cars waiting and I just rode right on.