Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Ride up to BC's Cariboo Region: June 2008

Alaska is one of the premier frontier destinations left in North America. It offers adventure travel, mountains beside crystal azure lakes and glaciers. You can also see an impressive variety of wildlife, native cultures and totem poles. But Alaska is actually not close to the continental US: Seattle is nearly 1,000 miles away from the Southern tip of Alaska and Anchorage is almost as far away as New York.

Fortunately, British Columbia is between here and Alaska. BC is a stunning place that has everything I look forward to seeing in Alaska…starting only a couple hours North of my home. Last June, I made my first visit up to BC, a visit that only whetted my appetite for more exploration in Western Canada. This article is all about that trip.

The first challenge was deciding where to go. BC has everything from deserts to rainforests, mountain lakes, major cities and fine restaurants. One factor in choosing destinations is that I had only returned to motorcycles a year earlier and my Triumph Speed Triple would not be ideal for much gravel or for off-road exploration. On the other hand, the reinvention of the Triumph brand makes it an ice breaker whenever I ride it and it is a superb all around motorcycle. Some helpful advice from Canada riding venues led to an ideal two day ride North to Lillooet, BC and back home by way of Whistler and Vancouver. These choices afforded a fascinating and enjoyable ride that only scratched the surface of Western Canada’s riding destinations.

This was my route:

Since my trip would only be two days long, there wasn’t a lot of additional planning after the route was chosen and on June 6th I set out on my first excursion to British Columbia. Rain gear kept the drizzling rain off during the two hour ride up to the Canadian border and the crossing itself was easy. I soon found myself riding a motorcycle for the first time in another country, albeit one that’s a friendly next door neighbor.

My first stop was in Chilliwack, which would be a fine start to what my trip would be like: the people at the bakery where I stopped were friendly, the area itself lovely. Located in the Fraser Valley, it has ample outdoor activities available and looks like a good town. I also found out after the trip that a family member lives in Chilliwack.

Clouds and drizzle hid some picturesque views during the short ride from Chilliwack to Hope, concealing some mountain vistas. Hope is one of the major transport intersections in Southern BC: several major highways intersect there and the Fraser River (which my travels largely paralleled) passes alongside Hope. The Fraser River is the longest river in BC, travelling 870 miles/1400 km from Mount Robson to join with the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver.

A number of movies have been filmed in Hope, starting with the first Rambo movie. You can even put yourself in John Rambo’s place at the Hope info center, at a small cutout billboard. Here are a couple photos captured at Hope.

Continuing on from Hope, Trans-Canada Highway 1 passes through several tunnels drilled through mountains. The Fraser River is at one point compressed between two mountains to create a site known as Hell’s Gate, a furious, boiling set of rapids. Simon Fraser, who charted much of the province of British Columbia, compared these rapids to “the gates of hell”…thus, its name. An airtram passes over these rapids, adding to their appeal for visitors.

When people think of Canada they usually think of cold and snow, so most don’t realize what a variety of climactic conditions you can find there. Province Alberta has its Red Deer Badlands and there is a desert region in Osoyoos, BC. In July 1941, Lytton and Lillooet, BC both reached 111.9F/44.4C. The area near Lytton was the start of a dry, arid region.

These photos were taken as I headed towards Cache Creek:

After riding through Cache Creek, I left Highway 1 for 99, passing the historic Hat Creek Ranch. It is a combination hotel, campsite and living history farm and will certainly be a stop for future visits.

Continuing towards Lillooet, I rode to Pavilion Lake and stopped to take photos. The lake’s view was what got me to stop but it is also intriguing scientifically for being home to microbialites, a significant form of fossilized algae otherwise known as “freshwater coral”.

Highway 99 is narrower and more potholed than Highway 1 and after leaving Pavilion Lake, the drizzle which had been intermittent throughout the day became steadier. The road also eventually became steeper and there was a short gravel section…still, the varied surface also made the ride more challenging and fun. It wasn’t too extreme and the Triumph had no real problems with it. But after riding for about 7 hours, I was going to need to call it a day soon.

Approaching Lillooet, I noticed what I thought was a large dog foraging by the side of the road. Getting closer, however, it revealed itself to be a black bear. Seeing such a wild animal in the wild was a real treat, especially inasmuch as we both noticed each other and then went about our business peacefully.

Lillooet, BC has a fascinating history. In the late 1800s, gold strikes made it one of the largest cities West of Chicago. Its main street is coincident with Mile Zero of the Old Cariboo Road, as demarcated by the Mile Zero Cairn: 70 Mile House and 100 Mile House are measured from that point.

Lillooet also used camels briefly for pack animals during the Cariboo Gold Rush of the 1860s. However, while they could carry twice the load that mules could, their feet were soft and were cut up by the hard rocks in the region. Further, they startled other animals and this outraged stagecoach drivers. Their use was discontinued but some camels lived on (in captivity and having escaped to the wild) for a while, though all have been gone for about 100 years now. However, they’ve not been forgotten and Lillooet’s Bridge of the 23 Camels has immortalized their story.

I finally arrived in Lillooet in the late afternoon and found a good place to stay at the 4 Pines Hotel, which is conveniently across the street from the town’s Information Center. However, I was disappointed to find that the info center was closed and that it would not be open until after I left, the next day. The building was dark but has intriguing features outside: an old rusted jail cell (with a nearby hanging tree for the less lucky) and jade boulders embedded in front of the building, commemorating the fact that area mines were the world’s largest source of nephrite jade for some years.

In town, I started looking for places to eat and buy road food for the next day. Then, three motorcycles parked and I had an opportunity to chat with their riders, who had come from Vancouver Island. We met later for dinner at Dina’s Place, a Greek restaurant in town that is enjoyed by many visitors to Lillooet. The conversation regarding BC riding was very helpful and a rider from Edinburgh, Scotland also stopped by to chat with us. They suggested visiting the Dual Sport BC web forum, a terrific place to discuss dual-sport riding and destinations in BC. Living in Washington state, it’s wonderful to have such a helpful resource available.

Waking early the next morning, I took the opportunity to ride around town and take more pictures, then gassed up the bike and rode off towards Whistler. That gas fill up was fortunate, as there wasn’t another gas station for about 60 miles, until I reached Pemberton. Riders exploring BC are well-advised to identify stretches along their route where there are gaps in services!

The ride home through Whistler was again more challenging than the street riding I am used to: I encountered the first washboard surface that I’ve ridden on a bike, though only about 50-100 yards of it, some wicked switchbacks and LOTS of potholes. All this was compensated for by views of more stunning mountains and lakes. In contrast to the arid landscape of the previous day, this was a lush green landscape much like photos I’ve seen of Banff and Jasper. I stopped briefly at the lovely Duffey Lake for more pictures.

Getting close to Whistler, the views remained stunning, while simultaneously, the temperature was dropping. Mounds of snow by the side of the road had me wondering whether there’d be ice on the road. Fortunately, there was not.

Whistler is a world renowned ski resort which is also reputed to be very expensive. I rode through quickly and did not stop for a look around. The town of Squamish, with its Stawamus Chief climbing destination, also beckons. The stretch between Whistler and Vancouver also entailed a number of construction stops which slowed traffic. The views compensated for this preparation for the 2010 Olympics.

These gorgeous landscapes continued as I pressed on towards Vancouver. The Britannia Mine and its museum are situated beside a coastline of a stunning green color that absolutely HAD to be photographed; I look forward to visiting them again. The city of Vancouver is a must see destination for some long weekend. Having my passport along got me through customs quickly and about an hour and a half later, I reached my home.

This first ride up into BC taught me a number of things. First, I will be spending a LOT of time visiting this splendid province. Eventually reaching the Yukon and Alaska will be good but the readier access a province like BC, with its rich heritage and history and destinations for any vacation budget will make it a frequent destination.

Long distance rides are something I will have to become accustomed to. The Triumph is a great bike but its footpegs did leave my knees very sore after each day of riding, a quibble I hope to resolve by more frequent breaks and also riding the DRZ I’ve since acquired.

I can’t wait to get started!

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