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Life behind bars – Part 2: Four corners of the Haida Gwaii by bicycle.

(continued from Part 1: Solo in the Canadian Rockies)

The Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) is remote set of islands off the northwest coast of British Columbia.  As is a region that I’d been intending to visit for ages, the difficulty in getting there made it elusive despite many years of good intentions, but as they say: good things come to those who wait.  This whole bicycle tour arose around the idea of exploring the ancient forests of the islands by bicycle with a friend from Vancouver.  The before and after fell into place as a way to make the most of the energy spent getting to these places, thereby extending the tour into a loop that contained a little bit of everything.  And so it was here at Canada’s west coast that I went from being solo to meeting my smiling friend who flew up with her bicycle.

With its sparse population, the Haida Gwaii has few services, never mind roads.  Graham Island in the north, the largest and most populous of the archipelago, is the only island with a paved road.  With the exception of a few rogue logging roads and the ferry connected Sandspit Airport, it’s actually the only island in the region with roads, period.  For obvious reasons, this is where I aimed my bike tires.  With only 109km of paved road from Queen Charlotte City in the south to Masset in the north, the scale of things is a lot more accessible to travel by bicycle than in some other places.  However, that so-called accessibility is provided by a network of rough, challenging logging roads cutting through the wild and dense forest.  Over two weeks, we logged 579km of pedal powered exploration that took us to all four corners of this remote part of the world – not bad for an island with only 109km of paved roadway.

Train tunnel in the Skeena region

It takes two days by the northern rail line to reach Prince Rupert on Canada’s west coast.  This lone vein of transportation cuts through thick Canadian wilderness with manmade marvels built to cross roaring rivers and pass through solid rock.  There is something magical about the Skeena region towards the coast…moving mists amidst pristine wilderness – I’ve been through it twice, yet will definitely return.

Ferry crossing Hecate Strait - in the fog

From train to boat, one moves from the mist of the land to the mist of the sea at Canada’s west coast.  Shrouded in nothing but foggy grey, it feels like one is in a child’s storybook, moving through a mystical portal to another land.

Quintessential Haida Gwaii island silhouetted against fog

Fog clears and first glimpses of the long sought after Haida Gwaii come into view.

Backpackers overlooking the ferry dock in Skidegate

We are not the only adventurers who had eyes for the Haida Gwaii.  These three had just finished a tree planting contract on the mainland and are waiting for the ferry to dock on the other side of the Hecate Strait.

Joyful girl laughing on a rock at the Haida Gwaii coast

That joyous feeling that bubbles up inside when you finally reach a distant place.  After so much planning and effort, it feels absolutely surreal to arrive.

Hammock tent camping on the Haida Gwaii - lush base camp with bicycles

Finding ideal camping spots for our hammock tents is a breeze in the forests along the sheltered south shore of Graham Island.

Black slug on forest floor

A black slug slowly makes its way along the forest floor.  Massive trees draw the attention, but amidst them there is a lot of life if you look closely…

Squirrel on old growth tree in the Haida Gwaii

…like this inquisitive squirrel keeping a watchful eye on me from an old tree.

A fern reaches up a giant redwood tree

Ferns and giant redwoods alike reach up from the dense forest floor towards elusive sunlight.

Wild blackberries in yogurt and granola for breakfast

Wild blackberries make a nice addition to any breakfast, and they’re plentiful along certain sections of road here.  Foraging for the win.

Bicycle tourist descending logging road to Rennell Sound - west Haida Gwaii

Descending the steepest road I’ve ever rode; I sure didn’t expect to find it on an island.  This picture doesn’t do it justice, but folks, the grade on this hill was 25% and it was consistent for a few kilometers – talk about a brake burner.  It was hard to enjoy because it had taken a lot of effort to gain all that elevation in the first place just to have it disappear, and we knew we’d have to return the same way a couple days later.  It sure was beautiful though.

Logging road through Haida Gwaii mountains to Rennell Sound

There is only one road that reaches the rugged west coast of Graham Island and this is it: the Rennell Sound access road.  It’s an incredibly steep logging road that traverses mountain passes.  With a normal vehicle you are required to have a radio communicator so that you can be warned when logging traffic is about to run you off the road.  On a bicycle you can forego the radio and use your ears; when you hear the massive equipment thundering in the distance you know it’s time to pull off into the ditch for safety’s sake.  With the amount of energy and concentration required for navigation and mile-making, this is the only photo I have from this stretch of road.  The turnoff looked like any other unmarked turnoff; the small sign identifying it was hidden from my watchful eyes behind a bunch of parked logging equipment.  The result of this irresponsible parking job: an extra 70km of riding doubling back to the turn, worn out legs for the steepest road yet, and a race against the sun to find somewhere to set up camp before absolute darkness.

Gregory Beach at Rennell Sound - Western Haida Gwaii

We made it – barely.  The sun was long set and twilight was waning when the first camping sign came into view (“This Way to Gregory Beach”).  Without a second thought we lugged our loaded bicycles along the dark and muddy 1km hiking trail until we hit the coast, only to find dense brush and sand – absolutely no trees for our hammocks or fresh water for our empty bottles.  Normal tents could just set up on the beach, but we weren’t traveling with normal tents.  On a scouting mission with my headlamp, I discovered a suitable grove a couple kilometers up at the end of the beach where I could luckily hear a trickling stream somewhere inland.  Stowing our bikes in the bushes back at the trail, we tiredly stumbled through the sand loaded up like mules with our panniers.  At 2am we forced a down a late dinner (for calories, not enjoyment) and collapsed in a grove of old growth at the edge of the world.  This view is what we awoke to the next morning.  Through that gap, the next piece of land that rises above sea level is Japan.

Moody weather over Rennell Sound

Moody weather moves through Rennell Sound while we take a much-needed rest day.  The wild and mountainous west coast of Graham Island is exposed to open ocean and the weather that comes with it – and we certainly experienced it.  One memory that has stuck with me: the trees we were camped amidst were so thick that the rain did not get through.

Distant sailboat in rainy Rennell Sound

A distant sailboat in rainy Rennell Sound.  Most people access this remote area by boat rather than by road, and I can’t say I blame them.

Cooling a beer in a freshwater stream

Having hauled a single heavy beer all the way out to the edge of the world with pedal power, it sure tasted delicious after being chilled in the ocean.  Most well-earned beer ever.

Mile zero of the Yellowhead Highway

And then my photos jump to mile zero of the Yellowhead Highway where the sun is shining, the road is paved, and the bike is clean – what was left undocumented in between is a blurry memory of a nightmare.  Coming back out of Rennell Sound on the logging roads proved to be a daunting challenge.  The nasty weather had turned the logging roads into soft thick mud slicks which made the riding absolutely miserable.  At one point we were at a standstill, slipperily trying to push our heavy bikes up that steepest section of road (oh 25%…not so pretty when your body won’t work anymore) when a feller (a logger who cuts trees down) finishing his shift out there happily let us throw our bikes in the back of his truck and hitch a ride up the worst of it.  He dropped us at the main line – him continuing south to Queen Charlotte City where we started and us pointing our filthy rides north to Port Clements.  Even back on the main road, mud was constantly jamming up my front wheel and crusting over both our bikes like cement.  The quarks and sounds our bikes were making when we finally hit pavement again was unnerving.  This was another really long day of riding in tough conditions into the twilight.  The kitchen in the Port Clements pub was closed when we finally stumbled through its doors, but the bartender took pity on us and threw together a pizza sub and nachos for our hungry bellies.  It’s amazing how absolutely anything tastes so delicious when you’re that hungry.  Someone palmed us each a Budweiser as we squeaked into camp that night and that was as good as any craft beer could have been at that moment, and that moment only.  Needless to say, I did not take my camera out once on this day.  Welcome to Masset!

Beautiful Haida art on a carved doorway in Old Masset

Beautiful Haida art on a carved door in Old Masset.

Cycling down Tow Hill Road under old growth trees

Again we push beyond the pavement onto the soft Tow Hill Road, which was lined with old growth trees amidst flat wetland, evincing a huge shift in topography from the mountains.

RV at Agate Beach at sunset - Haida Gwaii - Naikoon - Tow Hill

Awaiting a rare, epic sunset at windswept Agate Beach.  The Haida Gwaii is known to be a very wet ecosystem, but we had an above average amount of sky over us on our journey (read: we saw at least a single piece of blue in the sky over the two weeks!).

Pebbles of Agate Beach - Haida Gwaii - Naikoon

The colorful pebbles of Agate Beach.  This is the most northerly shore of the Haida Gwaii and the relentless waves that are so popular with surfers polish its rocks to a smooth finish.

A crab shell found amidst the rocks

A crab shell found amidst the stones.

Pebble collections form Agate Beach

Beach treasures.

Silhouette of playful girl at sunset on Agate Beach - Haida Gwaii - Naikoon

Playful at sundown.

Night sky at Agate Beach (Tow Hill) with distant Alaska lights

On a rare clear night you can see the distant lights of Ketchikan, Alaska, on the northern horizon.

Gazing north at the ocean horizon from atop Tow Hill

Gazing north at the ocean horizon from atop Tow Hill.

Moon Over Naikoon - bakery and cafe along Tow Hill Road

In the middle of absolutely nowhere, there is a sanctuary cafe.  Or, as a cyclist tends to consider hidden roadside gems like this, fuel stations for the body.  When the tank is running on empty, it really is sanctuary.

Journaling on Moon Over Naikoon patio

Sanctuary at Moon Over Naikoon bakery.

Lillypads at inland Mayer Lake - Haida Gwaii

Inland, there lies a few peaceful, and relatively calm, freshwater lakes – great for bathing.

Wilcamping inland on the Haida Gwaii

Wildcamping is so much simpler with hammocks.  With a couple of properly spaced trees, you eliminate the need for clear and even ground.

Welcome to sunny Tlell: Not a sky in the cloud.

Welcome to sunny Tlell: Not a sky in the cloud.  See?  Blue sky is rare on the Haida Gwaii.

Hiking in the old growth of the Pesuta shipwreck trail

Venturing through old growth in search of the last coast we have yet to set foot on: East Beach.

New growth out of felled stump

Logging is a huge industry on the Haida Gwaii and there are signs of it everywhere.  Luckily space that opens up in the canopy is speedily filled by new growth in the lush ecosystem; still, it is sad to see the old stumps left as decaying clues of how large the trees that filled these forests once were.

New forest growth out of dead log

The cycle of life is clear.

Worn wood of the Pesuta shipwreck

Dodging the huge tidal range, we hiked up the beach to find the worn relic of a shipwreck stuck deep in rocky beach.  The image is stark: felled trees of the forest we just walked through are taken to suit human purposes, but eventually it always returns to the earth.

Looking through the porthole of the Pesuta shipwreck

Looking through the porthole of the Pesuta shipwreck.  Sunk in a winter storm crossing the Hecate Strait in 1928, it has come to rest here on East Beach.

Pesuta shipwreck on East Beach - Haida Gwaii

The Pesuta: 87 years after she took on water.

Coffee in Queen Charlotte City

Completing a loop of the Graham Island we find ourselves back in the comfort of Queen Charlotte City and its tasty amenities…

Looking west along the shore of Haydn Turner Community Campsite

…but with a day left before catching a ferry back to the mainland, our curiosity has us wondering about the west.

Misty Haida Gwaii mountains - Sleeping Beauty trail from the distance

In the distant mountains, a rolling mist shows glimpses of peaks, that are as fleeting as the whispered rumor of a hiking trail to summit one particular pinnacle.

Touring bicycle fully loaded up against an old growth tree on the Haida Gwaii

We decide that one more hike is in order.  However, the first obstacle was to get to the trailhead.  Directions were vague at best, but one thing was clear: we would have to take to the logging roads west of town for about 13km to reach it.  We wisely left our heavy panniers back at camp.

Logging roads to Sleeping Beauty trailhead

People who drive cars neglect to mention elevation: probably because they don’t notice it, but to a cyclist it sometimes feels like a cruel joke.  The road rose 400 meters in elevation from the ocean to the trailhead.

Silhouette on Mount Genevieve summit

700 meters of steep elevation beyond the trailhead, we climb to the peak of Mount Genevieve at the end of the Sleeping Beauty Trail.  It was a duathlon of sorts to reach this spot, but it was worth it.  As our warm and tired muscles were soothed by the cool mist swirling around us, we stopped to enjoy the view and bask in its magnificence.  It was one of those moments that really make you feel alive; enjoying the realization that your own perseverance and strength got you to this place is one of greatest rewards of traveling.

Alpine view from the top of the Sleeping Beauty Trail

A view from the seldom seen alpine region of the Haida Gwaii.

A view from above the Narrows south of Graham Island

A picturesque and almost aerial view (due to the steep climb) of the winding narrows south of Graham Island.

Late dinner on the beach

Any day with under 80km of cycling on a tour is considered a rest day in my books, but that doesn’t mean they are always spend resting.  After another long “rest” day climbing Mount Genevieve, I cook up a well-earned dinner on the beach in the twilight of our last night on the Haida Gwaii.

A fresh totem pole being carved and painted

Exploring a traditional workshop near the ferry terminal, a fresh totem pole is meticulously carved and painted…

Weathered face on a Haida totem pole

…while outside a worn face keeps sentinel over the mouth of the Skidegate Inlet.

On the ferry leaving the Haida Gwaii

After two weeks of pedalling around the entirety of Graham Island, it feels good to step onto the ferry and let someone else take care of the driving.  There are a lot more island in the Haida Gwaii, a large chunk of which are protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site: the Gwaii Haanas.  The only way to access them is by water; one day I hope to return with a kayak or sailboat and explore them that way.

Ripples on calm ocean water

Ripples on calm ocean water.  The Hecate Strait is notoriously rough but, just as my time in the Haida Gwaii seemingly defied its reputation to be wet, the weather was unexpectedly favourable on the return crossing.

Ferry view of the Inside Passage of British Columbia

From Prince Rupert, I transfer ferries and head south through British Columbia’s spectacular Inside Passage.  Sheltered from the open sea, it is a beautiful coastal route that meanders through islands and otherwise inaccessible wilderness.

Sunset on the Inside Passage over the ferry wake

As the sun sets, the ferry steadily continues to churn south to where another leg of the cycling tour will begin.  Next stop: Port Hardy.

(continued as Part 3: Friendly territory around the Salish Sea)

July 12, 2016 - 10:15 am

Daniel C. Crump - Amazing!! This causes the smouldering ember of wanderlust inside me to glow a little brighter and burn a little hotter.

December 11, 2016 - 8:11 pm

Andrew Dalton - really enjoyed reading this my friend!

December 12, 2016 - 9:05 am

David - Thanks Andrew – for the comment and help building up my bike! The last one section of the trip is on the way to being published soon, I just need to find the time. 😓😁

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