It’s early days but Canada is turning out to be everything I thought – hoped – it would be: a place of extraordinarily beautiful countryside full of snow-topped Alpine mountain, their slopes blanketed by Douglas fir and spruce trees; rivers that are sometimes fat and meandering, sometimes blue/grey and rushing through forests and over boulders with an urgency suggesting the melted snow that created them did so only the other day; and living nature, bird and mammal, everywhere.
The place is full of people that are nice and calm and easy-going and, for the most part, of a fairly sensible and liberal outlook. They look south and see madness, not everywhere, but a lot of madness nonetheless, and so do I. Too often in the United States (and I wish this was not the case) one gets the impression that there’s a great reservoir of anger lurking just beneath the surface and that it is going to well up and spew out all over the place.
I arrived in Canada by taking the ferry from Washington state to Victoria, on Vancouver Island. On the way over, I fell into conversation with an exceptionally interesting man, as a result of which I am currently deviating across the province (they call them provinces in this federation, rather than states like in the US), chasing up things he said and about which I will write on another occasion.
For a septuagenarian, that old Pontiac looked a lot better than old Murtagh. But then it’s a long time since anyone was polishing my fender
Having arrived quite late into Victoria, I had difficulty finding a campsite but managed to do so eventually by going up Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway), where, at the Tunnel recerational vehicle (RV) Park, where they do not normally allow tent camping, a kindly manager took pity on me and allowed me to camp at an unoccupied RV site.
“Now,” she said after I had paid and she had explained where the loos and showers (almost brand new and fab!) were, “we do have a bear that comes occasionally at night so don’t leave out any rubbish. And if you do see him, stay out of his way and he’ll most likely just move on.”
Okaaay ... hmmmm, I thought.
I slept fine – no bear came and so there was no exit-pursued-by-a-bear moment. But next morning, from the RV next to me, there emerged a fellow full of chat and questions about what I was up to and advice on what I should do next. He was in his very late 60s, had a gammy right ankle and foot. He used to be an all-purpose, self-employed handyman. “Doctor told me to retire,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “I mean, I don’t know that word but he said I’d had too many heart attacks.”
The matter of the bear arose. “Comes around regular, he does,” said my friend, with whom I, with great bad manners, neglected to exchange names. He wore a leather hat that I expect slept with him. As in, on him. The hat was so much part of him that it was not possible to tell where the hat ended and he began. “You’ll meet plenty [of bears] in Alaska,” he said encouragingly. “What you do, see,” he continued, “is take off your jacket or whatever and raise it above your head with both arms. Make yourself as big as you can and make a lot of noise.”
“Okay,” I said, visualising myself trying to reason with a bear by waving my T-shirt at him.
“Only other way is bring a friend with you who’s slower than you,” he advised. “That way you don’t have to worry about anything.”
I showered, packed up and rode further on up Highway 1 to Jack Point and a ferry back across the strait that separates Vancouver city from its namesake island. The city has a beautiful setting, with multiple vistas of sea and mountain in almost every direction, lots of fine residential homes by the water’s edge and both heritage and modern buildings in downtown. It reminded me quite a bit of San Francisco – both in a good way and also less so. But that, like my friend on the ferry from the US, is for another day’s writing.
After a couple of nights in the city, I got on to Highway 1 again and headed east, spending a single night at the Edgewater Bar Campground not far out. My tent pitch was on the bank of the Fraser river, which flows through Vancouver, where it is perhaps 100 metres wide and, on the other side, there are several railroad tracks along which rumble great freight train caravans – up to 100 cargo carriages at a time – of the Canadian Pacific company. The river is fat, slow-moving, and has a silky sheen as the sun sets and several families of Canada geese, adults and goslings, paddle up and down close to the shore, looking at the campers but not interested in us enough to come on shore.
I’m woken at 5.30am by a racket created by, I think, a robin. He had a russet brown-to-orange breast and was a little larger than our robin, but I do think he was a robin. Anyway, whatever he was, he was having a right old time with the glistening, shiny, chrome hubcap on the wheel of the Centurion mobile home beside me. Seeming to look at his reflection, he’d get excited and hop up and down like he was dancing, before scampering up the left side of the tyre – the seven to 10 o’clock side of the circle, as it were – all the time pecking away at the hubcap.
Then he’d come to ground again, peck at his reflection and dance once more, and then scamper under the RV as though to go behind the wheel, like he was playing hard to get. After a second or two, he’d back come out again, look at his reflection once more and start the excited pecking, dancing and tyre climbing routine all over again. He stopped after maybe 15 or 20 minutes. I could only think of the Greek myth of Narcissus.
Thanks to the self-loving – or at least hubcap-horny – robin, I hit the road early, heading for Nelson, deep into eastern British Columbia, in an area Canadians call the Kootenays. On the way, Highways 1 and 3 pass through some fabulous countryside – big, big mountains, rivers, lakes and forests aplenty and all picture postcard, epically beautiful.
At Eastgate gas station, where I’m trundling down the Crowsnest Highway, Funkymeter (that’s what they said was his name, Meter for short) is on his knees trying to reattach the drive sprocket on his Suzuki DR2 400. The nut came off, and with it the sprocket and chain, as he was cornering but he managed to stay upright, which I’d say took a lot of skill. Any biker mechanics I’ve met have all been great improvisers and Meter is no exception. He’s removed one of the nuts holding his front wheel axel on to the forks and used it to reattach the sprocket. Then he put the damaged sprocket nut on to the front wheel and it seems to be holding ...
Meter is with six pals, Viv, Bish (”'cuz his name is Bishop, see?”), Rob, Justin, Brad and Jeremie. They’re all from California or the Seattle area of Washington state. They’re on an eight or nine-day, on-road/off-road 900-mile jolly that began on Mount Rainier in Washington and will end in Whistler, BC. Rob, who’s on a BMW G310R, is going travelling next year with his wife and two children.
“We’re moving to Vermont but first I want to travel to Spain and New Zealand. And Japan. Maybe Thailand too,” he says. And why not?
Meter’s sprocket fixing is helped by Bill Little and his son, Darrin. Bill (“I did Europe in the ‘70s and it was awesome!”) arrived to help, cavalry-like, in a gleaming vintage Pontiac. It looks brand new and has a dashboard with individual circular dials and an enormous gear stick like the driving levers from the cable cars in San Francisco.
“How old is it?” I ask him.
“1952,” said Bill.
“Ha,” I replied, “older than me.”
“And a year more than me too,” he said.
For a septuagenarian, I reckoned gloomily, that old Pontiac looked a lot better than old Murtagh. But then it’s a long time since anyone was polishing my fender.
Jane, the unruffled lady who ran the unimaginatively named Food Store attached to the station, seemed delighted that a posse of bikers and a cool vintage car had taken over her forecourt. She told me she had a really good friend who came from, or whose people came from, Ireland. Somewhere near Cork, she said, “Bally something, I think.” I told her there were five hundred million Ballysomethings in Ireland because “bally” came from “baile”, which was the Irish word for town. This perplexed her.
But she was even more bewildered when she tracked down her friend on Facebook and, on her “about” page, discovered that she came from Cobh. “Ah, yes, very well-known place near Cork. It’s pronounced Cove,” I said, explaining that the “bh” in Irish is spoken as a “v”. The perplexometer needle pinged up again. But the friend did have a Bally connection, it was Ballyheigue.
I gave her one of my shamrock stickers and we hugged, laughing. She, and everyone else, posed for a photo. And with that, the lads sped off one way and I in the opposite direction, hoping to find a campsite. I expect that a sleepy calm returned immediately to Eastgate.
Peter Murtagh is travelling by motorbike from Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, to Alaska, at the top of North America, and writing here regularly. You can also read his blog and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram