On Tuesday of Canada Day week I realized that I am free from work on Wednesday which extended my long weekend for one more day, which in total made me 4 days off. I picked up a suitable trip from my wish-list which was a 230 km long 4 day loop in Fraser River area. It starts in Harrison Hot Springs, follows the logging road till Nahatlach Valley, then turns East, towards #1 Hwy, follows Fraser river downstream on the highway for 30 km then deviates left into the forests on left bank of Fraser River where logging roads take me to Hope. From Hope the highway leads to Agassiz and then to Chilliwack.
The conditions on this route and exceptionally good weather forecast lead me to introduce some innovations in how I travel. One inconvinient feature of this trip was lack of resupply throughout most of the route, so I decided to take enough food for 3 dinners, 3 breakfasts and 3 lunches. All that food was occupying the whole pannier where I usually keep my rain covers and a part of my tent. The solution for the lack of space and high final weight of the outfit was found after I checked the forecast. The forecast looked promising for all 4 days. This lead me to the idea of leaving all rain clothes and rain covers at home. In addition to that I decided to buy a hammock instead of tent and sleeping mat. So the final outfit with all the food turned out to be even lighter the usual.
One more unusual logistical novelty that I have introduced in my trip was the way I got to the start. The initial plan, when I was designing this trip last winter, was to take Greyhound to Chilliwack. But since I didn’t buy bus tickets in advance I had no alternative other then taking transit. I was surprised when after I googled a route from my home to Chilliwack the transit tab was highlighted. Google was estimating 3.5 hours and 4 bus transfers before I would get to Chilliwack, after which I could also take a bus to Harrison Hot Springs. Anyway I was delightfully surprised by the possibility to get so far east by bus with a bike.
My trip to Harrison Hot Springs was a bit rough. To be honest, taking transit to Chilliwack is pretty miserable experience for a cyclist, though the fact that I had only 2 light panniers do hold in my hand and that I was excited with the unexpected get-away softened all physical inconveniences. Despite that, I was a bit upset with my late arrival at Chilliwack (1 pm) that wouldn’t have happened if I wouldn’t have gotten off from one of the busses earlier then needed and I have had to improvise how to get back on track.
At the time that I arrived at Chilliwack I didn’t know about the bus to H. Hot Springs, so I spent 2 more hours to get there by bike. I want to warn anyone who might want to try to repeat my trip that riding to Harrison Lake from Chilliwack is a bad idea. The bridge across Fraser River between Chilliwack and H. Hot Springs is infinitely long and narrow enough to cause cars to accumulate behind you. From cycling infrastructure present on that bridge there was only a lonely sign “CYCLISTS, RIDE WITH CAUTION!”. Thanks Cap! In order to avoid that long and unpleasant part of trip I recommend taking the bus.
I reached Harrison Lake at around 3 pm and started riding along the lake on an unpaved road. At the place where Big Silver Creek flows into Harrison Lake the road turns away from it and starts following the creek upstream making quite a bit of elevation gain. The road there enters a narrow and spectacular canyon of Big Silver Creek. At the higher entrance into the canyon I found a little dam that I presume is a part of a power plant. The scenery was quite spectacular. The river upstream of the dam was forcefully kicked out of its natural stream and lassoed for a brief moment in a small captivity fenced by concrete dams where it was milked for precious potential energy. However, unable to make it stop completely, wild water of Big Silver Creek overcomes the man-made obstacle by diving back into its natural habitat making thundering noise and exhaling big clouds of moist spatter into the wind.
I let myself to stare at this mesmerizing powerful phenomenon for a bit longer then could afford and didn’t notice how it became dark enough to start looking for appropriate trees for hanging my hammock. To my surprise I found a nice sandy beach with trees and lots of soft mossy batches just bellow my view point. It was clear that I wouldn’t find a better place for the night so I decided to stop there.
During one of my rest breaks that day I stopped at a nice shady spot located on top of the steep rocky bank of the canyon with a marvelous view on the creek. While having my lunch I noticed a wooden cross with a metal plate on the edge of the abys. I became curious to know the name of the deceased, so I crawled close to the edge of the canyon to see the front face of the plate. It said “Thomas”, unfortunately I can’t remember the last name, but I recall that it was Jewish. Under the cross, on the ground, I was surprized to find an old can of beer overgrown with a thick layer of lichen and moss. I knew that Jews, as well as Orthodox, have a tradition of leaving some treats like candies and alcohol on the graves for people passing by to commemorate the deceased, so I didn’t hesitate to except the present. I remembered about that can of beer when I was finishing my dinner on the sandy beach by the river. That was the nicest ending of the day I could ever imagine. Rest in peace Thomas.
The next day I reached the summit of the logging road at the elevation of 1162 m and rolled down to Nahatlach Valley. I had a nice break at the recreational site until a noisy party of ATVers came along and settled their camp at the neighbouring camping spot, after what I moved forward. The road up until Boston Bar, where it meets with #1 Highway is mostly unpaved with the exception for last few kilometers and due to higher traffic is quite dusty. The rest of the day was uneventful.
I found a spot for my hammock on the left shore of Fraser River with a nice view on the Fraser Canyon and alarming sounds of passing trains on both shores of the river. The scenery reminded me of those frequently used in westerns: Rocky and crumbling edges of deep canyon, old steam powered trains crossing the river on an old riveted bridge; a warning sign with an inscription that extraction of “natural minerals” is strictly prohibited reminded me of the time when thousands of people tried their luck in search for golden sands in the old times of Gold Rush. That night I had a feeling that I sleep in a museum.
The plan for the next day was to cover ~30 km on the highway, then turn off the highway and take the Siwash Creek road, that according to maps and satellite images should have taken me to Hope (or somewhere near). I reached the logging road quite fast still being fresh and ready for the adventures. The logging road was in perfect condition; the slope was quite tolerable with a quite a good mixture of fast downhills. After about 5 km I was stopped by the gate. The gate had a flashy sign yelling “keep off”, so I became curious about what is being hidden from me on the other side of the gate. I passed the gate and continued following my route. After 3 min after I passed the gate I heard an echoing sound of an engine somewhere far behind me and as time passed by it was becoming more and more obious that the sound is coming not from the highway but rather from the road behind me. My fears were confirmed when the sound stopped for a minute and then started again. The car has passed the gate, they were close… I thought to hide in the bushes but it was too late, I was anticipating to meet the car and to be kicked out from this road with disgrace.
When the car reached me I decided to pretend that I don’t notice it and continued riding until the driver stopped and called me. I looked at him trying to make the most surprized face as I could. (From my experience people are not so harsh when you play a stupid.) Despite my expectations I wasn’t kicked out right away but the driver was clearly trying to discourage me from going further. Steep unrideable hills, huge elevation gain, washed out roads and gates of Hell promised to me by the driver should have discouraged me of going further, though this is exactly what I came here for. I played a depressed face and told him how I was mislead by the posts on forums and cursed their authors. I thanked the driver turned my bike downhill and trying to look even more disappointed and depressed started rolling down. Then stopped, counted to 10, tuned my bike uphill and resumed my way uphill.
The driver wasn’t lying to me, in about 7 km I was stopped by a washout caused by the river that had changed its stream making impossible to pass the road even by bike. I lurked around and found a tiny path made by ATVs crossing the river and leading back to the road on the other side of the washout. I crossed the river climbed the road embankment and continued riding.
Hot temperature and steep road were draining water from my body at stunning rate, so I had to stop at almost every creek to refill my water bottle. Usually in order to get to the creek I firstly had to overcome a defence wall made off dense and spiky vegetation. Although at one of the refill stops I found a suspiciously easy excess to the creek. It looked like a small, low tunnel through the vegetation and I could easily follow it crouched down on my knees till I got to the water.
The road on the other side of the slide was reminding me the movie “Life After People” and the further I was penetrating into the abandoned territory the further back in time I was moving and more deteriorated and overgrown the landscape was. I had to overcome a few more slides, the grass on the road surface was getting taller and taller and trees extended their arms further towards the center of the road. Atone point I had to hold the stirring bar with one hand and remove the branches from my way with the other hand. Eventually I had to stop. Nature had completely regained these territories and I wasn’t allowed to go any further. According to map I had only a few kilometers to go until the road would merge with the main road that lead to the other valley so I was quite disappointed.
My disappointment was also increased by the fact that bushwacking has caused quite a serious damage to my bike: I discovered 2 broken spokes on the rare wheel, blockage of rare wheel by the break and complete inefficiency of the rare derailleur, so I had to spend half an hour making the rare wheel to spinning again. I managed to unblock the break and set up the derailleur. I couldn’t do anything about the spokes so my rare wheel was left wobbling for the rest of the trip.
After I fixed my bike I tried a few more roads that were having the same direction but of them were overgrown. Finally, I gave up and decided to go back. I had to ride all the way to the highway that was about 30 km away from me at that point.
On my way back I was bored and disappointed. I didn’t pay a lot of attention on the road since I was thinking about where I could hang my hammock overnight and about how I would manage to get to Chilliwack in the last day of the long weekend.
My sleepy thinking was sobered abruptly by a thing that I fear the most in this world. I immediately pushed on my breaks with all my strength, the wheels blocked and I almost fell down on the gravel road. All I managed to see was a large fluffy tail embellished with black and ginger strips that glimpsed in the bushes near the road. I was terrified! The inner voice in my head was screaming: “Here it is! The moment of truth! Don’t panic, just prepare your spray! Where…? Where is your spray…? Where is your fucking spray!? Or… maybe use the banger first? Yes… better use the banger first! Quick!”. With the help of my inner voice I ended up holding the spray the banger launcher and a few bangers in my shaking hands all at once. I had orange and blue capsules. One of them was a banger and the other was a flier and I couldn’t remember which was which, no matter how hard I tried to recall the moment when the man at MEC was explaining this to me.
I decided to use the orange capsule since it was the smaller one (I can’t really recall the logic behind this decision). I unscrewed the cap from the blasting cap of the banger, attached it to the launcher and fired. Bang! A bright sparkle flew from the cloud of smoke, hit the tree trunk and landed on the forest floor, right in the area where the cougar ran away. I could see the bright orange light coming from the forest for the next few seconds while I was attaching the blue capsule to the launcher.
“Fire!” – appeared in my mind!
I launched the second capsule. This time I tried to keep the launcher upright. BANG! It was a real banger. By the time I launched the banger the flier had stopped burning and I couldn’t see the fire. I took the spray, removed the fuse and started dragging along the road to the place where I have seen the cougar. When I was far enough from the place where I encountered the cougar I relaxed my muscles and breathed a sigh of relief. It’s over! I put back the fuse on the spray and shoved it back into the holster. It was quite tricky to do with my shacking hands. But the threat was over and I was calming down. The thought about the flier that I launched into the forest couldn’t leave my mind. I couldn’t believe that I was so lucky and it didn’t put the forest on fire.
Before turning around the corner I decided to take a look at the forest behind me for the last time. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I saw the smoke coming up from the forest and after a few more moments I felt the smell of smoke! I rubbed my eyes a few times with my hands, but nothing changed, I was still seeing how the plume of smoke was rising from the forest.
“shit, SHIT, SHIT!” – I cried out loud. I knew that the cougar had ran in the area that now was on fire. Do I leave and call for help, or I go alone into the burning forest to try to save the habitat of a monster that will try to kill and eat me?
At this moment I remembered about an article about cougars that I read after my first encounter with a cougar last spring in Vancouver Island. I remembered that the article didn’t say anything that could calm me down in that situation.
A little bit of background on cougars: This animal is quite rare in North America but BC has the densest population (especially in Vancouver Island). The average size of a mature cougar is roughly the size of a human. It is a carnivore and it usually prays on deer but won’t hesitate to take an elk, moose or, in my case, a human. It prays the most actively during the down and dusk. It is smart, patient and sassy during the attack. It will watch it’s pray waiting for the appropriate moment to jump on it from behind and bite through the neck to cut the windpipe and blood vessels. Cougar will lose all fear until the pray is killed. It is advised to aggressively fight back, shout and show teeth in case of the cougar attack. Though the attack on humans are quite rare.
After convincing myself that the smoke indeed rises above the trees I decided that I have to try to extinguish the fire. I grabbed the water bottle in one hand and pepper spray in the other and went back to the encounter point. I couldn’t believe that I am actually doing this while climbing a steep path presumably made by animals coming to drink water from the creek near by. It turned out to be the same path that I used to get to the creek.
When I entered the forest I felt myself like in the darkness, I knew that it was around but I didn’t see anything. I was trying to gaze into the forest with my eyes wide open the same way as people do in complete darkness. I was moving slowly facing forwards or backwards, quietly stepping from one log on another and changing the direction of the spray with quick moves. The wind suddenly changed direction and brought the smell of smoke to my nostrils. I looked to the side from where the wind was coming and saw a ring of fire about a meter wide that was spreading in the dry moss. I rushed to the fire and started trampling the fire violently with my feet. It should have looked like a crazy dance in the fire.
After I extinguished it I remembered that the cougar might still watch me and alerted again. After that I found a few smaller rings of fire that started form the sparkles that caught fire from the flier hitting the tree trunk before landing on the forest floor. I spent around half an hour more seeking for smaller embers in the moss finding them by smell and rising smoke. After I made sure I don’t feel the smell of smoke I went back to my bike.
In reality I didn’t have any reason to be so scared because that cougar didn’t have any plans on me. Our encounter was absolutely random and it knew that I saw it and that I was alerted. Also the banger and fire in the forest should have scared it more then it scared me. But damn, it was so scary.
That night I camped at Old Alrxander Bridge, between the highway and Fraser River. That night was restless, I had hard time falling asleep and raised a few times during the night.
The next day I had to cover around 100 km to Chilliwack where I wanted to take the bus home. Poor planning inevitably leads to bad consequences. When I arrived at Chilliwack I found out that there are no busses to Abbottsford on Sundays, so I had to stop at the hostel in Chilliwack overnight. Next morning, Monday, I took the bus to Abbottsford and after a few more changes I arrived at UBC to have my first lecture in the new term.
This trip once again confirmed that BC has a huge potential for backcountry riding: interesting terrain, high quality of logging roads, miraculous natural landscapes, rich wildlife and interesting history. Although as in any other place in the world there are some unique features that influence bike touring significantly. One of the features is quite developed, but also exotic bike infrastructure that has its limitations; Logging road network is a huge, though its potential can’t be fully exploited by cyclists because of their short lifespan and unpredictable status. In addition to that riding on active logging roads may be dangerous due to active logging. But all these factors just minor inconveniences that can be overcame by better planning and clever decision making during the trip. Also never forget that you are in cougar country!