Two weeks ago, we rode big, heavy adventure bikes off-road through some of the remotest portions of British Columbia. It was a challenge, sure, and it was pretty, of course, but it was also one of those rare adventures that meant something special. Here's why.
At the risk of playing into the internet's rampant narcissism, I'm going to make this a personal story. It will have the usual guidance of course; like all IndefinitelyWild's travel features, we want to inspire you to do these things, then show you how to do them yourself. But occasionally, riding bikes — especially over long distances through far away places — adds up to a little more than just riding. This was one of those times, so hopefully you'll indulge me a little self-reflection.
Before I bagged this, a dream job writing about adventure travel in the outdoors for Gawker, a company which values, supports and takes care of its staff while fostering independent, intelligent journalism, I was a motorcycle journalist. Starting from scratch, I sacrificed income, invested what little cash I had and worked long, long hours to build the most widely read motorcycle publication in the world in the space of five years. But, one day I woke up and realised I was an adult and needed to start living like one. So I set out to turn Hell For Leather's eyeballs and influence into dollar signs.
Long story short, I picked the wrong people to work with. Those who I once considered friends proved not only incompetent, but ended up lying to me, cheating me and stealing from me. It took a trip out to Joshua Tree and an ayahuasca-fuelled spirit quest to see that and to understand that it was better to give up than it was to keep working towards a destination I'd never reach. Wiley's my spirit animal, obviously.
The frustration with my own business was compounded by the industry I was trying to work in, the one that couldn't sell the most exciting vehicles in the world to people who'd love them, even if they tried. Which they don't. I'd show up to a product launch to cover a bike for magazines like Playboy, Rolling Stone and Wired (not to mention my own, which could put zeros on the end of most other bike magazine's readership numbers) and spend the entire time being condescended to by some fat old man with a two-year community college degree and a crappy marketing gig, then be seated for dinner next to people who's entire careers were predicated on plagiarising my work.
World's smallest violin, I know. Why am I boring you with all this? Hopefully it helps you understand the degree to which the simple joy of riding a motorcycle was ruined for me. I think I went on my last fun ride with friends over a year and a half ago. Motorcycles became a part of my parasitic job and I pretty much quit them when I quit that in February.
This is the trip that helped me rediscover motorcycling. Day One: After a late night flight into Seattle and a hurried dinner ordered at the hotel, just as the kitchen closed, it was time to get the bikes off the trailer and load them up with our tools and camping gear.
I'd agreed to come along with trepidation. If you read the above, you'll understand why. The guys organising the whole thing run Aether, a technical apparel company based here in Los Angeles making stylish, but supposedly functional gear. All I knew about them before getting an email from their PR firm was that their bike wear was awfully expensive.
And things with them hadn't gotten off to a great start. In an initial meeting where they tried politely to determine if I stood a good chance of falling off my bike and dying during the ride, I informed them I had no experience with their gear, but did have an assumptions-based opinion that it wouldn't be any good, and that I reserved the right not to wear the couple grand in jackets, pants and whatnot they were trying to get me to leave with.
So things were a bit awkward as we rode around Puget Sound, eventually making our way up to Port Angeles to take the ferry up to Victoria, where we spent the night. I broke the ice at dinner by showing everyone pictures of my dog as we ate steaks and drank too much wine.
Wildlife spotted today: 1 Osprey, many Bald Eagles, a pod of Orcas.
A whole bunch of BMWs, one KTM and one Yamaha.
Day Two: The basic idea here is that the Aether guys like bikes and wanted to organise a trip for their buddies. It meant some real world gear testing for them and some time away from the office for everyone. Some friends from LA joined them and a brother-in-law, plus his friends had ridden out from Calgary to come with too. 12 guys in total.
To get to the good riding meant travelling to the northernmost point on Vancouver Island, then hopping on a succession of ferries which would total 18 hours in all, taking us north and inland to Bella Coola, a little town no one's ever heard of and the very definition of the middle of nowhere.
Today's 560km ride would be the highest mileage of any day on the trip, all spent on the island's only highway, which is paved for its entire distance. Vancouver Island is a storybook land of glaciers and mountains and fjords and bears and is one of the richest marine environments on earth, but the only indication you get of that from the road is the occasional stunning vista when the impenetrable forest breaks for a second and the regular punctuation of blood splatter on asphalt caused by the innumerous deer strikes that take place here each evening. I was racing along with the lead rider, averaging between 160km/h and 177km/h, when I was overcome by a sudden and overwhelming need to pee. I hadn't gotten 3km after that little break when I came around the corner to find Cam, our de facto leader, pulled over on the side of the road by a Mountie in an unmarked SUV. Someone had called us in; Canadians have really started to dislike speeding. To add insult to injury, the anonymous soccer-mobile had one of those little stick figure family stickers on its tailgate. Look closely and it's actually a sergeant and three little deputies.
The beers and prime rib on the ferry made up for it. This first leg was on a large boat that performs a regular service up and down British Columbia's Inland Passage, serving various First Nation communities and travellers bound for adventure.
While I was out on the deck looking for northern lights when someone decided to steal my blanket and pillow. I grabbed an hour of sleep on the hard, cold carpet of the lounge while plotting my revenge.
Wildlife spotted today: 2 Humpback Whales, 1 pod of Orcas, many Bald Eagles, many Dolphins.
Day Three: We were woken up by the tannoy at 12.30am so we could unload at Bella Bella, some tiny little island community located deep in a fjord. BC Ferries is under some sort of Homeland Security anti-terrorist decree, so makes a point of checking IDs multiple times throughout each embarkation/debarkation process. It's insanely annoying when you're wearing motorcycle gloves and a helmet.
Note to ISIS: If you were thinking of hijacking a ferry in British Columbia and sailing it into the White House, think again.
We waited around in a cold, dark parking lot for two hours, then rode down the ramp to a much smaller ferry, bound for Bella Coola and points along the way. That fit our 12 bikes, chase truck, a shipping container and five cars. We took over one of the two small rooms available, unrolled our air mattresses and turned in for a few more hours sleep. Sometime around sunup, we were awoken by a crewmember who threw open the door, gagged at the man stink and showed us how we could crack a window for fresh air.
The ferry didn't get in until about 1pm, so we had all morning to hang out on the little boat, watch the incredibly beautiful scenery go by, talk about tire pressures and play with a Bull Terrier.
I figured what followed would be a short ride, but instead, we hit our first dirt and rode until sunset. The highway to (or from, depending on how you look at it) Bella Coola was carved out of the mountains and pines immediately following WWII. Today's section remained unpaved, its deadly precipices and steep climbs have prevented that for 60 years.
Bella Coola Valley is a "popular" tourist destination, in that you can actually find gas, a store and a handful of people in it. But, this far north, "popular" means we saw one or two cars along the way. The reason it's so popular is that it appears to be a near exact replica of Yosemite Valley's stunning rock formations, just scaled up to four times the height. It's stunning. And, it's supposedly full of Grizzly Bears.
The captain on the last ferry said he'd seen the largest bears of his life in the river immediately next to the town just the day before. The salmon were running and the bears were down from the mountains to feast on them. Everywhere we went, people were talking about the grizzlies and we even heard bear bangers going off in the distance, but they remained elusive to us. At a popular bear watching location, right in the middle of a salmon stream, we'd missed the last one by less than an hour, but couldn't devote the time to wait around for the next. It was another few hours' ride to Tatlayoko Lake, our destination for the night.
And man, that place is also just incredible. The whole landscape up here is the living embodiment of the exaggerated idea of the old west you and I grew up watching in cowboy movies: gigantic mountains, huge glaciers, endless forests and gorgeous cattle ranches. Nary a human in sight, anywhere you go.
Tatlayoko is also one of the top worldwide destinations for wind surfing, perched above a valley at high elevation, the winds here apparently become violent enough to give the 27km lake a reliable four-foot break and have been known to kill on what sounded like a fairly regular basis. Not today though, it was so calm during our visit that it served as a flawless mirror, reflecting the sunset over the mountain top beyond.
After dinner that night — local salmon cooked in local maple syrup and berries — the Aether guys broke out a mysterious Haliburton metal briefcase that had been floating around the back of the chase truck all trip. Well, I'll let you see what was in it. Wildlife spotted today: Dolphins, seals, humpbacks, eagles and deer.
Day Four: We'd spent the night before poring over maps with the owner of a local ranch. Our destination for the day was Big Gang Ranch, a ways to the east and south. But, we didn't want to get there on the highway. A faint line headed in that direction from Tatlayoko, a road even our new local friend had never been down. Perfect.
Even more so when we found a big "Road Closed" sign at its entrance. It was 60 miles long and we had virtually no idea of its condition or if it was even passable. We kept joking about what we'd do to the gate that could hypothetically be closing it off at the other side, but any laughs were half-hearted, because there was a very real possibility we could get through it all, only to find our access to the highway blocked and be forced to turn around. That was something we couldn't accomplish, we weren't carrying enough fuel to make the return trip.
Ever ridden a big, heavy adventure bike off-road? They're designed to do it and are surprisingly capable. But man, is it hard work. This closed road quickly turned from smooth dirt to a tight forest path hemmed in on both sides by trees, its surface became loose rocks, interspersed with swampy mud. Most of the rest of the guys were on appropriate, knobby tires, but I'd grabbed a Super Tenere from Yamaha at the last minute and didn't have time to swap out its street tires. I figured that would be fine, because surely these guys were a bunch of candy asses who'd stick to fire roads, then brag about dirt. But, here I was trying to hustle a 288kg bike up and down steep hills covered in smooth baseball-sized pebbles on tires that wouldn't grip; about as hard as riding gets.
I was wrong about the guys too. Bikes went down, which is an inevitability anytime you're riding on terrain like this. The top-level D3O armour in the Aether gear did a good job at preventing serious injury, but ribs were bruised, bikes were smashed and one long, uphill climb with switchbacks and deep, loose rocks — a rough approximation of Death Valley's Lippincott Pass — nearly did every last one of us in.
The trail passed just to the left of this gate, into the Bull's field. He was not very happy about 12 bikes rolling past just a few feet away, but we had no choice other than to ride right next to him.
The impressive thing was the group's general attitude throughout. Where I've seen most journalists and industry types melt under similar pressure, the Aether crew remained upbeat and enthusiastic, if exhausted. No one wanted to turn around, no one complained and no one was even scared, even during that uphill climb. A climb so tough that it even claimed Raphael, an instructor at Rawhyde, recognised as the best school for ADV riding in the States. Actually, it claimed him twice after I gave him the wrong advice about the line through a big mud puddle. Oops.
It took us all morning to get through that 100km and that wasn't even half the day. Eventually, we wound up at Big Gang, the ranch where Legends of the Fall was filmed. Reaching it, hours of pine forest suddenly gave way to a vast valley of golden, rolling hills and green crops. At the bottom is the Fraser River, at 854 miles the longest river in British Columbia.
As an aside on the history of this wild province, the source of the river was not discovered until 1808 (by Simon Fraser) and most of the northern and western areas were not even settled by white men until the 1860s. The memory of their hard lives, driving cattle north to feed the Yukon gold rush, is still palpable in the land and its still-few traces of civilisation.
Wildlife spotted today: Deer, 1 Black Bear, 2 Golden Eagles.
Day Five: We woke up to a light covering of frost on our tents and bikes, but warmed up with biscuits and gravy. It was a short ride back to the Fraser River, which we crossed on a small, cable-operated ferry operated by a surly government employee.
He obviously lived in the little house adjacent to the sandy landing and, when the videographer tried to film him operating the little catamaran to take us across, he responded with a not-so-polite, "Point that camera somewhere else, son." Guess you don't live out here if you want to be Instagram famous. It was another four hours or so on dirt roads, our last of the trip. It was sometime after the ferry that I realised I was actually, really having fun and made the unconscious decision to let my hair down a bit, racing ahead of the group, reaching speeds of over 100mph and, for a time, accompanied on the road by a herd of Appaloosas who decided to run alongside. One of those things that was probably pretty dangerous looking back on it, but felt totally right in the moment.
I didn't expect it to happen, but here I was actually enjoying myself on a bike again, surrounded by a group of good, interesting dudes who were loving all of it as much as I was. That's what riding a motorcycle's supposed to be about and itss how I'll be appreciating them from here on out — as a hobby, not a job. I think I'm finally comfortable with that.
Wildlife Spotted Today: 3 Black Bears, 1 Peregrine Falcon, Deer.
Why Go? There's no better way to see the world than on a motorcycle. Unlike in a car, a biker is a part of his environment, participating in the smells and the weather and even the surface he's riding across. And, you'd honestly struggle to find a prettier part of the world than British Columbia. I'd never been here before, but I'm already making loose plans to go back. Know how amazing America's wilderness is, west of the Rockies? BC is like that, just orders of magnitude grander.
What You'll Need To Bring: Big adventure bikes like these are actually ideal for a trip like this. They're just capable enough to handle the terrain, but can also tackle the big distances between places where you can buy fuel while hauling all your gear.
Dress safely and for variable weather. Temperatures during our early September trip ranged from 32C highs during the day, to lows in the -7C at night. If you were to fall off a bike out here and get hurt, it'd be an awful, awful long ways to a hospital, providing you're able to reach one at all.
For navigation, you'll need paper maps and a standalone GPS navigator. Your phone will work, if your bike can power it, you can mount it safely and you know how to use programs like Gaia GPS (iOS) or the superior Backcountry Navigator (Android). Make sure you program your route, create maps on CalTopo and export them to your phone before you leave. A backup in the form of a buddy's phone equipped with the same is a very, very good idea.
You'll also need a bike equipped with protection parts to deal with the inevitable drops, tools to fix what goes wrong and the ability to deal with the inevitable tire problems that will arise through off-road riding. Plus some extra gas and water, just in case.
To cross the Canadian border, just make sure you bring along your passport and bike papers, but leave the guns, alcohol and explosives at home.
Fits like Dainese, protects like Klim and makes even this group of dirtbags look good. Turns out Aether makes nice stuff.
How Do You Get There? With real jobs waiting for us at home, limited time off meant shipping the bikes to Seattle, rather than putting in that three-day highway slog made sense.
One of the guys ended up renting an F800GS from Eagle Rider in Seattle. Bad call, they authorised and were excited about him using the bike for the trip over the phone and he even bought the additional insurance, but when he showed up afterwards with light scrapes and dings caused by off-road use, they immediately slapped him with a $1000 repair bill. That's bad business and none of us will use that company again, you shouldn't either.
If you have a little cash going spare and either the time to do it or a buddy who can help, you'd be better off buying a used bike in Seattle or Vancouver, then selling it when you leave. If you're smart, you can probably sell it for what you bought it for or something close, avoiding the rental fee and rip off in the process.
Book your ferries in advance. The one from Bella Bella to Bella Coola runs only once every five days, and does fill up.
What Should You Do While You're There? Believe it or not, but it's actually a challenge finding places to camp. Sure, you can just setup your tent in any wilderness area you find, but good spots to do so are few and far between. The park at Tatlayoko is open to anyone, but we had to slip Big Gang an envelope full of cash for a place to sleep there. Plan ahead and bring what you require to be self-sufficient.
And, you should explore while you're there, if you have time. There's thousands and thousands and thousands of miles of jeep trails, disused roads and muddy tracks throughout the region. There's not many people that live up here and even they haven't been down most of them.
What We'd Do Differently: Knobby tyres.
TL;DR: Riding somewhere a long ways away, challenging yourself and being surrounded by stunning natural beauty is as transformative an experience as taking psychotropic drugs, with the added bonus that you won't necessarily shit your pants.
Pictures: Scott Rankin