There is no easy way out of Vancouver. I chose to cycle Crowsnest HWY 3. But no matter what route you choose, the mountains challenge each highway with tall passes and each cyclist with narrow shoulders and steep grades.
I started my 83 day long journey in White Rock, British Columbia. The reasons I chose this point of departure were both pragmatic and sentimental: White Rock allowed me to start at the ocean where I could dip my rear tire into the Pacific to begin my journey and it would avoid the intimidating urban sprawl of Vancouver. This place was also the setting of childhood summer days spent chasing and being chased by the tide. It is the most familiar face of the ocean to me.
On my first day, 5 July 2016, I was flanked by my father and my childhood best friend, Shoshana. My mother drove us to the beach and we rode back in the rain. For the next three days Shoshana joined me as we started east on the Crowsnest Highway 3 until we parted ways in Manning Park. Together we climbed our first mountain pass, an unforgiving and unrelenting 80 kilometre climb up to Allison Pass. It was only day 3, but this was the biggest elevation gain of the whole trip. And we did it in the rain.
The evening that Shoshana’s husband picked her up and drove her back was one of the loneliest nights of the trip. I’m truly alone now. I didn’t let myself linger on the thought, but it was unavoidable as I tucked into my tent and tried to sleep through a thunderstorm, alone in the dark. From Manning Park I continued over Sunday Pass and into the Okanagan with the rain as my traveling companion. Sunday Pass was much more manageable than Alison Pass the previous day. With the Cascade mountain range behind me, I was starting to believe I was capable beyond my expectations and that this trip was not just a whim that I would abandon after a few weeks like almost every other hobby I’ve ever tried. What had been a once-and-future dream was being experienced and was already becoming part of the past.
I soon learned that mountain towns tend to be built in valleys that afford a natural protection from the harsh elements. On a bike this meant that it was often a climb into and out of towns. The best example of this is the town of Osoyoos where you climb Ritcher Pass to descend into town and Anarchist Mountain to leave it. I arrived in Osoyoos in the afternoon but didn’t have the energy to bike up another mountain in the mid-30 degree heat. So I asked a farmer if I could pitch my tent in his orchard. After assessing me as a low risk tenant, he not only acquiesced, but upgraded me to the cool, empty fruit warehouse where there was an old couch and plenty of room to dry out my rain soaked tent. He brought his family to meet me and gave me the best cherries I’ve ever tasted.
BC was the stage for several of the hardest days of my whole trip. The day I left Osoyoos I cycled 140 KM over two mountain passes – Anarachist and Eholt – to Grand Forks where my grandparents were eager to spoil me. I met a man at the Osoyoos lookout named Ron. He told me that I was going to have hard days, but that I was going to finish my trip. He was more sure of it than I was.
“You’re going to have at least 15 days where you want to give up,” he said, “but you won’t give up.”
I don’t know how he decided on that number, but it became a mental measuring tape for me. If I had 15 brutal, awful, cry-on-the-phone-to-your-loved-ones, make-you-want-to-quit kind of days I would allow myself to consider ending the misery, but until I reached that quota, quitting was not an option.
On all the family road trips we’ve done along this highway to visit my grandparents, never had I thought I would bike from my door to theirs.
The day from Grand Forks to Castlegar was one of those days that Ron prophesied would come. Paulson Pass was probably my hardest day of the trip. It felt like the mountain would never end. People had warned me of the “hill” but failed to mention that it lasted for 60 KM. It rained on me for some of the day. Near the top of the pass I felt like I just had absolutely nothing left. I pulled to the side and tucked behind a cement barrier and laid down in the gravel. I slept for over an hour like that. Eventually I mustered the courage to continue. On the way down the mountain the rain started again. I was miserable and angry and cold. When I made it into Castlegar I had some trouble finding the address of the lovely parents of my first college roommate where I was staying the night. My bike and I stand out like a sore thumb; a friendly couple noticed I was struggling and helped me find the house I was going to (incidentally, the house was not on Google Maps). They happened to be going out to the pub for some live music and I invited myself along, eager to devour the biggest burger I could get my hands on. My new friends and my kind hosts helped redeem one of the worst riding days of the entire trip with their good company and generosity.
I was back in the Kootenays now! And after two very challenging days, I needed a change of pace. Rather than continuing on HWY 3 and riding Kootenay Pass – the highest paved pass in BC – I rode half a day (50 KM) to Nelson. Then I took the ferry from Balfour to Crawford Bay and rode around Kootenay Lake to Creston.
While this is a much less direct route, I do not regret it in the slightest. The ferry ride is free of charge (supposedly the longest free scenic ferry crossing in the world) and simply beautiful.
I took my time going around the lake, splitting one day of riding into two and staying the night in Lockhart Creek Provincial Park. Some cyclists avoid bodies of water because they can be prone to wind, but I have to say that nearly every single one of my favourite spots across Canada were by the water.
Compared to the rest of BC, the stretch between Creston to Sparwood is “flat” (meaning there are no significant mountain passes to cycle up all day, but there are still hills of course).
Crowsnest Pass lies on the border between BC and Alberta and was my path across the Rocky Mountains. It was my final challenge separating me from my next province.
Somewhere between the Cascades and the Rockies I became comfortable with telling strangers that I was going to bike across Canada. No longer did I worry that I was incapable. I was mentally preparing myself for another hard day to traverse the last mountain pass. As the pavement started to bend upwards I geared down and focused on not looking too far ahead. It turns out Crowsnest Pass wasn’t at all what I expected. With less than an hour cycling uphill I had reached the summit. The real struggle was the battling the fierce headwind which is typical of this pass (just look at how the wind has pushed the sign marking the summit).
It took two weeks from the ocean to the Alberta. While I was climbing mountain passes I was still focused on and intimidated by the thought of northern Ontario. I brought my passport with me in case I decided to bypass norther Ontario in favour of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan (as many x-Canada cyclists do). Looking back now, British Columbia was definitely the most challenging terrain and some of the poorest roads and longest stretches between towns. Maybe because I am from British Columbia and have driven this highway I wasn’t as anxious about it as I was Northern Ontario. I’m glad I started with the hardest part first so it wasn’t always looming in the back of my mind. And it also helped that I didn’t realize how challenging it would be; in that way, ignorance was bliss. I look back now and I can’t believe I wasn’t more prepared. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the worst terrain was already behind me.