The Trans Canada Trail: testing my mettle.

riding across kinsol trestle bridge

Kinsol Trestle Bridge, spanning the Koksilah River

Mid-July rain pattering against the window, I pick up a pencil and apply myself to the latest drawing. Botanical illustration is something I love and pursue in the spare time I can carve out from work. My legs feel restless however and I realize I’m missing the spin and whirr of pedals, the hum and clatter of wheels and the days where we rode for hours, finally stopping for the day and a hearty meal before passing out and getting up to do it all over again. Not having to think much beyond that was a genuine detox from work, screens of various kinds, information overload in general.

An open valley on the Cowichan Valley Trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail

Open meadows, Trans Canada Trail (Cowichan Valley Trail area)

We’d promised ourselves a relatively local cycle tour. Door to door, on the bikes with no transportation other than a couple of ferry rides. We chose to ride the Trans Canada Trail on Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Victoria via Lake Cowichan, then back to Vancouver with a side trip to Saltspring Island, roughly 400kms in a little over a week, including several rest/chilling out days.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on a bike. A 75km day on mostly gravel trails is probably equivalent to about 100kms day on tarmac. I developed my first ever saddle sore from hours bouncing around on rough, choppy portions of the trail. Apart from a couple of nights booked in an Airbnb, we camped the rest of the time and in taking all that we deemed necessary – tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, cooking gear, some basic food, copious snacks, clothing for variable weather conditions – we managed to weigh our bikes down an exorbitant amount. In the end we used everything so I felt justified in our choices, if amazed that I could even steer the unwieldy, bucking piece of metal that my bike had become.

Ladysmith

Setting sun over Ladysmith high street

We got lost on the first day on a deserted ridgeline outside of Nanaimo. Abysmal signage – an issue confirmed by other tourists and residents – had led us astray. And hours later, near the end of the day, we found ourselves riding the shoulder on the busy, fast, noisy highway. We finally staggered up a brutally steep hill (a theme that was to recur) to our first overnight stop in Ladysmith as the sun began to sink. I wouldn’t choose to ride from Nanaimo again unless the route was improved, but I’d visit Ladysmith again without hesitation; a delightful small town, unspoilt, quiet, stuffed with rose-filled gardens, a pub devotedly English in style and a bakery packed with locals queueing for pastries, birthday cakes and rustic loaves.

freshwater marsh

Freshwater marshes, Cowichan Valley Trail

We fared better on the Cowichan Valley portion of the trail. It’s (mostly) well signed, and obvious, albeit with long, sometimes confusing connecting stretches on roads. A gravel trail generally follows former rail lines, a new kind of riding for me on a regular touring bike with smooth tires. A gradual upward gradient toward Lake Cowichan and the resistance of gravel meant slower speeds, hunkering down to hours of doggedly turning the legs, the sound of our heavy breathing accompanied by the percussive clink and ping, rattle and clatter of loose stones bouncing off our wheel rims. The scent of fir, spruce and cedar emanated from dense stands of trees that hemmed us in on each side of the trail, breaking rank only occasionally to reveal meadow, freshwater marsh and hillside.

Cowichan River

Cowichan River

The subtle downhill slope from Lake Cowichan the following day was our reward for the previous days grind up, gravel, rock and stone giving way to smooth earth at times. A spike of adrenaline spurred on our legs when we heard the trail was favoured by the local bear population, and that Lake Cowichan had experienced an increase in human/mountain lion conflicts as logging invaded yet more of their territory. With many kilometres to cover before we reached Goldstream Campground for the night we stopped only to admire the view from the several bridges we crossed –including the spectacular Kinsol Trestle Bridge – spanning deep gorges the oxide green river water flowed through.

emerging from Malahat Connector

Scott emerges from the Malahat Connector

The joy of moving from one kilometre to another under our own steam, reeling in forest, valleys and mountainsides, couldn’t even be dented by the heinous gradients we encountered at the Malahat Connector in the Malahat Nation or the Sooke Hills Wilderness trail. But as my front wheel skittered sideways on loose shale yet again whilst I pushed my bike up another 20% hill, I wondered why I was doing this to myself. For hours. And hours. Tired, hot, as I planted one foot in front of the other, the answer wasn’t completely available to me then of course. It’s always only later that I fully appreciate the experience.

In the simplest terms, it’s because I’ve been on an adventure, and my legs are ready for another.

riding the Cowichan Valley Trail

Author on the Cowichan Valley Trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail network

 

A flower drawing, and a video on saving our planet.

Lately, I’ve been working on a drawing of a hollyhock flower. I loved learning how I could keep the delicacy of the flower petals intact (lots of patient layering of colour), and for the first time used masking fluid to make sure I kept the white areas free of colour as I drew. Messy at first but ultimately it seemed to work. I also learned that hollyhocks not only are good providers of nectar for pollinators, but also offer up a much needed start to the life of the butterfly, providing a home and food to the caterpillars.

hollyhock flower

hollyhock flower

And I had to include a very good short film in this very short post.

 

Green idyll

mountain bike trails

Heading into Dead End Loop

Slumping over the handlebars, I stopped to regain my breath before I began to ride into Dead End Loop. Tiny white and black butterflies flitted across my vision (cabbage white?) and as my eyes focused on the air before me, I noticed small mists of winged insects drifting around. I took it as a good sign, with the deep concern surrounding declining insect populations (and the efforts made to reverse that trend in surprising areas) it was good to observe such obvious signs of life. Perhaps the recent rains had helped after an overly dry start to the spring.

skunk cabbage

Good ‘ol skunk cabbage

We were back up in Squamish, and after the first foray of the year a couple of weeks previously when the vegetation was shockingly parched and sparse, it was a relief to see the familiar fresh, verdant green appearing; as well as a few salmonberry flowers.

salmonberry flowers

Salmonberry shrub

We pushed ourselves; three hours of riding the trails in Squamish that included the notorious Bypass trail – basically a short but mean slog up a hillside that I usually have to stop on at least once. For whatever fortuitous reason – more rest, stronger legs that day – I managed to thread my way up the trail after a fun, fast bounce around the root strewn Dead End Loop. Topping up my iron levels too over the last year or so has helped too, I hadn’t realized I was low despite the tell-tale signs of lightheadedness and sheer tiredness on rides (no matter how much I ate) until on a whim I had it tested. Gotta love those iron supplements!

Woodland, Canada

Squamish woodland

The temperature was perfect, just warm enough to ride without a jacket; the sun chased by a very few clouds. A lucky day before the rain and cloud moved back in the very next morning.

mountain biking

Scott on the trail

 

Leaping into spring

We doggedly turned the pedals; eyes streaming, glasses fogged up, snotty noses cold and damp. My feet had long since gone numb and I noticed Scott slapping his frozen hands against his legs in a vain attempt to get some feeling back into them.

No, it wasn’t an epic trip along some ice-covered road in a distant Nordic country, just riding back to the ferry after visiting a friend overnight in Victoria on Vancouver Island earlier in March. The weather had changed overnight from cold and sunny, to frigid and sleeting. It felt in equal measures foul and fun (in a masochistic way, natch). We were dressed for the cold but not the wet, a point underlined as we disembarked on the mainland and booted it along the causeway to where we’d stealth-parked the car. Riding in full-on snow at this point as we sloshed through thick pools of water and slush, terrified yelps escaping my frozen lips as yet another truck barrelled past in the unofficial race off the ferry. My eyes were still noticeably swollen at work the next day, the after-effects of the wind and sleet that had somehow worked its way under, over and around my glasses.

Now that it’s finally warming up – cherry blossom bursting impatiently forth, a dusting of green on trees as leaves begin to unfurl – the first foray into mountain biking of the season has meant upending our tiny apartment as we dig out our bikes from a jammed closet. Three grinds up a gravelled road, and three runs down a bermy, easy run and we started to feel our bodies loosen up after far too long a break.

So March has been characterized by sporadic rides, lots of reading (Ashlee Pipers’s Give a Shit: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet has caught my attention for the last little while – plentiful ideas for upcycling, recycling, reusing – and I ploughed through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which frankly drove me a bit nuts with all the ‘thees and ‘thous’. I couldn’t put it down, but I have to admit I much prefer his essays from A Moveable Feast), and fitting in more drawing around work. Lately I’ve been working on some strawberries:

botanical drawing of strawberries

Strawberry composition

And I learnt a bit more about my backyard in British Columbia in This Mountain Life; both the staggeringly beautiful scenery this area contains, and the unique people who explore it, it’s well worth checking out.

 

Cross-country skiing, drawing and some sourdough starter.

I gave Grue his weekly feed today.

Grue is a bubbling, fruity or acidic or bready smelling (depending on the time of day and mood), occasionally slightly slimy surfaced sourdough starter. I haven’t had the courage yet to turn this brooding, alive, fridge-living monster into bread. I’ve just been feeding the little tyke once a week and sticking him back into cold storage until I a) get a digital scale, essential for accurate measurements of flour, starter etc etc. and b) have figured out how to transform the grommet into something we can eat. There’s a plethora of information on nurturing your starter and how to make bread, I just need to find enough time to study it as it does seem to require in-depth observation and dedication. I’m not adverse to the investment in educational time, quite the opposite, but I want to do justice to Grue and his tenacious will to live by being at least moderately informed when I begin the alchemical and essence-of-life process of baking bread.

sourdough starter

Grue, our bubbling monster. The elastic band shows how much he’s grown. Ah, bless!

In other news I just swallowed an advil with a great gob of red wine, which I’m sure is verboten but it was the liquid I happened to have in my hand as I reached for a painkiller. I was bent over double with a sudden and excruciating stab of sciatic nerve pain so severe that I felt like I might throw up. The advil and a quick hot bath seemed to do the trick. I had gone for a run yesterday and decided that to shake things up a bit I might try sprinting every other block. A few times doing that and I was soaked in sweat and felt great. I was also stiff as a board later and spent the rest of the day sitting on my backside drawing. Cue sciatic purgatory.

The drawing has been coming along though. Sometimes I feel horribly slow but I grab what time I can and am gradually building up a stock of images, some of which I’ve started to make into greeting cards. It’s deeply satisfying and at some point I will start to sell the cards online.

Illustration of daffodils

Working on a daffodil composition

And after a very delayed start, we’re finally seeing a decent dump of snow here on the west coast. Essential for a healthy snow pack during the summer months of course but also great for snow sports. A few days ago I was out cross-country skiing. Just so beautiful and so good to be out in the sparkling, squeaky snow. The (mostly) blue sky was a lovely bonus.

Hope everyone’s week is going well!

snowy forest

Snowy forest

snow, trees and blue sky

Snow, trees and blue skies

cross country trails

Perfect cross-country conditions

 

Discovering new mountain bike trails, Part three: Powell River

Bridge crossing a stream

Cooling stream on a steaming hot day

From the depths of a bottomless sleep, I slowly became aware of Scott’s muffled voice: ‘Are you awake? Can you hear that?’

As I surfaced consciousness, not entirely sure of where I was in the dense darkness of the forested campground, I pulled out my ear plugs (an essential defence against Scott’s snoring) and was immediately assaulted with an almighty cacophony of shouts, screams, singing and laughter.

‘It’s those kids’ I mumbled. I yawned widely.

‘What kids?’

‘The ones in the group campsite, they arrived this afternoon, I mean yesterday’. It was already after midnight.

‘Oh’.

Apparently Scott hadn’t noticed the group after we rode back into the campground after a full day of mountain biking; perplexed by both the level of noise and my unconscious state (I normally wake at the slightest sound) he momentarily wondered if there was some kind of crisis unfolding. That’s probably another reason I love outdoor sports so much, the combination of fresh air and exercise conks me out at night.

For three nights at Haywire Regional campground, tucked way behind Powell River down a forestry road and edged by the refreshing water of Powell Lake, it had been stunningly quiet at night – apart from the whisper of a breeze in the evenings rustling the branches of trees circling each site. But now we were into the weekend and slightly different, unwritten rules applied. Popular with the locals, this was the campground to come to for a family and friends get together. Lots of drinking, music and letting off steam. Nothing got too out of hand though, good-natured (if noisy) fun seemed to predominate. Just go during the week if you want to avoid the party atmosphere, or to the quieter, nearby Inland Lake Provincial campground.

Powell Lake

Powell Lake in the evening light

Powell River on the Sunshine Coast was the third and final new area of mountain biking for us last summer. Now a historic and cultural site – the city sits on the traditional territory of the Tla’ Amin Nation and the pulp and paper mill was once the largest in the world – the area is increasingly a playground for outdoor enthusiasts; some of the trails we were riding around the Duck Lake area had been custom-built for the BC Bike Race.

We already felt spoilt with our trips to Quadra Island and Cumberland and weren’t necessarily planning another break, but I shifted things around a bit at work and we headed out for a few days mid August. Not the smartest move; a hot and busy time of year and I hadn’t made any campsite reservations. Not sure what we were thinking really, it was very much a ‘go and see how it works out’ situation, if we had to we’d just come home. In a way, it was a choice made out of desperation; as the smoke from wildfires rolled in yet again, I obsessively looked up the air quality index to see where we might escape to and Powell River on the Sunshine Coast popped up. Two ferry rides away and some driving to be sure, but not that great a distance from Vancouver. Surely they’d have smoke too? And by the end of our visit they did, but not before we got in some gorgeous cross-country riding for five or so days. We had no problem bagging a camping spot either. Lucky.

And it was gorgeous; long, winding trails snaking through forest – aromatic with the scent of fir and pine. Sporadically the trails flirted here and there with the shores of Mud, Stewart, Haslam or Duck Lake. Every route seemed brilliantly maintained, obviously ridden a lot, but we barely saw a soul.

MTB trails, Duck Lake area

Scott, Duck Lake area

Map of Duck Lake trails

Map of Duck Lake trails

Each day we barrelled down gravelled roads towards Duck Lake, parked and picked our route. It was hot, but the forest protected us. We rode for hours, exploring the myriad byways. When we started to overheat, we sloshed water over our heads from streams and sat in the shade, guzzling the copious amounts of water we’d brought with us. And in the evenings back at the campground we threw ourselves into Powell Lake. A forested path close to the tent led us out to a smaller, less busy beach. Around dinner time it was often deserted and we lingered as the sun slid away, picking our way back by torchlight to our campsite for a glass of wine and hastily thrown together meal.

Mini waterfall

Mini waterfall

MTB trails, Powell River

Me taking a snap of trail signs

How does it go? Eat, sleep, ride, repeat? Check.

Discovering new mountain bike trails, part two: Cumberland, British Columbia

Mountain biking Cumberland, BC

Taking a breather, Cumberland, BC

After three days of a rural retreat on Quadra Island in July, we headed for another mountain bike hub, Cumberland, the self-styled ‘village in the forest’ nestled in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. We were booked in for three nights at a local airbnb, a cute self-contained apartment with a full kitchen – so saving us a ton of dough cooking our own food – and oh joy, a washer and dryer; sweaty, rank bike gear no more!

I hadn’t realized exactly how close to the trail system we’d be. A step out of the door from the converted attic above a nice family home, one, two, three turns of the pedals, a couple of moments coasting down the road on a gentle incline and we were suddenly in the woods and starting up a forestry road. No driving to a trailhead, no fighting traffic, no muss no fuss.

The trails in Cumberland are excellent; well-maintained, clearly marked, extensive, fun and challenging when you want. Thanks to the efforts of the local bike club, the United Riders of Cumberland, the agreements they hold with private landowners have allowed the development and maintenance of a vast network of trails in a working forest. Additionally, the Cumberland Community Forest Society has over the last few years been raising funds to buy parcels of forest adjacent to the town and in the process are protecting an important ecological, recreational and historical area.

BC BC Bike Race, Cumberland, BC

BC Bike Race

Cumberland attracts riders from around the world. The last day of our visit the town hosted the second stage of the BC Bike Race, ‘the world’s best mountain bike race’ ~ Outside Magazine. The race next year is already sold out. We watched as over six hundred riders shot past our airbnb into the woods early in the morning, the spin of so many wheels buzzing like a vast hive of bees. The local sports field was a sea of red tents set up for the riders that night, and were just as suddenly gone the next day, on to another stage of the race in another town.

MTB trails, Cumberland, BC

Scott, Cumberland

Bike races aside, for all its popularity as a mountain biking destination once we’d ridden up the forestry road and veered off on the first of many trails we saw at most a handful of riders each day. On the second day dark clouds hove into view as a deep rumble of thunder sounded. Despite its throat clearing the sky spared us all but a spattering of rain and lightning. We traversed a web of trails that led us up into great swathes of logged, open land; stumps and replanting abounded instead of thick forest. At other times we were led back into gorgeous woods that had been temporarily spared the chainsaw or were soon to be felled, judging by the brightly coloured plastic ribbon that adorned them.

I’m conflicted about the areas we rode in. The trails are brilliant: loamy, rocky, rooty, flowy, techy, take your pick. But the cleared areas jarred. The forest society notes on their website that all unprotected forest is to be logged. Replanting can’t hide the evidence of chainsaws at work (at this point of the growth cycle anyway). Where new growth reached just over our heads, it was easier to deny the logging – the inevitable out of sight, out of mind.

In a way Cumberland is a lesson in survival and evolution (I highly recommend a visit to the Cumberland Museum and Archives, we learnt a lot in a couple of hours one afternoon). With the discovery of coal in the 1800’s, Union, as the town was once called after the Union Coal Mining Company, grew rapidly, swelled by the arrival of Chinese and to a lesser extent, Japanese, immigrants to work the mines in harsh and dangerous conditions. As coal production gradually declined followed by the depression and WWII, many Chinese returned home whilst the Japanese endured forced internment during the war years. Chinatown and Japanese Town were dismantled. Logging replaced coal mining as the primary industry. Bolstered by the conviction that the forest is now worth more standing than felled, the community is ushering in a new economy. It’s nice that mountain biking is a vital part of this latest growth; Cumberland, with its artsy, craft beer, music, outdoor enthusiasts scene will have fully evolved once again.

We’ll be back.

Vanilla MTB trail, Cumberland

GoPro screen capture from Scott of Vanilla MTB, Cumberland. Flowy, bermy, fun!

 

Illustration complete: horse chestnut

Illustration: horse chestnut/conker

Finished at last…..horse chestnut/conker

Handling a horse chestnut is a delicate process. To look at it makes me think of a naval mine or, somewhat more benignly, a sea anemone.

I got a few holes poked in my fingers placing the horse chestnut the way I wanted it; no pain, no gain kinda deal.

For good or bad I’ve started an instagram account, primarily for illustrations, but with a few photos thrown in for good measure. Some drawings will make their way onto the blog, more on the insta. If you’re interested have a look, and perhaps follow and share. Thanks so much.

 

Discovering new mountain bike trails, part one: Quadra Island, British Columbia

Sunset, Quadra Island, BC

Rain giving way to the setting sun, Quadra Island.

Cool days, finally some sun after a damp start to the autumn. Looking back it’s been a good summer of exploring in our backyard. Travel abroad is great but there’s a lot to be said for staying local. It’s cheaper for one. Usually there’s less preparation. Hopefully less stress. And in this region there’s some excellent mountain biking nearby – it’s been fun discovering new areas to ride.

We unexpectedly returned to Quadra Island for three days in early July – courtesy of good friends living part-time on the island in a lovely rustic cabin. We explored mountain bike routes so stealth that if we hadn’t our friend as guide we never would have found them. We rode both unsanctioned trails (meaning not necessarily maintained) but also official trails, like the excellent Little Black Dress.

I could count the number of other riders we met on one hand. Quiet woods, gorgeous lakes – my first swim of the year in Morte Lake was sublime.

Morte Lake, Quadra Island

Morte Lake

It was stellar weather, long before any hint of wildfire smoke destined to hit the region later in the summer, although hot enough that we had to rest in the shade of a tree after toiling up a steep rock and root strewn route that levelled out to a quiet, relatively smooth plateau of loamy, compliant trails.

Trails, Quadra Island

Barely there trails winding into the woods

Pretty good sunsets too.

Twilight, Quadra Island

Twilight, Quadra Island