Flying with eagles

We explored the north of Vancouver Island for a few days, meandering through coastal villages such as Campbell River, Telegraph Cove and Port Hardy. Telegraph Cove’s tiny community of 20 was a former fishing village and sawmill. Today you can hire one of the original wooden houses which stand on stilts on the edge of the ocean. Each house has a plaque outside, relating it’s history and taking you back to primitive and harsh times. It’s a prime tourist spot now because of its accessibility to ecological reserves, where you can view orca whales and bears. We were fortunate to have been allowed to view the whale museum, despite it being under renovation. That’s where we saw giant whale skeletons and a bald eagle display.

From Port McNeill we chose a logging road to get to Port Hardy and being off the beaten track gifted us our first bald eagle sighting in the wild! To see them up close and in their natural habitat was simply Devine!!! The bald eagle is the national bird of the USA and quite impressive, being the largest raptor after the condor. It’s body is about a metre tall and it’s wingspan about two metres wide. Our first sighting was of a juvenile and its parents, then we saw so many more eagles flying above us as we were riding over the coming days…

Our accomodation in Port Hardy was a backpackers which served the most divine tea, the host saying he was very familiar with Aussie, Kiwi and British tourists. He advised us about things to explore, so we set off first to visit Fort Rupert, a First Nation Reserve. Totem poles are prominent all over British Colombia, but in the reserve we saw them in their most common forms within the community. They’re monuments created as signboards, memorials or genealogical records. We saw them outside homes, the community hall, in front of the school and in a grave yard. They were relating stories and it was just a taster for the history we were to learn about later at the museum in Campbell River.

Campbell River Museum is a little gem in an idyllic setting, with stunning views of the ocean. We loved walking amongst the exhibits, reading and learning about First Nation history and marvelling at how unfairly it plays out in comparison to Settler history. We touched a tree stump which was over 1000 years old, another story played out unfairly due to logging.

We crossed the 50th Parallel in Campbell River, the circle of latitude 50 degrees north of the equator. It was a reminder of just how far we are from home…>12000km… the long days and cold weather testament to that!

Paul reflected on how prominent the eagle is in the First Nation art and totem poles, saying he could relate to it’s overwhelming beauty and power. It was simply incredible for us to see so many of these beautiful creatures in nature, looking up at them flying ahead of us as we rode along…feeling like we were indeed flying with eagles.

 

‘Badass’ women

At last we were gifted a few hours of sun and we headed towards the bikers’ must-do route – Highway 4 to Tofino. The conversation amongst bikers a few nights ago had been weather proof gear. We had been shopping for heated vests and were discussing the importance of having the right clothing for the insane weather conditions in Canada.  Every conversation with a Canadian includes “this has been the worst winter in decades…it’s never been this severe… spring’s never been this late…” and ”you should see how amazing Canada is in summer!” Claire had just got back from a freezing (and treacherous!) 250km ride from Tofino in the pouring rain. She laughed at us and said: “My footwear is weather proof. I wear two pairs of socks, then put plastic shopping bags over my feet and duct tape them at the ankles before putting on my boots!” Claire then offered to ride with us along Highway 4 to Tofino…

Highway 4, also known as the Pacific Rim Highway,  traverses Vancouver Island from East to West Coast, snaking around lakes and across the spine of the Vancouver Island Mountains. We stopped for a walk at Cathedral Grove, a magnificent stroll amongst giant Douglas Fir and Red Cedar. The oldest tree is over 800 years old and the biggest Fir 75 metres tall. As we walked I chatted to Claire about her solo motorcycle trip through parts of the US, in awe of her bravery. I asked her how she dealt with the challenge of completing such an adventure alone, saying that it would scare me. “One kilometre at a time…” she replied and we were soon discussing how that philosophy is such a metaphor for tackling any of life’s challenges or indeed, any of life’s dreams. In Africa we have a similar saying, which comes to mind: ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…’ It’s not about tackling the whole thing at once, it’s about simply ‘getting going’.

There are no words to adequately describe the majesty and beauty we experienced on our ride to Tofino. Claire and Paul rode ahead and I described to them how they looked like motorised fleas riding a ribbon of road, compared to the sheer size of the snow covered mountains and vast lakes. The road was windy, bumpy, steep, narrow and with sheer drop offs in many places. There was so much rain and melting snow that water literally ‘smashed’ in frothing white torrents through the granite canyon. I felt quite overwhelmed and emotional, actually teary, at the majestic beauty all around me and at realising just how small and insignificant we really are as human beings.

A dear friend (Ken) has ‘famously’ said: “Driving a car, is like watching a movie. Riding a bike is like being in the movie.” You physically feel every thing, every change in weather conditions, smell every scent in the air. You’re vulnerable and super alert to everything around you. It’s exhilarating, exhausting and an insane sense of freedom. Add to that the gift of majestic terrain and you’re starring in movie heaven…

We were discussing how amazing the ride was and I said how grateful I am for the experience. “You’re so badass!” Claire told me, saying she was amazed at how I’d had the courage to pack up my life to come on this journey. In reality I’m a fearful cautious woman, who simply knows how to get going.

Someone else’ shoes

“Living here, Salmon have taught me not to be afraid of death. I’ve watched them as they showcase how they live their final moments… when they know ‘it’s time.’ They live in the ocean all their lives yet when ‘it’s time’ they make their way back to where they were born. It’s a last fighting struggle to head upstream, up waterfalls, against the current. They’re emaciated and dying, yet they fight on, heading upwards…having sex for the first time in their dying moments, so the cycle goes on. That’s how I would like to approach my own death…and hopefully having sex for a final moment of ecstasy as I say my goodbye.” Laughing, this is how Serena answered my question with her story about Salmon and the beautiful stream in her backyard.

The other life lessons she’s shared have come from Mason Bees. Paul and I are working at Monika and Serena’s Organic Mason Bee Farm, in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. It’s a HelpX exchange of work for board and lodge and getting to live like a local, experiencing another life, walking in someone else’s shoes. When I was a child my father kept bee hives on our farm, so I am very familiar with farming bees for honey. I’ve discovered there’s so much more to bees than honey…and slowly I’m also discovering an alternate way of life.

Mason bees are solitary and do not have a hive. Every female is fertile, there no are no worker bees and their sole purpose is to be pollinators. Our timing is perfect, because it’s Spring, time for the bees to emerge from their winter cocoons and the bee farm is in full swing. Drinking home made organic blackberry-merlot wine to stimulate our creative-thinking we had a fun-filled evening of assembling bee nests for the Farmers Market.  On Saturday we set off early, to sell and share the story of the Mason Bees.

The market was beautiful and something unique. Paul and I had a wonderful time sampling the local delights: honey vodka, chocolate truffles, medicinal mushrooms, water buffalo yoghurt, blackberry-merlot champagne, turkey sausages, caramel waffles, strudels, pastries and cheeses. We sat on the grass listening to the band, watching people go about their usual Saturday morning lives. Paul reflected on how wonderful it was just sitting there, not focused on doing anything, but just being there, just being present. With a cheeky grin, he said: “That’s what we were made for after all, that’s why we’re called human ‘beings’ and not human ‘doings’…”

Paul’s comment was lovingly aimed at me, encouraging me towards my greatest lesson which is learning to enjoy every moment, to stop focusing on achieving and getting things done. Serena had spoken about the very same thing when she explained how the Mason Bees had taught her about the liberation of not working in a hierarchy, for a queen bee. It seems they’re designed to go about their lives on their own terms. Unlike honey bees who serve industrial agriculture, mason bees go about their lives solo, just for pollination.

Paul and I are enjoying spending time with locals, walking in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. For us this journey goes beyond seeing the sights, and spending time with locals is granting us an understanding of alternate ways of life.

 

 

Focusing on the destination, or the journey?

It was below zero and late at night in Cheakamus when we stood naked out in the forest. Arms stretched to the moon and inhaling the scent of cedar, I had accepted Paul’s ‘dare.’ Teeth chattering, I was also the first to buckle and scamper back into our cabin’s warmth.

Our prior discussion had been heated, had been hard. Two strong individuals at the outset of a journey – discovering new worlds as much as ourselves. Being confronted by challenges amplifies our weaknesses as much as our strengths and Canada’s extreme winter this year had frustrated our plans. With a myriad of options of what to do next Paul suggested we start with ourselves and answer the question: “Are we focusing too much on the destination instead of the journey?”

Defining the journey we wished for ourselves was a profoundly intimate discussion and a very special moment for me. Articulating what we value we realised many things. We value experiencing people over places and it’s those experiences that count, not simply reaching destinations pre-set in our minds.

So we decided to stay awhile and do some local exploring, then head back to Vancouver Island until Canada warms, before attempting to head north to Alaska. It has been wonderful to slow down and open up to what’s around us. Yesterday we enjoyed an afternoon picnic on the pebbly banks of the Cheakamus River, fly fishing and snacking on salmon, crackers & cheese and a bottle of British Colombia red. Today started with a fresh dusting of snow and after a breakfast of pancakes and bacon we explored the back roads. Riding ‘till the dirt road ended and I was just too wet and exhausted from falling too many times.

Journeys are a bit like making loving. If you’re too focused on the destination rather than the journey, you often stand in your own way of ‘getting there’ I think.

 

Breathtaking, rugged and wild

The town mayor was on stage, wearing a cowboy hat and introducing members of the band: The local accountant on trumpet, estate agent on drums, school counsellor on saxophone…and so it went, a band of locals gathered for the night. Then they started playing – oh boy! what a band –  there was hardly a bum left seated, most got up and danced. Invited by our hosts near Squamish to watch the ‘Blues-berries Band’, last night we were educated on how Canadians party!

Earlier that day, with no alternative to packing the bikes in the rain, we had left Vancouver in the foulest possible weather and I was exhausted from not having slept the night before.  But simply NOTHING could dampen our sense of excitement and of being alive – because after a year of planning, we were finally “actually on our way!!!”

The Sea to Sky Highway was spectacular, as we cautiously made our way towards Whistler. Our first experience of the insanely wild weather was a shock to the system. No amount of reading about it could have prepared us for actually riding loaded motorcycles through torrential arctic rain. The scenery was simply magnificent, breathtaking, rugged and wild.

Today we were gifted with a most spectacular day – clear blue skies which showcased Canada, the most insanely beautiful place. We rode out to Whistler, eating burgers for lunch as snow flakes gently floated down on us. Stopping at a view point on the way back, we saw two other bikers and as is customary, greeted each other as old friends would. Carol and Richard invited us home, offering some spare parts they had from a previous overland trip which may come in handy for our journey north.

Our experience of Canadians is that you could not find friendlier, more courteous or generous people. Paul and I are loving the way each day simply unfolds, holding plans loosely, soaking it all in.

Horror in our backyard

I don’t presume to know all the facts or answer the questions left hanging. What I can share is what we saw and what we felt. It is a subject so incredibly sensitive and complex, so I approach sharing our experience with a great deal of respectfulness for the lives lost.

Our morning on Friday started with final preparation of the bikes. Paul was getting them ride ready whilst I packed and brought him cups of tea, as he was forced to work in the rain. By midday we were set, so with some time to spare we decided to walk and see a bit of Vancouver.

We had been told of a great coffee shop in downtown, so headed there first. Being Nina’s birthday, I thought it would make a special birthday gift if I could find an instant photo shop to make prints of the portraits I had taken the night before. The barista told us the way and we headed off Downtown East…

We now know from Wikipedia that Downtown East is “notorious for its open-air drug trade, sex work, poverty and mental illness, homelessness, infectious disease, and crime.” The decline is allegedly due to a combination of things: ‘an influx of drugs, de-institutionalisation of mentally ill people and no funding for social housing.’

Respectfully, the best way I can think of how to describe what we experienced is ‘like walking through a zombie movie’: People staring vacantly as they cowered on a sidewalk, scratching themselves raw, rocking and moaning at demons in their head or shouting abuse at something only they could see. It reminded me of the time I worked in a psychiatric hospital, but these people were more vulnerable and out on the street. I noticed a man holding open a door, as he ushered two others inside. As we passed and the door closed, I noticed it had no handle on the outside. Shivers ran up my spine and I felt fearful for those who had entered. It was distressing and confronting to witness these scenes, feeling helpless and anxious for someone’s daughter, someone’s son.

We found our way to the waterfront, where we stood in awe of the view across the bay – snow capped mountains in the mist. We walked and walked and walked some more, talking about what we had seen earlier, trying to shake it out of our heads.

In the evening we spotted a little bar which looked nice. As I stood outside looking at the menu a man arrived, came over to me and said: “I highly recommend you join us, the food is great and I should know, as I’m one of the musicians playing tonight!”

We had a wonderfully relaxed evening, listening to the band playing jazz and drinking a beautiful Australian Shiraz. During a break the lead singer came over, saying hi to the crowd. He identified us as hailing from Australia but once he heard more about our journey we soon became “mini celebrities” being introduced to other locals. He presented us with two of his CDs and copious hugs and smiles.

Going home our thoughts were about how very differently two worlds played out today. At the station we spotted a poster advertising the ‘Take Home Naloxone Program’. Naloxone is an antagonist medication that reverses the effects of an overdose of opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, codeine or morphine. Wikipedia explained the context: “As of 2017, critical issues (in downtown Vancouver) are an epidemic of fentanyl overdoses, a shortage of low-cost rental housing, and a high prevalence of severe mental illness which often co-occurs with addiction.“

Even now, our thoughts are still very much about what we had witnessed the previous day. It had simply been so confronting, seeing so many lives lost to addiction and in the cold, out on the street. We concluded that the problem likely exists in our own country, albeit it on a different scale. But perhaps as ‘locals’ we just never venture out to places where we’d see it like we had.

 

Rookies’ day out

We’re being hosted in Vancouver by a beautiful Italian family. On arrival Francesca made tea and we shared a bit about ourselves. Her grandfather migrated from Italy and started the business next door, a deli, and bought the house we were staying in.  Her father grew up in this house, then Francesca after that. She now lives here with her beautiful young family. She has lived here all her life and everyone she loves is nearby. With my family spread all over the world, I imagined how wonderful a life that must be. I mentioned how hard I found it to say goodbye to my girls and puppies…and promptly started bawling. How embarrassing to be crying with a stranger, especially since once I started I couldn’t stop!

Thursday was an exciting day, time to get the bikes through customs and out of their crates! We had to ship the bikes without fuel or batteries, so with motorcycle batteries in our backpacks we headed out on the train. We missed noticing the last stop and found ourselves the only people on the train, stationary in the shunting yard, stuck. An emergency call got us out of our bind and soon we were giggling about our “rookies’ day out”, wondering what else the day had in store. The process of importing the bikes was pretty straight forward, people extremely helpful when we needed to ask for help. It made us mindful though how challenging the process would be in countries where we could not speak the language.

We were like children at Christmas, unwrapping the crates with whoops of delight. Assembling the bikes was great fun, despite the occasional rain shower welcoming us to the Northern hemisphere. We fuelled up and were soon on our way, albeit with an extra heavy load due to also carrying a Canadian friend’s panniers shipped out with ours. Then for the challenge of driving on the right…

Rush hour traffic turned out to be a much bigger challenge than our initial worries as the bikes constantly cut out, leaving us frantically trying to re-start the heavily laden bikes with traffic bearing down on us.  We were anxious about the bikes malfunctioning and Paul was stressed like I’d never seen before. With much spluttering and stalling (and swearing!), we got home safely. We quickly unloaded the bikes and headed back to the bike shop, with only minutes to spare before they closed. Then got lost…

There are so many unknowns when you travel, so much to figure out. Paul has wisely said that that’s what this journey is about – figuring stuff out, solving problems and learning. Being rookies at so much of what we’re experiencing is mostly hard, sometimes fun. Everything is easy once you know how and it’s empowering discovering your inner resources. We’ve also found the generosity of others has no bounds.

The previous night I had apologised to Paul that after 5 days’ travel I was still crying at the drop of a hat. I asked him if it worried him that I was not coping as well as I’d hoped. What happened next reminded me why I’m travelling with the right man. He took my face in his hands, looked me in the eyes and said: “Don’t apologise for how you feel, don’t second guess yourself. I’ve seen you tackle challenges before, this is just you being honest about where you’re at, not you giving up.”

Uncannily the following day became my turn to support, to just be calmly present as my husband didn’t cope…just for a moment…when realising the enormity of what we had started.

We changed our plans, deciding to spend another day in Vancouver to sort the bikes out, getting ready properly to start our journey north, the first stop which is Whistler on Saturday.

Banana currency…and the meaning of life?

There are marked differences between being tourists and travellers. For one thing, as a tourist you have a credit card plus a job to go back to, and you know you won’t be away for too long… As I closed the front door after saying goodbye to the puppies, this was my main thought – when would I see them again, if at all? My girls drove us to the airport (…to make sure we left, they said!) and it was a teary farewell too, mainly because of concerns for our safety. Leaving family, jobs and our home to travel indefinitely is something we’ve never done. Knowing we need to stretch our savings over a year or two, we have researched so many ways of making our dollars last. We now know that we still have a great deal to learn…

Our first night we were ‘tourists’ in a beachfront hotel, it was my birthday for the second time in 24 hours after all! We rested, swam, walked around town, booked a Harley for the next day and drank cocktails ‘till the sun set – a birthday gift from Sarah. We soon started the conversation about our daily budget and ways to make it work. We compared the cost of things and tried to get a handle on new currency and coins – soon realising that taxes and tipping should be added to any buy. Earlier in the day we’d bought some yoghurt and bananas which were a dollar each. Trying to identify the coins, I said to Paul: “That’s a quarter, four of those will buy a banana” to which he replied: “So now we’re dealing in banana currency?” and he fell about laughing. Needless to say, we now refer to all our expenses within the context of ‘how many bananas is that?’

Our day out on the Harley was magnificent and a taste of what was to come once we get our bikes out of customs in Canada. We explored the island with a sense of freedom, stopping to swim in the ocean, eat shrimp, and sleep under a palm tree. That evening we moved to our next abode – our first couch surfing experience, staying with a local! That’s when the “banana currency” really highlighted how much we still had to learn.

Our host showed us around the neighbourhood that evening, which was downtown. It was confronting to witness how many homeless people roamed the streets, something you would never see in the hotel district near the beach. We felt a deep sense of shame in what we saw. Our host showed us the important things to know the location of, like bus stops, convenience stores etc. and explained the ‘local’ way of getting around.  At the hotel the concierge had advised us that a visit to the Arizona Memorial would cost $100. He explained that the actual tickets were free, but that the $100 covered your transport and the convenience of no queues. Our couch surfing host advised us differently on how to visit the memorial – a bus ticket was $2.50 and the bus stop located right outside the door! This lesson had us reflecting on the different experiences of being a “tourist” versus being a “traveller” and relying on being informed through local knowledge. The Arizona Memorial is a moving tribute to the events known more commonly as ‘Pearl Harbour.’

Paul and I set off for our day at the Memorial, knowing we had to catch bus number 42. The bus stop was full of people waiting, so we sat at the end of the line. Each time a bus pulled up I ran to the front of the line, asking the bus driver if it was going to the Memorial. Each time it was a no. After a few busses had passed in this way another bus pulled up, and the passengers ahead in the line all looked back at us shouting: “This one goes to The Memorial!” It was such a poignant moment, the locals instinctively looking after us, knowing our need. Reflecting on this event, Paul said: “It’s the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” I clearly did not understand the context, so he had to explain. He couldn’t resist one of his “did you know?” moments, telling me about Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ where a computer gets asked the question – “What is the answer to the ultimate question of life?” Apparently after much computing the answer is spat out: “Number forty two!”

Indeed…Imagine our astonishment to find that bananas are only 37cents after following the locals’ advice about the best place to shop in the neighbourhood…

Anxious to leave

We were doing final checks this morning, before heading to the airport with the bikes. Paul said he was feeling strange today, then he looked at me and asked:” Are you feeling anxious too?” I said:”Oh yes!”

We took a moment to talk and ‘be present’ about where we were really at. I loved Paul more deeply for sharing his fears. He explained that he suddenly felt overwhelmed at realising the responsibility of taking care of me on this journey, which suddenly seemed insane. I smiled at his selflessness and felt relieved – I’m not alone in all this…

Johan and Caity helped us with the process of preparing the bikes to be crated at the shipping agent, Matzen Cargo, down at Botany Bay. It entailed removing luggage, windscreens, mirrors and eventually also the batteries. The bikes also had to be empty of fuel. Johan was master packer with his huge roll of bubble wrap and Caity made sure we had drinks aplenty in the crazy heat.

Today was such a remarkable day as the realisation hit home that we’re actually doing this incredible trip! Paul summed up our lives: “No job, no car, no home (come Saturday) and as of today, no bikes!” Paul told me this evening that he thinks I’m amazing for being up for it all. I think he’s amazing for granting me this gift.