A Google Guest

We met through a Google search using two terms, “Lake Superior” and “ferries.”  The second result yielded my story in Bicycle Times about our Lake Superior Half-Tour using the Isle Royale ferries to cross the lake.  From there it was an easy leap for Tony to find us on Warm Showers.

If that all sounds a bit like gibberish, you are probably not a touring cyclist.  But to those of us of that cult, it all makes perfect sense.  In fact, it’s the epitome of traveling by bicycle – meeting great people in the most unexpected ways.

Tony is in midst of a cycling trip across the US.  In the spirit of his easy going nature, he makes up his route as he goes, taking advantage of opportunities as they arise and dealing with what nature delivers. By the time he reached northern Minnesota, he had heard enough about the dangerous section of the Trans-Canada Highway above Lake Superior to know he wanted to avoid it.  Hence his Google search.  And my story.

A quick check on the Warm Showers app confirmed his suspicion that we were indeed members – part of the cyclists who hosts cyclists network that exists world-wide.  A few keystrokes later, it was all arranged.  Tony would cycle 90 miles and stay with us the next night.

Living in Duluth, we are not on a heavily traveled cycle route, so we have cycling guests only a few times each summer.  But the routine is always the same:  Provide a bedroom, offer up shower and laundry facilities, serve a bountiful dinner to replenish their depleted calories, and engage in lively conversation about where our respective cycle tours have taken us.  It never fails to be an entertaining evening.

Evening Arrival under the bridgeThat night, Duluth provided a perfect summer twilight.  Not only was it still warm, but the lake was unusually calm.  Best of all, a boat was headed for the Aerial Bridge.  We were able to give Tony the ultimate local experience.

We sent Tony off with a big cyclist’s breakfast in the morning.  But he didn’t get far.  A broken spoke turned out to be evidence of more serious wheel damage, and replacement parts would not arrive until morning.  Tony took it in stride, and we took Tony back in.  Another evening of sharing, a walk along Amity Creek and good vibes of friendship ensued.Tony FossatiIt’s always a pleasure to welcome cyclists to our home.  Countless others have done the same for us.  No matter how we find each other.

I Just Couldn’t Do It

It’s high time I got back to writing.  After five weeks on the road and a family reunion week, I have finally carved out some time to pursue my craft.  And I’m headed to my favorite and most productive writing venue, Amity Coffee.  There I can escape the distractions of home and focus on the words assembling on my computer screen amidst the buzz of conversation and the cacophony of sounds involved in preparing elaborate coffee drinks.  I am anxious to get rolling.

But it feels all wrong.  Sunshine has replaced the earlier showers.  The fresh clean outdoor air contrasts with the closed atmosphere of my beloved coffee shop.  Most of all, the lake beckons.

The shop may not be for me this morning, but I’m not about to deny myself that latte.  “To go, please,” I append my order.  My joy in walking back outside affirms my choice.

Brighton Beach rocksI find just what I’m seeking a mere mile from home.  Rocks.  The Rocks, of Brighton Beach.  Big boulders where I can nestle into a chair-like cranny.  The morning’s wind has stirred up the lake, delivering endless waves bouncing off said rocks.  The sound alone is enough to envelope me.  I feel the solitude despite others clamoring among the rocks around me.  The wind on my face is refreshing, offsetting the warmth of the sun pouring down.  I was right to come here.

Writing at Bright BeachI forgot my sunglasses.  Neglected to bring my camera.  But I remain.  I procrastinate by trying to capture the splashes with my cell phone.  Pen and paper replace my usual keyboard and screen.  And it feels good.  The tactical exercise of forming words manually is in harmony with the natural elements that surround me.

It is yet to be seen what I can accomplish on my self-assigned writing task.  But I enjoy the moment.

I will return to my coffee shop another day. Today, I just couldn’t do it.

 

Following the Elephant Tracks

There used to be loads of blackberries on this trail. I remember a year when we picked two full ice cream buckets full. Today we each carry a bucket in hopeful anticipation, but it seems to be overkill. Where are the berries?

I’m at the cabin, with my sister Betsy and her husband Bill visiting from New York. Deciding to hike the nearby trails in Suomi Hills, I see a good opportunity to take stock of the berry status. Normally we pick blackberries over Labor Day weekend, but just in case we tote buckets on this foray.

The trail is overgrown with high grass and thick foliage. The well worn path in my memory has disappeared, but is still navigable. The side growth is equally dense, packed with tall bushes, ferns and vegetation that is not blackberry vines.

Betsy blackberry picking Long past the point where I once found the first blackberries, I spot some. Sparsely intermingled with the other plants, they are far from abundant. The vines we do find are anything but ripe. They range from green immaturity to pinkish red “getting there.” We call them vines with plenty of potential. Just now, they hold only one or two fully ripe blackberries ready to fall from the grasp of the vine. And we claim them. Oddly, others look past their prime. They have either lost their berries already or literally withered on the vine into hard brown dried up knobs. Our harvest is meager.

Bill blackberry pickingThe hike turns into a stroll. A search for the berries. Eyes scanning the undergrowth, we seek out our treasure. Farther along the path, the blackberry presence multiplies. More ripe berries per vine, more vines per square yard. Hope is renewed.  Venturing into the brush to reach the more succulent fruit, the persistent thorns tear at our clothing and skin. We are ill clad for this endeavor. Sweaters and fleece are prime targets, catching on the least of the prickers. Exposed skin below our shorts take the brunt of the sharp barbs, bearing scratches in all directions. But still we pursue those berries just beyond our reach.

Molly Betsy Bill w blackberriesIn the deep thickets, there is evidence of those who have preceded us. They leave behind large swaths of trampled vegetation in their efforts to reach the berries beyond reach from the trail. I call them elephant tracks. Making no effort to walk with care, these foragers leave destruction in their path. Unkindly, I am convinced the culprits are of the human variety. Berry pickers with no consideration for nature. I dismiss the possibility that it could be animals on the same hunt.

These blatant paths lead to more blackberries, I’m certain. And I make a mental note to pack my hiking pants and a windbreaker for my next trip to the cabin a week hence. Because I will be back. Hopefully my timing will coincide with the next round of ripening. And I will be fully equipped to reach the farthest berries. When I follow the elephant tracks.

Our sweet reward

Yellowhead Tour in Retrospect

We’ve seen in all before. It’s the same but different. With the ferry ride back from Haida Gwaii our Yellowhead Cycling Tour is officially complete. We have been reunited with our car and are retracing our route east toward home. As we unravel all the miles we just cycled, it inevitably conjures up reflections.

We actually began retracing our route while still on Haida Gwaii. At the top of the island stands a sign marking Mile 0 for the Yellowhead Highway. Completing the highway was a milestone but not the end. We doubled our pleasure on that stretch, returning to our starting point at the ferry landing.

Yellowhead Mile 0

This is the first time we have driven the exact same route that we cycled. It is an odd sensation, flying over the miles – one hour for each day we spent on our bikes. Our eyes are glued to the road, the sights, the eateries and the lodgings we knew so well at that slower pace. Memories flash by as rapidly as the miles.

In the car, we have far more options. We can chose any restaurant we like, even if it is not on our route. And yet, we find ourselves yearning to revisit our favorites. It is surprising to discover just how well we had chosen when limited to venues in close proximity.

Restaurant stop

As we move rapidly eastward, we are reminded of the day by day changes we witnessed in the topography and population density. Starting our cycling in Prince George, we endured the congestion, heavy trucks, well worn roads and crumbling shoulders that spill out of a good size city. It was a good two days before we shed that density of civilization. The further west across British Columbia we went, the fewer the people. The more dramatic the scenery. The more remote it became. The better the cycling. The Yellowhead transitioned from busy trans-Canada highway to a quiet link between small communities. It was all so very gradual on our bicycles.

Molly roadside
River and mountains

The more western section was clearly our favorite. It had all the top features we value on our cycling tours. Water – passing lakes, following rivers. Scenery – mountains and wilderness. Safety – little traffic, good shoulders and pavement. Our finale on Haida Gwaii elevated all that to greater heights. We loved it as much as everyone said we would. And despite the dire warnings of turbulent ferry crossings, we had calm waters in both directions – much to the relief of my sensitive system.

Morning ply and beach
Morning Loy on ferry

The most stark message that comes through is our extreme good fortune with the weather. In the 15 days of cycling, we had a total of 30 minutes with a rain shower. Each day we reveled in the sunshine and clear skies, knowing it was highly unusual and incredibly good weather luck. And that certainly was true. But it was only part of the story.

All the while we cycled, wildfires were blazing south of us in BC. Now, the smoke from those fires blankets the area. The blue sky and unlimited views that we enjoyed are no longer visible. The mountains are dim shadows in the distance, more an idea than a reality. Even the near hills are obscured as if in fog. The air is thick. The sky a uniform opaque white, despite the fact that it is still a “sunny” day.

Through a sheer happenstance in timing, we had idyllic conditions for the Yellowhead Tour. It could just as easily have gone the other way.

Before and after smoke
Mountains in smoke

In retrospect, we were blessed. We were able to see God’s creation in all it’s pure glory. The Yellowhead Tour is now history. Another one for the memory books.

Molly and Rich Yellowhead Tour

 

Haida Ravens and Eagles

Tall and symbolic. Colorful and artfully crafted. We found carved poles throughout Haida Gwaii, the most frequent reminder of the Haida culture. To visit the islands is to be steeped in the heritage of the Haida Nation. This is what sets it apart from any other group of beautiful islands.

Throughout their history, the Haida have been known for their art. Blessed with a temperate climate and bountiful resources, they had the benefit of time to invest in developing their crafts.

Today the Haida populations are concentrated in Skidegate in the south, and Masset to the north. In those commmunities we found visible artistic expression on display. Haida poles appeared just about anywhere in town – front yards, community buildings, signs, and cemeteries. Many were memorials. One was a Chieftanship pole. Another a medicine pole. These poles are commonly called totem poles, but are more accurately named crest poles as they feature crests – figures of animals, birds and mythic beings that identify the pole's owner and his moiety or social group, Raven or Eagle.

While eagles and ravens are easily identified in nature, carved on a pole they are sometimes harder to recognize. The Old Massett sign features one of each. An eagle on the left, with a sharply curved beak. On the right is a raven, with a straight beak.

This detail is from a pair at the end of a soccer field in Old Massett.

Outdoor Haida art is not confined to poles. Buildings too are adorned with painted or carved symbols. I found these on community structures, homes and galleries.

The best source of information and displays of Haida culture is the Haida Heritage Center. It is an ideal first stop after arriving on the ferry to get a good grounding in the Haida Nation. This recently built museum and resource center houses collections of Haida artifacts and detailed displays to preserve and share their history. Its buildings include a carving shed, where I was able to watch a craftsman carving a new totem pole. Seeing its design etched on the log and coming to three-dimensional life under his tools was the highlight of my visit to this center.

The ravens and eagles of Haida art were also in abundance live on the island. I've never seen so many bald eagles! It became commonplace to look up and see one flying overhead. Or many. On our first day Rich counted 29 eagles on the 2-mile stretch between the ferry dock and Skidegate. But on our return, it was even better.

I stopped on Front Street in Skidegate to inspect a pole. Opposite the houses, in a community grassy area on the water were numerous bald eagles noisily squawking and circling overhead. We soon noticed the nest in a tall dead tree, with eaglets eager to be fed. Rich was in his element. This was bird photography at its best, and he was anxious to capture it.

Eagles flew overhead with fish parts, while others approached with talons extended and poised to steal the tasty morsels. I watched as one eagle parent fought off his competition and successfully delivered his meal to the eaglets in the nest.

Eagle nest
Ultimately Rich noticed the source of this display and headed over to the action. One of the residents was feeding the birds – no wonder there was such a congregation. Apparently he does so “the same time every day. And the eagles know it.” The ravens joined in the fray as well. We thanked him for the show, and I have Rich to thank for these dramatic photos.
Eagles fight for food

It was quite a unique experience, and somehow seemed a fitting way to complete our stay on Haida Gwaii, with the ravens and eagles.

 

The Waters of Haida Gwaii

It didn't take long to get into the relaxed mode of life on Haida Gwaii. With four days and only 70 some miles of paved roads available, there was no reason to hurry. No need to push on to the next locale. Only time to savor the journey. The mood permeated our days. We stopped more and lingered longer. On the out-and-back trip we found different natural attractions in each direction. Not too surprisingly, water became the common theme.

For starters, we had miles of unbroken cycling along the eastern beaches. With the sun pouring down and the tidal pull of blue waters lapping the shore, it was all the scenery I needed. At first, we passed rough and rocky shoreline. Jaggedy dark rocks of medium size covered in calcified barnacles obliterated the sand. The shape of the beachfront changed constantly at the whim of the waves. It looked uninviting to my tender feet. But I admired it from a distance. Biding my time, the beach morphed once again. This time sandy shores beckoned and I called a time-out. The protected spot was quiet and calm. I shed my shoes and socks and the sun-warmed water lapped my feet as I wandered the beach.

Rich cycling Haida Gwaii
Rocky beach
Sandy beach
Molly walking beach

Near that same beach, the Crow's Nest in Tlell was an unexpected find. What showed up on the map was a Post Office. In reality, it had a bakery, light cafe, organic groceries and espresso drinks! Their still warm sausage rolls in flakey pastry hit the spot, especially as we had anticipated a long stretch before finding food. I lingered luxuriously while horses grazed contentedly in a pasture behind me.

Molly at Crows Nest

Coffee shops are a natural magnet when we are cycling. Not only do I get my latte, but frequently we strike up conversations with locals. It was while sipping my brew one day that I met a friendly couple who answered my question about the rocky and sandy beaches. “They are constantly changing,” they explained. The rocks were thrown up on shore by a large storm. Next week they could be swept away again. The swimming area they currently enjoy at high tide may be gone tomorrow.

Crossing the island, we reached the Masset Inlet, a long tidal opening reaching down from the northern coast. Overnighting in Port Clements on its shores, we had ample opportunity to meander its shores and dine overlooking its waters. One of the villagers explained to me how she came to be the third generation to relocate to Haida Gwaii. “Groceries are really expensive here because everything has to be brought in,” she admitted. “But there are no other demands on my pocketbook. There are no malls. I walk the beach for entertainment. And there is such strong community here.” She didn't mind being “cut off” from the rest of the world. Neither did we.

Rich at Yakoun River Pub
Masset Inlet
Port Clements boat

Reaching Masset on the north end, I was especially keen to get to the North Beach and camp there. I also had my heart set on hiking up Tow Hill for its amazing view. Both are iconic sights on Haida Gwaii. But it wasn't to be. The road out there turned to rough gravel for the final eight miles. It was not bicycle friendly for our touring bikes, so I had to let go of that vision. But I didn't give up entirely. Although most of the coast up to that point was privately owned, I stumbled on an opening. A tiny community park had a trail which I couldn't resist following.

Weaving through dark old growth forest, it emerged onto the dunes and beyond lay the beach! The scene before me was entirely different from the east coast. Here was a raging sea. The wind was fierce and waves crashed on a beach strewn with seaweed, shells, rocks and driftwood. I didn't linger long by the water, choosing to retreat to a sheltered spot on the dune where I could observe nature's fury. Although I had blue skies overhead, a low line of fog and clouds rested on the water. Looking to the far end of the beach, it disappeared into the same fog bank. Tow Hill was nowhere to be seen, cloaked in mist. Perhaps it wasn't the best day for camping after all. That salved my disappointment, slightly.

North Beach
Molly at North Beach

The most refreshing water I found was not salty at all. Pure Lake was just a short hike from the road and offered a small stunningly blue lake. My coffee shop friends had mentioned it was warm and good for swimming. Wading through its clear shallow waters was not enough. I just had to take the plunge!

Pure Lake
Molly wading Pure Lake
Molly swim Pure Lake
For our final aquatic encounter we sought out Balance Rock. Precariously perched on a logistically minute corner, it hovers over a flat rock bed that reminded me of Lake Superior's North Shore. The last glacial retreat is credited with leaving this van-sized boulder here.
Balance Rock

Haida Gwaii offers endless opportunities for outdoor pursuits. Fishing, hiking, kayaking, surfing, crabbing and back country camping attract enthusiasts of all kinds, although its remote location ensures that it is never crowded. Our four days and bicycle transport limited us from partaking in these other alluring activities, but I think we did justice to the waters of Haida Gwaii.

 

Intro to Haida Gwaii

“You're going to love Haida Gwaii.” We heard it over and over again as we cycled through British Columbia. Everyone sang its praises, heightening our anticipation for the finale stretch of our Yellowhead Cycling Tour.

Two months ago I'd never heard of the place. While studying our planned route on Google maps, I zoomed in on Prince Rupert and the ferry landing. I thought that was the end of the road for us. But oddly enough, the Yellowhead Highway continued into the water. Seriously? So I followed the dotted line. Out, out, out into the ocean it went, and ended on a group of Islands called Haida Gwaii. There the highway continued another 70 miles to its end. Or beginning. Kilometer zero is at the top of the northernmost island. One quick Google search was all it took to convince me. We had to go there.

Haida Gwaii is about 60 miles off the coast of mainland British Columbia and is made up of two large islands and over 400 additional islands. Graham Island to the north hosts six communities and the final stretch of the Yellowhead Highway. Moresby Island to its south has one community on its north edge. The remainder of the archipelago is wilderness. 4,500 people live on Haida Gwaii, and about half of those are native Haida people. Theirs is a long and difficult history during which their culture and language were nearly wiped out.

Fortunately they have succeeded in reclaiming their heritage which now thrives on these islands. Long known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, in an official Giving Back the Name Ceremony in 2010 the Haida Nation literally returned that name to the Crown to become Haida Gwaii. It means Islands of the People.

Logging, fishing and tourism are the primary means of earning a living. And there is a thriving arts community, creating and selling both traditional and modern art based on native designs.

This land of wilderness surrounded by water with a passionate native culture and community peaked my interest.

My first views of the island were from the ferry then cycling the few miles to the village of Queen Charlotte. It was a small quiet road that meandered along the calm inlet between the two large islands. The first words that came to mind were lush, green, peaceful and natural. I already sensed the slower pace of life. The focus on the outdoors. And the lack of commercialism. I couldn't wait to explore this intriguing land.

We settled into our lodgings which hid behind a veil of flowers. Dinner was on the deck of a small restaurant overlooking the harbor. Boats bobbed in the quiet waters as the sun dipped low. There were no gates to bar us from the docks, so we meandered among the motley collection of fishing and pleasure craft. Moresby beckoned across the water.

Queen Charlotte Harbor sunset 1
Queen Charlotte harbor sunset 2

Morning brought more calm views from our balcony. I should have lingered to soak it up, but I was too anxious to get on my bike to explore the island.

Queen Charlotte lodgings
Balcony view

Cycling on Haida Gwaii would take us from the southern end of Graham Island to the north and back again. We had four days of discovery ahead of us. I'd had enough of an introduction. I was ready to experience the real thing.

Molly cycling Haida Gwaii