Day 36.2 (touring while in Whistler): 60.2 kilometres, 0:59 riding time
Day 37 of riding; 228 kilometres, 3:29 riding time.
Our stay in Whistler was intended to provide a buffer at the end of a long and hopefully eventful road trip. We used some of our points in our timeshare organization to book three nights in the heart of the ski village long before our tires started turning on this trip; we had tentative plans regarding where we wanted to go and when we would get there, but we knew that those plans were subject to significant change. Still, we did have an end date for our trip as we had to get back to work at some point, so we knew that we needed to be on the west coast sometime before that time. We would rest and recharge in Whistler, sleeping as much as we needed and partaking of the world-class dining and amenities. Sometime in our stay, we would decide whether to return home via the simplest and fastest route – Whistler to Horseshoe Bay, then a ferry to Nanaimo and a relatively quick hour-or-so ride to our home outside Victoria – or whether we wanted to extend our trip just a little by riding up the Sunshine Coast to Powell River and crossing over to Comox, then riding about three hours south to Victoria. We decided to ride the Sunshine Coast on our second night in Whistler, and to go back to see Nairn Falls the following day as well.
We had ridden past Nairn Falls on our ride from Quesnel to Whistler a few days earlier, but we were too tired to entertain the 1.5 kilometre hike to the falls. It was only 30 kilometres from our hotel to the falls though, so after breakfast on our second day in Whistler we got ready and headed east on 99 to see them. Donna enjoyed the ride much more than she had a few days earlier; being better rested and it not being the end of a long day of riding probably contributed to her enjoyment. The quality of the road and the sweeping, twisting turns seemed tailor-made for riding as Donna swung her bike left and right effortlessly. We kept close to the posted speed limit of 60 near Whistler, increasing when the signs changed to 90 outside the village area.
We scanned the landscape constantly as we rode. Huge glacier-tipped peaks abound here, as do turbulent streams and rivers that were currently running green with silt and melt water runoff from higher elevations. The forest was mostly evergreen, densely covering the steep hillsides far above the valley floor where we were riding. There were lots of other motorcyclists on the road; the predictable gaggle of Harleys and of course some sport bikes, but we also waved to a group of about eight ADV riders (adventure bikes, a sort of toughened upright riding style street bike that can also go off-road to varying degrees), loaded to the hilt with aluminum cases and camping gear and even a spare set of tires lashed to the back of each bike.
Bikes, like bikers, come in all forms; there is a sort of an immediate camaraderie between riders that compels most of us to wave at each other any time we meet, and it doesn’t seem to matter to most riders whether others make the same vehicle choices as we do, we are just happy they are out riding. There were times that we were waving at so many riders in a row that our left hands didn’t return to our handlebars for nearly a kilometre. That’s what it is like to ride in an area so loved by other riders.
We took off our riding jackets and stowed them in our now-empty side cases and swapped our riding boots for runners when we got to the falls so we were better able to manage the 1.5 kilometre hike over a relatively easy trail to see them…
If you are ever in the Whistler area and the weather is halfway decent, you owe it to yourself to see these falls for yourself. They are not as big or magnificent as some other waterfalls we have seen and the viewing area is a little rustic and occasionally difficult to walk on (the bare granite can be slippery, for example), but the views of these falls are so immediate and beautiful that it is worth it. We rode back to Whistler, happy that we had made the effort to see these waterfalls.
We awoke with very mixed emotions on our second-last day of our adventure. On the one hand, we were excited to get home and reconnect with our kids, to cuddle our dog, and to sleep in our own bed for the first time in ten weeks. On the other end of the spectrum, being able to count the number of days left on the trip on two fingers meant that we the adventure was pretty much over. Once we reached Vancouver Island, there were no roads we had not already traveled; the only new sites we were going to see would be seen by the time we went to sleep tonight. In between those extremes, we felt a growing ambivalence about eating in restaurants and sleeping in hotels. This sort of lifestyle may sound glamorous or appealing to some, but after two months the shine definitely comes off that particular treasure for us. The trip was going to end eventually – we knew that all along – but now it was an undeniable fact. We showered and dressed, packing our stuff on the bikes for the second-last time after we ate the last of the provisions we had bought for our condo in Whistler. We were on the road around 09:30h, heading west on highway 99 toward the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver.
Highway 99 is also called the Sea to Sky Highway in this corridor. It was the subject of significant improvements in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and now almost the entire stretch from Squamish to Whistler is a variable speed zone with a maximum posted speed limit of 100 km/h. I am not certain what the criteria are for reducing this speed limit – I would guess that traffic congestion or adverse weather would be among them – but as we rode under clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine the limit remained at 100 km/h at all of the lighted signs. We had no problem maintaining that speed, not even around any of the sweeping, gorgeous curves. The highway’s surface was smooth and unblemished and flowed by beneath us effortlessly as we gawked at the dense evergreen forests and the snow-capped peaks all around us. We passed one roadside turnout and I felt an instant pang of regret. I have a tendency to focus on the longer-term goal in most situations, overlooking the joy of the moment; I trusted that Donna would not be upset with me for bypassing the turnouts, but I also knew that I would regret passing up the opportunity to appreciate the wild, unbridled beauty all around us for at least a few minutes. I pulled into the Tantalus Lookout to take a few pictures…
“I know you said that the stretch of highway from Lillooet to Pemberton was the most heart-achingly beautiful landscape you have ever seen,but I disagree,” Donna told me as she surveyed the glaciers hanging on the mountain peaks above the misty, verdant valleys, “This is the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen.” As I looked at the raw beauty all around me, I couldn’t come up with a single reason to argue her very valid point.
We stopped for fuel in the rapidly growing recreation town of Squamish, then continued west (well, mostly south but the highway was labeled as west) on the Sea to Sky toward Horseshoe Bay. The geography is even more wild in the stretch southwest of Squamish; Howe Sound lies to one side of the road and the Coast Mountains seem to rise nearly vertically in most places affording virtually no space for the highway to be widened. There are still some passing lanes where these geographic challenges are not insurmountable, but there are also a couple of stretches where the road narrows noticeably. In one spot, there is an automated signal to indicate when there are bicycles on the road because there is literally no room to allow motor vehicles and bicycles to share the road. Even the railway is nestled so close to the roadway that I felt like we would be perilously close to any trains using the tracks. But at least the pavement was in excellent condition, free of cracks or potholes or any other imperfections that might distract us from the beauty of riding.
Actually navigating to Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal from Whistler is a bit of a challenge. The Sea to Sky Highway west (south) does not directly connect to the Trans Canada Highway (TCH) where the terminal is located. The overhead and roadside signs are quite clear though; you need to continue about 6 kilometres past the terminal and take a U-turn route, then rejoin 99 east (north) which shares the roadway with the TCH. Once at the ferry toll booth, we selected the Langdale Ferry lineup to head for Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast, then felt like we were navigating on twisted spaghetti as we went under the TCH and around a curve and then up a hill and around another curve. Donna was in the lead and she found our lane flawlessly; we parked in the motorcycle lane for about half an hour before the next sailing to Gibsons.
We have lived in Victoria for sixteen years and have explored most of Vancouver Island (every paved highway and secondary road, at least), but we had never been on the Sunshine Coast. People rave about its beauty and unspoiled natural splendour and loads of tourists travel here each year to hike and kayak and see the beautiful sights. As we rode through the quaint towns of Gibsons and Sechelt and along the tree-lined, softly twisting, rising and falling highway 101 in the countryside we could see why so many people fall in love with this area. To be honest though, it all felt very familiar, very similar to our beautiful island home. We were glad that we experienced it and we will definitely go back, but there are countless places on Vancouver Island that are every bit as beautiful and pristine.
Highway 101 is impeccable throughout this stretch of the Sunshine Coast – not a pothole, frost heave, nor any noticeable cracks in the smooth asphalt tarnished our ride. The posted speed limit (50 or 60 km/h in towns with occasional drops to 30 for playgrounds, generally 80 or 90 km/h in the country) were easily maintained and actually felt slow in many cases. To a rider, the sweeping turns and curves almost cry out to twist the throttle a bit, to lean the bike just a little harder, using up those chicken strips on the outsides of the tires in an intoxicating display of vectors and physics and exhilaration. Then again, not knowing what lay beyond our sight lines in the curves – including fallen trees, children, wildlife, and police traffic enforcement units – made it a little easier to keep our tiny hooligan streaks in check and keep close to the posted limit as the gorgeous landscape swept around us.
We reached the ferry terminal at Earls Cove, surprised to find that there was no toll booth. Apparently, if you pay for the ferry either FROM or TO Gibsons, the ferry between Earls Cove and Saltery Cove (near Powell River) is free.
Two other riders showed up, parking far from the brightly-painted MOTORCYCLES sign where we were parked, choosing to park their bikes in the shade of some tall Douglas Fir trees instead. We realized that we didn’t have to stand in the sweltering sunshine so we walked over to chat with them to strike up a conversation.
We started out with the usual questions – “what are you riding?”, “where have you been?” – and shared a few stories of other rides we have done and places we have seen. At one point the fellow I was chatting with – a retired high school teacher – asked me if we were going to continue on 101 all the way up to Lund.
“We hadn’t planned on it,” I said to him. “Is there a reason we should?”
Always ask this question.
“There’s a bakery there,” he said, his eyes looking off happily into the distance. “They make the world’s best cinnamon buns. It’s only about 20K from Powell River and it’s a beautiful ride.”
I thanked him for the advice and told him – truthfully – that I had never met a cinnamon bun I didn’t like so we would check out the bakery. We saw the approaching ferry so said our goodbyes; our new and unnamed friends rode back to their accommodations in Sechelt and we headed to our bikes to board the ferry.
The relatively short 50 minute ferry ride from Earls Cove to Saltery Cove crosses Jervis Inlet, one of the many fjords on the rugged BC coastline. The water was crystal blue in this fjord, not green with glacial runoff and accumulated silt like Howe Sound seemed to be. There were lots of cute little islands and loads of huge mountains rising straight up out of the water. The deep fjords and steep mountains next to them make building roads in this area a fiscal nightmare even if the engineering allowed for them, hence BC Ferries‘ fleet of various-sized vessels fills in the gap as part of our highway system.
BC residents – us included – who live on any of our many islands or along the Sunshine Coast have a sort of love/hate relationship with our ferry system. On the one hand, the ferries are our only means of getting from our homes to the mainland without boarding an airplane. They also provide good service aboard generally clean and well-maintained vessels. They also make it just a little harder for tourists and non-residents to reach our island or coastal paradises. Those are all good things. On the other hand, the ferries are our only means of reaching the mainland (I know I already said that as a positive, but it’s kind of a double-edged sword) so we are restricted to their sometimes limited schedules and forced to pay the ever-increasing fares that the corporation decides to set. This was part of our journey – our grand adventure – so any of the negatives were washed away with the refreshing sea breeze as we crossed Jervis Inlet and docked at Saltery Cove.
One good thing about BC Ferries when you are on a motorcycle – motorcycles are loaded and unloaded first and always get on the ferry. I’ve had times where I arrived at the terminal five minutes before sailing only to be rushed past throngs of cars that knew they were looking at a two-sailing wait to be boarded ahead of cars that had been waiting there for a few hours. So that’s good – if you’re a rider, of course.
Saltery Cove is a relatively short 31 kilometre ride to Powell River through very similar terrain that we had been travelling through since we left Horseshoe Bay. We found our motel – eventually – and struggled a bit with finding a parking spot on the approximately 25% grade that the complex was built on. Once we were checked in to our oceanview unit we had an opportunity to explore the town…
We opened the windows in the front and back of our unit as the sun set, allowing the cool ocean breeze to cool off our unit (the motel had no air conditioning). We followed our usual day-end routine (playing games on our tablets, watching a show on Netflix, me writing on our blog) for the last time.
Tomorrow we take the final leg of our journey. Tomorrow we will sleep in our own bed.