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finding a friend in stewart

I’ve just fired up my computer when a cyclist with a touring load whizzes past – I hail him,“Ho, cycler!” He slows and enquires, “Are you Anna?” I am somewhat taken aback but I admit that I am as he comes to join me. He enlightens me. “I passed an old guy on the road, Danny, from Israel. He had a photo of you.”

We sit and exchange our basic information. Richard is from Montreal on a three-week trip. Having laid the out the essentials, we continue to talk and find sufficient meeting points to agree to have dinner together at 7 o’clock – I have heard that there is outfit in Hyder selling a seafood dinners out of an old school bus and I am keen to try it.

In the meantime, Richard goes to see the bears and I turn my attention to the Internet.

It is almost 7pm when I am reminded by a fellow internetter that I shouldn’t be late for my “dinner date” and I pack everything onto the bike and set out across the border for Hyder. The crowd around the bus suggests a good meal and I am pleased. People waiting for their fish dinners ply me with questions – mostly the standard ones but someone with greater imaginative faculties asks me, as I find a place to lean my bike, if I happen have a map which details all the best places to eat which led me here. I inform him that this is an innate ability.

The seafood bus - well worth a visit if you happen to be in Hyder.

The seafood bus - well worth a visit if you happen to be in Hyder.

An Australian motorcyclist, armed with sardonic wit and a world-weary air, launches without much preamble into challenging verbal contest. He is reasonably respectful of my miles pedalled but Richard is a little late and Grant teases me unmercifully when I say I am waiting for a dinner companion. When Richard arrives, Grant immediately mocks, referring to him loudly as my ‘hot date,’ however we sit together and feast on crab and prawns and the evening passes pleasantly enough.

Grant and Richard at the dinner table.

Grant and Richard at the dinner table.

The aftermath.

The aftermath.

The bus closes and, on my advice, we all make our way back to the Stewart Provincial Park, crossing the border yet again. I admit, at the border post, to having entered the States for the purpose of eating dinner and after a dicey moment the uniformed girl’s officious façade cracks for a second in a wry smile.  She recognises me from last night anyway and waves me through without thoroughly scrutinizing my passport again.

The camp has been invaded by a large group of boisterous campers with matching tents who are sitting together in the picnic shelter and threatening, collectively, to sing. We pitch our tents and then Richard sits by my tent in the dark to talk a while. We are soon joined by Grant, who dominates the conversation with his decided opinions on everything.

We retire. I sleep badly, the beer and wine I consumed with dinner making for a restless night.

The rowdy neighbouring group rise early, with much shouting and stomping, car alarms going off, oblivious to all but themselves. Richard is the first of our trio to rise and he peers into my tent. Outside the weather is dank and grey. Grant also materialises and we all pack and head for the King Edward Hotel, an architecturally undistinguished building on the main street of Stewart, attracted by the breakfast special prominently advertised throughout town.

Eggs, bacon and hash browns make a very welcome change to porridge as does sitting at a table watching the light drizzle and swirling mist from the other side of a sheet of glass. Again talk is dominated by the droll repartee favoured by Grant. His discourse is largely a mixture of boasts and insult, only slightly softened by wit. He is originally Australian, but has been living in Canada for years and is currently travelling the Americas by motorbike searching for, or fleeing from, himself – it is not entirely clear which. Sensitive and cruel in equal measure, he is engaging and funny but fends off connection and human warmth.

Richard and I decide, despite the weather, to ride to see the Salmon Glacier. We organise to leave our panniers at the King Edward and set off. It is still drizzling and the clouds are swirling around the visible mountain tops which doesn’t bode well for our mission as we will climb around 1000 metres to our destination. However, we stock up on snacks at the store and set off in high spirits. The border post marks the end of the tarmac and we soon hit the muddy gravel surface, cycling past the bear viewing platforms at Fish Creek.

I have already ascended this road with Debbie and Wendy so I have some idea of what to expect. The road winds along the bottom of the valley, flat initially, passing various abandoned mines. As we start to climb, we cross the international border again back into Canada – this imaginary line is etched into the landscape with a 3 metre wide cleared corridor running across the mountains. Every ten years this Sisyphysian labour is repeated in the interests of national integrity.

The US/Canada border etched into the mountain.

The US/Canada border etched into the mountain.

The road rises above the river valley steeply and as we climb we enter the cloud. Far below, the glacier shifts in and out of sight through the drifting tendrils of mist. I have seen the glacier with Debbie and Wendy but Richard is disappointed. A few other tourists pass us in an assortment of cars, RVs and motorcycles. They pause, on their return journey, to tell us that there is nothing to see at the summit, only rain and mist.

We are undeterred – if rain and mist is all that there is to see then we will see rain and mist.  We climb steadily – around 1000 metres over twenty kilometres on the muddy wet surface. Towards the summit, we pass a hand-written sign advising us that the bear man is on the glacier. Since the glacier is veiled, meeting the bear man becomes our alternative mission.

Richard surveying the Salmon Galcier. (Movie reference please?)

Richard surveying the Salmon Glacier. (Movie reference please?)

Finally, the silhouette of a pair of outhouses and a small orange tent come into view. We have reached the summit. It is raining quite heavily now and the bear man, the inhabitant of the orange tent, is sheltering in the back of his station wagon. A licence displayed on the window of this vehicle legitimises his business of selling DVDs, books and post cards, all featuring quite extraordinary images of bears going about their lives.

The bear man reclines in his car, a softly spoken man 74 years of age. His bicycle, which he rides down into town along the road we have just ridden, to restock on supplies, leans up against one of the outhouses. He has been coming to this place for decades, living on the summit from June until September, walking and photographing the wildlife.

He informs us that 15 kilometres further down the road on the other side of the mountain the weather is clear and another glacier is visible. Going down the mountain means coming back up again on the return trip and I am reluctant. I suggest trying to hitch a lift with the next car that arrives and then wander off into the fog towards the actual summit of this mountain we are standing on.

Drawn up onto the summit.

Drawn up onto the summit.

The mountain, off the road, is a mystical landscape, the gnarled forms of the stunted spruce in clumps on rocky outcrops, sit above clear pools of water connected by fast flowing streams. Everything is cushioned by rounded pillows of thick green moss. Flowers in all the colours of the spectrum lure me onwards and upwards, stumbling and slithering on the slippery mossy rocks. Banks of snow lie on the ground amidst the delicate flowers, yellow, orange, red, blue, purple, white – I am totally awestruck by this beauty.

Wildflowers on the mountain top. (What were all those people in cars thinking when they told me there was nothing to see at the summit.)

Wildflowers on the mountain top.

I was truly awestruck.

What were all those people in cars thinking when they told me there was nothing to see at the summit?

Beautiful.

Beautiful - I was truly awestruck.

I cannot imagine a more beautiful place.

I cannot imagine a more beautiful place.

Looking down I see the car park and our bikes far below. A car has arrived and Richard is disappearing into it – he has his lift to see the glacier on the other side of the mountain. I find my way back down chilled and wet.

The bear man invites me to sit down on the edge of his station wagon and offers me a slice of buttered raisin bread and then, noting how fast it disappeared, a second. I ask him about his family and his life as the bear man of the Salmon Glacier.

Suddenly, I realise how cold I am and go to change my wet fleece top for my down sweater which I had the foresight to pack in a couple of plastic bags. I can’t make my frozen hands function well enough to operate the zips and fastenings on my clothes and I’m still struggling with them when Richard reappears in a similar state. He changes and then helps me do up my buckles and zips and we jump on our bikes to descend. Warmth is now utmost on our minds.

The descent is faster and easier on our legs but hard on the bikes. They bounce and rattle over potholes, corrugation and stones and mud coats everything, grit grinding away brake pads. The King Edward boasts a laundromat and this is our destination.

On arriving in Stewart, we pause briefly at the general store to eat yoghurt and gummy bears. Grant is seated on the veranda holding forth, his audience a starry-eyed youngster with a jeep planning a pan-American tour and a sceptical Dutchman with a motorbike. They are swapping traveller’s tales.

Richard and I make for the warmth of the laundromat and I search my panniers for something to wear while I wash my essentials, which are all equally filthy. We unpack, sort and order, making ourselves totally at home to the evident dismay of the hotel staff and the discomfiture of fellow launderers.

Getting steamy in the laundromat.

Getting steamy in the laundromat.

With the washing finally rotating in the dryers, we move to the dining room to join Grant. Dinner, sadly, does not measure up to the standard set by breakfast but I am content, nonetheless, with my cod and chips. Eventually warm and fed we repack our bikes and venture out into the persistent drizzle. The noisy campers still preside over the campground; they spill out of a van, as we are setting up our tents, with loud exclamations and an astonishing array of uncontrolled bodily sounds. We hide in our tents, giggling in dismay.

Next morning as our little trio break camp there is an unspoken agreement that Richard and I will continue to ride together, at least for the day.  Grant moves off to the bakery, a brief pause outside the window reveals him leaning back in his chair declaiming from the central table, a wary audience in thrall.

We decide to repeat the breakfast extravaganza of the previous morning at the King Edward. I upgrade today to the “Hungry Miner” – a three-egg affair with not only bacon and hash browns but also sausages. Next stop the general store for a final top-up of the food pannier, some minor bike adjustments and then Kylie’s Carwash, a coin-operated pressure hose. Clean and lube completed, we finally hit the road.

The sun shines sporadically, the clouds lifting as we cycle the road back to Meziadin Junction. We take innumerable photos and pause at Bear Glacier for a while. We make good time and turn back on to Highway 37 in the afternoon sun. Cycling past a creek with a track running beside it we stop to make camp – cooking and housekeeping companionably, filtering water and taking turns to bathe in the river. Conversation without Grant’s input is less combative.

Passing by Bear Glacier on the return journey.

Passing by Bear Glacier on the return journey.

Bear Glacier.

Bear Glacier.

The morning brings clears skies and warm sunshine as we go about the laborious daily business of breaking camp. On the road we are just settling into cycling when a lake distracts us. The water is cool, much colder below the sun-warmed surface; I swim across the lake while Richard tries his luck at fishing. I float on my back awhile and then return to shore to sit in the sun, relaxed and easy. Richard fishes without success and I try my luck, after adjusting the rig, with a similar result. We set off again and too soon we reach the turn off to the Nass River Valley where our ways part. We say our goodbyes briefly and go our separate ways – mine a gravel road, narrow and rough, with little traffic and Richard’s continuing on the tarmac surface of Highway 37.

Fishing without result.

Fishing without result.

The afternoon sun is hot and in the valley is unrelieved by any breeze but I enjoy the tranquillity and isolation. The sun shines through fireweed stands. The plants are releasing their seed – pinpoint stars of light floating lazily in the warm air. A young black bear pads calmly down the road ahead of me and I slow down to watch him. He stops and glances at me and continues on his way, disappearing momentarily into the brush and then returning to the road and ambling on. A car approaches from the opposite direction and the bear disappears. The driver pulls up and we discuss the bear, bears in general, the road, potential campsites.

Fireweed has been my roadside companion just about all the way from Deadhorse. When the last flower drops summer is over.

Fireweed has been my roadside companion just about all the way from Deadhorse. When the last flower drops summer is over.

A bear going about his bear business.

A distant bear going about his bear business.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Babs Johnson | September 1, 2009 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Outstanding photos!!!

  2. margie thomas | September 3, 2009 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Hi Anna….I’ve been meaning to touch base but somehow I hop into bed at night and there goes another day! I am wondering how many miles you have pedalled so far. Are you keeping track ? …..and am amazed at the 2 wheel traffic you seem to meet up with. I loved your photos of the wild flowers. It is nearly wildflower time here in Central Vic. and Julie and I are off in a month or so to the Brisbane Ranges, not too far away where the wildflowers are spectacular. What I love about them is that don’t shout at you to say how beautiful they are, their beauty is understated, often insignificant and you need your eyes open to find them. You must have a good camera cos the photos are great. I’d reckon you’ll be fit as a trout by the time you complete this journey.
    Cheers for now
    Margie Thomas

  3. Brent Townsend | September 4, 2009 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Hello from Courtenay!!! Hey Anna – excellent site you have here. I’m the guy who was telling you about electron precipitation aka Sprite Lightning. We were in Zocalos enjoying our local joes. Then, I spotted you going the opposite and obviously on your way out of town. I was tempted to turn around and advise you of some close by tenting sites but decided if you got this far – you didn’t really need any help.

    Anyway, Revel in your time!

    PS – don’t forget me, and be sure and check out sprite lightning.

  4. Lucie Bartosova | September 4, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Hello Anna! You have to publish this one day! Your writing is outstanding, and brings so much joy reading it! I loved your characteristics of the two guys, esp. Grant (because you didn’t say that much about Richard;-). “Either he is searching for, or fleeing from himself” – what a genius description! These two things are so close one to another, and yet so far.

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