BACK ROADS of B.C.
(Originally published in Cycle Canada, 1983. Author: Grant Johnson)
Leave behind the crowded highways and explore the mountains and valleys on the rarely traveled back roads.
Why go dirt riding on a street bike? Remember that beautiful summer day when you were stuck behind a long line of motor homes and campers on a particularly beautiful bit of road? Wish you had been somewhere else? Of course, all the highways were plugged like that, so it wouldn't have done you much good. But did you happen to notice that little dirt road leading off to... somewhere?
Or perhaps you've already traveled every paved road within 500 km of home at least a hundred times, and you're just plain bored.
Somebody once told me that at least 60 per cent of Canadian roads are unpaved. I don't believe him. It must be at least 80 per cent. With that kind of variety available to any street bike short of a full-dress Harley or Gold Wing, why not have a look?
I've done a lot of looking in the 18 years I've been riding, and have found thousands of kilometers of almost deserted, spectacularly beautiful back roads. Many are on provincial maps, while others don't appear on any map at all, but they have a few things in common: little traffic (the few people you do see wave) and wilderness scenery. These back roads lead you into snow-covered mountain ranges shadowing dark green valleys and quiet meadows where you can explore deserted cabins, fish clear streams, and watch the deer and mountain goats in silence broken occasionally by a jay's raucous cry.
And of course, there's always the road itself: winding, twisting and doubling back, rising rapidly to a breathtaking view at a mountain pass, then plunging into a cool valley, always leading on to new discoveries, new destinations.
A road I had heard about but never quite made it to follows the west side of Lake Harrison, 90 km north of Vancouver, and ends in Lillooet, 270 km farther north. Parts of it were built during the gold rush, and judging from the descriptions I had read, it was a road I decided I must travel.
The right weekend, perfect weather and the inspiration finally combined and I started throwing my gear together for the trip.
I picked up the appropriate maps from the Geological Survey in Canada, and made a quick call to the B.C. Forest Service to check on the fire hazard and road closures in the area. I was lucky I hadn't decided to go the week before, as the whole area had been closed for army maneuvers.
The road starts at the Sasquatch Inn on Highway 7 at Harrison Mills. A few kilometers of pavement at the beginning soon gave way to a short patch of thick, gooey mud at the Weaver Creek Spawning Channel.
Riding in mud with a loaded street bike is always an interesting experience, albeit one that I try to forgo whenever possible. I first checked out the edges of the road where the cars don't usually get to, as there is frequently an easily ridden strip at the side, but not this time. I ended up riding on the hump between the wheel ruts, having first looked to make sure that my chosen hump didn't end in a mud hole. Sitting back a couple of inches to keep the front end as light as possible, I slowly eased my way through, ready to accelerate and paddle with my feet if it looked as if I might get stuck.
After the muddy section, the road was well maintained, packed gravel, a bit rutted in places but not bad. Cruising at 50 to 80 kph was easy, and the road soon rose out of the thick evergreen forest to follow parallel to the mountainside overlooking Lake Harrison.
I stopped for a few pictures and a drink of water, and sat for a while to savour the view. I could see the road winding off into the distance through the mountain pass ahead, and looking to the east over the lake, jumbled heaps of snowy mountains faded into the haze a hundred or more kilometers away.
A short distance later, I came to the top of a steep hill with a few sharp turns visible before it dropped out of sight. There was plenty of loose gravel, but the wheel tracks were fairly clean, so I just eased down, both brakes on lightly. Halfway down, the rut I had chosen was partly washed out by a small creek. I stood on the pegs, released the brakes and turned sharply into the soft gravel in the middle of the road to switch ruts. The front wheel twisted momentarily as I went through, but straightened out again, and I quickly got back on the brakes.
On level ground, I normally go fairly fast sitting down through deep gravel, as the bike will track amazingly well at speed, but becomes an absolute pig at low speeds. One of the hardest things to get used to when riding soft gravel roads is the way the bike moves around beneath you, feeling as if it's completely out of control. Relaxing and letting the bike move a bit, just guiding it lightly in the general direction you want to go, works the best. Also, a little more speed, not less, helps stabilize the bike and makes it easier to ride. On a steep downhill stretch, however, any speed built up would be impossible to scrub off. The main worry most people have about touring gravel roads for the first time is falling down and destroying the bike and, incidentally, themselves. What they don't realize is that you rarely go very fast. Most of the riding is at speeds of only 30 to 80 kph, and when the going is difficult and the risk of falling is higher, you will probably only be crawling along. At these speeds, damage from a fall is usually limited to a few scratches and minor dings on the pipes and maybe a broken mirror at the worst. I have yet to cause any significant damage to a street bike on a gravel road, and have completed many trips without a fall.
Farther on down the road, I stopped at Doctor's Point, the site of the only known petroglyphs in the Fraser Valley, and the first ones I had seen. I spent quite a bit of time there, trying to picture the ancient Indian artist patiently carving out the image, called "Kaiyama'` or "little doctor."
I talked to some people at Doctor's Point about the hot springs ahead. Apparently there were several, but the best one required what was described as "mountain climbing" down a steep trail. The others were not as good; one of them was just a tub in a wood shed, and another was described as only lukewarm.
A hundred kilometers from the Sasquatch Inn, I came to the junction leading to Port Douglas at the head of Lake Harrison. Port Douglas was an important gold rush town built in the 1850s, and now is an Indian reserve.
I camped at St. Agnes Well, where there is a B.C. Forest Service recreation site and a hotspring near the Lillooet River. A good soak in the tub there is wonderful medicine for any aches and pains, although the sulphuretted hydrogen smell could stand to be improved. This campsite is one of many along the road. The B.C. Forest Service has built a number of primitive sites and there are a great many spots where you can easily make your own campsite. I saw one on the shore of Lake Harrison that I'm not going to tell anybody how to find. I'm keeping it for myself.
After a leisurely breakfast next morning, I finally arrived at the Duffy Lake road junction at noon. Turning left, the road led to Pemberton, 17 km. away, and then 160 km of spectacular paved mountain road past Whistler Mountain to Vancouver. To the right was another 83 km of gravel road to Lillooet, and then the Trans-Canada Highway through the Fraser Canyon to Vancouver. I turned right, as I wanted to see the pictographs at the east end of Seton Lake, and anyway, I wasn't in a hurry to leave the mountains.
A herd of mountain goats grazing at the side of the road, completely ignoring me as I rode slowly by, was one of the best parts of this stretch of road.
Arriving in Lillooet was like an assault on the senses, for even though it was a small town, it was full of people, neon lights, speed limits and stop signs. I felt like returning the way I had come in order to put civilization off for as long as possible, but time finally dictated a quick run down the canyon to home.
Pack for back roads.
What to take on your back road biking explorations:
Setting up your bike for touring back roads can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. You don't really have to do anything at all if your bike is in condition and you're not going into a very remote area. It is wise, however, to carry in addition to the standard tool-kit, a tire-pump, tire irons and a patching kit as well as a first-aid kit, map and compass.
To be well-prepared, you should also carry spare throttle and clutch cables, fuses, spark plugs, points, condenser, bailing-wire (lots), duct tape, five feet of gas line for siphoning, and several spare bungee cords.
If your tires are in good shape you probably won't have any tire problems, but carry a spare rear inner tube anyway, even if you have tubeless tires. Inflating a tubeless tire in the bush with a hand pump is next to impossible. Most flats are in the rear, and a rear tube can be more easily forced to fit the front than the other way round. When buying tires, avoid ribbed fronts. A patterned tire works much better in the gravel, and as well or better on the street. You should also install fuel filters, a washable type air filter and safety wire the drain plugs. Do a thorough nuts and bolts check, and inspect wire wheel spokes regularly.
The best handlebars are the standard model bars, not the chopper or sport handlebars, as both extremes can quickly become tiring.
Good saddlebags and a tank bag should hold enough gear for a week-end of camping for two. A tank bag that you can convert to a back pack, such as the SkookumPak, comes in handy for the occasional hike down unridable trails. Take note that some removable saddlebags, notably Krauser, have an inadequate attachment system. They come unscrewed or break. Put a good heavy strap around the bag and mounting bracket to take the strain off the attachment system if there is any doubt about its strength. Sleeping bags, tent poles and Ensolite pads that won't go inside your luggage should be securely attached. At least three bungee cords per item is a must, or you'll lose something for sure. Good heavy boots are essential, and leathers are great if it's not too hot, but they quickly give way to jeans when the temperature starts rising. An open-face helmet is nice and cool, but too dusty if there is any traffic. The BMW helmet is perfect for back-roading, as you have both open and full face helmets in one. Never ride without gloves.
If you aren't too sure about all this gravel road nonsense, try the shorter one day runs first, remembering that you won't put on nearly the same mileage as you would on pavement, and that if the cars can do it, so can you.
Also without camping gear weighing you down, you'll find it a lot easier to learn to ride on gravel comfortably. It's not really hard, you just have to get out there and do it.
Tent-free standing preferred, with ground sheet
Ensolite pad and Air Lift mattress (I like my comfort)
French candle lantern
Stove-white gas, matches
Cook kit, Poly bottles and squeeze tubes for liquids
Poncho-use as sun shade or umbrella
Swiss army knife
Sun screen and mosquito repellent
And don't forget the toilet paper!
If you don't have all the camping gear you need, you will find that you can usually rent what you need for a quite reasonable fee at some camping stores.
(Captions for photos) (to come)
Your luggage needs to be securely attached to handle the stresses of back road touring.
Any bike short of a full-dresser can handle tours on gravel roads. The rewards are great.
You need to be well equipped when you leave the main roads.