Words by Kevin Ehman
Digital photography by Joel Hibbard
Film photography by Kevin Ehman
The idea for the trip started, as most of our projects have, on the drive to and from the beach. Our local breaks on south Vancouver Island are a good hour-plus drive each way, and provide plenty of time for tangents and hair-brained scheming. What started as discussion around touring Japan’s northern coast during Typhoon season morphed into proof-of-concept venture closer to home, but no less ambitious: a two week fatbike and trailer tour of Haida Gwaii. November offered a promising window for the northwest swells we’d be looking for, but also the likelihood that we’d get hit with some serious weather on the very exposed 100 km of beach that would be our world for the majority of the trip.
For those unfamiliar with the region, Haida Gwaii is an archipelago off the northwest coast of British Columbia, far removed from the population centers of the province mostly clustered tight to the 49th parallel. Haida Gwaii is a place of fast-moving maritime weather, unspoiled nature, and the deep history and rich culture of the Haida who have lived on the islands since time immemorial. It’s a place that will move you profoundly, full stop.
Both of us were bitten by the adventure bug in our formative years, and the awe-inspiring natural vistas of our Pacific Northwest home are where we find our peace. While Joel’s career as an adventure guide for his family’s rafting business in the Canadian Arctic affords him the opportunity to spend much of his work time outdoors, I am stuck on the opposite end of the spectrum; a short bicycle commute through rainy Victoria streets my daily escape from the office grind.
We both feel strongly about human-powered adventure, and Haida Gwaii is a place that generally takes a lot of fossil fuels to get to, whether you fly or drive and ferry. While we’re both proponents of adventure for adventure’s sake, this trip served an additional purpose- allowing us to recharge and bring our focus back to things that really matter. Taking a vehicle to such a pristine place seemed anathema. We wanted to experience the rugged and renewing nature of the Pacific Northwest unfiltered by the comforts of motorized transport. It seemed appropriate to let such a powerful natural landscape shape us, and conceited to consider leaving marks of our own. Far from the hustle and bustle of the city life we’d become too reliant on, we pitched ourselves against the elements, and lost ourselves in the adventure.
As one might expect, the broader the scope of the venture, the more equipment is required. With a large truck or van to rely on, packing would be comparatively easy. Packing two weeks’ worth of supplies and surf gear onto two bikes would require some serious planning. The age old saying ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’ is particularly appropriate here. The fall conditions on Haida Gwaii can swing from warm sunshine to bitingly cold rain and snow, so we had to be prepared for any combination. Once our friend Derek at Live To Play Sports in Vancouver linked us with loaner Norco Ithaquas and bikepacking kit from Topeak, we were most of the way there logistically. Endura MT500 jackets and pants are waterproof and breathable, and served as our primary outer layers for the trip. Two Burley trailers held the rest of our gear; two weeks’ worth of provisions, a 4-season tent, wetsuits (and the requisite gloves and booties) and camera gear. Oh, and three surf boards.
A cutting northern wind tore at the side of the ferry as we docked on Graham Island, home to the majority of Haida Gwaii’s 5’000 or so residents. Our abundance of outdoor experience did little to assuage apprehensions about the adventure ahead. Though each gust of wind reminded us of the safe, comfortable Toyota 4Runner we’d left in Port Hardy, we were resolved to experience this land under our own power.
We hadn’t had much time to field test the setups in advance of leaving. Both busy with work and life, we had only really dialed things in days previous, and our ideal for an overnight trial run ended up being a short spin along a local cycling trail. Confident in our packing skills, our apprehensions were moderated by the knowledge that there’d be real-time troubleshooting as we went.
Our plan was for a first-day push riding the 100 km paved two-lane highway from Skidegate to Masset on the northern coast of the island. To give us the widest surf window possible, we rushed to make it to North Beach and Naikoon Provincial Park where the surf begins. When hauling 40kg of gear over a hundred kilometers by Fatbike, any escape from the ‘pain cave’ is welcome. Haida Gwaii provided that distraction in the form of towering pines and wind-swept coastal vistas. Ever-watchful ravens saluted our efforts with guttural squawks as we chugged past far below, swathed in steam clouds of our own making. Eventually we resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to make the northern coast before sundown and ground out a final push to a lake 10km south of town where we set camp for the night.
Waking the next morning to a layer of hard frost and a lake illuminated pink and purple by the coming dawn, we set off for Masset. An indulgent lunch of cheeseburgers and cokes, likely the last opportunity for some comfort food for a while, fueled us for the ride east towards the beaches. Upon arriving at our first destination the sun was out and the waves were chest high, albeit a bit onshore. Despite the wonky surf we suited up and headed out, day two and already in the water! We had a good long session before the sun started to drop rapidly, and we ended up camping that night behind the dunes, enjoying the first of many spectacular sunsets and endless starscapes.
The following days took us further east into the park. This part of our trip was defined by a fiercely cold north wind, strong enough make our hard-fought fire next to useless. Chilly nights were followed by rushed mornings, and we packed with alacrity, seeking the warmth of the ride ahead. Our goal was close. Rose Spit, the northeast tip of the island, held the promise of respite from the grind, as we planned to camp for 3-4 days to surf and explore. Focus and determination paid off, and we managed to outrun the rising tide and make it to the Spit for another sunny afternoon surf session. Counting ourselves lucky with the weather on the trip so far we hoped that our fortune would hold for the multi-day camp ahead.
The next four days brought a taste of everything we had hoped for in this tour. Countless waves peeled with no one around for kilometres, save the few local trucks that drove out at low tide to collect crab traps brought to shore in a recent storm. We surfed until frozen hands and aching shoulders forced a retreat to camp to warm up and feed ourselves back to coherence. Trips out to Rose Point pass through the unique grassland ecosystem that emerges beyond the treeline at the Spit. Riding the bikes uninhibited by trailers and bags, we bombed the quad track out to the final stretch of beach to the Dixon Entrance. Here ocean waters enter the Hecate Strait on the east and the wide-open horizon runs clear to the Aleutian Islands and Russia to the west. Dall and Prince of Whales Islands in Alaska are visible to the north on a clear day, and there’s an abundance of marine life, from Stellar Sealions to Bald Eagles, Sooty Shearwaters and Harbour Seals. This expansive environment provides a fervent connection to nature, the energy and beauty near overwhelming. We moved slowly, trying to absorb every detail of this unique and acute place.
Once the winds shifted and blew out the waves we knew it was time to move on. We packed up and pointed south, beginning our push down East Beach towards the community of Tlell and the highway. This 70 km of beach riding was an unknown, with neither of us having traversed it during previous trips and not much information other than the ominous advice ’freshwater can be an issue…’. Thankfully the rain was reliably frequent and collection from the tarp made storing enough for food rehydration and drinking fairly straightforward. The prevailing wind on this stretch of coast is southeast, making for the strong likelihood of a headwind for most of the ride. Our attitude towards this dumb, self-imposed challenge was ‘send it and find out;’ it wasn’t like we had much of a choice anyway.
Perhaps the most beautiful campsite of the trip was near Cape Fife, nestled in the grassy dunes beside a river, where we enjoyed a temperate evening beside the fire. However that night the wind kicked up, likely somewhere in the range of 70 km/h. We lay in the shaking tent wondering how the tarp setup was faring, and worrying about the fate of the gear which we’d left set-up before bed. I awoke to Joel cursing a snapped center pole and hole in our shelter. Fearing our fortunes had turned at last, our spirits were buoyed by the reemergence of the sun to dry things out.
And on we went, careful to clock as many kilometres as possible on the low tides, as it was difficult to make sustained progress on the soft sand higher up on the beach, even with 4” tires. One sunset-lit evening at the end of a long day in the saddle, with a suitable site yet to show itself, an eagle flew overhead, circling us a few times before settling in tall spruce. We followed its path and it lead us to the first piece of level ground safely above the high tide line we’d seen all day. Quietly affected by this interaction with nature, we set camp and built a roaring fire with that innate contentment that comes with being on the edge of the world.
The Other Shoe:
Our luck with weather had been surprisingly good so far, but we knew it was only a matter of time before we experienced the squalls that Haida Gwaii is known for. Sure enough, we received word that a serious storm was coming, with sustained winds peaking over 100 km/h and a duration of over 24 hours. The beach camping that we’d enjoyed thus far was too exposed- we had to make it to a more protected site before the storm hit. We began an earnest effort to make it to Cape Ball knowing we’d be in for a tough ride. The section we had to clear had us again running parallel to cliff faces on a pushing tide, but we had no choice but to make it to the shelter afforded by the Cape’s sand dunes. As the sun began to dip below the horizon we finally caught sight of the river mouth. Having successfully completed a handful of river crossings with the rigs thus far we felt pretty good about charging across, and with the wind already blowing over 50km/h, our options dwindled swiftly. There was an unspoken urgency to set a tight camp and hunker down ASAP. Joel headed across the river first. It seemed to be going well until he approached the far bank where the deeper water and the stronger current got the best of him. Buoyed by the Rubbermaids, the trailer began to float before jackknifing. Forced off the bike and into a wrestling match in thigh-deep frigid water, Joel yelled back at me with one of the more memorable quotes of the trip:
“Don’t go! It’s too late in the day for a fuckup!”
Joel isn’t a small guy by any means, but it still took all of his strength to guide his rig to the other side. He then waded back across and we both pushed my rig through the river, quickly swelling with the rising tide. Soaking wet and cold, we changed and rushed to set heavy deadmen anchors for the tent. We stashed our gear in the lee of a large fallen tree and crawled into our bags, our minds heavy with trepidation for what the night might bring. The jet-engine roar of winds and rain rushing over the dunes kept us awake, but thankfully we were sheltered just enough to keep the tent upright until morning. Spilling out of the tent we laughed in relief: we’d just scraped through a night of maximum exposure unscathed, and knew how lucky we were for it.
We weren’t out of the proverbial woods yet. With a king tide dominating daylight hours we didn’t have much of a window to make any progress, and the reality of our timeline was ever-present. The winds were still sustained upwards of 60 km/h and the storm surge had whipped up a froth of seawater and sand far past the high tide line, a delightful combo sure to fast-track rust and grind on any moving parts on our bikes. We made it only a few kilometres down the beach before admitting defeat, seeking refuge in the tree line.
Though this adventure was proving a very engaging escape from our structured daily lives, we never could fully escape the vexations of a schedule. With only two days to get back to Queen Charlotte City – and our ferry home – we knew we had to push to the trailhead at the Tlell river and back onto the highway. Loading gear in the near dark we rode with urgency to find our exit from the beach with the tide already pushing higher. A hard morning’s ride brought us to the Pesuta shipwreck, a notable feature on East Beach just north of the Tlell. The 264 foot log barge came ashore in 1928 and makes for a striking sight, as much of the hull is still in recognizable form embedded in the sand. After a few photos we came to the river mouth and realized we had missed the possibility of a low-tide crossing. A properly deep and fast river, our only exit to the highway now came via a slog up the bank. The following two hours of wading through knee deep mud and downed trees from the storm were truly comical. Working as a team to haul the rigs through near-impassable sections, we paused only to catch our breath and laugh at this masochistic end to the off-road portion of the trip. We finally reached the parking lot soaked to the skin and filthy, but ready to find a second wind and ride out the final 46 km to Queen Charlotte City. Perhaps unconsciously seeking a reintroduction to civilization, we had planned on a motel night before beginning the ferry journey back to Vancouver Island the following evening. After hosing down the rigs, disassembling and sneaking everything into the room, we struggled to fall asleep, our bodies and minds at odds with being indoors.
Our last day consisted of eating everything we could lay hands on and repacking the rigs for the ride to the ferry and our long trip home. The melancholy of wrapping up a true wilderness adventure such as this had already begun to settle in. The satisfaction with the accomplishment offset by the knowledge of a return to the ‘real world,’ of inboxes and deadlines, the pace of modern life and the lack of a persistent, unfiltered connection to nature. While we were excited for the comforts of home and our partners, it was hard to leave. Haida Gwaii is a place that connects to the values and emotion deep at your core. It speaks to your unconscious mind, building a connection to a rare reality. With thoughts swirling we rode on to the ferry at dusk, happy with an experience that provided a bit of everything and more and knowing that it was not farewell, but rather a goodbye for now.
Live to Play Sports is proud to support adventurers like Kevin and Joel, and all who seek to inspire themselves and others by enjoying the majestic nature to which we all belong. If you feel the urge to escape on an adventure of your own, the building blocks of your adventure kit are available through your local Live to Play Sports dealer. Kevin and Joel outfitted themselves with Topeak’s Bikepacking bags, Norco Ithaqua Fatbikes, Endura Waterproof gear, IXS helmets, and Ergon grips.