Two Canadian scuba divers saw me packing up Dark Roast, my touring bike, and asked where I had come from. “Virginia,” I remarked still shoving clothes into the rear panniers. We bonded over a sense of adventure in this world and they pointed me off to explore Skookumchuck Narrows.
They explained why this spot attracts kayakers from all corners of the globe. My intrigue to see it firsthand is how the Sunshine Coast Trail became the beginning of the Pacific Coast Route.
Skookumchuck Narrows is a natural phenomenon at the choke point of an inlet.
Tidal waters fill the bays throughout the day. Since the watershed is landlocked, at the turn of the tides billions, not millions, of gallons of water rush through one point to form a standing wave that can be up to 18 feet (6km) tall.
You are getting spoiled at this point. A lot happened before this moment so let’s rewind a bit.
Day 102: September 03, 2017 - Am I on the Sunshine Coast Trail?
The closest ferry terminal to Porteau Cove Campground is Horseshoe Bay, north of Vancouver. I ended up at this campground after hiking to the ice caves at Wedgemount Lake and heading south (watch the video here).
Cars and vans crammed the highways into a dead halt for the temptation of a relaxing Labor Day weekend. People sweltered in the heat without a breeze, while I cruised along in the shoulder.
Bicycles never get stuck in traffic jams. Perk.
I made it to the ferry terminal to ask the doomed question, “When is the next ferry?” Port staff must get the same question hundreds of times a day.
Why wait? I purchase the ticket and board the ferry to Gibson.
Without time to plan in town, the ferry ride is the perfect place to spread out maps, grab some coffee, maybe a snack, and figure out the Sunshine Coast Trail.
By the time the Nikon battery is in the wall, laptop set up with charger, external battery plugged in, lights charging from USB ports, and a mug of hot coffee at the table, an announcement comes over the loud speaker saying prepare for departure.
A thirty-minute ride goes fast. My coffee is too hot to finish and must be dumped in the bathroom.
How to Plan Your Last-Minute Trip
Many people ask how you plan a bike trip. Planning a bike trip is like forecasting the weather; today’s forecast is available hour-by-hour and each day after is subject to change.
The focus for this hour is figuring out what is the Sunshine Coast Trail and where am I sleeping.
Strategy for planning last minute:
- Ask a biker. This can be a cyclist or motorcyclist. A cyclist may have done the trail. Regarding the latter, I learned that the long haired intimidating riders on Harleys are a bunch of hippies who love to explore and have fantastic sense of direction. The panic to disembark the ferry leaves no opportunity to strike up conversation.
- Find a map. This tip is going to blend into the following one. Look around the ferry, hotel, or wherever you may be for a local map. Believe it or not, maps help.
- Visit the Visitors Center. If you happen to be traveling before 2pm on a weekday (small dig at Visitor Centers terrible hours), then this place is a wealth of information. Sort past the brochures for the dinosaur parks and find a local map. The host will find you interesting because your trip requires some logistics.
There are two things I learn by stopping by the Visitor Center in Gibsons. First, the Sunshine Coast is a popular hut-to-hut hiking network on the island. I have added this to my bucket list. I’ll tour the island by bike but miss the main attraction.
The second piece of information is a hostel called Up The Creek Backpackers run by a bike tourer who went around the world for five years. As an added perk, the cost for a night is basically the same as Roberts Creek Provincial Park.
A hill that reminds me of Missouri
Dear fellow bike tourers,
Be warned that the bike path out of Gibsons is designed by Lance Armstrong or someone who does not bike. This is the first hill since Missouri where I had to get off my bike to catch my breath…TWICE.
I learned later you should loop out of town a bit to avoid this gigantic cliff. Bikers are advocating to get this lane changed.
The day ends up being longer than I expected and I arrive to Up the Creek Backpackers in Roberts Creek ready to pass out. The entrance has hikers reading on hammocks slung out on the porch, people are making dinner in the kitchen, there are warm showers, and wifi. Paradise. A full review will come under tomorrow’s post.
Goodnight world. Still have some planning to do tomorrow.
Day 103: September 4th - Rest Day at Up the Creek Hostel in Roberts Creek
Martin, the owner of the hostel, is excited to have another true bike tourist. I’m humble he considered me amongst the ranks of someone who has been around the world.
We share coffee in the morning at the communal living room table and that is when the decision is made - I am taking a rest day.
Jenn and Allen, the two scuba divers who sent me off to visit Skookumchuk narrows, did not have time to discuss the details of getting there. Luckily, there is Martin.
He, of course, has some giant maps of the area along the walls near the bathrooms. Bikers love maps. He lays out some options and highlights potential stealth camping areas.
At this moment, the itinerary is a 3-day journey until reaching Vancouver Island:
- Today (Day 2 – took yesterday to arrive): rest day at Up the Creek Hostel
- Next day (Day 3): lunch at Smuggle cove, arrive at Skookumchuk by hightide (5:30 p.m.), potential stealth camp on Ruby Lake (this changes -> Camp at Klein Lake)
- Day 4: Ferry from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay and camp at the city park in Powell River
- Day 5: If time allows, bike to the end of the highway in Lund and come back to Powell River OR catch early morning ferry from Powell River to Courtenay / Comox
"The Sunshine Coast – bike touring edition" has easy directions of following the Sunshine Coast Highway with side detours and two ferry crossings. No particularly long days, average around sixty miles.
Other small quaint towns are scattered along the coast making it easy to divide up this route in any desirable way. The coast reminds me of New England because of the inlets filled with boats and small little shops with ice cream stores made with 100% whole milk. The good stuff.
As a rest day, not much happened to report.
Below is a gallery of Up the Creek Hostel and I highly recommend any bike tourist to spend the night either pitching tent, staying in one of the shared rooms, or renting a private yurt (review on TripAdvisor).
Day 104: September 5th - Counting the Hours until High Tide
Today is the main event.
One of the other guests pulls down a tidal chart and scans with their finger to find Skookumchuck narrows – 5:50 p.m. is the target time.
The ride is 44 miles (71km) giving me the deceptive mentality that it is a leisurely day. That means having coffee, a nice breakfast, and rolling out around 11 a.m.
Martin tells me that Smugler Cove offers the entire beauty of British Columbia in one spot. The dilemma when I arrive at the turnoff is that the road is all downhill. I commit. The next issue is that the hike to the cove is about 3 miles (5km) round trip and lunch must happen.
The goal is to be in and out of Smugler Cove by 2 p.m. so there is three hours to bike about twenty miles to Skookumchuck narrows.
A hazy sky continues as smoke blows in from British Columbia, Washington, or Oregon. My aunt in Eugene, Oregon has said the wildfires are terrible and warns me about heading south.
Arriving perfectly on time to see the kayakers
Access to the narrows is on private lands with a mile or so hike to reach the viewing area. Multiple signs warn not to drive a car or truck down the path toward the trailhead. What about bikes?
I decide to bike on the dirt path to shorten the trip by about half a mile.
More warning signs at the trailhead said no motorcycles. Dark Roast gets locked to a sign post and there is no time to debate the decision. The current time is a little past 5:00 leaving fifty minutes for this hour hike.
Signs about whirlpools and lakes distract me. I’ll come back after seeing the kayakers.
Stay right at every fork in the trail to reach the Roland Point Viewing Area. Turning the corner, a group of kayakers in their blue helmets and bright colored gear are sitting next to turbulent water.
“A few hours ago, this water was perfectly flat,” one of the women kayakers shares with me. She moved from Ontario to British Columbia to be closer to the water.
Kayakers come to this spot because the inlet forms a standing wave. A continually breaking wave is special because kayakers can “surf” as long as they wish. You see beginners learning to practice control and basic movements, while experts use the spot to practice tricks.
Another kayaker shares with his British accent that he came from the United Kingdom solely for this experience.
The hazy sky begins to darken as the hour comes close to 7:00 p.m.
Martin’s stealth camping spot on Ruby Lake seems difficult to reach because it requires fording a small gap to an island. Locals tell me about the county campsite at Klein Lake and this seems like a good option. It is only a few lakes over and must be easy to reach…
No Easy Way In to Klein Lake Campground
North Lake Road is a big hill. Learning this at dusk with the front light is not ideal.
Halfway up is a smaller lake that is not Klein Lake. Learning this with the sun completely down is not ideal.
North Lake Road turns into a steeper hill with a loose chalky gravel surface. Walking Dark Roast in the dark is a bit worrying.
The thought of a campsite along the water is keeping me motivated. I take off the front light from Dark Roast and read the welcome sign with a map labeling each campsite. Biking around the bumpy road and seeing site after site taken by a cozy RV or Jeep is a bit depressing. Are cyclists allowed to kick off others who did not ride up that giant hill?
My spot for the night is in the forest without a bear box to protect the yummy high-calorie snacks.
Biker tip: put your pannier with food in the bathroom if there is no bear box at the campsite
I go to bed sweaty and covered in dirt. Worth it.
Canadian scuba divers know how to find a good adventure.
Day 105: September 6th - Downhill Bike Touring
“There is a shortcut” should be a warning sign to head the opposite way.
That opposite way is the giant dirt road that would be a nightmare to go down. The shortcut expands this journey to now include downhill bike touring. Let me explain.
The morning begins with a swim in the lake that has been on my mind since last night. You can count on me jumping into any water source if it is nearby. My mentality is that it is a blessing to be in place where you can swim.
A woman slips past me on the dock and begins her morning swim across the lake. She reminds me of the ambitious plan to train for a triathlon while bike touring. A pair of goggles still sits in Dark Roast’s front right pannier.
The Suncoast Trail, as a later learn the name, is the shortcut option out of Klein Lake. You should prepare for some Type 2 fun: miserable while it happens but fun when you look back at it.
The trail starts out as a hard-packed hiking or ATV trail. Nothing too strenuous and hooks you far enough in to commit. A fork in the road about a mile or so down has two options.
To the left is a steep hill with loose gravel for ATVs.
To the right is a mountain biking trail and has some fallen trees.
I begin to the right. After picking up all 83 pounds of Dark Roast over a view trees, I decide maybe the left looks better. Pushing all 83 pounds of Dark Roast up a hill is not much easier.
Over the hill is when the switch backs begin.
The switchbacks are all loose gravel with some stunning masonry in the ground to help around the corners. Stone columns jut up every once and awhile taking your mind to some foreign land with ancient ruins.
I fall off Dark Roast. 220 pounds of weight on narrow tires on loose gravel makes taking turns quite difficult. I walk it off with a mix of adrenaline and fear.
Every time I get too frustrated to continue I pull over to the blackberry bushes and eat a handful. You can easily pick a hundred dollars worth of blackberries in five minutes. Eating them all takes even less time.
Reaching the end of the Suncoast Trail is one of my prouder accomplishments. Downhill bike touring may become the newest fad in the biking world. Maybe some fatter tires, but that takes away some of the fun?
The next ferry is from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay. A quick thirty-minute ride.
On the boat, I meet the Three Musketeers, or the Three Wisemen, or the Three…being in a group of three always leads to some sort of nickname.
Hugh, Detleft, and Bill get together once a year for a long weekend and go on a tour. I end up riding with them in the afternoon as we ride towards Powell River.
Another rider I meet that day is on her third day touring. She is still training her biker legs, which takes about three weeks from my experience.
I go slow and talk to her and she continues to crank up the hills. I never know if it is annoying or helpful to share stories while the other person simply listens focusing on one pedal after the next. There is no shortage of time alone so I lean towards helpful, but I’m a bit bias.
Meeting Mayor David Formosa of Powell River
One of my new favorite passions is stopping in visitor centers to collect pins to put on a handlebar bag. The visitor center in Powell River says the pins for the town are located at City Hall, about a mile away.
Does your town have their own pin?
Marching into City Hall with a helmet on and full cycling gear strikes up the natural conversations that always come up. I rattle off the answers about bike touring and cut to the chase: “I’m on a hunt for the Powell River pin.”
A secretary asks how many pins I would like. "Only one," as she hands me three. There are about four women behind the desks all delighted by the opportunity to take a break from their screen, who can blame them?
She waves down the mayor, David Formosa, as he walks by on his way upstairs. We have a back and forth and as he is about to leave I am reminded, “HEY! You need to work on the bike lanes in this town. You have a camp site in town and bicyclists are a great way to bring in extra traffic to restaurants…”
He gives a bit of a nod and heads upstairs.
The women chuckle knowing at some point I would bring up bike lanes. Powell River has done a biking sin where they put up “Bike Lane” signs without offering any sort of shoulder or specially designed lane.
Take Actions Now to Tell Powell River to Increase Bike Lanes
David Formosa is the Mayor of Powell River and he can hear our message that bike tourists come through their town.
Why small towns should increase bike lanes:
- Parking is always an issue. Alternative transportation reduces traffic congestion
- Cyclists are more likely to stop in restaurants and cafes, increasing foot traffic and revenue
- Bikers are more likely to stop at sales and cultural events. For instance, I went to City Hall and the Visitor Center!
- The average bike tourer is a retiree and they often sleep in bed and breakfasts, hotels, or AirBnBs.
- We eat a lot: grocery store, fruit stand, diner
- Free marketing opportunity to an international audience to increase tourism
You can watch me be passionate about this when coming out of City Hall:
How to Take Action Right now to Increase Bike Lanes in Powell River
- Send an email to the mayor David Formosa (firstname.lastname@example.org) that states your name, where you are from, and that Powell River does attract bike tourist
- Leave a message on the City of Powell River’s Facebook saying you are a bike tourer that passed through town and would like to see safer lanes
- Show up to a Committee of the Whole Meetings for Powell River. They are held at 3:30 pm each Tuesday in Council Chambers at City Hall. The address: City Hall / 6910 Duncan Street / Powell River BC V8A 1V4
- Write a letter to the council. It is a small town, they will read it. Address is here again (City Hall / 6910 Duncan Street / Powell River BC V8A 1V4)
Powell River has already invested in expensive electric vehicle chargers. This is a sign that the political climate would support more alternative transportation like bike lanes.
This is the end of my bike advocacy plea. If you have a pledge or anything I can bring around to all these towns then send it through the contact page.
The city campground is conveniently located next to the ferry but is semi-expensive for bike touring (20 CAN). Camping in British Columbia has been one of the most expensive places with the average cost being 20 CAN. I would suggest searching for a Warmshowers.org host and spend this money on some food.
Taking the Last Ferry to end the Sunshine Coast Trail
A bit of dew gathers on the tent in the morning. I brush this off.
Town is quiet. School has begun a few days ago. Students still have a slight spring in their step. I ask for directions to the ferry. A woman with a charming accent points me to the ticket booth where I get a ticket, not paying congestion tax (another cycling perk).
The lady who starting touring a few days ago is also in the queue. We chat behind the fence and reflect upon the Sunshine Coast: "I would like to come back to do the hike." "Me too..."
Adventure Cycling Association mistakenly points cyclists south to begin the Pacific Coast Trail. Why start in British Columbia to only flee quickly over the border? You can follow this adventure over to Vancouver Island, which offers beautiful bike touring and many more ferry rides.
Dedicated to Jenn and Allan who sent me on this journey. Thank you for your support.