Claire, the invisible bear and a kazoo

It was the worst possible sentence to hear since I was dog tired, horizontal inside my tent and intent on a restful night’s sleep. 

“But I love you Amy….You Bitch.”

Having heard that series of words, slurred and probably uttered in the aftermath of necking something brutally alcoholic, and after ruminating on them briefly, I suspected they would herald a long, long night ahead. Dave The Drunk Misogynist, as we’ll call him, was not going to unwind this perplexing dichotomy very quickly – that he loves her, but that he also thinks she’s a bitch. Amy, the subject of Dave’s affections and contempt, had locked herself inside a car which was parked on the banks of a river where I had set up my tent, about a day’s ride out of Seattle. Dave, it seemed, wanted to get into the car with Amy.

‘Come on you bitch, let me in. I love you.’

‘Fuck off Dave’ retorted Amy ‘I don’t love you, I love Brian’

The words must have stung ‘Fine, have your 20 year old boyfriend!’ returned Dave.

Dave, lovelorn but ever the romantic, would retreat for a minute or two offering me the tantilising prospect of slumber, only to charge back to the car and pledge his undying love before an impulse to shout ‘Whore!’ overtook him. Eventually after hours of stalemate (between Dave and Amy, me and sleep) Dave decided the best demonstration of his unrequited love for Amy was to deflate her car tyres, which he did, to Amy’s agonized screams, followed by ‘What have you DONE! Dave, what have you DONE!!’ and then softer and softer whimpering as I drifted off belatedly to dreamland.

Two days in Seattle with my second cousin Liz was well spent since it involved good company, the League of Gentlemen on DVD and quite a lot of ice cream. The Canadian border to me was just another boundary, not something to stress about. I saw no potential of being forbidden to enter Canada or any likelihood of it being more complicated than any of the sixty that have come before it. Or so I thought.

After a chain of predictable questions the border guard asked how long I’d been cycling. Three and half years caused his eyebrows to take a vigorous leap towards his hair line, he swiftly wrote the letter B on a piece of paper and told me to go inside the immigration building. The immigration official was a tall, bald, menacing man with a Scottish lilt. ‘Here’s what’s happening’ he declared in a no-nonsense and well-practiced fashion. ‘YOU (and he pointed at me) have to prove to ME (points at himself, in case I find simple pronouns confusing) that we’re not going to find you working in a bar in Canada. I want bank statements, I want papers, I want evidence. So come on then, show me what you’ve got.’

At this point he put his hands behind his head and wearing an expression akin to that of a sadistic child when pulling the legs off an insect, he rested back into his chair and I got the sudden perception that this was someone who had been short changed in life and was wreaking revenge on society, one cycle tourist at a time. I didn’t have much, no bank statements, nothing to prove that I had funds. In the end certificates proving I was a medic and a phone call to my relatives in Vancouver just about satisfied him. It was too close for comfort.

I stayed with MaryLouise, my mum’s cousin, a kind of extreme superhuman who thrashes twenty year olds in half Iron Man contests. She is also very charming and I enjoyed chilling out with her family whilst I waited for a very cool cat to arrive. Claire is an old friend of mine from Liverpool and also a superhuman by way of being a psychologist, PhD whizz, jazz musician, Frisbee champion, purveyor of winks and wry smiles and expedition leader and who is brilliantly dynamic in lots of other cool ways too. We swapped news, went to a poetry slam, biked around Vancouver and prepared for the road ahead. And we wondered a bit about some of Canada’s furry residents…

Bears – there are two schools of thought in Canada. The alarmists like to remind you of the ease at which a Grizzly can out-run you before it takes a minute to chew heartily away on your bone marrow, and there are the more insouciant brigade who like to compare black bears to big dogs and who offer assurances that they won’t give much trouble. Everybody though seems to think bringing a can of bear pepper spray to fend off a creature that gets too close is a sensible idea. I have my doubts. There are very few things in this world more disagreeable than being mauled to death by a bear. One of those things is spraying yourself in the face with extra potent pepper spray, and then getting mauled to death by a bear. Despite my reservations Claire and I headed off to a hunting store to enquire about some sort of defense strategy even though Claire has a kazoo and I have some interesting dance moves and I reckon a well-choreographed performance might repel even the most hulking of Grizzlies.

We get directed to a hunting store which is staffed exclusively by the sort of men who have taxidermied their own grandparents and have mounted them to the walls of their home, and who can’t finish a beer without crunching the can onto their forehead and growling. These are not the type of men you would leave to look after a family pet if you go on holiday. You might return to find they have finished off little Oscar with a crossbow and are sitting in a circle, skinning or spit roasting him.

‘This is essential’ explained one very serious man, holding the bear spray aloft and tilted unnervingly in my direction.
‘27 foot range. Just blast the bear right in the face, OK?’
‘Um, OK’ we mumble. 

I can’t summon up a mental image of either of us blasting a charging bear in the face with this. Instead I wonder if throwing the can at the oncoming bear and wailing pathetically would impede the attack. Probably not. I’m awed, impressed and a little disturbed by the array of bear repelling devices on offer. There are a variety of bear sprays, bear bombs (which just go bang and aren’t as exciting as they sound), flares, bear guns and projectiles. After a brief discussion, marked by total uncertainty and mild panic, we decide on the bear spray, mainly because the man behind the counter is perusing other bear defeating devices and I’m a little scared about what direction the conversation might soon take.

‘We call this the BEAR-VAP. Push this little button and it will vaporize up to 75 adult grizzlies in a 32 mile radius. Oh wait, you’ll need some of this too. BEAR-O-CIDE. Just sprinkle a thimbleful of this stuff into any small stream and it will kill every black bear that drinks from any river between here and the Yukon for 18 years.’ 

The actual packaging on bear spray. Something tells me it wouldn’t work out quite like this 
So excited, and with only a mild sense of impending doom bestowed on us by the hunting shop, we set off. Given that we had a little time to play with, a loop of Vancouver Island was on the cards before we set out on the more serious mountains of northern BC. Claire had three weeks before a bus from Prince George would transport her and her bike back to Vancouver. This year it seems that Canada’s tourism board have let the intern come up with British Columbia’s tagline, infused, as it is, with subtlety and edge.

‘British Columbia – The Best Place in the World’ 

There’s another one doing the rounds as well, the irritating ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’ which makes me want to decapitate something small, cute and furry just so I don’t have it in my head any more.

I admit it, three and a half years of biking has left me a little jaded. It’s getting harder not to make endless comparisons between where I am and where I’ve been, but having Claire with me has opened my eyes again to just how propitious it is to experience this wonky world by bicycle. Claire gets excited about herons. Claire is surprised when she consumes 200 grams of dairy milk chocolate and moves on to marsh mallows. Claire is enlivened by the prospect of not knowing where we’ll end up or where we’ll sleep. It’s invigorating.

We pedaled up the aptly named sunshine coast watched by the Canadian wildlife, as we watched back. We spotted a scuttling raccoon, a slightly pissed off deer, garter snakes, purple starfish and a seal which could have been doing a good impression of a sea otter. Ferries shuttled us across the watery bits as we sat on deck playing a kazoo, catching up and congratulating Canada. RVs crowded us a little on the roads and I mused over their curious names – The Adventurer. The Expedition. The RV manufacturers had done their research. We all know how important the microwave and foot spa were to Ernest Shackleton.

In Nanaimo on Vancouver Island we hung out with Chris, a diamond geezer, and Joe, his gigantean Newfoundland dog that cheerfully murders the neighbour’s chickens at every given opportunity. Chris cycled with us the following day and after eating for so long in a bakery we fell into a desperate tour-de-France peloton for the ultimately failed race to make the ferry, and after being too full of pastry based food to make it we opted instead to drink beer on the beach, like the serious cyclists we are.

The road that would take us to the world renowned resort town of Whistler and beyond is the Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky Highway, don’t let the abbreviated version fool you. Vancouver was steeped in a sullen murk as we rode away over the rolling hills of the coast whilst drizzle spattered the asphalt. Out to our west ethereal claws of mist raked through the dense groves of pines trees which crowded the low humps of the gulf islands.

Claire was the perfect cycling companion, just when boredom threatened she would nonchalantly pull up alongside me with a ‘Steve?’ and offer up some theories on the shape of the universe or ask my opinion on some aberrant topic.

‘Yes Claire’
‘What’s your favourite marsupial?’

We talked about people we both knew of course. We discussed other important issues too – Utilitarianism. Socialised medicine. Why gooseberries are under-rated. Who were the Thundercats. How much of a tosser David Cameron actually is. Interspersed with laughter and this mental and verbal workout we had an intensely competitive thumb war tournament (three all), we lobbed cherries into each other’s jowls and Claire tried to teach me to sing. I would say Claire failed, but really it was me.

There were some moments where I felt a little vulnerable as another pair of eyes appraised my slightly odd ball lifestyle. The discovery of a tin of tuna with a Spanish label and leaking powdered mashed potato that I can say with confidence has been in my food bag since at least Peru was one such moment. But Claire cooked risotto, could read road signs from more than ten metres away and sometimes felt inspired to use the phrase ‘amazeballs’. All of these things and many others made her a great travel companion. And she reminded me of how exciting the serendipity that courts all cycle tourers can be – it’s great when someone else is a bit awed by the hospitality of strangers, by the romance of wild camping, and by the buzz of meeting another biker. It feels good to share.

Claire wasn’t aware of this, but I was surreptitiously undertaking a research project whilst we cycled together through BC…

The effect of cycle touring on a previously uninitiated individual: An observational study.

Aim – To determine how long the transformation process will take from baseline to Cycle Tourer

Methodology – Observation of control subject Claire Press

Day Three – Claire accidentally ingests 95% DEET. Doesn’t seem to care.

Day Five – Claire has begun to develop a bizarre obsession with roadkill. Talk often veers to dead animals.

Day Six – I find Claire slumped outside supermarket surrounded by empty packets of blueberry muffins, crumbs covering her face, and with an expression of unsullied joy and contentment.

Day Eleven – Empties half a jar of strawberry jam onto bread and spreads it around wildly with index finger. Smirks when I offer a knife.

Day Thirteen – Wears T-shirt inside out. Doesn’t notice until mid-afternoon.

Day Fifteen – Uses the exact phrase ‘You know it’s a good day when sweat dribbles down your ass’

Day sixteen – Has become adept in killing mosquitoes in total darkness.

Day seventeen – gazes strangely at inner tube. Perhaps wondering if several of them glued together would make a serviceable bandana.

Conclusion – Transformation complete by 17 days.

Whistler is a busy resort town which hosted many of the events of the winter Olympics in 2010. Our plan on arrival was to find an Australian, an easy task here, buy them a beer, also an easy task, and subtly suggest (not ask) that we camp in their garden. It was a fail. After approximately six hours and thirty cups of tea we found ourselves sitting in a flat with two alcoholics, feeling slightly uneasy, whilst they made jokes about stealing all our stuff. In the end though they showed us to a decent spot to camp in the park, humanity prevailed.

Then it was a short ride to Pemberton where Tammy was going to put us up, a surfer I met on the coast of Mexico and an all-round brilliant human being. We met her briefly on the road where she gave us a very Canadian lesson about how to fight a cougar (‘just punch and kick it in the face’) and offered us her home to rest up in whilst she was away, a cosy forest retreat easily worth the uphill battle to get there.

Claire, pedaling uphill for three km: ‘Steve, I hate you right now’
And then two minutes later ‘I’m sorry Steve. It’s not you. It’s just that I hate everything a little right now’

As sweaty as sumo wrestlers, dizzy and slightly blue, we arrived. Claire admitted her pulse was strangely audible and at a slightly higher BPM than Happy Hardcore.

The next day was a well-deserved day off, and one where the adjective Perfect might just be the best fit. Tammy is also keen on paragliding and had arranged for us to give it a whirl with her mates, and for free. We both floated off the launch site on tandem paragliders, vaguely towards the snow covered crags and glaciated peaks of the coastal mountains and hovering high and occasionally swooping over the broad valley below.

Tammy’s pad was where we wiled away the afternoon, knowing that after you’ve spent the morning paragliding in British Columbia, the day is already awesome and you don’t have to exert any extra effort to make it so. That afternoon a black bear loped into the garden so I sent Claire downstairs to deal with it – part of an agreed plan that she handles black bears, Grizzlies and cougars, I get troublesome insects and noisy dogs.

The next day began with ‘Eye of the tiger’ ringing out from my computer – we needed it. The Duffy Lake Road beckoned. Or in local parlance ‘THE DUFFY’ (which comes with a brief whistle and bounce of the eyebrows). The road climbs a thousand vertical metres and starts out at a 15 to 20% grade with an average incline of 7.5% to the top. THE DUFFY had been on our minds and had exerted its menace well before we glanced up at its preliminary twists and turns, though despite the hype and irrefutable stats (maybe because of them), it was tamer than we imagined. A double handed high five came in the early afternoon as we crested the pass, glanced back behind us and exchanged a little look that said ‘Have some of that, Canada’. And Canada thanked us for our efforts with bold and imposing peaks, bald eagles, prodigious gorges and serene moments skirting turquoise lakes as we rallied downwards, sucking up the odd rush of cool air radiating from churning mountain streams that cascaded into the wide river at the gorge floor. Around us poplar fluff drifted easily on the breeze as if we were biking through a snow dome. In amongst it all two cyclists were grinning like crazy people.

The topography is as changeable as the weather in this part of Canada and soon we were in an arid semi-desert. Lillooet, we were reminded time and again, is the hottest spot in Canada. It’s a fact dished out with gravity by the locals of a country internationally renowned for its incessant tropical heat. ‘It’s gonna be way too hot to ride today’ scorned a local man in the supermarket. He went on to tell me a cautionary tale I only half listened to, which I think involved another cycling couple and probably involved them sweating so hard they were converted into a white crust and had to be scraped off the tarmac and their salt crystals repatriated, but I wasn’t really paying attention. We set off anyway, sweating and panting past signs that told us not to pass snow ploughs on the right.

Back into the verdant arable land to the east and lulled into a sense of invincibility by the absence so far of a bear attack, we camped out in a small village of Native Americans and left food inside our tent instead of the nightly ritual of finding a place to stash it where bears couldn’t get to it. In hindsight, this must have been on Claire’s mind. From deep sleep I was violently jerked into the real world as Claire kicked off her sleeping bag and shouted ‘It’s inside! ITS INSIDE!’

Now Claire was asleep and dreaming, but the important thing to understand is that I had no idea at the time that she was asleep and dreaming, and when someone shouts ‘IT’S INSIDE!’ at night, in a tent, with food in it, in Canada, in bear country, you have to assume the worst has happened, or is about to. Two thoughts raced to the forefront of my mind, interestingly the first was ‘use hysterical friend as human shield’ but this was soon superseded by the more sensible ‘better get the bear spray’. One close look at Claire though and I knew she was in the throes of an ursine-related nightmare. We settled back to sleep but half an hour later Claire threw herself wildly into the side of the tent, another imaginary bear had attacked whilst I was asleep and she was bravely defending us. Imaginary bears are much scarier than real ones.

The terrain flattened out as we climbed slowly up onto the Fraser Plateau and soon we were relaxing in Prince George, Claire’s final stop. I gave a talk to the local bike club, and I said goodbye to Claire. And then it rained. 

To my north and where I’m heading there is a big empty space on my map where I suspect bears outnumber people, moose heads adorn every wall and the women have beards. I will leave British Columbia behind and embrace the Yukon, a place twice the size of England and with a population that could fit inside Norwich City Football stadium. And yes, that really is something to be excited about.

Thank you’s this month – Liz and Zach, MaryLouise, Paul and the posse, Mark, Cath and Superman Luke, Josephine, Norman, Stacy and Deb, Etta, The Powell River Bikers, Vancouver Rotary Club, Prince George Cycling Club, Ruth and Paul, Stephen and Rua, Chris, Tammy, Mike and the paragliders, Brenda, Pero and Vanessa, a whole bunch of anonymous Canadians and whoever it was that drew a penis on the deer signpost near Quesnel. You’ve all been utterly ace, so mad props to one and all. If I’ve forgotten anyone, I blame it on last night’s drinking with Claire, who’s gone for now, but not forgotten.

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Comments (9)

  • Avatar

    Bob Rogers


    BC and Alberta are indeed great. Claire and I toured on our tandem 3000 miles one summer, all the places you were, and more. Lovely. Memorable. The local indigenous people have stories to tell… Enjoy. Of course you will. Good writing.


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    Harry & Ivana


    Great story, brings back good memories of BC.
    Next time and for the Yukon, get some AfterBear, to soothe the bites.



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    That 'Dave' and 'Amy' story was hilarious!


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    I've been following your travels for a while, and I have to say, that was not only one of the best posts you have written, but one of the best that I have read anywhere!

    Happy Tailwinds!


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    Keep going man! I came back from Australia and UEA recently. When u get to OZ you will have a lot of fun and great views as well! Jacek from Dublin 😉


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    Your blog is endlessly entertaining! Keep traveling and posting whilst i while away hours serving in the US Navy quite close to Vancouver, in a small town in the US called Oak Harbor. Sadly, my bike forays now are limited to weekends. Best to you, my friend.


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    Fraser Baillie


    Hi Steve, I've been reading your blog for about 18 months now, your writing is genius, I have found myself laughing out loud in the office on many occasions, much to the bemusement of my colleagues. I’m now working through older posts with admiration and apprehension in equal measure as I have been inspired to plan my own round the world cycle tour. It's now less than 2 weeks until I set off from Leicester, UK!! Keep up the amazing work.


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    Fran Werttt


    Thanks for a nice strory, Steve. Hope Claire will join you again.


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