Most of our friends and family reading this blog will, by now, understand the lack of updates. Speaking to my mother on Monday 13th, from Cranbrook, BC, it became evident that she was extremely unwell. Our group having begun to split up, John and I made an immediate decision to cut our trip short, possibly flying back from Detroit instead of Halifax. As it happened, I received a call on Wednesday morning, telling me that Mum was dangerously ill and had been readmitted to hospital in a critical condition. We flew home on Friday from Chicago to be with her.

Holiday memories are apt to fade all too quickly. Even more so, in circumstances such as these. Sitting on my 81-year old mother-in-law’s sofa in Coulsdon on Saturday evening, watching a Kevin Costner movie with a glass of wine, I began to mull over the last days of our trip. The film was set in Alaska. Our hero is having some communication issues …

Me (having had a little too much to drink): The trip was tough. Alaska is not that easy to conquer.
Betty: I was not ever that much of a fan.
Me: Uh?
Betty: Michael Jackson. I never really liked his music.
Me: No. Alaska. It’s not that easy to conquer. A lot of us didn’t get there.
Betty: I mean, lots of people like him. But I never really saw the point.
Me: … On a motorcycle, I mean.
Betty: Oh, yes. Of course …. Oh, I’ve just remembered, I’ve got someone coming to service the gas boiler on Tuesday …

Since leaving Kelowna, we had been assuming that George’s Alaskan crew were still on schedule, so it was a relief when I called the hotel in Watson Lake to find they were still booked in. With all the delay and disappointment, it would be good to ride with friends again for a few days, and we were glad to see a few familiar bikes in the Belvedere’s parking lot.

George and Annie greeted us like prodigal children returning to the fold, and tables were hastily pushed together in the dining room so that we could join them for dinner. “Them” being George and Annie, Jenny and Nelson, Jo and Cathy, and John Stoughton. The others had apparently been delayed on the road. However, it quickly became evident that there was a little more to their absence than George was letting on … An incident the previous day had pushed the already tired and stressed group to breaking point, effectively bringing about a mutiny.

As if in confirmation, George approached me the following morning to ask which group we would be riding with. To have altered our plans in order to catch up, only to be forced to pick sides, seemed unfair. But there it was. The road from Watson Lake to Dease Lake is notorious: unmarked, uneven and partially unsurfaced. Received wisdom suggested that riding the Cassiar Highway as part of a large group might be hazardous. And, since George’s group was notably smaller than the breakaway faction, we chose to ride with them. In the event, the Cassiar was as about as savage as MGM’s toothless lion.

Dinner at Dease Lake was a protracted affair. The food was mediocre and overpriced, and the service, appalling.  So, after a congenial evening of beer and bike washing, we left early the next day to seek breakfast elsewhere with the mutineers: Willie, Jim, Chris and Flo, Bill, Greg, Julie and Johnny Higgins.

With no deliberate decision on our part, the pattern was now set for the rest of the week. There being no published itinerary to adhere to, we got up late and ate breakfast when and where we chose to. We exceeded speed limits, stopped whenever someone saw a bear, or suggested a point of interest, for a Kodak moment or just for a fag break. And, when we arrived at our destination, we stayed up late, drank (too much), played pool, laughed (a lot), and generally had a good time. We were, after all, on holiday.

It was not that we didn’t regret what had happened. Our conversations revolved around little else: what might have been or how we would have done things differently. We tried to organise a group dinner at Prince George but, by that time, too much water had passed under the bridge. Our leader was reportedly heartbroken that we didn’t want to ride with him. Unfortunately, it never occurred to him to ask himself “why?” .

The fact was that, having been on the road for over three weeks since leaving Chicago, the whole group was exhausted. Leaving behind the heat of the desert in California, no one needed 6am starts or 5pm dinners. Perhaps the worst crime of all, was the rigid adherance to a daily timetable to which no one else had any input. There was simply no time for relaxation, sight-seeing or technical issues. Deviate from the schedule for any reason, and you were on your own.

Much as George wanted to keep the group together, that has never been the ethos of the Mother Road Rally, for which he acted as Rallymaster for the first time this year, and from whence the Alaska ride originated. In our experience, one of the nicest aspects of that 2,448-mile ride, was the tendancy for the main body of riders to disperse into smaller groups over the course of the week. The trip is never without problems. People regularly have flat tyres, oil leaks and flat batteries. They take detours, run out of fuel, drop their bikes and lose their wallets. Sometimes, this year in particular, they hurt themselves. Always, they can count on the support of the friends they make on the road and, despite the Rally’s disclaimer, no one is ever left behind.

Non-biking friends often fail to understand the appeal of a motorcycle road trip. To them it is all dirt, discomfort and black leather. An attempt to recapture one’s youth: a poor man’s answer to the mid-life crisis. But those people forget that a trip of this length is not lightly undertaken and is never cheap. Add together to cost of a full spec touring motorcycle, fuel, lodging, subsistence and, for us Europeans, travel, and you could probably buy yourself an off-peak timeshare on the Costa Brava. Hence, every one of our travelling companions on this trip comes from a professional background of one sort or another. And, since Americans are almost unique in having no statutory right to paid holiday, they either need to be retired or in a position to dictate their own leave.

None of us are children. When things go wrong, we manage. It’s what we do, or have done, every day of our working lives. It would be arrogance to assume otherwise.

July 5th – Toad River, BC (BST -7hrs)

Luxury bathroom facilities at Pink Mountain …Neither of us fancied using the unisex shower block with its, rather too public, cubicles. So we made do with a change of undies and quick dab with the anti-bacterial wipes that I had bought as a precaution against swine flu. Needless to say, the restaurant was closed on Sunday, so we would have to look elsewhere for breakfast. But we had more immediate problems. John went off in search of jump leads while I brewed up some coffee and began to “strike” camp.Breakfast at Pink Mountain Camp Ground

Once the Triumph was started, we didn’t dare stop for anything until the battery had had a chance to recharge. Luckily, the first convenient breakfast stop was 50km down the road at the Buckinghorse Ranch, and we had enough fuel to get there. The café only had 3 or four large tables and, unsurprisingly, was doing a roaring trade. The lone gas pump was out of service, but there was another service station across the dusty road.

Typical Alaskan Highway dust at the Buckinghorse RanchRefreshed and refuelled, we rode on.

To be honest, there was not much of note. Fort Nelson was not much more than a blob on the highway. We pulled off again for fuel and a milkshake at A&W: again, being Sunday, it was practically all that was open.

100km or so on, the road became more scenic, weaving through mountains with stunning views over forestry and lakes until we arrived at Toad River, our overnight stop.

We had intended to camp again, but since it there was a little rain in the air, we were glad to find that they had a cabin still available. It felt good to be warm and dry, so we did our best to ignore a distinctly stale smell wafting in from the basin waste pipe in the bathroom. We unpacked, showered, and wandered back over to the café for a burger.

July 4th – Pink Mountain, BC (BST -7hrs)

The various disappointments of Grand Prairie made us all the more determined to camp out this evening. We had two more days to get to Watson Lake, so we didn’t need to achieve more than about 340 miles in a day.

Start of Alaska Highway in Dawson CreekAfter last night’s experience, and our dislike of continental breakfasts consisting of donuts and lurid-coloured cereals, we decided to have breakfast in Dawson Creek. So, having taken the obligatory photos of “Milepost 0” and the “Start of the Alaska Highway” sign, we found a nice little diner serving a traditional breakfast of … quesidillas and fajitas.

We felt a tinge of regret as we started out on the Alaska Highway. It seemed a bit of a sham to have photographed ourselves at the start, knowing we wouldn’t be going further north than Watson Lake, barely into the Yukon, let alone Alaska.

In true Route 66 spirit, we found an historic cut off that took us across an original timber-built curvedOriginal curved bridge on Old Alaska Highway bridge on a section of the old Alaska Highway. In reality the road is now just a loop off the main highway, leading to the Kiskatinaw Provincial Park and a campsite, but it was an interesting detour involving a surprise section of deep gravel.

We passed through Fort St. John, stopping only for gas but, 100km further on, we were parched and needed a break. The (”Good”) Shepherd’s Inn …The Shepherd’s Inn seemed to fit the bill. The Milepost book had a tempting advertisement for lunch and dinner menus of homemade fare and “refreshing fruit drinks from local fruits”. May be it was just the wrong time of day, but we found only a rather surly waitress and a choice of coffee or commercial bottled soft drinks … Oh, and a bookstand full of worthy titles like, “Seven Secrets to Preserving Your Virginity”. Seven? Clearly, the facts of life are more complicated than I thought!

We arrived at our campsite at Pink Mountain just before 6pm, at the same time as two BMW riders from Alberta, and a Frenchman, who we had earlier come across on the side of the road. They were just stopping for dinner and fuel, so it seemed the sociable thing to do to eat with them – and just as well, as the place was about to close up for the day.

The meal was unremarkable, save for the fact that John left his auxiliary lights on while we ate, and came back to a flat battery. Luckily, the parking lot for the restaurant was above the camp site so, even though we couldn’t bump start the bike, it was easy enough to push across the highway and up to our tent site.

The Pink Mountain camp site bills itself as “one of the nicest on the Alaskan Highway”. I beg to differ. Perhaps I am spoilt, in that I expect separate Ladies and Gents shower facilities or, at the very least, a private cubicle. And, though I appreciate, we are in the middle of nowhere, a flush toilet would have been preferable to the single, revolting, privie that passes for a ladies lavatory.

Having had an interminably boring conversation with a German, to whom John had unwisely offered a can of beer, and two young cyclists, we made our excuses and retired to our tent.

July 3rd – Grand Prairie, BC (BST -7hrs)

I apologise for the lack of updates.  I have, in fact, several unpublished pages written, awaiting upload.  But the fact is that, on the nights we actually have Internet access, the network speed is generally so slow, that I am unable to upload more than one page at a time.

Camping at the Valemount Golf CourseWe really couldn’t fault the location for our first night under canvas. We woke up to blue skies and clear views of the snow-capped mountains all around. The rain I thought I had heard, turned out to be the sprinkler system on the putting green. Most of the other campers had already left by 8am, but we weren’t in any particular hurry. Since there didn’t seem to be anyone cooking breakfast in the clubhouse, we put our little gas burner together and brewed up a couple of cups of coffee. A few minutes later, the cook turned up with a huge tray of eggs.Fresh coffee from the camp fire …

We took Hwy 16, the Yellowhead Highway, from Tête Jaune Cache to Hinton, through the Jasper National Park, riding for about 20 miles beside Jasper Lake. Spectacular scenery but, surprisingly, we saw very little in the way of wildlife. Just a few odd coloured deer … that John thought were goats … and turned out to be neither: mountain sheep. We had a cup of coffee and fuelled up at Hinton, before joining Hwy 40. “The scenic route to Alaska”, the signpost said, followed by “No services for 140km”. The road was indeed scenic. We saw a black bear and several deer. And there were no services until we reached Grand Cache, 140km further north.

If Kelowna was the highlight of the last week, then Grand Prairie was definitely the low point. The nice lady at the tourist information office in Grand Cache had recommended the Tamarack campsite, about 5km south of the town. However, when we got there, it turned out to be an RV (motorhome or caravan) Park. The owner was welcoming, nonetheless, and offered her own lawn for our tent. Unfortunately, it would have still meant a 10km return journey into town for a meal, so we declined. We asked if she could recommend a site a little closer in, so she made a couple of phone calls on our behalf. It quickly transpired that, for whatever reason, “tenters” are not welcome in Grand Prairie. RV owners have the choice of half a dozen well appointed parks, but they don’t provide tent sites anymore. Neither do the more central Provincial Parks, who mainly advertise “Day Use Only”. We did try to find the “Happy Trails” campsite to the north west of town but, having ridden for several kilometres, we came to a gravel road and a sign showing 1.6km further to go. Since we had still not eaten, and there was an ominous-looking dark cloud on the horizon, John suggested we scrap the idea of camping tonight and check into a motel instead.

Dinner was an unsatisfactory affair: dry roast chicken with a barbeque sauce, for which we were overcharged.

In the end, we couldn’t wait to leave.

July 2nd – Valemount, BC (BST -7hrs)

Much as we liked Kelowna, it felt good to be back on the road. On our way to Kelowna last weekend, a café owner at Cache Creek had warned us against using Hwy 97C, the east-west four-lane highway over the mountains. He had taken that route only a week or so before, and rounded a corner to find a car overturned in the snow. “Not the sort of place you want to be taking two wheels”, he said. And, to give him his due, although we had not been in the ideal frame of mind to make the most of a scenic drive, the old north-south Hwy 97, had proven to be a very enjoyable route.

Quilchena General Store on Hwy 5ADeparting the city today, however, we felt brave enough to take the advice of Chris, SWMotorrad’s expat British service manager. We had a rather chilly ride over “The Connector” to a place called Merritt, where we turned north onto Hwy 5A, for a beautiful 99km ride through open countryside. The only habitation we passed between Merritt and Kamloops, were the tiny communities of Nicola and Quilchena.

It was gone 2pm when we reached Kamloops, so we started looking for a tSun Rivers Golf Course in Kamloopsruck stop or diner to grab a bite to eat. Conveniently, there was one signposted on the turn-off for Hwy 5 towards Jasper. But there was no sign of a restaurant. Retracing our steps, we followed the signs from the main road to the clubhouse of a new golf course. “All Welcome”, declared the sign outside. So we parked our bikes next to the golf buggies and had lunch on a sunny terrace with panoramic views over the town.

We kept the golf theme going with our choice of campsite that evening. The best bet seemed to be the Valemount Golf Course, which allows campers to pitch their tents next to the practice area, after hours, and use the members’ washroom and shower facilities.

July 1st – Kelowna, BC (BST -7hrs)

It is Canada Day today. The last time we were in Canada on July 1st was 2006, and it rained. Today, we awoke to blue skys and the world and his wife seemed to be heading to the lakeside for a day on the beach.

Actually, we were more concerned about our laundry. But, as the coin-op was closed for the day, we will have to do our washing tomorrow.  Instead, we spent the morning backing up the computer, discussing our plans for the remainder of this trip … and thinking about the next time … 

John relaxes on Okanagan LakeBeing realistic, we had already dropped the idea of going to Alaska and the Arctic Circle. This comes as a bitter disappointment as we had been planning that part of the trip since last year and, theoretically we could still make it. But at what cost? If we had left today, we could have been in Fairbanks on July 6th as per our original itinerary. But, assuming no further hiccups, we would have had to turn right around after our Arctic Circle trip and head back east. We would miss most of what we came to Alaska to see. On the other hand, if we spend an extra day here and then meander slowly up to Watson Lake, we stand a good chance of hooking up with George’s group on 6th instead – presupposing, of course, that they are still on schedule.

But, for now, we just headed into town to see what was going on.

Father and son on Canada DayMost of the action seemed to be occuring down at the waterfront parks. There were market stalls and musicians, hot-dog and candy floss vendors, belly dancers and face painters, clowns, jugglers, the eccentric, the artistic, and the just plain weird … We took an hour out and booked a scenic lake tour with two slightly drunk ladies enjoying an extended weekend break from Vancouver.

Belly Dancers in KelownaThen there were the belly dancers: remarkably graceful, despite some of them being rather more endowed with belly than others.  We gave the ‘alternative rock’ a miss. The expression “if it’s too loud, you’re too old” came to mind, but may be we were just being too British. Young and old alike had Canadian flags stuck in their hair, their button-holes, their handbags, or their rucksacks. Some wore the national colours of red and white, others had a Canadian T-shirt or a maple leaf stenciled on their face.  The last time I remember anything similar in England was the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. Foreigners must find us an odd lot.

Fireworks over Okanagan LakeEventually, we needed to take a break from the heat and retired to our motel room until the evening. After dinner, we ventured back in briefly for the fireworks. But we made our getaway almost before the final salvo had dimmed. We had an early start planned the following morning – if only to do the laundry! Within half an hour we were in bed, asleep.

June 30th – Kelowna, BC (BST -7hrs)

Wine tasting and motorcycling are not ideal bed partners, to say the least. Still it did seem a shame not to explore some of the area’s vineyards, some of British Columbia’s best, even if only for the sake of a day out. So, on the recommendation of the good folk at SWMotorrad, we hopped on John’s Triumph and rode almost three-quarters of the way round Okanagan Lake to the Naramata Bench wineries, in search of lunch and, perhaps, a small glass of wine. Naramata Bench - a dozen or more wineries perched on the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake

This area is extraordinary. Here we are, in BC’s own “lake district”, little more than a stone’s throw from the Rocky Mountains, where road signs on the highway warn of winter conditions at any time of year, and yet we are essentially in the desert. And, despite the lakeside location, there is even a water shortage here.

Kelowna’s new ‘floating’ bridgeOkanagan Lake is about 85 miles long and, in places, up to 1000ft deep. So deep, in fact, that a large span of the 5-lane highway bridge is built on floating pontoons. All around the lake, the valley rises steeply towards the Okanagan Highlands’ main ski areas. For the most part, the partially forested hillsides are brown and arid. But, for over a century, the lake water has provided irrigation for a booming fruit industry. Naramata Bench vineyardsMore recently, amongst the patchwork of orchards, vineyards and lavendar fields have appeared, creating the illusion of Provence in the Canadian heartland.

We had a delicious two-course lunch at the Lake Breeze winery. Not daring get stuck into a whole bottle of wine, we chose a glass each of red: meaty ‘Tempest’ for John and a spicy Merlot for me. Red wines are fairly new to the region, but BC whites have been winning awards for many years. Lake Breeze Winery - a touch of Provence in CanadaSince we have a fridge in our motel room, we also bought a bottle of their Pinot Gris … to enjoy later.

It had gone 5pm when we got back to SWMotorrad to pick up my, now pristine, bike. The parts, including two new rubber boots, a shaft seal, swingarm bearings and a litre of gearbox oil, came to $328. Expensive, but a fraction of the cost of a new final drive. The oil alone cost $56. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be replaced that often. The bike’s designers apparently neglected to provide a drain plug for the gearbox. So if you want to drain the oil, you have to turn it upside-down and use the filler cap … I wonder how many steins of pilsner went down before someone came up with that bright idea!

June 29th – Kelowna, BC (BST -7hrs)

As you might expect, we were on the doorstep of SWMotorrad as they opened this morning. I confess my bike was in a shocking state. We had been caught in a hailstorm in the middle of some road construction on the way up to Williams Lake and, in comparison with John’s relatively clean Triumph, the 1200 looked as though I had been doing some serious trail riding. Perhaps BMW deliberately design them to attract dirt that way, to give unadventurous commuters a little street cred. Anyway, the bike was going to need a good rinse before any work could start and I could either do it myself at the car wash a couple of blocks down, or pay the dealer to give it a valet job. John and I went for breakfast …

Winding on an hour or so, the bike was up on the bench, minus its rear wheel, and a technician was examining the thick brown gloop that was coating the drive shaft inside the swingarm. He shone a torch into the void so that we could see where water was getting in. The issue, as it turned out, was not nearly so serious as to require replacement of the final drive. Although the shaft was visibly corroded, its function had not been compromised. In cleaning out the muck from the swingarm, the Portland dealer had treated the symptoms but not the cause, which was odd as, with the bike up on the bench, it didn’t take a trained technician to diagnose the problem. The rubber boot that covers the joint between the gearbox and the shaft was perished, and so was allowing water and dirt into the swingarm every time it rained. It was this emulsified mixture of oil and water that I had seen leaking out over the wheel rim in Williams Lake – nothing to do with a damaged final drive at all. Even so, I now face the prospect of being endlessly ribbed by John. After all, isn’t this the bike that is supposedly built to go anywhere, stopped in its tracks by a leaky pair of wellies? The technician shrugged. “We see this occasionally”, he said, “We call them Oktoberfest bikes.”

The parts were relatively inexpensive and would be in tomorrow, so we could start making contingency plans to salvage the rest of our trip.

June 28th – Kelowna, BC (BST -7hrs)

Why do these things always happen at a weekend? It is frustrating enough when things go wrong, but worse when one cannot get them sorted immediately. The one consolation is that, unlike the US, Canadian motorcycle dealers do open on a Monday.

Classic cars in Kelowna’s downtown areaWe arrived fairly late in the evening yesterday and, having checked into our motel and eaten, we were exhausted. Today, we thought we ought to investigate the downtown area. And, yes, Kelowna does have a vibrant downtown area, down by the waterfront. Though you could be forgiven for losing the will to live getting there, past the miles upon miles of grotesque malls that have sprung up either side of Hwy 97 to the north of the city.

We had quickly come to the conclusion that, one way or another, our Alaska trip was probably busted. But it didn’t do to dwell on our predicament. Rather than confine ourselves to our gloomy motel room, staring glumly at our veritable library of maps and guide books, as soon as we were Ogopogoshowered, shaved and shampoo’ed, we took a ride into town to look for breakfast. After which, we took a stroll along the shoreline, and learned aJohn tackles a “small” Moo-Lix ice creambout Ogopogo, the Loch Ness-type creature that is said to inhabit Okanagan Lake. We briefly contemplated inviting ourselves into the KelownaYacht Club as visiting yachtsmen but, instead, visited the Orchard Industry Museum and wound up at the next door Wine Museum, discussing Canadian wines with an ex-pat Brit. John went off to buy a book to read, while I sat under a tree in the park and uploaded a couple of days’ blog entries from a wi-fi hotspot. All very civilised.Kelowna Marina boat hire pontoon

The bikini-clad girls running the boat rentals from the marina pontoon were doing brisk trade, and some of the more energetic kids entertained us practicing spectacular parkour moves, somersaulting over waste bins and steps. Parkour in the parkThey were oddly camera-shy, but John did manage to sneak this one shot. For most, though, it seemed like the ultimate lazy Sunday afternoon by the lake.