Archive for June, 2014|Monthly archive page

Into the North

Holidays can be a rare commodity in the film industry. When we’re working on a film, we’re working: evenings, weekends, public holidays, whatever it takes to get the latest flick ready for the release date. And when we’re not working on a film, we’re normally too busy looking for the next gig to enjoy our time off.

So, when I found myself with an entire week off between jobs, I decided to make the most of it. I packed up the car and hit the road early Saturday morning, heading north as far and as fast as my little jeep could take me, away from director’s notes and deadlines and dailies screenings, and into the untamed wilds of BC.

My destination was Wells Grey Provincial Park, a large, rugged wilderness six hours north of Vancouver. The park, I discovered later, is the size of a US state. Admittedly, that state is Delaware, which isn’t exactly a very big state, but still, it’s a state. Canada has a lot of Canada.

Arriving in the early evening, I bounced along a pitted dirt road that shadowed the Clearwater river into the foot of the park. From here, it was 100kms south to the nearest town, and 600kms of mountain ranges and forests between myself and the next habitation to the north. This was where the road ended. The only way to explore further was by foot or canoe.

I pulled into the campsite on the banks of the river; it was early June, however the park had only been open for two weeks, and the campsite was still almost deserted. I found a secluded spot, tucked away in a small copse of trees, and began setting up my home for the week as the sun began its slow meander to the horizon. I soon discovered that this part of BC gets cold in the evenings. Fortunately, BC Parks does a rousing trade in selling firewood to campers. I waited, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before the familiar green truck pulled up to my campsite, and I set about purchasing what looked like half a tree.

“Here, you might need this,” the park warden said, offering me a fiercely sharp looking axe to go with my half-tree.

My father taught me how to chop wood when I was younger. He started by casually mentioning I should be careful when doing this, because if I screwed it up, I would chop my toes off.

I was eight.

I am very attached to my toes. I’m even more attached to my toes being attached to me. Accordingly, I have managed to go the last twenty-seven years without ever chopping wood, relying instead on a certain creativity as to what could be used as kindling. However now – in the middle of nowhere, at least an hour’s drive from the nearest doctor – I figured I should give it a try. This couldn’t possibly go wrong.

I carefully placed the first log on the ground in front of me, raised the axe, and let gravity do its thing.

The axe bounced harmlessly off the log. On the plus side, I still had ten toes. On the downside, I wasn’t any closer to a fire, and I was starting to lose the feeling in my fingers.

I tried again, this time putting some effort into the swing, and was rewarded by seeing the log split in two. After a few more tries, I had the hang of it, and was merrily chopping wood, enjoying the feeling of being all rugged and independent. Eventually I ended up with a nice pile of kindling, and shortly after, a roaring fire. I even still had all my toes. The week was off to a good start.

I spent my days hiking, wandering deep into the bush, far away from any other human beings. Springtime comes late to this part of Canada, even though winter had long since packed up its skis and gone home, no one had told that to Wells Grey. Many of the trails were still closed due to snow; many others that were open were impassable from the trees that had fallen during winter. I decided to try one; after all, how hard could it be to scramble over a couple of trees? After clambering over ten trees in as many minutes, I came to the conclusion that it was, in fact, quite hard. Instead I stuck to the cleared trails; climbing to the tops of waterfalls, and to bluffs overlooking the lake where I would sit and eat my lunch, taking in the spectacular views, and thinking no deep thoughts at all.

I often saw the marking of bears deep within the forest, their claw marks on trees, their paw prints left in the mud. I even saw them several times, foraging for food in the long grasses next to the road. I watched them from a distance, enjoying the chance to see them going about their bear lives.

I explored the Clearwater Lake, kayaking as far north as I could until my arms ached and I had left any sign of civilisation far behind; the calm, deep waters were a perfect mirror, and I let the kayak glide through a sea of clouds, enjoying the sense of complete solitude, knowing I was the only human being for miles. The faintest of breezes drifted across the lake. I pulled my kayak up at a small beach for lunch, and hurriedly dunked my head and limbs into the glacial cold water, the closest I would come to a shower all week.

Returning to my campsite in the late afternoons, I spent the remaining hours of sunlight reading, or simply sitting and watching as deer and squirrels roamed through the camp. If I felt like company, I would stroll over to the Osprey Cafe, a small eco-shack set up at the head of the Clearwater waterfall. They sold beer and pop, and rented out canoes and kayaks for the lake. I would order a drink, sit on the patio in the sun, and watch as the humming birds flitted around a small sugar feeder they had set up.

On my final day, I went horse riding. I learned to ride years ago in a riding school, where, of course, we were taught Proper English Style, As A Lady Should Ride; all elbows in, back straight, eyes forward, shoulders back and now ladies, trot! But this part of the world was, and still is, cowboy country, a part of the west that is deeply wild. Here they ride like the cowboys of old, reins held causally in the left hand, the right hand free to lasso a cow or shoot a cattle rustler. Admittedly, neither of those things were that likely to happen on this trip, but I liked leaving my options open.

We were trekking along a narrow trail when suddenly the world fell sideways. I felt the back legs of my horse drop away beneath me, and his front legs scrambled for purchase. The next few frantic seconds felt like minutes as my terrified horse desperately floundered for footing on a ground that kept shifting; I readied myself to jump; if my horse fell and rolled on me he would easily break my leg. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over; my horse managed to scramble back to its feet, and the world steadied out.

I looked back at the trail. Where only a few minutes before there had been a solid trail, now there was a gaping hole in the ground. The spring rains had eroded the soil, but a fallen tree had covered the deep crater. As my horse walked across it, his hooves had broken through the rotten bark, sending his hind legs plunging.

We continued on, but it wasn’t long before the same thing happened to another horse, only this time the rider was thrown in the horse’s panic. She was unhurt, but shaken. We were about to turn around when a third horse, the lead horse, newly broken in and not used to trail rides, suddenly plunged through the ground. Terrified and sunken up to its chest, the horse thrashed about, frenziedly trying to pull itself out of the pit. I watched, worried that it would break one of its legs in its panic.

The rider of this horse was a cowboy of old; he’d grown up on horseback and worked at the local ranches taking care of the horses, he even rode in the local cattle drives. Quickly grabbing the reins, he dragged, pushed and pulled the frightened horse out of the pit, lending his own strength to the horse when it faltered. Finally the horse was freed, and a thorough examination showed it to be unharmed. We carefully picked our way back along the trail, leading our horses slowly over any ground that showed the faintest hint of instability.

Eventually, we made our way out of the woods and, turning our horses up, we climbed to a small rocky outcropping on top of Green Mountain, overlooking the Clearwater River. There, twenty-five thousand kilometres of untouched wilderness lay spread out before me.

That is what makes British Columbia special. BC is wilderness. With only around four million people spread out over an area the size of France and Germany combined, it is a province of a few scattered cities, surrounded by towering mountain ranges, and dense temperate rainforests. BC is home to deers wandering through your campsite, and bears eating on the side of the road. It is the chance to see the world as it should be seen; unhurried, majestic and wild. It is something I think everyone should experience, and yet hope no one else ever discovers.

I returned home at the end of the week, sunburned, covered in mosquito bites, and with aches in muscles I didn’t even know I had, but content, and ready to rejoin the world. Although, probably I should shower first.

More kayaking

Kayaking on Clearwater lake

Kayaking on the Clearwater Lake

 

Cinnamon black bears are legitimately a thing

A cinnamon black bear nomming at the side of the road.

Still more bear!

More bear!

 

Seriously, they have thousands

A lake and a mountain – a rare sight in BC

Because who doesn't love a cliche?

Helmchen Falls broke out a rainbow for my final day there

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