Theo’s Rainy Ride on the Tree to Sea Loop and Curve GMX+
Last month, Theo Kelsey-Verdecchia became the first person (that we know of) to complete the Tree to Sea Loop in British Columbia in 2022, finishing the 1,000-kilometer route in just nine days. He put together a route report, video recap, and bike and gear details. Find it all here…
Editor’s Note: The Tree to Sea Loop is a 1,000-kilometre gravel loop on the north end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Following a vast network of forest service roads with limited time on pavement, the loop travels through massive valleys, through oceanside villages, and provides views of towering coastal mountains. Not many riders have been able to check the route out since it was published last fall, but there were some eager groups out tackling some sections last month, including contributor Theo Kelsey-Verdecchia. In preparation for the 2022 Tour Divide, Theo drove out from Ontario with his mind set on completing the entire Tree to Sea Loop. Find his route report, bike and gear overview, and a video from his trip below.
Words by Theo Kelsey-Verdecchia (@theokelsey_), photos by Theo Kelsey-Verdecchia and Miles Arbour
I pulled the rear wheel off of my bike, which was flipped over at the side of a logging road. It was getting dark, and I dug around in my toolkit, hoping I’d remembered to pack a spare hanger the night before. Luckily, I had, and I got to work removing the old broken one before carefully installing the replacement. I slid the wheel back in the dropout, snugged up the axle, and flipped my bike back over.
I had spent the last hour bushwhacking through a decommissioned logging road, climbing over massive trees that had recently been cut down in an attempt to close off the path. I’m stubborn when it comes to bikepacking, and I was determined to get through (note for future riders: the route has been updated to bypass this section!). During that debacle, I managed to snag my derailleur on a branch, snapping the hanger, along with my resolve to continue pushing. I decided to turn around and go back the way I came to find an alternate route through to Gold River. This was the first day of my trip along the Tree to Sea Loop, a 1,000-kilometre off-road bikepacking route on the north end of Vancouver Island. It was a bumpy start to what would be an incredibly trying ride.
The first half of the ride took me up the west coast, from the small town of Gold River to Holberg, one of the northernmost towns on the island. This section of the route is made up of small coastal seaports and fishing villages linked by a complex network of logging roads and a water taxi connecting the communities of Tahsis and Zeballos.
The roads in this section are narrow, muddy, and steep, and they weave through extremely dense, lush forests. Every time the road started to point up, I found myself grinding away in my easiest gear, desperately trying to pick a line over large slippery rocks. Thick moss clings to every tree, hangs off every branch, and drapes over every stone and boulder. The smell of freshly cut pine and cedar hangs in the air, and occasionally the thick forests open to spectacular vistas of the valleys below.
Though often beautiful, this section was challenging. For one, the towns are small—with limited resupply options—and quite far apart. Depending on your pace, it could be several days between towns. Sometimes, a town would just have a small gas station or convenience store, other times only a pub, and sometimes I’d be lucky enough to find a grocery store. Hours were unpredictable as well, especially since I chose to ride the route at the tail end of the off-season when many establishments were still operating on winter hours.
Another logistical challenge presented on this half of the ride was the water taxi. The ride from Tahsis to Zeballos via boat is by far the best way to get from one town to the other. Both small towns of just a few hundred people, Tahsis and Zeballos offer a sense of seclusion and isolation rarely found, even on Vancouver Island. Tucked deeply away from the ocean and surrounded by misty peaks, it was here that it felt like my adventure was getting serious.
On the boat ride, I saw amazing views marine life and met some interesting folks, but it did require some planning. For one, it’s expensive for a solo traveller. I was fortunate enough that I had a family member’s company offer to help fund this leg of the trip, which was a massive help. It must be booked a few days in advance, which means I was on a tight timeline for the first few days of my trip to ensure I made it to Tahsis on time. I was lucky enough to arrive in Tahsis a few hours before my trip, which meant I enjoyed a massive breakfast at Sally’s Diner, a welcome respite from the incessant rain that characterised the west coast.
Speaking of rain, there was a lot of it. More days of consecutive rain than I’ve ever experienced while bike touring. I had four days of almost non-stop rain, sometimes a light mist, sometimes a full-on downpour, but always enough to soak through any jacket, gloves, or waterproof bag. By the time I reached Holberg, almost everything was wet, except for my sleeping bag and down jacket, which I had taken great care to keep dry the entire time. I think my immense desire to learn is what helped keep my spirits high when things got tough. The rain had a lesson for me, and I was determined to find it. Ultimately, I learned a ton about how to live on a bike in non-stop rain.
In Holberg, I faced a dilemma: I could ride out to Cape Scott in the pouring rain to camp, or get a room in town, sleep in a bed, and dry all of my gear. For most, this would probably be an easy choice, but like I said, I’m very stubborn when it comes to bike touring. I wanted to ride every inch of the course. Otherwise, I wouldn’t feel like I really completed the whole thing. On the flipside, a night indoors would be a smarter decision as I really needed to dry out my sleep kit, charge a few things, and rest up for the second half of the tour.
I weighed my options over lunch and a few beers at the pub. Which was more important? Riding an extra 40 kilometres to prove something to myself, or prioritising rest, safety, and setting myself up for a more successful ride overall? With the rain still coming down hard, I decided the smart thing to do was get a room for the night. Another lesson here: don’t let your pride get in the way of your decision-making.
The next day, I crossed back over to the west side of the island and reached Port Hardy just after noon. Port Hardy is the northernmost town on Vancouver Island, and it acts as the gateway to remote and beautiful landscapes like Cape Scott Provincial Park. It marked the beginning of the second half of my ride, a gateway to sunshine and the path to the finish line. The rain and clouds had passed, and I was delighted to ride under blue and sunny skies the whole day. I took advantage of the good weather and put in a big push, covering 160 kilometres. I was now heading back down the east side of the island and was well into the second half of the route.
It was here that I began to notice the differences from the northbound section. The roads were wider, smoother, and faster rolling. The dense forests opened up to massive mountain views; the short, punchy climbs lengthened, and their grades decreased. The riding was still challenging but unbelievably rewarding. Long, sweeping descents into scenic valleys seemed to be around every turn, and blue, shimmering lakes hid between the trees, allowing you a glimpse every so often. It almost felt like I was being rewarded for persevering through the challenging intro to my trip. It’s a lesson all bikepackers have heard before: any ride comes with highs and lows. The more you struggle, the greater the reward will be when you’re through it.
The camping on this stretch of the route was remarkable. That’s not to say that the recreation sites on the west side of the island weren’t good too. They were beautiful in their secluded, misty way. But it seemed that every night on the second half, I was treated to a completely deserted, idyllic lake or oceanside spot with mountains in the background and the opportunity to watch the sunset in an explosion of gold, pink, and purple over the water. Snow-capped peaks lit up in bronze for the last hour of light, and I was lucky enough to watch the light show every night as I ate dinner.
One particularly memorable moment came during the final descent to the Elk Bay Rec site for my final night of camping. I flew down the twisty logging road, the setting sun illuminating the bay in front of me as I quickly lost elevation. I arrived at camp just as the last tinges of pink crept away and revealed the night sky, speckled with hundreds more stars than I’m used to seeing from my home in Toronto. It was the perfect finale to what had been an amazing streak of camp spots.
One thing that both halves of the ride had in common was the wildlife. Vancouver Island is home to many amazing animals, big and small, and I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of quite a few of them. I encountered a total of 10 black bears over the 9 days I was riding, and named each one based on our interaction or their behaviour. My favourite was one I named “The Pirate,” who hobbled around on three legs eating berries. I was able to watch him for a good half hour while I ate my dinner. There was also Morning Bear, who, as you may have guessed, got his name from the time of day we ran into each other. In addition to the bears, I was also able to ride behind a herd of elk. I had never seen elk that close before and was amazed by their size. From the water taxi, I saw sea otters basking in the sun and floating with their tummies up. There were also snakes, slugs, snails, beavers, mink, and too many bald eagles to count.
I wrapped up the Tree to Sea Loop after nine days on the trail. I was satisfied with my ride but could also see how this could easily have turned into a multi-week expedition. There are so many sights to see along the route, including caves to explore, lakes to swim in, hikes to take, and interesting towns to hang out and refuel in. It’s truly a remarkable part of the world that most people will never see. If you get the opportunity, make the most of it. Even if you get rained on for half your trip, you’re sure to be rewarded in ways that will stay with you forever.
Theo’s Curve GMX+
- Curve GMX+ Frame and Fork
- Curve Carbon Dirt Hoops – “Wider” version with SP dynamo hub and DT 350
- Vittoria Mezcal 29 x 2.6″
- 4 x King Cages
- Shimano GRX 812, 36t chainring / 11-46T Cassette
- K-Lite Dynamo lights front / rear
- Curve Walmer Bars 55cm
- Specialized Power Saddle
- Garmin Etrex 32x
- Garmin Edge 530
- Garmin inReach Mini
- 20,000 maH power bank
Swift Zeitgeist Handlebar bag
This housed all my cook stuff which included an MSR Dragonfly stove, an MSR pot, Platypus water filter, sponge, wooden spoon, Opinel knife, as well as any food I was carrying. I also strapped my crocs to the front of this bag.
Tent / sleeping mat / pillow. Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1, thermarest Neoair uberlite, thermarest Airhead Lite pillow
Curve Rocket Pooch fork bags
These stored all my riding clothing. Arcteryx Beta AR jacket, Sugoi rain pants, OR Helium jacket, Bridgedale waterproof socks, Bontrager Stormshell mitts, Giro merino gloves, merino buff,
5L sealine dry bags on Anything Cages
These housed all my end of day clothing and my sleeping bag. Icebreaker merino base layer top and bottom, Icebreaker merino socks, wool hat, Arcteryx Cerium Down jacket, and a thermarest Hyperion UL32 Sleeping bag.
Nightingale Threadworks Custom framebag
All my electronics / charging stuff, tool kit, journal, spare tube, first aid kit.
Revelate Designs feedbags
One was full of snacks the other carried my bear spray
Revelate Designs Magtank 2000
Bikepacking the Tree to Sea Loop Video
In addition to his written account above, Theo put together a detailed eight-minute video that mixes footage from his trip with post-ride reflection, lessons, and advice.
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