To a Bikepacking Daughter: Memories of the Gulf Islands
Reflecting on a summer of family bikepacking trips in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, Gavin Ireland penned this touching letter to his seven-year-old daughter to help preserve the memories of their time riding and camping in nature together. Read it here, paired with a joyous set of photos…
Words and photos by Gavin Ireland. The Gulf Islands are the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples, including the Tsawwassen and W̱SÁNEĆ Nations. Learn more at Native-Land.ca.
It was never meant to be like this. Our last father and daughter bikepacking trip of the summer hanging in the balance as I time trial the two-mile, arrow-straight causeway towards our soon-departing ferry. You’re being dragged along behind on the bungee normally reserved for helping you up long climbs as we sing silly songs. This time, you’re riding through tears as the bike speed-wobbles under you and trucks thunder past over your left shoulder, chasing their own appointment with the ferry check-in. Oh, my love, it was never meant to be like this.
We’d allowed ample time to unload bikes from the car at the terminal, pack up a weekend’s worth of kit, and roll down to the ferry. Just like we had done four times already in this, your seventh summer. But that relied on a parking space at the terminal. Today was different, with not a single space free anywhere near the ferry. A park-and-ride bus wasn’t practical with two laden bikes. Parking next to a building site at the top of the causeway was the emergency option, leaving us with the busy highway to ride down.
Midway down the causeway, I have to decide whether to continue. To what risk am I putting you, the most precious being in my whole life? And why?
Coordinating our braking through well-practiced, shouted cues (“stopping in three, two, one…”), we halt so I can check the carabiner that holds the bungee tow rope, reducing the chance that it would affect your steering at speed. Then I settle into what I think is a balance between making the ferry and keeping you safe, resigning myself to the chance that we will probably miss it, watching the MV Salish Eagle sail without us.
Just enough risk, and no more. Just enough of a gamble. A memory flickers, of a film I first saw just after your mum and I fell in love. Croupier, set in the shadows and casinos of London, a setting that feels a million miles from this summer morning in British Columbia. The main character’s simple take on life’s fortunes plays in my mind: “Hang on tightly, let go lightly.”
If I do hang on tightly, it’s because I value this time with you above all else. We first went bikepacking together when you were nearly three years old, camping in dunes overlooking the North Sea from Scotland’s east coast. Your look of wonder when you awoke to see the sun glowing over the calm, early morning sea is a vision that I hope never to forget. After that, we’ve ridden and camped every summer; trips that account for about 2% of all the days since then, but that I think about on at least 90% of the rest.
At face value, the purpose of these trips is simply to spend time together, riding bikes, playing. Yet I know that there’s more than that at stake. These are chances for me to be the sort of father I want to be. Chances to help you learn about the world around you—its nature and people and places. Chances for you to learn about yourself, about resilience and self-reliance, about communication, about calm in the face of adversity. Values I hold very dear to me.
And it works, I think. You greet fellow travellers and take joy in sharing your adventures. You’ve become increasingly capable of helping set up the bikes, pitch and strike the tent, prepare the food. You’ve stayed calm, even giggled, as I pulled a tick out from your cheek in the middle of an orchard. You’ve hit what you thought were your limits and kept going.
These trips are a learning experience for me too. It’s very easy for me to value overcoming, pushing through tiredness, and going further. I recall with fondness my dad coaching me up climbs as a boy: “Just get to that next tree. Then to that corner. Now just a last stretch to the top,” and I find myself using just the same words. I’m undoubtedly proud of seeing you dig in, keep pedalling, and surprise yourself with your strength.
It’s harder to reflect on whether I’m allowing space for feeling, for when you really are too tired or upset or scared. Am I doing enough to give you the chance to feel and name these emotions? In our race to the ferry, am I willing to feel disappointment in order to be safer? Or not?
In the end, we make it thanks to the kindness of the BC Ferries staff. We’re too late according to the rules, but not too late in practice, to be among the last foot passengers aboard. Sinking into my seat, I’m exhausted by the tension, and it takes the hour-long journey across the Strait of Georgia for me to settle into the proper mindset for a bikepacking adventure in BC’s Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.
In a short time, these islands have become very precious to us, the perfect setting for our form of weekend bikepacking. Distant from our home in Vancouver, but not too far. Rolling dirt roads and quiet asphalt, never too technical for you to ride.
Crucially for me, these islands are effectively free of cougars and bears. As a newcomer to life in BC, I’ve gradually grown comfortable with the minimal risk of an encounter when I’m riding solo on Vancouver’s North Shore. But I’m still wary of taking you into bear or cougar country to camp, unsure that I could protect both of us if things ever went awry. Even if the physical risk was minimal, could I convince you that you’re safe? What risk would there be to your innocent love of riding and camping together?
Travelling out to the Gulf Islands lengthens our journey, but the real value of not worrying about major wildlife is the freedom that you can enjoy, roaming over the beach and around the campsite. A freedom that you’ve always enjoyed, having started your bikepacking life in Scotland, with some of the most open land access laws in the world and where midges are the most critical wildlife to plan around.
Instead, the risks I’m constantly weighing up are familiar to any parent watching their child on a bike: the joy of racing down dirt tracks balanced against the fear of a loss of control, a crash at speed, miles from home. I find myself coaching you along, reading the track ahead of you, reminding you to brake and lift off the saddle. Gradually, I resolve to let you judge the risks yourself and rely on you to spot the ruts, rocks, and gravel that could catch you out. As ever, it’s all about balance.
On our very first BC trip, we arrived at what has become one of our favourite campsites in the Gulf Islands, and we tried to find balance between us. It’s a profoundly peaceful corner of a small island, and I pitched the tent in quiet reverence of the place, trying not to break the delicate near-silence.
Meanwhile you bounced around me on your inflatable body board, giggling and shouting. It felt to me like sacrilege, and I scolded you for being noisy and thoughtless towards our fellow campers, but immediately regretted it; this isn’t the father I want to be. I had to recognise that we each find different energy in the place. Here, I thrive on nature and calm, and you thrive on freedom and movement.
We walked down to the ocean’s edge along a small tree-covered spit, and you raced ahead on foot. I relished the vibrant tones of earth, ocean, and arbutus tree bark, but above all, the sight of you running free in amongst them. We’d found our balance again.
This was soon disrupted again by the stinking pit toilet at the campsite. The first peril was what to do with your beloved teddy bear. The thought of losing an irreplaceable companion into the darkness of the pit made us both physically recoil. So, ted stayed outside under a tree.
It took me some time to quash the imagination of your bear being carried into the woods by a curious raccoon, but I kept that to myself. It’s all about balancing risk, after all. I held you steady as you settled onto the seat and your gentle voice whispered, “Don’t let me go.” I replied that I never will, smiling at finding the profound in such a place.
This time, when we arrive at our campsite, you immediately set off to explore the shoreline, gathering shells, sticks, stones, and seaweed. Later, you set up variations on the theme of a camp kitchen, cooking up delightful mixes in your seashell pots. Soon, the kitchen becomes a lab for the dissection of seaweed using the small but very sharp blade of my Leatherman tool. A few lessons in how to treat the knife safely and I step back to let you slice open the rockweed. My nerves tense, with only the occasional glance at the inch-long scar on my left index finger—a reminder of a small slip of a penknife when I was your age.
Whatever small risk there might be, it’s rewarded by your delight at the complex and fibrous structure inside the seaweed’s air bladders. Watching you discover this for yourself reminds me of that first bikepacking morning as you emerged from our tent to look over the North Sea. This is what I can offer to you through these trips, the chance to discover. This is why.
Already, you seem so much more aware than I must have been at your age. On one of our earlier Gulf Islands trips, we met a lady belonging to one of the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations at a point overlooking some of the richest marine habitat in the area. We listened to her memories of abundant salmon in the Salish Sea and her lament for the loss of the great salmon runs, the rise of commercial fish farming, and the noise of endless marine traffic; the imbalance of modern life. Afterwards, you quietly reflected on how everything in nature is linked, in a way that I can’t imagine I’d have been able to at the age of seven.
It must help that these trips offer such a chance to experience the wildlife of this coast. We’ve watched a river otter pad ashore a few yards away, rolling in the sand before slipping off into the woods. You’ve learned to spot eagles and turkey vultures at a distance, listen to woodpeckers and ravens, and quietly walk near black-tailed deer so as not to startle them.
My favourite wildlife encounters occupy the two ends of the scale: one is the majesty of orcas passing by on a clear, quiet morning; the other is the simple pleasure that you gain from holding the tiniest of shore crabs in the palm of your hand.
Thirty-two hours have passed since our race down the causeway, and now we’re riding back up it in the evening light. In between, we’ve shared just the sort of time together that I dream about for the rest of the year. An evening spent on the beach, with you bounding over logs, photographing a pileated woodpecker in an apple tree (to my delight, you identified the bird by its call before you saw it).
I’m nourished by the quiet satisfaction of the best tent pitch I’ve ever managed, strong against the stiff wind off the ocean, but with the leeward vestibule pegged open so I can watch the moon rise and set over the water. I’d drifted in and out of sleep, waking to the sight of a deer close by, silhouetted in the moonlight reflecting off the Pacific. To my right, you’re sound asleep throughout.
Now, the view ahead is concrete and cars, but thankfully we’ve found a path alongside the road, on the opposite side from where we’d ridden the previous morning. The barrier that separates us from the traffic makes all the difference, and you can ride freely.
You call back to me, “I’ve got lots of energy Daddy!” and race off ahead. Laughing, I have to press hard on the pedals to haul my laden bike up to your speed. One day you’ll truly be able to outpace me, and every ride between now and then is a small step towards independence. Willing you onwards, proud to see you grow. Hoping that you’ll continue to love riding with me. And yet.
And yet longing for the passing days of your childhood, and the chance to spend these glorious times with you. We’ll never have this time again, but perhaps we never need to. It’s served its purpose of pure love and joy and learning. And the memories we share are the richest reward for the risk and the effort.
Hang on tightly, let go lightly.
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