Tree to Sea and Me: A North Island Balancing Act
Part trip report, part reflection, Miles considers the challenges of balancing work, fun, and new friendships during his route-scouting mission on the Tree to Sea Loop in British Columbia this fall. Find his thoughts on how it affected his time on the bike and photos from his ride here…
Until recently, I used to joke that I’ve taken the majority of my bikepacking trips with complete strangers. I take pride in my ability to navigate new relationships while out riding and enjoy the process of getting to know someone, finding rhythm together, and the sense of uncertainty that accompanies these trips. While in some sense this is still true, tackling a 1,000-kilometre route on North Vancouver Island was an entirely different beast, and it led me to all sorts of new places—both physically and emotionally. A few days before departing on a route-scouting mission, my trip partner Peter eagerly presented himself, and like every other time before this, I set off with high hopes and an open mind.
I’ve never really considered the potential consequences of meeting up with a stranger to go bikepacking. I justify this by the fact that the majority of people I meet, especially those equally willing to head out riding with someone they’ve never met, have been pretty great. In fact, I now have the pleasure of calling some of these strangers friends because of how well things worked out. I treat these experiences as a rocket-powered social experiment, skipping the fluff and sending us into a situation where both parties quickly begin to understand the other, our quirks, and our shortcomings. What I failed to realize is that what I originally interpreted as someone else’s quirks ended up being entirely my own.
Before embarking on this scouting mission, I’d spent a lot of time comparing maps, other ride reports, and reaching out to the smaller communities to confirm the availability of resupply and other amenities. Like most of the routes I’ve planned, I end up becoming very attached to them. The process is addicting. Planning a route can be almost as enjoyable as riding it. It’s so fun digging into a specific region, uncovering local beta, and finding interesting ways to link important points of interest together. Of course, I wasn’t starting from scratch. Avid bikepackers like Vik Banerjee and Gregg Strong have been riding and documenting Vancouver Island’s gravel roads for years, paving the way for routes like the Tree to Sea Loop. I owe these folks a big thank you, actually, because much like a full-fledged route guide, their exploits provide crucial information on the terrain and road surfaces that assist so much in making a route public here on BIKEPACKING.com.
As far as last-minute trip partners go, Peter was as good as they get. He required very little from me, seemed to have a good idea about what the route was all about, and was self-sufficient. Looking back, I’m not sure it was fair of me to bring in a trip partner so close to the departure date, but Peter held his own. At the time, I was slightly distracted by his eagerness to share potential alternate routes. The day before a big trip felt like a strange time to start adjusting the route, and I should have been more open to Peter’s suggestions. I’m all for being flexible if there’s a problem with the planned route, but I wasn’t ready to start making changes before we left. I wanted complete control of the route, and I can clearly recall several instances where I shot down some of his ideas rather quickly.
What I’ve come to realize is that bikepacking for pleasure and scouting trips are vastly different for me. With a primary focus on photographing and scouting the best possible route, taking side trips to ride down roads just because isn’t always rewarding. I prefer to spend far too much time planning the route so the actual trip is as efficient and surprise-free as possible.
This sense of tunnel vision has its drawbacks. I missed out on opportunities to discover more of Vancouver Island, connect with the people who call it home, and most importantly, I’m confident that it affected how much Peter and I learned about each other. I was so focused on getting the shot, confirming resupply points were still open, and covering ground that it was easy to pedal past some of the most rewarding aspects of bike travel.
While fleeting, there were moments when I decided to ignore my iron-clad agenda. We met up with a group of friends for the boat charter from Tahsis to Zeballos, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and spent some time riding and camping with them. It was clear they were operating on a different schedule with vastly different goals. Mid-day swims, waterfall exploration, sharing bottles of wine—I was jealous of their comradery and carefree attitude. On longer trips such as this, the obligations to document the route seem to weigh heavier on me, leaving less time for relaxing at camp or exploring off-route landmarks. We stopped at a couple of different cave systems during our ride—Little Huson Caves and Upana Caves—and I found it difficult to truly focus on the magnificent rock formations, arches, and tunnels around me. Get the shot, see the caves, get rolling. Was it unfair of me to bring Peter along for the ride?
Digging into this a little deeper, I’ll admit that I probably wasn’t the best trip companion. As much as I was meeting up with a stranger, Peter met me halfway, and I think I could have been more upfront about my plan for the trip. Personally, I get so much enjoyment out of photographing trips like this and don’t mind falling into a groove of mostly riding and capturing shots—another reason why I appreciate solo rides just as much as riding with company. I’m all for being flexible on the trail and adjusting the plan as things unfold. We rented a tiny wooden hut in Holberg when the weather turned, tackled longer days when we felt up to it, and never missed a chance to eat real food. Peter and I did a great job of managing our basic needs and wants while riding, but I think I could have been a little more receptive to his interests and what he was hoping to get out of the trip.
The truth is, focusing solely on documenting a trip (with plans to publish a route guide) when you’re with other people isn’t that much fun. Nearing the end of the trip, around day 10 or so, Peter and I had lost the spark of excitement that we had when we turned west away from the coast more than a week before. Thankfully, another stranger decided to meet up with us for the last few days heading south towards Campbell River, which added some much-needed energy into the mix. Brett, an ultralight backpacker turned bikepacker, turned out to be the 24-hour energy shot we needed. Being new to bikepacking, Brett was just excited to be riding with us, and it was hard not to absorb some of that. On our first morning as a trio, we woke up in an absolute downpour. Running across the campground, tents still assembled in hand, flailing in the wind like some kind of hybrid kite/piece of art. With our bags packed and all waterproof clothing in use, I was less than eager to get riding, but Brett was giddy with anticipation.
The last 24 hours of the trip were full of these friendly reminders. We rolled into our last campground at Elk Falls Provincial Park in the dark and were greeted by a camp host who said all sites were full and we couldn’t camp there. Within minutes, we were invited by two brothers on their own island tour to share their site, which led to two sisters, Hannah and Madi, joining us as well. It was a heartwarming experience to see three groups converge on this campground, all riding different routes but searching for something similar. Considering the inevitability of wet coastal weather that was drawing near, I had a lot of respect for our little travelling caravan of cyclists. I continued south to the Comox ferry terminal with Hannah and Madi, who were excited to tag along on some “official route scouting business.” I specifically remember suggesting we check out a small grocery store just to see what it was like and them both being eager to join in. We took a small detour for lunch on a beach south of Black Creek, pedaled slowly, and took photos, and as luck would have it we accidentally met up again later that day for a drink when my ferry was cancelled.
In the end, I got everything I wanted out of this trip. First and foremost, I scouted and published an exciting new 1,000-kilometre route on Vancouver Island—a route I can almost guarantee will see a lot of bike traffic this spring. It’s one that I’m particularly proud of. I spent time in a handful of new communities and regions on the island, spoke to locals, and rode with some truly awesome folks along the way. Most importantly, I was reminded of the importance of slowing down and taking detours when the urge strikes. It’s easy to get focused on a little line on the map, which single-handedly labels all other trails and roads as “wrong turns.” While I saw a lot, I know I passed by even more. I’m not sure if that is the outcome of focusing on documenting a route or just the hard truth about long bike tours in general.
I’ll wrap this up by admitting that I’m not one to overanalyze my bikepacking trips. It’s mostly just a matter of riding a bike, eating food, and sleeping. My realizations from this particular trip feel much more tangible, and while there were lessons learned, I won’t pretend that I’ve been forever moved by the outcome. Will I continue to focus on route planning and photography? Heck yeah. Do I hope to mix in more boxed wine, friends, and slower days? Absolutely, when appropriate.
The Tree to Sea Loop is a 1,000-kilometre gravel loop around the lesser-known areas on the north end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The route links massive valleys, oceanside villages, towering coastal mountains, and deep fjords via an impressive patchwork of forest service roads. Aside from some of the best gravel riding on the coast, there are opportunities for spelunking, whale watching, waterside camping, and much more. Find the full route guide here.
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