Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Yukon, The Belgian and The UFO.

I had a cooler filled with smoked trout, cream cheese and other snacks.  At 2 pm I said good bye to my Aunty Anita, grabbed my gear and began driving into the North.  My destination, Whitehorse, was over 2000 kilometres “up” on my map.

I hit a huge wall of hail just outside of Prince George BC.  I looked at the darkening clouds in front of me and saw what literally looked like a curtain of white solidity, inch its way down the highway.  I pulled over and my car was pelted with lima bean sized chunks of ice.  It lasted a couple of minutes, and was partnered with an intense cold air mass, heavy thunder, and lightning.  It was actually kind of scary.  But as quick as it came, it passed, and I was on my way again.  After a few dozen kilometers I could see the path the storm had made, every so often encountering a patch of highway littered with hail stones.  On one of these stretches, a green pick-up truck glared at me from a ditch; its roof crushed like a pop can, paramedics and cops arriving as I drove by.  

As I headed north, the towns got fewer and further between.  At 1am I pulled over at a school parking lot in New Hazelton BC and made camp for the night.   It was a tough sleep and cold too.  I woke up around seven and remembered spying a little breakfast place the night before while I scoped out a place to crash.  I went into the small café/restaurant and ordered a coffee.  A diminutive Asian man whipped up a coffee and I was on my way.  I had about 1300 kilometers left to drive before hitting Whitehorse.

I turned onto the Stewart Cassiar Highway at around noon, a thousand clicks left to go.  A breakdown on this highway would spell disaster as there was almost nothing for hundreds of kilometers at a time.  All I could do was keep driving and utter silent prayers and thank-yous to my car for continuing its reliability.  I drove through a smattering of small.. I wouldn’t even call them towns, places with names like Bell II, Dease Lake and Bob Quinn Lake.  These spots offered gas out of giant Mad Max gas reservoirs in post-apocalyptic fashion.  Post-apocalyptic gas prices are not very inviting.

At one point in the journey, I was dying for a coffee, and I knew there wasn’t a Starbucks or Tims for a few hundred kilometers at least.  I remember seeing a sign which read “Jade City: Free Coffee – 5 minutes ahead.”  Was this a northern mirage?  I rubbed my eyes and hoped I wasn’t slipping into madness.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, there was a small cluster of buildings.  There was also a sign reading FREE COFFEE.  This northern oasis was a small building, with giant slabs of jade, some worked and polished, others not, piled around its front entrance.  Jade City was a shop; I curiously went inside and looked around the establishment.  True to its name, Jade City specialized in, you guessed it, jade.  I grabbed a free coffee, grateful beyond imagination and talked to the young twenty something girl in charge.  She told me the mountains around were filled with Jade and they shipped a ton of it to China where they would manufacture the raw material into a plethora of products.   It was so strange, this shop in the middle of nowhere.  I do like me a free coffee though.

I have to admit, the drive into the Yukon was stunning.  I crossed through the Cassar Mountains and was in total awe.  It was a wilderness drive, on an un-lined and in some places unpaved road, but God, it was amazing.  There were times where I wouldn’t see another vehicle for almost an hour in either direction.
I crossed into the Yukon Territory around 5ish, grabbed some pricey Yukon gas and drove the last 400 kilometers into Whitehorse.

By far, the Yukon Territory and northern BC was the most unpopulated place I had yet seen on my journey.  The Yukon itself has only 33 thousand people, half of which reside in Whitehorse.  It is no man’s land.
My friend Geza back home told me if I was going to go to Whitehorse I had to see his sister Marika, and her husband Ted.  He said they would take me in. He said they would change my life.  Who can say no to an offer like that?

I arrived at the modest Whitehorsian dwelling and was greeted by Teddy.  Tall and lean, with glasses and a soul patch, he welcomed me in like I was already part of the family.  I liked him instantly.  We shot the baloney around for a few minutes until Marika came home.  She gave me such a warm greeting as well, and I liked her instantly.  We sat around and talked and it was clear, all of us were on the same wavelength.  We talked about everything; leaky Japanese nuclear reactors, sustainability, human greed and its impacts on society at large, and many, many other enlightening topics.  By the time I went to bed I felt completely comfortable, like I had known these two for my entire life.  These were some seriously awesome people.

Over the next few days, they opened their home and hometown to me.  They fed me, hung out with me, took me to cool places like Miles Canyon, a carved canyon of hard stone, eroded away over millions of years by the fast flowing Yukon River.  We boated up the river the next day and stopped on the island they were married on six years before during the summer solstice.  Sun beamed down on their wedding festivities that night until after midnight.  It was a magical place to be married, and on a magical night.

We went further upriver and scaled the sandy banks of the river where I took this photo, one of the best I have ever taken.

The beautiful serene Yukon.

I enjoyed the city of Whitehorse, it was more modern then I had expected and far more metropolitan then its small population belied.   It was truly a beautiful place in a beautiful place.  Again, my hosts were amazing and we got along so well.  Every day we had great conversation.  They also had some great people as friends who I got to meet; people just came over to their house just to hang out with them; that is the nature of the energy they project.  One fellow who came by was a cameraman with the CBC and said he might be able to get me on the radio for an interview.  

Awesome Earthlings: Marika and Ted.

Again I posted an ad on Kijiji looking for some gas $$ and some company, and within an hour I had a response from a Belgian kid named “Arnie” who was WWOOFing up in Dawson City and needed a ride to Vancouver.   WWOOFing is an acronym for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  It is similar in a way to couchsurfing, but you earn your keep on a farm where you are provided food and shelter.  Arnie agreed to pay $150 bucks which was to be about half of the gas in my estimation, and the deal was sealed.

Not only were Marika and Ted cool about me staying there not knowing anything about me, but they agreed to let Arnie stay for a night too.  So I picked Arnie up the night before our departure south, he had just grabbed a ride with a couple of young ladies from Dawson city, five hours northwest, and was waiting for a pick up down town.

He was on a corner in front of the Westmark Hotel where I spotted him right away, the backpack a dead giveaway.  I gave him a honk, and pulled up beside him.  He stuffed his travel gear in the back seat and we headed back to Marika and Ted’s.    

Earlier that same day I had received an email from a woman named Sandi at CBC radio requesting an interview with me.  I was more than happy to oblige, it was a six minute interview on the morning radio show, so I’d still have nine minutes of fame left to spare for the future.   The cameraman came through!

The next morning I woke up at six, my cell phone alarm jarring me awake.  I am a pretty heavy sleeper most of the time, but when you are going to be on the radio at seven, you wake up fairly easily.  Trust me.
So I woke up Arnie, we packed our gear, and I left a thank you note for Marika and Ted, two more awesome human beings I am blessed to have shared time and space with.  Geza was right, they did change my life.
 We found a Tims, grabbed some coffee and headed to the CBC building in downtown Whitehorse.  There wasn’t much happening on the streets at a quarter to seven in Whitehorse, it was cold and quiet, the sun was shining strikingly and I was surprisingly calm.

We went in and I had a quick introduction with Sandi, a mild mannered, middle aged professional radio woman.  She gave me a quick explanation of what was going to happen when we went live and told me to be natural.  What took place next was this interview:

After it was over Arnie who was sitting in the green room, said I did well and sounded like I knew what I was doing.  Good enough for me.  We went to pick up supplies and get breakfast at McDonald’s.  Arnie confided in me that he had NEVER had McDonald’s in his life, even though they were around in Belgium, and he had been living in Canada since April.  I was surprisingly very surprised and was kind of happy and disgusted that I was the one introducing him to their menu of unhealthy, sodium-laden, breakfast products.  We needed a quick meal, and so it went.  

That day we drove and drove.  We stopped for our free coffee in Jade city, and we stopped to make ham and cheese sandwiches.   We also stopped when we saw a bear at the side of the road, and I did a u-turn so Arnie could get a picture from 5 feet away.  The bear was munching on something beside the highway, and it must have been good, because he did not budge, very uncharacteristic for a bear.  From that point on we spotted ten more bears, all of them feasting on something drug-like on the side of the highways.

I had seen signs for various provincial parks along the Cassiar Highway, and was surprised there were personnel that would be working in these remote places.  I told Arnie I wanted to check one out, just to see how they were operated.  So we pulled into one, and I quickly realized there was no one around.  There was a giant board stating park rules and that payment worked on the “honour system”.  Basically you leave money (or credit card info) in a slot, take a permit and that’s it, you’re booked in.  Knowing how cramped it was with just me sleeping in the Honda, I knew having a Belgian who was over six feet tall was not going to be conducive to getting a decent night’s rest.  We decided we would grab a short rest in one of these parks later in the evening, if we could find one

Around 10 pm we found a one; a provincial park called Seely Lake.  Arnie set up a fire and I started up the stove and tent.  We sat around the fire eating Kraft Dinner (a Canadian staple I was happy/disgusted introducing Arnie to) and talked about girls, traveling and the similarities and differences in our respective cultures.  I told Arnie that the word beaver had a secondary connotation in Canada, and he taught me that “foof” was a slang term for the same thing in Dutch.  I learned that Belgium has as many Dutch (Flemish) people as it did French ones.

It was a cold night, and Arnie did not sleep well in the tent, he basically shivered the entire night.  For a European kid I was impressed with his toughness, I was a bit warmer in the car after all.
We drove another 1100 kilometers until we finally arrived at my newlywed cousin Candace and her husband Greg’s place around nine pm.   There was no one at the desert home, just a couple of loud dogs and a ripped up bag of garbage.  I told Arnie we would wait for a half hour or so then we would just keep driving, right to Vancouver if need be.

While we were waiting I saw a strange looking star.  It seemed way too bright for that time of night, and I asked Arnie if it looked out of place, he just shrugged and went back to napping.  I got out of the car and the thing started to move forward and kind of sway east to west.  I followed it through the clear night sky and it just vanished into nothing.  Weird.

My cousin and her hubby showed up shortly after and took us in.  We must have looked malnourished and tired, so Candace made up some Nachos, crackers n’ oysters, and other finger foods.  We gobbled them down greedily.  

I mentioned the UFO to my cousin and she said that her and Greg had seen the same thing, not once, but twice before over the last few nights.  They also told me a story about how they had seen a large one erupting fireballs the previous year.  Candace like me is a believer, Greg and Arnie were skeptics.  It was a fun and friendly debate. 

The sleeping arrangements were ten steps up from the night before; we both got our own rooms, and our own beds.  The next morning Arnie told me it was the best sleep he had had in months.  

We thanked my cousins for putting us up, and were on our way to Vancouver.  I had a 5pm ferry to catch, destination: Victoria.  We stopped for gas and Arnie stopped to pass gas, and other things.  The gas station had a single washroom and Arnie was creating some controversy by being it while the locals lined up.  One older woman exclaimed “What’s he doing in there?  Taking a shower?”   I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.  When he got out it was quiet the spectacle, a small crowd of  people stared at him and made remarks.  He took it well, making a comment how he had kept the seat warm.  Arnie was a funny kid.
As we left the gas station I realized I had left my phone charger at my cousins and we would have to go back.  Time, I realized was now going to be tighter then I had anticipated.  

We hit some traffic outside of Abbotsford, a hundred clicks from Vancouver and I started to sweat.  I was getting worried about making my 5 o’clock ferry.  I told Arnie I might have to drop him off at a skytrain stop.  He was a cool cucumber. No problem.

It turned out I did have to drop him off, just outside of metro Vancouver at a bus stop, but he was happy for the ride.  A hundred and fifty bucks from Whitehorse was a good deal, a couple bucks for public transit wouldn’t be a big deal at this point.  We shook hands, and promised to be Facebook friends. 
Arnie was great company, he was polite, sane, and an interesting conversationalist even in his second language.  I think I showed him some Canadian hospitality, and I know he will never forget about the beaver.  

Arnie the Belgian.Sharing, Sharing, Sharing (beaver motto).

I made my Ferry, and in a few short hours I’d be on Vancouver Island, and with one of my best friends in the whole wide world…

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