June 15-16, 2021
I roar out of Kamloops on Valleyview Road on my bicycle, shot full of adrenaline. On a quest to cover 483 kilometres of rough, rolling terrain before sundown tomorrow. After a quick latte at a friend’s place where I park my borrowed Prius, I’m off and rolling east toward Barnhartsvale, grinning to no one and everyone as the stark grey apartment complexes transition to tumbling green ranches, the hillsides thick with aromatic sage.
The road rambles, always in the direction of up. Clouds edged in bright sliver light churn like white water against an oceanic sky. A tailwind tickles the freshness in my legs as I turn over the pedals, my eyes sweeping between cherry-red farmhouses set back from the road. Songbirds alight on white fence posts and occasionally, I spot a red-feathered hawk, quickly followed by a sympathetic pang in my chest for the songbirds’ likely fate.
Soon, my GPS navigation directs me onto range road that quickly deteriorates into loose gravel, then disintegrates further into a potholed slope averaging seven percent grade. I dig into the climb, shifting my weight forward to avoid popping a front wheelie. Ponderosa pines infuse the crisp morning. Muscles in my forearms and shoulders grow taut as I grip the handlebars like the reins of a horse. Knees pistoning. Lungs bellowing air. In my head, I’m a brave, unstoppable road warrior. But the wandering zigzag of my tire tracks reveals another narrative, and I am this close to getting off and walking.
The Buckshot is an annual grassroots bikepacking event on the Victoria Day long weekend in May. While the Buckshot changes from year to year, a few constants remain. The route starts and ends at Riverside Park in Kamloops and covers 400-500 kilometres with between 6,000-8,000 metres of vertical ascent over backcountry gravel, doubletrack, and forest service roads in BC’s Interior. Lennard Pretorius, the Kamloops bikepacker and mastermind behind the Buckshot, crafts each rendition with an aim of linking up the best (RE: most challenging) local terrain. On my eTrex navigation unit, the 2021 Buckshot route resembles a wobbly oval, looping south through pine forest and grasslands surrounding Douglas Lake before veering northeast through Monte Lake and Paxton Valley. Then up the length of Adams Lake before returning south to Kamloops via Barriere and Westsyde Road.
This year the race was a local’s only affair due to Covid-19, and I questioned whether, as a resident of Kelowna—a two-hour drive from Kamloops—I fell under the scope of local. Instead, I drove out to Kamloops to tackle the route on my own once restrictions had eased. As my first solo overnighter on a new-to-me mountain bike—a drop bar Salsa Cutthroat with a wicked magenta to silver fade, dubbed Amelia after Amelia Earhart, the famous American aviation pioneer—the Buckshot would be a shakedown ride to test my equipment and fitness in preparation for the upcoming BC Epic 1000, a longer gravel race also organized by Lennard, set to kick off at the end of June.
You don’t know what you don’t know. And as I loaded Amelia into the back of a borrowed Prius at 5:30 am in preparation for the drive out to Kamloops, I began to realize just how little I knew about backcountry adventures.
An hour into the climb, the terrain levels out at Scuitto Lake—a kidney-shaped drop of water stocked with rainbow trout. After glimpsing only deer tracks since Barnhartsvale, I am surprised to encounter the motorhomes of campers occupying prized lakeshore real estate.
Other people? How did they get here?
Probably the same lousy road as you took, dummy.
Now I weave past more fishing spots, idyllic tree-lined lakes featuring a picnic table or two on a gravel pullout, making a mental note to return to this woodland another time to explore further. In the sun-dappled forest, I spot my first bear: a laconic creature who hardly acknowledges my approach.
“Hey bear,” I call, my voice clear and friendly, but tinged with fear.
The black bear turns toward me, its luxurious, cinnamon fur reflecting slivers of sunlight. I reach to confirm the presence of my bear spray—still there, tucked into my handlebar bag along with a sleeping bag and stash of granola bars.
My eyes remain locked on the bear, who has resumed foraging. Head down in the bushes, its great spine merges with the landscape—an indistinguishable lump that could be mistaken for a half-decomposed stump or a pile of rotten leaves. I don’t pull out my camera. Despite the bear’s seemingly easygoing attitude, I’m not keen to push my luck. Better to keep rolling and store this experience in my memory bank.
The next bear encounter comes less than ten minutes later. This one—a lanky animal rooting around in the ditch—pops onto its hind legs to rise from surrounding shrubbery like the thumb of a clenched fist. I reach for the bear spray as I call another “Hey bear.” With a crash, the bear turns on its heels to dart into the bushes.
An adage comes to mind: “BC stands for Bear Country.” Seems about right.
By early afternoon, I expected to reach the store at Douglas Lake Ranch. Instead, I find myself under the bowing wires of a massive power line. The pink directional line on my digital map follows a worn set of tire tracks down into the clearing, then veers left, losing the tracks altogether. After an uphill hike-a-bike followed by a disorienting bushwhack, I pop out on a rough trail, which widens to a doubletrack, then to my relief, returns to a gravel forest service road. In the realm of bikepacking, I discover, the term road is a loose catchall that includes infrastructure both real and imagined.
I munch though another granola bar and look at my mileage: four hours and less than seventy kilometres. At this rate, I won’t reach the store at Douglas Lake Ranch before it closes at 4:30 pm. I won’t make the market at Monte Lake before it closes at 7:00 pm, and I definitely won’t get to the gas station in Squilax before locks up at 9:00 pm. My chest tightens in panic as I tally up my granola bars: four. Four measly bars to see me through the next couple hundred kilometres until the next guaranteed refuel in Barriere.
In other words, I’m screwed.
After a decade of commuting and bicycle touring, plus a few years of randonneur cycling and ultra-endurance racing, I consider myself a reasonably competent cyclist. I’ve pedalled across Canada, America, and Europe. I thought, at the very least, I understood how distance and speed interacted.
But that was before I knew that off-road miles do not equate road miles, and much like the bears I’d encountered, pacing proves unpredictable. On a route like the Buckshot, I can’t guess what comes next when I round a corner: gravel, pavement, trail, or water obstacle.
Thankfully, a downhill propels me toward Douglas Lake. The gravel road sweeps slow, sultry curves through verdant rolling hills accented with waves of purple lupins. I welcome the grasslands: the freedom of wide-open spaces. Clouds sweep overhead as if they have someplace far more important to be as I hover low over the bars, grit my teeth, and hammer fast and hard down the stony gravel descent.
Just when I hope Douglas Lake Ranch Store might appear on my horizon, I round a bend and crash into the teeth of a formidable headwind. Down to just two granola bars now. The necessity of opening and closing a series of rickety, barbed wire cattle gates that block the way causes my pace to dwindle further. Every time I hop off Amelia to unhinge another gate, my chances of reaching the resupply site drop.
Then my fate changes again when I discover Old Mom’s General Store in Upper Nicola, a Syilx community on the western corner of Douglas Lake. Old Mom’s—unlisted on Google maps and located several kilometres before the ranch store—comes as such a relief, I wonder at first if it’s an apparition. Once inside I purchase energy food: eight Snickers, two deli sandwiches, chocolate milk, and Hawkins cheezies. Then I return for Swedish berries and pepperoni sticks, just to be safe. I’m too shy to ask the middle-aged woman behind the counter if she is Old Mom, but thank her profusely as I cart out my provisions.
The wind has shifted in my favour, and I make great time on the fast gravel through Douglas Lake Ranch (though the store is long closed by the time I reach it). A badger ambles across the road in front of me and I wonder if this first real-life badger I’ve seen. I think it is. I’ve never been to this great swath of land—Canada’s largest cattle ranch—east of Merritt before either, but I have a family connection: my Grandma Betsy worked as a personal chef for Chunky Woodward (of Woodward’s department store fame) back when he owned it in the 1970s. My grandmother, who didn’t drive, cooked for guests flown in for weekend dinner parties. She eventually left the ranch because she found the work lonely, a sentiment that resonates as I roll past miles of grazing cattle without another person in sight. The ranch is now operated by some American billionaire who has been making the news lately for cutting off water access to the surrounding lakes, and frustrating local anglers.
I reach a second refuel at Monte Lake Store before closing time as well. Though pleased that I’ve been able to make up time, with sundown fast approaching I don’t dare idle. But when a man with a motorcycle helmet tucked under one arm greets me by name, I cease glugging my chocolate milk long enough to say hello.
“I’m Lennard!” he says. “I’ve been following your progress on the Tracker.”
My brain wraps around itself trying to piece this one together, but eventually, I connect the dots: I recently registered my tracking device for the upcoming BC Epic 1000 and because I’m carrying that tracking device with me now, Lennard Pretorius, the organizer of both events, has been able to track my current location on the online Tracker. I ask Lennard how he comes up with these routes, and he shares his extensive riding history in the area.
“I despise pavement,” he says with a grin.
I laugh in response, thinking about all those hours and days on my road bike. I look down at my dusty legs, shoes wet from a stream crossing. “Things certainly are more interesting off-road,” I admit. “But don’t you worry about wildlife?”
“Nah, not really. I mean, there’s bears and cougars out there, plus moose and elk. You’ve got to be aware, but it’s cars that worry me.”
Lennard’s words play over in my head as I ride toward Paxton Valley on quiet unpaved roads. A couple of pickup trucks with local farmers pass as I huff up the steep climb leaving the store, but I doubt some of these roads—quad trails and pinecone-strewn forest service roads—have seen traffic for days. Moody conifers arch over the narrow road to create tunnels of low light. Emersed in these dark, enchanted woods, my heart kicks up again: wonder mingling with anxiety. In a few hours, the woods will be darker still. Signal on my cell phone is poor to none. I consider my fears: wildlife, cars, and lying famished or injured on the side of an ATV track seldom visited outside the hunting season. I do carry a tracking device with an emergency call button that dispatches Search and Rescue to my precise location, but what if I crashed, and couldn’t reach the button?
Shut up, brain.
Heavy gray clouds pool overhead before sundown sweeps through with bands of tangerine and crimson. A storm is eminent. I lay into the pedals, unsure of where exactly I’m headed but keen to arrive somewhere before the rain. The landscape expands like pages of an open coffee table book when I reach Turtle Valley. Signs of agriculture—fences, horses, barns, and pens—are pleasantly reassuring after hours in the wild. Distant hills roll into mountains that assert their presence in evening’s faltering light.
I’m so absorbed watching the last vestiges of sun play off the mountaintops, I fail to notice a shaggy white farm dog until its snapping jaw nearly takes a bite out of my ankle. I shriek. I shriek again. The dog continues to thrash at my heels, matching my own acceleration. In an all-out gravel sprint, I unleash a string of obscenities that I shall never, ever repeat, while squeezing every watt of power from my legs.
Long after I’ve dropped the canine attacker my heart continues to slam.
I sleep that night on the pebbled shore of Adams Lake. Though I could opt to shelter in woods, the shoreline is where I find comfort. Despite cracking thunder, the sky releases little more than a sprinkle. The storm dances a circle around my geographic location. Slivers of moonlight escape the cloud curtain to reflect off the water and I don’t need a headlamp to make out the shape of things. I string a tarp overhead in case the weather changes overnight.
I awake to dawn’s clear, bright light, the water smooth as glass. A few wrinkled clouds patch over a pale sky. For a few minutes, I lie in the comfort of my bivvy sack, enjoying the quietude as I munch through another Snickers.
That changes when I’m back on the bike. Adam’s Lake Road, it turns out, is an active logging road. And 6:00 am is peak time for hauling logs out of the bush in fire season. I gasp for breath every time a massive rig passes by, veering as far as I dare to the right without going over the drop-off. It’s not until the route loops west toward Barriere on a winding four by four track that I’m alone again. Legs heavy with accumulated fatigue as I inch up another climb in recently re-planted woods. Bear scat everywhere.
But it’s up, not down, where my attention goes, toward the hazy blue ridgelines of surrounding mountains, and the peaks of treetops in ranks so thick, their presence blurs into a wash of brilliant green. An osprey nest the size of a kiddy pool perches at the top of the tallest, deadest, tree around. From between the crown of woven branches a pair of yellow eyes stares back at me. I stop entirely and put a foot down. With no crunch of gravel beneath my tires, I notice the squeaky, hungry cries of osprey chicks. British nature broadcaster David Attenborough narrates my interior dialogue as my heart skips over in awe and wonder for what I cannot see, but know exists.
Suddenly, two furry black bundles that dash across the trail ahead of me. It takes a second for me to register that they are bear cubs, and that Mama Bear cannot be far off. The moment I make this connection, the ground moves beneath me.
Go. The word screams inside me.
I kick into the pedals, not daring to look back. A few more thunderous footfalls, then silence. I brave a glance over my shoulder to see Mama Bear in full reproach, jaw agape and one paw raised as if saying, “You’d better not think about coming back.”
My short, quick breaths gradually extend and relax. I loosen my white-knuckled grip on the bars and ride away from the scene muttering apologies to the startled mother bear: “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry… I wasn’t going to hurt your cubs. I didn’t mean to scare you.” This is not my habitat, I realize. I am just passing through.
My emotional outpouring surprises me—talking to a bear? I eat another Snickers bar and check my location, figuring I should arrive in Barriere before too long. Perhaps a real meal will set my head straight. Until then, I ride on high alert, every blackened stump and shadowed trunk triggering my reach for the cannister of bear spray.
The final hurdle arrives in a quad-busting climb up Westyde Road, just when I think I’m on the homestretch to Kamloops. I detoured a couple of kilometres off-route in Barriere to satisfy my fast-food craving for onion rings and a Teen Burger (plus a milkshake and fries) and then my stomach revolts. The mass of bread and meat encapsuled in grease lies heavy in my gut. Still, I heave my weight forward and pick up my knees to tackle the climb, releasing foul choco-beef scented burps as my digestive system struggles to cope.
By the time I crest the hilltop, my head spins in the heat. Nauseous and fatigued, I fail to appreciate the bucolic hillsides and spectacular overview of the gushing North Thompson River below. The terrible road conditions deprive me of my sweet descent, and I spend the final unpaved miles struggling through washboard hell until the road surface improves around the McClure Ferry. My only consolation is that the near-constant noise from the Trans Mountain pipeline work crews nearby keeps the bears away.
I reach Riverside Park in Kamloops around 5:00 pm in an anti-climactic finish to the Buckshot. No one is there to hand me a beer and say, “Well done!” Instead, a man in a Beavis and Butthead shirt shows me his space rocks.
“Where did you find them?” I ask. “Have you travelled in space?”
“No,” he says, as if space is a destination like Cancun that he hasn’t yet gotten around to visiting. “I found them right here in the river.” He passes one over for me to examine: large and angular, the size my handlebar bag but much heavier.
“What are you going to do with them?” I ask, turning the rock over in my hands.
“Give them back to the river,” he says with a definitive nod.
“Good idea,” I say, handing the rock back. For a moment, I consider sharing my own experience: how I braved backcountry roads and black bears over hundreds of kilometres on my bicycle, just to return to where I started some thirty-something hours later.
But my recent journey sounds as crazy as his space rocks.
Instead, I wave goodbye and snap an obligatory selfie of me and Amelia in front of the highwater marker. My stomach is twisted and my wrists ache from the road vibrations; every inch of exposed skin basted in sweat, dust, and tiny airborne insects. But I wipe my face clean on a sleeve and beam into the camera, my smile equal parts joy and relief. I’ve made it. Come full circle. With no one to share this moment, the giddy thrill of finishing pours out of me onto the pavement. A stunted, awkward chuckle escapes the back of my throat—a sort of happy hiccup. I raise my palms to the sky and let the feeling of lift wash over.
Then a buzz from my phone. It’s Maureen, the friend who let me park the Prius in her driveway.
You done? I’ve got beer, pizza, and a bed for you!
Get out! I text back, already rehearsing the scenes I’ll recap over dinner.
I’ll be there in one hot minute (or maybe ten, depending on Kamloops city traffic).