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The next day, I was debating with myself about taking a planned circle tour of the island on my bike, mostly to see the ancient petroglyphs that are down at the other end. I fought with myself about it, I was tired, I could always see them next time. But I thought to myself, what would my new friend/hitchhiking buddy say if I wussed out?
According to the description on Car-Free BC, the petroglyphs are quite faded and eroded from years of exposure to people taking rubbings of them, weather, and worst, people just walking right on top of them. The best time to go see them is later in the day, when the sun is not directly overhead and shadows throw the shallow carvings into relief.
To keep traffic to the originals to a minimum, Gabriola’s museum has created a petroglyph park on its grounds with reproductions of the petroglyphs, so people can take rubbings and pictures. As a former student of archaeology, however, I wanted to see the real thing.
I kept looking at the map, measuring the distance. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to ride the hill out of the campground. But off I went, convincing myself it would be alright as long as the road generally sloped downhill (it didn’t). I rode on and on, past fields, houses, the golf course, with occasional glimpses of the sea. The site turned out to be 12 km away. Still, riding was a good way to see the island, and drivers on Gabriola are pretty good about giving cyclists room on the road.
By the time I found the site, which is located behind the United Church on South Road, I didn’t think I wanted to ride back. At all. A couple other tourists rode up in a SUV that looked like it might fit a tired girl and her bike. They avoided eye contact – maybe they knew what I was thinking.
I walked up the path, which leads into a field of dry grasses and flat outcroppings. I walked around the outcroppings, most of which appeared to be blank. I came all this way for this? I thought. But there was no rush – if I waited and looked long enough, the petroglyphs might begin to reveal themselves. Magically, they did.
Note: I have enhanced these images a little bit to make them easier to see.
Others were less obvious, and could really only be seen with the help of a bit of shadow. I found that sometimes looking through them through the camera helped pick them up:
Still others seemed to be only partly visible, though after the fact, I could reasonably identify with the help of a catalogue put together by the museum and the local First Nations band:
After taking a few passes through the park, and feeling suitable outrage at the sight of a family tromping merrily over the rocks as they walked through the area, I had no choice but to get back on the bike. Rather than backtrack, I decided to cut up Peterson Road and return to the campsite via North Road. There are several pretty bays and such to visit on that end of the island, but I was feeling too tired to make the effort.
North Road cuts through a nature preserve and is a scenic ride with trees arching over the road. Lots of shade for a sweaty cyclist. But for the most part, it slightly inclines upwards, and I was feeling defeated by every hill. There were relatively small hills that I would go into first gear for, spinning my way up, before jumping off and pushing the bike, cursing. Trucks and vans passed me and I thought about hitching, but damn this sense of self-sufficiency that started me on the road in the first place. Mostly, I tried to think about the wine and cheese (Baby Bel!) I had waiting back at the campsite.
About halfway back, the road finally started to slope downwards again… whee! I went spinning down past farms and houses before FUUUCK! a huge hill. But at the top was the little town centre, and beyond that, the steep hill down to the ferry terminal and nearby, camp. I made it!
I was so tired, I didn’t even feel like going swimming. I rested, I ate cheese and crackers, drank that wine, and watched the sun go down from right out on the head of the bay. Perhaps three days of sunset-watching is overkill, but how often do you watch sunsets at home?
Speaking of home I was ready – for a hot bath, a hot meal, and a comfy bed. Note to self: stuffing clothing in a pillowcase may save space, but it doesn’t make for excellent sleep. In the morning, I again methodically packed up camp, ate up most of my leftover food, and strapped the load to the bike, which I still didn’t feel much like riding.
I again rode the pathway between ferry terminals, still clogged by the oldies and mamas with their broods, with a strong headwind for extra fun. This time, it was the thought of a hot cup of coffee on the ferry that kept my legs pumping.
Donovan met me at Horseshoe Bay, took my bike and removed the baggage. I was happy to see him again. I may soon be able to get back on the bike, too.
Two things contributed to my plan of action: the climate change whatever cheque from the government, and a friend’s photos on Facebook of her own solo getaway. The $100 allowed me to buy a rack and a pair of good-sized panniers for my bike, and the photos got me thinking of a way to put them to use.
I spent some time noodling around on the Provincial Parks website, looking for a place that would be easy to get to on a bike, yet remote enough that I could enjoy it in relative solitude. As in, few chances of running into carfuls of rowdy stabbers and their hoochies breaching the peace on the beach.
I found my destination at Car-Free BC, a website/book that provides all the info you could possibly need about destinations and activities in Southwestern BC that can be reached by self-propelled or public transportation. Listed under both bicycle touring and weekend getaways, Gabriola Island sounded perfect. I had been scuba diving there years ago, although had never set foot on the island itself. It would be a new place, yet small enough to be manageable for my first cycle tour. Plus, the campground is less than a kilometre away from the ferry terminal, so I wouldn’t have to go far with my load.
To get there, you need to take two ferries – one from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, and a second from Nanaimo to Gabriola. Bike transportation currently adds a mere $2 on the Nanaimo-Horseshoe Bay run, and costs nothing extra for Gabriola. Plus, ferry fares are return to Gabriola, meaning that if you spend all your cash, you’re not stranded there – though I could think of worse fates.
The two ferry terminals in Nanaimo are separated by a nice little seaside path. However, the path is clogged by the most dazed, meandering senior citizens and tourists I’ve ever seen. Sideswiping one of these wanderers with my hobo-style load was tempting.
My sister lent me a small tent, and advised me to make my stuff look a little “junky” to make it less of a target. So I strapped on a garbage bag over the load with bungee cords. It flapped in the wind nicely. But perhaps I need not have worried. There’s an unwritten code about travellers messing with one another’s bikes, and campsites too. On the ferries and on Gabriola, with nary a bike rack in sight (maybe one at the grocery store), I pretty much always left the bike, bags, and accessories unlocked, without incident.
Once I arrived, the really nice thing I found about solo camping was the ability to go at my own pace. I had a borrowed tent with no instructions on how to put it up, but I just went about it, figuring it out from past experience. The campsite was at the wonderful Descanso Bay Regional Park, which has a lovely bay for swimming (at high tide, in the afternoon) and beachcombing (at low tide, in the morning).
By wandering around on my own, I quickly scouted out a great spot for swimming, just on the side of the bay. It has sandstone shelves that you can just jump out from into the deep, cool ocean. (I only wished I had brought my snorkel and mask with me, the better to see all the varieties of seaweed, starfish, and fish.)
Gabriola was under a fire ban, meaning no campfires. I gambled on being able to roast weiners, and so did not bring my portable camp stove and propane. No matter – I could live on wine and cheese, and a couple of bakeries/cafes were not too far along the road for my morning caffeine needs. From my campsite, the cafe near Twin Beaches was the best, the other place being at the top of a wicked hill.
The first day, I had a lovely lazy beach day. The sun was out, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and you can walk along the shore for miles over amazing sandstone formations and check out all the little tidepools.
I checked out the Malaspina Galleries and then walked up to Gabriola Sands Park (locally known as Twin Beaches), where I spread out my stuff, and just laid in the sun, reading and eating. Perfect.
The only drawback was that the tide was way out, so to go swimming, I would have to walk over plenty of mud and shells and rocks. I did eventually switch beaches when some idiot’s cell phone kept making the low battery sound (hey! you! turn it off!) and found the tide was in much further on the other side. But it was super-shallow, not much good for swimming. I waded carefully to not to step on the little scurrying crabs (my astrological sign, y’know). However, when I got back to the campground, conditions were just right for a swim.
Later that evening, I was sitting around at my picnic table, drinking wine, reading, and wondering what to do with myself until sundown. A girl happened by, another solo female camper as it turned out, and asked if I wanted to go hitchhike with her to the Surf Pub, have some drinks, and watch the sunset. A tremor of anxiety shot through me, but I said sure. We walked out to the road, stuck our thumbs out, and before long had a ride with a couple of Islanders, older guys we’d seen at the beach earlier. Turns out she’d had almost my exact same itinerary that day. Huh.
Her plans were much more ambitious than mine, as far as camping went. While I was just off on my own for a few days to get away from the pressures of home and just reflect, she was planning to be nomadic for summer, camping and going to festivals, before taking a TESL course and then travelling for a few years. As we sat and talked and nursed our drinks on the Surf Pub patio, I sincerely hoped that I wasn’t boring this girl to regret, or getting on her nerves with my barely concealable anxiety about drinking too much, getting a hangover, or not getting a ride back.
The sun went down, the locals continued to gather, the band started up, and a weird guy who reminded me of my uncle asked to sit at our table. My new friend ordered us some margaritas. Oh, she was bad. But she seemed to tolerate me, so I tried to loosen up.
That’s one thing about travel… you have to relinquish a little control and squelch your fears. At the very least, I felt I could trust her “go where the wind blows” attitude and openness to find us a ride home (and she did). She had a wonderful energy – at one point she was talking to an older guy who was visiting from Calgary, and asking why wouldn’t he give up the rat race there to come to Gabriola full time and do what he enjoys? And just for a second, you could see him really thinking about that, imagining it.
She included us both as members of the solo female camper club, even though our ways and outlooks seem radically different. But thanks to her inspiration, I made this short trip more just a lazy beach holiday and really challenged myself.
To be continued…