Woke up around 5:30 this morning and thought about getting out of bed. Then I realized there was no coffee to make or food to prepare as Soph was hard set on a breakfast sandwich from the gas station and that didn’t open until seven. The firefighters were already at work. Helicopters were buzzing overhead. The smoke had cleared the night before as the wind died, but was now back with a vengeance. I’m usually happy to get out of the stale tent air, but my first drag made me cough a bit and my eyes started to sting and water. Between the haze and the noise it felt like we were in a low budget Vietnam movie.
Not having to cook, it didn’t take long to pack our things. Our food was stashed across the street in the back side of a bear proof garbage can. I had put it there late the night before. They’re usually clean on the inside and much quicker and easier than finding a spot further away or a good tree to hang everything from.
We dropped into the hotel where Soph had done laundry the day before. They said that we could come use the showers in two of the rooms after the guests left and before housekeeping went through. Despite a strict daily regimen of bathing and doing laundry in a river or lake with a picturesque backdrop of snowcapped peaks complete with bald eagles flying overhead; there really is no substitute for a hot shower inside the humid confines of a fiberglass shell and vinyl curtain. It is also nice to not have to check one’s underpants for leaches.
The gas station is the epicenter of economy and culture in these towns. The one in Dease Lake is especially grand. It is almost like a miniature Walmart. You can get anything that you need, but there is no selection and perhaps only a single item stocked at any given time for certain products. There is one toaster for sale. There is also a blender. Fishing permits, tools, cleaning supplies, pharmaceuticals, upcycled clothing….. All at the gas station. Considering the utilitarian selection of things that would be considered necessities in many places; there is an astonishingly large selection of knives, ammunition, and camouflage hats. There was a coffee mug near the register that appeared to belong the checkout girl. “That for sale?” a man asked. Quick to capitalize on the opportunity she fired back, “Sure, seven bucks.”
The parking lot did nothing to dispel the Vietcong storyline taking place in my head. Young lads in fireproof overalls stood outside. Maps on pickup truck hoods, coffee in hand, stolid faces gazing into the cloud of smoke around us. They were losing. The previous day’s progress had been lost when the winds picked back up in the morning.
On some level, for a town like Dease Lake, having a forest fire is a bit like having your country picked to host the Olympics. Overnight the population of 500 doubles. There is an influx of highly compensated young men with vast ambitions to marinate Mother Nature with buckets of glacial runoff hoisted with helicopters from alpine lakes or to head the fire off by leveling swaths of forest in its path. They come equipped with an insatiable thirst for cheap beer and whiskey which they ironically pass around a fire at the end of each day as they are relegated to temporary encampments setup in nearby ball fields while their bosses, along with government officials and news crews, monger the few rooms that are still available during the peak tourist season. The town works round the clock to make the most of the situation and extract every dollar they can from it as it. Simultaneously, they are doing everything they can to help refugees from neighboring towns who have lost everything.
We had been talking about hitchhiking through the smoke since Watson Lake and today felt like the day. I’ve stuck my thumb out a handful of times in my life, and I am always reminded of one of my early endeavors with it. I was probably nineteen. I was standing at the side of the road in Maui; arm and that singular digit that distinguishes us from chimpanzees to the sky. It was usually easy to catch a ride in Hawaii, but I wasn’t having any luck. Finally a little white Honda Civic pulled up. The driver, who appeared to be a local but it was tough to tell with how dark it was, reached over and opened the passenger door. I caught it and poked my head inside. It was clean except for a clipboard and construction helmet on the back seat.
“Hey, can you give me a lift to Makawao?” Makawao was the next town over. There was a place with nice fish tacos there.
“Sure man. I will take you anywhere you want if you let me suck your #$%&.”
At first I thought I had misheard him. After a moment I decided that I hadn’t, but I didn’t really know how to respond. I thought for a second that he was probably joking and there was probably a punchline or a “Hey man just messing with you,” sort of follow-up. I stared at him in anticipation of that follow-up. He stared straight back at me, unflinchingly.
“Ok, no problem brother, you have great night.” He reached over and shut the door, and drove off into the night. I decided that it was a nice night for a walk, and ambled on.
Soph and I stood by the side of the road; thumbs out and smiles up. We had a sign that said “Too smoky to ride, heading south.” It was Monday, so most of the weekend traffic had dispersed. Three hundred thousand dollar RVs with fifty thousand dollar Jeeps in tow would pass and the drivers would mouth “Sorry, no room.” It happened so much over the next hour that we made a second sign especially for them. It said, “We know you have room.” These are typically not the vehicles that will give you a ride. You’re hoping for that couple in a tiny Subaru that is completely packed to pull up and say that they can strap some things to the roof and put the bikes on top of that so you can squeeze into the back. It reminds me a bit of an interview I once read with a homeless person that spent his days asking for spare change at an intersection. He said that it was never the man in the nice suit and driving the Mercedes that gave him money, always somebody that didn’t look like he or she had much more than him.
Soph had apparently met Ben the day before and had made an impression. “Sure I remember you, you’re the girl with no pants.” As the story goes, she was doing our laundry at the hotel wearing nothing but her sarong because when you’re cycle touring you sort of need to take the opportunity to wash all of your clothes when it presents itself. I did not so much as raise an eyebrow. Ben was Australian and a helicopter pilot and his sole purpose for the last few days had been to retrieve water from a lake and dump it on and around some cabins to protect them from the fire. His 30 day shift was up and he was heading south, same as us. We tossed our bikes and gear into the back of his rental truck and hit the road.
“Aye’v fun upeer.” (Translated as “I have fun up here.”). “Get drunk, fly a helicopter.” The way he said “helicopter” sounded more like “ehlicopter.” He was tough to pin down. The radio switched back and forth between electronic and country with the occasional thrash band peppered in. I noticed on the display that all of the country artists had two first names. Not surprising, but strange.
Ben had a number of fanciful tales about getting drunk with his friends, passing out on trains, destroying hotel rooms, and committing other misdemeanors and in a few cases minor felonies. I could tell he was the kind of person that my mother would not have wanted me to be friends with as a child. I liked him.
“Well, this is Iskut, you wanna hop out?” Iskut was about 100 kilometers from where we had started the day. It is probably where we would have rode to. There was nothing there. Watching the odometer click away in a car was sort of exhilarating. Compared to the last month on a bike, it was almost like time travel. We covered in less than an hour what would have taken us all day. I wasn’t sweating, I didn’t smell, and my ass felt dandy.
“You know what, let’s go to Meziadin.” I said. Meziadin was another 250 k.
“Don’t matter to me, I’m going all the way to Terrace. Iskut looks like a shithole anyway.”
Aside from one pit stop, we drove straight to Meziadin Junction. From there one can carry on south, or take the split to Stewart and Hyder. We said our goodbyes and rode the final kilometer to Meziadin Provincial Park. The campground is set along terraced slopes above the lake with a few small islands and a little mountain in the background. The campground manager rakes the gravel of each spot like a Buddhist rock garden every morning and there are flower pots hanging from all of the outhouses. We were not in the Yukon anymore.
Somehow a day filled with very little physical exertion had taken a toll on me. I took a short nap, washed my face in the lake, and made dinner. I spent the evening contemplating the propriety of discarding biodegradables such as orange peels and the cardboard tubes from rolls of toilet paper in the outhouse toilets. I had noticed the night before that it was now getting dark by 11:00. It was the first time I had to use my headlamp to put the food away.