This autumn, when I set out for the west, my intention was to explore more of British Columbia before crossing into Washington. Last year, I spent just one night in the province, traveling up through Crowsnest Pass, then staying at a motel in Cranbrook, before crossing at Kingsgate. Unfortunately, the weather that had imposed its will on most of my travels, once again played havoc with my plans. Strong winds and cold air blew in from the far north, making it risky to camp at higher elevation. Also, I found the campground situation frustrating. After stopping at a provincial tourism office to pick up a campground guide and being told that most campgrounds would be open until at least October 15th, I discovered this was not the case. Several times, I stopped at campgrounds that, according to the guide, seemed as though they should be open, only to find the gates closed for the season. However, I struck it lucky at Kikomun Creek Provincial Park, located a few kilometers before Cranbrook. The gates were open, so I drove in for a look around. I found clean, spacious campgrounds beneath towering Ponderosa Pines. There was no self registration info by the entrance, so I toured the place looking for a self-pay station. At last, I found some fellow campers – a couple touring on a motorcycle pulling a little trailer with mountain bikes and other gear. They seemed to be the only other campers in this large campground. I stopped to ask where to pay for a site and the woman grinned and shouted, “They’re free!” As I backed into my chosen site, I thought, “Hey, this is looking good!” Unfortunately, it turned out that this was one of those great beginnings that doesn’t get any better, but instead, slowly deteriorates.
The next morning, I continued on my way, stopping in Cranbrook to do a couple of loads of laundry at a coin wash. Believing that finding campgrounds would be a piece of cake, I journeyed onwards, planning to camp near Nelson. I took my time, stopping in Creston to tour the town a bit while stocking up on groceries. It’s a neat little town with many orchards and fruit and vegetable stands. It it were not for my plan to cross into the U.S. in a few days, I could have loaded up the van with produce.
By the time I reached Nelson, it was late afternoon. I drove to the park, only to find the gates locked. As the sun began to drop lower in the sky, I got that familiar sinking feeling – the one where you start wondering where the hell you’re going to spend the night and whether you should start actively looking for a motel room. I’ve noticed that my dogs seem to know what’s going on. When I look at them in the rear view mirror, they’re usually staring back at me, ears curled downwards into the “Oh no” position. I’m mystified at how they know when things aren’t going so well. That evening, my resolve must have been at a low point because, after about thirty seconds consideration, I decided that I was too tired to spend any more time searching for somewhere to pull off the road and camp. I called the reservation number for a chain of motels that are usually pet friendly. They located a room in Castlegar, so I drove onwards under darkening skies. On the positive side, I got to have a hot bath, wash my hair, and watch, “Darwin’s Darkest Hour”. And, no, Mr. Darwin, the darkest hour is when you’re driving along in pitch blackness on an unfamiliar highway through the mountains. On the negative side, the motel bill with extra “pet fees” cost $150 for the night. As per usual, there was no real place to walk the dogs before bedtime – just a steep, weedy, littered embankment. Further, there was a large commercial weed-spraying truck parked in the lot that, due to appearance and/or odor, scared Sage so badly that it was all I could do to get her to walk past. She’s a smart one.
The next day, I vowed to search for a campground before noon. On I drove, finding more campgrounds gated shut for the season. The guidebook listed one in Osoyoos, so I drove onwards with the hope that it would be open as the temperature would be a bit warmer there and surely they wouldn’t have closed already.
I stopped at a turnout overlooking Osoyoos (see above photo – click on it for a larger view). Below lay a deep valley with a large lake dividing a town joined by what must be a causeway. The hillsides were cloaked with vineyards and orchards. From above, it looks rather like a promised land. As I was standing at the look-off, a woman pulled up beside my van in her SUV. She stepped out, clutching a brass container that resembled a cinerary urn. Looking rather solemn, she walked to the retaining wall. I watched to see if she was going to release someone’s ashes. She undid the lid and then flung her cold coffee over the wall and up into the wind. It seems that things are not always as they appear to be.
After snapping a few photos of the valley, I descended to search for the campground which turned out to be locted on a “point” extending into the lake on the south side of town. From its appearance, the causeway seems manmade with about thirty campsites clustered at one end. When I arrived, all of the spaces on the south waterfront were taken, while the north waterfront was entirely empty of campers. I soon discovered the reason – a frigid wind blowing straight out of the north. Being more savvy than earlier on in this trip, I didn’t allow myself to be tempted by the waterfront real estate, but instead chose one of the interior sites that ran between the two frontages. It was a smart move as the winds that had chased us across Canada seemed to find us once again.
I tethered the dogs to the picnic table while setting up camp. A short time later, I noticed that Sabrina was missing – her collar had slipped off and was lying on the ground still clipped to her leash. She is terrified of wind, so I quickly intuited that she must have followed a pathway leading through some brush to the south side of the causeway. Sure enough, that’s where I found her, standing in someone else’s campsite, grinning and wagging her tail as she studied a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to Don. I walked up and apologized for her invasion and herded her home. I’ve since noticed how often she studies men who are of Don’s general appearance and will attempt to approach them. I’m sure she holds onto the hope that she will find him somewhere someday. How I wish that were the case.
We spent three nights at Osoyoos as the campground is almost on the Canada-U.S. border and my plan was to cross that weekend. Other campers came in saying the they had encountered snow not much further north. Even in Osoyoos, it was cool enough at night – the water in the dog bowl froze solid one night, but we were warm enough in the van with all of our blankets and a new, heavier sleeping bag which I’d bought in Medicine Hat. While I was at a local grocery store getting vegetables, olives, and feta for a salad, I noticed two young men whom I recognized from my travels — hitchhikers I’d seen along the roadside a couple of times. I hadn’t picked anyone up on my trip across Canada – partly for safety, but mainly because most of the van’s seats have been removed and it was crammed with dogs and camping gear. On my way along the TransCanada highway, I spotted other familiar hitchhkers – a man who looked remarkably like Pavarotti, carrying an old-fashioned black leather suitcase – two separate pairs of young men who were all wearing the same style of headdress that looked rather like a turban made from a blue and white dish towel, a scrawny teenage boy with a patient-looking old german shepherd. The pair in the store both had reddish brown hair braided into very long dreadlocks. Given the size of Canada, it seems somewhat odd that I would keep seeing the same hitchhikers appearing now and then every few hundred miles, but then, if you stick to the main highway, I suppose it’s bound to happen.
This autumn, crossing the border was uneventful, except that Sage has taken to jumping up against the back of my seat and resting her head atop mine, with her front feet on my shoulders, every time we pull up beside any type of kiosk or drive-thru window. I expect it looks as though I’m wearing a barking coonskin hat. She growled and barked at the customs officer as he tried to ask the standard questions about whether I had any produce or other items to declare. When he got to the one about whether I had anything with me that I intended to leave in the United States, I pointed upwards and said something like, “If this keeps up, I may consider that possibility. The customs guy stifled a laugh as he handed me my passport and waved us on. That was the extent of my visit in B.C. I hope to do better next time.
From Osoyoos, we drove southward through central Washington, along the U.S. section of the Okanogan River and then through the Wenatchee National Forest. On both sides of the border, I saw more apples than one could ever hope to see. The apple harvest was in full swing everywhere, and the orchards were full of pickers. Likewise, the highway was teeming with transport trucks hauling crates of fruit to storage and shipping facilities.
I continued on down to the Columbia River and crossed at Umatilla, then did the westward run up the south side of the Gorge, reaching the eastern limits of Portland right around dark. Last year, I got horribly lost in Portland after dark – to the point that I was just short of crying in frustration. I did much better this time, ripping through with the rest of the pack and heading south down I-5 to that night’s destination near Salem. With the passage of a year, I’ve noticed quite a difference in my ability to pilot us on crowded freeways without the aid of a navigator. That said, I certainly wish I had my co-pilot with me once more.