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My Life in a Volvo Wagon

Helen Taylor roadtrips western Canada

I met Phil in Whistler at our staff party one very cold and dark December evening. I hadn’t been in Whistler long - a couple of days. Growing up in London I never really had to consider how to get home late in the evening, there were always buses, street lights – never snow, no cougars and certainly no bears.

The party came to a close, we all left for the last bus. It dawned on me then that my lonely journey home would entail trudging blindly through deep snow, up a steep forested hill with the unlikely, but potential threat of hungry bears and cougars. I was lucky. As the bus emptied, Phil got off at the same stop as me, I recognised him from the party – we started walking. The frigid night disappeared around us, we lost track of our fumbling footsteps and instead, we lost ourselves amid the idea of packing up at the end of the winter season, and driving North.

Phil and I were inseparable for the rest of the season. We plotted routes, researched destinations and set about finding a suitable vehicle. We found the beautiful Volvo on Craigslist and called her Mary, after her previous owner. We picked her up in Vancouver before driving her home, later that afternoon, along icy highways and a snow bleached sky – our very first adventure.

Spring approached as the snow began to melt. Mary was nearly ready. Phil created a timber frame, with separate sections for clothes, food and camping equipment. On top of the frame lay our bed. We had a foam mattress custom made to fit the space and had a new stereo was installed - essential for long drives. I borrowed a sewing machine to make cosy curtains and we found a snug blue sleeping bag to match.

We left Whistler on a warm Wednesday afternoon. The morning had been spent finishing those empty in-between tasks and preparing to move. We spent our first night on the road camping beneath the the glacial laden peaks of Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. As the evening drifted away, the tips of the glacier turned pink before the whole mountain plummeted into darkness. We let our fire fade and disappeared into our tent.

The night was uncomfortably cold. We wriggled ourselves into one sleeping bag and wrapped the spare one around us. We’d left camp by 7am and trotted back to the warmth of our Volvo before driving on to Revelstoke. That evening we parked Mary next to a tennis court that backed onto the Columbia River. We cooked dinner in our makeshift kitchen before retreating to our mobile home. It was a welcome relief after a night spent sleeping on the snow beneath a beautiful, but freezing, glacier.

We continued to drive West through Lake Louise, Banff and Jasper before looping round and heading back toward the Northern Coast of British Columbia. We camped and hiked at various sites along the way, taking in as much as we could. We awoke in Banff one night at 2am to find fierce police officers banging on the car windows. Cold and confused, we were told that we were camping in a forbidden area, although surprisingly not asked to move on. Usually we found free places to stay. Our preferred spots were secluded recreation sites, when those weren't available we'd find a quiet non-residential road, and when those weren't available, Walmart carparks.

The most difficult thing about spending time on the road was resisting the temptation to hurry. We awoke one morning in Jasper and anxious to reach Haida Gwaii, we drove 11 hours straight to Prince Rupert, where we boarded the ferry to the island. The drive was beautiful, it followed the Skeena River as it became wider and wider, the mainland dissipating into a watery landscape of small forested islands as we eventually reached the coast.

Arriving on Haida Gwaii earlier than expected, we had time to explore before starting work. We drove to the northern tip of the island along remote and rugged logging roads which wound their way between impressive and looming forests. Occasionally, an enormous logging truck would hurtle down the narrow lanes, stacked high with precariously piled tree trunks. We’d quickly swerve our narrow little wagon to the edge of road and apart from a couple of punctures, she survived.

One evening, whilst looking for a recreation site to stay the night, we were hailed down by a couple sitting outside their large, well-established campervan next to the ocean. Two Chocolate Labradors sat quietly next to a hearty campfire, soaking up the warmth of its flames.

“Have you ever eaten Moose meat? You have to try my Moose meat.” Insisted the elderly gentleman as we sat down amongst his camp.

We graciously accepted the large piece of meat. He’d shot it himself, last Autumn. We found a camp, settled down and cooked the meat. I bit down on a tiny shotgun pellet. Did he really shoot a full-grown moose with a shotgun?

We stayed on Haida Gwaii for six weeks, working at a local B&B. Kind locals lent us sea kayaks and roof racks. Mary, tough as she was, conquered treacherous and waterlogged logging roads, laden with two sea kayaks, enabling us to launch our boats in some beautiful remote spots before setting off on multi-day sea-kayaking expeditions throughout the Islands pristine waterways, home to Orca Wales, Bald Eagles and ancient native village sites.

As summer approached, so did one of Mary’s final long distance road trips. We drove south from the northern tip of Vancouver Island after arriving on the ferry from Haida Gwaii. We spent a couple of weeks on the road, exploring Telegraph Cove, recreation sites on Campbell Lake, Ucluelet, Tofino and the San Juan Coast before arriving in Victoria, hunkering down and finding jobs for the remainder of the summer.

I am home now, we sold Mary before leaving Canada. I often think of her – we’ll always remember her. Phil has plans to relocate to the U.K from Australia, we’ll certainly find ourselves another Mary one day.

Helen, 22, is a writer and photographer who recently graduated from the University of Bristol with a BA in Classical Studies. She has spent the last year working and travelling on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada.

Check out an accompanying article in Sidetracked magazine from Helen's time in Haida Gwaii

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