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'Trans Canadian Muskox'

A special journey with The Goat, The Bull, and The Muskox

By Scott Wilson


  Chapter: Clarity


    The 'Wreckhouse Winds' hammered us like invisible rogue waves that rolled in from the forlorn Long Range Mountains. They crested mountains, channeled in valleys, and spilt onto the plain where they gathered force before breaking upon us. They were without doubt the strongest winds I had ever ridden through, so strong they had sculpted the landscape. There were no trees to speak of, and everything else was stunted, as though worn down by an endless storm. It was barren, yet beautiful in its austerity.
    The road before us was not a tricky one, there were no potholes, no off camber corners, no construction, gravel, or semis to get in the way, only the wind and rain. It was a simple piece of blacktop that ran from Port aux Basques in the south, and stretched north for three hundred kilometres to Deer Lake where it veered east for another six hundred before arriving in St. John's, Newfoundland. It wasn't tricky, but is was long.
    Setting off from Tofino, British Columbia, on July 1, we had been on the road for ninety-five days. A day away lay our goal, to watch the sunrise at the most easterly point in North America, Cape Spear. It was a simple goal to be sure, yet one on the opposite side of this great country we call Canada. As we hammered along, that goal was all that mattered. The battle with the wind was wearing on us, the muscles in my shoulders had begun to knot, and my chest was tight. I clenched the gas tank with frozen knees, and clutched the bars with head bent into the wind while Wanda clung fiercely to my waist. Our motorcycle, 'The Muskox,' charged on obediently. This wasn't the beautiful Sunday ride that motorcyclists endure the week for. This was an unadulterated rodeo of white knuckle madness. The rain pounded us from a dark malevolent sky in a near horizontal manner as the wind shoved, pulled, and bullied us as we barreled through natures garden. The mix of excitement and fear was delicious. The more I could taste it, the more things tingled.
    We had been on the road less than an hour and the experience was slowly coalescing into one that I knew instinctually to be a summing up of our trip. There is a time during every endeavour when a moment of clarity presents itself, for good or bad. A moment when the inner acceptance that we will succeed, or fail, is finally acknowledged and the corresponding emotions wash over us. Our moment was approaching on that road in October on 'The Rock,' as Newfoundland is fondly called. We were fully exposed with nothing to dull the event, as though our clothes had been torn away. We became like the landscape around us, determined, unflinching, and unapologetic. It was a simple world, The Goat, The Bull, and The Muskox on a road with the weather. As if in slow motion our moment came, and in that moment we became pure of purpose, one singular focus. There was no respite, no shelter, no question of stopping, only a road that led to our goal. All doubts, fears, and unanswered questions had been collected up and slid into a drawer out of sight. The fact we had to make the return trip once the goal was attained, that we were almost out of money, that Wanda was still in her journey with health issues, that our relationship was somewhat strained, and that we didn't have a clue to what was waiting for us when we returned home, was all of no consequence.
    In that moment, all that mattered was the road ahead, and a sunrise at Cape Spear.

 

  Chapter 1: The Bull & the Muskox

           Nomadic by nature

 

    On July 1, 2002, I went to a 'Citizenship Ceremony.'
    I was fleshing out an idea for a book on Canada and thought it would be good research. The memory of the ceremony has faded about the edges, but the significance, and emotion that filled the room that day will stay with me forever. There's something to be said about the 'last step' of a process. To arrive at the end of something is a sweet thing as it marks completion, but it also marks the beginning of something new. The Citizenship Ceremony was no different. It marked the last step in becoming a Canadian Citizen. It is where the oath of citizenship is taken, and the certificate of citizenship is received. In short, it's where new citizens begin their journeys as Canadians.
    The ceremony was held at Canada Place in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was 'Canada Day,' so a bit more pomp was laid on as evidenced by Bagpipers piping their way into the room at the beginning of the ceremony. It was a nostalgic way to set the scene. The room was full of friends and relatives watching from the rear as those about to be sworn in stood at the front. Outside the sun shone as Canada celebrated it's 135th birthday while inside it welcomed this new collection of people from around the world. The ceremony was a simple event. I watched attentively with my friend Gene, and as the event unrolled I studied the faces of those about to take the oath. It was obvious emotion touched everyone in the room. Shoulders trembled, throats were cleared, and eyes were dabbed. A sense of focus permeated the gathering. My mind was racing with questions as I wondered what their stories were. Life changing decisions had been made a world away, and commitments taken to leave a life behind. Familiar landmarks and events had become memories, schools, mountains, shores, churches, festivals, and neighbors had all been cast adrift in pursuit of a dream. They wanted to be Canadian.
    Why?
    Why had they chosen us? What set us apart? What made us the focus of their dream? Why Canada? It was evident from the dress and skin tones of those in the room that they were a cosmopolitan group. Their points of origin were clearly different, yet they shared a common goal. Why had they chosen to leave their homelands, their jobs, and perhaps their families. There were the obvious reasons such as persecution and war, but as I looked around the room it was obvious that some came from countries that offered what we offered, well heeled countries seen as our peers, and yet still they were here.
    When the oath was finally taken as a group, the mood in the room transformed from nervous anticipation to jubilation as backs were slapped, hands were shook, and cheeks kissed.
    They were now Canadian, and in that moment I'd witnessed their dreams come true.
    I will never fully understand what happened in that room on July 1, 2002, how could I? I'd never experienced what our newest citizens had journeyed through to become Canadian. Their journeys were their journeys, each unique in their own way, and another reason I'll never know, is because I was born right here, just down the road at Burnaby General. I was already a member of the club, Canadian by birth. I thought about it, and came to the realization the closest I'd ever come to that kind of life changing event was when my mother chose to leave Canada when I was ten. In the summer of 72 she'd walked away from the country of her birth, and even though it had been her decision and not mine, I went along for the ride. That had been a life changing decision for her, and just as the lives of those at Canada Place had changed on July 1, so had mine when my mother chose to leave Canada.
    Until that time we had been a typical Canadian family, living as Canadian families do. We lived on Tecumseh Park Drive in Port Credit, Ontario, in a lovely house on a rather large piece of land. We knew all the neighbors, and for better or worse they knew us. I walked or biked to school in the summers, bumper hitched in the winters, and if I had time during lunch break I'd watch the Flinstones. I had a 'Chopper' bicycle, an impressive collection of 'Hot Wheels' and 'Dinky toys,' played in a tree house in the back yard, and chucked rocks at passing trains from the park at the end of the road. I was an average kid in an average Canadian neighborhood.
    Around my tenth birthday, my mother, who was experiencing some personal turmoil disappeared for a month on holiday. She disappeared a second time a couple months after that. When she returned the second time a sign went up on the front lawn.
    'FOR SALE.'
    The sign filled my head with questions, but as a 10 year old I didn't have the where-with-all to ask the right ones. Instead I watched, and towed the line. Recently, while writing this book I asked my mother why she'd made the decision to leave her beautiful home and life behind.
    She'd thought about it for a second, then said, "I needed to find solace."
    "Why the Isle of Man?" I asked.
    "Because I didn't know anyone there," she replied.
    She didn't know anyone there...well, either did I. I didn't know where it was either. Didn't know where England was for that matter, or Europe. I was 10 years old. All I knew was I had to sell my toys in a garage sale and say goodbye to my friends. I soon learned the Isle of Man was a small island in the Irish Sea lost between England and Ireland, and at 32 miles long and 14 wide, was big enough to make it on to some maps, but not all.
    A plane skipped us across the Atlantic to London, England, then another, a Vickers Viscount prop job took us the last leg to Ronaldsway Airport in the Isle of Man. For a ten year old it seemed like a long way to go, and indeed it was. We weren't 'relocating' to another province, we were trading one life for another. My mother was 46 at the time, and had decided to move to the Island and take my brother Kevin who was 15, and myself. My two eldest brothers, Tony and George remained in Canada.
    As our new adventure began to unfold the first thing I noticed when we arrived was that everything was different. Everything was older, smaller, and more expensive. From the black cab that waited at the airport to take us to our new life, to the way in which the locals talked. 'Ta,' meant thank you, 'Tura,' was goodbye, and 'Dumbell's Row' was a row of houses sewn together at the hips down in Laxey Valley. The houses were an unusual collection for us Canadians who were used to yards, but normal for the locals. The front 'whitewashed' stone wall of the row crowded in on the sidewalk next to the road and rambled into the distance. It was evenly punctuated by vacant windows and doors painted different colours, and sitting on their dreary grey slate roofs were chimneys that billowed black smoke into the sky from coal fires below. It was like a steam train convention. Dumbell's Row sat like a grandstand that looked across the valley toward 'Lady Isabella,' a red and white water wheel, 72.5 feet in diameter! It had been built in 1854 to pump water from the lead mines, now it turned on it's axle in the summer to give tourists a show. In the winter it was shut down, so my buddies and I would jump the barrier and climb inside and run up it as far as we could and grab a spoke, and hang on to get her going....and get her going we did, like mice running inside a 72.5 foot water wheel, all because we could!
    My mother hadn't bought a house, she'd bought a cottage, or to be specific, two cottages mortared together on Old Laxey Hill. The 'newer' addition was two hundred and fifty years old while the original had a century on that. We lived in the 'modern half,' and in time it became known as 'Rose Cottage,' as my mother's name was Rose. The older cottage was used as our motorcycle workshop. The stone walls were 18 inches thick and there was a coal burning fireplace in every room except mine. The ceilings were 7 feet tall with exposed black beams supporting white plank flooring above. The persistent rain was kept at bay most of the time by a slate roof, though basins peppered the upper landing as a last line of defense. I was given possession of the smallest bedroom. It was the only room in the house without a fireplace, instead, I took possession of my very own water cistern. It hung on the wall like a growth and would talk to me in the middle of the night whenever someone had to use the facilities. There would be a loud long 'sputshhhheeeeeeee' that would eventually taper into an uneasy silence punctuated by the occasional drop of water as the float decided whether it was time to call it a night or not. The 'loo' was usually up to the job, but if we had company there were always the two pull chain toilets in a structure outside next to the coal bunker.
    It was damp, puny, and an absolute blast, and that was just the inside!
    Outside it was still damp, but as my mother joyously pointed out on numerous occasions there were palm trees. "Gulf Stream," she'd say proudly as though she'd had a hand in bringing it to the Island. It used to make me laugh, yes there were palm trees, but any resemblance to Florida and the Gulf Stream ended there. The water was so cold that during our annual Darbyhaven half mile school swim each of us slathered our bodies in a couple pounds of lard to insulate us from the anesthetic shock of the pretty waters offshore. There were Medieval Castles, Viking festivals, roundabouts, weird cars, kippers (smoked herring), Loghtan sheep with 4 or 6 horns, Manx cats with no tails, and lots and lots of motorcycles and motorcycle races. We didn't get forty channels on TV, the Manx had whittled that number down to three, which dwindled to naught after midnight. Instead, we had a new landscape full of weird and whacky things to poke the imagination with. Imagine driving to school in Castletown and passing a section of road where the trees from opposite sides leaned toward each other and shook leaves above to form a tunnel. The section, marked by whitewashed rocks on either side, was called the 'Fairy Bridge.' This was the place where the 'Little People' hung out, the Fairies, and it was custom to bid them a good day on passing by, or, as superstition went, some misfortune might befall you. I happily played along and with a smile would say, "Ee vi vonny veg," which translated to 'Good day little Fairies,' as I passed by the Fairy Bridge. They didn't get the Flinstones on the Island, they didn't need them for they had Fairies, witch hunts, and the Moddey Dhoo, a large black dog that had killed a guard and haunted Peel Castle back in the day. The Isle of Man turned out to be a very special place, as amongst other things it was a breeding ground for active imaginations.
    As our time on the Island progressed I couldn't help but compare the life I'd left in Canada to life on the Island, there was so much difference it couldn't be ignored. Life in Canada had been glorious, of that there was no doubt. It had been well laid out and structured with slots where everything fit nicely. From the shows we watched on T.V., to the cars on the road and the construction around us, everything had a uniquely Canadian, or North American form to it. That form had become part of us, and as the years rolled by our die had been cast. But the Isle of Man had a very different form, and even at ten I was not too young to come to the conclusion that there was more than one die. I realized all things weren't the same. The Island was old, very old, it had a thousand year old parliament, that's right, a thousand years. They were implementing laws when Canada was still bush. To move from a house that was twenty years old in Port Credit, to a cottage that was older than Canada is something. To watch a motorcycle race from the same grassy bank on the same public road as spectators have since the days of the Ford Model T is something. To ride on a narrow gauge steam train dating back to 1874 as a regular means of transportation is something. I was experiencing things that I hadn't, or couldn't in Canada. Why was Rose Cottage built the way it was, or Lady Isabella for that matter. Why was her wheel 72.5 feet in diameter as opposed to 75, why a wheel, why not a steam pump. Why were there cats with no tails, and why the hell were those houses called 'Dumbell's Row?' Why not, 'Ham and Egg Terrace!' Subliminally the move to the Isle of Man was effecting me in a profound way, it was changing the way I saw things. I started to look at them from more than one angle, which in turn led to a greater understanding and appreciation of what I was looking at. I stopped chucking rocks at trains.
    Eight years later I returned to Canada to attend McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. I dropped out a year and a half later, something inside was resisting, I felt like a round peg in a square hole. My mother's decision in 72 had irrevocably changed my path in life, just as those at Canada Place on July 1 surely had changed. My journey had been disrupted, and now there was a restlessness inside me that couldn't be ignored. I bounced out west and worked in Banff for a while, then bounced back to the Isle of Man to watch my brother race motorcycles. From there I hopped a ferry to France where I signed on for a five year stint in the French Foreign Legion. After that I put my training as a combat diver to use in South East Asia as a deep sea diver for almost a decade. It was there, in Singapore, that a diver buddy told me of a place called Costa Rica.
    "It's going to be the 'in' place man," he said, "You should check it out, land's cheap I hear."
    Costa Rica. It had a nice ring to it. I looked it up on the map and thought it might be an interesting place to open a dive shop. I flew to Los Angeles to buy a motorcycle and head south to check it out. Apparently there were some sweet deals on Suzukis in LA, they didn't pan out so I looked up the local BMW shop. I hopped a cab to Torrence, walked into a small shop and was sucker punched. I'll never forget that day, as it was the day I was handed the keys to a new adventure. When I'd walked through the door a lovely red R100GS sat in the centre of the showroom floor, I'd seen many before, but never from the perspective of buying one. It was ugly and unassuming, just as I knew it to be. Looks aside though, it was a bike I'd hankered after for many years, I knew it's story well. It was the bike that Belgium rider Gaston Rahier had demolished the competition with and won the famous 'Paris Dakar Race' in 84 and 85. Posters of him ripping across the desert in full flight on the GS had stirred my pot for some time. You expect to see camels in the desert, not motorcycles blazing through barren landscapes leaving rooster tails of sand clawing at the sun. They were magnificent posters that would stop me in my tracks every time. Since those victories the R100GS had gone on to conquer every Continent around the globe many times over.
    This time the bike received my full attention, I could've been a doting parent. I poked, prodded, and admired it's functionality, for that's what it was famous for. In all honesty there'd been nothing beautiful about it, it was typically German, all business and efficiency, but what efficiency it had. It was the Swiss Army knife of motorcycles, it could do it all, mud, sand, tarmac, gravel, it didn't matter what your preference, it would find a way to get you to the other side. I imagined some adventurer tooling through a remote village in Africa on a bike just like that. I closed my eyes for a second and thought about it, a man and his machine in the wild, when I opened them again, I realized I'd always wanted to be that man. Life was full of adventure, why not on a motorbike. I bought it fifteen minutes later, paid nine grand cash, the date was December 16, 1994. The nine grand paid for the bike and a BMW promotion gave me seven hundred and fifty dollars towards accessories. I returned the following day to pick her up, and wearing a new bright blue Thor Enduro Jacket I rode out the door and headed south without an inkling of what to do, or where to go. All I knew was Costa Rica was down there somewhere. I returned two and a half months later with 13,500 miles on the clock. The beginning of a beautiful relationship had been established.
    My 'Beemer,' as BMW motorcycles are called, became my sidekick and friend. We went everywhere together, she never turned down a challenge, and more importantly she made sense. She had one purpose, to explore, and that suited me fine. My time in South East Asia was over, I had circled the globe and was now back in North America. I didn't realize it at the time, but subliminally I was slowly gravitating my way back to the beginning. I paused for a while in Los Angeles and wrote a script with aspirations of becoming an actor. I shopped it around to no avail, and a year and a half later piled my unwanted efforts into a dumpster, put my Beemer in storage and left.
    That was sixteen years ago. Today my Beemer sits in the basement. One of my brothers suggested I sell her, but I couldn't. It had taken me on that first trip to Costa Rica, across the States, to the Yukon, Alaska, the Arctic Circle, and around town a couple thousand times. The odometer had stopped working at 60,000 miles, we had history and yarns to tell. Every time I glanced at her she whimsically took me back to an exotic destination we'd visited together, like the Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala, or the Grand Canyon in Arizona, or Diamond Tooth Gerties in Dawson City, Yukon. There was so much history, how could I possibly part with such nostalgia.
    At one point our bond had become so strong that an idea had formed in my head. Wouldn't it be cool to ride across Canada and write a book about the adventure. The idea stuck and the first stages of planning were taken when I applied for, and received a personalized Yukon license plate that read, 'MUSKOX'. I liked the idea of 'The Muskox,' there was something about the hairy creatures that roamed the far north that intrigued me. I think it was their upside down horns that first piqued my interest, and any animal that could survive in the Arctic deserved a closer look. What a hardy beast, just as my Beemer was! The more I researched them, the more the excitement grew within. I found out they were not part of the buffalo family as I'd originally thought, but were relatives to the goat. The Inuit called them 'Omingmak,' or 'the bearded one,' because of their shaggy hair. They impressed me. They were cool, dignified, and ungainly in an offbeat kind of way....and nomadic by nature....kinda the way I saw my Beemer, and myself for that matter, except for the 'cool' part. I pictured riding across Canada on a Muskox. The concept appealed to me. A book about a Bull, (I'm a Taurus, born in May) and a Muskox ripping across Canada. I decided the title of the book would be, 'Trans Canadian Muskox!' The pages flew off the press that rattled in my head.
    A decade has since passed. The rattle is still there.

 

          copyright 2011 Scott Wilson All rights reserved

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