In the third article of this four-part series, freelance writer and photographer Liz Beddall shares her experience giving up life in Toronto to travel in her Subaru Forester, transformed into a dwelling on wheels, on a journey to Vancouver.
I was startled awake by the jingling and wailing of my phone’s alarm at 4:30 a.m. Waking up in the darkness of my tent at a campsite in Lake Louise, Alta., my muddled mind quickly cleared as I realized this was the day.
The was the day I would finally see a grizzly bear. But first, an espresso.
My blue Subaru Forester, speckled with water from an overnight rainfall, looked lonely as I stumbled out of my tent. For the first time during my five-week carventure
across Canada, I had made the decision to sleep in my tent instead of my SUV. The reason? The time it would take to flip my bed back into a storage space, as well as stow away the pillows and mattress, would have stolen time from what I’d hoped would be the best day of my life.
I spent the night at the Lake Louise Campground, located in the heart of Banff National Park. I could feel a shiver of anticipation down my spine when, on arriving at the campground the day before, I had noticed the heavy-duty electric fence that circled the site. It was there to protect against grizzly bears.
They were the reason I was up so early. I wanted to be on the road and driving along Alberta’s Highway 93 – known as the Icefields Parkway – at dawn, during the grizzlies’ most active time of day. I dreamed about finding myself in prime grizzly bear country since I was a child. I imagined they would be lined up along the highway, all smiles, waiting for me to take their pictures with my telephoto lens.
But one night away from my Subaru and I already missed it. There had been a storm overnight and the drops soaked through the corners of my tent’s nylon perimeter. The cold mountain air only made the dampness feel chillier this morning. Walking across the soaked ground toward the Subaru, I was reminded of one to perks of vehicle dwelling – my SUV’s warm, pin-drop quiet and bone-dry interior.
Bed-headed and warding off the morning chill in my Icelandic wool sweater, I lit my Coleman stove and set my one-shot espresso maker (pre-prepared the night before with fresh grounds) on its flame to percolate. This simple act would have shocked my friends and family only a year prior as I rarely, if ever, drank coffee.
On this journey though, travelling along the open road from Toronto and now finding myself surrounded by the towering mountains, I’d been emboldened to try new things.
An excitement for cooking had surprisingly developed. Three weeks into to my journey to Vancouver, I’d expanded my repertoire from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to meals like wild salmon, slow cooked over an open fire and served with rice and a fresh salad. Who was I becoming?
I now found delight in chopping fresh vegetables on one of the tabletops that slid out perfectly from the back of the storage and sleeping frame, built especially for my Forrester. I now planned out meals in advance and found ways to use my leftovers. Uneaten salmon, for example, could be stuffed into a ciabatta bun along with lettuce and tomato for roadside picnic.
My new life, half-lived surrounded by nature outdoors and half in the streamlined interior of my Forrester, allowed the opportunity to indulge in simple and sometimes childlike pleasures: taking joy in cooking, making practical and aspirational lists, exploring natural wonders and tracking down wild animals.
It was the prospect of the latter that catapulted me awake at 4:30 a.m., and I was soon behind the wheel of my SUV, poorly made coffee in my cup holder, and rolling along Highway 93 on my more than 230-kilometre journey to the town of Jasper.
I was virtually the only vehicle on the Icefields Parkway. As I drove, I watched the morning light thrust like daggers across the valley when the sun rose over the mountain peaks. I watched a coyote – golden in the sunlight – wandering carefree along the side of the road.
I came across elk and bighorn sheep. I saw wildflowers in full bloom. I pulled over whenever and wherever I felt like it, which was constantly. I gazed upward at the Columbia Icefields — its creviced glaciers looking massive and otherworldly — and was charmed by the gigantic crow that seemed to follow me from each roadside scenic lookout to the next.
I reflected, as I drove, about driving. How else, I wondered, would I have ever been able to do this? To chase my wildest dreams with speed and vigour, to stare down all things that inspired me, and thrilled me, and even scared me. And to do it so safely when, less than 100 years ago, this journey would be fraught with life-risking dangers. I couldn’t think of another way to make this trip.
On the last leg of my drive, just before arriving in the town of Jasper, I spotted a bear. It was black, not a grizzly. But it was still massive – the first I had seen that size in the wild – and beautiful. At a respectful distance I pulled over to the side of the highway and watched as it sat on its hind haunches in the silence of the morning and gnawed on small mountain flowers.
This gorgeous bear wasn’t baring its teeth or performing for my camera. It was as simple, beautiful and solitary creature, much like myself, delighting in its surroundings.
I arrived in Jasper, completing my drive without having seen the grizzly I ached to encounter. But unlike who I was a few weeks earlier, I felt no disappointment. Those special moments on the road and being surrounded by nature made me realize I no longer had to chase after things. Even just having dreams and fantasies can be fulfilling.
I quickly devoured my cold salmon sandwich and got back into the Forrester. “I want to do it again,” I said like a child freshly off a rollercoaster and ready to be thrilled again. I began driving back south along the parkway and my waiting campsite in Lake Louise.
We discover if Liz Beddall’s vehicle-dwelling adventure has been worth it as she completes her drive from Toronto to Vancouver