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Travel: Of bikes, ingenuity, and elbow grease

In the remote town of Powell River, self-sufficiency still reins king



Something about his shop drew us instinctively off the highway that curves Powell River's coastline and into his makeshift parking lot.

I still can't put my finger on it. Maybe it was the way his wooden façade stood slightly off-balance, as though each plank had been nailed into place at a different point in time. May it was the curly, white-painted bike sitting among his lawn grass. Or maybe it was simply that he sold bikes, and we wanted to buy bikes.

Whatever it was, when we walked into the belly of Suncoast Cycles that warm day in May, the owner was in the corner, hands covered in grease, tweaking the chain of the mountain bike hoisted up onto the wall with a wrench.

"Hello, hello, how can I help you today!" he said as walked over, wiping his hands on his black apron. 

I told him that I wanted to buy a new bike because my current one was getting old.

"What kind of bike is it?"

"A Kona."

"Oh, a Kona!" Frank carefully looked around the store at his stock: bikes of all sizes and shapes adorned the wooden interior, draped from the ceiling, purring their way along the freshly swept floor.

Finally he said: "Hmmm... I think you would be better off just fixing your bike up yourself with used parts, save you some money."

"But it is really a large kid's bike, and it doesn't fit me well. I want something with more power."

"Ah, well if you want something with more power, that is all in your legs!" he laughed. "If I were you, I would fix your old bike up."

His philosophy - that cycling was good for your health and therefore it was important to keep it affordable - caught me off guard. Here I was, freshly arrived from Whistler, wallet in hand, fully prepared to drop a grand on a shiny, new cross-country bike. Why was he refusing my money?

Eventually, after some gentle prodding, Frank agreed to show me a few bikes, pulling out three well-picked models that perfectly fit my price range and criteria. Yet, he kept hinting that, really, I should repair my $200 clunker with used parts and not take the easy route of simply spending money on a better model.

Of course, I was soon to learn that Frank's advice was classic Powell River thinking: always do it yourself when given the chance.

Located on the northern tip of the Sunshine Coast and flanked with azure ocean views, Powell River is a place where people build their entire homes out of logs collected from the sea. Homegrown tomatoes, carrots and chickens are a la mode. And if you want prawns and clams for dinner, well, then you don't go to the grocery store, you sign up for a fishing license and head out to the beach with your traps in hand (although if you did go to the store, you would find fresh seafood sold dirt cheap).

Then again, doing things yourself is probably necessary when you live in such a remote town.

Even though it sits on mainland B.C., the terrain surrounding Powell River is riddled with so many mountains and finger-like inlets that the only way to travel here is by boat or plane. A jaunt from Vancouver will take you seven hours and involves ferry trips from Horseshoe Bay and Earls Cove; and a trip from Vancouver Island requires a ferry from Comox. (Although rumour has it that an old, decrepit logging road called Dogwood Trail still runs from Squamish to Powell River.)

As a result of this isolation, life on Powell River's streets is slower than the go-go-go mode of Vancouver, and even Whistler. Waves go in, and waves go out. Shops often close down for long weekends. A trip into the town centre can take up the greater part of a day. And the many cross-country bike trails that entangle the temperate rainforest terrain are almost always empty.

For years, Powell River's raise d'etre was the pulp mill, started in 1908. At one point in time, the mill was the largest of its kind with one in every 25 papers printed in the world on Powell River-produced paper, or so the rumour goes. These days, though, the mill has been downgraded to produce for Catalyst Paper, and the economy is shifting towards ecotourism and arts, with B.C. staples like mining, fishing and forestry also bringing in dollars.

The second time we went into Suncoast Cycles, we came in wheeling a red bicycle with a broken shifter.

Squatting down, Frank gave the bike a few pokes, watching it.  "Why are you bringing it to me? Why don't you fix it yourself?"

"We've tried but it hasn't really worked. Would it be possible for you to try fixing it?"

"No, you should really do this one. Here, I've got one I can sell you. You can do the rest."