A fork in the road. Rarely in life does the metaphorical appear in such literal form. Yet there it was, and there we were. Twelve dust-covered motorcyclists on a journey through British Columbia’s beautiful northern interior, faced squarely with two paths and three options: left, right or turn around. The homemade Dead-end and No Through Road signs nailed to a tree to our right made our decision easy. No man enjoys entertaining the notion of retraced steps, let alone our dirty dozen, so we fired our engines and tilted our bars to the left — to ride beyond the large, orange, black and very official “Road Closed” sign. Lee’s Corner in Alexis Creek was barely one-hundred miles away. This is where the riding stopped and the adventure began.
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For Palmer West and Jonah Smith, the founders of LA-based clothing line Aether Apparel, this scenario is simply field testing. A passion for motorcycling and adventure fuel much of what the duo does. They’ve strapped skis and snowboards to customized panniers mounted onto their BMW R1200 GS motorcycles and chased winter through freshly fallen snow in Telluride, Colorado; this January they rode through Death Valley.
This time around, the “field test” of a couple new Aether prototypes would involve multiple ferries, winding mountain passes and a logging-road loop through the Canadian Rockies that would rattle even the most seasoned rider. With Victoria, Bella Coola, Tatlayoko Lake, Big Bar and Vancouver as waypoints on our maps, our journey began on tarmac.
The route across Vancouver Island, from Victoria to Port Hardy, was a panoramic argument for the staggering beauty of British Columbia from the very start. Our 290-mile run along Highway 19 wound through the eastern slopes of the island’s mountain range; we were told there was also a coastal branch of the route, but that would have to wait: we had a ferry to catch. It was the last one for two weeks; the bulk of the tourist crowd having since reported back to offices and classroom duty, the service had scaled back for the fall.
All gravel, this essential umbilical runs 27 miles long in total and features 18% ascents, 180-degree switchbacks and areas barely wide enough for an F-150. It’s also bordered by an unguarded cliff face that drops off into nothing for hundreds of feet.
Our destination, the town of Bella Coola, is barely a dot on the map, but after almost 20 hours at sea — including a 1:00 a.m. vessel change from luxury ferry to skiff — it was a very welcome sight. The Chilcotin Highway, one of two east-west routes through the BC interior, and our first taste of dirt, had seemed like a mythical dream when trapped on our barge, bikes herded together like sheep. Now it was real and laying before us. Kickstands were up and engines were fired long before the ramp hit the wharf.
Constructed entirely using breathable, abrasion resistant, heavy-duty canvas, the Compass Pants are engineered specifically for riding. Increased articulation in the knee improves ergonomics and their uniquely angled front pockets are actually usable. Impact protection comes in the malleable form of D30 armor for the hips and knees. $475
The Canyon Jacket is lightweight, breathable, waterproof and saved me from pebble rash at speeds up to 30 mph thanks to its Schoeller-Dynatec fabric construction. Impact protection is handled dutifully by removable D30 armor at the shoulders, elbows and back. $750
Merino Base Layers
Naturally breathable, moisture wicking, warm and odor-resistant, Aether’s Merino Base Layers bore the heaviest brunt of this field test. They were our second skins every day in the saddle and every night at camp. $85+
Seam welded to seal out the elements — including microscopic dust — Aether’s Welded Duffle stood up to the rigors of airline carry-on duty and being strapped to the back of a motorcycle with ease. Large adjustable straps running across its top are even long and beefy enough to secure add-on luggage. $175-$250
We reached The Hill in no time at all. Essentially a logging and supply road linking the isolated town of Bella Coola to well-serviced Williams Lake through Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park, it was built by locals with two bulldozers in 1953 after Provincial authorities balked at the treacherous project. All gravel, Bella Coola’s essential umbilical runs 27 miles long in total and features 18 percent ascents, 180-degree switchbacks and areas barely wide enough for an F-150. It’s also bordered by an unguarded cliff face that drops off into nothing for hundreds of feet. It made for a hairy trek.
After summiting, we regrouped, refueled and enjoyed a well-earned cold beer in Nimpo Lake before diving down a logging road en route to camp. Little did we know the day’s challenges were barely a warmup.
Gathered around a picnic table, bellies full, egos inflated and headlights beaming down onto maps, we rejigged our route leaving Tatlayoko Lake. The original plan was to continue east along paved portions of Highway 20, dipping down along similarly hard-packed logging roads here and there, ending our day at Big Bar Lake. But elated from the success of our first dirt trials and fogged by wine and Scotch, we decided wanted a tougher route. An unknown, more demanding path was chosen. We were told by a local at our campsite that if we reckoned today’s roads ranked a “6”, tomorrow’s would easily hit “11”.
Stuck on rocks, attempting to climb into a 90-degree right hander and scrambling for purchase, I realized just how much I was lacking the how for the what and the where I was faced with.
It took about 45 minutes to reach our crossroads and pick the left fork; we watched the backside of that Road Closed sign disappear in our mirrors. Luxuries like smoothness and traction quickly followed it. The road wasn’t closed — it didn’t fucking exist. Packed gravel gave way to dust. Dust sublimated to stone and the steep drop-off we’d scoffed at on The Hill menaced our crew around every corner. Bikes were dropped and riders were offed. Sweating, swearing, bruising, huffing and approaching defeat, we trudged on. On a particularly sketchy set of switchbacks paved with geological marbles I could only watch as riders ahead dropped fully-loaded 600-pound machines and struggled to lift them back up. We all agreed that this section would be forever referred to as “The Canadian Road of Bones”.
Stuck on rocks, attempting to climb into a 90-degree right hander and scrambling for purchase, I realized just how much I was lacking the how for the what and the where I was faced with. Despite my earlier success, the street tires on my BMW F800 GS were convinced that slideways was the only direction available. Every movement became calculated. The throttle was feathered, the clutch abused; ABS brakes became life savers. I quickly learned to engage every sensual faculty to focus on my surroundings: I felt tires slip before grip gave way; heard suspension bottom out; fought my eyes’ desire to fixate on every obstacle; inhaled igniting clutch discs and tasted bone-dry panic in my mouth. This was as much a mental challenge as it was physical. I began to pick up on our path’s nuances, adapt and excel. It was equally the most punishing and rewarding experience I’ve ever had on a motorcycle.
Our final full day of riding was greeted with aching bodies, frost on our tents and excitement to rediscover asphalt. Leaving dirt roads behind for good in Lillooet, BC, twelve weary riders were reborn on Highway 99, The Sea to Sky Highway. Easily a contender for one of the world’s best road trips, Highway 99 twists, winds and undulates through some of the most picturesque landscape a beaten path can offer. We sped grinning through Pemberton, Whistler and Squamish before grinding to a halt on the Lion’s Gate Bridge in Vancouver’s rush-hour traffic.
With just over a thousand of punishing and incredible two-wheeled miles under our belts, our Aether motorcycle gear completely saturated in sweat, covered in dust and spotted with bugs, a few of us stumbled into a bar, sat down and enjoyed a cold pint. Dust around our mouths was quickly displaced with foam from the draught taps as we sipped our reward. It was here that I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror for the first time in days. I barely recognized who I saw. My eyes looked permanently lost in reflection, my beard was disgusting, and dirt had embedded every crease on my face. I looked like shit, but I had never felt better.