With some time to kill before haying season begins, a group of Alberta farmers saddles up to follow the grain they’ve grown as it rides the rails to the west coast.
From Field to Port
By Marvin Penner
Sitting on my deck on a warm summer evening I often see a motorcycle or two turn off of Highway 56 and drive up and down the two streets of Meeting Creek, but they rarely stop. There isn’t much to stop for in this town any more. I suspect they leave town thinking there is nothing going on around here at all. If that is what they think they would be wrong. While the town has almost faded back in to the Alberta Parkland that gave it birth, the production of grain that drew the settlers here in the first place is going strong.
The landscape around Meeting Creek is still dominated by the presence of the family farm. These people take pride in the fact that they play a part in feeding the world. These farmers are my friends and they are the guys I ride with.
We were having coffee at Tim Horton’s in Camrose, just up Hwy. 56 from Meeting Creek, in the dead of winter. Someone pulled out a map and we began to discuss possible routes we might take when the snow melted and the crop was seeded. Since most of the guys had never been on Hwy. 16 (the Yellowhead) west to the coast this was an attractive option. Add to this the fact that most of the grain grown in our area takes the CN rails along the same route to market and a plan was beginning to develop.
I enquired at the Prince Rupert port authority and found that we could arrange a tour of the grain port while we were there. And so it was decided. We would embark on the Prince Rupert Wheat Ride as soon the spring seeding was done and just before the rush to get the crop sprayed and the hay cut began.
It’s one thing to talk about a 4,000-kilometre ride over coffee in the heart of winter and quite another to actually do it. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself and three friends, Dennis, Doug and Darrel, packed up and ready to go on the morning of Monday, June 13. At 10 a.m. we pointed our motorcycles away from home and headed for the open road. We had six days and a lot of kilometres to cover. This trip was going to be more about riding than stopping. Just the way I like it.
ON THE FIRST DAY OUT WE MOSTLY traveled familiar roads, hightailing it out of the prairies. It was sunny and cool. The pavement in this part of central Alberta is mostly straight and the landscape varies from open crop land to rolling pasture. Staying on the secondary highways we zig-zagged north and west until we could get onto the Yellowhead at Entwistle.
Turning west on Hwy.. 16 we started to drive harder. The highway from Edmonton to Hinton runs wide, straight, and mostly four-lane through land that is flat and covered with a short dense forest. Beyond Hinton the Rockies rise to meet the sky and the Yellowhead becomes a mountain road that snakes across the landscape, then enters Jasper National Park where the speed limit immediately slows from 110 to 70 kmh. Nobody slows down much but it seems a good idea on a bike. There is always wildlife on the road. We passed bighorn, mountain goats and elk.
At Jasper we caught up with Fraser, the fifth member of our expedition, who had left from Edmonton in the morning and arrived at the Jasper train station before us. From here we would follow the same path as the wheat we grow, sometimes side-by-side, other times far apart and often crossing the tracks all the way to the Pacific ocean.
THE SKIES WERE CLEARING, SO WE fueled up and headed northwest across the Alberta/British Columbia border toward Tete Jaune Cache, BC. It’s a spectacular stretch of highway, where the Rocky Mountains soar, the lakes and rivers are bright turquoise, and the peaks spear the air with snowy tips: Mount Robson, the tallest of them all. In McBride, we stopped for the night at Beaverview RV Park & Campgrounds where Fraser struck up a conversation with our hosts, Dave and Jill Williams, who had immigrated from Great Britain and brought with them a beautiful 1958 500cc Velocette Venom that fired up on the second kick, and two Velocette LEs with their strange, small-bore, vertically-opposed Twins. Williams is a walking encyclopedia on all things Velocette, so if you’re ever in McBride stop by for a chat.
The Yellowhead offers endless sweeping turns of smooth pavement, while the landscape transitions between thick forest, high elevation plateaus, and panoramic views of mountains and rivers. People, though, are few and far between, and towns spaced widely apart. This is cruiser country. We set a pace of about 105 to 110 kmh, put up our feet, relaxed and enjoyed the scenes passing by.
Most traffic on the Yellowhead turns south for the interior of BC and Vancouver at Tete Jaune Cache. We left McBride and found a nearly-deserted road going north through 211 kms of wilderness to Prince George. Framed by the Rockies on the east and the Columbia range to the west, the road is punctuated by steep, windy descents into rocky gorges and a couple of black bears. The clouds threatened all day but it wasn’t until we were almost in sight of Prince George that we had to quickly put on raingear for the heavy downpour that accompanied our ride into town.
West of Prince George, Hwy. 16 straightens out behind a mix of ranches, farms and logging trucks. The mountains disappeared into the distance, the rain and the mist, as we settled in for a spell of bad weather before reaching the town of Fraser Lake. This area has an interesting history. A fur trading post was established here as early as 1806. The earliest recorded farm in British Columbia was cultivated in 1914, and the last spike of the Grand Trunk Railway—a forerunner to today’s CNR—was hammered into the ground. We found nothing to commemorate any of this history. I guess Fraser Lake doesn’t have enough tourists to support historic sights. Maybe you can’t have both empty roads and well-maintained historic sights. I’ll take the roads.
THE SKEENA MOUNTAINS CAME into view to the south and west, but the weather allowed us only an occasional glimpse. We really would not see the beauty of this region until the return trip. As we passed over the interior plateau we began to feel the pressure of the schedule we had committed ourselves to, so we kept a steady pace with few stops through intermittent rain. But the temperature had still not risen above 10C since we left home. With saddle sores, and cold, wet hands and faces we finally found ourselves standing around a gas bar in Houston wondering if we should push on to the port city of Prince Rupert or not. We called home for updates and pored over maps as a fellow biker emerged out of the rain from the west with reports of weather that was much better just down the road. Liking the sound of that, we jumped back on and motored west. Soon the rain turned to showers with clear patches and panoramic views of wide valleys and snow-capped mountains. Near Barrett Lake the Yellowhead drapes over a high pass where for miles we could see the thin ribbon of black top winding into valleys between peaks. For me this was one of the most memorable moments of the ride, or even the year.
While the mountains further south sport violent rocky crags, these are on a much larger scale with a softer but somehow wilder edge. I prefer the latter. And so we cruised, the five of us spread out over some five or 10 km of smooth pavement, watching one other lazily turn in and out of wide sweeping curves across some of the most picturesque landscape we will likely ever see on Earth. Sharing this road with hardly another motor vehicle, we arrived in Smithers, a postcard mountain town nestled into the Bulkley Valley halfway between Prince George and Prince Rupert. There, we stretched our legs downtown, wolfed down supper and spent the night.
In the morning the weather was still unsettled but at least it had not rained over night. We got on the road early enough to expect a timely arrival at Prince Rupert. By now we were becoming accustomed to the driving conditions. We’d ask each other questions like:
“Have you ever seen so much smooth pavement?
“So little traffic?”
“Such consistent headwinds?”
“Such consistent rain showers?”
Since the rain was not often heavy and never steady we agreed that the deserted roads and fine scenery more than made up for it. We were having the time of our lives. The 204 kms from Smithers to Terrace was the most entertaining stretch of of the whole trip. We crossed river after river whose names we had never heard of before, then took a detour on a single lane bridge over a dizzying gorge into the village of Old Hazelton. A centuries-old home to Gitxan and Wet’suwet’en people, Hazelton would be the northernmost point of our travels.
When we pulled into the Tim Horton’s in Terrace the sun finally gave us our first good warmup in 1,300 km of travel. We began peeling layers of clothing we hadn’t taken off since home and chatted with several local bikers.
We had been seeing signs of the west coast all morning: a bald eagle, the gradual transformation of forests from pine to fir; ocean-going boats in back yards and on trailers headed west. After Terrace there is no mistaking the change. The Yellowhead follows the Skeena River all the way down through the Coastal Mountain range to the ocean. As the river widens, the trees stretch taller until the road seems trapped between them. Even though our goal from the start had been to follow the Northern Trunk Railway from farm to port this was the first time it had really made its presence known. Sure we had crossed over and under it numerous times, but before Terrace the line had rarely been close to the highway. Now there didn’t seem to be enough room for the rails and the road to squeeze between rivers and mountains. Once again the clouds were trapped by the peaks and we rode into misty 100 per cent humidity. Then, in the last few kilometres before Rupert, Hwy. 16 turned away from the Skeena and we emerged from under the mountains and clouds to see the Pacific Ocean.
We gathered in a parking lot in the city with a feeling of accomplishment after riding 1,600 kms to be there. But we had still not reached our final goal. I called my contacts at the Port Authority to let them know we had arrived and was informed we could have a tour that afternoon if we hurried over. Or we could wait until the next day. We looked at the break in the clouds and decided we might not have another chance to see the port in dry conditions. We quickly grabbed a bite to eat, then got back in the saddle for a short trip over to Prince Rupert Grain LTD.
IF YOU GROW GRAIN FOR A LIVING you would find it fascinating how they handle the commodity at Prince Rupert. Train cars are unloaded two at a time in less then 20 minutes. The grain is weighed, graded, and screened as fast as it is unloaded and ends up in the appropriate compartment of the port’s 209,500-tonne storage annex. While we were there a ship from Thailand was being loaded. From the facility’s control centre where everything is remotely operated, we observed grain pouring into the ship’s holds. At 4,000 tonnes per hour, the entire year’s production of an average Alberta farm was loaded into the vessel in less the 30 minutes. But the highlight of the port tour was walking to the very top of the elevator, then gazing out on a panoramic view of the rugged west coast. There was a real sense of satisfaction in seeing, firsthand, where much of the grain grown around our homes is loaded before it sails off to destinations around the world. We had followed it from field to port.
Later, as we gathered in Smiles Seafood Cafe on the waterfront, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ties between this west coast community and our prairie homes. The logging fishing and tourist industries are all on hard times now, and it showed in the tired look of the town. But at the port things were abuzz and there was talk of expansion. Like Meeting Creek, if you simply passed through Prince Rupert you might be tempted to think nothing much goes on there. But then, you would be wrong. If it was not for the hardworking men and women at the port there would be no place for all the wheat we grow in Alberta to go. The long thin threads of pavement and rail that connect Meeting Creek to Prince Rupert through a vast and rugged landscape are the lifeblood that keep our communities going. You will never grasp this from the seat of a passenger jet, but from the vantage point of a motorcycle you can’t help but be impressed by the accomplishment that is the Grand Trunk Railway, the Yellowhead Highway and, ultimately, the fine country that is Canada.
New market model
It will be interesting to see what happens to the transportation of wheat in the coming months and years. As it now stands, all wheat grown west of the Manitoba/Ontario border can only be sold to the Canadian Wheat Board. The Wheat Board then handles all marketing and transport of the wheat (all other crops are marketed by the individual producers). The Conservative government of Canada has promised to create legislation that will end the Wheat Board’s monopoly.
If or when this happens the game will change. Individual farmers, like the ones in this story, will look around for the best price for their product. They might sell their wheat to the Wheat Board or they might not. It seems likely that some producers will truck their product south to the US in their own trucks. They may also develop flour plants across the prairies to upgrade their product before transport. On the other hand they may sell all their wheat to the same markets that the Wheat Board currently does, changing not much.
The prairie wheat producers seem to be split pretty close to 50/50. Some want to keep the Wheat Board’s monopoly and others do not.
– Marvin Penner