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Travel

Jan 28, 2019

The Dirty Secrets of #VanLife

It’s every 9-5’ers dream. It occupies every weekend warrior’s imagination. It is the purest form of pride within any climber, skier, or kayaker. Van life - in all its glory.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

You skim through Instagram and see all the perfectly posed pictures of beautiful women with long flowing hair sitting on a perfectly made bed next to her gorgeously groomed partner. Twinkly lights are strung above a row of equally-spaced cedar cabinets, with a shiny stove built into a spotless counter-top. No kitchen items interrupt the cleanliness of the counter-top aside from one perfectly placed vase filled with white daisies. The hardwood van floor looks as if it has been polished with a toothbrush, and an immaculately clean golden retriever sits on the floor without making a peep.

Wow, no wonder van life has become so popular! It seems so glamorous!

But, is it actually that glamorous?

Are twinkle lights and perfectly clean hardwood floors the reality of van life? Are equally-spaced cedar cabinets and a perfectly made bed what we are all striving for?

If you have $80,000 to spend on a top-end Sprinter van – maybe!

dirt·bag
/ˈdərtbaɡ/Submit
noun: INFORMAL • US
a very unkempt or unpleasant person.

But for the majority of van-dwellers, the Sprinter life is a mere sliver of the imagination. Something to strive for but never actually reaching. Because, in all reality, if you live in a van, you are most likely not the Bill Gates of the outdoor world. Yes, there are exceptions, but the majority of us are full-blown dirtbags. We live paycheck-to-paycheck, working when we need to, and living the funemployed life as much as we can. Many of us are seasonal workers – working and collecting paychecks during the summer, so we can save up a bit of cash to be able to afford to live in our vehicle, traveling from crag to crag, or river to river, for the remainder of the year.

So – yes, it is possible to have the glamorous van life that you always see depicted in Instagram photos. But for the majority of us vehicle-dwellers, I can tell you with full confidence that glamour is far from the word I would use to describe it.

#VanLife mornings in the desert. Photo: Brooke Hess

Here’s how I can explain it…

In every culture around the world, there tends to be an unequal distribution of wealth. In the U.S., we have the top 1% – the wealthiest of the wealthy, who literally have 99% of America’s wealth. Then we have the upper-middle class. Usually well-educated, highly successful professionals. Their families live comfortable lives with luxurious experiences as needed. Then we have the lower-middle class. The working class. These are the people who go to work every day, 9-5, at difficult and demanding jobs, then come home and work hard to keep their families fed. In comparison with many places in the rest of the world, they are wealthy beyond belief, but when compared with what we consider “wealthy” here in the US, they fall back a notch. And then down at the bottom, we have what is considered poverty. This class doesn’t get to experience luxury. They make it work, but sometimes it isn’t all that pretty. Struggling to make ends meet is a daily part of life.

In van life, much like in every other walk of life, we too have a class system.

It goes like this:

Up at the top, you have the RV-dwellers. These are the kings and queens of the van life world. They have sold their homes and invested upwards of $300,000 (sometimes up to $1,000,000) in their mobile lifestyle. Their mobile homes have full kitchens, multiple bedrooms, TV’s, bathrooms, showers, washer/dryer, and sometimes even a garage to store their Mini-Cooper! Whether it be family money, or a high-paying remote software job that keeps them going, these vehicle-dwellers are living the van life of luxury.

photo: goodfreephotos.com

Then, we have the Sprinter vans. These vehicle-dwellers know what’s up. They have it all figured out. These are the photos you see on Instagram with the twinkly lights and picture-perfect dog on a spotless hardwood floor. They often have remote jobs that they can do from the road – whether it be consulting, freelancing, or software engineering. Their vans are fully decked out with kitchens, beds, and cabinets for storing all their gear. These vehicle-dwellers are sometimes high-level athletes, traveling between climbing crags, mountain biking trails, ski resorts, or rivers. They have vehicle life sorted. (If you can’t already tell, I have major Sprinter jealousy. Maybe someday I will join the upper-middle class of van life…).

Just about equal with the Sprinter vans are the vehicle dwellers who rely on the truck-and-trailer system. Stopping at camp, dropping off their home, then taking off in their 4×4 for some off-road excursion seems like the preferred method for many vehicle-dwellers. This appears to be the best option for families who want to stay at one campsite for a week or more at a time, but who don’t want the hassle of driving their home all over the place. It is also a good option for outdoor athletes who require the use of a truck for their sport. Some of these trailers are just as fancy as the massive mobile homes, and therefore will remain in the highest tier of the van life class system. But some of them are a bit cheaper, and will therefore hang out with the Sprinter vans. Fancy, but not too fancy. Still in a category of glamour, though.

Below Sprinter and tow-behind trailers are the truck topper campers. These are the pop-up campers that sit in the bed of your truck and create a pseudo-home with a small space for a bed, table, and sometimes a kitchen. These van-lifers can be compared with the working class. They live a life far from glamour, but not so far that it is obvious as soon as they pull up.

A compact camper from Austria spotted on Lesbos island in Greece. Photo: Henryk Kotowski

Next comes poverty.

This is where I sit. With my job titles being “freelance writer” and “professional freestyle whitewater kayaker”, it is no surprise that I am not living the van life of luxury and glamour. There is no vase of white daisies in my home-on-wheels. Instead, my van life consists of a 2003 Toyota Tacoma Prerunner (a fancy way of saying I drive a 2-wheel drive car that looks like a truck) with a topper over the truck bed. Now, I am not trying to gain pity, but it turns out that buying a $100 topper over Craigslist at night when you can’t really see it, isn’t the smartest idea! 24 fiberglass patches, 3 tubes of caulking gel, 2 bottles of epoxy, and four days of work later, and the topper is ALMOST waterproof! I have built a bed in the truck bed out of plywood and 2x4s, where I sleep on two Thermarest pads, with two zero degree sleeping bags (the topper has the insulation quality of a plastic bag).

Brooke’s “home”. Photo: Sierra McMurry

No glamour down here. Grunge, filth, and grease, are some more accurate adjectives that could be used to describe this lifestyle. Rather than having the long, flowing, groomed hair of the woman in the Instagram photo I saw, my hair tends to either be in a messy up-do, or underneath the coverage of a hat. Not because it is cold, but because I haven’t showered in eight days and need to cover up the grease that has accumulated on my scalp. Rather than the beautiful twinkly lights strung above cedar cabinets, I wear a headlamp purchased at REI and stuff my clothes into plastic tubs that pull out from underneath my plywood bed. Rather than a shiny stove and spotless counter-top, I have a two-burner Coleman camp stove that I place atop my truck tailgate, and a plastic jug of water for a makeshift sink. And rather than having a perfectly clean dog, I have no dog. Instead, sometimes I adopt my dirtbag friends into my truck for a week or two of partnered shenanigans. (Author’s note: I wish I had a dog. I am simply not enough of a functioning adult yet to be able to take care of another creature. I struggle enough taking care of myself!)

Brooke snoozing in her “mansion”. Photo: Seth Ashworth

I spend more days “showering” with baby wipes and attempting to (unsuccessfully) braid my hair in a way that masks the grease, than I do actually showering. I spend more nights wearing Carhartt’s and a down jacket at my camp stove, than I do getting dressed up and going out to bars like most of the other 25-year-old’s I know. And instead of getting picture-perfect vanlife photos that are ready for Instagram, I am usually dirty, covered in climbing chalk, and looking slightly confused in the photo (maybe this is why my Instagram influencer career hasn’t taken off yet…?).

But, for every day I go with dirty hair. For every morning I wake up and have to get dressed in the snow. For every time I am sick of keeping my food in a stinky cooler rather than a refrigerator… there comes a moment of beauty.

Brooke waking up in her “home”. Photo: Sierra McMurry

Crawling into bed with the back window of my truck open so I can view the stars as I drift off to sleep. Waking up to cold desert wind on my face, but feeling cozy and warm inside my sleeping bag as I lay in bed and watch the sun rise. Getting to cook a breakfast of bacon and eggs on my tailgate as I listen to the sound of the river rushing next to me. Sitting on a dock over the water on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, looking for whales as I type up an article about one of the most badass female mountaineers in history, while my laptop charges via solar power from my Jackery portable power station. Listening to my friend, Mack, play banjo around a campfire after a long day of climbing. Sitting on my tailgate for a beer with my ski partner after a big day touring in the mountains. Having the freedom to go wherever I want, whenever I want. To me, this is what luxury is all about.

And most days, I feel like a queen.

The perks of living the dirtbag #VanLife. Photo: Gillian Ellison

Read next: Imagine; A Cleaner World with Rivian, & the End of Alex Honnold’s #VanLife

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Travel

Nov 05, 2019

A Flotilla Cruise Through The Inside Passage: From Alaska to BC.

With radios coordinated and quiet water ahead, adventure, whales, porpoises, sea otters, eagles, stunning channels and vista await.

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Shortly after 9 AM, the mist over Ketchikan Marina lifted. The crews of our six motor launches fired the twin diesel engines, loosened mooring lines and coordinated radios as anticipation escalated. One by one the Grand Banks cruisers eased out of the close quarters and bustle of the working fishing port and rallied in the main channel. Our flotilla passed two 10-story cruise ships as we motored southeast. Other maritime facilities, including the Coast Guard station, appeared to port. And then, as though walking through a bulkhead from inside to outdoors, we left urban development behind. We were on our way!

We were offered the chance to join long-time sailing friends, Dave and Janet, for a 10-day, 450-mile voyage through the Inside Passage from Southeast Alaska into British Columbia. Although we had sailed in Desolation and Puget Sounds, motor cruising through the stunning fjords, inlets and channels of the coastal Northwest promised an exciting new adventure. Coupled with the rich marine life of pristine waters, and the opportunity to visit a Kitasloo community, a life-changing voyage unfolded.

As though walking through a bulkhead from inside to outdoors, we left urban development behind.

With Dave as captain, the four of us crewed Thea, one of six boats forming a flotilla led by NW Explorations. (NWE) She was moored among boats of all descriptions. Large commercial fishing operations were mixed with day charters, amid all the sights, sounds and smells of an active marina. We took possession of our new home with a launch due the next morning. Berths secured, personal gear stored and provisions on board for the first days, we bedded down for an anxious night. Compatriots hailed from Florida, Arkansas, Wyoming, California, Washington and Oregon.

Thea in Ketchikan Marina. Photo by Jack Billings.

Thea, a Grand Banks classic yacht, was well-equipped for cruising wilderness waters. Designed like a 46-foot trawler, she carried an impressive array of navigational equipment, including GPS guided autopilot, lap-top displayed depth and distance charts and radar. Featuring twin-engine diesel motors, she was most efficient at about 8 knots. There were three berths, two heads, a well-appointed galley with fridge and freezer, an ice maker and microwave, washer and dryer, with a drop-leaf teak table in the adjacent salon. All-in-all, quite commodious accommodations.

“turn where we turn, not when we turn…”

Affable veteran guide Brian Pemberton captained the lead boat Deception (Mother Goose). He was assisted by Jordan Roderick, an encyclopedia of First Nation and European history, marine mammals, other creatures and seabirds. Jordan was aided by Chris Fairbanks, also a marine biologist. Andy Novak, our mechanic and general factotum, rounded out Deception’s crew.

Deception in the van. Photo by Jack Billings

With Deception leading the way, and other flotilla members spreading out behind her, our course was set: Foggy Bay, 38 nautical miles away. Salt spray, the call of seabirds, rugged forest coastlines scalloped by tides and winds heralded entry into the Inside Passage. When a change in course was needed, we received the admonition: “turn where we turn and not when we turn”.

Flotilla rafted at Foggy Bay. Photo by NW Explorations.

By midafternoon we manoeuvred into Foggy Bay, located at the end of a small inlet, a charming pocket anchorage no more than 1000 feet across. Despite its name, sunny skies welcomed us. To arrange for an inter-boat gathering and accommodate the tight mooring, we rafted the six boats side by side. Three anchors and three stern lines kept us in formation. After assembling for hors d’oeuvres in Deception’s salon, sea stories began. Roland Barth’s Cruising Rules applied to food and tales.

Harbor Master, Prince Rupert. Photo by NW Explorations.

Good weather prevailed the next morning out of Foggy Bay, in route to Prince Rupert, the largest city in the northern part of British Columbia. Several bald eagles monitored our entry into Cow Bay Marina.

Our itinerary called for a layover day, to allow provisioning for as many as seven days. The refrigerator had unaccountably shrunk, so we pressed two on-board coolers into service. With the help of block ice and a steady stream of cubes from the icemaker, food stayed fresh for the remainder of the trip.

Returning to Thea the second afternoon, we encountered a boat hand with three large bags of shrimp. He pointed out their boat, docked on the next boardwalk. The captain sold us enough for three meals.

Because Prince Rupert has both rail and highway access to the interior of British Columbia, it is an important shipping hub. The marina is the largest between Ketchikan and Vancouver Island and provides shore power, potable water, Internet access, a restaurant/pub and a large grocery store within walking distance. Its laid-back pace fit our needs exactly.

The sights and pounding reverberating across the waves cast indelible memories.

Rested and fully provisioned, we set our course over the next four days for passage to Newcomb Harbour, then to Patterson Inlet, Bishop Bay and on to Aaltanhash Inlet, a total of about 185 nautical miles. Our itinerary brought us down the narrow Petrel Channel and then across various sounds and reaches. We saw virtually no one except when we crossed the shipping lane at Granville Channel and a few boats moored at Bishop Bay.

The narrow passages into these inlets are quite protected, with tide changes, but little surge. Reflections along the water line strike vivid angles on the glassy surface.

Reflections at Patterson Inlet. Photo by Jack Billings.

Early mornings in these anchorages were magical. Overcast skies meant light emerged slowly, coupled with the first cries of sea birds, and the salmons’ leaps and jumps as they pursued their spawning destiny. Hot coffee cups warmed our hands each morning as we sat on Thea’s bow; remote did not mean sacrifice. Fishing was irresistible and often rewarding.

One sunrise a tall, black timber wolf scampered out dense forest onto a low tidal beach, nose down looking for treats then up again skyward. We held our breath, hoping for more, as it disappeared a moment into large reeds. Then out again, it retraced its path into the trees. This rare sighting happened in a flash before we had time to nab the camera. Within two minutes, silence settled in again, we caught our breath, and the usual world was far away.

Soon after leaving Patterson Inlet we crossed through Otter Passage and into Squally Channel. Our flotilla came upon a pod of feeding humpback whales. We slowed to idle and spread out, maintaining a respectful distance. The whales were fishing by concussing, slamming either their pectoral fins or massive tails on the surface, stunning the small fry below. The sights and pounding reverberating across the waves cast an indelible memory.

Then, without warning, two whales seemingly the size of Thea surfaced next to us, almost within reach.

Humpback at Squally Channel. Photo by Jack Billings

Apparently unconcerned about our proximity, with the sweep of a fluke, they are gone.

Humpback fluke with resident barnacles. Photo by Jack Billings

Out from our snug mooring at Aaltanhash Inlet, we set our course down the Princess Royal Channel toward our rendezvous with the Kitasloo village of Klemtu. Deception reported a small school of Dall’s porpoises feeding along the port side. As Thea came forward, several swam over to investigate.  Incredibly, they fell in with our bow, matching our speed of about 9 knots, crossing from one side to the other. Then, in a flash, they lost interest and were gone.

Shortly beyond, Klemtu came in view on the western hillside. We passed the community and made anchor in a small bay called Clothes Cove. We took the dinghies back to the village where we were given a tour of their magnificent Long House by Shane, a hereditary chief. Ceremonial uses were heralded by the lightly acrid smoke in the air. Built with massive cedar beams, its spectacular carved lintels at each end represent the four families of this Kitasloo village: eagle, raven, killer whale and wolf.

Long House at Klemtu. Photo by Jack Billings.

Since at least the retreat of the last ice age, indigenous peoples have lived, fished and hunted in the stunning, rich waters and islands of what is now southeast Alaska and the Pacific coast of British Columbia. The arrival in mid-1700s of Spanish, English, and Russian explorers brought deadly disease, slavery, and overt debasement of their cultures. The Canadian government later established residential schools, for which students were forcibly removed from their families and beaten if they spoke their native languages. Today Klemtu’s 450 residents struggle to regain lost cultural sovereignty. With a determination steeled by centuries of survival in an often-harsh environment, the people of the village persevere.

By the next morning, several boats were running low on provisions and fuel, so our destination changed to Shearwater, about 38 miles distant. Here we found the only large boat haul-out facility in a wide area. Its pub restaurant brought a break from on-board meal preparation and clean up. Fussy kingfishers patrolled the marina. After dark, a full moon, bright enough to walk by, cast mirrored reflections on the water and forest silhouettes against the horizon.

Full moon at Shearwater. Photo by NW Explorations

Not long after we departed Shearwater, a large raft of sea otters appeared. Mothers sometimes wrapped their young in floating kelp beds, leaving them on the surface while they dove for food. Sea otters were hunted almost to extinction during decades of high demand for their pelts. While their numbers have rebounded across two-thirds of their historic range, they have not returned to their earlier abundance.

Raft of Sea Otters. Photo by NW Explorations

As we prepared to leave Shearwater, the Deception crew advised that weather was building ahead of us, over Queen Charlotte Sound, to our southwest. Our course would take us down the Fitz-Hugh Sound, still protected by an outer island, but then out into the open Sound, directly off the Pacific. The likely rough seas prompted a change in plan, to turn southeast into Queen Charlotte Strait, and Blunden Harbour, 83 miles and 10 hours away.

As we entered the Sound, winds held steady at 20 knots, Thea bounced and tossed in four-foot swells and scattered squalls. Though the boat was well-designed for rougher seas, the open passage required our constant attention. In gathering darkness, the flotilla eased out of the strait and into the anchorage. After a quick meal, we called it a day and thanked the star-filled sky.

The next morning brought our last day on the water. Our destination, Port McNeill, British Columbia, was now nearby after yesterday’s long run. We left Thea, and Dave and Janet, as three new passengers were set to embark on the next 10 days down to Bellingham, Washington.

Returning home, we were refreshed by memories of marine life seen up close in native surroundings, stunning fjords cut into the pristine forest and First Nation resilience and renewal. Great fellowship, discoveries every day, gourmet meals and more. It was truly a trip of a lifetime.

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