British Columbia is—by any metric—a gut-wrenchingly beautiful place.
A landscape of real romanticism: delicate simplicity extrapolated into a crescendo that reverberates into your soul. The wide-open, visceral drama of Alpine peaks plunging into the North Pacific is striking against the uncompromising intimacy of nature in its most honest and tactile form. Perfectly balanced, unbridled freedom. Little wonder, because despite humanity’s efforts, it remains a true wilderness.
Back in August 2016, my partner and I lived in Canada for a while. Like so many before us, we were compelled to explore and immerse ourselves in such untamed environs—to experience even the slightest sense of true freedom. That’s when I bought my first-ever pickup truck, an old Dodge Dakota.
After a few days of exploring locally and familiarizing myself with my new truck, I was ready for a real adventure. A friend told my partner and me of a very remote cabin secreted on a mountaintop not too far away (by Canadian standards). Armed with nothing more than a hand-drawn map, a brief description, impenetrably high spirits, and a few supplies, we set off in my new-to-me Dodge Dakota pickup. We were the millennial embodiment of McCandless, Kerouac, and London.
After sunset, we began to navigate the network of fire roads twisting around the valleys, rivers, and forests. It was soothing to move through such a vast landscape: riverside beaches lay before a backdrop of pine-skirted mountains that pierced a limitless sky. We stopped by the river for a few photos and found a few locals camping. They knew nothing about any cabin nearby. Despite being slightly concerned, we remained optimistic. It was on our map, after all.
The light was beginning to fade, which made navigating the little forest tracks tricky with the old truck headlights. As we weaved our way up into the mountains, the path began getting increasingly rocky, but nothing the Dakota’s V8 couldn’t handle—and I’ll be honest: I enjoyed seeing exactly what the truck was made of. After nearly an hour of climbing on these tracks, darkness surrounded us.
Although I was fully immersed in the adventure, my poor girlfriend—who had only been in Canada a week and had yet to see her first bear—was becoming concerned by our increasing remoteness.
The track continued to degrade as our altitude climbed. It had been hours since we last drove on asphalt, and our phone signals were a distant memory. The truck was running well, but it was old, so who knew what was holding it together. I began to worry this cabin didn’t exist or that we weren’t going to find it (an arguably worse fate). My hitherto bulletproof confidence was beginning to waver, and doubt was quickly eroding any hope of finding our refuge.
Mercifully soon, the track leveled off and rewarded our determination with a teasing glimpse at a pristine wilderness illuminated by the moon. We were so high up we could barely see the valley bottom. We continued with rejuvenated resolve, and soon a pitched roof quickly loomed in the darkness.
As if startled by the sudden appearance of civilization, one of the truck’s tires burst within meters of the cabin’s front door, heralding the end of our journey. As we got out to investigate, the realization of being stuck at the top of the mountain with a flat tire, little food and water, and in the middle of grizzly bear domain caused fear to consume us both. I didn’t know if we had any way of fixing the tire, and I was unsure if it had happened in the best or worst place.
As we unpacked our sleeping bags into the cabin under a fog of anxiety for what tomorrow held, I was aware of a calmness rising to meet it. Surrounded by the truest expression of nature in its most balanced form, I began to feel like I was wrestling between two opposing things. Like the wilderness, I began to feel free.
Like all worthwhile things, it felt hard-won. I like to think my poor old Dakota felt the same.
The following morning, we were greeted with one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. Golden light flooded the little cabin, bringing warmth and comfort. For those few short minutes, I forgot that my trusty old Dodge Dakota was no longer in action. We packed up and headed outside to face the day. The back left tire was completely flat, practically ripped off the rim, and just like that, my anxiety started to rise.
Luck was on our side, though: we had a spare tire and jack.
Driving back down the winding mountain track as we played music and reminisced about our adventure, the harsh reality of nature hit me—it doesn’t care about your well-being. Respect is rewarded as much as naïveté, and lack of preparation is punished—a lesson learned almost the hard way.
Tom Kahler is a UK-based freelance photographer specializing in automotive, adventure, and lifestyle photography. He's worked on global campaigns with many leading brands around the world. His client list includes Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Ford, and Porsche.