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#1 Vancouver to Skagway
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Road Report #1
Vancouver to Skagway

 

June 29, 2008
We’ve taken delivery of our dream machine – a Ford E250 contractor’s van, stripped and camperized according to our plans and ideas. It has a pop-top roof, a dinette/bed as well as an upper bunk, fridge, stove, sink, porta-pottie, water and grey tanks, lights everywhere, and a heavy-duty dual battery system for running the electronics. It has big rubber and great clearance. Should be able to go pretty much anywhere short of all-oVanut boony-bashing 4-W-ing.

We’re on the road again.

First day out we traveled up the Fraser Canyon (Hwy #1) to Cache Creek then Hwy #97 to Quesnel. Set up camp at Ten Mile Lake Provincial Park just outside of Quesnel. Provincial parks in BC generally have potable water and pit toilets. In the south they sometimes offer toilet blocks with showers but in the north, have not seen any. Cost is $15 per night.

Route MapAs we drive north it's remarkable how quickly the landscape changes. Pastoral green through the Fraser Valley quickly changes into the sunburnt barren scrubland of Ashcroft and Lytton. These towns have the distinction of breaking high temp records in Canada each summer.

By Williams Lake it all greens up again. Lots of fishing lakes up here in what is called the Cariboo Chilcotin – rolling ranchlands with real cowboys riding the range.

Quesnel is remarkable in how clean it is – not a candy wrapper or a cigarette butt to be found in the gutters of this tidy town. When we were in Australia a few years back we kept coming into towns that had big signs erected on the way in “1997 Tidiest Town in Tasmania”. Well, Quesnel gets our hands-down vote for “Tidiest Town in Canada.”

June 30
Leaving Quesnel the next morning we are struck by the plethora of wildflowers in the rolling meadows– blue lupins, red Indian Paintbrush, little burnt orange dandelion type flowers, buttercups, Queen Anne’s lace and daisies. You can tell I’m not a gardener but I like them just the same.

Stopped into Prince Georgeto buy a bug screen for the van. We have been warned over and over and over again that the north will be "buggy." Hopefully the screen will keep them from plugging up and overheating the radiator.Lupins

Camped that night at Whisker’s Point Provincial Park on McLeod Lake. Sure enough, the mosquitoes found us. We have a multi-channel approach to the dealing with bugs.

1) Bug house – this is a little two-person bug house that I bought end-of-season last year for $19. Figured that was probably $19 down the drain but after one night at Whiskey Point the bug house has proven it’s worth. It makes the mossies absolutely nuts – they crowd up against the net, mad with lust for me sweet bod, but the net holds.

2) Long sleeves, pants and socks, plus DEET for what the clothes don't coverBug-House . I'm now giving even my clothes an overall spray too because these mossies drill through jeans.

3) The electronic tennis racket. Remember those? All the rage a few years back. I confess I thought they were just a toy. Not so. And when you hear the mossie sizzle, it's sweet revenge.

4) The new chemical bug lanterns: I am absolutely certain they will be banned shortly because it has to occur to someone in charge that fumes sufficiently lethal to kills bugs for 15 feet in any direction just can’t be good for humans either. But after so many warnings to the effect “the bugs are going to kill you” I succumbed and bought a bug lantern. It does seem to work. One moment there were a dozen bugs buzzing me while I cooked, the next there were none.

5) Head nets. These are dorky looking and they are awkward to wear but when the bugs unionize and come at you in waves it is worth looking ridiculous. I have not worn one here yet, but they saved me from insanity in Central America and Australia.

Peace River ValleyJune 30
We are still only in northern BC but are already noticing how long it stays light. Up here midnight is still twilight and by 3 am the birds are up and chirping. Our bodies are not getting the “go to bed” cues we are used to so we are staying up far too late.

Drove to Chetwynd today on Hwy 97. This highway skirts the Rockies which rear up to the right in all their grey granite glory. These peaks are obviously not all that high because the caps are bare of snow, with only the scantest drifts. As we head north the towns are getting smaller and simpler. Was expecting to stop for our morning RCMP carcoffee at Tim Hortons in Chetwynd – no Tim Hortons. But there was an IGA with coffee and apple fritters and a pretty green space decorated with chainsaw bears. The park is dedicated to “Volunteers” and I’m all for that.

Further up Hwy 97 to Hudson’s Hope – where we reduced our speed when we saw the RCMP car in the distance – only to discover they’d mounted a cut-out. It worked.

Drove past the Peace Canyon Dam then another 22 km out of Hudson’s Hope to see the WAC Bennett Dam. Between them, these two dams provide more than 30% of the energy needs of BC. There is a great visitors centre with displays and explanations. Then for $3 we took a bus tour down into the bottom of the dam. A young guide explained everything. We were actually fortunate in that two of the turbines were being serviced. With the top hatch removed and the turbines sitting in pieces on the floor of the powerhouse we had a good look at how they work.

A nod to security means you can't take anything into the underground part of the dam with you - not even a small camera.

A few days later I read on the internet that a couple of canoeists at another dam site were sucked into the intake pipes and down into the turbines. I don’t think they survived. Don’t know how they would. It's an eery feeling, realizing the chambers you are walking through are within a pile of gravel that is holding back massive quantites of water that if suddenly released would wipe out everything downstream in minutes.

While we were waiting for the tour a little lady started chatting us up. Turns out she isSinkhole at WAC Bennett Dam the mayor of Hudson’s Hope – Lenore Howard. Told us all about how in 1996 a tourist reported a sinkhole in the dam. They all thought it was a very funny joke. Early the next morning her phone woke her – there was a sinkhole in the dam! Not so funny. Hudson Hope lies below the dam.

Not just one hole but a second as well. Apparently they were successfully repaired but where the hole was, there are now yellow cement barriers. Don’t know what that is all about but I'm not so sure I’d want to live in the valley below.

Dinosaur Tracks at WAC Bennett DamOutside the Visitor’s Centre there is a display of castings of the dinosaur prints that were found when they built the dam. Apparently the Peace Valley crawled with these massive prehistoric creatures.

Left Hudson's Hope and carried on along the Peace River Valley – bucolic, soft rolling green hills, beautiful peaceful place. Stopped at the intersections of Hwy 29 and Hwy 97 – The Alaska Highway. Right at that intersection is Charlie Lake Provincial Park, a lovely park with endless stands of white birches.


July 1 – Canada Day
Off by 8 am, up the Alaska Hwy to Fort Nelson. A pleasant drive on a beautiful highway. Stopped at Pink Mountain for a coffee. Was actually hoping for more than that but all the cafes and roadhouses on this highway seem to be derelict and abandoned. Very little is open, never mind churning out fresh baking.

Fort Nelson is a nice little town with a colourful hotel – Steve took a photo. Bought a few things at the Overwaitea. Had lunch at the pub – very upmarket in its decor and menu. Reuben sandwich cost me $10. Not bad. Bought some great cherries - $4.99 per pound – same as home. Strawberries were $2.99 for 2 pounds, same as home.

From Fort Nelson we carried on – now heading west – up the Alaska Hwy to MuMoosencho Lake Provincial Park for the night. The road is deteriorating now. Not a terrible road, but more narrow, centre line obliterated, frost heaves and potholes. Saw a black bear and a very thin and mangy brown bear, two deer and a beaver cruising around his pond. Two moose loped across the road in front of us – big gangly females I think – no antlers. Came on 50+ mountain sheep licking the salt off the sides of the highway. Sheep in the summer always look like hell as they lose their winter coats. Either mangy flea-bitten derelicts or skinny old men, out of the bath, nothing but naked knobs and knees.

RamWe are now into mountainous terrain, soaring faces ground clean by glaciers, mounds of grey gravel moraine heaped everywhere. The place we are camped at tonight, Muncho Lake Provincial Park, is built right on a moraine field. Big wind coming off lake. Too bad since we have a lakefront site.

With that much wind no one is on the lake so we back right onto the beach and open the back doors. Why? It’s time for a shower. We have a big water tank riding along the bottom of the truck, just inches off the hot black asphalt. We fill it up every morning and by evening, when we make camp it is lovely warm. Open the back doors, pull out the water sprayer and voila, a shower. With all that wind coming of the lake we are dry again before we get the towel out.

July 2
Left by 7:00 this morning and saw literally tons of wildlife in those first morning hours – bears, moose, buffalo, and deer. The bear was a real treat because we came on him at a Bearrest stop. We were just about to get out of the van when he reared up out of the tall grass. We’d disturbed his breakfast. We stayed quiet and he went back to munching the clover, looking up now and again to check on what we were up to. Taking his photo, of course!

It was a good day, driving from Muncho Lake Provincial Park to Watson Lake. Beautiful scenery – always changing. Stopped at Watson Lake for gas and water and to see the famous Signpost Forest. I thought this was just going to be a couple of sign posts but there are more than 70,000 (last counted in 2007). Also went over to the Northern Lights Centre to see the movie about the northern lights, known here as the Aurora Borealis. Very nice.

Discovered that it needs to be a deep dark night to see the lights so that is obviously not going to happen on this trip. This business of having 24-hour daylight is discombobulating. Even the children are up all night racing around the campsite like it is early evening.

The visitor’s centre also had an interesting movie about the making of the Alaska Hwy.Signpost Forest at Watson Lake During the second world war the Americans were concerned that the Japanese would try an approach through the north so they sent in the military. The Corps of Engineer, with the assistance of about 18,000 grunts and 11,000 pieces of equipment pushed the track through in 8 months and 12 days.

It’s inconceivable really, when you see the vast distance and the terrain they were hacking through. Once pushed through, the track was turned over to the civilian roads branch in Alaska and the Canadian government in Canada. Their job was to turn the mushy track with its sinking road base into a year-round, permanent highway.

It has turned into the never-ending project with both bodies continuously at work on strengthening, straightening, replacing and reinforcing.

July 4Interesting RV in Watson Lake
Yesterday we travelled across the Yukon from Watson Lake to Whitehorse. It was a long day of driving, particularly boring because the only animals we saw were two rabbits. Not looking forward to re-tracing this particular patch of road on our return home, but no alternatives to it.

Arrived in Whitehorse in early afternoon. Checked into the Hi Country RV Park – nice place with hot showers and free internet. Met lots of like-minded people, enjoyed chatting about everyone’s rigs and travel plans.

People are real do-it-yourselfers up here so we've seen some interesting looking home made RVs! The one at left looks more like a mobile apartment building.

Whitehorse is a pretty town, on a river, ringed by mountains. There are some interesting shops and lots of big box stores to replenish supplies and provide the necessities for repairs and like.

Highway to Skagway We did our laundry and re-stocked the larder, then left Whitehorse about 2 pm for Skagway. Magnificent road – probably the most scenic drive we’ve done so far. It’s called the White Pass or Klondike Hwy. The road takes you high up into the mountains, above the tree line – lichen-covered rock with picturesque pools of icy water. Lots of snow too, still clinging to the rocks.

Doesn’t feel cold though. No idea why the snow has not melted. Beautiful falls with water gushing over them on account of the snowmelt still underway.

This road, just completed in 1982, dips in and out of the Yukon, BC and finally into Highway to SkagwayAlaska, USA. It is 160 km (99 mi) long. Takes you up and over the White Pass which sits at 3,292 feet, then down to sea level. Road travels along beautiful Tutshi and Tagish Lakes to Carcross. The name Carcross is shortened from Caribou Crossing because it is on the migratory route of the Cariboo. During the gold rush and after the railroad was built the town grew and became a supply centre for a fleet of riverboats taking tourists to the beautiful lakes in the area.

Enroute we came across the Carcross Desert, a small but distinct micro-ecosystem of sand dunes.

Arrived in Skagway – a town that has reinvented itself for tourists. Well, that is not strictly true – Skagway has always been a “tourist” town. It figures hugely in the historical travelogues of turn-of-the-century toursts. But in recent years Skagway has gone way overboard to meet the appetites of the many cruise ships that stop in here.

The town has tarted up the facades of the old shops on Main Street and the store fronts have been filled with a disproportionate number of high end jewellery shops. Literally one after another. There are several shops selling furs and some general artsy-crafty shops and a number of your basic t-shirts and fridge magnet shops but predominately, jewellery shops.Kissing Ground Squirrels in Carcross

Took a long walk to the end of the street and back to the wharf. We are camped in a field near the harbour because it is the July 4th holiday here and apparently the whole town was the site for major celebrations today. There is not an RV spot to be had. Fortunately Steve noticed that people were now parking in a field so here we are. The toilet block is about 8 blocks away at the marina but the price is right.

We are catching the ferry to Haines in the morning and we have to be at the terminal at 5 am. It is only a one-hour ride, but they are exceedingly security conscious, so 5 am it is.

NEXT: Haines to Valdez

Carolyn Usher