Road Report #7
July 31, 2008
Up and off to Whitehorse under glowering skies. Nice drive down the Klondike Hwy – lots to look at, including a pair of elk with big racks. Stopped at Braeburn Lodge for their world famous, obscenely huge cinnamon rolls. We shared one over coffee then wrapped it up and took it along. Had some more for dessert after dinner that night then threw what was left away. Far too much of a good thing.
In Whitehorse we are staying at Hi Country RV again. This is a nice place that feels like home. When we were here a few weeks ago a site with services cost $27. Now we are more experienced and realize that when we are only staying for a night or two we don’t need electrical or onsite water hook-ups. For the $15 unserviced, “tent” site we still have access to laundry and bathrooms with free hot showers and free WIFI.
A cool thing about this RV Park is that, for some reason, there are a long line of old construction vehicles lining the driveway to the park. These are the remnants of the thousands of machines that built the Alaska Hwy.
Whitehorse is a great town. Not only is it beautifully sited on the river but it has some interesting things to see, not the least of which are great arts and crafts galleries, a robust farmers market and superb restaurants. Whitehorse also has a thriving big box area on the edge of town – a great place to stock up, get work done on the vehicle, and look for hardware fixes. We are always trying to improve the van and our latest quest is a longer hose for the shower.
The tiny town of Atlin is renowned for its arts and music festival. Have no idea how they manage to draw such a crowd (2,000+ this year), because it is an awkward town to get to. It is in BC but to travel there you have to follow the Alaska Hwy through the Yukon almost to Whitehorse. Then you nip south into BC for 97 km down a gravel road which opens onto one lake after another, each mirroring the mountains towering over. Finally, you come to the grandaddy of them all, Lake Atlin.
But of course, I am thinking like a Vancouverite. We are so egocentric. Atlin probably draws its crowds from Whitehorse and Watson Lake, only hours away.
Atlin is a product of the gold rush but it’s dramatic beauty and accessibility to the coast via the lake system turned it into a tourist destination for the well-heeled travelers of the 1920s and 30s. It’s a real funky little town with its own spirit. No restaurant, but you are welcome to the Friday night pot luck at the recreation centre. If you don’t have anything to bring go see the lady at the General Store – she also has a bakery and will find you something to take.
We stayed at the Norseman RV park and marina right on the lake. It’s owned by an old geezer from Abbotsford who comes up every spring to run it. He’s not much on fixing things up – the restroom is a Johnny-on-the-Spot. But he has location, location, location. And he’s not expensive - $13 per night and that includes electricity.
A local fellow keeps his Beaver floatplane tied up in front – although not tied up so much as on the fly. He was up and down all day, contracted to fly tub after tub of salmon in from the aboriginal fisheries up the river. On the “out” trip he strapped 2x4s and sheets of plywood to the struts for somebody’s project somewhere.
“Our tax dollars at work,” the geezer wryly commented. Apparently you could also rent him for a flight-seeing trip over the glaciers - $600 for an hour. We’ve seen glaciers.
August 2, 2008
We had heard about the practice of planting trees "roots-side-up" to attract nesting eagles - for good luck we assume. Sure enough, in Atlin we came across just such a front "gate."
The museum was mildly interesting – packed floor to ceiling with old stuff to show how things used to be – packages of pins and boxes of sock garters and tins of horse linament. Lots of old photos too. Like every town in the north, Atlin owes its conception to the gold rush. After that, tourism for the wealthy sustained it. But the depression changed all that and the town downsized. There is lots of evidence of that process in the disintegrating ruins of old buildings.
But in the background the mining continues – not the big bonanzas that drove the rush, but the everyday work of professional prospecting and mining companies. It’s a pursuit that is desecrating the landscape with ugly grey tailing fields that go on for miles and miles. Nothing seems to grow over them.
Wandered around the “pioneer” graveyard. Interesting place but also home to vicious bugs that bit me over and over again. I had sprayed my arms and legs and neck and so on – but not the top of my scalp. Over the next days these turned nasty. I got so paranoid about bugs on my head I started spraying repellent spray on my head – you can imagine how this turned out – oily spray over weeping bites. What a mess that was. That’s why people wear hats.
We retrace our route down the Alaska Hwy to Junction 37 where Highway #37, the Stewart Cassiar Hwy, intersects and heads south. The RV park here once boasted a big motel, a saloon, a restaurant, three sets of petrol pumps and a store. Now it feels like a ghost town. Still, not cheap at $25 per night.
Come morning we head off down the Stewart Cassiar Hwy. There is not too much to look at for the first few hours but the scenery quickly improves after that. Enroute we come on Jade City where we stop for a free coffee and a look around. Claudia owns the place and tells us that 92% of the world’s jade comes from this area. She mines it and was busy woman-handling huge saws, slicing it up for people to buy. She also has a retail shop, full of lovely jade jewellery, ornate clocks and so on. We are not into accumulating more stuff in our life anymore, but she is happy enough to chat. Apparently between what she exports to Asia and the bus tours coming through she has more than enough customers without the likes of us.
Carried on down the highway to Dease Lake where we turn off for Telegraph Creek. The travel guide we are looking at calls this 112 km gravel road an “expedition.” We cannot resist. Narrow, cliff hugging switchbacks with steep hills boasting 20% grades. Holy cow this will be fun.
First 50 km were dead dull. Just about when we thought they were all liars we came on the canyon that the book called “Canada’s Grand Canyon” and we were impressed. Absolutely gorgeous. Putting it in the same league as Arizona’s Grand Canyon might be over-reaching a tad, but there is no doubt this trip was worth every one of those 224 km of gravel.
Telegraph Creek itself is another of those gold rush towns that transitioned to tourism because of its location on the river system. In this case, it sits in the spectacular Stikine River Valley. The local lodge, called the Riversong, is located in an historic 1898 Hudson’s Bay trading post. They cater to river rafters and those who have to see what is at the end of the road. You can sleep over at the lodge or camp in their parking lot for $7.50 (presumably this includes use of toilets and showers).
In our case we carried on a few kilometres up the road to set up camp in the beautiful, free forest service site on the river. The local band has a fishing camp directly next door. A few minutes after setting up a local lady came around to warn us that a grizzly sow and her three cubs made a habit of walking through our campsite so we might want to relocate to one of the sites off the river.
We thought, no. We would be careful – keep our bear spray in our pocket and a sharp eye out. We hoped that from the safety of the van we’d get a chance to see her and the babes, but no luck. The night passed peacefully – although her paw prints were all over the sand in the river bank beside us. We did see a lynx though and that is apparently quite a rare sighting.
What an incredible opportunity a road like this is – cutting 112 km into the remote wilderness. It means a lot to me to see these places and know that they exist. Places of such profound quiet and simplicity. I feel the same about some of the remoter places I’ve been in Newfoundland. When life in the big city gets crazy, it quiets my soul to think of them and realize that any time I really need to, I can go there.
August 5, 2008
This has become one intensely scenic highway. Although, again, I sure would like to know what designates a “highway” versus a road because this is often a 1.5 lane dirt track. Mostly aspahalt and mostly good but narrow and winding. Which is fine. We are happy to nose along at 89 k/p/h. But not everyone feels as we do. Ran into a woman in Hyder who says the Stewart Cassiar was the worst experience of her traveling life. Doesn’t want no gravel in her life, no sir. We like it fine.
How to describe what we are looking at? Massive mountain faces with pristine peaks sparkling in the sun, glistening glaciers inching down the flanks of a range that tops out at 15,000 feet. Brilliant purple fireweed licks the edges of the asphalt, burns across the landscape and into the white-barked stands of trees, straight and tall. Fall is already announcing, swabbing its paint box for the yellows, oranges, reds, and browns it paints the hills with. There is a low-lying shrub blanketing the lower flanks of rocky slopes that has turned egg-yolk yellow, painting the hills in pure sunshine. It makes you feel happy to be here. Watching a mother moose and her little calf trot down the road in front of us was pure bonus.
Some 300 km down the highway we come on a junction that offers another adventure – the 65 km road to Stewart and Hyder. Stewart is at the head of the Portland Canal which forms a natural boundary between British Columbia and Alaska. So Stewart is in BC while Hyder is 3.7 km away in Alaska. But the two share a lot including the Canadian currency and a Chamber of Commerce.
When you turn off the Stewart Cassiar Hwy towards Stewart/Hyder you are basically driving into “glacier land.” Nothing but snow-kissed peaks flowing into glaciers crawling down into the lakes they feed. At km 24 we come on one of the largest, the Bear Glacier. You can actually camp beside the lake that the glacier calves into but it is private and pricy. There are also great viewpoints on public land for sitting and watching the same thing.
We arrive in Stewart/Hyder but decide to check out the towns tomorrow. Today the sky is so big and blue a local fellow has urged us to keep driving out to the Salmon Glacier. Just past Hyder the road is really rough gravel. Depending on your point of view this is good or bad. Bad if it discourages you and you turn around, missing some of the best sights in the north. Good because it keeps the fainthearted back in the campground. If you cherish untouristed places you will press on past the potholes.
The road does get better or perhaps we just get so blown away by what we are looking at, we forget about it. The road hugs the mountains, climbing up to a place where it is paralleling the Salmon Glacier, but also running above it. We are overlooking the glacier, very cool. As we continue our route traces the edges of additional glaciers grinding their way down slopes. When we stop and stay quiet the peace is broken with the thunderous roar of glaciers calving into the lakes they feed. It’s a bit spooky.
We continue, following the road that was pushed through to service the Granduc Copper Mine, closed since 1984. There are only a scant handful of people out here in this place that is beautiful and remote and so far off the beaten track. We find a safe place to park out on a promontory overlooking one of the glaciers and stay the night.
The next morning we run into a local who asks if we were bothered by any of the four grizzlies who call this valley home. “Nope.” But out for a walk I did run into some very big paw prints in the dirt. I MUST remember to keep the bear spray on my belt.
Hyder is the real draw – dirt roads and RV parks, bars and bears. Yes, grizzly bears. More specifically, the Fish Creek Wildlife Observation facility, 3.5 miles north of Hyder is the reason people come here. This is the place that is renowned for its spawning salmon and its fishing grizzlies.
The Fish Creek Observatory consists of a long boardwalk that is suspended over a shallow gravel creek. Apparently every species of salmon spawn in this creek so there is normally an ongoing run of one species or another through late summer and fall. The grizzlies show up at the creek to gorge on the salmon.
Except this year. This year the fish are not returning in great numbers so the grizzlies are staying in the bush. One young fellow, probably a teenager in grizzly years did show up to graze on the grass bordering the creek. He was a beautiful fellow – sleek and healthy with well-defined musculature. That ripped looked actually has the wildlife officers concerned. By this point in the season the bears should be looking fat and cuddly, not sleek. If the salmon don’t show up soon the bears are going to start looking beyond the grass for something to fatten up on before winter.
Time for us to leave.
August 9, 2008
Today we moved on down the Stewart Cassiar Hwy to Terrace, a great little town with an excellent municipal campground on the river. Great place to get the van cleaned up, re-stock the larder, have a shower, do laundry.
While we were busy housekeeping the cell phone sprang to life for the first time in weeks – it was our son, Aaron. He works for SeaSpan, pulling big barges up and down the coast. He was going to be landing a barge at Kitimat the next morning, just a scant 70 km down the road.
So off we went, tucking in for the night at Moon Bay Marina where Douglas Channel concludes at the port town of Kitimat. This well-planned little town was actually built from scratch specifically to house the workers of Alcan, the aluminum smelter and now Eurocan as well, the pulp and paper mill. It’s a pretty town, residential areas well separated from industry and parks with great views of the water.
We had some fun trying to figure out how to get to the commercial docks. Locals were helpful in giving us the heads up on how to get past security: “Just drive on through like you own the place.”
So we did that, cruising on past a lot of big equipment in the works yards then down some private “Do Not Trespass” roads that finally, about ten km later ended up on the private, Eurocan docks. We were challenged at the docks but when we explained we hadn’t seen our son in several months there were lots of smiles and “Just stay clear of the equipment.”
So the next morning while we were sipping our coffees at the marina, watching the channel, we caught sight of Aaron chugging into port pulling the hugest barge I’ve ever seen. Great to see him after two months and interesting to watch him and the other guys doing their thing all morning.
With Aaron heading south by water we carry on south by road. Next stop is Prince Rupert where the ferry terminals are located. From PR you can head north to Alaska, south to Port Hardy or west to the Queen Charlotte Islands. With all that ferry traffic to entice into the town they’ve done a nice job of developing the Prince Rupert waterfront with shops and restaurants and services. There is a great visitor’s centre with books and brochures, internet terminals and free WIFI. There is lots of friendly staff to help with reservations and a number of tour companies have kiosks there selling trips to see grizzlies or orcas and eagles.
We are hoping to go to the Queen Charlotte Islands tomorrow morning. As usual we are flying by the seat of our pants so we don’t have reservations. We will be getting up very early to see if we can get on standby.