08.03.2002-08.17.2002 Watson Lake, YT to Prince George, BC|
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|There are few roads in the North that have generated as much misinformation as the Cassiar Highway. However, sources of this misinformation were, more often than not, RVers. I had come to learn that most RVers lived in a reality separate from my own so I usually applied a heavy discount to the value of any information they provided or discarded it altogether. The sources I trusted were other bicyclists and reliable publications. From these I formed a few, simple expectations for the ride. I expected tough riding, good scenery, rain and bears. After I turned onto the highway the road narrowed, the highway markings disappeared and the forest, which had been clear-cut for some distance along the Alacan Highway, grew right up to the road. The road had an intimate feel and I enjoyed it immediately. Although there was more traffic than I expected the nature of the road dictated a slower pace for motorists and cyclists alike. I no longer had to fear RVers who would sooner sacrifice the safety of the cyclists on the road than slow down and have to reset their cruise controls. The upper section of the highway passed through an endless string of lakes and rivers as it wove through the Cassiar mountains. As I traveled south the terrain gradually transitioned to coastal. Unfortunately, the weather did as well, leaving me with only occasional glimpses of what lay behind the mist and clouds.
When I reached Mezadin junction the only disappointment had been the lack of bear viewings. In fact, until that point I had only encountered three bears along the road and two of those were either dead or had decided to start hibernating very early this year. This did not discourage me, however. One of the major attractions of the Cassiar Highway is a detour into the coastal twin towns of Stewart, BC-Hyder, AK, which lie some forty miles west of the highway. During late July and August the salmon are running in Fish Creek just outside Hyder and the bears are feasting, making for what some consider the best road-accessible bear viewing in North America. I found the ride to the coast somewhat reminiscent of the ride into Valdez, except the weather was more accommodating, providing the first dry day in quite some time. The road climbed up to a pass where a beautiful glacier came into view. The road then descended through a river canyon before arriving in Stewart. As I left Canada and re-entered Alaska at Hyder the road turned from pavement to pot-holed dirt. I encountered the three wandering horses that served as the town's ambassadors, stopping motorists in the road to greet them, sticking their heads into open vehicle windows and doors and visiting guests at their campsites. In most towns such a display would appear absurd but in Hyder it seemed appropriate. That night I went to Fish Creek and grabbed a spot on the viewing platform along with the other hundred or so tourists waiting for the bears to appear. I had never seen a salmon run so watching the salmon-clogged creek provided some amusement at first. But my patience waned as I waited for the main event, bear fishing. I would wait nearly three hours for a bear to appear and the performance was not nearly as spectacular as I had expected, my expectations perhaps raised too high after watching too many documentaries. I felt like I was watching a bad play, the cast half-heartedly acting out their parts. But this wasn't art, this was nature. The viewing platform was in the middle of the spawning area so the fish were practically dead by the time they reached it and weren't trying to swim any further upstream. And why should the grizzly act animated? It simply strolled up the creek, made a few lazy lunges before landing the fish it wanted, ate it and strolled on past the platform. End of show. Nonetheless I was still in awe. I had been in close proximity to black bears while cycling but this was the first time I had been near a grizzly. The sound of cracking bones as the grizzly effortlessly tore apart a 20-30 lb. fish was unforgettable.
On each leg of the journey there are milestones met of various sorts. On this leg my stomach reached a milestone. I had been a bit disappointed with my achievements at the buffets earlier in the trip so I was happy to see my stomach finally accommodating near-gargantuan portions. My favorite meal for gorging was breakfast. I sought out breakfast specials with words like "Trucker" or "Lumberjack" in them. These offerings usually contained just about all the breakfast foods available, thus saving me the inconvenience of ordering several dishes. I ordered one such "Lumberjack Special" when I was in Hyder. The waitress informed me that I would receive a special prize if I were able to finish it. When she brought me the food she inquired whether I thought I could finish the meal. I sensed a fair amuont of doubt in this inquiry(perhaps due to my un-lumberjack-like appearance) so I did my best to assure her that such a feat would be no great challenge for the Pan-American cyclist. I went about methodically devouring the food items that comprised the "Lumberjack Special" and then presented my waitress with my clean dishes. For my efforts she awarded me with a free cookie and a pin certifying my accomplishment. She told me that although many had tried, I was the first person in over a week to have successfully finished the meal. She kindly wrote "Congratulations! You are now officially a Lumberjack" on the cookie sleeve.
I had to take care of one more item of business before I could depart Hyder. I needed to get Hyderized. I didn't know exactly what this entailed but I knew it involved the consumption of alcohol so I paid another visit to one of Hyder's saloons and informed the bartender of my need. She laid out the rules: 1) I would be given a single drink, the contents of which would be revealed to me only after I had drunk it. 2) I had to shoot the drink--no sipping allowed. 3) If the drink came back up I would have to buy drinks for the whole house. The last one scare me, not so much the buying drinks for the house part(Hyder's being "The Friendliest Little Ghost Town in Alaska" there really wasn't much of a house), but that its very presence indicated that it had occurred, and probably more than once. I half-expected a shot of cheap whiskey laced with tabasco sauce so when the bartender presented me with a glass of clear liquid I was both relieved and a little bit disappointed. I downed the drink, noting the lack of taste. The bartender then lit the alcoholic film lining the glass afire, told me I had drunk Everclear and gave me a business card-sized certificate. Everclear? I wondered, why the suspense?
I didn't want to waste a day back-tracking to the Cassiar so I hopped on a bus and let the driver drop me a ways down the road. When I had departed Hyder the weather was typical coastal-crappiness but on the Cassiar it was clearing, making for the best weather I had encountered on the highway. To improve matters a Northerly wind had replaced the Southerly wind that had badgered me most of the way down the highway. My last day on the Cassiar was therefore pleasant and the pleasantness continued on the Yellowhead Highway as I headed eastward. I didn't know what to expect along the Yellowhead so I expected nothing, apart from a lot more traffic. I was therefore happy to find impressive mountain ranges within view of the highway. These mountains provided a nice contrast against the farms that were beginning to appear along the highway. The approach into Smithers was especially scenic so I decided to cut my day short and spend the night there. The next morning, after I packed, I went downtown for a coffee. While I sat outside the cafe sipping my coffee under the morning sun I couldn't help but feel a little remorse about leaving town without taking advantage of some of the recreational opportunities that abounded in the area. I didn't want to have these feelings on the trip so I stopped in at an outdoor goods store to inqurie about local trails, returned to the campground to set up camp again and bicycled out to the trailhead for Twin Falls and Glacier Gulch. I'd had plenty of time to admire the Hudson Bay range from a distance as I rode into town so I was glad to get a closer look. I hiked the short Twin Falls trail to the viewing platform at its terminus. The view of the falls was nice but I had a more ambitious objective for the day so I quickly returned and set out on the Glacier Gulch trail, a trail which would take me up and beyond the falls to the glacier that fed them. It was a stiff climb and I struggled as the well-defined trail gave way to loose rocks, my running shoes serving as poor hiking boots. Eventually I reached a rock that said "End of Trail." The glacier was still a short ways up but reaching it required traversing a short, but steep snowfield. With my inadequate footwear I could find no traction on the snowfield so I would have to be content with my progress. Before descending I sat upon the rock for a while to enjoy the commanding views of the valley, Smithers and the Babine range north of town. A dip in a nearby lake after the descent provided the perfect end to the outing.
The ride into Prince George continued through rolling agricultural and timber country and marked a return to civilization of sorts. I passed through towns every day the likes of which I had only encountered once a week(at best) earlier in the trip. I wasn't attending the opera every night but at least I no longer had to carry several days worth of supplies or wonder where I would find my next decent meal. My original plan was to bicycle directly south from Prince George to Vancouver but the trip had gone smoothly thus far(i.e. no days lost to illness, inclement weather or mechanical breakdowns) and there were attractions further east which I could not resist. I would detour into the Canadian Rockies to visit two of Canada's natural gems--Jasper and Banff National Parks--before returning to Vancouver and my coastal route.
|Distance||Elevation Gain||Flat Tires|
|Leg||817 mi/1314 km||42070 ft/13802 m|
|Trip||3058 mi/4921 km||28 mi/45 km||1||