~665km (~2035km total)
July 24, 2014: Stewart – Bell 2, ~160km
Up early in the morning, yet on the road late. I spent the dawn hours dawdling, as I’ve noticed I have the habit of doing. I wandered around the town looking for some sort of distraction, even though I knew I had a big day ahead.
Bell 2 appears on the official (read: pricy) map of BC as a small yellow dot, a mark that the legend defines as a settlement of 500 or less people. What I should know about this map now is that this dot is often used as a general indication of some collection of services, whether or not there is a community built around them. In the case of Bell 2, the “services” are a giant lodge, complete with a helipad and helicopters for more affluent tourists. The cyclist-relevant services are a fridge stocked full of generic saran-wrapped foods and canned drinks, a free public washroom, and breakfast and lunch buffets that would make a dietician blush. I’m not sure which of these tugged at me strongest, but I had made up my mind that Bell 2 would be my destination for the day. Maybe I just wanted some conversations to cap off the ride.
The ride back up 37a towards the Meziadin Junction was a breeze, literally. I hadn’t experienced such a tailwind in some time. The idea that I was, for the most part, gaining elevation as I left the Pacific Coast was distant. I cruised by the scenery, only realizing how much I remembered from the ride in when reintroduced to it on the way out. It was truly gorgeous, and I was grateful to be riding it twice.
I arrived at the junction and couldn’t resist editing the blog just a bit since there was available wifi in the construction zone close by. I do this so many times, often with little things: consistent formatting, subtle rewordings, etc. I often wonder if, when two people who have read my blog have a conversation about it (it’s the dream of every writer, I’m sure, amateur or professional, to have his words talked about, even if in derision), they will discover some crucial aspect of their respective interpretations, some little nicety (a subtle rewording perhaps) that struck a resonant chord with either of them, differing so wildly that it were almost as if they read two separate accounts.
It was now around 1pm, and I had about 90km to go. This was good. A manageable haul to finish off what would be my longest ride of the tour yet if successful. Just past the junction, the road started climbing and climbing. For nearly 20km, I was trending upwards, with only the occasional dramatic plunge to a creek crossing (always paid for and then some with an equally steep yet twice as long ascension back to the average grade) to break up the onslaught. And it was getting hot. I no longer feared rain, but the black flies and horse flies swarmed around me during my slow, predictable pace.
There was a marked change in the landscape today. My long climb eventually placed me on some sort of plateau, and I was able to see well into the distance in every direction. I had wondered if my departure from the coastal mountains of Stewart might be the end of such vistas, but I was decisively proven wrong. To the west, the low foothills nudged up gently from vast, flat carpets of spruce forest. Further west, they nudged higher. And further, higher still. Up, up until they eclipsed the tree line, revealing not the gruff, stress fractured granite peaks of the previous coastal crags, but a more ferrous, dirty horizon, full of pleasing geometry and subtle watercolours. A landscape not of violent collisions and concessions, but of agreements and accommodations. Balance, symmetry. Occasionally, forest valleys would extend further, between two massifs, far west towards the coast, and then suddenly an austere, snowy peak would rise, disconnected from the landscape, impossibly far away and impossibly large.
As I neared Bell 2, I ran into J-P (I would rather abbreviate his Italian name than spell it incorrectly), an older tourist also heading up to Inuvik. He was straddling his bike and talking to some young travellers, wearing a raincoat, underwear, and not much else. We reintroduced ourselves, having met previously in Stewart the day before. He seemed mighty impressed by my achievement, a distance that took him two days. Then again, he was twice my age, and his bike, I’m convinced, weighed nearly twice as much.
We ended up camping together across the river from the lodge in a gravel pit, and I soon learned that J-P was a bit of a bike touring legend. This was his fourth trip to Inuvik, though his first time along the Stewart-Cassiar. He had travelled on highways that only just barely existed: in northern Quebec (like, really northern, just east of Hudson Bay), Labrador, as well as all of their offshoots into the wilderness. He spent his time off the bike working for IBM and perusing through satellite images, exploring new frontiers and new possibilities.
He was loud, outspoken, and a real hoot to spend the evening with. He shared with me some of his 50-odd day’s worth of freeze dried food, so I decided to pass on the expensive buffet at the Bell 2 Lodge. I watched with amusement as he paced around the gravel pit, assessing the rocks, the grade, the water run-off potential, searching for the perfect place to pitch his tent. This man knew exactly what he was doing, and I felt pretty awesome whenever he made a favourable observation towards any piece of gear I carried. I figured that we wouldn’t be riding together much the next day (if at all), so I chatted with him well into the evening. When at last I retired to my tent, he was only just preparing dinner. He lived at his own, comfortable pace, riding well into the evening and sleeping until near noon most days. He was an eccentric and adventurous man, comfortable in his own skin (and sometimes, only in it).
Intermittent rain pattered against my tent fly as I unwound inside and reflected on the day. I had seen seven bears, each of the encounters being as uneventful as can be. I had met seven other cyclotourists, and I was camping with another. The scenery had undergone profound transformations. What would tomorrow bring?
July 25, 2014: Bell 2 – Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park, ~120km
I was awake at 7. It was cold and damp, and it looked to rain. I had planned on making breakfast with my own stock, but after cleaning up in the lodge bathroom, the warmth of the dining hall and the $15 buffet proved too irresistible. Plus, they had wifi, and though I had failed to convince them to let me use it the previous evening (it was only for guests), I thought I might try my luck with a different staff member this morning.
I stuffed myself with sausage links, pancakes with strawberries, fried potatoes, croissants, and several cups of black coffee. I was determined to get my money’s worth. With a little pathetic pleading, – “my parents need to know I’m alive!” – I was able to obtain wifi access, but I was surprised how stingy they were. I guess satellite-based Internet access is low bandwidth and can be quite temperamental.
Back across the bridge, J-P was not even out of his tent. It was now nearly 11am, and I was ready to hit the road. Leaving turned out to be difficult. Every time I would say goodbye, he would start off on a tangential story with some ultimate piece of wisdom at the end of it. If it were a particularly strong anecdote, he would pause, look off into the distance as if addressing the whole world, and raise his voice, filling the gravel pit as if it were an amphitheatre. Amusing as he was, I was quickly becoming irritated, probably more due to my own procrastination than at his extended pontification. Either way, Kinaskan Lake, my intended destination, was about 120km away, and the day was already well underway. I inched my way closer and closer the highway, stopping briefly in polite gestures of acknowledgement. Finally, we said true goodbyes, and I hurried away before any more inspiration took hold of him.
I followed the river early on. The weather couldn’t make up its mind. The damp road spoke of rain nearby, but it was sunny over me. This indecisiveness in the weather had become a common thing since I left Terrace.
Soon, the road left the river and climbed for many kilometres until I reached a rest stop near an air strip in the middle of nowhere. Most times when I stopped at these rest areas, another traveller would come by soon after – car, camper, motorhome, or otherwise – and we would share brief stories, the wheres and the whats, the conventional travelling script. Soon after I arrived, I saw a car, and began anticipating the conversation, readying my script. But the girl hopped out, warily glanced my way, and said nothing. Weird. Usually, I at least get a “hello.” Her hatchback sped off, and a trucker pulled in not long after. He was coming south, and I queried him of the road ahead.
“No. Lots of hills though.”
“Probably mountains, eh?”
“It’s pretty flat for a while.”
Well, shit. My mood took a turn for the worse.The day looked to have nothing in it that made the previous day so memorable. It didn’t help that the weather was yet again being incredibly fickle. Too hot for a rain jacket, yet too cold for anything else when the wind gusted. I quickly withdrew into my mind, maybe trying to wring something positive out of an old memory, trying to salvage the day. To knead the past into the present.
The trucker was at least partially right. The road kept climbing. The going was slow, and with no real shoulder since Bell 2, the ridiculously fast drivers whipped by me impatiently and possessively. At least I could hear them well in advance. My world shrank to a 20ft sphere surrounding my bike. I rarely looked up from the ground. I tried to focus on the present, on my surroundings, but all I saw was negative: garbage on the roadside, potholes, road kill.
Finally, I reached Burrage Hill, complete with an elevation profile of the coming road. Maybe it was seeing the next seven or so kilometres laid out, but something changed within me. The hill was important enough to name, so it snapped me back into the present. The challenge looked to be significant, requiring more than just a passive cyclist. Bring it on. I summited and was treated with the most incredible 25km of road so far.
Immediately to my left, the forest dropped away into a valley. My eyes swept over that valley, tree by tree, until it rose into ferrous peaks similar to those I had seen yesterday. Mountains were one thing, but the sheer space, the openness of the place, gave a sense of scale not found so far on the trip. I searched through the landscape, inspecting every crevasse, every subtle shadow, resolving the depth, trying to comprehend the world around me. In some places, I could see at least 50km away, and yet it wasn’t via some disjunct peak thrusting out of the formless horizon. It was through continuity. A vast blanket of greenery connected every feature of the land, from the smallest hillock to the largest prominence.
To say that I was moved would be an understatement. I had never before been so profoundly affected by a landscape. Accompanying the sheer natural beauty of the place was the overpowering sense that I had somehow earned it. Some part of me had been yearning for this, whatever this was, and emotions welled up until I was completely overcome with joy. I would stare away, checking my course along the road, and then I would stare back, and the entire process would repeat, starting deep within my belly, spreading out to my shoulders and hips, down my arms and legs, into each finger, each toe. An extended frisson. “Let this land fill you up,” a friend of mine had said on my last bike tour. Finally, I understood what she meant.
I saw seven bears today: three young boys, and a mother with three cubs. In the latter case, the mother didn’t seem to pay me any heed, whereas the cubs stood on their hind legs to get a good look as I passed. I didn’t sense aggression in any of the encounters, but I didn’t feel like pushing my luck for a few photos.
I finally arrived at Kinaskan Provincial Park – free for cyclists! There were hardly any bugs, and each site was impeccably maintained. I washed myself off in the lake and retired to my sleeping bag after conversing briefly with my camping neighbours. Loons called. Fish jumped for flies and plopped back into the lake. Otherwise, not a sound. No mosquito buzz. No cars.
July 26, 2014: Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park – Dease Lake, ~125km
It was a brisk morning. The sky was overcast, but the air was crisp and fresh. I donned all of my layers: bike shorts, long johns, convertibles, t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, fleece, and jacket. It was probably overkill, but this felt like a good opportunity to see how effective my layering was in colder weather. Surely the weather would warm later in the afternoon, but who’s to say how long that would take, and, if the previous days were any indication, the sky would throw fits of indecisiveness before settling into whatever it felt strongest.
“Don’t forget to look back,” the park operator had said before bidding me goodnight the previous evening. Today I would be heading inland, well away from the coastal mountains, and climbing as I went. The view behind me was supposed to be astonishing. The peaks receding into the southwest horizon would give me a strong sense of accomplishment as I neared the Stikine River valley, and, after it, Gnat Pass, the only major pass I was to encounter before entering the Yukon Territories. At about 1250m, Gnat Pass wasn’t exactly a quad-buster, but I didn’t want to take its challenge lightly.
Aside from the constant climbing, it was a pretty uneventful ride early on. The morning seemed to belong to smaller creatures: squirrels playing chicken on the road, swallows patrolling their nests, caterpillars shimmying along the shoulder. I suppose they were all trying to get their daily errands out of the way before the bigger creatures staked their territorial claims.
I stopped just outside of Iskut in a cafe to warm up. The lady running the place, I learned, was from Watson Lake, my next intended day off. Upon hearing of my trouble finding a place to perform a Skype interview there, she offered up her house, currently occupied by her daughter. What a fortunat stop Iskut turned out to be! Sometimes it amazes me how the haphazard decisions made along the road, like an impulsive decision to break for coffee early in the day, can coalesce into an arrangement as good as anything organized in advance.
The climb towards Gnat Pass turned out to be pretty mellow. The first five kilometres ascended steeply, but the road then settled into a milder grade. I crested several false summits before finally arriving at the true pass. As I made my way through the highlands, I came across a farm, smack in the middle of nowhere. Horses were grazing in pastures surrounded by protective forests, and, further away from the road, a lovingly maintained house sat near Gnat Lake. A nearby stream made its way leisurely through rich fields of wild grass. The entire property felt displaced from the environment around it. Here was someone’s little dream, on the top of a small mountain.
About 2km from Dease Lake, two mutts approached me on the road. They were barking with exuberance. I stopped, observing their reaction. They continued to approach me, albeit slightly less aggressively. I looked around. No cars. I picked up a stone and chucked it across their noses. That seemed to do the trick, and they bounded away in search of the stone amongst the shoulder shrubs, nipping at each other as they went.
Dease Lake was practical if a little underwhelming, being the only major service stop along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. All of its conveniences were spread out along a service road running parallel to the highway: a grocery store, restaurant, gas station, and tourist shop. It was very pragmatic. Vehicles of any size could pull in and pull out without much fuss. Parking lots were large, unstructured, and pocked with potholes that could swallow a careless cyclist whole. I carefully meandered around the shops, looking for god knows what, and eventually ended up in the restaurant, lured by the promise of “free” wifi. Little did I know that I had only just beaten the evening rush, and I was soon kicked out so that others could take my seat.
I continued to wander around, and as I neared a local hotel, a motorcyclist approached me.
“I think so, yeah. Just searching for an internet connection.”
“Well, you need anything, just let us know,” and he pointed to a group of bikers that he was preparing to have dinner with.
This was a very kind offer from a complete stranger, and as we continued chatting, I learned that he and every member of his motorcycle touring gang had passed me at some point during the day. I was the only touring cyclist they had seen on the road, and now here I was, in the flesh. They were very curious as to what kind of crazy man would ride the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (at the time I didn’t feel like mentioning just how many cyclists I had seen on the road), and what began as a gesture of support turned into an invitation to (a second) dinner and a free hotel room.
What a luxurious evening it was! I took a BATH, then a shower. I slept in a bed at least three times as large as my sleeping pad. I browsed trashy TV on the satellite connection. Was I still on a bike tour?
July 27, 2014: Dease Lake – Jade City, ~115km
I stayed in the hotel until 11am, check-out time. I was determined to squeeze as much out of my free hotel room as possible.
The road out of Dease Lake was rougher than I was used to on this highway. Heading away from the lake I travelled over a 10km section of gravel, and when I finally hit chipseal again, it felt as smooth as butter.
I have been very lucky with storms since leaving Terrace. Most of the time, they are moving north with me, but I always seem to be riding beside them or following them. Occasionally, a dark gray cloud will span the entire northern horizon, only to dissipate as I get closer. Today was no different, and though I wore my rain jacket just in case, I always managed to stay away from the full force of the weather systems.
An uneventful day today. I felt like I was changing climates. The air was noticeably dryer, and the landscape more stretched out. Trees didn’t grow as high on the surrounding hills, and the yellowing grass along the side of the road suggested a more arid environment. There was very little traffic on the road, a vehicle passing me once every five or ten minutes. In the long intervals of windless silence, I found I could tune my ears to tinier sounds, like crickets, cicadas, or bumblebees.
The surface of the road was noticeably rougher, even after the gravel ended. Gone were any attempts at traffic demarcation. I had as much of the road to myself as I wanted, and no shoulder marking to suggest that I might be overstepping my bounds. The road, stripped to its bare essentials, added a great deal to the feeling of isolation I was already experiencing with the significantly reduced traffic.
I risked drinking the water (untreated) from a fast moving creek once again. I find that small gestures like these make me feel good, regardless of their apparent irresponsibility. I think it’s trust, kind of like how I don’t bother wearing my bear whistle around my neck anymore (rest easy, I still carry it close by, just not at the ready). I’ve lowered my defenses just a little in a gesture of solidarity with the untamed community. Wild animals don’t seem to be interested in me, and maybe, just maybe, they accept my intent to pass through their land respectfully and unceremoniously. And I appreciate that, and I feel like trusting the crystal clear water flowing through the land is the best way I can show that. Maybe I should make a sign?
DEAR WILD CREATURES, THANK YOU FOR NOT PARTAKING OF MEALS ON WHEELS. LET’S SHARE A DRINK. MEET ME DOWN BY THE RIVER, BUT MAYBE STAY ON THE OTHER SIDE?
It’s obnoxious, really. Treating my water shouldn’t detract from my experience on the road one bit, aside from possibly adding the inconvenience of having to wait for the chemicals to react completely. Yet, when I take that first hesitant sip, swoosh it around in my mouth a bit, and finally commit to swallowing it, I feel a growing confidence is my ability to assess the land and its resources. I am able to see the world for what it is and act accordingly. And maybe, if I can, others can as well, and there is still a place for man in the uncivilized world. A place of instinctive purity, if that even exists.
I made it as far as Jade City today, nothing more than two shops sitting off the highway on either side, one a restaurant and the other a jade store. The shops straddled a nearby junction that headed about 10km northwest towards Cassiar, a now abandoned and disassembled town (and the place from which the highway received half its name). There were some free campsites just off the main property with picnic benches and not much else. I wasn’t complaining.
Shortly after I had dinner and packed it in for the day, a huge downpour swept over the land. For the first time since leaving Victoria, I worried about my tent’s climate rating (three season), but it performed admirably, my home away from home.
July 28, 2014: Jade City – Watson Lake, ~145km
I was standing in the Jade store, warming up and checking emails, when I heard behind me, “Hey Rose! I’m just going upstairs for a few minutes. There’s a guy in here drinking a free coffee and using the free wifi.”
I turned and looked at her. She looked at me.
“[Rose] is just helping the paying customers outside.”
…and with that, it was time to leave.
I powered through the first 70km. There was little wind, and I was motivated by the thought that I would be leaving BC today, and, more importantly, finishing off the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. BC feels almost too big to comprehend in its entirety. Departing my home province feels abstract, like border crossings usually do. I look back on my passage through BC and I automatically break it up: Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, etc. This highway, too, feels like a piece separate from the others, but it has been the biggest one so far, and, unless I’m mistaken, the biggest one until I reach the Dempster Highway. In many ways, I liken this highway to the stretch of Highway 17 around Lake Superior in Northern Ontario, from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. On the map, they both looked remote and daunting. Motorists spoke with unease about their traffic, wild animals, and challenging terrain. But they were both incredible experiences, full of the kind of serendipity that gets under your skin and cements itself in your consciousness: life-affirming and soul-enriching.
I usually try and ignore road signs until I’m about to conclude a day. Today, when I saw southbound signs, I turned back and look at the names on the signs, places I only recently visited: Dease Lake, Stewart, Kitwanga. Each name brought back a flood of memories, some directly linked to the towns and many more from the endless expanses of road between them.
Near the border of the Yukon Territories, the road passed through a recent forest fire (in 2011). The smell of burnt wood was still in the air, and scorched pine trunks stacked to the horizon. A real wasteland, but beautiful in its own way. The road got progressively worse, almost as if the road engineers stopped caring as they connected with the Alaska Highway at Junction 37. It became a twisting mess of potholes, blind corners, and ridiculous grades. Hardly a pleasant way to finish things off.
I cycled about 25km east towards Watson Lake. I had arrived in time for my interview the next day, and I had a place to stay. I realized early in the evening how exhausted I was, and I was looking forward to a day off.