Stewart-Cassiar Highway (Hwy 37)
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999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
Driving up and down the Alaska Highway in the Liard area is giving me headache inducing déjà vu, so I’m happy to turn off familiar roads onto the Stewart-Cassiar highway.
I drive for less than an hour and decide I like this road. I like it a lot. It’s narrow, windy, seems to have no line markings, has almost no RV traffic and is generally pretty unpredictable. I see a great camp site on the side of a lake and am executing a middle-of-the-highway three point turn when I see a big black bear amble across the road less than 20 meters from me.
Sweet, I think. I’m not camping alone.
The leaves are beginning to turn here, a clear sign I need to get moving south and escape winter. I set off on the gravel road to Telegraph Creek which comes highly recommended.
I flash past a sign that says “WARNING: Steep mountain road ahead. Grades up to 20%” before I really have time to read it.
20%? that doesn’t sound right, I must have read it wrong. Still wondering about this, a corner sign whizzes by, then a recommended speed sign of 10 km/h. Ten? I’ve never seen a recommended speed that slow, something must be going on here. I start to gear down and am happy I get into second by the time I get a glimpse of what is coming. When recognition sets in I double-clutch and push hard to notch first gear even though Jeep complains loudly. The corner is a full 180˚ hairpin and without doubt the steepest public road I have ever seen. Even in first gear I have to ride the brakes hard to keep my speed under control.
The highway continues in this fashion for the next 60 kms, hugging the Stakine River the entire way. The river has carved such a huge canyon it’s known as “The Grand Canyon of The Stakine”. The guys that built the road seem to have made it a personal goal to see how close to the edge they could build.
I have no idea what to expect in Telegraph Creek and order a coffee at the only building that looks like it’s for out-of-towners. I spark up a conversation with the cashier, Leaf, about Mt. Edziza and my desire to hike there. It is an extremely remote park on the other side of the river that encompasses a huge volcano, volcanic rock formations, glaciers and high plateaus. With the relatively recent volcanic activity there are also a few hot springs in the park that caught my attention in the first place. I’m pretty hiked out from my recent adventures, so at this point my interest level has dropped to half-hearted. I am told very few people hike in from this side due to an abundance of chest deep beaver dams, $30 one way river crossing and the steep elevation gain. My enthusiasm continues to fall, which I’m not at all sad about, in fact I’m kind of pleased.
It turns out the building we’re sitting in is the original Hudson’s Bay Trading Company building, the one that started it all for Canada. Leaf’s family moved here in the 70’s as part of a “back to the earth movement” – not hippies she says, “these are very hardworking people, they want to do everything for themselves”. Their house is the most beautiful log cabin I have ever seen, and constructed more precisely than most city buildings.
We talk long into the night, and Leaf’s mum Lynn is bursting with pride about the life and home she has created for her family. She’s a little annoyed she had to go to work for six weeks this year and assures me it will be less next year.
I can’t help thinking that most people would be elated if they got six weeks of leave time.
I drive south the next morning and I know that I am rushing, the one thing I said I would not do on this trip. I’m really excited to see my brother soon so I don’t care. I want to rush. I want to be hanging out with him right now. It’s raining now, the first continuous rain I have seen in two months. I’m cold and tired, so I pay $12 for a campground in Stewart that has a hot shower. In the morning I cross the border into Hyder, Alaska which bizarrely has no customs or government presence at all, I just drive straight on in.
Hyder is known as the bear capital of North America, so I make a stop at Bear Creek and wander down the boardwalk to see what all the fuss is about. I’m amused by the throngs of paparazzi with telephoto lenses jostling for position on any bears that might unsuspectingly show up for lunch. I wait all of 20 seconds to see a grizzly sow swim across the small pond 20 meters in front of us. Cameras go crazy and everyone “ohhhs” and “ahhhs” as if on command. The bear walks under the boardwalk and everyone sits transfixed in place, still staring where the bear used to be. I look around and start thinking about where the bear will re-appear. As I trace the route in my mind, I begin to walk; it must have gone under there, around that and behind this. Bam. The grizzly appears less than 3 meters away, strolling down the river looking for salmon. I’m the only person to have solved the riddle and so I walk down the boardwalk alone, parallel to the bear for 40 meters snapping photos and being thoroughly entertained by it’s behavior. Once she has had her fill, everyone else seems to realize and comes running down the boardwalk, just in time to see her disappear into the bushes.
I drive up a very windy, steep gravel road that has more glaciers per kilometer than anywhere I’ve been yet. I drive and drive until I’m in the clouds and can hardly see the front of the Jeep let alone any more glaciers. The view from the top is nil.
On Mark’s recommendation I continue along the road, dropping down into the next valley jam packed with glaciers until eventually hitting barriers where there is active mining.