Part One: going North
One day my friend Gus diZerega said, “I’ve always wanted to drive to the Arctic Circle.” Since I believe that such wishes ought to be fulfilled I urged him to set a date and promised to go with him. On * we set off.
We got to the border in a couple of days and lounged around in the Vancouver Island area while Gus did his business there. For me a great moment came when one of those there to work politely asked me what I did, to keep me from being a total outsider. I said I published roleplaying games.
The woman sitting next to me, one of those there for the work, mentioned that she and her husband used to play this cool roleplaying game called RuneQuest, and proceeded to share a couple of funny stories from the game. I was pretty much flabbergasted and was not sure if she was just yanking my chain. I finally said, “Do you know who I am?” and handed her one of my cards.
She was all “Oooo” and “Wow” and immediately called her boy friend to boast to him about who she was eating dinner with. It was quite fun. I wondered if that would be the high point of my trip, encountered before we even got anywhere. Fortunately, it was not.
The drive north was long and through lightly populated British Columbia. We took 99 to 97 to Prince George. Out in the middle of nowhere, in Burns Lake, a few miles west of Prince George, we came across a coffee shop that could have been in Arcata or Berkeley with dynamite good coffee and fresh pastries. By then I could have stayed a while just reading announcements of the new age classes that were posted. But we dragged ourselves away with takeout coffee and cranberry muffins and went on.
We turned onto Trans-Canada route 16. One stop we made was in Smithers which was reportedly an old hippy hang out. Well, the hippys were old and wasn’t much to hang out with. There was an outdoors fair. We talked with a couple of people campaigning against the pipeline that the government wanted to put through from the tar sand oil fields to the west coast. “It won’t make it,” they said, “It got a go through several First People lands, and they won’t let it.” A year later the campaign to run the same pipeline through the US began. A woman told me she was a farmer, a hay farmer since it was all that would grow up there. She said she was selling it all to Japan this year. There was also a small rodeo and we watched a few of the local boys get pitched off of horses.
We ran into one of those weird anomalies discovered while traveling. Eating was largely in restaurants, a pretty hit and miss bag of okay to terrible food. But in New Hazelton we stopped at the only restaurant for miles around. It was a place where the waiter wears a tie and they serve food you’ve never heard of written on a chalk board. In was great! It could fit into San Francisco and not be outclassed. The cook was a young lady from San Francisco, in fact.
We left Trans-Canada 16 where route 37 continued north. Since neither of us had even been to Alaska we side tripped to Stewart where we bumped into two Mexican girls working as waitresses. “Why in the world here?” I asked them. “Her parents live here, and this keeps me out of trouble and makes me save money,” one of them replied.
From Stewart it was just a twenty-minute ride into the Alaskan port of Hyder. That dinky road is the only one into Hyder—everything comes in by ship. It was a tiny place with one bar and little else. Gus took the opportunity to get Hyderized—a shot of something or other. Kinda disappointing since we’d been seeing signs to “Get Hyderized for miles. Well, at least we could both check Alaska off of our lists of US states visited.
We visited a park where a raised walkway went over a salmon river. Watching those fish struggle upstream was a testimony to how horny salmon must be. They would splash over the shallow shoals and keep going. I was impressed with their perseverance. We did see a grizzly bear come and feast right below our walkway. There were so many fish he’d eat part and leave the rest to get another. We had read there were eagles there too, but saw none.
The next day we drove back into the US and started up the mountainside to get a view of the glacier. We never got to the top—it was too foggy to be safe—but we did get some stunning views of the glacier. Yep, looked like a frozen river all right.
So for being a tiny place, Hyder was bigger than its size.
The drive north from then on was on route 37, a dirt road through dense, unpopulated forests. It was magnificent and increasingly devoid of people. A couple of days we saw no other cars on the road. When we stopped for gas or a bite to eat everyone sure wanted to chit chat a bit. I can imagine the days they must go through without seeing a soul.
We camped out when we could, getting motel rooms when it was raining. It rained much more than we liked. Gus would set up his tent and I would sleep on picnic tables or the ground in my new Dreamtime brand mattress. It was as comfortable as my bed at home but a bit narrower and without a wife next to me, but I slept well and did have sore hips or shoulders when I rose. Gus asked if I wasn’t nervous about the bears. I had to laugh—I was pretty sure his nylon tent wouldn’t stop anything.
At one lonely stop the proprietor suggested we go just a little bit out of our way to camp at the Canadian Gran Canyon. “Like yours,” he said. Who could pass that up? It was pretty and natural and outdoorsy as imaginable. Except for the picnic table I slept on. Before night, as the sun faded in the west I was visited by a bird that hovered overhead and assured me that I was done with the western part of my life and could move to the northern part without fear or trouble. Being retired and over 60 I was quite glad to hear that. What a gift.
The next day on our way out we stopped to chat with the guy a bit. “Did you like it?” he asked.
“Oh yes, quite pretty,” says Gus.
“I am wondering though,” I added, “Have you ever seen our Grand Canyon?”
“No, nope,” he says
“Well, be sure to swing by next time you are down there,” I said, “I can guarantee you will like it if you like yours here.”
“Not the same?”
“No, but we liked the camping there last night.”
We started passing animals by the side of the road. No, not roadkill. We stopped counting the black bears after thirteen of them. We saw bison, goats, moose, deer, and the afore mentioned black bears. Just about every large game animal in North America except puma and, alas, grizzly bears.
On we went, driving for hours and hours. Gus insisted on doing almost all the driving which meant that I was left to my musings and admiring the long, never-ending forest.
A couple of times we drove through a burnt out area that took a couple of hours to get through. We were just too far north for anyone to care about a forest fire, and besides, care or not there wasn’t anyone who could do anything about if they wanted to.
At Watson Lake we entered the Yukon Territory. It is worthwhile to pause and consider some statistics. Its territory is slightly bigger than California, and its population is 35,000. California has 35,000,000 people. 27,000 of the people in Yukon Territory live in Whitehorse.
Whitehorse was a surprise. Not a huge city, but a nice one. Great book stores. The camp ground had its own espresso bar and they were great. True, we were in its downtown, tourist part, but it was far nicer than many such places I have been. We ate at a fish restaurant—usually a bad idea so far inland. I ate Arctic Char and dubbed it “butter with fins.” I had eaten it elsewhere, but not as good as in Whitehorse.
We reached Dawson city after rescuing a little dog. I thought it was a present to Gus but he didn’t want to hassle with it and we left it at the local ASPA. Dawson is famous because that is where Scrooge McDuck found his great gold strike and got rich. So did some other people long ago, but not much has happened since the gold played out. Now it is pretty much just a tourist town with hotels, a couple of grocery outlets, a hardware store, some houses and a bunch of cute shoppes. But Dawson is the last civilized stop, and I cannot help but think that its dirt streets and wooden sidewalks are still that way for the tourism.
The next day would be the last stretch, and we hoped to reach the only hotel for hundreds of miles in any direction before dark. Before dark, ha! We were having days of about eighteen hours of daylight.
Driving north we had asked everyone we met, “What’s the road like?” Most of them said “terrible,” and some urged us to get two more spare tires. “It’s made of shattered slate. It’s like driving on knife blades.” But who wants to cart around some extra spare tires? Or maybe we just forgot it like we also forgot the fire extinguisher sized bear spray, or rather, anti-bear pepper spray.
In Dawson were a number of posters and flyers that said things like, “Do not go off-road. If you get stuck or hurt, no one will come to rescue you.”
Despite warnings to the contrary, we found the road to be beautiful, for a dirt and gravel road. Nearly no potholes, no eroded slices across it. That’s where we saw the grizzly, but that is its own story
Now Gus had timed this perfectly. It was after the bugs and before the snow, and in the start of its autumn turning of leaves. I had no idea what it would be like. I won’t even bother to describe it, but look at these pictures. There are some more in a gallery you can find here. They left me breathless.
We got to the last homey house just a short way south of the circle. It is basically a truck stop. It was really full. We asked around a bit and found out that everyone there was from the road crew that had just finished fixing the road from Dawson to here. What luck.
And this photo here is proof that we got to the Arctic Circle. We actually drove a little bit further north into Northwest Territory until we reached a section covered with shattered slate. It was like knife blades, just as we had been told. We turned around, ready to head south.