northern roads

There may be some retaliation for the serious bug kill on the front of the car...

There may be some retaliation for the serious bug kill on the front of the car…

The opportunity to spend the summer in a cabin by a lake in the north was something my boyfriend seized on. Fishing, kayaking (in a glacier-fed lake you don’t want to fall into), chopping wood. (Maybe he’ll learn to hunt.) Me, not so much. I can see the appeal of the longer days and quiet nights, but not of cooler temperatures and so much solitude, far off the grid. No power, no running water, lots of wilderness, bears and sundry other wildlife, and, I suspect, lots of bugs. Camping I can manage for a week, though I prefer a place with showers. For the entire summer, well no, but who am I to stop someone from pursuing an idea that sounds like paradise?

I do love road trips though, getting in the car and traveling. I blame my father, who took us kids on many a camping trip that was really an extended road trip, once we were old enough to be of some use in packing and unpacking the car. (Before that he’d just pitch a tent by a lake and try and keep us from getting too waterlogged.) I’d never been north of Prince George, never seen anything of the vast, empty landmass ‘up there,’ so I offered to drive up with my guy. I’ll admit, though, that I booked a flight home from Whitehorse well before we loaded up his car. Not taking any chances myself.

First day the challenge was getting everything into the car. My fellow may say he loves wilderness camping, but we did have a solar panel and some batteries to pack around, as we fit in what he was taking with him, as well as me, and my stuff. The rest of his belongings had found there way into a storage locker, except for a few things that are scattered around my apartment now, to remind me he was once here, and will likely come back, unless the lure of the north holds him (though there’s a big difference between the allure of 20 hours of light versus 20 of darkness).

Once in the car we took the slow road out of town, driving the Lougheed Highway which meanders on the north side of the Fraser River, through the burbs and then lovely rolling countryside. It’s always my preferred route going east, but it takes longer. It does connect, though, east of Agassiz, and just outside Hope, with the Trans Canada highway, as the road and the river turn north. Highway 1 has become the lesser traveled route, since the Coquihalla Highway was built, making it possible to practically fly over the mountains toward Merritt and Kamloops. But Highway 1 is gorgeous, clinging to the walls of the Fraser Canyon, meandering with the river, occasionally through tunnels blasted through rock when the road was built. The road leaves the Fraser at Lytton, and follows the Thompson, roughly, until it turns east again, where it meets up with Highway 97, the route north. This all is the trail of the Gold Rush, and driving, it boggles the mind to imagine people traveling the distance on foot.

Our first night we had a room by the Bonaparte River, not the name I expected in Cache Creek.

Our first night we had a room by the Bonaparte River, not the name I expected for the waterway in Cache Creek. You can see how dry it is; the brushfire we passed, was not very  far south.

We slept in Cache Creek (pop. approx. 1,200) the first night, a modest beginning to our 2400 kilometre trek, but a perfectly reasonable one for two people in their 60s, who don’t need to be squashed in a car for ten hours a day. It’s a short day’s drive, really, but the difference in landscape made it clear we’d left the lush environs of Vancouver. That part of the interior of BC is dry, cattle country, like the setting for western films. And forest fires. We passed a plume of smoke, near Ashcroft, a fire that had been thought extinguished, but flared up again, and made it’s way onto the news during the next week, as a major brushfire, threatening homes, way too early in the season. A human-caused fire, as all the ones burning in the province apparently were. The immensity of the land, our insignificance, really, once you get out of the city, and yet we certainly do wreak a lot of havoc. It begins with these ribbons of pavement snaking through the mountains, few though they are.

Next day took us through the rolling interior plateau that is the Cariboo. Lots of nothing except trees and lakes, reminiscent of Ontario’s cottage country, without the drama of the rocks of the Canadian Shield poking out everywhere. It’s meditative driving, the road winding through trees, a fairly flat landscape in BC terms. We didn’t talk much. Stopped in Quesnel (pop. around 10,000) a pretty little town on the river (we were back following the Fraser) and stretched our legs there, went for a walk, had a picnic. Then we carried on to Prince George (pop. around 75,000) last big place before Whitehorse (pop. around 25,000). From there, next morning, the road took us west, along Highway 16, the road that leads to Prince Rupert, and if we’d wanted, the ferry to Haida Gwai.

Approximately 2400 kilometres, Vancouver to Whitehorse, and a lot of it looks like this.

Approximately 2400 kilometres, Vancouver to Whitehorse, and a lot of it looks like this…

This stretch was new to me, never made it this far. We drove past Vanderhoof, a town that has resonance in my family, because my younger brother survived his first year as a teacher there. I shake my head when I think how young he was, what a trial that was. And it was the year our older brother killed himself, so full of meaning, in some strange way. We didn’t stop there, though I read about the town in the guidebook I’d brought along. So many places in BC seem almost accidental, or arbitrary, and judging by the for sale signs, it’s not the best way to do things.

We slept in New Hazelton (pop. approx. 600) which is just before the junction with 37. Reading in my trusty guidebook again, and online the night before, New Hazelton sounded like there would be something there, but we found another sleepy town, more for sale signs, and two motels, one ever-so-slightly less sleepy looking. Then, after a rather dismal example of cafe food across the road, we settled in for the night.  The next morning we were  looking for the junction with Highway 37, just a bit down the road. This is the Cassiar Highway, the (other) route north, less traveled than the Alaska Highway, though at the beginning of May that might not be saying much. I looked up road conditions on the DriveBC website, and thought about what frost heaves might look like.

And then it gets dramatic, like this.

And then it gets more dramatic, like this.

I plugged in my GPS, just out of curiosity, and zoomed out far enough to see that we were not actually far from the ocean, and also Alaska. I forget about the panhandle, that Alaska stretches south quite a way, and borders BC as well as the Yukon. Our destination this day was Dease Lake, a settlement whose claim-to-fame for me is that it’s the northernmost place in BC that ever gets mentioned when the weather is being forecast. Again, I thought, perhaps there’s something there (pop. approx. 300, what was I thinking).

The loon, like people outside the city, likes its solitude.

But to get there, there were a lot of kilometres to eat up. My sense that there is no one in BC grew stronger as we drove north. Occasionally you see a road going off into the woods. I saw a sign for AltaGas, one for Barrick. Mining, and forestry. That’s what you find outside the huge cluster of humanity that sits in the southwest corner of BC. There was an election coming up, occasionally we’d see a sign, sometimes a few together, or people running for office in the provincial legislature. Seemed really separated from reality somehow. I started to think how impossible it is to govern in a place so big, so empty, so strangely populated. There’s around 60% of the population of the province in the Lower Mainland, add to that the population in the Capital Region on Vancouver Island, and the Okanagan Valley (all southern enclaves, clinging to the border with the US) and you can understand why the vast territory of BC gets a bit neglected. As it turned out, of the few people who did vote, those stretched out on the coastlines elected the opposition, wanting to save our coastline from pipelines, essentially. Those inland are perhaps more concerned about economics — all those for sale signs, people have to eat. It’s hard to say though. Apathy seems to reign. I’m just glad it’s not my job to sort out the priorities.

We ran into a roadblock on the way to Dease Lake; a bridge repair. We were told it would be three hours till it opened, so being right by a lodge, we went in for tea and a wander about. This place was posh, set up I think for heli-skiing trips (so pretty deserted first week of May). After about an hour and a half I noticed a truck come through, and we raced for our car, got in line, and rumbled across the bridge. Whew. The road wasn’t too bad after that, though we did fly over a few of the frost heaves I’d read about. Kind of like big speed bumps, and not always well marked. Adds a bit of fun.

We pulled into Dease Lake just before eight, filled the tank, and checked in at the local motel. Then we asked whether there was a cafe, and found that it closed at seven. The gas station had groceries, but it closed at eight. Oops. It was five past! The pub usually had food, but their grill was out of commission, so nothing there. So we settled in for the night and dug into our small cooler, found some cheese and crackers and fruit, and thought, oh well. A jar of nuts, too, kept us happy till morning, when the one cafe did open (there was another, but hey, not much business, so it was closed). I know it’s not a big hardship, but you easily forget when coddled in the city, that things aren’t open all the time everywhere. Needless to say, I wasn’t getting my regular dose of blueberries.

A gray jay, cheeky guy, used to handouts, met us at the Yukon border.

A gray jay, cheeky guy, used to handouts, met us at the Yukon border.

Next morning, after lunch (we don’t seem to get going early enough for breakfast, out in the part of the world where things aren’t available 24/7) it was onward into the Yukon, where we stopped to admire the signpost. After that, Highway 37 meets up with the Alaska Highway, a junction just west of Watson Lake. We didn’t stop there, having settled in again to the meditation of open road. The country is really big, wide, snowy mountains on the horizon; the highway weaves in and out of BC as it makes its way. That night we stayed in Teslin, Yukon, because, really, there was no hurry to go further. I talked to one guy there who had driven from Smithers (on highway 16) that day (we’d stopped twice in between). He couldn’t understand why we didn’t just plow on to Whitehorse. (That’s the difference between a chore and an explore, I guess.) He was younger though. I can remember driving twelve, thirteen hour days to get somewhere once upon a time, but can’t stand to do that anymore.


We saw several caribou on the road, a welcome party to the Yukon and the Alaska Highway. This one is a female (I read it somewhere, that they have antlers, just not the spectacular ones like on Canada’s quarter).

We thought about staying two nights in Teslin, but as it turned out, it was the most uncomfortable bed we’d stumbled on, and so next morning Whitehorse beckoned. I called ahead (from a pay phone, remember those?) and booked an extra night at the hotel I’d already arranged for, only reservation on this trip.


Swan Lake and Simpson’s Peak beyond, a part of the Alaska Highway that dips back into BC, just east of Teslin, Yukon, where we slept north of 60 for the first time.

The US Army build the Alaska Highway, and only after WWII turned it over to the Canadian army. There are a few relics they left behind.

The US Army built the Alaska Highway, and only after WWII turned it over to the Canadian army. This is one of the relics they left behind; looks like something out of Star Wars.

I looked up things to do in Whitehorse, but really, we were there too soon. Our hotel was across the highway from the transportation museum, and we wandered over to see what was there. It wasn’t open for the season yet. But lots of things to look at outside. Then we wandered over to the Beringia Interpretive Centre. Also closed, opening up the day after my flight. But we lucked out. There was a guy who worked there giving his mother and sister a private tour, and they invited us along. So we got the whole talk about Ice Age, the land mass opened up between Siberia and Alaska, the lack of glaciers due to drier conditions, the kind of animals that roamed what were basically grasslands. It was fascinating, and added quite a sense of depth to my experience of the place.

The next day we went and walked through the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, which had mostly grazing animals, big ones, though now we knew that the bison were genetically identical to the bison of the ice age, just smaller. (The way creatures will shrink to their environment, if you think of Shetland ponies or Shetland sheepdogs.) The day before with all its ice age stories made the five kilometre trail more than just a walk in the park. We didn’t see that many animals, or only saw them way off in the distance.


Mule deer, at the wildlife preserve, are one of those creatures that are really adaptable, and have moved to the Yukon along with other intrepid sorts.

And then it was the day of my flight, and so I came home, and my boyfriend drove off to find his cabin, and that was that. Two hours and I was back in Vancouver, picked up from the airport by my son, and driven through an astonishing, alarming! amount of traffic. Now a little over a week has passed, I’m well stocked with blueberries, and it’s almost like I’d never gone anywhere at all.

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