Day 53-62: 2-11 Sep 2008: The Cassiar Highway: a wonderful wilderness with hills, gravel, jade, wildlife… and people
Of course we took the road less travelled Highway 37, The Stewart Cassiar Highway, or simply The Cassiar Highway. All names for this infamous road, almost 1000km long, known for the lack of services, bad weather, bears and gravel patches. The latter issue had been solved we had been promised, but the other?
2nd September: Nugget City – French Creek, 58km
The adventure started sunny, but dark clouds appeared, especially on Ivana’s face when she noticed the first set of hills. “is this going to be like that for the rest of the road?” she asked. I truly did not know, but suspected that this was just the beginning…
Fortunately some nice people made our day by donating a full bag of cut-up watermelon, just what the doctor ordered as the sun had come out. Unfortunately the wind had come to and after a week of tailwind, we were not happy to have it in our face again, slowing us down.
Ivana spotted a black bear, right beside the road, I must have raced right past him on the downhill. At least that made her a bit happier and when we also found a nice deserted rest area called French Creek where we -after hanging our foodbags in the trees- could relax near a good campfire.
3rd September: French Creek – Jade City, 72km
We woke up to a sunny day and followed the road into the mountain range. Clearly this road was not made for tourism or speed. This was not only noticable in the many small ups and downs, but also in the lack of services along the way. We passed the blocked turn-off for the small town of Cassiar, after which the highway is nicknamed. It does not exist anymore, it’s a ghost town after demand for its asbestos dried up and access to what is left is now restricted.
Just before we entered the small First nation town of Good Hope lake, where some of Cassiar’s residents moved to, I stopped to film Ivana passing me in front of one of many ‘Wonderful lakes’ we had seen today. In any other place, such natural beauty would be lined with parking lots, jetskis and tourist services, but here it is just part of the rugged landscape. I noticed Ivana had stopped and was gesturing wildly.
“Did you see that?”
“I don’t know!”
“Well, then I don’t know if I saw it! What did it look like”
“I saw something cross the street. I could not see a tail, but long legs and it was dark coloured. It sounds strange, but after browsing through all mental images of animals in my mind I think it came closest to being a monkey!”
After some debate we decided that it probably was not a new species of Canadian monkey, but what was it? Just behind us was a sign next to the road, saying: “watch for wildlife, next 10km”. Ok, so we agreed: the animal Ivana had seen was ‘a wildlife‘, a very useful description of all future unidentified animals…
Good Hope lake promised to have a supermarket, which was good, as we were almost out of food. We noticed a girl with a baby, loading things in a car.
“Is this the supermarket?” we asked, pointing at the damaged building where she had appeared from, while a small dog-like creature (wildlife?) barked annoyingly at our boots.
“You caught me just in time, I was just about to head out”, she said. This was true in many ways it appeared. Not only was she about to close the shop for the day (at 2 ‘o clock in teh afternoon), but also for the season, which became painfully clear by the roughly 23 items still left for sale on the dusty shelves. Fortunately it included some biketravellers staple diet: spaghetti & noodle soups!
The wind was not so bad here and we entered Jade City while it was still light. The signs ‘Free Coffee’ and ‘Free Camping’ were both irresistible. We checked the place out, which is basically not more than a collection of some buildings and a shop where all kinds of jade thingies are being sold. We helped ourselves shamelessly to the exquisite collection of hot drinks and got to chat with Robin & Claudia and stay the rest of the day, having to pitch our tent in the dark.
I had proposed to Ivana on the summit of Kilimanjaro, 3 months before, but as I only had a carabiner at the time, we did not have rings, we both do not like too fancy jewelry anyway. We found some nice, simple, cheap -and green- jade ones in the store: perfect!
4th September: Jade City – Rabid Grizzly, 88km
We had heard some animals near our tent and the next morning we saw a big black fox cross the road. After a brief climb we enjoyed many nice downhills between logged and replanted forests and yet more Wonderful Lakes and snowy peaks.
Ivana had stopped in front of me and I saw she was looking at a fox which was hiding in the grass. Though quite shy, his curiosity apparently won as he came very close to us. We were not only enjoying being around such a wonderful creature, but also that we could take the tame and play with him for an hour or so. In the meantime maybe 3 trucks and 2 RV’s passed, at which moment we had to chase the fox off the road…
We got a triple ‘Cassiar-surprise‘ at the end of the day: rain, very steep hills and gravel, a great combination to ruin your day. We had though that we could maybe make it to Dease lake, but were beat after the muddy uphills and called it quits at the interestingly named Rabid Grizzly (though other travellers also referred to it as Rabbit Grizzly as well as Rapid Grizzly) rest area. It still rained, so we cooked inside the small toilet.
We had to evacuate it soon after as a passing car carried some passengers that needed it. A few minutes later they came back, stopped and gave us bananas, noodle soups and other goodies, great! It still surprises us how generous so many people can be towards total strangers that might be considered bums or even hippies by others…
5/6 September: Dease Lake
After the rest of the more than 20km long hilly gravel patch we arrived in Dease Lake. Not exactly a very wild place, hardly alive at all. But it had a very well stocked supermarket with an ATM, so our moods were indestructible, we wouldn’t have to go hunt’n for a week!
After our bellies were finally full we went looking for a Wifi spot and found a great one in the learning center building, also housing the small library. When we were working, a van stopped and a guy came out, lit a cigarette and asked with a heavy french accent if we were online. It turned out that he and his friend were driving the support vehicle for a totally different kind of cyclist: Swiss Jean-Philippe Patthey is trying to set a record time for cycling from Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia. What will take us about 3 years, he s trying to do in roughly 130 days!
As ‘Jean-Phi’ arrives on his recumbent bike a bit later, we are amazed to hear that he started only 2 weeks before. Furthermore, when we will arrive in Seattle, he will be in Panama…
It is impressive as he is not the youngest cyclist. But he is not carrying anything (all his gear is in the truck), he does not have to arrange any logistics, places to sleep or food (his team does that) and he has no time to meet people or see places along the way, which is our main goal.
Ivana is very happy when she finds out that Jean-Phi is the logistical partner and friend of Mike Horn and that she had been reading about him in one of Mike’s books.
We had secretly camped behind the Library as we could charge our batteries from our tent and do some online back-ups on our Elephant Drive while the connection was good.
The next day another van appeared and two fit Californians introduce themselves: Megan and Guy. It is nice to see their small van, a great contrast with the 10+ m Rv’s we saw before.
While we were having lunch with them, and older woman passed us and stopped for a chat. She mentioned that she would come back later and that she might have her propane tank filled by then, so we could take a a shower if we wanted. That sounded great, but when darkness came it cold very cold and so we quickly fixed our tent again. We did hear a car late at night, but we were deep inside our sleeping bags as it was close to freezing outside.
The next morning we found a note, starting off with: “Dear Travellers”, explaining that her shower was ready and that we were welcome to come by for breakfast. Signed: Holly Eden (see her picture here). It was accompanied by some great tasting cookies, all packaged in plastic to protect them from the rain and morning dew.
We did get our shower from Holly, as well as a great breakfast. While we were cooking an Indian man came by, with very long hair. He was more impressed with our hair -both quite long by now- than our trip. Holly and her church work with him and of his friends, many of whom have had serious problems with alcohol. He told with wild gestures about his recent quad-accident and then went out to help a neighbour.
When we had said goodbye he came towards me and offered me a small bottle of whiskey, secretly hidden in a pocket. I told him ‘no thanks, I do not drink that’ and he took off without saying a word with an expression on his face that showed anger, shame, disbelief and pride at the same time.
We headed out of Dease Lake, climbing almost 400 vertical meters non stop. We passed Gnat lake pass, with 1100m our second highest point so far on the trip. The landscape was probably pretty, but the rain and cold wind took away any joy that was left.
What goes up must come down and we were treated to some excellent downhill sections. Alas, it was raining and we ended up going down on 8% muddy gravel with many potholes, which was no real fun anymore.
At the bottom of the slope we ended up at the Stikine River bridge. Holly had told us about a friend of hers that lived on a ranch, close to here, so we went to find him. It was further than we though, but we arrived at a large clearing with several buildings.
Willie Williams (Please see his photo here) is a great man and he invited us in immediately and even let us sleep in his old house, lined with memories.
8- 11 September: Stikine River Ranch – Meziadin Junction, 288km. 2800m up, 3500m down..
Willie insisted that he would take us and our bikes with his pickup back to the road, over the bridge and halfway up the first hill. When we saw the muddy 8% uphill gravel road we were glad we took his offer..
We spend the night at the Kisaskan campground, arriving very late, in the dark. It was a beautiful place, next to a lake. You have to pay for it, but there was no self-registration and no park warden, so we got away cheap.
The day promised much good as it was very sunny, but soon we met the culprit of the day: a fierce wind pushed us back the entire day, exhausting us totally. Thanks to some huge downhills we managed to arrive at the Bob Quinn lake rest area (more like a parking space, next to the road, but it did have a toilet/shelter and bear-containers).
The 10th was a rainy day, a very rainy day. We made it to a wooden shelter about 25km passed Bell 2 Lodge, under which we could make a campfire and pitch our tent.
Ivana got quite nervous in the night as she heard footsteps and noises near the tent. I was too sleepy to get bothered, but the next day we found quite some mouse scat on our Ortlieb bags
We were now in a new river valley and the going was easy and the forests and valleys beautiful. We met some Dutch people at lunch who prepared a nice lunch for us!
Alas, the ‘venom was in the tail’ as we say in Holland: we were treated on some steep and long climbs out of the valley and some old-fashioned Rollercoasters to top them off and we were happy when we arrived at the Meziadin Junction. There were some abandoned buildings there, in which we could pitch our tent, but it all looked a bit spooky. we decided to pay for the acclaimed campground next to the wonderful Meziadin lake.
We were glad we did after hearing from 2 South African motor-biketravellers, Johan & Charmaine that they spotted some black bears near the buildings, less than 5 minutes after we decided not to crash there! It was the first time that Ivana had ever heard afrikaans and though she recognized some Dutch words, she could not make it out (‘it’s an older code, Skipper!‘). This is what they wrote about us on their site:
Daar het ons ‘n egpaar op fietse ontmoet, Harry (Holand) en sy vrou (Argentinie) ry hul fietse vanaf Prudhoe Bay na Usiua, en julle het gedink ons is braaf?
After I had to ask the RV next door to finally shut off their outside (!) generator, we could finally sleep. Most of the infamous Cassiar Highway was done. We hated it at times, but already missed it before we were done with it… First we were going to go on a nice little side trip tomorrow: on the 37a highways, towards the small towns of Stewart & Hyder, Alaska!
Below is a rough map of the section described above. For more detailed and an overal map, see the route map page here.
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