Leaving Prince George, British Columbia, we followed Route 16, also known as the Yellowhead Highway, for about 395 miles along this massively long road running from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Haida Gwaii Island off the coast of Prince Rupert, BC. It’s about 1,777 miles all told (but who’s counting?). It was named after a fur trader and explorer, Pierre Bostonaise, who had yellow streaks in his hair, thus named “Tete Jaune,” (Yellow Head).
This segment of Route 16 took us to the Meziadin Lake junction with Highway 37, the Stewart/Cassiar Highway. It’s our habit to limit our driving to about 200 miles a day, and no more than two consecutive days, to eliminate fatigue and keep our focus away from the “drive-to-arrive” mentality. We’ve noticed on this segment, which is westerly across BC, that traffic has been thinning except for the constant stream of logging and fuel trucks, and a smattering of semis provisioning the region. This much hasn’t changed in over two decades. Driving along the winding road, memories of our last trip came flooding back. At the time we drove a Toyota Tacoma six-cylinder pickup, and at the end of the day I was exhausted from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. You seasoned drivers know that oncoming vehicles move a lot of air, creating a push-away that you need to compensate for. Semis are near the top of the heap—the worst are loaded hay trucks, their rough load eliminating most of the slipstream and the push-away can catch a daydreaming driver off-guard and land them on the shoulder. Logging trucks, particularly the double trailer design, are right up there, necessitating the two-handed, 10-and-2 position on the steering wheel. Our light little Toy would be jerked starboard with every rig’s passage, requiring counter-steering to correct catastrophic crashes. Now we’re a little over 50 feet in length—truck and trailer—but, and this is a big but, our hitch system counteracts these forces, restoring my smile, the blood flow in my upper torso, and relaxing my sphincter in the lower. Sometimes I wonder if some truckers get a kick out of reducing the lane distance between their rigs and oncoming traffic, though many we see deliberately move over nearer the verge to express non-automotive camaraderie. The width of our Airstream is about eight feet, which consequently fits nicely between the approximate 10–12 feet of the average roadway. Two vehicles of similar width leaves three to four feet of “breezeway” safety clearance. To our advantage, though, is the alternative moniker of Airstreams, Silver Bullets. We’re streamlined!
We’re looking forward to four-days’ break at Meziadin Provincial Park at the junction of the Yellowhead and Stewart/Cassiar highways. The stunningly beautiful Lake Meziadin sits at the head of the pass between two almost 3,000-foot-high mountain chains, a passage of wonderment and, in a sense, a passage back in time.
Ruth, as much as she loves serendipity, plotted our course a couple of weeks ago to this magical campground, and even more magical shoreline campsite. While falling into our usual setup routine I was reminded that, “To everything, there is a season…” and within minutes we encountered swarms of gnats and flies, focused almost entirely on our eyes. We took comfort by reminding ourselves that at least they weren’t the dreaded mosquitoes that plagued us during our journey years ago. We did bring a screen tent for sitting outdoors (we call it The Bug House [our British readers will get the double meaning]), but this was early in the game. We settled into looking out our panorama windows at the mirrored surface of the lake reflecting the dark verdant green of mountainside fir and spruce forests, topped with a dusting of residual winter snow.
As we’ve traveled north with the spring these past several months we have experienced the season turning back slowly. That which had bloomed a month ago farther south, now was just budding. Patches of snow still littered the ground around the lake, but due to a lower elevation, the water was ice-free. Momentarily, I saw in the distance across the lake a diaphanous curtain of rain develop and warned Ruth of its approach, but it never actually arrived. As it turned out, the Douglas fir trees, hearing the mysterious call of nature, chose to collectively and synchronously release their pollen into the air, coating everything—yes, EVERYTHING—in a blanket of yellow.
Traveling north, the most noticeable change is the days slowly lengthening, but as often happens—as in a vehicle traveling towards us rather than away—its approach is remarkably fast. We simultaneously looked at the time and, thinking it was near dinner, realized that in fact it was 10:30pm. The onset of night had been held back by an invisible hand and crepuscular light settled into the atmosphere around us, refusing to give up its energy to the darkness. We knew what was in store for us in Fairbanks and near the Arctic Circle—a never-setting sun—but our mid-earth latitude mindsets, unused to this phenomena, stretched to accept this adjustment of consciousness. As we all know, at summer’s peak, the sun circles the North Pole, never setting. During the longest days of the year above the Arctic Circle, the sun’s radiance is never fully blocked, hence the presence of the magical crepuscular light after the sun’s arc takes it out of view. For us sun worshipers, “Hooray!”
Prospects of wonderment
We leave Lake Meziadin for a 40-mile-long day trip along Highway 37A (the Glacier Highway) from the Cassiar junction heading west toward the Canadian town of Stewart. And the tiny coastal strip of the U.S. and its even tinier representative, the village of Hyder, Alaska. Immediately we travel into a time machine, taking us back to a primordial period of faunal life. Both sides of the road are framed by towering peaks topped with melting snow, the rapidity of spring’s arrival now creating uncountable waterfalls that find their way along and under the highway to join the Bear River. This swollen watercourse can barely contain the massive flows and at times even seems to be competing with the roadbed for dominance.
In some sections of the roadway, trees and foliage grow so thickly that light barely penetrates. I’m reminded of a Hollywood film meme where a person enters the edge of a forest periphery and within a second or two seems to melt invisibly, transformed into the shroud of dense foliage.
We spot multiple grizzly and black bears grazing in the grasses and foraging along the water courses. They seem to enjoy munching on the brilliant yellow dandelion flowers and greenery, and pay little attention to our intrusion and phones. We joke about selfies.
This rugged terrain brings us all within close proximity to each other in equilibrium. We pass a string of continuous road signs warning us of avalanches and potential explosions necessary to clear them from closing the highway, and soon arrive at Bear Glacier. Its retreat since our 2001 visit is remarkable.
Over the past 50 years it has diminished 84 feet each year. During our last visit we could see the remains of the movie set for “Insomnia,” starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank; it’s now gone. Several other movies were filmed here, among them “Iceman” (1981) and “The Thing” (1982). Despite its shrinkage, this magnificent natural phenomena reminds us how small we all are, yet how much our civilization—or lack thereof—affects our world. It’s also a consciousness-expanding reminder that these massive glaciers, frozen in our narrow human awareness timeline, have encroached and receded countless times over the millenia. It is difficult yet intriguing to contextualize the rapid movement back in our travel time machine.
Standing in the presence of waterfalls touches a place deep inside our psyche. Whether it is the visual or aural magnificence, or perhaps in some way our imaginations inspire us to fall virtually, effortlessly, and painlessly as one with the cascade? Regardless, all along the journey west to Stewart, countless waterfalls demand our attention, joyful sirens of nature.
Counting coup/counting poop
We begin to spy mounds of bear poop on either side of our serpentine road, initiating discussion.
Do bears leave their mark in the same way that wild horses and donkeys do? If so, why? Counting roadside poop for 40 miles seemed a bit over-the-top but proved that there is a very large number of big furry creatures out here, something unheard of in the Lower 48. This is a zoo where the bears watch people behind the “enclosure” of their vehicles. This is no scientific postulation but it seemed strange that their poop was to be found on the sides but not in the middle of the roadway. Perhaps some savvy naturalist will write a grant proposal to research this enigma? From now on when driving in wilderness regions we’ll have a jump start on knowing the whereabouts of Ursus arctos horribilis (grizzly), and Ursus Americanus (black bear).
In Native American Plains warrior societies, they celebrated their honor and bravery by touching or striking their enemies without personal harm. We’re practicing a modified version of this by seeing “sign,” or making visual contact, and equating it to counting coup, to memorialize our adventures. This becomes our life list, and consequently sharpens our awareness of interconnectivity.
This magical road cycles between constrictions and opening into flooded fjords, leading eventually into the town of Stewart, BC, looking much as we remembered. Leaving town, we drove another two to three miles along a broad expanse of estuary leading to the U.S. segment of the demarcation between Alaska and Canada and the town of Hyder. We remembered parking our truck years ago, and walking past the tiny border control shack from concrete to dirt town road.
It’s now paved, unrestricted into and through Hyder, and the Canadian border station has been replaced with a modern functional edifice.
Hyder has become a ghost town. We drove slowly through the 5–6 block spread of abandoned storefronts and boarded-up restaurants and businesses.
Many homes were abandoned or seemed thrown together like a homeless encampment. There were scores of old trailers and mobile homes covered with tarps and then covered again with found scrap metal and deconstructed construction supplies. This is a town that has the look and feel of a locale created by outcasts, squatters, artists, survivalists, hippie communalists, transients, freedom seekers, and anarchists. What comes to mind when trolling through town is the community of Slab City on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, in California.
The population before Covid was around one hundred, but we were informed by a local that the town was devastated and dying for a number of reasons: loss of population due to illness and death; the difficulty of living; acquiring food, supplies, and equipment; and being isolated and dependent on a plague-closed Canadian border with its own Covid conditions. Of course, this local was a self-proclaimed “anti-vaxxer,” so we have to wonder how much is self-inflicted (since he was armed, we didn’t ask why). Welcome, temporarily, back to America.
Wonderment? This road trip segment is world-class!