Fraser River on Highway 97

Our first week traveling north in British Columbia has been spent along the Fraser River. At an overall distance of around 850 miles, it’s the longest river in the province, stretching the equivalent distance of one-third of the way across America. It takes its name from Simon Fraser, who led an expedition along it in 1808 for the North West Company, a fur trading business in competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company. These two companies didn’t play nice with each other and the British government, controlling the region at the time, forced them to merge.

The river has its origin near the geographic center of British Columbia and the city of Prince George, and continues south, cutting deep into the Fraser Plateau to create the Fraser Canyon (you got to have a lot of stuff named after you back then, it seems); it eventually empties near the southern border of Vancouver. Driving north, we found ourselves in deep gorges created by the mighty flow of this river that exploits a cleft in two mountain ranges. The river and our travels take the path of least resistance, constantly winding past towering escarpments, a sinuous serpentine snake, narrowing and opening as geography permits. Freight trains take advantage of the cut through the landscape and tracks line both sides of the river. Geography is not the only participant in this wonder of nature. Climate plays a role in the dance between the river chasm and the mountain ranges it separates. Arctic high pressure moves into the British Columbia interior pulled by the relatively low pressure of the southern Pacific Coast. This phenomenon often creates extremely high winds—up to 100 mph.

It was often difficult to drive along this twisting roadway for hour after hour without being all-too-aware of precipitous canyon drops, thousand-foot waterfalls, rapids, and numerous tunnels. In one area along the river, Hell’s Gate, the river narrows to 115 feet, creating a massive soundscape and visual extravaganza. Some very brave engineers built what is known as one of the world’s steepest tramway for brave hearts to lose their breath. (We weren’t brave enough.)

Hell’s Gate tram

Keeping a navigational eye on our GPS as we drove along, we saw a nearly constant stream of First Nations reservations, with histories spanning thousands of years, an assemblage of which we would discover throughout our journey.

The First Nations people’s idyllic life would soon come to an unhappy end as the early explorers discovered what the Hudson’s Bay Company knew for years: “There was gold aplenty.” We stopped for a driving rest break at the river town of Lytton, the nexus of the famous Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858. What was one man’s treasure became another’s destruction—so sadly typical of North America’s human anthropology.

Gold Rush Lytton

The influx of gold seekers brought with them all the best of western technology, but the worst of its diseases and mistreatment of the First Nations people, as has been recorded throughout North America.

If you believe in Karma or revenge, though, strangely during summer heat waves, Lytton seems to feel the brunt of the pain. In 2021, on three consecutive days, the town broke Canada’s record for the highest temperature ever recorded. With the all-time high of 121.3°F, the village attained the world’s highest temperature ever recorded north of the 45th parallel, and hotter than the all-time record highs for all of Europe and South America. The day after this event occurred, a wildfire swept through the valley destroying most of the village.

Lytton town fire damage

It has recently been rebuilt. During the gold rush, the town at the time was a bustling metropolis as we’ve seen in every major gold rush event in North America. Banks, glamorous hotels, brothels, restaurants, Chinese businesses, gambling establishments rose and fell as the gold panned out, leaving the original inhabitants worse off.

Highway 97: “The Alaska Highway”

Let’s digress for a moment and examine the road we travel on. Highway 97 is one of the longest north–south highways in North America, extending from Weed, California through Oregon and Washington before crossing into Canada and ending in Watson Lake in extreme northern B.C. From there it changes its name to the Alaska Highway Number 1.

This road was the beginning of the great highway that was constructed in World War II to provide a means of transporting materiel and troops north in case of Japanese attack. It was built under extreme conditions by 10,000 American troops and 16,000 civilians from both Canada and the United States. The same impetus that created this amazing roadway built our interstate highways that we depend on, thanks to the then-president, Dwight Eisenhower.

Building the Alaska Highway 1942

Today, these efforts continue in the northern regions of the road due to climate change that has caused the “permanent” permafrost to melt below the roadbed, making the road buckle like waves in the ocean.

In the struggle with nature, how do you control permafrost? Well, engineers recognize that the quickest way to thaw permafrost is to build on it! This removes the ground insulation that keeps the region below frozen. Oh! And of course if you’ve ever put your hand on black asphalt on a sunny day, you’ll know how this adds to the degradation.

So, how is permafrost managed you ask?

  1. Avoid it
  2. Remove it
  3. Keep it frozen
  4. Accept it
Permafrost road heave

Practically speaking, the last two are the most economic. Engineers have begun using below-roadway insulation primarily to help prevent the roller-coaster, speed-reducing driving on the Dalton Highway above Fairbanks. This section of the highway is critical in our pipeline and oil rig maintenance in Prudhoe Bay.

Foam board insulation

Next up: Highway 16: The Yellow Head, and on to the Stewart/Cassiar Highway 37.