The season was changing, and marked the approach of our journey’s completion. Even though the bright, warm days of summer were gone, the onset of winter brought a unique experience – the contrast of orange leaves and white snow, the cold air and a hot campfire.
Go North Episode 19
Each season brings a unique perspective that cannot be seen any other time of year, and we intended to soak it all up in our last few weeks despite the cooler weather.
We were heading south, and retracing our steps along the Alaska Highway, but only as far as the junction with Highway 37 known as the Stewart-Cassiar Highway.
We camped at the head of South Canol Road, the very same entrance that we had started from 4 months prior. This time however, we had no porcupine visitors! (click for our earlier Canol adventure, porcupines and all) This highway is the only alternative road one can take when making the drive to Alaska, so we figured “why not see it!” Shortly down the road we said goodbye to the Yukon and entered back into British Columbia for the remainder of this highway.
Being narrow, lacking road lines, and feeling a bit like a roller coaster at times the Cassiar was a more adventurous drive than we had experienced on the Alaska Highway.
Boya Lake Provincial Park
We poked our way south, taking our time and making a few stops here and there, but aside from a few forest roads and picnic areas we did not find much to explore along the northern stretch of this road…until we came to Boya Lake Provincial Park (Tā Ch’ilā Provincial Park).
Only a short drive off the highway we came to a well developed campground along the lake. We pulled into a spot to make some lunch and hike along the beautiful lakeshore. We could see that the waters of this lake were very clear, but it wasn’t until the sun came out that we realized this lake is some kind of spectacular!
The bottom of this lake is a stark white marl of silt and shell fragments that reflect light through the immensely clear water creating the spectacular color one would expect to see somewhere in the tropics, far from this northern plain.
Along our hike the trail took us by a small sink with some standing water. Upon investigating this I discovered a very peculiar trait to the ground. This phenomenon is called soil liquefaction, where the water saturated loose soil underneath the grass loses its stiffness when an outside stress like walking on it is applied.
After our tropical-like hike and the trampoline shoreline we decided this place would require more than a stop for lunch and we settled in for a night. This gave Cait some time to get out the paddleboard and properly explore these waters.
We enjoyed an extremely peaceful evening here as there were very few other campers in the park.
As the sun set we were hoping for clear night skies, and sure enough, when we forced ourselves awake at 2AM, we caught the splendor we had hoped to see: the Northern Lights over Boya Lake.
Back on the highway we started to get into the mountains. These high peaks were counting down to winter day by day as snow marched down their flanks.
The weather would change rapidly around each mountain, and we found ourselves in a downpour when we came upon the famous Jade City. While not officially a city, this spot on the road lies within the Cassiar Mountain Range where massive amounts of Jade are mined and processed. The road-front store houses more jade than we had ever seen.
This green mineral can be carved into furnishings and adornments of many shapes and sizes… and here you can have your pick. This jade mining operation is a family affair and their stories have even been chronicled in a reality TV show with the title Jade Fever.
Driving the Cassiar to Stewart, BC
Continuing south we were presented with spectacular mountain views and we made a few stops to take it in. More than once the temperature dipped near freezing and we even saw a snowflake or two. This drive requires that you carry chains or run winter tires from October through April, and that meant we needed to keep moving because September was nearing its end, and we had neither of these.
We took a few days to make the 600km drive finding boondocking spots along the way. Towards the southern end of the road, we started to see more signs of more human development as the road widened. This road and corridor were mainly constructed to facilitate resource extraction from the region including mining and logging and was completed in the 1970’s. It was clear that further development is expected as a modern transmission line began to follow our route south.
When we reached the town of Meziadin Junction, we turned to the west to follow highway 37A that would snake through a tight valley, over Bear Pass, and pass the toe of the Bear Glacier, to the town of Stewart, BC. Like Skagway and Haines, Alaska that we had visited before, Stewart sits at the end of a long fjord and serves as Canada’s most northerly ice free port. Bear Glacier on the way to Stewart, B.C.
Stewart also borders the southern panhandle of Alaska, and by snaking along the shore of the fjord one can make the southernmost land crossing into Alaska. There is no US border crossing checkpoint here and we drove right into the very small town of Hyder, Alaska. As it was now late September, this sleepy little town was shutting down and no stores were open, but we weren’t here to shop. We continued following the main road up the Salmon River Valley and made our first stop at the Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site.
The Salmon Life Cycle – Full Circle
Getting out of the truck here, the stink of rotting fish immediately struck us. This site completed our experience of the salmon’s life cycle that we had seen over the course of our trip. First when fishing in Valdez we saw and caught the beautiful ocean-going salmon, then saw them again at the Solomon Gulch Hatchery working their way upstream while their bodies morphed and changed color. Salmon fishing in Valdez in August Later, we witnessed them pairing up and guarding their nests in the riverbed, while hungry bears picked them off. At this stage they had quit eating and were protecting their nests as their bodies began to deteriorate.
Now, here, the spawn was over and the creek was littered with the last of th
e carcasses that had either fallen prey to the bears or finally ran out of energy. Like in Katmai, bears frequent this area to gorge on fish during the spawning season, and the elevated boardwalks are designed to provide safe viewing. But we weren’t worried about bears at this point, as only the birds remained to pick at the scraps.
While quite disgusting and smelly, this life and death cycle is an essential part of the ecosystem here. The nitrogen and phosphorus the fish bring from the ocean helps to fertilize the riverbanks and keep the impressive trees here healthy that intern provide shelter and water filtration for the next generation of salmon that will hatch here in the spring.
Road to Salmon Glacier
The road continues further up the valley, turns to dirt, then starts climbing up the steep cliffside. This is a mining road that has been used over the years to access the gold and copper mines of the area. As we started to climb this mountain side, we noticed that the steep climb was burning more fuel than we expected, and we were hoping to make it about 20 miles further up the road. Having made the mistake of not filling on our way through Stewart, and there being no fuel in Hyder, we sheepishly turned around and crossed back into Canada to fill up. The Canadian border crossing does have a checkpoint, but being that nothing was open in Hyder, the crossing was easy. After filling up we headed back into Alaska and found an old gravel pit to make our home for the night.
The next morning we went at it again, this time fully expecting the steep grade. The thing about this road is that while it dips into Alaska, all the mines are actually back up the mountain in Canada, and shortly up the road we crossed back into British Columbia with nothing more than a “Welcome to British Columbia” sign on the side of the road. The road was not in great condition and a very very rough ride, but we plied forward avoiding potholes as best we could, climbing further and further up the mountain side. After climbing a few thousand feet, the road opened up, and will make anyone with a fear of heights uncomfortable with its shear drops and no guardrail.
Aside from being an industrial road, this drive provides one of the best views of a massive glacier descending from a high elevation ice field. This is the Salmon Glacier, and a designated viewpoint aligned with the center of the glacier is the reward for those willing to make this treacherous journey.
After checking out the viewpoint we continued further towards the end of the road at the Granduc Copper Mine. An old tunnel tempted us at one point, but the strange noises coming from its depths and warning signs turned us away. We did find some old abandoned mining areas and two tracks that led down towards the glacier. This gave us the idea of going for a hike.
Hiking to the Salmon Glacier
Parking the truck, we started our hike down the mountain slope, to get up close with this behemoth of a glacier. This glacier is unique in that as it descends, it flows mainly down towards the ocean, but also makes a turn into a dead end valley where it breaks up. We found the hiking at this end less steep and worked our way down the slope of loose rock towards the ice.
It happened to be Tom’s birthday, and he couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than hiking around the remote Salmon Glacier on this beautiful warm fall day! After having cli
mbed down about 700 feet we made the long trek back to the truck and set off to watch the sunset over the glacier.
Camping Above Salmon Glacier
We were near the treeline and knew the temp would drop significantly, but we just had to stay the night perched on this cliffside as this was of the most spectacular views we have ever had. The glacier below us was clearly alive and would occasionally groan, pop and crack, sometimes making ominous sounds like thunder through the valley, and once the few visitors to the overlook left, we seemed to have this glacier valley completely to ourselves.
The night did turn out very cold with temps dropping into the teens in Fahrenheit with high winds, but we managed to stay warm with the Truma VarioHeat furnace cranked up. The morning once again brought warm sun and our last chance to soak in the beauty of this view.
One final set of adventures…
Our time out here had been another highlight of our journey, however the days of this trip were numbered as the temps continued to plummet day by day, and we had already seen the threat of snow more than once. As we picked our way slowly down this mountainside we thought ahead to the last few adventures we had planned that would complete our 6 month journey in the north.
The Go North Expedition is made possible by Lance Camper Manufacturing, Battle Born Batteries, Truma North America, Dometic, LivinLite.net, Hellwig Suspension Products, and viewers like you through Patreon. Thank you!
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