Canada to Alaska: Unexpected Travel on the Side Roads

Canada to Alaska: Traveling the Backroads and Waterways

By Ron Mitchell

A Black Bear forages next to a side road, Canada to Alaska
A Black Bear forages next to a side road in Canada. Photos by Marilynn Windust

Orca killer whales breech the surface. Porpoises play in the ferry’s wake. Eagles soar down to the water from snow-capped mountains. Lonesome lighthouses loom like still-life paintings propped into the scene surrounding this float through the Inside Passage.

Cruise ships pass, their passengers viewing the same glory of nature as we ferry folks. Everyone enjoys this ride, except maybe for Jack, our dog, who stays inside of our pick-up truck during the 15-hour ferry ride from Port Hardy, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, to the town of Prince Rupert.

John, a brother biker carts his Harley on the ferry.

“Are you riding alone?” I ask.

“You know how hard it is to get somebody to take six-weeks off for a long ride?”

“Where you headed?”

“Hyder.” He smacks his backside. “It’s the last stop for Ironbutt Riders.”

Hyder is the closest place in Alaska to reach the 49th state. That’s where you get your Ironbutt patch.” His smile of pride makes me wish I could join him. That is, until we disembark in Prince Rupert at eleven o’clock at night in the pouring rain.

The next morning we take Jack for a hike through thick forest. Prince Rupert offers many such hikes, if you are not afraid of a little drizzle.

Eagles nest all over this fishing town. In a local pub, we join a fisherman, a deep sea diver, and a casino boss. Ed, the fisherman gets fined for netting too many fish. John, the deep sea diver offers us a bear sighting tour, and Larry, the casino boss, complains about the liberal politicians who run British Columbia. They give us a few packets of home-smoked salmon before heading home for the evening.

Mama grizzly bear and cub.
Mama Grizzly and a cub in British Columbia.

A SWAT team arrives and I must ask a few questions.

“We’re here for training in the wilderness,” Brad, the lead trainer says.

“Do you hunt fugitives?”

“Nah. We don’t have any.” He shakes his head. “Some people break windows just to get jailed in the winter, you know, out of the cold and three meals a day. Our correctional system is too light. In the states, yours is too hard, aye?”

A Side Road

BC Highway 16 squeezes along the snaking Skeena River and railroad tracks that parallel the bottom of sheer cliffs. Some “S” curves leave no room for error, neither from the driver nor Mother Nature. The attention-grabbing scenery makes concentrating on driving difficult.

We turn onto an unpaved road which serves as a 40 mile shortcut to the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (Highway 37). Here we spot a black bear feeding with her cub, and try to prevent Jack from barking while the bear stares at us.

Enter the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park, where moss-covered lava makes a Mars-scape atmosphere about six miles long and two miles wide. One of the many short trails leads to Vetter Falls, where we share our gift of smoked salmon with a First Nation woman. She jokes that the salmon is so red, that they must have run through the smokehouse with it. We lunch with one eye open for bears.

Jack the dog does not know what to make of the moss covered lava of the Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed
Jack the dog does not know what to make of the moss covered lava of the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed

More Scenic on the Side Roads

Approaching Bear Glacier from side road 37A, waterfalls gush from atop fjords. Avalanches sometimes close this road in the winter. A fjord cuts a disputed border between Canada and the US, with the town of Stewart, BC on one side and Hyder, Alaska on the other. The one-hundred summertime inhabitants of Hyder welcome visitors but cherish their privacy.

At one point, some Hyder residents blasted the small Canadian Customs building with loud music, playing the song “North to Alaska” for one month straight. Considered a lawless town by some, on account of no police force, we enjoy the drop in prices compared to Canada. One case of beer in Canada costs $40, while the prices in Alaska are around $20. Everything in Alaska seems to be about half the price of Canada.

At the “Sealaska Inn, we run in to John, the biker from the ferry. “Congratulations! You made it.”

“I’m sick of the rain and mud,” he says.

“But you’re an Ironbutt.”

Klune National Park Icefields. Amazing!
Flying low over the icefields of Kluane National Park and Reserve allows for spectacular views.

His thin smile turns serious. “I have to ride all the way back yet. Believe me, my butt is not made of iron.”

The proprietor of the Inn advises us not to camp. She tells us about losing her son-in-law in a gruesome grizzly bear attack several years ago. However, campsites are only $12 nightly, including all firewood, and the motel is $75 per day.

“Camp if you must. Just don’t leave out any food,” she says. “Play dead if a Grizzly comes at you. Fight back if a Black Bear attacks.”

Our campsite sits snug in the woods, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and bordered by an estuary on the Portland Inlet. We learn that Mr. Hyder, who made a habit of buying rounds for the locals in the bar, was nominated as the town’s namesake.

In the morning we drive a primitive road about 23 miles to Salmon Glacier, passing at least 20 glacier formations along the way. We sit on the edge of civilization and eat lunch. The sun shines until eleven o’clock in the evening in the summer. No wonder that Hollywood films movies in this area, such as Insomnia, The Thing, and Leaving Normal.

We leave after two nights, having seen no bears. I must confess that we slept in the truck, safe and snug under the cap, with our luggage out in the tent.

The MV Tarahne, a retired 1917 gas-powered lake cruiser sits on the waterfront in Atlin
The MV Tarahne, a retired 1917 gas-powered lake cruiser sits on the waterfront in Atlin.

There be bears on these side roads

After clearing Canadian customs from Hyder, we drive through the fjords again, up the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. This rustic, part-gravel route runs through thick woods, and has hardly any traffic. We spot a red fox and a couple of moose, but are not quick enough with the camera. Once on the ALCAN, we speed to Whitehorse, the capitol of the Yukon and camp for a few days. The ALCAN is a beautiful route, but the side roads offer more close-up, remote scenery.

On the road again, we stop in Haines Junction for an exhilarating, single-prop airplane ride through Kluane (pronounced clue-way-nee) National Park and Reserve. Flying around mountain peaks and over glaciers, the plane dips for a close look at crevices that run several hundred feet deep and are filled with fluorescent blue water.

From Haines, Alaska we take a 45-minute ferry to Skagway, for a quick overnight camp in the rain. Traveling the next morning on Rt. 2, waterfalls spill from mountains in the distance. A big Black Bear eats alongside the road in solitude.

Hyder, Alaska.
Welcome to Hyder, Alaska.

Another gravel road off the Yukon Territorial Highway leads sixty-miles one-way to the village of Atlin, sitting on the land-locked fiord known as Atlin Lake. The name “Atlin” means “Big Water” in the Tlingit language. This lake is the largest, natural freshwater lake in BC. We spot a mama Grizzly foraging with her two toddlers. Once we pull ourselves away from admiring the bears…, clank!

The skid plate under my truck drags in the gravel. I get out and struggle with the only bolt holding the metal sheet on, while Mare keeps her eye on the grizzly bear, who still rustles about 50 yards away. Mare also holds Jack’s mouth closed to stop his barking. Luckily, mamma Grizzly does not find us interesting.

We are half-way to Atlin, and decide to keep on truckin. From our yet-to-be-refurbished cabin at the “Atlin Inn,” the window view shows Llewellyn Glacier hanging on the mountain across the lake. A float plane takes-off near an island, and folks fish for trout. This little village is proud of its gold rush history dating from 1898.

We take in the sights of Atlin, such as the MV Tarahne, a 78 foot, gas-powered wooden lake boat built-in 1917. They cut her in half in 1927 to add 30 more feet to hold 198 passengers. The boat is currently being refurbished since her last season in 1937.

Wooden churches, the Canadian Mounted Police station, and a small museum make up most of the town.

We head back to the lower forty-eight with a new appreciation of side roads, where the scenery never gets old. What a shock to roll back onto a busy Interstate.

Ron Mitchell

Ron Mitchell is a freelancer who loves to write and travel. He just completed his first novel. Visit his website.

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