When most folks think of British Columbia, they conjure up images of Vancouver, Whistler, the areas around Kamloops or Fernie. These are all fantastic places filled with the the awesomeness that B.C. has to offer for those seeking beautiful wilderness forest, bears, rivers, or to spend the ever fascinating “Loooney”, or “Tooney” (one and two dollar coins). There are other (many other not mentioned here) places in B.C. that strike a resonant note with me. Bella Coola comes to mind, of which I have friends established there.. You know who you are! Bella Coola is a place I wish to visit sometime sooner than later, but who knows how the cards may fall!
For me, the Cassiar Highway, heading north from Kitwanga and highway 16, is without a doubt, the creme de la creme of northern British Columbia.
The Cassiar, which is an alternate route heading north/south, of the more largely known Alaska Highway,and is a is a fine example of Northern British columbia’s offerings of beauty, soitiude, and grandiose scenery and wildlife.
Highway 16 which intersects the Yellowhead Highway, is also know by some as the Highway of Tears. Between 1969 and 2006, some 18 cases of missing persons or homicides of young girls have been reported. Riding through this section enroute to highway 37, The Cassiar, felt surreal to me, knowing there has been a great mystery here. My heart goes out to all of the families who are in pain from these incidences.
The last major town departing from the Yellowhead is Smithers, British Columbia. Smithers is a a fine town, with a strong bicycling community, including a DH and freeride scene upon the local mountains and ski hills. I spent an entire afternoon here, seeking out bike shops who might have the required length of spoke that I required. It was also a great place to get re-supplied for the long length of road ahead of me known as the Cassiar Highway. Just north of the town, lie splendid mountains, sporting moderate looking alpine mountaineering routes that might leave a Sierra climber in awe. A place called Glacier Gulch features two extarodinary peaks with a small glacier at their base. Ice couloirs bearing the gifts of alpine ice lie above, beckoning me.
Heading north from Smithers, I passed through the ancient Native fishing village of Moricetown, situated snugly against the mighty Salmon festooned river of Bulkley. And on to the hamlet of New Hazelton, which, though a place of unfounded beauty, did not stop raining once. I settled into a cafe there, and ate a magnificent breakfast, re supplied on beer, and headed for the Cassiar of my dreams.
I cross the mighty Skeena River, and upon entering the Cassiar, my mind began to fill with a wonder I had really never known. Of all the adventures taken past, climbing, mountaineering, bicycling, wandering, I had never felt such a presence before. It was an age old feeling of family and gathering and fishing that caught my imagination as though I had been here before. I felt strangely at home, yet I also felt an unnerving sensation of detachment that I was not expecting.
All day in the rain, pedaling, thinking, feeling these great emotions of past, I began to become as weary as I had ever been, but pedaled on, in hopes of engaging the Cassiar as fully as she deserved, I finally needed to stop. The area was festooned with brush so thick, one cannot really camp with any amount of enthusiasm. I spy a free gov’t campground, but, due to the constant rain, is totally flood out. I try to ride my feeble bicycle into it’s innards, but am rejected like a vomitous expulsion, that forces my weary body back to the road and onward in search of salvation.
After a couple more miles, desperate, a gravel pit area appears like a welcome wagon from hell, and I pull in. My first sight? A dead Grizzly, shot, I presume. The image brings an anxiety and fear of the Bears of which I had not come to terms with yet on this journey. Too exhausted to care, I pull a little further in and call it a day. Cottonwoods bigger than I had ever seen before sprouted the forest around me; I eat a meager supper, hang my food bag in said trees, and crack open a beer and a belt of Rum, and the world washes away, fears dissipate, and I begin to feel like I have finally come home.. The bear spray was not even clutched that night, as it had been so many nights before. The glorious adventure was now in front of me…
The next 24 hours become a mind numbing, but peaceful, pedal, through the boreal forests of the region, that, with the weather now clear, sunny, and glorious, finds my mind at peace once again.
These forests lead on and on toward an area, what one native in Smithers told me, “The Grizzly Bears there will make a small snack out of you”. The area in question is Meziadin Junction, where the highway splits to go either west, to Stewart, Alaska, or north, further up the Cassiar. This place, according to the locals, has the greatest concentration of Grizzlies in the central B.C. sub coastal area. I never saw a one, sadly.
I pedaled for 6 more days through this Alice in Wonderland of wilderness, passing through some of the most heart felt forest and landscapes my heart and mind could conjure up.
Passing through Dease Lake, I find that there is a small town there, and sporting a decent grocery store, laundrymat, liquor store, and cafe. This felt like a miniature vacation of sorts and, camped on the beaches of the local swimming hole and fishing spot, I drink and hang with the local native folks and learn of the long winters and of fishing and the hunting ways of native peoples. This makes me smile and I move on..
North of Dease Lake, I can feel the the landscape begin to change towards a more northerly and remote arena. I can smell the Yukon from here.
The last night on the Cassiar, I find a serene place next to a fine river and begin to unpack the bike. Seconds later, a van loaded full of Native teens pull in and open the doors; all pour out and declare their victory that day. They unfold a tarp in the back, revealing a large male Ram, shot on a nearby ridge, and declare that Ram meat is a delicacy that cannot be beat. They say that they intend to gut the creature here, next to the river. I know that the ensuing gut pile will attract bears for miles and I split. Later, I find a decent camp further up, next to the same river, but the skeeter’s are the worst I have ever seen. Welcome to the north!
The next day, I pass through the surrealistic remains of a forest fire, that given the eerie feeling of the last 48 hours, fit’s the bill. Later that day, I reach the Yukon border and the junction with the Alaska Highway, and already, begin to miss the Cassiar.
All told, the Cassiar highway is a place like no other I have ever been, and hope one day, to experience it’s haunting delicacies once again. I urge any one who might embark on a pedaling journey to Alaska, consider this as a superior alternative to the lower Alaska Highway through northern B.C.
And that’s all I have to say about that…
“How Can I Be Lost, When I have no Where to Go..?”