“We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there–there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.”
Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Riding the first few kilometers of the Cassiar Highway in the afternoon gloom nearly two weeks ago (Junction 37 off the Alaska-Canada Highway), we were filled with trepidation. Awe. Fear.
It didn’t look, or feel, like any of the roads we’d been on. No dividing line. No shoulder. The impenetrable spruce forest began right at its edge, a mere grizzly paw’s swipe away. In the first 20 km, pavement gave way to gravel, then mud. There was a thick layer of snow left over from the storm earlier that week. The only people we saw – a road crew – warned us of a giant fearless bear roaming the area. Then we were on our own. There were no settlements for days to come and no passing vehicles.
Eventually the sun came out and the pavement returned. Great white mountains loomed. In a couple of days, we had a 360 view of mountain ranges – ahead, behind and on both sides.
The “highway” sometimes seemed more like an animal track with its improbable grades and snaking turns. At times we had steep hills with a drop-off on either side and no guardrail, which felt a bit like riding across a tightrope.
The real challenge wasn’t the road itself, however, but what it lacked: communities and services to replenish our supplies. And the highway’s desolation was compounded by freezing temperatures.
In the cold, everything takes longer. Getting dressed in subzero involves a complicated dance in the sleeping bag. Then there’s changing out of warmer sedentary morning chores clothing into our cycling gear before hitting the road. Making breakfast is a kind of musical chairs played with mittens between lighting the stove, taking down food bags and opening containers and bags. Keeping warm is very time consuming.
On the Cassiar the days became noticeably shorter; we had lost over two hours of sunlight since our start in Alaska. Coupled with mountainous terrain, we found our mileage dropping significantly, which was a serious problem for our food supply. There is nothing like a grocery store between Whitehorse and Dease Lake, a 650 km stretch. After Dease, we had another 500 km or so before hitting our next refill in Kitwanga.
At one point we considered trying to catch a ride off the Cassiar. Had we gotten more snow and rain, a lift would have been our only alternative to hunger and hypothermia in such desolate country. We squeaked through, however. I don’t know if I’d call it a triumph, but we certainly felt joy and pride as we neared the end of the road. The mercury seemed to climb with each pedal stroke as we rode straight south for hundreds of kilometers. As our elevation dropped, we saw dramatic changes in the flora; after Bob Quinn Lake, a riot of life exploded by the roadside with birch, cedar, fir, climbing and creeping vines, lush undergrowth – we ate a raspberry (!) symbol of hope and source of needed vitamins! in the final miles of 37.
And yes, we saw a bear! No, bears are not a marketing ploy dreamed up by the Ministry of Tourism as we were beginning to suspect. We came face to muzzle with a black bear two days ago on the road. Like the Yukon snow, close contact with a big predator kind of “made” the experience for us. We rode up alongside him slowly, talking calmly, bearspray in hand, and then rode away grinning like little kids.
At the headwaters of the mighty Cassiar, we came upon Kitwanga, village of bounty and hospitality. This town of about 500 people was an oasis for us. We devoured a pound of chocolate ice cream at a picnic table outside the store. Bear in mind we’d had pasta the night before, instant potatoes and pasta for breakfast and two pasta lunches before getting to Kitwanga. We had a tin of tuna and one lonely piece of bread in our pathetic, drooping food sacs. After ice cream, we calmly shopped for supper. We camped right downtown (ha!) in Kitwanga Centennial Park, where anyone passing through can spend up to three nights. Fire pits, picnic shelter, free wood, outhouses. All of it a comforting 100 meters from the grocery store on Kitanga’s main street. We ate a pound of bacon, half a loaf of bread, half a dozen eggs and a bag of granola with milk. We sat and loafed by our fire much later than usual that night, drinking hot milk, laughing and talking.
The North is a special place that we are extremely fortunate to have been able to experience and, due to the time of year, have pretty much to ourselves. We are now headed for the Prince Rupert ferry to Port Hardy for October 16th.
Look forward to regular – and shorter! – posts in the future! Internet access should be less of an issue as we move south.
Thanks for reading and check back soon!