Stories along the Way: British Columbia, The Yukon, and Alaska and Bears, Bears, Bears…..The end of the Trail.

British Columbia, The Yukon, and Alaska and Bears, Bears, Bears. End of the trail, May 2019

The ferry docks in West Vancouver and we head north. The Sea to Sky Highway is mountainous, curvy and spectacular. It downgrades all other “scenic byways” . Indeed starting at sea level and rising, rising to the sky to Squamish B.C.  We drive through Whistler, the ski resort, basking in 75 degrees. The snow shines, like all the previous days of our trip. No rain coats.

May 9

Last night we stayed in the Owl Creek Forest Reserve, north of Pemberton, B.C.,15 campsites, no services which is ok with us. Owl Creek ran briskly by the Sprinter. The Forest. The Sea. The Creek. Best sounds for sleeping.  It’s off the beaten track or paved roads—our favorite. A little dinner, into bed and sleep for Jim, while I tuck in besides him to read and then sleep deeply through the night. This morning , after breakfast and a walk along the creek in the warm sun, we are back on Hwy 97, into the mountains and winding along the narrow road and its one lane bridges. We pass the Fraser River and into the green, robust Fraser Valley. Ironically, Jim and Darrel and caught White Kings in Homer in March that are spending their time in the ocean before it’s time to head to the Fraser River thousands of miles away to spawn.

Hero Jim O’Neill can’t be stopped. He spied a whitetail considering crossing the road in front of us. He slowed and watch the deer to decide to run in front of the Sprinter!! Another life saved not to mention the Sprinter front.

Hero Jim O’Neill has done it again. Driving along the winding mountain roads we spotted a fat mouse running back and forth just below the windshield. He must have joined our eXpedition at the campground.  Jim pulled over to side of road, opened the hood, bravely picked the critter up by the tail and flung him into the woods where it happily scampered off to tell his tale.

Memory for a rainy day:   It’s sunny and bright. Jim drives the Sprinter around the winding road thinking about riding the curves on his BMW motorcycle and I in my Mini Cooper. Our favorite 60’s and 70’s mix plays loudly while we sing along (me anyway), the window is open so I can snap photos in between knitting. The feeling is happy, free, and good times past and present.

May 10

We’re tired and having a hard time  finding a place to camp.It doesn’t happen  very often. We turn into West Lake, a Provincial Park, after looking for advertised forest roads that are blocked off. There is a no camping sign We drive to the farthest parking place on the lake. We are rule followers but sometimes……. It doesn’t  matter  to us if they “lock the gates” at 9pm. The Sprinter has no markings on the outside to suggest a camper. The Park quiets and no one disturbs us.  It is a lovely, peaceful night. A couple of early morning kayakers arrive as does a hummingbird. Jim heard a loon and geese in the night. The lake is placid. A loon swims nearby and a butterfly hops on my leg as I do morning Qi Gong. I love our life.

May 11

wXx6%JSTQbuHqztlBZlzoAYesterday, it was a shocking 82 degrees in  the Prince George area of B.C.  It is a fire concern so early in the year. No rain in B.C. , just sunshine. The wildfire concern is already high. Rivers still filling with snow melt but forest lands are dry.

The Cassiar Hwy is our selected route to the Alaska Hwy. This means we can drive through Smithers, a thriving midsize community with a regional hospital.  Two years ago, I walked around Smithers shopping a bit and had the brilliant idea to knit Jim, cancer survivor, a sweater to keep him warm. The catch was my inexperience. I asked at a fabric shop if  there was a yarn shop and was told we must stop in the next little town,  Telkwa, for The Wooley Ewe yarn shop on the river. The area is a fly fishing  center. The sweater has taken on a life of its own. 1 1/2 fronts remain to do and I need more yarn.

At the shop I meet Kristy  one of  the two owners who welcomed us and pondered the extra wool needed since I didn’t have enough yarn to finish the sweater and the original wool was no longer available. They knew some of the “sweater story”—6 yarn shops and 30 knitters contributed to Jim’s sweater. How could such a sweater knitted with so much love not keep Jim cozy?

The knitting/work table from a tree slab is still the center of the store.  The door is open on the warm day and people wander in and out. Two other women sit at the table, one a retired doctor , who visited ANMC with a group she worked with, a retired nurse (Kristy). Both of these women are adventurers and do canoeing/kayaking trips out of Yellowknife in the Yukon and Alaska’s Arctic. Kristy’s daughter ( a nurse)and young grandson came in for a short visit, The doctor’s partner stops in to buy local coffee, greeting us before he leaves. Another woman came in, who was also retired from the same hospital in Smithers. Talk turned to healthcare—her son is under treatment in Vancouver for a brain tumor and is enrolled in a clinical trial.

Jim the sweater man, didn’t feel well and napped in the Sprinter. It is such a friendly, easy group of people, the time flew by and it was time to go.  What a good feeling!! They loved the story of the sweater knitters and the yarn shops. I shared some of the photos from other places and they look forward to the story when the sweater is finished. After Kristy added another button hole and a few rows and I bought enough yarn with leftovers for a Jim beanie, we left .

It’s time to look for a place for the night. It’s hot and we are having a hard time. The supposedly open forest areas are closed. There are no provincial parks open yet. Finally, we come upon a First Nations campground near Old Hazelton. The office is closed, but we are used to that. We’ll find a place and pay in the morning. There is only a  handful of campers and RV’s and we find a place on the river that runs swiftly through the campgrounds. It’s a “dry” row, meaning no “hook-ups” but we don’t hook up anyway. There is a washroom with running water, showers and laundry if needed. 

It cools in the night and we sleep well. A restored Jim, jumps out of bed and tells me his breakfast choices and starts my tea. We eat breakfast on the picnic table on another sunny day. He’s ready to go. 

“Stop rushing me,” I say. My morning duties take more time than his. I remember when I was a child and didn’t worry about such things. Finally we’re  ready. He stops in to pay—$22.  Thankfully the heat is 20 degrees less than yesterday. I notice the stickers on the campground manager’s car—no fracking, no pipelines. The First Nation’s position is pretty clear. The campground manager expresses his concern about the lack of rain.

I find a couple of  potential campgrounds for the night with the help of  my phone and the map. I know we will have neither Internet or cell for the rest of the day as we start up the Cassiar Hwy.

Three times we see black bears by the side of the road eating and a young moose running. Is it our car or did he spot a bear?  It’s too soon for moose calves to be born.

Baby green is the color we see again against the older spruces and cedars and the mountains in the distance are snow covered. We drive on until we get to our favorite—offf-the-grid-luxury-Italian-helisport lodge.  It’s lunch time for us and, as before, we admire the soapstone fireplaces and the seemingly successful lodge so far away. I can’t even imagine the cost of a week here.

The Cassiar Hwy  has  little traffic which suites us . Jim wants to drive another couple of hours but I discourage him from driving all the way to Watson Lake. We’ll find a place to pull off when we need to. I suggest we not camp near “Gnats Pass.” With so many wonderful camping spots on the water, I’m a little sad that this luxury will end soon.

May 12

Sawmill Point on Lake Dease

We find it almost by accident. Jim buys a $9 pint of Haagendaaz Vanilla in the Dease Village store and sat and ate some of it before we drove on. Then he stuffed it in the back of the freezer. His idea of a milk shake is milk poured over vanilla ice cream, a treat he loves dearly. When he was in Seattle getting cancer treatment with a very poor appetite, I couldn’t tempt him with a milkshake—he didn’t want to ruin it as the chemo affected so many foods he liked.

A small sign says “Sawmill Pt Recreation Area” and we bump down a narrow road and pick a campsite in the empty park, luxuriously parking the Sprinter to take full advantage of the lake view.  Water is open at the edges of the lake and a clear stream runs merrily into the lake near our camp site.

After climbing in bed with the sun still high in the sky we continue listening to our audio book “Where the Craw Dads Sing” completely engrossed in the story. Jim goes to sleep while I read and the sun gives one more burst of light directly into my eyes, before sinking behind the mountain and the sky stays bright and colored for a long time. 

The next morning there is ice on the windshield and 32 degrees, but Jim repositions the Sprinter to allow the warm sun to pour inside. It’s a beautiful morning. And I pull on my old red, recycled wool sweater for instant warmth. Up until this point, I didn’t need a sweater. 

Jim goes for a walk as I make breakfast and then tells me about the history of the area from the signs posted around the campground. It was a larger area during the Gold Rush and the town and lake were named by an indigenous chief for a white man stationed there. He must have been helpful to the people as that is not seen very often. Dease also traveled twice with Franklin on a couple of his exploration trips.

Jim starts the cleanup and I go for a walk.  The sun is warm and the air is crisp. For the first time it feels like my favorite “Alaska air” that I can never get enough of. I realize it is really “Northern Air” with northern British Columbia, then Yukon and Northwest Territories all sharing this special, pure, clean air. 

The trees changed many times during our trip, from the tall, lush cedars and spruce of northwest Washington and lower British Columbia to the sparse, spindly evergreens and cottonwoods that remind us of home. 

May 13 

Last night we camped at Fox River campground on Hwy 2 on our way to Dawson.  We parked by the still frozen lake for free. Our picture window revealed a snowshoe hare that had turned to summer colors except his feet are still white. A couple of  Arctic ground squirrels ran by and crows swooped across the ice. The temperature dropped and we snuggled in bed warm and comfortable. I must start wearing a sleep mask, the further north we drive, the more daylight.  This morning the temperature was 30 degrees and I reached over and turned the heat/stove top on to warm us up before getting out of bed. Jim started my tea and then smiled at me with my hands wrapped around my cup enjoying how much “I love my morning cup of tea.”  After a quick breakfast of a cereal and fruit we take a short walk where Teacher Jim explains the type of ice–needle ice. The sun warms the day quickly. With B.C. wildfires underway,  it seems everyone is concerned about climate change.

Black bears, our first brown bears and elk make the trip interesting as well as vast landscapes and waterways.  Smalls signs along the way tell the year of forest fires—from 1958 to recent. Jim said when he drove the road in late summer a few years after a major fire, brilliant fireweed was everywhere.

Along the highway high over a river is a viewing platform with steps going down to the river. During the Klondike gold rush, it was an important area for those heading to Dawson City on their way to making their fortune in gold. The adventurers had to make their boats and make them sturdy enough to travel through many river hazards.

 We drive into Dawson City with its old buildings and history on every corner.The gold rush of the late 1800’s  centered  here—at the time the largest city next to Seattle on the West and  Winnipeg on the East. Our treat is a hotel for the night and we check into the Aurora Hotel. We ask what the ferry schedule is ….we need to take it to connect with the Top of  the World Highway for a shortcut back to Anchorage. Unfortunately, the hotel manager tells us in spite of early break up, the river is too low for the ferry after no rain. In addition they haven’t figured out how to clear the road of winter debris on the other side and there’s poor communication with the US immigration officer who must clear everyone once they cross to the U.S.  Tomorrow we will drive back to Whitehorse and then to Anchorage, taking one more day than planned. In the meantime,  we visit the Jack London museum and listen to the interpreter tell the story of Jack in the gold rush. He didn’t stay long, but it influenced his writing strongly. Nearby was Robert Service’s cabin and across the street Pierre Berton’s house where he lived in his early years. I found Jim a large book by Berton about the Klondike in my library volunteer gig.

The city has a frontier feel with its dusty streets, old buildings and storefronts and themes of its plays and entertainment. There is only about 1,100 people livie there year round, but the number increases dramatically in the summer which is just starting to rev up. But the town has a feel of cohesiveness and community and while the gold rush is long gone, the sense of community offers a good feeling to visitors.

The shower feels good as does a shampoo before dinner. I am disappointed though. No bathtub. Surely when the miners came to town after months of dirty work they wanted a luxurious bath, not a short shower. After  a good dinner in the hotel restaurant, it’s back to the room where Jim fills up on hockey always available on Canadian TV and then goes to sleep. I soon follow.

Back to Whitehorse the next morning, but just the outskirts as Jim wants to make Tok for the night. We pass through Kluane, another beautiful area we love.

At Haines Junction we stop for fuel and dinner at a rundown bar/restaurant/hotel. We discovered on previous trips, the Chinese food is delicious and made with lots of fresh vegetables.

Our last camping night is near Haines at Pine Lake Provincial Park. Again only a couple of other campers and a quiet, beautiful night with a walk to the lake on the other side of the trees in the morning.

In Tok we catch up with Jim’s former village teacher friends. They met when Frank was in the Peace Corps in Thailand. Yuanita, an expert craftswoman, takes on my latest mistake on Jim’s sweater and it gets a bit longer.

On the road the next morning we  pass through Beaver Creek, a famous stopover for our Dillingham AK running team, The Women Who Run with Salmon.

We cross the border into the U.S. questioned by a cheerful border guard which is unusual. We stay at a hotel in Anchorage to “citifize” ourselves before we park the Sprinter and take an airplane to Minnesota for my surgery, parastoma hernia repair, and several days in the hospital.

We agree it was one of our best trips. But we can’t wait to be home on our lake with our kitty for the Alaska summer. Traveling in shoulder season is ideal for us. No crowds and no extreme weather. Because of the sunny days on this trip, we felt no need to stay in hotels and our camping costs ranged from $0 to $22  Canadian (the high for one night). Three years after our inaugural trip, we are also stronger and I’m better able to attend to modified body parts enroute.

Who knows where The Grey Panther will travel to next?

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Stories along the Way: British Columbia, The Yukon, and Alaska and Bears, Bears, Bears…..The end of the Trail.

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