Finally, we are on our way to Alaska and all that the largest state in the country has to offer. To get there we drove from McChord Air Force Base just south of Tacoma, Washington, north on Interstate 5 to Bellingham, Washington where we jumped off the freeway and made our way to the Lynden border crossing into British Columbia. That is where this chapter of the story begins, at the border.
We had corresponded with some friends we had made in Mission, Texas, this past winter, Bruce and Carol Coombs. The Coombs reside just inside British Columbia outside the town of Aldergrove. They had asked that we spend a night or two with them on our way north. They have a large piece of property with an oversized driveway that accommodates a big motorhome like ours. In our last exchange of e-mail, Carol had suggested we enter British Columbia topped off on fuel as prices are high. She also suggested we pay particular attention to what we might have on board that is not allowed to be brought into Canada. So, we checked the official web site for Canadian Customs and learned that we could not take any raw potatoes over the border. Other than that we were already in compliance with all the requirements for entry. We cooked the last few potatoes we had on board the night before we got underway. Of course we fueled at the last station we could find prior to getting to the border, so we were all set.
When we got to the booth at the crossing, the agent came to my window and asked to see our passports which I handed over to him. Then he started asking questions. He seemed really concerned about weapons. I had to tell him at least three times that we had no weapons. I was being cooperative and certainly not being flippant with my responses to his questions. Apparently something I said didn’t sit right with him and he asked me to move the coach to a truck parking area just inside the border and then we were both to report to the office. We followed his instructions and when we got to the office we were asked the same set of questions a second time, except for the weapons question which was now on the fourth asking and answering. He then announced that he would be searching the coach and wanted to know if there was anything in it that could cause him harm such as guns. Again, no weapons on board. Then he asked the trick question: “Are there any large sums of cash you would like to take out of the coach before I start my search?” Well, you cannot take large amounts of cash into Canada, so a yes to that question would have resulted in more questions and scrutiny for sure. Before he left to start his search I asked him if he would need to search the basement and he said he may. I handed him my keys and showed him which key unlocks all the basement compartment doors. Connie warned him to watch his head as he entered the coach so he would not bang his head on the TV as most tall people do who are not looking up when they enter.
He went out to the coach and we watched through the windows as he did a pretty thorough look around the co-pilot area and the pilot area. I suspect he spent a few minutes at each station. Then he moved out of our view towards the back. Within a few seconds we saw him exit the coach and head back to the car. I did get a little nervous at this point. We keep our spotting scope in the trunk of the car covered in blankets. The cover for the scope looks like the cover for a gun. I thought we could be answering more questions in a few minutes. Before I could even finish the thought he reappeared at the front of the coach and made his way back to the office where he immediately apologized for the inconvenience. He said that just as soon as he entered the coach he knew we were who and what we had told him we were. We never did learn what didn’t feel right for him or who and what he may have thought we were up to.
We were thankful that he was doing his job and were really not at all put out by the experience, just a little shocked that we could possibly have fit any profile other than a couple of honest tourists trying to get to Alaska. Anyway, the delay was relatively minor in time and we did not have far to go once we got underway again. Welcome to British Columbia.
We followed Carol’s directions and within minutes we were driving up their long tree lined driveway and found them at the top waiting for us. We got the motorhome situated and plugged into electric and water and then, after hors d’oeuvres, we all piled into the Coomb’s car and drove toward the coast to the town of Whiterock. Whiterock is one of those tourist destination towns. I suspect it started as a fishing village and sort of reinvented itself as the fishing faded and tourism grew. At any rate the main street that fronts the water is end to end restaurants. We took a casual walk along the Oceanside walk on a raised sidewalk affording us views of both the activities along the street and what was going on along the beach. It was a really relaxing preparation for dinner. When we got opposite of the end of the restaurants we crossed the street and started concentrating on finding a place to eat. Bruce and I let the wives decide as there just was no reason to have four opinions because in the end we were going to have a wonderful dinner. As it turned out we ended up in their favorite restaurant. Well actually we ended up on the roof of their favorite restaurant with a view back into the United States. We did indeed have a wonderful dinner and the company and the scenery were even better.
The next morning we had a leisurely start to the day and at around 11:00 AM the four of us started on a drive to Whistler Mountain, home of the next Winter Olympics. There is evidence of the upcoming event all along the way from the outskirts of Vancouver all the way up the mountain. The largest piece of evidence is the amazing upgrade that is going into the highway. Vancouver is the actual host city for the Olympics and as such the official Olympic Village will be somewhere in the city proper. However, up at Whistler where a great number of skiing and snowboard events will occur there is a need for additional housing as well. Much of that housing will be for officials for those events, the press and of course the athletes during the time they are competing on the mountain. The village of Whistler is just beautiful. I took several photos and some will appear in the web album that accompanies this article. We arrived at Whistler in time for a late-ish sort of lunch which we had on the patio of one of the mainstay restaurant and bars on the mountain. From either the patio, in summer, or the windows in the winter one has a wonderful view of the end of the run down the mountain. By the way since the snow had already receded from the lower portion of the mountain the ski slopes had been transformed into mountain biking courses. People take their $10,000 mountain bikes up the ski lifts and then ride down on narrow windy paths. It was great to watch, but I am not sure I would want to end my life in a downhill bicycle crash.
After lunch we rode up to as near the top as you can now get on a lift. From there we took more photos, got in trouble with the ski patrol for walking beyond where we were supposed to and generally just enjoyed being there looking at the sites. It was great fun.
Bruce drove us back to Aldergrove where he and Carol made a late and fortunately light dinner before we all crashed from a very full and fun day.
Our time with the Coombs was great and we are really glad we continued the relationship beyond Mission, Texas.
Our route from Aldergrove was really quite simple as there are not a lot of roads that go great distances in Canada. Unlike the United States where we have multiple major highways criss-crossing the country east to west and north to south, in Canada there are but a few. So, our day started out on Canada 1 heading east and eventually north until we got to Cache Creek where we turned north onto Highway 97 while Canada 1 continued off to the east. We spent the night of June 2 in the town of Clinton, BC a mere 1700 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska. While the drive was unremarkable in obstacles there was a bit of a dread in the realization that we had so far to go to get to the target. Having said that, the drive is really part of the target, as there is just so much to see along the way. One of my fears was that we would get too focused on the middle part of the journey at the risk of missing something really neat along the way. Given the great distances we projected we would have to drive each day that was a real fear. Of course at the other end of the same spectrum if we were to stop at absolutely everything there was to stop for and snap every to die for photo that presents itself we may never have gotten out of British Columbia.
That first full day of driving in British Columbia was one with a continuously changing scene before us. We rolled through farmland and along rivers crossing back and forth as the terrain demanded. We followed railroad tracks that frequently disappeared into tunnels only to reemerge down the road after the road went through its own tunnel. We passed along the faces of high mountains with snowy peaks reaching far above the tree line. It was a great driving day.
From Clinton we continued to the north to Prince George, British Columbia. It was another day of constant change. The highlight would have to be the miles of wetlands with hundreds of ponds of various sizes and shapes, spotted with ducks. Of course watching the water flowing down the Fraser River as well as several others was pretty great, too. The rivers are all still quite swollen with spring runoff and carrying a good bit of sand and rock with them. Once in awhile we would come across a clear fast moving spring and have to wonder why it was so clear. The “lowlight” of the day was the numerous delays for roadwork. However, it is good to know that the roads get the repairs needed during the very short period they can be worked. So, a few delays are okay given the alternative of driving through frost heaves and pot holes.
From Prince George we proceeded northwest on Canada 16 to Smithers, British Columbia. The drive on this third day of the adventure was just as the others had been, full of beautiful sights and absolutely gorgeous weather. When we got settled into Glacier View RV Park just outside Smithers we returned to town for some grocery shopping and a look around. When we returned there was a small happy hour of sorts going on adjacent to our motorhome. There were two couples, both from Oregon and as it turns out the two men are brothers. They were all excited about meeting us, and I immediately figured out why. I remembered having seeing Joe’s motorhome at the RV park we were in the night before. Sure enough, we had all been there together. Joe is retired from the garage door industry. I am not sure what his brother did for a living, but Joe and his wife Beverly are full timing it for the time being. Lonny and his wife JoAnne still have a home in Oregon that they can’t give up. However, they do seem to spend a lot of time on the road in their fifth wheel. Over a couple of beers we established the basics of relationships. Little did we know how many more times we would see one another. The four of them are traveling together at least for a major part of this adventure. Later I will discuss a potential crease in the two couple plan. Joe accused us of following them. Of course I countered with the facts that we had left Clinton before them and that we had arrived at Glacier View ahead of them. This “discussion” would repeat as we moved forward.
The fifth of June presented us with another beautiful morning; so pretty that I decided after cleaning the bugs and grime off the coach to take a run since our driving distance would be a bit shorter this day. I ran along the road we would drive and it was a wonderful run, not just for the exercise value, but the sensory value. The view was wonderful, in fact almost distracting which is not good when you are running. The smells were genuine mountain smells of trees, fresh natural grasses and that earthy smell of wet ground. On the return leg there was the majesty of the glacier working its way slowly down the mountain. It was a great place for a run.
We continued along Canada 16 to Highway 37 where we once again turned towards the north and eventually getting to Highway 37A which heads nearly due west to Stewart, British Columbia, and the border crossing to Hyder, Alaska. This is an interesting border crossing in that the United States does not have a Customs and Immigration station at the border. The Canadians do, however, and it became fairly evident why this situation exists. Access to Hyder is either by boat, the road we came in on or the continuation of that road which accesses properties back in British Columbia to the north of Hyder. There is not much to be gained by illegally entering the United States at this point because there is nowhere in the country to get to from Hyder. Not so for people entering Canada from either the sea or the road out of Hyder. The crossing is made even more interesting by the infrastructure differences. As you clear the Canadian Customs Station the pavement ends and you find yourself under a sign welcoming you to Hyder, Alaska. You are now back in the 19th century at this point. Having said that the town was not established until the 20th century, but it has the look of the previous century. As we slowly drove through town to the RV park on the north end, we were in awe of what we saw. The buildings are weathered and for the most part not in good shape. The road, while smooth, is dry and dusty. There were however, still piles of dirty snow that had once been very large mounds of plowed snow from the roads. The town consists of a few gift shops, a hotel, at least one bed and breakfast a general store that may have a competitor when the tourist season hits its stride, the RV park and, of course, at least two bars. The absolute highlight of this little village had to be “The Bus”. When we checked in at the RV park the lady told us that the restaurant at the hotel would be closed to the public all weekend due to the motorcycle rally that was ongoing there. She said that for seafood the only place in town to eat is The Bus.
We spent two nights in Hyder. On that first afternoon we were there we went to the local watering hole to see if we could buy some wine or beer. The Glacier Inn is another of those establishments that has to be seen to be believed. This business has been in the same family since it opened in the early fifties. At a time when the town was swollen to capacity with gold and silver miners the Glacier Inn was one of the places where the miners gathered to relax. It is a bar a gift shop and a restaurant. Now that the town is a living ghost town, neither do a land office business, but Chris the bartender told us they stay busy enough. We enjoyed a beer while talking to Chris and learning a bit about the history of the establishment. One of the things you notice when you enter the place is all the dollar bills that are stapled to the walls. Chris told me there are some $80,000 worth of bills stapled to the wall, certainly more value on the walls than the rest of the building. Back during the active mining days, miners would write their name on a one or two dollar bill and staple it to the wall so that in the event he was fired or quit due to the harsh conditions he knew he would be able to buy one more drink when he came out of the mine. The tradition of stapling money to the walls continues to this day. Not all the bills are dollar bills and in fact not all are even real. What are real though, are all the names of the people who wrote their names on the bills before attaching them. What else is real is the fact that long ago they ran out of wall space and now have hinged panels that allow more currency to be attached. There is a secondary benefit to the panels. The older bills are now protected from whatever may go on there on a wild Saturday night. Of course for most of the history of the bar smoking had been allowed within. As a result most of the bills are now a chocolate brown from the smoke that has saturated them over time.
We wondered what had happened to our new Oregon friends. Since we were in the only RV park in town we expected them to show up at some point as we were all going the same route. As we were driving in the car to the Glacier Inn we saw all four of them in Joe’s pickup. We learned that they were camped in Stewart, British Columbia, on the paved part of the world. Their loss, we got the full experience.
The primary reason most people visit Hyder is, believe it or not, not to visit the Glacier Inn, but to see the bears feeding on salmon just north of town at the Wildlife Observation Area. The US Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with the good folks of Hyder built a semi-enclosed viewing area along the river some three miles north of town. In the fall when the salmon are running up the river, the bears show up at the river to catch and feed on the fish. The observation area consists of a closed ended board walk that goes up and downstream from the parking area for a few hundred yards. The reason I say it is semi-enclosed is because the top of the boardwalk is open to the air. Any black bear who wanted to could simply climb one of hundreds of trees and be on the boardwalk with the watchers. I suspect that the bears are more interested in the fish than the people and therefore for the most part a top would just represent wasteful spending. However, on the south end of the boardwalk there is an emergency exit. At first I found that fact to be a bit humorous, because it just didn’t seem that leaving the confines of a safety corridor and wind up among the bears would ever be a very smart option. As I studied the emergency exit a bit closer I realized that the gate leading from the boardwalk to the exit really just put those who went there into a second enclosed space. So, for the rare time that a bear may get onto the boardwalk via tree, those on the downstream side of the bear could leave to the second enclosure while those above the bear could head for the exit at the north end. At any rate, since it wasn’t fall we saw no bears at the viewing station and therefore were not able to test the emergency exit system.
Continuing on this same road takes you back into Canada with no formal border crossing, only a small sign and about a thirty foot wide swath of missing forest straddling the border. Further north is a working gold mine with a good bit of what appeared to me to be hazardous materials captive in holding ponds. The road winds up the mountain heading generally north. Some 12 miles up from Hyder is Salmon Glacier. Unfortunately, we were only able to about ten miles up the road because it is still covered in snow, ice and rocks beyond that point. I would have loved to have walked a little further up the road to get a better view of the glacier. I was held back by my knowledge that the grizzly bears have just come out of hibernation and are grumpy and hungry. That was enough to keep me close to the car at all times.
AS it turned out we never saw a grizzly bear while in the Hyder area. We did see one really huge black bear who was content with eating grass, a lot of grass.
Chris had recommended that we try the breakfast at the Inn as she thinks it is pretty good. We took her up on the recommendation. Of course, in order to really get a feel for the place I had to order the “mother lode” breakfast which had a little of everything. It was huge but wonderful. I don’t think I have ever taken leftovers from a breakfast before, but we both did that morning.
Earlier I mentioned The Bus. I had heard of The Bus and had it in my mental list of places to try, so I was game. We ate there our last night in town and I have the photos to prove it. There have been some famous people seen eating at The Bus over the years including Robin Williams. The owner is a woman whose husband owns the local seafood wholesaler. He catches all the fish he sells, so the fish prepared at The Bus is just about as fresh as it can be. Mine was still flopping just minutes before going on the grill, I swear. The Bus is a very basic type of restaurant. The cooking is done within the bus, which is a modified twenty-five foot school bus. Dinner is served on paper plates either on the covered porch adjacent to the bus or in the “indoor dining area” which is a wooden structure with a door and a few windows and bare framed walls. However, the walls are adorned with photos of some of the more famous customers. The food is served in a no frills manner with just the fish and either potato salad or French fries. She also serves burgers and hot dogs, but I saw no one eating anything but fish. The fish can be deep fried or grilled. She has only one fryer and one grill, so the food does not come out fast. That too is okay because you have a chance to get to know your fellow diners while you wait. It was a real treat to eat at this cute little place. I have to admit that I was aware of what must have been going on in the mind of Robin Williams as he participated in this experience. It had to have been a great thing to watch and be part of.
Truly, the Glacier Inn and The Bus are two places that have to be experienced to be believed and I strongly recommend both to anyone going to Alaska. We are certainly glad we took this little side trip to have these experiences. It would have been great to see more bears and other wildlife, but the local character was certainly worth the drive. We did get to see two bald eagles on the mud flats and the red crossbills we saw were life birds for both of us. We left Hyder very happy for taking the time to go.
The only way out of Hyder and back to the world of paved roads is the way you came. So on June 7 we started to backtrack some 38 miles to get back to Highway 37, the Cassiar Highway, and continue our northward track. The drive up the Cassiar is breathtaking as well as technically difficult. The views are to die for and road leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately the posted speed limit is just 80 KPH making it easy for me to justify driving 40 to 55 MPH conditions permitting. At that speed I was able to take in most of the beauty of the road without fearing the frost heaves and patches of unpaved highway. We just cruised along making constant headway and enjoying the ride. The traffic was essentially non-existent making life that much better. In the early afternoon we stopped for fuel and lunch. While paying for the fuel Connie learned that the road was partially washed out ahead and that the officials were considering closing it. That would represent several hundreds of miles of a detour. We decided to continue in the direction we were headed and hope for the best. When we got to the washout area we were stopped by a flagman who informed us that the heavy equipment operator would clear us a path and then we could continue. As we watched it was obvious that as the big front end loader made a pass along the few hundred feet of submerged roadway the water carried more debris in behind him. I was concerned we would have to turn around. The flagman, having nothing better to do, kept us entertained with his questions about our lifestyle and what we had seen lately. He also informed us that the water started going over the road the night before and a car had actually gone off the downstream side and had to be extracted with a helicopter. He said that in the morning the engineers had come up with a plan. However, as the day had progressed the conditions had worsened and the crew was now working without a plan. I was more concerned than ever. Finally the heavy equipment operator gave us the go ahead but cautioned that big rocks were still tumbling across the road. I eased forward and kept the coach in the middle of the roadway as we waded through about six inches of fast moving water, sand, gravel and rocks. We got across safely and with a wave good-bye to the equipment operator we made as hasty a departure as we could. That was an experience.
We ended our day at the Red Goat Lodge and RV Park. Sounds like a great place. Wouldn’t you agree? I am certain this place will never get a AAA rating. They advertised free WiFi and we needed a connection. They also advertised that it was a resort. Well, there was free WiFi, but you had to sit on the owner’s porch to get a signal. That was not comfortable especially since there was nowhere to plug in and the sun was so bright I could hardly see what was on the screen. We were one of two people in the park. The other was a single guy in a tent. The park was on a huge lake, but other than the mountains on the other side of the lake there wasn’t much to look at. There were several llamas wandering around the park. That would have been okay except one very active one had a cow bell around her neck. We knew when she was on the move and where she was at all times. It was a lovely place. And then there was the dog who started barking at 2am and continued until 3:30.
The next day we drove the remaining portion of the Cassiar Highway to a place on the Alaska Highway called Junction 37. The last ten miles of the Cassiar Highway represented some of the worst driving conditions we had seen to date. I was down to five to ten miles per hour for most of the stretch. By the time we got to the junction I was exhausted. We stopped at the first campground we came to, which appropriately enough is called Junction 37 Motel and Campground. The only things better about this place over the previous place were the lack of llamas wandering through the park and the fact that we were that much further up the road. We were the only people in this park on that night. Just up the road about a half mile was a newer place that boasted a restaurant and gift shop. We decided to go there for dinner to sort of wind down. That was a very pleasant experience. We ate on the patio and really had a wonderful time talking to our waitress, the daughter of the owners. We bought a six-pack of the most expensive beer I have ever purchased, but it was worth it, just to recover from the drive.
I need to comment about the weather. We had been really lucky as, until we left Hyder, we had not even seen a cloud in the sky since getting to Canada. We knew this could not last, but we were not complaining. At 1:48 on June 8, our luck ran out and we got our first rain of the trip. It rained hard, so I simply pulled over into the next scenic view turnout and let it rain. We are not in a hurry and the roads are bad enough that you have to watch for pot holes and frost heaves very carefully or you could damage your vehicle. So, with the reduced visibility brought on by a heavy rainstorm, I felt the most prudent thing to do was just stop. We were not the only ones who had made that decision. There was another rig in the same turnout as us. We left some five minutes after he did to give us plenty of room between us.
June 9 was a relatively long drive day for us. We covered a little over 250 miles, which is significant given the roads. Although the roads were good at the start of the day, we encountered some bad roads and several patches of construction. One construction site was long with a gravel surface that the crew was keeping very wet to minimize the dust. Driving at 35 to 45 miles per hour I still managed to get a tightly adhering sandy mud from the wheels to the tops of the compartment doors. The car was just completely covered in the stuff. Our stop for the day was Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. We stayed in a park just outside of town that advertised free WiFi throughout the park. It was free, but it didn’t work well. I found that getting on line at 4 AM worked fine, but after dinner was a disaster. We had planned two nights in Whitehorse to give Connie an opportunity to get her hair done. That was a wise decision for a lot of reasons, not the least being I was getting tired of the daily drives. Once we got settled in the park we went into town and found a place for Connie to get her permanent renewed and she made an appointment for the following day. We then found a great little restaurant that celebrates the gold rush days. The food was really good, but the stuff hanging on the walls and from the ceiling made the place.
The next day I took Connie in for her hair appointment and then I went around town taking photos of some of the murals that adorn many of the buildings. When I thought I was done I headed to Starbucks with my computer hoping to get caught up on a few things. Well, the internet, cell service, all ATM’s and the ability to process a credit card electronically were all down throughout town. It was a mess. In fact, I had to go to a bank and exchange money the old fashioned way in order to pay for Connie’s hair. Anyway, since I couldn’t use the internet I processed photos so that when I did get a good connection I could move photos to my web album without delay.
The next morning we fueled and got out of town between rain showers. We had run into our Oregon friends at the same park in Whitehorse and I was going to try to get underway with them, but as they were pulling out I was just washing my windows and we still had to bring in all services and slides. Needless to say we did not travel with them. The drive was horrible. It seemed that we just bounced along from one frost heave to another interspersed with construction sites that included delays. We drove through something like four rain showers. It was slow going and we had a long way to go. By day’s end we had traveled 306 miles in eight and a half hours. The view was to die for when I could see it. We ended our drive at Border City, Alaska. This is really not a town, it is a fuel station, gift shop, café, campground and quarters for the US Customs Agents who work a few miles back down the road at the border crossing. Before the evening was done the place was nearly full. Of course we found our Oregon friends there as well. After a quick and light dinner Connie and I walked down to visit with Joe and Beverly. We had a nice little chat and really started to get to know them better. They and their coach remind us very much of our friends Chip and Gidget whom we have shared so much with since we camp hosted with them two summers ago.
Now that we are in Alaska, I will stop for now. Be sure to look at the photo album that is linked to this article. Just click on the photo below and it will take you to my web album. You will probably want to slow the slide show from the default speed to give you time to read the captions. I hope you enjoy the memories.
There are some great adventures yet to come, so stay tuned.
|Arriving in Alaska