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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Day 70 to 75: Stewart Cassiar Highway and Skeena Valley

All roads might lead to Rome, but only two lead in and out of the Yukon. Unfortunately, they both lead off from more or less the same place - Watson Lake. This meant that to join the Alaska Highway's less traveled counterpart for the return journey south - the Stewart Cassiar Highway - we had to backtrack a good 400 kilometers. In Yukon terms, this isn't very far. In Ruby and Carmella terms, this amounted to two day's travel. We made it from Carcross to Teslin on day one. On day two, we said good-bye to Yukon and hello (again) to Northern BC, making it to Boya Lake Provincial Campground about 100 kms down the Stewart Cassiar.

If our return to the Yukon Motel RV Park in Teslin had the reassuring feel of coming home (we did our laundry, ate a diner dinner amidst familiar faces, caught up on email...), our descent into Boya Lake felt like striking out on our own all over again. Suddenly we understood why, in comparing it to the Alaska Highway, they considered this highway to be "where the wild things are." Suddenly we were asking ourselves where, exactly, the 'highway' part of this whole equation was to be found.

Case in point... For about the first third of the Stewart Cassiar there are no lines on the road. You ride right down the middle of this narrow winding strip of asphalt - the better to see deer and bears and moose skipping out onto the road from the verges. You slide over to 'your' side only when you meet oncoming traffic, which is rare, or when somebody wants to overtake you (which in our case is less rare).

Still, no use exclaiming over the state (or for that matter, unspoken code) of this particular highway. Fact is, a good part of its 740 kms were gravel until recently, rendering it 'state of the art' on account of asphalt alone. As for what borders it, shimmering lakes flash between endless stretches of stark burnt forest on the most northerly section. In the middle, heavy lumbering operations contrast with panoramic views of canyons and gushing rivers. Towards the south, the same totem poles immortalized by Emily Carr in the early 20th Century continue to line the roads of unassuming First Nation villages, while in the distance, clusters of spectacular snow-capped mountains announce the end of the Stewart Cassiar and its merging with the pastoral Skeena Valley.

On our way south, we overnighted on the shores of beautiful Boya Lake in the most immaculate provincial park campground we have encountered to date. We were encouraged into the water by Catherine who hails from Hawkesbury but has lived for years in Vancouver...It was pretty fresh as water goes (!) but after a long day's drive, it was just what we needed to get the blood circulating and more importantly, the campfire lit. What a view too! We overdosed on sunset snaps.

Another long day of driving through terrain where even the restaurants looked like wildlife reserves got us as far as Meziadin Lake Provincial Park. The best aspect of this stopover was its proximity to the astounding and astonishingly undersold Bear Glacier and beyond that, the bizarre neighbouring villages of Stewart, BC and Hyder, Alaska. About 65 kms from Meziadin Lake, these latter sit at the end of one of those potentially frustrating one-way-in-one-way-out roads that, in the case of this one, was certainly scenic enough to merit a second look.

At Hyder - known as "the friendliest little ghost town in Alaska" - we watched people with cameras the size of Napoleonic canons bear-spotting from a platform above a salmon run. We even saw a bear! We bought fresh halibut and chips from a bus, and ate it in a shack adorned with photos of Robin Williams and Al Pacino and Hilary Swank making a film in Hyder a few years back (and of course, eating fish). Back in Stewart, we gazed wistfully through the window of The Toaster Museum (it had closed for the season) and bought a loaf of bread. (And they call Hyder the ghost town!) With so much to see and do, what choice did we have but to turn our stopover in Meziadin into a two-nighter.

Then it was onwards down the last leg of the Stewart Cassiar Highway - by this stage, almost looking like one - and onto the relatively busy eastbound Yellowhead Highway. Not far from the junction, we stayed at the K'san Campground and toured the K'san Heritage Village next door to it. In the nearby village of Old Hazleton we took in a paddleboat that once ferried passengers up and down the Skeena River and now houses an art gallery and cafe. Olympic wrestler Carol Huynh, who won gold at Beijing in 2008, was raised in the area. Old Hazleton was plastered with posters attesting to this fact, as well as wishing Carol luck in this summer's London games.

It was a short drive into Smithers the next day. We set up camp at the town's Riverside Municipal Campground and went exploring on our bikes. The evening was spent preparing the salon on 'the slow movement' that we would put on for a group of local women a couple of days later.

Though we had yet to meet our salon participants, we gained a good insight into how Smithers as a town, at least, was approaching the philosophy of 'slow' the next day when we stumbled into their inspirational Saturday morning local farmer's market. Rona chatted with some of those involved in organizing the market to get a better idea of how they understood the slow food/slow cities mantra of 'local, clean, fair and pleasurable.' We also met Luella who was selling folding cedar tables made by her husband - the care and craftsmanship that went into each of his creations proved too much for us, and we happily succumbed.

On an entirely different note, we stumbled that afternoon into nearby Telkwa's annual Demolition Derby...Let's just say that it was anything BUT 'slow.' A welcome respite from this big boy bumper car madness was our chat with Kim, who works at the Tyhee Lake Provincial Campground and has spun her 7 years of living amidst nature and interacting with the people who come out to the park to experience that nature into a philosophical reflection on life akin to that of Henry Thoreau in his book about Walden.

Kim's sister lives in Ste Dorothee, QC. We're hoping Kim will make it out to one of our Montreal-based salons next time she is visiting her.