A Night Of Terror In The Yukon
On August 23, Day 12 of my big road trip, I pulled over on the Alaskan Hwy. (Alcan) by the Toad River and made camp for the evening. Each day, I stopped and ate at a roadside lodge, few and far between virtually nothing. That morning I had eaten breakfast, my favorite meal, at Big Mountaintop Lodge on the Alcan. The place was bustling with road construction crew people, about 70, I would estimate.
I secretly applauded myself for skipping the biscuits and gravy, but no applause because I ended breakfast with a giant pancake slathered with true Canadian maple syrup.
On a typical morning, just as I do at home, I would awaken around 5 a.m. and by 5:30 a.m. I would be sipping a large cup of coffee with two Folger coffee bags – easy!
Then I would travel at the first hint of dawn after 6 a.m. for two-four hours until I came to a lodge for a meal. None of them were cheap, but I was on vacation and had decided to eat my own cooking on this trip only if necessary.
I had a box of snacks, filled with gradually decreasing numbers of oranges, apples, Famous Amos cookies, trail mix with extra M&Ms, chips, peanut butter and crackers and some delicious complementary venison jerky from my friends in Marysville, Montana. In my fridge, I had a few beers, bottles of water and some smoked turkey for sandwiches.
The next night, I camped on the south bank of the Liard River; a huge river that begins in the Yukon, flows thru northern British Columbia and then into the Northwest Territory before it joins an even larger river, the Mackenzie, which then flows North to the Arctic and the Beaufort Sea.
Now when I say camp, what I mean is this: I pull off the road and try to find a secluded spot. So far, campfires had not been allowed either in the US west, or anywhere in Canada. I read a book or look at my maps for a few minutes until I feel sleep overcoming me and then turn off the lamp over my day bed in the middle part of the van. I then crawl into my down sleeping bag and – blissful sleep.
I will usually awaken at least once in the night to take care of business and then will again retreat to the safety of my steel-sided 25-ft. long Freightliner van. On this trip, the van was fairly crowded. Right behind the fridge and my bed rested my 10’ long Kubota X500 side-by-side with the ramps and fishing gear stowed underneath it.
After waking up the next morning and having my usual morning coffee, I drove the van across the high suspension bridge over the Liard River into Liard River Hot Springs Park.
It was 6:40 a.m. and the park wasn’t officially open. Good – no $20-day pass fee! I parked and retrieved a towel and took off for the trail.
This day would encompass my longest walk of the year. In March, I walked along a boardwalk next to Manatee Spring in western Florida. That entailed a 1-1/2 mile round trip to see if the Manatee were basking in the warm spring branch next to the cooler Suwanee River, about 6-7 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico.
Luckily, the Manatee were there and my aching arthritic knees forgave me. But today was to be a round trip 2½ mile hike across a boardwalk over a warm water marshy area, a mile longer! I had been here in 1995 and again in ’99 when my knees were much younger and of course, I paid no attention to any forced mileage. But not today. It’s funny but most of us just assume that we will always possess good joints and excellent health until the Good Lord directs us to another destination.
Oh, how naive my own thoughts about my future health have been, I mused.
I remember Judge Quentin Haden telling me more than once, “Roger, it’s not that I would have probably changed anything about my life –– I just didn’t know that I was going to live this darned long.” (age 80)
I knew this would be a big deal for me, my tired knees and my walking stick.
I started off and after about halfway, maybe 15-20 minutes, I was having doubts. Mercilessly, the park had provided a bench on the side of the boardwalk and I took advantage of this pull-off for at least ten minutes. After a while, I kept hearing sounds in the fog-shrouded wet forest. Could this be my first bear sighting of the trip? I sat still and tried not to breathe heavily and then, not a bear but a moose cow and her young calf appeared only 20-ft. from my vantage spot.
I could tell the calf was nervous having immediately spotted me on the bench. And I could almost hear her mother say, “Don’t worry He’s just a human. They cannot hunt for us in the park and moose season doesn’t open until Saturday morning anyway.”
They soon slowly wondered off and I resumed my journey to the magical, Shangri-La-like Liard River Hot Springs with a temperature of 103.5º (hot!). At least that is what most of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers reference. Except for the seven soldiers who lost their lives building it in 1942, the longest suspension bridge in all of Canada, sits over the Liard River.
Ah, sweet agony. I made it. The water was clear, bubbling and hot, and felt wonderful. I had been four days without a shower or bath, but this glorious spring branch made up for my lack of cleanliness.
Now people were arriving. I met some young people from Michigan on their way to Alaska for their first time. Then, I met an older couple from Denmark, and an Iranian and his children who had immigrated to British Columbia 15 years earlier.
This is just a very rough estimate but here’s the population breakdown for British Columbia, Canada, by far the most socialistic province: Caucasian – 25%; First Nation Indians – 35%, some mixed blood; and then, those who have immigrated into B.C. largely Asians, Filipinos, Sikhs and middle eastern Muslims from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan, etc., likely approaching 40%. Just an educated guess.
After spending 90 minutes sitting around the beautiful hot springs, I made the trip back on the boardwalk, again stopping at the mid-way bench. But this time there was just the misty fog beginning to lift off of the marsh-covered forest floor. No moose.
By now it was getting close to 11a.m. as I got back to the gravel parking lot. I drove less than one mile north and stopped at Hot Springs Lodge. The lady in charge explained the rooms were full; I told her my room was parked out front, but I would sure like some breakfast.
She informed me breakfast was over at 10 a.m. but she would gladly make an exception for me, being the only customer in the small restaurant. She started on my bacon, three eggs and rye toast, along with one large pancake and more steaming coffee –– all served by her beautiful Native daughter-in-law Elaina, for $11.00. The food was great, or maybe I was just really hungry.
And the conversation with sweet Elaina was noteworthy. During the summer, I learned she helped out at the resort for probably tips. And during the school year, she was employed by the Fort Nelson School District as an Indian liaison aide at a school here where her seven-year old son attended.
And, for this remote part of B.C, the price was great. Remember subtract 25% for the difference in Canadian monetary value. At this time, the Canadian “loony” dollar was only worth 75% of the Yankee greenback.
Even though I wanted to dally, this was a big day in my travels. My next stop was to involve a short, but rocky 1/8-mile hike to overlook Liard River Canyon with its monstrous rapids. Even though in years past I had driven by this spot on three previous occasions, I had never stopped here, for some unknown reason. I met some fellow U.S. southbound travelers from Oregon at the overlook, and we all took photos and video with our cellphones.
Unfortunately, later, viewing of these videos proved disappointing. Being 300-feet up and still an 1/8th of a mile distant, even the roar of the mile-long rapids didn’t resonate very well. It did NOT give the Liard River Canyon Rapids proper due.
After eating my last orange, I got back in the van and headed for Watson Lake, Yukon, and its famous “Signpost Village.” Established by Army Corp of Engineer troops constructing the Alcan in 1942, homesick soldiers put up a sign that said: “Danbury, Ill – 3300 miles, New York – 4100 miles, San Francisco – 2700 miles, Tokyo Japan – 4000 miles, etc.” (these mileages are estimated in my own brain).
This original now famous sign rests between another 27,000 road signs and license plates added by Alcan roadies during the last 70 years.
And yes, near the rear of the “Village” sat an old dilapidated sign that someone in our family added in 1999, reading MARK TWAIN NATIONAL FOREST––NO ADMITTANCE. Although the burnt yellow lettering was faded, you could still read the sign, barely. Wistfully I thought to myself, I will probably never lay eyes on this sign again. But I have also learned long ago to never say ‘never.’
It was 4 p.m., I needed diesel fuel (about 4.90/gal. US price) and of course it was now raining lightly.
At Watson Lake, Yukon Territory I was now at the northern apex of my journey and about 3,900 miles from my front door, at least by my circuitous route. In 455 miles, Hwy. #37, the Cassiar-Stewart Highway), junctures with Canada’s Yellowhead Hwy. (Route 16) to the south at the Indian Village of Kitiwanga on the Skeena River.
But I was headed south for Dease Lake, about halfway down the highway to the Telegraph Creek cutoff, a 69-mile dirt road.
Inside the gas station, I learned troubling news. Because of all the forest fires during August in B.C. and the Yukon, Hwy. #55 had been closed and the small village of Telegraph Creek had been evacuated. Also, a number of outlying homes surrounding the historic Indian village had burned.
This was truly bad news. I had no cellphone service, no E-mail, and no way of getting in touch with Chief Mike at Telegraph Creek.
On Sunday morning, we had arranged for him, depending on water levels, to give me the thrilling motor boat ride of my life, a two to four-mile jet boat excursion up into the lower reaches of Canada’s greatest canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. And now, not only was this event not going to happen, I had no way of getting a hold of the Chief.
As I drove south down the highway, rain came down harder. This was good news. Maybe the fires would be under control and the road to Telegraph Creek might be open by late tomorrow.
Twenty miles south of Watson Lake, forest fires were still burning gently on both sides of the highway paying little attention to a light but steady rainfall. There were pockets of flames around 6-7 feet high in some places. This was cause for greater alarm because at the highway entrance stood a new sign that said: “Forest Fires Ahead. Proceed with CAUTION and at your own risk”.
I had stopped at the entrance to the Cassiar and pondered the meaning of this warning sign posted at a lonely intersection in the middle of nowhere. Of course, the nearest detour would involve an additional 700 miles of hard travel back over a lot of the same Alcan miles.
Soon a couple of 30-wheelers turned off of the Alcan onto the southbound Cassiar. I guess I figured if one idiot was going to risk it, all of us, including yours truly, would follow blindly along in diminished light and thick hazy smoke.
After another 20 miles, the roadside fires had disappeared, and my spirits lifted.
I pulled into an “official” rest area with a bathroom/latrine and about 10 other RVs and a couple of 30-wheelers with their diesel motors running.
Too crowded and too noisy. I got back on the Cassiar and headed south for another pull-out with a litter barrel. I found a beautiful roadside pull-out after about 10 miles. This place was 120-ft. wide, away from the highway. And on the east side of the pullout was picturesque Aeroplane Lake. I believed this spot might possibly give me some shelter from the nearby forest fires if they suddenly flared up overnight.
I grabbed my camp stool and ate my last two pieces of smoked turkey and a couple of pickles on my last piece of bread as I gazed up at the mountains through thick smoky smog.
My half sandwich tasted great along with a Molson Canadian battle of ale, as the sun began to set over the always present Coastal Range Mtns. to the west.
Soon bees, flies, and mosquitos learned of my presence and I retreated inside to the safety of the van for the evening.
No bears yet! What the heck was going on? Oh well, I had other things to worry me tonight besides bears. Raging forest fires that were gobbling up thousands of acres, and they seemingly had not been scared off by a little rain.
I knew I was fairly close, a mile or two, to an Indian Village, Camp Good Hope, which is situated next to the lake.
Just before sunset, a small station wagon pulled into the pull-out and deposited a bag of litter into the bear-proof trash barrel.
In my mind, I felt that this 28-32 year-old man made eye contact with me longer than necessary, but I gave it no real thought. I had realized a full day of old- age hiking and knew that I would not have to read tonight for sleep was almost upon me.
Note: In both 2017 and 2018, British Columbia and the Yukon were ravaged by huge forest fires that basically started from lightning strikes that July and August. By October 1, the fires are almost always dampened or put out by an early snowfall.
You can literally drive for 180 miles on the Cassiar-Stewart Yukon highway without seeing a homestead. It is a lonely, empty space in North America, and truly beautiful in its spectacular solitude. The great northern expansion of the Canadian Rockies lie to your east, and the ragged, glaciated Coastal Range lie to your west. And for added measure, the aspens and birches were starting to turn on their fabulous autumn colors of orange and yellow.
And as a note of reference, I had been forced to listen to the CBC official radio channels during my northern travels as no other channels are available, and even then, those available often came in with scratchy background noise.
Now Canadians are not like their big sister in Europe or at all like their squabbling cousins south of the border. No, they believe that if you are going to disagree with someone’s ideas, that you should do it in an agreeable and civil manner. Oh what a novel thought!
For several days I had been force fed Canadian talk radio and one of the more contentious ideas was being promulgated by the First Nation Peoples. They were asking for both national and provincial re-compensation. Their theory was the native people were owed this large sum of reparations because they had been colonized by the “whites” without their consent.
Oh, I know. We don’t want to get started on this issue, do we? And we certainly don’t want to discuss the various Indian treaties that we have broken with our own native peoples, or how we mistreated them, do we?
Now, get up and go enjoy our beautiful Ozarks outdoors!