Road Trip 2019, Part 2, Chapter 2: Points North; The Long Way Home

Day 7, Fathers Day: Prince George, BC.  We are up early, the first in the breakfast room at the hotel, then pack out and head for the Hart Highway, BC 97 North. We stop at Sav-On for more groceries and Starbucks for our morning coffee. Heading north, we stop for fuel before leaving the Prince George metro area, then cruise the long empty road north. We stop at Mackenzie Junction for a lunch of convenience store fare: muffins, bottled Frappaccinos, potato chips, and yogurt from our grocery stop. I am stuffed, and have used up most of my daily calorie allowance in one take.

Raven, MacKenzie Junction, BC

After Mackenzie Junction, we pass the roadside notice: “Check Fuel, no service for 148 km.” We’re still good, and press on over Pine Pass in some of the most spectacular mountain scenery this trip, through the foothills to Chetwynd, festooned from end to end with fantastical and whimsical chainsaw carvings, the fruit of many years of contests. We stop for photos at Carver’s Row, then off to Tim Hortons. I get a cappuccino, Judy gets a pastry, and we use the WiFi to phone ahead for directions to our hosts, Janet and Dwight. We make the turnoff, but overshoot the driveway, doubling back just as they prepare to drive out to intercept us at the highway.

Janet and Judy, on the corduroy road to the cabin.

Janet and Dwight recently sold a B&B south of Dawson Creek and have moved into their weekend cabin off the grid west of Dawson Creek. But, they have built a utility shed near the road and brought in power, so we have power for our refrigerator and phone recharging. There isn’t any level place to park, but we do the best we can and put up with a slightly tilted bed. Their main cabin is deep in the woods, cozy, but has only solar power. No well, so they truck in water and ration it. We’ve done worse, at our former cabin in Montana, so we’re in luxury compared to that.

Rail trestle at Pouce Coupe, BC

Day 8: We explore Dawson Creek, taking in the visitor center, where we collect lots of maps we should have already had, and get some ideas of what to see in the area. The local art gallery is first, with an excellent pottery display from the local potters guild, and a historical photo display of the Alaskan Highway construction in 1942 by the U.S. Army (with coöperation from Canada) to deliver war supplies to Alaska by land. We’re interested in several bridges: the first is a railroad bridge south of town, in the village of Pouce Coupe, [Poose KooPAY] which we eventually find and venture out on part way: it’s perfectly safe, as railroad trestles go, but the gaps between the ties are unnerving, so we don’t cross.

Kiskatinaw Bridge, looking back toward Dawson Creek.

The second bridge to explore is the Kiskatinaw Bridge, on the old Alaska Highway, the last wooden bridge to survive from the 1942 wartime construction of a land supply route to Alaska. It’s curved, as many wooden bridges are, to add stability. The deck and trestles are still sound, but the timber curbs along the inside edge are worse for wear, possibly from vehicles sliding into them in icy conditions, and partly from dry rot. We park in the turnout at the near end of the bridge and walk across. Local traffic zooms across like any normal modern bridge, but we don’t.

Alaska Highway Mile 0, Dawson Creek, BC. BC 97 now follows the route of the original Alaska Highway.

Turning around, we head back toward Dawson Creek, with heavy weather looming to the west. We turn off the highway into the downtown to photograph the “Mile 0” post in the center of town, top off the fuel, and head back west to continue our visit. We retire to our van fairly early: our hosts have been busy working on the buildings. The rain starts as we settle in.

Day 9: We’re on the eastern edge of the Pacific Time Zone, so it’s light out at 4:30 am. Camping in our host’s large rural compound means we don’t close the curtains, so we’re up before 5:00. We had tentatively planned to visit a dinosaur site to the south, but decided $50 worth of fuel and most of the day to look at dinosaur footprints wasn’t worth it. We elect to move on, then, and explore a bit more of Alberta instead.

We pack for travel and the four of us head into town for breakfast. Surprisingly, the fast food franchises in Canada offer plant-based sausage alternatives with the egg and muffin (no, it isn’t that franchise, the one with the clown, but one we don’t see often anymore in the U.S.–A&W) A statistic I read the other day says that 10% of Canadians are vegetarian, so it now isn’t surprising to see vegetarian options at most eating establishments, unlike the U.S., where many people view not eating meat as unpatriotic and unwholesome, or just plain weird.

Beaverlodge, Alberta

Too soon, we part ways, heading toward Alberta, where we stop for a photo-op with a giant beaver statue at Beaverlodge, then off the freeway for a hike through Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, which hasn’t been an island for almost 100 years. We have decided to check out Grande Prairie, the largest city on our route: the Rotary has a campground near a bike trail. We check in to the campground shortly after noon to make sure we get a good site, then head downtown for lunch at a Pita Pit, which one can find in almost any Canadian city of reasonable size. Like our penchant for stopping at Starbucks when we travel, we know what’s on the menu and we don’t have to guess if they will have food we are willing to eat.

After lunch, we take in the historical museum, including pioneer buildings collected to save them from the ravages of time, decorated with the trappings of everyday life of the period. We also track down the pioneer hospital museum. Surprisingly, the first hospital in Grande Prairie opened in 1911, in a log cabin, with six beds in a tiny cabin, later expanded into a large log home after a proper hospital was built. The new house was still log, but covered with ship-lap siding and plastered inside so it looks like a “modern” stick-built house, a treatment that was fairly common in the early 20th century as log homes became associated with primitive living and hardship.

We had considered taking time this afternoon to ride the bike trail, but the 40-km/hr winds that had buffeted us since leaving Dawson Creek and continued full strength for the rest of the afternoon discouraged us, so we settle into our campsite: tomorrow promises calm, but cool weather, ideal for us for a long-overdue bike ride.

Grande Prairie Regional College, across the Bear Creek Reservoir, at the upper end of the bike trail along the creek through the city, and across the bridge from the campground we stayed at.

Day 10 dawns overcast and cool, but the wind has subsided, so we dress in our cycling kits, break camp for breakfast at Starbucks, and park at the museum we visited yesterday: the bike trail runs in front of the museum. We could have ridden from camp, but we didn’t want to be rushed to make it back by check-out time. This turns out to be a good choice: we do a warm-up loop around the reservoir, where the campground is the highest point, then head down the creek under the main highway and westbound rail bridges, across the creek, then up and down, climbing high above the creek bed, then crossing and climbing up to the city streets. We decide to make a loop instead of retracing the up and down route through the canyon, following a bike path toward the downtown, then on less-busy streets through the city center, around the provincial government complex, and back into the park north of where we parked.

A bridge over Bear Creek on the Bear Creek Trail, Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Back to Starbucks for lunch: there are other places to eat, but we know the menu and they have electrical outlets for computers and decent WiFi, so that’s where we end up often on these road trips. After lunch, we top off the fuel tank, restock our tiny 12-volt refrigerator at Sav-On and head south on Route 40, 173 km of no services. We pass many natural gas wellheads and drive through several large road construction projects, where passing lanes are being built on this lonely highway that rolls up and down across the Rocky Mountain foothills. Dark clouds gather, and we drive through a few rain squalls. Snow-capped ridges and peaks appear ahead through breaks in the clouds.

Grande Cache, a coal mining and timber town on the Big Horn Highway. Alberta, 150 km from the next nearest town.

As the GPS counts down, we pass a coal mine, an industrial facility on the banks of the Smoky River. The hillsides above the highway are deeply terraced, with nearly vertical coal veins sprinkled across the gouges in the mountain. The road crosses the river and climbs steeply into the town of Grande Cache, the only settlement in the middle of this 325-km-long stretch of highway. We stop, check out the municipal campground, which is gravel, with a long walk uphill to the washrooms, and the WiFi winks out as we approach the nearest available site. The weather report predicts several days of continuous heavy rain. Unpaved roads in Canada tend to turn to gumbo in rainy weather. We walk back to the office, thank them for their time, and drive back over the hill to the information center, where we check motel prices on their WiFi and settle for one of the more inexpensive ones with good ratings.

We  find we have a kitchenette unit, so we cook dinner from our food stores and have plenty of room to spread out our electronics for work and recharging. We plan the road ahead: The weather forecast calls for extended rain all across the northern Rockies, so we plot a course to take us far enough into British Columbia to the south to drive through the worst of it, farther than we intended, but sight-seeing in Jasper National Park in heavy rain and cloud doesn’t seem a good plan.

Day 11 sees us off toward Jasper. Less than 20 km from Grande Cache, the rain turns to snow. Southbound traffic is far enough ahead of us that the tracks are faint, but we follow them as best we can. The snow gets heavier as we go, but tapers off about 30 km from the junction with Highway 16.

The run into Jasper is uneventful, slow at times because of road construction. Highway 16 runs through the National Park, but bypass is permitted without an entrance fee as long as one does not leave the highway. We do, at Jasper, for coffee and fuel, but are immediately stopped by a slowly-moving passing train. Trains in Canada are often several kilometers long, and this is no exception. After the long wait, we fail to find a parking spot near the Tim Hortons, so just top off the tank at Esso and move on.

Before we get too far, there is more road construction, and another delay, with a one-lane temporary bridge slowing traffic. The rain continues into British Columbia. We pass Mt. Robson, the highest point in British Columbia, but can only see the lower half of the mountain. We turn off onto BC 5, headed south. At the first town, Valemount, we spot a sign for espresso, so venture into the town and find The Gathering Place, which has good espresso and irresistible desserts.

Down the highway, we brake for a young bear ambling across the highway right in front of us. We intended to stop at Clearwater and camp, but it’s only 3:30 and Kamloops is an hour and a half away, so we make reservations at a hotel and continue on, through intermittent light rain, following the  North ForkThompson River into the city. Kamloops is a large city in central BC, with major industries including paper, plywood, and copper. Its central location also makes it a favorite for regional sporting events and academic institutions.

We check in, then walk up the street to the nearby Coast Hotel, which has an attached sports bar, Romero’s. We select a couple of vegetarian appetizers to share, a dark beer on tap, and top off with crème brûlée for dessert, skipping a main dish. It’s been a long day, and a wearing one driving in snow, slush, and rain. We’d intended to spend a bit more time around Jasper National Park, but the rain hid the mountains and, with the solstice coming up tomorrow, the summer tourist season is well underway, snow or no snow, rain or not, and we’re not comfortable around crowds, preferring to explore off the beaten track.

Day 12: We shoulder through the tour bus crowds at the hotel breakfast bar, stop after breakfast for coffee at a nearby Starbucks, and head for the Coquihalla Highway south. The truck has been running rough at idle and difficult to handle in city driving, so we’re glad to be out of the city. Kamloops is exploding up the steep hills to the south, making for crazy navigation between commercial centers terraced between residential housing.

Our relief is short-lived, however. As we climb up into the mountains in the empty wilderness, the “Check Engine” light comes on. The truck is running smoothly at highway speed, but the lack of any services for 115 km ahead and the few U-turn exits on this speedway between the widely-spaced cities gives cause for concern. A bit more than an hour later, we drop down to the junction city of Merritt, low on fuel and running rough. At the fuel stop, I notice the vehicle next to us has an auto parts logo, so I ask the driver about repair shops. He sends me next door to his shop, which, unlike the Napa parts stores in the U.S., is a repair shop. They’re busy, but refer me to a tire store on a back street that does repairs. After an hour’s wait, they hook it up to the analyzer and deliver the report: an EGR (Exhaust Gas Recycler) sensor alarm. Not an immediate emergency, but the engine will run rough at idle and dump too much nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. We elect to move on, as the repairs would mean removing the engine cover inside the passenger compartment and maybe delay us the rest of the day.

The warning light stays off as we climb up the next series of mountain passes and stop for lunch at the only roadside rest area on the route. At last, we reach the Coquihalla Summit and wind steeply down the mountain river valley to the flat alluvial plain of the Fraser River delta. We stop at Chilliwack, having planned an afternoon bike ride along the Fraser through the sloughs and farmland where it begins to spread between the mountains. It’s 3:00pm, late in the day for us to ride, but we’re determined.

Dyke along Fraser River, part of Canyon to Coast Trail, Chilliwack, BC

The route twists and turns through residential neighborhoods, then on farm roads and finally onto a dyke, designated a non-motorized trail, part of the Canyon to Coast Route. It’s gravel, but fairly hard packed, except for 2 or 3 kilometers in the middle, past the hops fields, where the gravel is looser. The view opens up as it runs along the river near the mouth of the canyon ahead, then drops us onto a paved road that used to run to the ferry landing where the BC 9 bridge stands today.

We turn around under the bridge and head back, into the wind that consistently blows up the flat valley from the Georgia Straits, 100 km away. We follow Camp River Road, a paved farm road and alternative part of the trail, along the Camp Slough, sheltered a bit by the cottonwood trees, but it’s a hard grind against the relentless wind. At last, we leave the farms and the smells that identify this one as dairy, that one, pigs, and the other one, chickens, before we even see the barns. The road becomes more residential, and has a shoulder, of sorts, that dodges around utility poles and trees. Then, we’re through neighborhoods we rode before and back to the park and our van, 31.5 km (19.5 miles), a flat ride, but hard work after a tense day traversing the mountains in a cranky old truck.

We retrace our route back to the freeway and a short 20-minute drive to our hotel, hot, tired, and ravenously hungry. We throw our bags in the room and head for the on-premises restaurant, still in our cycling clothing. By the time we’re settled in and showered, it’s late, and we collapse into bed. Tomorrow, we head across the border toward home. Summer has come at last, and the roads, campgrounds, and hotels are filling with tourists, making travel less than idyllic. Time to be home.

Day 13: We’re up early. No complimentary breakfast in this old but upgraded motel, since there is a restaurant on the property, so we make do with microwave: reheated leftovers from dinner and instant oatmeal. We’re less than 5 km from the U.S. border, so getting there doesn’t take long, but the lane we’re in is slow: there’s only one checkpoint, while the other lane fans out to four. The Check Engine light comes on again as we creep forward over the next hour. Unlike the Canadian crossing, where the border agents are mainly concerned with your destination, whether you intend to leave anything in Canada, and whether you have weapons, the U.S. border agents want to know how long you were there, where you went, and why, and what you brought back. It always seems they aren’t happy we left the country and even less happy that we came back.

Docking at Kingston, aboard MV Puyallup.

Once across the border, we continue south on WA Highway 9 instead of following the GPS route to Bellingham, stopping in Sedro Wooley for coffee and a pastry. At Arlington, we finally turn on the GPS and join the I-5 freeway flow to the Edmonds – Kingston ferry, where we wait through two sailings before we end up the first car on the next sailing, which makes the drive to Poulsbo relatively painless, at the front of the ferry traffic from Kingston. The rest of the trip is just a long jaunt down WA Highway 3 to Shelton and home, where we quickly unload and put things away, to settle in for the rest of the summer.