Don's Trip to the Far North - Part Four(December 17, 2010)
It had been a memorable trip and I was ready to head home. I knew I had some great photographs and was anxious to get to work on producing the panoramas. But the weather was perfect and I was still a long, long way from California.
As it turned out the best was yet to come.
I turned off the Alcan onto the Cassiar Highway, heading south for the first time since Valdez. The fires that had prevented me from using this route northbound were still smoldering. When I first drove the Cassiar (BC Highway 37) almost twenty years ago, none of it was paved - now all of it is.
There are a number of lakes along the northern half of the Cassiar Highway that have white clay beaches and shallows, producing startling shades of blues and greens.On the floating dock at Boya Lake
Early afternoon I stopped at the Rabid Grizzly Rest Stop -- does that sound restful? As I walked along the beach on Dease Lake I realized that I was following some very large cloven hoof prints - moose.Fall colors around huge Dease Lake
I faced a difficult decision at Dease Lake -- whether or not to make the 70 mile (one way) side trip down the Stikine River to Telegraph Creek. The weather seemed to be changing and eventually I decided that the side trip to Stewart/Hyder was more important photographically.
Telegraph Creek is the epitome of a middle-of-nowhere village, miraculously preserved and partly restored. I first went there in 1996, stayed at the Riversong Inn, and met owner Dan Pakula and some of his family. I returned in 2000 with seven students (including Kat and Landis Bennett, well known in the VR photography community), and saw Dan again. We have kept in intermmitent contact via e-mail ever since.
That evening the campground host at Kinaskan Lake gave me the tragic news that Dan Pakula had died a few weeks earlier in a freak accident. A huge loss to his community, and to his many far-flung friends.
A cold wonderfully clear morning for a beautiful drive south through near wilderness on the Cassiar Highway. At Meziadin Lake I turned west on the Glacier Highway, cutting across the Coast Mountains to the twin towns of Stewart, BC and Hyder, Alaska. This is a highly scenic route, with a dozen glaciers spilling off mountain tops high above the road.The Bear Glacier from the Glacier Highway
At the summit the Bear Glacier comes right down to road level. It used to cross the valley and the original road was built 200 feet higher to get past it. But, like most glaciers, it is shrinking. There is a lake between the glacier and the highway, and the last time I was there it was calving icebergs into the lake. But now it doesn't even quite touch the water.
Stewart is a charming little town, determinedly normal. Hyder goes out of its way to be wild and wooly, frontier style. The international border is right at the first building on Hyder's main street, but there is no US border check. On the way back, there is a Canadian customs station and they make you stop and answer a few questions. The first of which is the standard "where are you coming from?", which is hilarious since the road into Alaska leads right back into BC then dead-ends.
There are two big reasons to go to Stewart-Hyder, other than for the historic towns and their dramatic setting on a fiord between high peaks capped with glaciers. First, there is Fish Creek, a prime area for viewing bears catching spawning salmon. Unfortunately the salmon season was almost over and I saw no bears there. The other is the Salmon Glacier.Fish Creek bear-watching platform - no bears
I headed up the Granduc Mine Road, which follows the Salmon River then climbs past both old and active mines. It climbs steadily up the canyon wall and soon the glacier comes into sight. I was first here in 1996, and I think the tip of the glacier has moved back as much as half a mile since then, referring to my old pictures.The terminus of the Salmon Glacier
This is a classic river of ice, flowing miles down the deep U-shaped valley. Eventually the road reaches a summit and you can see that the glacier comes down from an ice-field surrounded by high peaks then splits.High above the Salmon Glacier south branch
The northern fork of the glacier runs a short distance then degenerates into a chaos of jumbled chunks of ice. This is where, early each year, water coming from snowfall and the melting glacier pools up to form Summit Lake. For the last few decades the lake has broken through the ice barrier each summer and emptied under the south branch of the glacier down into the Salmon River in an event known as a glacial outburst flood, or by the Icelandic term "jökulhlaup". This accounts for the flood-ravaged appearance of the riverbed downstream. The road continues a few miles past the summit to the actual Granduc mine and former town site.The empty bed of Summit Lake
The Salmon Glacier in good weather is overwhelming in its beauty and scenic grandeur. On my first visit many years ago it was raining and I turned back too soon. The next time the road was blocked by snow and we were only able to get as far as the tip of the glacier. On my third try the clouds came down and I could see nothing beyond the road shoulder. So I was ecstatic to see and photograph it, finally, under optimal conditions.The immense central part of the Salmon Glacier
But just when I was counting my experience complete and the trip an unqualified success, I had an unexpected adventure.
I had been jumping out of the van and taking panoramas from the road shoulder periodically all the way up from Hyder. I was just about to stop and get out again when a grizzly bear appeared in the road ahead of me.
I fumbled for my camera as the bear paused and looked at me. He reared up to get a better look over the willow bushes and I got a picture.Grizzly bear rearing up to look at me
He was over seven feet tall standing up like that. He was certainly bigger than me, but my van was bigger than him, and he decided to move away. He continued to move parallel to the road, and I got a great picture of him with the glacier behind.My grizzly bear and the Salmon Glacier
Then the bear crossed the road and went uphill out of sight. Two motorcyclists came up behind me - I flagged them down and warned them. They went slowly around the corner, saw the bear, made rapid U-turns in a spray of gravel and roared off. I don't know if a grizzly would run down a motorcycle, but it might (they can catch a moose).
I rolled slowly down the road and saw the grizzly again. He was back on the road and now he came up behind and circled around the van, checking me out again. Probably just curious, or maybe he was wondering how he could open it up and eat me. I got a photo of him in my rear-view mirror.The bear checks me out more closely
The bear apparently decided I wasn't really of interest and climbed up above the road and disappeared.The bear moves on
Back up at the summit viewpoint I took three panoramas and chatted with a Moldovian-Canadian traveler for a while before heading back to Hyder. I had dinner in Stewart then camped in their municipal campground at Rainey Creek. It had been a memorable day!
I kept thinking about how perfect my encounter with the great bear had been - not dangerous or harmful to either of us. I got a good look at him and some great photos.
But it could have been different. If I had been on foot instead of in my van I would have been well within the danger zone (less than one hundred feet). I would likely have been charged and maybe mauled. In Hyder a few years ago a man was killed and eaten by a grizzly. I kept thinking of the claws I had seen on a stuffed grizzly in the visitor center in Glenallen a few days before.Grizzly claws
I took a few geographic documentation photos of Hyder and Stewart, then drove back over the pass to Meziadin Junction and south to the end of the Cassiar Highway.
The weather had deteriorated and it was dark and gloomy by the time I got down to the Skeena River. I took a few panos of the famous totem poles in the villages of Gitanyow (formerly Kitwancool) and Gitwangak (Kitwanga).Totem pole at Gitanyow
I camped that night on Ferry island in the Skeena River in the town of Terrace. After so many weeks in the boreal forest, taiga, and tundra of the North the lush forest of tall cottonwoods felt almost tropical!Ferry Island Campground in Terrace
Despite discouraging forecasts, the next day was brilliantly clear with a relatively warm wind from the interior. I followed the mighty Skeena River all the way down to tidewater.
After a quick look at the fishing fleet at Port Edward I went up to the Northern Cannery, a National Historic Site of Canada. It consists not only of the cannery but the entire supporting town, all built on pilings over the water. I was upset to find that it was closed for the season.North Pacific Cannery - closed
But I went through the gate anyway and took a series of panos of the outside. The caretaker, named "Spider", showed up and offered to give me a tour. So I had my third one-on-one tour of the trip (Gold Dredge Number 4 and the Kennecott mill) and got panos in the net loft, cannery building, and on the rotting main dock.
I finished the day with a few panos in Prince Rupert, sunny and warm, looking really good. On two previous visits in bad weather I had thought it a very drab town. I bought a ticket for the Inside Passage ferry southbound on Wednesday and camped that night on the edge of Prince Rupert.Prince Rupert Harbor
On a long trip I need a down day once in a while, and I hadn't had one since Fairbanks. Despite the excellent weather I just couldn't motivate myself to go out and make strenuous photographic efforts. I checked into a motel, cleaned up, and started to catch up on my panos and blog.
This was a very long day. I lined up for the ferry at 5:30 am and we pulled out of Prince Rupert just as the sun came up. Then we steamed steadily south for fifteen hours.Ferries at Prince Rupert
I made this trip once before, northbound, on the ill-fated Queen of the North. The Queen ran into Gil Island just after midnight on March 22 of 2006, and sank in 1400 feet of very cold water. The new ferry, the Northern Expedition, is very modern, comfortable, and extremely safe. They made a point of that.
I booked a cabin, which was very nice, and ate three meals, each in a different restaurant. I kept running up on deck every hour or so to take photographs.
The scenery of the Inside Passage does't change very fast, and seems to go on forever. The Grenville Channel is dramatically narrow, long and straight, and takes four hours to steam through.
There are a few lighthouses, the old cannery village of Butedale, now and then a fishing boat, a fleeting view of the town of Bella Bella on Campbell Island.Glassy calm in the Grenville Channel
I had dinner in their very nice (and expensive) restaurant just at sunset. We finally docked at Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island at 10:30 pm. I drove half a mile to the first campground, parked, and went to bed. It rained all night.
I had a list of places on Vancouver Island that I wanted to visit, or revisit, and even considered a whale-watching excursion from Telegraph Cove. But the continuing rain discouraged me and I just kept driving, all the way down the island to Nanaimo, with only one stop.Rain all the way from Port Hardy to Nanaimo
At Nanaimo I caught another brand-new ferry back to the mainland, where I rolled in just in time to have dinner with my cousins and meet the newest member of the family, Georgia. I gave her a plush killer whale and tried to teach her to say "orca".
It was still gray and rainy so I headed south and ended up driving all day, to Kelso Washington.Raining at the Peace Arch border crossing
The next day was beautiful, clear right to the top of Mount Rainier, but it had been a long trip and I really wanted to get home, so I kept going.
Finally, at 10 pm, I was home in El Cerrito and the trip was over - 46 days, 9125 miles (12,000 km), 525 panoramas.