Monday, November 23, 2009

The Cassiar Highway

I left Whitehorse on August 1st, a Saturday morning. I had been in Whitehorse for a week, and while it had been an overall enjoyable week, it had put me a good deal behind schedule. I had my ticket to Burning Man which started on September 1st, and I still wanted to make it to Death Valley and the Grand Canon before then. I had a lot of miles I needed to cover in between now and then: At least 8,000, by my best guess.

With that in mind, I headed south, back down the Alcan. It was clear, warm, with just a breeze and no traffic to speak of to interrupt the ride.

Only about 60 miles south (actually more east, but whatever) of Whitehorse, I started to see signs of why the road had been closed the previous day. Forest fires, off in the distance for now, but in the direction I needed to go.

This is what driving through that smoke looks like:

Very pleasant.

Midway through the day I stopped at a gas station/motel/restaurant type thing for munchies. It was your typical burgers 'n stuff place, but one of the menu options was some sort of bacon double cheeseburger thing. Well, I never wanted to live past the age of 40 anyway, so I took a gamble on it.

Holy dog balls, they weren't kidding when they called it a double.

How the fuck was I supposed to eat this thing!?

Seriously? I think I had to dislocate my jaw to get around it. I wish I could remember where I'd gotten this, but I neglected to take a picture or jot down any notes about the place. I did take advantage of their wi-fi to update my iPod of various podcasts though.

While I was trying to figure out a way to shove this burger into my face, I ended up chatting for a while with this guy, who was on his way up to Prudhoe. He had seen my bike sitting outside, the only muddy cruiser in a sea of dual-sports, and figured that someone in the building must be as crazy as he was, to try and take a cruiser all sorts of places where it shouldn't go.

We talked for a while about the road, what it was like and what he should expect on a cruiser-style bike with fairly smooth street tires. I advised him just to take it easy and slow, and while he might be cold and wet for a lot of it, he'd make it there alright as long as he didn't try and maintain 70mph the whole way. I know that we'd exchanged contact info, but as I look through the notes I took on the trip, I can't seem to find his. I hope he made it there and back alright.

With a belly full of food, I kept on heading south (or east, at this point) down the Alcan, finally making it to the Junction of Highway 37, where I went south into British Columbia.

When you're heading north, once you've left the line-of-toothpaste of civilization that's mushed against the US border in Canada, there's two main ways to get up to the Yukon and Alaska. There's the well-known road, the Alcan, which is pretty dull until you get all the way up to Fort Nelson. But if you're adventurous, or just seeking to spend an extra day or two on the journey, there's a far better way to get from the North to the South

The Cassiar Highway.

View Larger Map

While the Alcan mostly stays to the east of the Canadian Rockies until it's almost in the Yukon before darting west, the Cassiar highway runs right down the middle of them through British Columbia.

And after riding this, I can't fathom any reason why someone would take the Alcan when this road is an option. It's FAR more remote, much less developed, and while the Alcan did have it's pretty bits (especially by Muncho Lake), the Cassiar is 500 miles of this.

Sure, it's not nearly as civilized as the Alcan, and there's much longer stretches in between towns and gas stations. The northern 50 miles or so alternate regularly between pavement and pretty decent dirt/gravel, and when it is paved, there's no lane markings or anything.

To put it mildly, there were mountains.

(Thumbnailed for easier scrolling)

I was getting south in a hurry, and was getting surprised by this whole "sun setting before 11pm" thing. I was running on the reserve on the bike's main tank, but I still had both spare tanks full, so I figured I had plenty of range to find gas the next day. And it was late enough that if I did find a gas station, it would probably be closed. I decided to call it a day, and turned down an almost comically steep gravel road that seemed to head off in the direction of a lake.

Pictures can't convey how steep it really was, or how scary. It was VERY loose and most of the gravel was the size of fists, making traction a precarious affair. Looking back up the hill from the bottom, although it got steeper after it curves into the trees;

I was right, this road did end right at a lake. And what a place to set up camp, I thought as I walk back from the bike to take this photo.

I walked back to the bike to start pitching my tent and

Wait, what the fuck happened to my gas cans?

Aw shit

I guess this had happened quite a ways back and I'd not noticed, the tire had worn clear through one of the tanks. The second tank, thankfully, was undamaged and still full of fuel. Although now I realized I had perhaps 80 miles worth of gas left, when previously I'd assumed at least 150. Crap.

Now while it looks like this was an idyllic camping spot . . . what I didn't bother taking a photo of made it not so. To the left of the frame in the photo of the lake, there was another higher clearing that had a few pickup trucks and cars parked in it, and a bunch of people my age milling about and messing around in the water. While I was setting up, I was assuming they'd be leaving as it got dark and they'd leave me to my peace and quiet.

Boy, I was wrong. The bad techno music started at 11pm and didn't stop until 6am. And at one point, some (very drunk) guys managed to stumble over to my tent and make an offer of beer, and then hollered "NICE BIKE" as they shuffled away back to the party. I was pretty pissy about it at the time, but . . . I mean, they were there first. And if they're going to have a drunken loud all night party, the middle of nowhere is a pretty good bet. If I'd know they were going to be there all night I would have picked somewhere else, though.


Anyway, the next day I was so sure that I was going to loose it on my way back up that hill that I made sure I had the camera rolling. Luckily I didn't fall over, and made it up without problems, although once (you'll see in the short vid) I did have a pucker moment as the rear wheel stepped out on a patch of very loose rocks.

(It's not actually that interesting of a video, just me riding over a rough gravel road)

Even though I wasn't very well rested at all (And I'd have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids!), I kept on going south on the Cassiar. And found horses!

And after the horses, there was more of what British Columbia has in droves; more mountains.

I know that many people reading through this are pretty damn sick of seemingly endless pictures of a road winding through endless mountains. But I'm pretty sure that anyone who's done long-distance bike touring isn't.

I'm quite sure that as they're reading this, anyone who's been on a long ride before, hell ANYONE who's ever ridden a motorcycle before, is picturing themselves, on the bikes of their choice, on these roads.

They know exactly what it feels like, exactly what it SMELLS like.

They know what the barely perceptible drop in air temperature as you go past a lake is like. They've felt the thermal-clines as you go up hills and down into valleys.

And I know that anyone who's been on a bike before is probably staring at these photos and mentally planning their next big trip. Or even their first big trip.

And hopefully, those of you who've never ridden before are looking through these and thinking about what your first bike is going to be. Because we have places on our world that look like this, and seeing them through a windshield with walls of metal around you can't ever do them justice.

Sure, you can stop and get out of cars here and there, but you're forced to on a bike. You can't eat on the movie, so you're forced to pull over at places like this for lunch.

A bike FORCES you to interact with your environment, to be part of it, to really experience it (Unless you're on a Goldwing, but that's cheating). This place had some of the clearest water I've ever seen outside of Antarctica, and I wouldn't have found it if I was able to carry enough water with me that I didn't have to get more from this lake to boil for lunch.

And this has to be one of my favorite photos of this whole part of the trip:

How much more picturesque can you get?

No comments:

Post a Comment