Racing the snow

Break lights spell banter and the small world of British Columbia

Posted by Gordon Dunlop on October 19, 2015

Having departed Whitehorse and the wonderful hospitality afforded us on our first ‘Warm Showers’ experience with Philippe, our route would take us 250 miles east to where the Alaska Highway intersects with the Stewart Cassiar Highway. ‘The Cassiar’ serves as the backbone of northern British Columbia, an area even more remote than the Yukon, and home to the odd bear or two! What these sparsely populated states may lack in number, they certainly make up for in the generous and hospitable nature of their inhabitants.

We didn’t have to wait long for our next taste of Yukon hospitality. In fact, after taking Philippe for lunch to thank him for servicing our bikes, we had barely cleared the Whitehorse city limits when, while taking a water break by the roadside, a passing car stopped to check that we were doing ok. We got chatting with Mattaeus and he offered up his home for dinner and to spend the night. He’d had a tough week’s teaching at school and his weekend couldn’t begin quickly enough. He got on the phone to his friend, Carson, who promptly arrived with a case of Yukon craft beer and the four of us enjoyed a few beers while playing our way around the frolf (think golf mixed with Frisbee!) course that was Matthews’ back garden. We were very well fed with bison sausages, roast potatoes and home-made apple pie – a far cry from the dehydrated veggies and pasta that we’ve become used to while camping! While chatting round the bonfire later that night, Carson mentioned that he used to work in the ski resort of Fernie where the BC border meets the US state of Montana. At this, Meg got all excited, saying she thought she had recognised Carson when he first arrived. It turns out that he had given Meg and her friends a ride up to the ski slopes, three years ago!

We were woken at 6am the next morning by an excited Mattaeus – the Northern Lights were putting on a show for us! This was a first glimpse of the Aurora phenomenon for Meg and I and we barely noticed the cold as we stood in our pyjamas, on Mattaeus deck, marvelling at the green flashes that danced across the sky! After a hearty breakfast, we got back on the road. Up until this point, we’d been extremely lucky with the weather with no real prolonged periods of rain. That would all change as we endured two weeks’ worth in an afternoon! After battling against the wind and rain for 5 hours we decided enough was enough and we’d make for the next point on the map, Jake’s Corner. This dot on the map was little more than a gas station with a café attached but would more than cater for our two basic requirements of shelter and a warm drink! As we sat with a coffee, de-frosting our bare feet, a cheery chap across the café empathised, “I feel your pain guys!” Kory was the gas attendant and proceeded to tell us of his life on the road, hitchhiking across Canada and picking up work wherever he could. This guy knew a thing or two about cold toes! He very kindly offered us the spare room in his cabin, to dry off, heat up and to spend the night. We passed the evening round his wood stove chatting about his life on the road and the people he’d encountered en route. We both guessed Kory must have been mid-twenties but he then dropped the bomb-shell that he was only 19! He had a heart of gold and was wise beyond his years and we thoroughly enjoyed the night we spent with our new friend.

Thankfully the rain had subsided by the next morning and we made great progress to the village of Teslin. From there the Alaska Highway dips into British Columbia for a 40 miles before re-entering the Yukon. As the sun was beginning to disappear we were fast looking for somewhere to camp, but were keen to get to a lower elevation to avoid the worst of the cold. It’s at times like this when the touring cyclist dreams of being stopped by a car and invited into a warm house for dinner. Just as I was having these selfish thoughts, an RV passed us and I was mesmerised by the brake lights as it pulled into the side of the road. Was it an apparition? Was I dreaming? I was brought back to earth as a lanky, bearded type hopped down from the driver’s seat, screaming and waving his arms! “I love bicycle tourists” he screamed as he gave me a high five! “Fancy a beer?” Now if you’ve ever been offered an ice cold beer after 7 hours of cycling, you’ll have an idea of the pure, unadulterated elation I felt. Brady and Diana decided to set up camp alongside us, cooked us a lovely dinner and we shared stories round the campfire until midnight. They were such a fun couple who spent their summers working in Alaska and spent their winters travelling and working the snow season in Colorado. Brady’s travels had taken him to all continents (including a stint working in Antarctica!) and he’d also completed a cycle tour from Baja California, in Mexico, to Costa Rica so he had some great tips for that leg of our trip.

While tucking into a delicious breakfast complete with reindeer sausage, courtesy of Brady and Diana, we asked them how far they expected to drive today. “We’ll probably get to the end of the Cassiar” came the response. This wasn’t great for our spirits as we pondered how long it would take us to negotiate the Yukon mountains just to get to the beginning of the 700km long Stewart-Cassiar Highway! The subsequent six days cycling would prove to be our toughest yet. We battled ridiculously steep ascents, bitingly cold winds and four more broken spokes. With the snow closing in, our resolve was being tested though, thankfully, this stretch was punctuated with more fantastic hospitality. We were saved from the snow on two occasions, firstly, in Watson’s Lake where we slept in ‘Buster’s Bus’ – an old bus kitted out with bunk beds and a wood stove courtesy of Dalyce and John - and secondly, by the eccentric Latvian Olympic bi-athlete, Raimond (see Meg’s ‘RV there yet?’ blog.)

The cold and the snow was not conducive to repairing broken spokes at the roadside and so progress was slow for the first three days on the Cassiar Highway. We were, therefore, thankful to arrive at Dave and Merrilu’s where we could shelter and take our time fixing up my bike. John in Watson’s Lake had advised us to call in here assuring us we’d find an open door. Dave and Merrilu were extremely welcoming, both to us and to, what seemed like, half of British Columbia! There was so much coming and going in their house with passing hunters popping in for a coffee and a chat on their way north. While chatting with them on the first night, they shared stories of their rather large family. Between them they had fostered 144 children, adopting 4 of them, in addition to their 4 biological children! The eldest of their adopted children was a 19 year-old by the name of Kory. “We know a 19 year-old Kory from around here” I mentioned. “Is he pumping gas up at Jake’s Corner?” asked Dave with a wry smile. “The very man” I replied. It was easy to see that Kory, Dave and Merrilu were cut from the same cloth such was their kind-heartedness and hospitality. Such a coincidence that we were now in the company of the parents of a friendly face we had met, equally as serendipitously, 700km and 7 days earlier! We spent a wonderful couple of days with this lovely family, complete with great food, great chats, an impromptu sing-song and a quad bike ride to a snowy mountain peak!

Besides the great hospitality and company, our stopover had served its purpose in allowing me to fix up my bike so that it would allow us to reach the town of Prince George. It transpired that we’d received a bad batch of wheels and, with the help of The Bicycle Doctor and the Trek cycles rep, Meg had managed to secure us four new wheels which would be delivered to the next large town, Prince George. Just 800 more km to hold out! We made steady progress through three days of rain and hills after leaving Iskut. At times, the clouds would part long enough so we could enjoy the splendour of the British Columbian landscape. We reached Meziadin Junction, from where we were assured the weather would improve. And so it proved! The last 200km of the Cassiar were memorable for sunshine, two more bear encounters, another RV stopping to hand us a beer and give us some tips for the road (thanks Johnny and Leslie!) and a late night game of poker with the mushroom pickers at Mushroom Camp. The journey down the Cassiar had certainly been eventful and we were thankful, both to have come through bear country unscathed and to have won the race against the snow!