Chapter 12. Cassiar Highway
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Hitting pay dirt before us, Ginny and Bill are already at the Jade City store by the time we arrive. I let the owner know of the caravan and am told of our 20% discount. This year, two stores are in competition, one serving cookies, cheese and crackers along with coffee and the other serving hot chocolate, coffee and tea. We have traveled 76 mi. without seeing a building and now see two stores exactly across the street from each other. I find a pair of hummingbird earrings at the first store and I put them on the counter to be saved for me while I shop. I walk across the street to alert that store of the caravan and am told again about the 20% discount. Here I buy two necklaces. I return to the other store and do not see the earrings I had set aside. The clerk tells me someone had bought them. “What do you mean someone bought them?” I ask. I wanted them saved for me, “Do you have any more?” I am told no. I press the issue and finally she says “Someone bought them as a gift for someone special.” “Do you get it?” she asks me. I say, “Not yet.” She says, “Does anniversary ring a bell?” Now I get it. Bert must have purchased the earrings for me. Nancy was just hoping that I would not find another pair to buy and was wondering how the clerk was going to handle the situation. I purchase a matching necklace, go outside and walk towards Bert. He asks why I am coming out there and I give him a hug and tell him thanks. He and I have the same taste at least, since he found another pair of the exact same earrings before he found out about mine. I can hardly wait until August 27th to wear the earrings. I also got him a present, but he does not want to see it.
After the shopping experience we continue down the road and add a second moose to our daily sightings and watch a Red Fox catching a squirrel. We hit 16 mi. of gravel and since it is drizzly, by the time we reach camp R-Tent-III and its tow are extremely dirty. No sense in washing it off, because tomorrow is more gravel and construction. After leftover chili, we meet under the enclosed shelter and sit around the fire ring. As it drizzles outside we are comfortable under the roof and discuss the differences between black and grizzly bears. Barbara draws our attention to the pointed ears on a Black Bear and the round ones on a grizzly. Sure enough, a trait Bert had not thought about. Thanks, Barbara.
(Bert) It was Black Bears, Moose and Coyotes yesterday; today various travelers in our group find foxes, caribou, moose, sheep and the usual contingent of little critters. One of the two moose we spot stands in the middle of the road while I take four photos before it moves on. The best though is the Red Fox that captures a Red Squirrel while we watch. Then with the squirrel firmly held in its jaws, the fox scampers up the steep incline and disappears into the woods. The stop that captures the longest attention today is Jade City, where two shops on opposite sides of the road offer myriad products made from jade. Outside one shop rests jade boulders that reach chest height. Outside the other, three giant saw blades spin in a spray of water, ready to custom design a block of jade. While others are shopping I notice families of Say’s Phoebe’s hopping in the mowed down forest edge. They are easy to photograph and I take dozens, trying for the perfect pose. The rain, which has followed us most of the day, ceases when we reach Deese Lake and our campsite. Good! We have the campfire we planned this evening and I present a quiz on bear identification, choosing a dozen photos of Grizzly and Black bears that are surprisingly difficult to identify. Barbara seems to have the key, though, concentrating almost entirely on the size and shape of the bear’s ears.
(Bert) Not an auspicious start, the rain washes across our windshield and dark clouds block our view of the mountains I know are there from previous travels. When we are stopped by a flag lady in front of machinery digging a trench across the road, she opines that the Cassiar Highway is prettier than the Alaskan Highway. “Yes,” I agree, “but the rain clouds sock in the view much of the time.” A few hours later the sun pierces through and I see a few patches of blue sky. When we stop for lunch beside Hodder Lake, the rain has stopped and the day shows promise. Birds seem to appreciate the change also, as many are singing. I add MacGillivray’s Warbler to the trip list and I hear later that Ray and Nancy added Red Crossbill and Vaux’s Swift. Everyone seems to have found Black Bears. We see a pair escaping up a steep embankment and another run across the highway just as I aimed my camera through the windshield. Ray and Nancy found four bears and I don’t think any were the same ones we saw. On previous trips I’ve noted that this middle section of the Cassiar Highway is prime bear country.
When we turn down the spur highway that heads to Stewart and Hyder, I am reminded of the journal I wrote ten years ago. I judged that this canyon, the little town of Hyder and the glacier beyond are the best of Alaska (and a corner of British Columbia). Now having spent a year of days in Alaska in the past ten years, I’d still venture that opinion. The microcosmos of overpowering mountains, blue glaciers, rushing streams, 1000-ft. waterfalls, rustic towns, bears, moose and other wildlife is all here in magnificent form.
After settling in to our campground, we head across the Canada-U.S. border to the bear viewing area along Fish Creek. The Chum Salmon are a few weeks late in swimming upstream to spawn, so the bears have barely been seen so far this season. We see none today, but I am delighted to get MacGillivray’s Warbler, Vaux’s Swift and Cedar Waxwing on the U.S. side of the border.
(Bert) The adult Black Bear comes out of the woods and walks across the grassy shoreline, stopping just short of Fish Creek. Its head bounces up and down and swings left and right as it searches the stream for fish. Finally it enters the water on all fours, but then changes mind, stands erect on two hind feet, turns back to shore and climbs out, only to come back in a dozen feet farther upstream. Now in the water again, this time it searches with earnest and spotting one it lunges for the fish, thrashing through the water and splashing mightily. The fray scares up a half dozen salmon that swim swiftly upstream, their fins breaking the surface in the swallow water. The pandemonium produces a water fight with lots of spray, ending in a stalemate, the fish escaping and the bear still without breakfast when it lumbers upstream, under the bridge and out of our sight.
We return to our vehicles and drive along the narrow gravel road, slowly climbing up a mountain pass with tall hemlock and spruce and a steep hillside on our right and the Salmon River flowing below on our left. We stop for photos at the U.S.-Canada border, marked by a steel cone and a broad clear cut on both sides of the mountain. We stop again at a still pool I remember from previous visits, a place where Shari again finds blueberries ready for picking. A few ducklings swim alone and through the clear water I can see them swim submerged, searching for food, then bouncing back to the surface like rubber duckies. I’m surprised these downy chicks already know how to feed, unattended by adults. In fact, I’m not sure what species they are and although adult Canada Geese share the pond, these chicks are not theirs. We encounter many Hoary Marmots along the road, counting at least eight before we come to the foot of Salmon Glacier. The racetrack curves and highway line medial strip are most impressive on this glacier. From our lofty position above, it looks easy to drive atop this glacial surface, since we loose the perspective that it must be at least a half mile across and miles long and severely indented with vast crevasses. Finally reaching the summit, fog covers the glacier and we are about to move on when an opening appears and we can see the vast ice flow beneath us. We stand in the fork of a “Y” – three-quarters mile wide at the junction - where Salmon Glacier splits into two, the racetrack black lines smoothly showing the direction downhill on each side of the mountain. We explore the alpine terrain that is decorated like an exquisite Oriental garden of languid crystal pools and ornamental rocks surrounded by miniature flowers, particularly Partridgefoot and Moss Heather. White snow patches brighten the scene still dimmed by misty tendrils of fog.
Now on the downhill side of the mountains, we visit the remnant mining artifacts and stop at an old concrete building built into the hillside. As we stay inside our vehicles – it’s too cold and wet to be outside – eating our packed lunches, we puzzle over how the odd building was used in the mining operations. After lunch we split up, most heading back to the Fish Creek bear viewing (where they find grizzlies this time). Our car heads farther down the road which opens into a broad valley surrounded by hanging glaciers. The road forks in several directions and our choice ends abruptly at a rushing stream. On our return we see Mike and Kay and suggest that they try one of the other forks. Later I hear of their birding success and verify Mike’s photos of seeing a ptarmigan family and most amazingly of a flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, the mountain top species that eluded Chris T.’s pursuit for weeks.
(Shari) Remember my journal about Portage Glacier? I wrote about seeing a movie and then a curtain rose to a spectacular view of a lake with sparkling icebergs set in front of snow capped green mountains. Today we see not a mechanical curtain being raised but a natural veil of fog and cloud lifting and moving and closing over a huge glacier below us. At first I thought by the time we reached the top of the mountain we would see nothing since it has been drizzling all morning on our way up and clouds cover the tops of the peaks. We consider quitting and returning tomorrow but who knows, tomorrow might bring worse weather. AND, I certainly do not want to get up again at 6 in the morning. I was so crabby this morning that while the group watched a Black Bear catch a fish at Fish Creek, I slept in the car for an hour. The salmon are three weeks late this year and the bears have not really come to the stream and only a lucky and patient few see a grizzly. After the bear sighting, six cars continue up the mountain, stopping frequently for birds. At one of our stops, Terry finds salmonberries and blueberries. I love to pick berries so while the group birds, I pick the berries, climbing higher and higher up the slope to reach the succulent fruits. Picking my way carefully down, I loose my balance, catch myself on a twig, loose my balance again and do a two or three step dance before righting myself again. In the process, however, I stepped in ankle deep muddy water and calf deep soft mud. My shoes and pants are a mess but I saved a cup of berries for our muffins on Tuesday. Before continuing upward we stop at the toe of the glacier, marveling at its formation and immensity. When we reach the top of the mountain, I can see nothing; it is all fogged in. As we talk with a gentleman selling pictures from his car, I turn around and notice the glacier is in full view and the fog is moving to the right. It is an alluring - the word Mike uses to describe the phenomena when no one can find a word to portray it - sight to watch the fog undulate along that glacier; first we see then we do not. It is simply cool. We find that the road is open all the way to the mine and we continue forward, stopping at the “lake” that emptied 10 days ago leaving house size chunks of glacial icebergs on dry land. Of course, we snap snap snap pictures galore. At the end of the road, the weather turns rainy and nasty so we eat our picnic lunches inside the cars before driving back down the mountain. This is my fourth time on this road and every one of them, I drive our car downhill since I feel safer and do not have to continually tell Bert to slow down. This trip however I can see only a few feet in either direction because of the heavy fog that has settled in. We keep thinking that it will clear when we reach a certain level but the fog remains with us almost all the way. As we pass Fish Creek, it seems no bears are out so we continue home. Later we have our last social of the caravan. It is so much fun that it takes me out of my depression. I have been down and out for the past two days just thinking about the end of this fun trip. I divide the group into three teams and we test them on the knowledge that they gained these past 70 days. I am surprised at how many people have learned and retained so much information. The points are close but we do get a winner even amongst shouts of unfairness. Bill and Richard bring out the ukuleles and we sit and sing and eat around our last campfire of the trip, not wanting to go inside until the drizzle sends us packing.
(Bert) I said we would meet at the bear viewing stands at 8:30 this morning, but the rain and yesterday’s lengthy activities kept most in bed for extra sleep. Nancy and Terry are the only ones up early and all three of us drove separate cars when we meet up at Fish Creek. A Black Bear entertains us and I get good videos and photos of its fishing antics. Nancy stays, hoping for grizzlies, when Bill, Terry and Chris B. join me for more birding, up to the B.C. border. We see few birds. Bill and I continue birding the Hyder area, which proves more successful, finding many Rufous Hummingbirds and Song Sparrows, a Cedar Waxwing, and brightly plumaged Audubon’s Warblers. At the mouth of the Salmon River the fog ensnarls the twisting branches of drifted trees that prove convenient perches for the 30+ Bald Eagles posing for oddly artistic photos.
Today’s dreary weather seems apropos for our farewell day, one that none of us look forward to. Our 70 days have elapsed too quickly, we’ve enjoyed each other’s company so much and the days have been so filled with exciting adventures that none of us want it to end. All talk of getting together again and, delightfully, many sign up for the trips we have planned in the future. Our farewell dinner is at a quiet restaurant – although we are anything but quiet in our shared conversations – and Shari reads the rest of her epic poem tracing our path these past 2+ mo. When she continues with a poem describing each individual, without naming that person, we have little trouble recognizing the personal and often humorous traits she describes in rhyme. Two hours in the restaurant finish too quickly and we stand by talking excitedly even as the tables turn to the next round of dining guests and we are edged out into the street.
(Shari) Dreading this day for the past two weeks, I keep busy preparing for the finale. I bake blueberry muffins for tomorrow morning goodbyes, I finish the accounting and get money packets ready for distribution and I write the last few lines of the trip poem. At 5:15 we head over to the restaurant and get our orders taken. Between appetizers and main course, Bert announces trip tallies. Between main course and dessert I read. When I get to the part about Alaska becoming a part of us, I start to shed tears and by the time I say I hope I do not cry, I am bawling like a baby. Luckily Bill says something funny and I get control of myself to finish the poem. All of our trips are good ones, but this one was special. I have said that before and maybe the groups are getting better or maybe it is me, just missing our time together. I do know that I never detected any irritations and groups of people forming clicks. We were one big click if anything and enjoyed each other’s company whether on the trail, at a show, eating out or socializing at 5 PM. No matter whom we sat next to, we enjoyed and could start the day with one couple and end it with another. No one complained and certainly there were things to complain about: rough seas, no clams, gravel roads, cracked windshields, long driving days, drizzly or cold weather, etc. But if any group would get served lemons and come back with lemonade, it was this one. Of course we had our terrific times too: Nome, Barrow, Gambell, the Denali Highway without the dust, Dawson City and the start of the Dempster Highway, Beaver Creek Rendezvous, numerous dinner’s out, socials, games, oh and the list goes on and on. I know that at 5 PM wherever I am, I will think about Mike and Kay, Chris and Curt, Nancy and Ray, Chris and May, Bill and Ginny, Nancy and Paul, Ralph and Virginia, Hoss and Sally, Don and Barbara, Maureen and Larry, Richard and Georgia and our great Tailgunners Pat and Terry. With fond memories, I lift my glass high to you all.
(Bert) The trip not quite ended, we gather at our last campfire for coffee, Pat’s breakfast dessert and Shari’s blueberry muffins. Even this activity is prolonged, since no one is anxious to depart. Many couples are pairing up as we lay out our plans for returning home and seeing where we cross paths. Several are headed to the Jasper and Banff area, so maybe we’ll see them too, although Shari and I are staying here a couple more days.
Back in our rig, Shari and I start putting away the caravan materials and equipment. Our whiteboards no longer describe the day’s activities, so into storage they go. Away go the maps and brochures and notes. At mid morning the two of us go to the bear stand again, since neither of us has seen the grizzlies here this season. They don’t show up, so we go to The Bus, a local diner with lots of local color. At 5 PM, Bill and Ginny – the last of our group still here – join us around a campfire and with drinks in hand we toast all the other caravaners who have agreed to do the same at this hour, wherever they may be. In the evening we try once more for the grizzlies and this time are successful. The sow shows up with her three cubs in tow. Even in the dim 9:30 PM light my camera picks up sharp videos of the scene as she successfully catches a salmon and shares it with her cubs. For more than an hour we watch the bear action as they show no evidence of our intrusion in their lives. Although I’ve seen bears many times at Fish Creek, this evening’s show is the most entertaining. We return in the near darkness to an empty campground.
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