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getting to stewart

From Meziadin Lake, my destination is Stewart, a small coastal town, at the end of a 65 kilometre dead-end road. I discuss the road with the park operator and he mentions that once I’m past Windy Hill the road is pretty flat. Windy Hill is a name that sets warning bells off in a cyclist’s mind and sure enough the climb is steepish but it’s the wind, blowing in from the coast or perhaps down off the glaciers that saps my energy.

Riding into Stewart.

Riding into Stewart.

As I crest the summit of Windy Hill and come down the other side I am still battling. I am cycling past Bear Glacier when two women picking through the rocks on the embankment greet me. Debbie and Wendy are from Smithers, on a day trip to Stewart and, after a moment or two, of conversation I, somehow or other, find myself in their battered pick up truck, my bike and belongings bouncing around in the tray. The psychology of this is interesting. I would never, ever, accept a lift on what I consider to me my main route down the highway but on a ‘side trip’ where I know I will have to return along the same road I feel it is (almost) acceptable. Nonetheless, I feel slightly guilty and uncomfortable in the vehicle.

First glimpse of Bear Glacier.

First glimpse of Bear Glacier.

We drive through Stewart, a shrinking coastal town with a moribund set of industries that no longer provide any local employment, and across an international border to Hyder, which is in Alaska, USA. Hyder, even smaller than Stewart, is also a dying town of tumble down buildings and we quickly pass through it to arrive at Fish Creek where a boardwalk over the stream allows visitors a bird’s eye view of fishing bears during the salmon run. We pause for long enough to learn that the there aren’t any bears currently performing and continue along the gravel road up the mountain to view Salmon Glacier.

Salmon Glacier.

Salmon Glacier.

Debbie and Wendy cannot be silent; they pass comment on everything, but particularly the weather. They resent the clouds for spoiling what they imagine might be the perfect photo. The road continues to rise and Wendy, the passenger who is afraid of heights, becomes increasingly agitated, Debbie, the driver, is alternately sympathetic and mocking. Half way up the hill, neither at the head nor the toe of the glacier, we stop and, after some indecision, return to the bear viewing station in the valley.

Two young bears are concealed in the brush. Their audience, the majority armed with cameras sporting massive lenses, worth thousands and thousands of dollars, is patient and resigned. The bears rustle around, teasing their public for a while, before making a casual entrance. As the bears appear, there is a sudden flurry of activity and motor drives start their rapid clicking.

The bears are sleek and handsome, a couple of three year old males – regular performers here, apparently. They wade into the shallow water making short careless sprints after the fat salmon which swim sluggishly, almost spent in the stream. One bear musters up the enthusiasm to run down a catch and feeds on the huge fish. Bones crack as the bears uses teeth and claws delicately to eat the favoured parts – skin, roe, and brain – discarding the rest of the carcass. The smell of rotting fish is dense.

Gathering up the energy to chase down a fish.

Gathering up the energy to chase down a fish.

Getting serious about chasing fish.

Getting serious about chasing fish.

Grabbing one.

Grabbing one.

Wendy and Debbie have to return to Smithers to tend to their dogs and so I unload my bike and belongings from the truck, relieved to be independent again, and return to watch the bears a little longer. The bears fish, wrestle, play. One sits down and then rolls coquettishly on its back to appreciative signs and murmurs from the crowd.

Messing around.

Messing around.

Relaxing.

Relaxing.

Side act: mother duck and her sizable brood.

Side act: mother duck and her sizable brood.

Eventually I leave, wanting to avoid getting caught in the dark on the road, since I will have to ride on the other side of the creek from where I have been standing, protected on the boardwalk, with nothing between the bears and me. I make my way back to Stewart singing bear songs and ringing my bell, stopping briefly at a rather desolate inn, which advertises a camp-ground, in the self-professed ghost town of Hyder. I pay to pitch my tent but flee after giving the campsite a cursory glance, pausing only long enough to get my money refunded. The provincial campground in Stewart is dark and damp but more welcoming.

Dinner is followed by an abortive attempt to shower. Armed with a ‘loonie’* I go to the shower block with the sole aim of washing my hair. Bathing is an activity I have largely neglected since leaving Whitehorse, lakes and rivers have provided an occasional opportunity but now hot water seems called for.

I am forewarned that my ‘loonie’ will only give me a four-minute supply of hot water so I strategically line up my shampoo and conditioner. Everything ready to go, I strip naked in the cold concrete washroom structure, deposit my coin and…. nothing happens. … no water, not even cold water. I curse, prolifically, shake the moneybox, push buttons but to no avail. Vanquished, I dress, pack up my things and return to my tent sadly frustrated.

Next morning I breakfast and pack up early and head to the main street. Restocking my food pannier is the pragmatic reason for me being here in Stewart, which boasts of not one but two well-stocked grocery stores. Food shopping in regional stores is an uncertain business but here at one shop I am rewarded with a bag of dehydrated vegetables to top up the supply bought in Anchorage – a lucky find – and at the other a package of stylishly shaped multi-coloured organic veggie pasta.

At the check out, I discover the more attractive of the two shops, an old-fashioned general store, has free Wi-Fi and so I settle down with a coffee and a pastry on the veranda, which commands a view down the main street, to attend to my communications.

*A loonie is a dollar coin and a toonie is a two dollar coin in Canadian lingo.

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