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finding a friend in stewart

I’ve just fired up my computer when a cyclist with a touring load whizzes past – I hail him,“Ho, cycler!” He slows and enquires, “Are you Anna?” I am somewhat taken aback but I admit that I am as he comes to join me. He enlightens me. “I passed an old guy on the road, Danny, from Israel. He had a photo of you.”

We sit and exchange our basic information. Richard is from Montreal on a three-week trip. Having laid the out the essentials, we continue to talk and find sufficient meeting points to agree to have dinner together at 7 o’clock – I have heard that there is outfit in Hyder selling a seafood dinners out of an old school bus and I am keen to try it.

In the meantime, Richard goes to see the bears and I turn my attention to the Internet.

It is almost 7pm when I am reminded by a fellow internetter that I shouldn’t be late for my “dinner date” and I pack everything onto the bike and set out across the border for Hyder. The crowd around the bus suggests a good meal and I am pleased. People waiting for their fish dinners ply me with questions – mostly the standard ones but someone with greater imaginative faculties asks me, as I find a place to lean my bike, if I happen have a map which details all the best places to eat which led me here. I inform him that this is an innate ability.

The seafood bus - well worth a visit if you happen to be in Hyder.

The seafood bus - well worth a visit if you happen to be in Hyder.

An Australian motorcyclist, armed with sardonic wit and a world-weary air, launches without much preamble into challenging verbal contest. He is reasonably respectful of my miles pedalled but Richard is a little late and Grant teases me unmercifully when I say I am waiting for a dinner companion. When Richard arrives, Grant immediately mocks, referring to him loudly as my ‘hot date,’ however we sit together and feast on crab and prawns and the evening passes pleasantly enough.

Grant and Richard at the dinner table.

Grant and Richard at the dinner table.

The aftermath.

The aftermath.

The bus closes and, on my advice, we all make our way back to the Stewart Provincial Park, crossing the border yet again. I admit, at the border post, to having entered the States for the purpose of eating dinner and after a dicey moment the uniformed girl’s officious façade cracks for a second in a wry smile.  She recognises me from last night anyway and waves me through without thoroughly scrutinizing my passport again.

The camp has been invaded by a large group of boisterous campers with matching tents who are sitting together in the picnic shelter and threatening, collectively, to sing. We pitch our tents and then Richard sits by my tent in the dark to talk a while. We are soon joined by Grant, who dominates the conversation with his decided opinions on everything.

We retire. I sleep badly, the beer and wine I consumed with dinner making for a restless night.

The rowdy neighbouring group rise early, with much shouting and stomping, car alarms going off, oblivious to all but themselves. Richard is the first of our trio to rise and he peers into my tent. Outside the weather is dank and grey. Grant also materialises and we all pack and head for the King Edward Hotel, an architecturally undistinguished building on the main street of Stewart, attracted by the breakfast special prominently advertised throughout town.

Eggs, bacon and hash browns make a very welcome change to porridge as does sitting at a table watching the light drizzle and swirling mist from the other side of a sheet of glass. Again talk is dominated by the droll repartee favoured by Grant. His discourse is largely a mixture of boasts and insult, only slightly softened by wit. He is originally Australian, but has been living in Canada for years and is currently travelling the Americas by motorbike searching for, or fleeing from, himself – it is not entirely clear which. Sensitive and cruel in equal measure, he is engaging and funny but fends off connection and human warmth.

Richard and I decide, despite the weather, to ride to see the Salmon Glacier. We organise to leave our panniers at the King Edward and set off. It is still drizzling and the clouds are swirling around the visible mountain tops which doesn’t bode well for our mission as we will climb around 1000 metres to our destination. However, we stock up on snacks at the store and set off in high spirits. The border post marks the end of the tarmac and we soon hit the muddy gravel surface, cycling past the bear viewing platforms at Fish Creek.

I have already ascended this road with Debbie and Wendy so I have some idea of what to expect. The road winds along the bottom of the valley, flat initially, passing various abandoned mines. As we start to climb, we cross the international border again back into Canada – this imaginary line is etched into the landscape with a 3 metre wide cleared corridor running across the mountains. Every ten years this Sisyphysian labour is repeated in the interests of national integrity.

The US/Canada border etched into the mountain.

The US/Canada border etched into the mountain.

The road rises above the river valley steeply and as we climb we enter the cloud. Far below, the glacier shifts in and out of sight through the drifting tendrils of mist. I have seen the glacier with Debbie and Wendy but Richard is disappointed. A few other tourists pass us in an assortment of cars, RVs and motorcycles. They pause, on their return journey, to tell us that there is nothing to see at the summit, only rain and mist.

We are undeterred – if rain and mist is all that there is to see then we will see rain and mist.  We climb steadily – around 1000 metres over twenty kilometres on the muddy wet surface. Towards the summit, we pass a hand-written sign advising us that the bear man is on the glacier. Since the glacier is veiled, meeting the bear man becomes our alternative mission.

Richard surveying the Salmon Galcier. (Movie reference please?)

Richard surveying the Salmon Glacier. (Movie reference please?)

Finally, the silhouette of a pair of outhouses and a small orange tent come into view. We have reached the summit. It is raining quite heavily now and the bear man, the inhabitant of the orange tent, is sheltering in the back of his station wagon. A licence displayed on the window of this vehicle legitimises his business of selling DVDs, books and post cards, all featuring quite extraordinary images of bears going about their lives.

The bear man reclines in his car, a softly spoken man 74 years of age. His bicycle, which he rides down into town along the road we have just ridden, to restock on supplies, leans up against one of the outhouses. He has been coming to this place for decades, living on the summit from June until September, walking and photographing the wildlife.

He informs us that 15 kilometres further down the road on the other side of the mountain the weather is clear and another glacier is visible. Going down the mountain means coming back up again on the return trip and I am reluctant. I suggest trying to hitch a lift with the next car that arrives and then wander off into the fog towards the actual summit of this mountain we are standing on.

Drawn up onto the summit.

Drawn up onto the summit.

The mountain, off the road, is a mystical landscape, the gnarled forms of the stunted spruce in clumps on rocky outcrops, sit above clear pools of water connected by fast flowing streams. Everything is cushioned by rounded pillows of thick green moss. Flowers in all the colours of the spectrum lure me onwards and upwards, stumbling and slithering on the slippery mossy rocks. Banks of snow lie on the ground amidst the delicate flowers, yellow, orange, red, blue, purple, white – I am totally awestruck by this beauty.

Wildflowers on the mountain top. (What were all those people in cars thinking when they told me there was nothing to see at the summit.)

Wildflowers on the mountain top.

I was truly awestruck.

What were all those people in cars thinking when they told me there was nothing to see at the summit?

Beautiful.

Beautiful - I was truly awestruck.

I cannot imagine a more beautiful place.

I cannot imagine a more beautiful place.

Looking down I see the car park and our bikes far below. A car has arrived and Richard is disappearing into it – he has his lift to see the glacier on the other side of the mountain. I find my way back down chilled and wet.

The bear man invites me to sit down on the edge of his station wagon and offers me a slice of buttered raisin bread and then, noting how fast it disappeared, a second. I ask him about his family and his life as the bear man of the Salmon Glacier.

Suddenly, I realise how cold I am and go to change my wet fleece top for my down sweater which I had the foresight to pack in a couple of plastic bags. I can’t make my frozen hands function well enough to operate the zips and fastenings on my clothes and I’m still struggling with them when Richard reappears in a similar state. He changes and then helps me do up my buckles and zips and we jump on our bikes to descend. Warmth is now utmost on our minds.

The descent is faster and easier on our legs but hard on the bikes. They bounce and rattle over potholes, corrugation and stones and mud coats everything, grit grinding away brake pads. The King Edward boasts a laundromat and this is our destination.

On arriving in Stewart, we pause briefly at the general store to eat yoghurt and gummy bears. Grant is seated on the veranda holding forth, his audience a starry-eyed youngster with a jeep planning a pan-American tour and a sceptical Dutchman with a motorbike. They are swapping traveller’s tales.

Richard and I make for the warmth of the laundromat and I search my panniers for something to wear while I wash my essentials, which are all equally filthy. We unpack, sort and order, making ourselves totally at home to the evident dismay of the hotel staff and the discomfiture of fellow launderers.

Getting steamy in the laundromat.

Getting steamy in the laundromat.

With the washing finally rotating in the dryers, we move to the dining room to join Grant. Dinner, sadly, does not measure up to the standard set by breakfast but I am content, nonetheless, with my cod and chips. Eventually warm and fed we repack our bikes and venture out into the persistent drizzle. The noisy campers still preside over the campground; they spill out of a van, as we are setting up our tents, with loud exclamations and an astonishing array of uncontrolled bodily sounds. We hide in our tents, giggling in dismay.

Next morning as our little trio break camp there is an unspoken agreement that Richard and I will continue to ride together, at least for the day.  Grant moves off to the bakery, a brief pause outside the window reveals him leaning back in his chair declaiming from the central table, a wary audience in thrall.

We decide to repeat the breakfast extravaganza of the previous morning at the King Edward. I upgrade today to the “Hungry Miner” – a three-egg affair with not only bacon and hash browns but also sausages. Next stop the general store for a final top-up of the food pannier, some minor bike adjustments and then Kylie’s Carwash, a coin-operated pressure hose. Clean and lube completed, we finally hit the road.

The sun shines sporadically, the clouds lifting as we cycle the road back to Meziadin Junction. We take innumerable photos and pause at Bear Glacier for a while. We make good time and turn back on to Highway 37 in the afternoon sun. Cycling past a creek with a track running beside it we stop to make camp – cooking and housekeeping companionably, filtering water and taking turns to bathe in the river. Conversation without Grant’s input is less combative.

Passing by Bear Glacier on the return journey.

Passing by Bear Glacier on the return journey.

Bear Glacier.

Bear Glacier.

The morning brings clears skies and warm sunshine as we go about the laborious daily business of breaking camp. On the road we are just settling into cycling when a lake distracts us. The water is cool, much colder below the sun-warmed surface; I swim across the lake while Richard tries his luck at fishing. I float on my back awhile and then return to shore to sit in the sun, relaxed and easy. Richard fishes without success and I try my luck, after adjusting the rig, with a similar result. We set off again and too soon we reach the turn off to the Nass River Valley where our ways part. We say our goodbyes briefly and go our separate ways – mine a gravel road, narrow and rough, with little traffic and Richard’s continuing on the tarmac surface of Highway 37.

Fishing without result.

Fishing without result.

The afternoon sun is hot and in the valley is unrelieved by any breeze but I enjoy the tranquillity and isolation. The sun shines through fireweed stands. The plants are releasing their seed – pinpoint stars of light floating lazily in the warm air. A young black bear pads calmly down the road ahead of me and I slow down to watch him. He stops and glances at me and continues on his way, disappearing momentarily into the brush and then returning to the road and ambling on. A car approaches from the opposite direction and the bear disappears. The driver pulls up and we discuss the bear, bears in general, the road, potential campsites.

Fireweed has been my roadside companion just about all the way from Deadhorse. When the last flower drops summer is over.

Fireweed has been my roadside companion just about all the way from Deadhorse. When the last flower drops summer is over.

A bear going about his bear business.

A distant bear going about his bear business.

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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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meziadin lake

I arrive late and hungry at Meziadin Junction and decide to camp at the provincial camp-ground. Although I generally I prefer wild-camping, there are many aspects of staying in designated camp grounds that are quite appealing, the possibility of a shower being the one that is currently uppermost on my mind. Provincial park campgrounds are, generally, in very beautiful locations. However, they seem to be run as a private business enterprise by the park operators – I presume on some sort of leasehold arrangement from the State – and so they vary considerably in feel.

I select a site and my first thought is dinner, which I cook and eat efficiently. I am tidying up when the camp operators pull-up in a pick-up truck. The camp operators at the Meziadin Lake provincial park, a late middle-aged couple, are clearly entrepreneurial, with what seems a fairly lucrative sideline in telecommunications. Access to the internet is $5 dollars and it costs $2 dollars to plug in a computer to the mains. I’ve just handed them my last $15 cash and clearly look crestfallen. After a brief internal struggle, the woman scribbles the password on the back of my receipt, muttering darkly about performing good deeds and informing me that I have 45 minutes before they disconnect the connection for the night.

I am just turning on my computer when a woman passes by to ask me if I need anything. Food, of course, but I just eaten recently and I want make the most of my 45 minutes of free Internet. After a short discussion, we agree on breakfast and she goes off.

A wind rises as I pack away my computer – it is already dark. A young couple approach. They stand and ask me questions, as I start to pitch the tent, which I answer as best I can while I wrestle with poles, pegs and a tent fly in the windy dark. Things go better after they realise that I am struggling, offer assistance and the tent goes up.

They go their way but, not long after, as I am trying to find my way to the tap in pitch darkness (these park operators seem too profit driven to provide any lighting the camp) to do my dishes I run into the girl who is coming to invite me for a drink in their RV. I accept and we chat over beer, chips and cookies. I leave a little drunk and stumble back in the pitch dark to my tent. Next morning I make my way to the woman’s camp site and she cooks me scrambled eggs and sends me on my way with a packed lunch of a couple of sandwiches and an apple.

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on the cassiar highway

Before I leave Kinaskan Lake, I ask the fisherman camped at the next site for some line. I bought a couple of lures in Dease Lake inspired by my tantalising near success at Cottonwood River, which was a fishing experience inspiring and frustrating in equal measure. I want to repeat my the attempt to catch a fish with a happier outcome.

The fisherman has thawed somewhat since last night’s somewhat frosty exchange of greetings and is happy to oblige. He selects what he considers to be the appropriate weight line from his extensive collection and winds it onto a stick for me. His German wire-haired pointer is underfoot attempting to mount the small black dog, that belongs to the hunting outfitters and hangs around the campsite, with great persistence but little success.

Later, when I am putting the last of my things on my bike, the man’s wife approaches with a small bundle. Would I like a fish? The object in her hand is a small, cleaned frozen trout. A fish is not the most practical thing to transport on a bicycle in a pannier in grizzly country but my passion for eating it overcomes any logistical misgivings. Yes, please! I wrap the fish in a bag and then in another zip lock bag and hope that I don’t end up with a fishy pannier.

The day passes happily, cycling and picking berries and in the afternoon I find a nice place next to Bob Quinn Lake to cook my trout. The area is surrounded by thimble-berries, my latest berry discovery. The place is a flat grassy area flooded by evening sun and I toy with the idea of camping there for the night but decide that it is not such a bad idea to put a few miles between my and any fish cooking smells generated by my dinner.

Thimble berries are even sexier than raspberries.

Thimbleberries are even sexier than raspberries.

I cycle onwards and end up, at nightfall, in a dank mosquito infested ditch by the side of the road. Next morning I am up and away with no breakfast but arrive soon enough at Bell 2, a heli-skiing resort. The lodge is pretty quiet at this time of year. I replace my front brake pads and then head for the café for a cinnamon bun and coffee and then head onwards to complete 150 kilometres arriving late and hungry at Meziadin Lake.

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kinaskan lake

Restored by my pancake breakfast, I cycle another 20 kilometres or so and quickly come to the Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park. The last few camps have been hurried, rain-soaked affairs and I want to spread out and get my gear in order, so I pull in.

It is early in the day and I have my choice of sites. I stop at the last but one, which is already occupied. I make some lunch and hang out things to dry – tent spread on the ground, clothes dangling from the trees. Then, I turn my attention to the bike. I clean the chain, still gritty from the muddy road construction, as best I can, with a toothbrush, removing muck from the gears.

Frantically ringing bells alert me to some action. A a man on horseback, leading a string of other horses, thunders by and onto the lakeside walking trail. Another guy follows on an ATV. The men are clearly enjoying themselves and putting on quite a performance.

After organising my things, I walk down the trail where the horses disappeared and come across the guy on the ATV. He stops and I ask him what is going on. The men are hunting outfitters – they take rich Americans trophy hunting in the hills – a business their grandfather started fifty-seven years ago.

We talk for a while of the rights and wrongs of hunting, the guy immediately somewhat on the defensive. From the man’s perspective the rich Americans get their trophies, the meat feeds the local villages where they can’t afford to buy meat and it provides a decent living. I don’t like the trophy part, myself, but I can see the need to eat.

I walk on along the edge of the lake until stopped by a river and sit on the gravel bar watching the water and sky. Storm clouds over the mountains shift and seethe and as they edge closer I realise I had better go back and tend to my stuff. I still haven’t put up my tent, a little reluctant to pay the $15 fee that is standard in the provincial parks.*

Storm clouds gathering.

Storm clouds gathering.

Storm impending.

Storm impending.

I get back to the site and still procrastinate until the wind picks up and starts howling across the lake, raising noisy choppy waves. I pitch the tent in the wind, pegging it out carefully, and then stand on the shore watching as the storm rolls over, the worst of it in the distance, on the opposite shore. As I am standing there, another of the outfitters, one of the horsemen, comes to where I am standing.  He opens the conversation with a hackneyed remark about the weather but the conversation continues, in the rain, moving, as we start to get wetter, to the inadequate shelter of the conifers surrounding my tent.

A favourtie activity - watching rain fall.

A favourite activity - watching rain fall.

More stormwatching.

More storm watching.

And yet more...

And yet more...

...and more.

...and more.

Robbie is one of the local First Nation people, self-depreciating and proud in equal measure. All our various preconceived notions of gender and culture quickly bring us to awkward terrain. He asks me on a fishing ‘date’ and I make a non-committal agreement but we continue to talk until it is almost dark when he leaves to find his Leatherman knife at the river crossing by the lake where they swam the horses to the opposite shore. I return to the lake-shore in the gathering twilight.

Robbie passes by again with his knife and reiterates his invitation. I am shy and a little embarrassed but also keen to accept; I would like to catch a fish and the man interests me. He is knowledgeable and funny and has a way with words. When he leaves, I prepare myself for a boat trip, putting on my waterproof gear, even though I’m not sure if he will return. I am hungry but I snack out of the pannier instead of cooking in case he comes back, as promised, in his boat.

Dusk has deepened considerably by the time I see the boat approaching and I hover on the shores trying to appear ready and willing but not too expectant. The surface of the lake is still, the last light reflecting off it, silver and grey, with the darkening mountain looming above, trees jagged and black.

Dusk falling after the storm.

Dusk falling after the storm.

Dusk on the lake.

Dusk on the lake.

The boat comes ashore, Robbie introduces Ray, the navigator of the craft and we set off across the water. A rifle leans casually against the side of the boat. We are going, not fishing, but to feed the horses and check on the gear at the corral – a grizzly has been seen there. We skirt a gravel bar and some underwater snags and come to opposite shore.

Horse bells ring out over the water. We disembark dragging the boat up onto the beach. Ray goes ahead into the forest of huge trees with the gun and Robbie and I follow.

There are fifteen horses in a corral in a clearing: fifteen sleek, solid workhorses. Robbie and Ray distribute hay and I wander amongst the huge animals, towering well above my head. I make friendly overtures but they are only concerned with their feed. Robbie tells me the names, and points out the special qualities, of various horses. They are fine beasts and I dearly wish that I were heading into the mountain on the fifteen day expedition they are preparing for on the back of one of these horses.

We return to the boat, which has taken on a substantial quantity of water in our absence, and Ray takes it out onto the lake to drain leaving Robbie and I on the darkening shore. We talk of bears and hunting. I tell him that there was a population of eight bears in the Beskydy Mountains in Moravia – the last bears in the Czech Republic – until somebody shot one of them, probably rendering the remaining population of seven bears unviable. He laughs and tells me that there are more than eight bears on this side of the lake. He asks me to hold the gun for a moment, assuming it to be the first time I have had one in my hands. However, I have shot both a rifle and a pistol previously and I let him know.

The gathering dark.

The gathering dark.

Blue nightfall.

Blue nightfall.

Ray returns and we chug across the velvety black water. They drop me on the shore near my tent and we say somewhat abrupt and awkward goodbyes. I go to bed contemplating the encounter. In the morning, I would like to see Robbie again before I go, to say goodbye and thank you. I pack up and cycle past the outfitters lodge but I don’t see anyone around and I’m too shy to enter without an invitation. I ride off regretfully, continuing my half of an imagined dialogue in my head.

It takes me two days before the desire to return to the lake is no longer constant. When talking of hunting Robbie said of wolves, “Sometimes you see the beauty in them and you don’t shoot them.” He sees a wolf as a competitor – a hunter, too. He watches the caribou. He knows the mountain and their trails, talks of them with an easy familiarity. He had a way with words.

Kinaskan Lake is a dreamscape of water surrounded by mountains and fragments of poetry.

*In this case I needn’t have worried. The camp operator is very bike friendly and when she passed by she let me know that she generally waives the fee for bikers.

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a temporary companion

Finally I get on the road and see the boy that dropped by my camp last night and we agree to ride together for a while. He is good company, happy to stop and explore, to pick berries. We talk all day about our trips, the people we have met, adventures and the road. Our present way is climbing a steady ascent with the occasional downhill run through the continental divide. The mountains are beautiful, rising about the tree line – spruce covered on their lower slopes. For the most part the sun shines as we ride.

The Cassiar Highway.

The Cassiar Highway.

Mountains and sunshine.

Mountains and sunshine.

Talk and berries make for a short day, only 45 kilometres, maybe the shortest yet. We cross a river and turn into a rest stop set off the main highway. The area was clearly built to service the old highway which now serves as the access road to it. There are a couple of semi-derelict outhouses and a grassy patch in the middle of a turning circle. We discover a prolific blueberry patch. Walking down to the river, we see another open area on the opposite bank where a second river joins the larger one. It looks inviting and so, in a sudden rain shower, we ride a kilometre, or two, back down the main highway to find the access road.

I set up my tent and then submerge myself briefly in the cold, cold river water. Fish are jumping, the water so clear that they are visible swimming in the fast moving stream. I remember the lure that Lea gave me in Whitehorse and toss out the line, hooking a sizable fish in an instant but as I land it the knot gives way the fish flops back into the water, swimming off with the pink lure still visible in its mouth.

Another perfect campsite.

Another perfect campsite.

Tents by the river.

Tents by the river.

We try to make another hook and lure with a sewing needle and a piece of tin from a drink can but it is not a success and I end up losing the line in the water – so it is pasta again for dinner. We light a fire and sit and talk, shifting occasionally to avoid the smoke.

Campfire by the river.

Campfire by the river.

Campfire.

Campfire.

I wake in the morning and cycle back to the other side of the river to collect blueberries for breakfast. The boy has still not emerged from his tent by the time I am packed and ready to be gone so I sit by the river and write.

Fresh wild blueberries for breakfast.

Fresh wild blueberries for breakfast.

Eventually we leave the campsite, late in the morning. He is keen to get to Dease Lake, 90 kilometres of rolling hills with a steady rise in elevation, for the bank. Cycling with the boy, I push myself a little more than usual. The last section of highway is under construction. It is muddy and wet, with gravel trucks constantly to-ing and fro-ing with their loads. As we top the summit, black clouds gather, the sky opens and we race downhill in to the icy rain.

Storm on the hills on the descent into Dease Lake.

Storm on the hills on the descent into Dease Lake.

We arrive in Dease Lake wet and chilled to the bone. Dease Lake, like most of these tiny settlements, is something of a disappointment. There is a store and a restaurant but neither quite measures up to some indefinable ideal. We go to the restaurant, more to warm up than to eat but food is also welcome. The boy is sullen, only reviving a little with the arrival of a substantial pizza. I eat a burger and I am still hungry. After eating, we find a place to put up the tents on the edge of town. I hide myself in the woods as best I can but this area obviously gets a fair amount of use – condom wrappers and other debris dots the area. I don’t like camping so close to town but we both need to restock our food panniers in the morning.

Even an inadequate campsite has it's own beauty.

Even an inadequate campsite has its attractions.

It rains all night and I wake from uneasy dreams to the sound of a frantically barking dog a little way off. The boy is up and says he heard something around our camp, a bear, maybe… We break camp and head for town without breakfast. I wander the supermarket looking for things to replenish my supplies and breakfast on some overly sweet apple turnovers and then we seek out the local community college to use the Internet.

Leaving town, the boy and I go not separate ways but at our own pace which separates us.

The road rises again out of Dease Lake. Clouds hang ominously but I feel good. Snowy mountains lie ahead. Rain comes down again after I cross the Arctic/Pacific divide on the long steep descent to the Stikine River. On the other side of the bridge the boy is sheltering from the storm – he has no waterproof gear. I go on, climbing seven kilometres out of the valley. The snow topped mountains pass by and the boy catches up to me. We end up seeking a camp not together but at the same time and place and find ourselves neighbours in a paddock beside a motel/restaurant. It is too late and dark to cook, the location unprepossessing, and so I dine on a tin of tuna, peanut butter and pita bread. It rains again during the night.

I leave early without breakfast and set off with low clouds draped over the mountains, a greyscale landscape. Fifteen kilometres down the road I pass a ‘wilderness resort.’ I enter, hoping for a bakery but find myself in a luxurious lodge restaurant, packed with well-heeled patrons. I order pancakes; the woman at the grill is struggling to feed the crowd and looks exasperated. I sit amongst the stuffed moose and loud bombastic Americans patiently waiting as the room empties. I am the last person served. I eat my pancakes and talk to three female parks and wildlife officers who have just finished an eight-day hike through the ranges. I would love to go up to those mountains.

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boya lake

I wake at my mosquito ridden wild campsite just past the Junction 37 turn off. Breakfast is porridge sameness. I pack and get on my way by 9AM.

I am very pleased to finally be off the Alaska-Canada Highway. The Cassiar Highway, more commonly referred to as Highway 37, is narrow, without a shoulder, but the traffic is light. I soon pass a tent with a loaded touring cycle next to it and stop to say hi. However, the occupant is clearly not an early riser and there is no response.

Before long I pass another cyclist; Danny, a 70 year old from Israel, with an orange safety vest and a bob trailer. We greet each other. I overtake him but he is making excellent time, zig-zagging determinedly up hills. I stop for a morning snack and he passes me, shouting and waving. I overtake him again but later while I am picking berries by the side of the road he come up again and stops. We talk for a while but fall out over the origins of my name. He would claim it Hebrew while I feel it is more universal: Anna, like mama, is a combination of sounds that just happens, in my opinion. He leaves, offended, and I keep picking raspberries.

The berries are abundant, growing in cracks in the tarmac on the edge of the road. I feel that eating fruit growing so close to the road is not ideal but I can’t make myself pass by the glowing red fruits. I lose time to my fruit picking and only cycle 80 kilometres, or so, to Boya Lake, a provincial campground.

The access road is steep, dropping down to the lake, and I am in two minds but I speed down the hill. It turns out expensive but the guy who does the rounds to collect the $15 fee lets me know that cyclists receive a free breakfast up at his dad’s house and this softens the blow. I have fantasies of eggs and bacon.

When I’ve done the housekeeping – set up tent, cooked, collected water, washed the dishes – bikers converge on my campsite. The young couple in the adjoining site are travelling in a car, with their toddler, but they have bikes on the roof and a trailer and do short trips along their route. The guy has toured extensively in Africa, the Middle East and South America in the past. An awkward guy approaches my camp and passes comment on various aspects of my bike and gear. He confesses to riding a recumbent and tries to insist that I don’t need to wild camp between here and Vancouver. I told him three times that I like wild camping but he didn’t hear me. The sleepyhead from the roadside camp I passed in the morning visits and then goes on his way to find a free campsite.

Socialising done, I set out for a walk around the shores of the lake. Over the first hill in the next cove the water is bright aqua, crystal clear, fish suspended in the limpid liquid. Dusk falls as I walk in the forest. I am still having to get re-accustomed to the idea that it gets dark; I miss the endless light of the Arctic summer. The water of the lake is absolutely still and sounds ring across it. The hiss of a cast by someone fishing on the other side of the lake arrives clearly, after a slight delay.

In the morning I swim in the aqua lake, the water fresh and clear. I emerge feeling clean in a very thorough way, body and soul. I pack up and say my good-byes to the neighbours and make my way to the camp supervisor’s house.

Kids and dogs tumble chaotically about, a large gangly puppy and a dark-haired, dark-eyed boy of about five or six. I sit at the table and the child sits next to me, peering into my ears when I can’t understand his whispers and repeating his urgent incomprehensible message. Next, he tells me my eyes are cracked. I like the boy; his efforts at communication both fail and succeed. I don’t understand his words but his intentions are clearly good.

Two men sit at the table talking, a First Nations man and an older white man. A woman stands at the stove. She asks me what I want to eat. Porridge is fine, that’s what she is cooking – my dreams of eggs and bacon can wait for another time. They are nice people.

They ask me about my trip. The questions are invariably the same but the responses to the information I provide varies enough that, mostly, I don’t mind repeating. I leave with the addresses of the woman’s mother and uncle (the older white man at the breakfast man) on Vancouver Island and warm invitations to stay if I happen to need to.

After breakfast I return to the lake. I have lost my watch somewhere so I go to the shore where I swam but it isn’t anywhere to be seen. It’s a shame – Zanny, my sister gave it to me.

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berries

Today I rode from one nameless roadside camp 150 kilometres to another just past Junction 37 with nothing of note to report but a happy hour spent picking wild strawberries and raspberries by a riverside rest stop.

Wild raspberries.

Wild raspberries.

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teslin/the george johnson museum

I woke to thick, murky, grey, smoke; Teslin Lake barely visible, the mountains vanished, hazy orange pink light filtered through smoke. I set off down the Alaska Highway again with a wet rag over my nose and mouth. Soon I pass a cultural centre and stop to check it out. Impressive totem carvings watch over the entrance but I don’t pay the $5 fee to enter the centre.

Totem poles watching over the cultural centre.

Totem poles watching over the cultural centre.

Detail of totem pole - a beaver?

Detail of totem pole - a beaver?

Detail of totem pole.

Detail of totem pole.

Detail of totem pole.

Detail of totem pole.

Before long I arrive at Teslin, a small community, and pass a number of buildings pertaining to the management of the Tlingit of Teslin’s business. I am curious to find out more but I have no reason to visit and so don’t know how to enter without intruding.

However, I soon pass another museum, the George Johnson museum, and decide to check it out. The museum is well set out, with a small collection of Tlingit craftwork – beadwork, button blankets, gopher blankets, decorative dog coats. There is also lots of information about local wildlife and the relationship the Tlingit people had with different animals.

Beaded jacket with salmon motif.

Beaded jacket with salmon motif.

Blanket made from hundreds of gopher skins.

Blanket made from hundreds of gopher skins.

A car has pride of place in the musuem, George Johnson’s car – a sleek black 1929 classic, but I take little notice.

Eventually, a film playing in a small side room attracts my attention. The film, Picturing a People, George Johnson, Tlingit Photographer directed by Carol Geddes, a local film maker, is a montage of still back and white photos, interviews and acted scenarios that illustrate the life of George Johnson – a trapper from the community of Teslin in the early 20th centuary.

George Johnson was clearly an exceptional man; an early adopter of technology, a self-taught photographer who documented the everyday life of his community with a fine, sensitive eye. He bought the car, the same one that is now displayed in the museum, to the community undeterred by the fact that there were no roads. He simply organised the community to build one, a three mile stretch of road that was eventually incorporated into the current Alaska-Canada Highway. In winter, he would drive on the frozen lake.

Pragmatically, he used the vehicle for hunting, painting it white in winter and a dark colour in summer. He also set up an informal taxi service for the local community. He managed to keep the car running in winter without the benefit of anti-freeze by draining the radiator and keeping the liquid warm over the stove until he wanted to use the vehicle.

The film goes on to detail the impact of the building of the Alaska Highway, by the US government, during the World War II, on the Teslin community. The community was decimated by diseases to which they were exposed by the huge influx of US soldiers who worked and the road and to which they had no natural immunity. Later, the children in the community were removed from their families and placed in residential schools and alcoholism became a major social problem.

The film is a truely excellent insight into the local community and the challenges that it has faced and is well worth seeing. I’m very glad that I took the time to.

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on the alaska highway

I can’t remember now where I camped the day I left Whitehorse – it made no impression on my and I didn’t record it in any way. It has gone completely.

However, the next morning, as I am riding on my way, I pull into an dubious RV camp at Johnson’s Crossing because of the bakery sign – I am developing a serious and often misguided addiction to cinnamon buns. I have bought my bun (one of the more misguided ones) and a couple of indifferent fruit turnovers and am eating them standing by my bike having the same tired “where from/where to” conversation with a couple from somewhere in the ‘lower 48’* when I hear a sudden commotion behind me.

I turn and see a man getting out of an unfamiliar 4WD. It takes a moment for me to the make the right connections but then Renate and the boys also emerge from the vehicle. The couple I was conversing with are instantly and totally forgotten. We are all overjoyed to see each other again – I am heart-warmed by the fact that our previous lunchtime encounter obviously made an equal impression on these people that it made on me.

There is a flurry of addresses exchanged, photos taken, promises made, and I happily learn all the missing names – Gunter, Malte and Jannik – and then we have to go our separate ways again. They are about to set off on the canoeing part of their holiday on some remote lakes and rivers in the Yukon.

Reunited for a moment with Renate and her family.

Reunited for a moment with Renate and her family. (From right to left: Renate, Jannik, me, Gunter, Malte.)

The air is still thick with smoke as I ride on to Teslin Lake and stop after a short day, seduced by the opportunity to swim. I spent the afternoon sitting watching the smoke, the sky, the water.

Smoke billowing over Teslin Lake.

Smoke billowing over Teslin Lake.

Green bushfire light and grey smoky skies.

Green bushfire light and grey smoky skies.

Smoky sunset at Teslin Lake.

Smoky sunset at Teslin Lake.

Red moon in the smoke.

Red moon in the smoke.

The following morning brings a murky haze which testifies to the presence of the numerous blazes burning across the Yukon, Alaska and British Columbia. Having spent February this year in Australia, where fires of unprecedented ferocity destroyed millions of hectares of bushland and destroyed whole towns with massive loss of life the scene was familiar, if not welcome.

The murky view over the lake in the morning.

The murky view over the lake in the morning.

The smoke is so thick that it is impossible to see the opposite shore of the lake.

The smoke is so thick that it is now utterly impossible to see the opposite shore.

* The ‘lower 48’ is how Alaskans refer the parts of the USA that are not Alaska.

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