Doug Grosjean's
Alaska Trip Report

June 1999

 

Day 16; Sunday, June 13th, 1999
Start: Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
End: Dease Lake, British Columbia, Tanzilla Campground
432 Miles



An easy day, I get up when I want and head out. I happen to head out along the river, and I get to see a couple neat things on the way.

One is a paddlewheeler, up on the banks of the river in a city park. There's a picture of this ship (in a book on paddlewheelers I bought in Dawson City) being dragged down the main street of Whitehorse by bulldozers back in the 1960's to it's present location; the picture is impressive.

The second is that I cross over narrow-gauge railroad tracks at several places along the river, and at the southern edge of town. I think these are from the White Pass and Yukon RR, which came up out of Skagway, AK. People and goods could come up the Inside Passage to Skagway, take the train to Whitehorse, and then take a paddlewheeler into Alaska and the Yukon. Sounds like that would have been quite a trip!

Transportation Routes of the far north
Paddlewheelers of Alaska and the Yukon
In fact, in the book on paddlewheelers that I picked up in Dawson City, the author explains that the transportation system was reliable enough in the early part of the 20th century that many people went south for the winter from Dawson City, rather than stay and brave the cold.

I also suppose that severe winters made mining with the gold dredges in the far north impossible.

Also mentioned in the book is that some of the last work performed by the old paddlewheelers was in modern times, transporting road building equipment up to different drop-off points for the construction of the Alaskan Highway. There’s a photo in the book of a classic paddlewheeler with Army trucks on the deck. The last of the paddlewheelers were retired in the 1950's-1960's.

The weather is perfect again, just a little cool as I head out of Whitehorse, southbound on the Alaskan Highway; but you can dress for cool. A twist of the knob on the Heat-troller, the electric vest warms and all is well.

I figured that it would take a good part of the day to get from Whitehorse to Watson Lake on the Alcan, but the time and miles pass quickly. This part of the Alcan seems fine, there's some construction, ie, gravel, but there's good traction available by staying in the tracks where the car tires have swept it clean. In any case, it's far easier to deal with than the mud on the Dempster Highway was.

I stop for a late lunch at "Mukluk Annie's", a rather touristy restaurant / campground / gift shop that specializes in grilled salmon steaks. Have never had one, so I've just got to try it. While waiting for my salmon, I write out some postcards to the people back home. Then my meal comes, pretty good, pretty big, and pretty thick! I'm not sure I'd like it every day, but it sure hits the spot right now. Have never seen such a big chunk of salmon before !!

After lunch, I continue south on the Alcan, hoping to get a dip in Liard Hot Springs near Watson Lake, which is near the turnoff for the Cassiar Highway. I figure that on a Sunday night, there'll be almost nobody there and it should feel great. But when I get to the turnoff for the Cassiar, which is just before Watson Lake, the Alcan suddenly has heavy traffic and deep gravel, with everybody just slogging along. Hmmm. It's not particularly late in the afternoon, so I blow off the hot springs, gas up at the junction of the Alcan and Cassiar Highways, and start down the Cassiar.

The Cassiar is a 460 mile long scenic wilderness road, built to supply the asbestos mines in the now-closed town of Cassiar. It parallels the Alcan, but while the Alcan was built on the plains as an all weather highway, the Cassiar goes through the mountains, with the guidebooks telling of incredible scenery, little traffic, and lots of wildlife.

It starts with a whimper, then a bang. The road just meanders around in the far north forest, nothing special, and then the rain begins. I slip into my overboots and gloves just in time, and it begins to pour like crazy, then hails while lightning is cracking down not very far away. I ride slowly along, this area is paved so other than the lightning it's no big deal. Then the rain stops, the sun comes back out, and all is well again.

Funny thing that I couldn't help but notice, the road crews mark the locations of potholes pretty thoroughly up here. Fairly regularly, there'll be an orange stake stuck in the ground at the side of the road denoting either a pothole or bad pavement, and if it's really bad they'll also post a sign. I don't know if the orange stakes are for the road crew's benefit, or for travelers, but I'm sure I avoided some hard hits on my soft BMW rims due to the orange stakes.

I just cruise along, enjoying myself and the forest, when a BIG moose steps out of the brush to my left. I stop, trying to guess what a prudent distance might be, and wait. The moose looks at me, then into the brush, and then her calf comes wobbling out of the brush, taking a couple steps onto the roadway, and pauses. The mom looks at me, then at her calf, he takes a few more wobbly steps with another pause, mom looks back at me again - she looks just like a human mom teaching her child to cross the street! I can't help but grin, my son is 4 and I've been through this already. Sounds silly, but I see my own little boy in that wobbly calf. Take all the time you two need, mom...

Eventually, the show is over, and mother and child amble off into the woods in no particular hurry. I continue on my way, passing small homes on either side of the road, and motor past the turnoff for the town of Cassiar.

According to the guidebooks, Cassiar was abandoned / shut down just a couple years ago when the asbestos mine at Cassiar closed down. The town site is off limits, there's a big sign and the road up the hill to Cassiar is blocked. I always think of ghost towns as being from the old west, yet here's a brand new one. Sort of a shame, as it would've been a good place to buy gas or a meal if it was still inhabited.

A little ways south of the town of Cassiar is the Cassiar cemetery. I can't resist things like this, so I pull over and take a walk through the cemetery. I find it humbling, the people buried here were real, they lived and died in Cassiar, bought homes here, raised children, retired; thinking that the town of Cassiar would be here for a long, long time. Now, the town is empty and the dead have been left behind here. Humbling is the right word. The most recent grave is from 1998, there are fresh flowers on a few of the graves, so maybe these people aren't as alone as it seems.

I leave the cemetery and continue south. Jagged snow capped mountains rise up above blue lakes, some scenes also include a mosaic of burned out timber in the lush green; the scenery could be straight out a Colorado travel brochure. This type of mountain scenery goes on for miles, as the Cassiar alternates between good gravel/dirt and pavement. There's a little bit of traffic, but not much. The Milepost warns about log trucks and semi-trucks, but maybe because it's Sunday I don't see many. This is very much a solitary ride now.

Gravel and dirt sections come and go, and as per the guidebook all the old one-lane wooden bridges have been replaced with two-lane wooden bridges. In many places, the old bridge is standing right next to the new one.

I eat supper at the town of Dease Lake, I'm served by a breathtakingly gorgeous First Nations woman. She's a good waitress, and she also asks a lot of questions about how I ended up in Dease Lake and not on the Alcan, what I do for a living, why am I so far up north. The people I run into seem sincerely surprised that anyone would travel all that way to visit their corner of the world, it's as if off the Alcan tourists are a rare thing.

After supper I get a campsite at the north edge of town in Tanzilla Campground. The Tanzilla River flows past the campground, it's perfect. I enjoy a cup of hot chocolate from my campstove as the evening cools. And while it eventually gets a little dim outside, it still isn't getting dark enough to see stars or to need a flashlight. Strange, but I'm starting to really miss the stars.

And now, more than two weeks into the trip, my tent seems more and more like home to me. A two-man Eureka Timberline that I bought just out of high school, nearly 20 years old and heavily used. But as I climb in tonight, with my Thermarest pad down the middle, Aerostich suit on one side of my sleeping bag, and my luggage on the other, just a little niche for me to fit into, the Tanzilla River flowing happily by full of spring runoff, my tent just seems like the perfect place to be, a combination of old friend, and a comforting piece of home away from home.

And then I fall asleep, listening to the river.


Doug Grosjean
Pemberville, Ohio