Northwestern B.C. Road Trip 2014

A road far less traveled, the Stewart-Cassiar Highway 37 traverses the full length of northwestern BritishColumbia from its intersection with Highway 16 in central BC to its conclusion just past the Yukon border. For those with the time it can be a delightfully slower and more meandering alternative to the ALCAN Highway when heading north towards the Yukon and Alaska. But for us, on this particular outing, the Stewart-Cassiar was the destination as well as a point of departure to explore the numerous provincial parks, ecological reserves, wilderness lakes, hiking trails and historic sites located along its path. This 518 kilometer (322 mile) corridor through the wilderness also intersected several other venturesome side roads that enticed us to visit some of the most isolated, and we might add charming, communities accessible by the BC road system.   

At mile 626 on the ALCAN Highway we turned south onto Highway 37, crossed the BC border, and continued across the rolling Liard Plain on the narrow but paved two lane road. The surrounding country was characterized by boreal forest vegetation growing on elongated ridges carved out by enormous glaciers more than 20,000 years ago. Our map showed that this portion of the road was within the traditional territory of the Kaska Dene First Nation who lived in and around the settlement of Good Hope Lake just down the road. We made our first camp at Boya Lake Provincial Park that offered two short hiking trails along its shoreline. During our morning walk the following day we enjoyed the reflection of clouds on the lake’s mirrored surface and found ample sign of moose, caribou and beaver along its edge.

The economy of northwestern BC has been principally driven by mining, starting with a succession of gold rushes in the mid 1800s that took more than a million dollars worth of gold from the Cassiar region alone. In more recent times several nephrite jade mining operations have enriched the local economy by employing both miners and artisans. We stopped in at Jade City to understand more about this green semiprecious stone and to ogle the beautiful jewelry and sculpture that was being locally produced. From the folks at the store we learned that jade has historically been highly prized by the Chinese, even beyond gold and silver, and that prior to the communist revolution the ownership of jade was for the most part the exclusive porogitive of the nobility. However in the past decade or so, with the rising economic power of the middle class, the demand and price for jade has soared. The result has been that today 90% of all the nephrite jade produced in the world now comes from northwestern BC, and 90% of that is exported to China.

The highway skirted the east side of a long azure blue lake before arriving at the town of the same name, Dease Lake. A small community with most all of the needed amenities, it sat at the intersection of the Telegraph Creek Road. Our first substantial side road, we turned to explore this 113 kilometer (70 mile) two lane dirt road after filling up at the service station. The first half of the road was fairly straight and flat and followed the clear flowing Tanzilla River. After awhile we pulled over for a leg stretch and strolled up a short trail where we were stopped in our tracks by the stunning colors of the fall foliage. Scanning the terrain ahead with binoculars we were able to see three mountain goats perched on the canyon walls far in the distance. 

The road began a nerve wracking decent where the Tanzilla entered the larger Stikine River. The one lane track had no guardrails and scary steep drop-offs, sometimes on both sides! Brenda white knuckled it down the narrow switchbacks and prayed that we would not encounter any oncoming traffic. Luckily we met no vehicles coming the other way and the road surface was dry, a good thing since we learned later that the road can be especially slippery after a storm. 

At the bottom of the gorge was the Tahltan First Nation hamlet of Goon-tdar-shaga (where the spring water stops). A collection of seasonal use cabins and smokehouses located strategically at a prime spot for dip netting salmon. We could not help but notice that several of the cabins facing the river exhibited the creativity and artistic flare of their owners.

We were greatly intrigued by the geology in this portion of the Stikine River Provincial Park. The canyon that surrounded us had been carved by the mighty Stikine River and to a lesser extent by the Tanzilla, Tuya and Klastline Rivers that flowed into it. The bedrock along the bottom of the river was so old that it was formed before North America was even a separate continent and the upper layers, which were revealed along the canyon walls, were composed of sedimentary and volcanic rock that had been tortured and twisted by eons of plate tectonic collision and uplift.   

Known as the GrandCanyon of the Stikine, this stretch of the river has been successfully navigated by only a handful of determined individuals and is considered an ultimate challenge for the world’s best whitewater kayakers. The area is also notable for a sizeable population of mountain goats that, unlike their alpine cousins, have uniquely adapted to descending into the steep sided canyons to avoid potential predators. 

Near the end of the road was the small town of Telegraph Creek, which is without a doubt, the most remote town in BC assessable by a road. The older section of town, located along the Stikine River, had several buildings that date back to the gold rush era. An evening stroll through this historic section felt like a walk back in time to the frontier beginnings of the Provence. Telegraph Creek was originally an access point for the construction of a proposed telegraph system that was to connect Vancouver BC to Dawson City in the Yukon. The invention of the wireless radio made the project obsolete but the town and the route carved through the wilderness continued to be used by prospectors, trappers and guides long after the telegraph line was a thing of the past.

We got a room facing the river at the Stikine Riversong Lodge, a 130 year old building that was once the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in the region. We much enjoyed its rustic charm, antique furnishing and historic photos and memorabilia that decorated its walls. Though it was well past the end of the season our charming host made us feel most welcome and shared stories of the towns colorful past and present. For us, one of most interesting local tales was that of Simon Gun-a-noot, a Gitxsan rancher and merchant, who escaped into the northern wilderness to avoid unjust prosecution by the racially biased legal system of his day. His exploits of avoiding capture by the Provencal authorities, the Mounties, professional bounty hunters and even the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency were legendary. However during his thirteen year hiatus public opinion as to of the certainty of his guilt changed, and even though he was personally responsible for the longest and most costly manhunt in Canadian history, in the end he was able to surrender to authorities, have his day in court, and be cleared of all charges. 

A variety of Bio-Geo-ClimaticZones were encountered while traveling through northwestern BC and the species of plants and animals that we observed were a direct result of topography, elevation, soil type, burn history, and weather patterns. As we drove through we would try and identify the various plant communities around us and consider what natural forces had produced them. It was the boreal forest’s Spruce–Willow–Birch Zone occurring in the subalpine elevations that produced the dazzling fall colors that enchanted us along this stretch of the Telegraph Creek Road.

Rising above the Stikine was the Mount Edziza volcanic complex that consisted of multiple peaks covered by several glaciers that flowed out in all directions. This composite shield volcano was created by several basaltic lava flows that occurred during a series of eruptions. The summit is topped by a broad glacier filled caldera almost 2 kilometers wide. We found that there was no vehicle access into the surrounding Mount Edziza Provincial Park but there were a number of trails that, though primitive, reached the base of the volcano for those hearty enoughto make the ascent. During historic times the Tahltan people came to the mountain to mine obsidian, a hard volcanic stone that was used to make tools and weapons. Additionally obsidian was considered a valued trade item with the surrounding tribes due to its geographic rarity.

We had hoped to do some hiking in the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park; a vast alpine plateau surrounded the Skeena, Omineca and Stikine Mountains, world renowned for its breathtaking scenery and large populations of wildlife. The Spatsizi region is also known to many as the “Sacred Headwaters” because the plateau is the shared birthplace of four major salmon bearing rivers, the Klappan, Skeena, Nass and Stikine. Being the province’s second largest park, and certainly one of the most alluring, a trek into the Spatsizi had long been on our bucket list. But when we turned down the Ealue Lake Road that runs to the trailheads on the western side of the park we were stopped by a barricade put in place by the Klabona Keepers Elders Society that stopped all traffic going into the area. We chatted briefly with some of the protesters and learned that there were two principal points of concern that constituted the focus of their occupation. First was the continued mismanagement of game that the Tahltan people have depended on since time immemorial for their food and survival and second was the ongoing threat of environmental depredation to their traditional lands by several large mining companies. Though obviously disappointed not to be able to visit the park we let them know that we stood with them in their fight for sustainable management and preservation of their ancestral lands.

Without further ado we continued south on Highway 37 and camped at Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park, located just a short ways from the trail to the top of Todagin Mountain that is the breeding grounds for the largest herd of Stone Sheep in the province. After that the highway crossed a high pass and the surrounding forest changed from boreal forest to Interior Cedar-Hemlock Zone and with it the vivid fall colors became noticeably diminished. The mountains on the western side changed too, higher and shouldered with small hanging glaciers. When we finally turned west towards the ocean on Highway 37A the forest changed again, this time into the Coastal Western Hemlock Zone, and the surrounding mountains rose even more dramatically until we were greeted by the large Bear Glacier ambling down from the Cambria Icefield.

Highway 37A ends at the towns of Stewart BC and Hyder Alaska, two sea side communities situated at the far end of a long fjord. Nestled amongst the tall Coast Mountains the two towns retain much of their historic charm from when gold and silver mining dominated the early economy, but during our visit tourism and log export seem to be the principle employers. We found that there was a lot to see and do in both towns, trails to hike, a salmon stream with a bear viewing walkway and a small but excellent museum that had sizable amount of information on the local area. The two towns are located side by side, but it’s worth noting that though no passport was needed crossing the border going into Alaska there was a customs checkpoint coming back into British Columbia.

While in Stewart we stayed at the Ripley Creek Inn, a collection of historic houses that overlook the expansive tidal marsh at the end of Portland Canal. The whole place was filled with intriguing curios from the past. The adjacent cafĂ© called the Toastworks Museum housed an impressive collection of, you guessed it, antique toasters and other less than modern kitchen appliances. Brenda’s favorite however was this unusual caterpillar tracked sedan, perfect I suppose for getting around during snowy northern winters. 

It was an old mining road just outside of Hyder that held the biggest surprise of the trip. The sign said Salmon Glacier Road but none of the information we had gathered before leaving home had alerted us to what we might find up this narrow dusty track. But the higher up we climbed the more we knew that we were on to something really special. At the crest of the road the vista of the Salmon Glacier, fifth largest in Canada, was so unexpected and so captivating that we had to stop and ponder our next move.     

It could take months to explore all the mountains, glaciers and alpine meadows available from this road. And though there were few trails the open subalpine vegetation allowed for easy off trail rambling. We found a secluded campsite with a commanding view of the Salmon Glacier and vowed to stay as long as we could.  But in the end it was the weather that was the final arbiter of our plans, when the storm moved in we had to beat a hasty retreat back to civilization.

Our final back road exploration was the Nisga'a Highway 113, a 158 kilometer (98 mile) alternative to the main artery that branched off at Cranberry Junction and concluded at the town of Terrace BC on Highway 16. At first it was a narrow two lane dirt road surrounded by a beautiful mature Interior Cedar Hemlock forest but by the time we entered the village of Gitlaxt'aamiks BC the road was paved and well maintained. We stopped at the Nisga'a government offices and asked directions from the staff, who were very helpful, and visited the Nisga'a museum in Lax̱g̱alts’ap BC which was excellent and give us a deeper understanding of the Nisga'a nation’s rich history and vibrant culture.

A fascinating geographic feature along highway 113 was the Nisga,a lava beds, the result of a volcanic eruption that occurred sometime in the mid to late 1700s. The relatively small volcano, called the Tseax Cone, unleashed a 22.5 kilometer long swath ofdestruction as lava flowed down the valley towards the Nass River. It destroyed two villages and killed more than 2,000 people, mostly due to volcanic gases and poisonous smoke. Even when we visited after more than two centuries little had grown on top of the lava other than lichens and mosses. Along the side of the road we found a memorial to the victims that told the story of the tragedy from the Nisga'a peoples prospective. 

Long ago, two children were playing down by the river. One child caught a salmon and slit open its back. The child stuck sticks into the salmon's back, set them on fire, and returned the fish to the river. The children were amused to see the salmon swim erratically, smoke rising from its back. The other child caught a salmon and slit open its back, inserted a piece of shale, and put it back into the river. The salmon floated on its side, weighed down by the shale. The children laughed at the struggling fish.  An elder happened upon the scene and warned the children, "Take care what you do. The salmon will curse you and the Creator will respond in kind." The ground began to tremble and shake. Nature's harmony had been upset. A scout was sent to investigate. From the top of Gennu'axwt, he saw smoke and flames and ran to warn the people of their fiery destiny. In panic, some villagers fled up the mountain. Others canoed to the far side of the river but were killed by the lava.  As the people watched the lava flow over their villages, Gwaxts'agat (a powerful supernatural being) suddenly emerged to block the lava's advance. For days, Gwaxts'agat fought back the lava by blowing on it with its great nose. Finally, the lava cooled and Gwaxts'agat retreated into the mountain where it remains to this day. -from Nisga'a oral tradition