The Road Back: Denali to Vancouver

Denali Highway

We’re a bit behind in updates on our whereabouts since Denali National Park. In the days following, we’ve driven out of Alaska, down the long empty roads of the Yukon and British Columbia, around the Pacific Northwest, and more than halfway across the country to Indiana via Big Sky country. We have much catching up to do, but that’s what happens when you’re living an adventure. You live it. Sometimes documentation must wait. But now that we have a moment to stay put, we’ll tackle our latest doings in a series of new posts.

Some highlights from our drive back to the Lower 48:

Denali Highway campsite

Denali Highway
From Cantwell, just south of Denali National Park, to Paxon, the 135-mile gravel Denali Highway was not long ago the predominant route accessing the park. The eastern 21 miles are now paved, but the rest remains little used, poorly maintained, and wild. The first thing we saw upon turning east and entering was a large moose crossing the road directly in front of our small-seeming car. The second was a young boy at a lakeside play-firing his toy gun at us, then enthusiastically waving as if in thanks for playing his imaginary victims. The next hundred miles of washboard dirt cross the Nenana and Susitna rivers, winding over the Amphitheater Mountains with long views to the dwindling Alaska Range and distant glaciers.

We camped about halfway that night at a roadside pullout just before a storm hit, the dark line of rain clouds rolling swiftly in from the southeast. The next morning we discovered we had a flat. So, rain still coming down, by the instruction and foresighted gifts of Paige’s dad we took the wheel off, pulled out our tire repair kit, extracted the offending headless screw, plugged the hole, and reinflated with the air compressor. We were quickly becoming seasoned experts in the maintenance and repair of our Subaru.

And that was good. Because the next morning before pulling out of camp in Tok–the drivers’ gateway town into Alaska–we had to extract yet another screw from the same tire and plug two more holes mere inches away from the first one. Feeling pretty competent, we topped off our oil, tightened a few bolts, shipped our gun from Three Bears Outpost, and drove our Frankenstein-wheeled rig back into Canada.

free construction worker

Cassiar Highway
Returned to the Yukon, we retraced a portion of the Alaska Highway (our only repeated section of road) to British Columbia. It felt good somehow to be on a known route, even if that familiarity came in the form of a wild and empty path. Empty of people but not lonely, abundant with majesty and life. We would come to know desolation in long roads ahead, but for now we were enveloped in the fecundity of nature, hugged by it on either side of a narrow road.

Day two retracing the Alaska Highway was warm and beautiful, even in a Far North tinged with autumn. On a map at the side of the road we spotted the Takhini Hot Springs marked just west of Whitehorse and decided to head there on a whim. A divided pool separated hot and warm sections with a narrow channel between, and we swam between the two, soaking and floating for a couple of hours in the Yukon sun before taking once more to the road. A welcome diversion.

The next day we turned south at the lonely junction for the Cassiar Highway, an emptier, narrower version of the Alaska Highway that passes 547 miles through the isolated wooded ranges of northern B.C. An American gentleman at the crossroads gas station was surprised to learn that he was in Canada. He had no recollection of a border crossing from the U.S. though we were at least two full days’ drive and many hundreds of miles from any such crossing. Paige passed as a Canadian as the woman at the counter bemoaned American ignorance.

_MG_8711

Black bears were abundant on this stretch of road. To that point, we had seen mainly grizzlies on our trip, ten of them, and no black bears in Alaska. Yet within twenty miles the black tally, including a pair of cubs, matched the grizzly as they grazed along the roadside every few miles. We’d stop on the road and watch them eat; they’d look at us from a few yards away, curious but unfazed, and continue eating. The final bear we saw–and we have not seen another since–was killed by the car in front of us, who had only recently passed us. The driver looked remorseful as he dragged the dead or dying bear off the road. We sat for a few minutes silently pondering that needless and unfortunate death.

Roadside camping

That night we slept at a rest stop where a dirt road ran down a short hill to a lakeside. Others had clearly made fire there before, and we were away from the road enough that we wouldn’t be disturbed, we thought. Once we’d set up our car for sleeping, though, some folks came down the hill in a couple of trucks full of plywood. We were reading as the light waned and hoping for an early night as the newcomers built up their bonfire and blared bad music two feet away. We exchanged a few friendly words but hoped they’d soon depart and kept reading. Some time later, when a particularly obnoxious girl left in the music truck to seek more booze and wood, we came out of our little shell to chat with the few remaining guys around the fire, and they were more to our liking. They were locals, in a manner of speaking, workers putting up power line towers along this part of the Cassiar. Some came from Prince George or other nearby towns, some from farther provinces, and they came to this spot to get away from camp for a midweek bonfire on the lake. We talked a bit and drove to the top of the hill to a quieter spot for sleeping.

Whistler Olympic rings

Whistler
South of Prince George and the Highway of Tears–a particularly ominous stretch of road where in the last 40 years 18 women have been murdered or disappeared–we turned coastward down the Sea to Sky highway. Starting from the sky side we wound through gorgeous canyons and valleys nestled between high snow-slathered summits. Chamisa, sagebrush, and ponderosa dotting the eastern hills reminded us of our far away former home in Santa Fe, but these quickly gave way to the lush and verdant coastal flora of the wetter mountains. We soaked our feet in Fraser River, cool, clear, and swift and slept the night in the parking lot of Joffre Lakes park before reaching Whistler the next morning.

This time of year Whistler was rife with downhill mountain bikers armored for fast lift-served descents. That particular weekend Whistler was hosting the Ironman. Scores of cyclists in alienesque track helmets and aero wheels lined the highways between Whistler and Pemberton. We managed to hit that portion of the route the last day it was open before the race, and that is the only path to Vancouver without a long backtracking detour. We walked Whistler village, got some coffee, then drove south to walk to 217-foot Brandywine Falls, a worthy sight that reminded us of The Lord of the Rings and the Brandywine River at the Shire’s edge.

Brandywine Falls

Vancouver
The drive along the coast south to Vancouver was idyllic. Cliff walls and green peaks rose to the left, dark blue coves and bays dotted with sailboats and fine homes to the right. On the bridge to West Vancouver we encountered our first shock of traffic, unwelcome after weeks in the relative wild. But the city, by my reckoning anyway, was aesthetically pleasing. Joggers and skateboarders peppered the walkways and parks, people were outside and engaged with their surroundings, however urban. It was a few steps up from, say, Anchorage, our most recent city. Yet we didn’t spend much time in it beyond looking for parking and stepping into a cafe to search for the most likely accommodations. These were outside of the city in Surrey, where we got a long awaited Mexican meal and spent a good few hours wandering, reading, and eating wild blackberries along the trails in Tynehead Park before returning, at long last, to the continental U.S. to visit friends and explore the Pacific Northwest–what we hoped might become our future home.

from sky to sea

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3 thoughts on “The Road Back: Denali to Vancouver

  1. The Casssiar Highway is a beautiful drive, isn’t it? We saw several black bears on our drive (in August) but not as many as you did — and the ones we saw were very shy, running into the woods as soon as we appeared. Of course, our behemoth RV probably scared them off!
    I’ve really enjoyed reading about your travels. Thanks!

  2. Love reading your blogs. Beautiful photos, as well. My favorite line: We have much catching up to do, but that’s what happens when you’re living an adventure. You live it. I’ll pour out a little liquor for the bear the guy who passed you hit.

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