Now, another stranger

Panorama of mountains west of Mount Whistler, British Columbia.
Panorama of mountains west of Mount Whistler, British Columbia.

By the way, you can click on any of these travel photos to see the big version. These are all huge pictures, you just have to keep them to a certain width to fit within the blog template.

Coming back into civilization, it is impressive how quickly you go from having some sense of familiarity with strangers to gaining complete detachment and anonymity. For most of this trip, there has been only one major road, with junctions often hundreds of miles apart. Thus you may pass a car or some cyclists, or they may pass you. At some point down the line, you will see them again. There is a sense of shared journey even if you don’t know anything beyond their car and the origin of their license plates (I played the game, and ended up with 34 US states and nine Canadian provinces).

Whistler is a giant tourist facility, even in summer. Besides mountain bikers and upscale shopping types, huge summer programs ferry blue-hatted upper-middle class children to the chair lifts and from activity to activity. This is the familiar feeling: to be lost amidst a large crowd going a million different directions. Even at home in the Bay Area, this is the environment I live in. At some point there are too many people and too many agendas and destinations. It feels odd to come from rural British Columbia and enter the system as a temporary outsider. No wonder people have culture shock when they move to a city, or from a rural environment to a developed country.

Black Tusk, Coast Mountains, British Columbia.
Black Tusk, Coast Mountains, British Columbia.

The natural scenery is now behind me, to be replaced tomorrow with the spectacle of the Vancouver Celebration of Light.

Colossus walks

Wood bison in profile. Northern British Columbia. Taken by Steven Mackay
Wood bison in profile. Northern British Columbia.
Taken by Steven Mackay

The Wood Bison is enormous. It’s a subspecies of the American bison, which gringos from Europe called buffalo. They are rather widespread in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, but not so much in British Columbia. Unfortunately, a large portion of the population are killed each year in collisions with cars. Not surprised, as this guy was spotted walking down the road- the white at the bottom is the partition between the road and the gravel side.

What you learn from several days in rural B.C. is that driving at night is a horrible idea. Besides the windy roads and frequent rain, there is also forest fire smoke reducing visibility, and several huge animals wandering about that you do not want to get in an accident with. Besides bison, there are stone sheep, caribou, moose, and both black and Grizzly bears. For various reasons, they all tend to congregate on or near roads.

As a tourist you often have the luxury of traveling in the day and hunkering in for the night. Those that by necessity travel during the night have much danger to consider.

An adult male moose grazes in a pond, west of Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Steven Mackay
An adult male moose grazes in a pond, west of Muncho Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Steven Mackay

Moose are big dudes. This male was full-size and very intimidating when he wanted to be. This was taken with a very long lens- he is in the rear of a lake next to the Alaska Highway. The travelers next to us said he had been in the same place the day before. With a look like that, he was clearly too powerful to worry about humans with cameras.

Compared to most modern freeways, the Alaska Highway is still very much in wild country. If not purely wild, it is wild-adjacent. Even though now it is a modern, fully-paved artery for business and tourism, no effort is needed to see vast wilderness and very little to see iconic animals of the Canadian West.

British Columbia, in all its forms

Panorama of Salmon Glacier; Hyder, Alaska. Photo taken by Andrew Mackay
Panorama of Salmon Glacier; Hyder, Alaska.
Photo taken by Andrew Mackay

Western British Columbia is some of the roughest country in North America. Any traveler has to drive east into the main road system, as there is no road down the coast to Vancouver. That means little internet, no cell service, and towns that challenge an urban or suburban dweller’s idea of scale.

Whirlpool Canyon, British Columbia. two rock formations have been tilted over time. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Whirlpool Canyon, British Columbia. two rock formations have been tilted over time.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

Stewart, B.C., for instance, is the sister town of Hyder, Alaska. The latter is the only SE Alaskan town you can reach by road, and has a population of about 85. Stewart is immense in comparison, at just under 500.

Despite that, the almost-wilderness of the west is much preferred to the oil and gas boomtowns in Alberta and northeastern B.C. While both sport many small towns, the coast has been settled longer. Stewart is in mining country, and is surrounded by historic buildings. A place like Fort Nelson or Grade Prairie has no history, they were built yesterday. Anything cultural is superior in these settled towns, as businesses and traditions have had generations to germinate and thrive. Notably the food. Oil country is a mix of fast food, bar food, and the occasional high-minded restaurant that seems unsure of its clientele or purpose. Stewart has the superb Bitter Creek Cafe, which would gel with upper-tier San Francisco eateries in terms of decor and quality. Before that, the Bell 2 Lodge on the way south from Watson Lake, Yukon has an incredible restaurant that understood the beauty of a butternut squash puree not nuked by heavy cream. If my hometown had one excellent restaurant for every 500 people, I would be ecstatic.

Boya Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Boya Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

One trip, two provinces, two Canadian territories, and two U.S. states. Today I saw my first traffic light in six days, and 980 miles. What you learn about any rural community is that it’s not about size, but trajectory. Some energy boomtowns are growing so fast that you will routinely see 18-wheelers hauling entire prefabricated houses. Often the largest settlement is the worker’s camp just off the highway, rather than any established towns. Others are in sharp decline, on their way to ghost town status. There were people, once, but they have died or moved on to better and brighter opportunities.

Most, however, lie on the chain that ties ascendency to decay. They exist. In time, many mining communities like Anyox fell apart, their economies stalled and the sky came crashing down. Rule of thumb dictates that given time, what towns do survive will eventually become historic. Places like Stewart get a sort of interest added each year. Just like mass-produced crap from the 50s gain value in part because much of what was originally made was thrown away, th

West of Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Andrew Mackay
West of Muncho Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

Like many long road trips, the path reveals contrasts. Look west, and it’s the unaccessible coastal range of B.C., look east and there is a massive set of power lines been constructed across the province to assist with energy extraction. Look south, it’s the vibrant and diverse city of Vancouver and its metropolitan area. Look north, and witness a series of First Nation communities that still deal with a great deal of inequity and isolation.

The northwest of the U.S. and Canada are a great experience, and there is some value in driving a circle route, rather than cutting across the provinces between Jasper and Vancouver. Beauty can often come from a view at a remote turnout. It doesn’t always show up in a guidebook.

Edit: Per the comment posted, I will reformulate what I said about Nelson and Prairie. Part of history is the present moment. What both communities have right now is sprawl and a whole town geared towards business executives, with tourists as a distant afterthought. This is unfortunate, as one is the main city before the Alaska Highway, and another is on the Highway itself. In terms of poorly-planned sprawl and hostility to pedestrians, it reminds me much of interior California, or the main freeways going through the American South.

Perhaps these communities will regain a sense of heritage that isn’t drowned in giant rigs and clearcutting. One would hope they are not consumed by the oil boom, and their scenery and appeal is not irrevocably harmed. Though Grande Prairie is quite a bit older than Stewart, no part of it would give you that idea. It’s one thing to have no history and be a sprawltastic community, it’s another to have history but be indistinguishable from one that does not.

A trip through two states, two provinces, and two territories

Spahats Falls, Wells Gray Provincial Park Taken by Andrew Mackay
Spahats Falls, Wells Gray Provincial Park
Taken by Andrew Mackay

In an ambitious journey, the past four days has seen my dad and I head from Seattle to Grande Prairie, Alberta. That’s about 800 miles, not including detours. Still to come are northern British Columbia, including Fort Liard in the Northwestern Territories and Watson Lake in the Yukon. Coming down on the western coast of BC, we will enter Alaska at the tiny ghost town of Hyder (which is for all practical purposes a Canadian town), and end up in Vancouver on the 30th.

While the first two days were gorgeous, including the pictured falls at Wells Gray north of Kamloops, B.C., and the narrowest point on the Fraser River at Hell’s Gate, since then it has been rather bleak. Western Canada is facing huge forest fires all, with hundreds added in the past couple days. All the smoke made the usually great views from Jasper not worth much, and it has been getting worse as we’ve worked out way north on the eastern side of the Canadian Rockies.

We hope to eventually get past the fires and return to clear weather. I have gotten used to the driving conditions of rural Canada, and find it if anything rather exciting.

Photos will continue to trickle in. I will be combining my iPhone 5S photos (like the pictured one, shot using the panoramic feature), and my dad’s work on a DLSR camera that takes rubbish pictures whenever I try to use it.