Chasing Ghosts Up The Stewart - Cassiar Highway 37
Well I found myself in Terrace / Kitimat BC. The last major stop before you hit the real isolated wilds of British Columbia. This area has amazing and big scenery in it's own right. Dramatic mountains, abundance of wildlife, all pretty much situated at the mouth of the Northwest corridor connecting North America to the Pacific Ocean. A striking composition of oceans, mountains, rivers, unspoiled forests all overflowing with wildlife and sheer beauty. And in my first paragraph, I'm thinking to myself, you are going to need to get that thesaurus pumping, because everything about my 10 days that I was going to experience was beautiful.
I decided months ago that I wanted to drive North, as far North as I can go in summer and take it
all in. Most of this was sparked by a revolting, over the top sentimentality that I harbour about
everything. You see my grandparents used to live in an Asbestos mining town called Cassiar in the 1980's. My grandfather was a millwright. It was a mine established in the 50's which supplied much of the world with it's top grade Asbestos. Seems absurd I know, but this was before everyone realised it was not such a fun thing to play with. Anyhow, Cassiar was a thriving town of about 5000 people at one point set in a beautiful valley in Northern British Columbia.
So not long after my Grandparents, Milan and Mileva Lazic set up shop in Cassiar, the rest of us, my parents, brother and I, would come visit from across the country from the big smoke of Montreal. It was the first time I'd ever been on a plane. We flew CP air, (now defunct Canadian
Pacific Airlines). I remember being totally impressed that they'd just give you decks of cards if you asked for them. That was about all the inflight entertainment there was back then. What an adventure it was though, flying to the opposite end of the country and landing in Watson Lake, Yukon. How we marveled at the tiny one room airport that we landed in. It was certainly a huge contrast to the gleaming big Dorval airport in Montreal.
It may have been a small airport, I thought to myself but I got really excited to hear that we were getting the "limousine" service to the town of Cassiar a few hours away. My spirits were quickly dashed when I realised that "limousine" meant a bus on a bumpy, dusty dirt road for a few hours.
We crossed the border back into British Columbia, and I'm sure I must have napped most of the way, it was probably a solid 20 hour journey, quite a lot for a kid of about 8. Finally we arrived in Cassiar to Mileva's home cooking, and loud shouting at my grandfather for sneaking swigs of Serbian plum brandy from the liquor cabinet. All very familiar. It was all very different but still very much the warm comfort of my grandparent's home. We spent the next few weeks having amazing
adventures filled with fishing, hanging out in log cabins, narrowly avoiding getting our arses burnt in a major forest fire and exploring Cassiar. My grandparents were prolifically social and it was amazing how many Yugo's were in Cassiar, there was no shortage of people to visit and other kids to play with. They'd gather together almost daily, and drink... anything they could get their hands on and Turkish coffee, and talk and eat and cook pigs on spits together, and eat and drink some more. It was a very social, lively community.
The town itself probably had a population of about 5000 at that time I'd guess, most people lived
in very comfortable, but portable trailer homes, with additional porches, and roof structures built over them to protect them from the abundance of snow in winter. Cassiar is very much in the middle of the mountains with extreme climate. Very cold and snowy winters, hot and dry summers. Very little nighttime in the summer, and very little daytime in the winter, being so far north. The town had all the basics, there was a one room mail order Sears depot, a Royal Bank of Canada outlet, a general store where my grandfather used to steal fishing lures from, (he genuinely resented having to pay for them i think. I don't know but there's something
heartwarming about old people that steal things, although karma would get back at Milan, the hooks would get tangled in his jacket pocket and he'd wind up ruining his jacket, having to cut the pocket out), medical and government facilities. Probably a bar? I'm sure it had a bar. But I was 8, we weren't hanging out in those kinds of places yet. At the end of my grandparent's street there was a beaver dam. Just the most picturesque setting. My brother and I would come and visit at least a few more times on our own in the coming years in both winter and summer.
I started my journey thinking of these fantastic memories of community, family, fishing spots and adventure, so from Terrace I went North to go find these things again.
Heading up from Terrace, there are some amazingly beautiful lakes and some small towns along the way and it is not far out of the area that you lose cell phone service, and there pretty much isn't any again until you hit the Yukon, so if you are going to traverse this route, make sure you are
prepared. Carry some cash just in case. Make sure you have fresh water and refreshments, and use every opportunity to top up your tank as you can. I was in the ol' Fleetwood Bounder, so I was pretty stocked to the gills.
The first notable crossroads that you will come to is the Meziadin Junction. Turning right takes you into remote wilds of the BC interior leading to the Yukon and the Alaska Highway, turning left takes you to Stewart BC, which is about 45 mins drive away. TURN LEFT!
Stewart is spectacularly beautiful. I won't go into to much detail. But it was essentially founded by
prospectors and was part of the Gold and Silver Rush in the late 1800's early 1900's. It's small, charming and picturesque. It has a real oldy worldy wild west charm about it, but is still very much a bit of an industrial town with it being the last ice free Northern Port in Canada. It borders Hyder Alaska. It's surrounded by mountains, prone to avalanches and road closures in the winter, there are spectacular glaciers to see, (especially in Hyder) and I saw some significant avalanches
on the drive out of town. It's cute and quaint and big and dramatic at the same time. I parked the Bounder up at beautiful little spot surrounded by trees backing onto some caves. Spectacular!
The next day, long driving day back through the Meziadin Junction up to Dease Lake. Again, no shortage of bears grazing on the side of the road, small little settlements, but eventually the road becomes a little more narrow, and the there's no line markings anymore. That's when you realise you're not in Kansas anymore. This is proper middle of nowhere kind of vibes. The scenery changes slightly
from the Dramatic big lush west coast hills of Stewart, to a more wild, and austere, perfunctory, but no less dramatic landscape. I got to Dease Lake after a full day of driving, which is a small community, with the basics to enable this remote place to get by. There's a gas station and general store, liquor store, hot food served, cash machine, mechanic, and a few other businesses and government outlets. Everyone in town was very friendly and helpful. No awkward, "you ain't from around here are ya boy?" moments. I filled up with gas, and drove back down south about 5 minutes to an empty campground I'd spotted in a beautiful location right beside a roaring river. A basic spot with firepits, but no services. Video is above.
On the way out of Dease Lake, just North of town is an RV park and campground, called the
Water's Edge Campground, (Video below) with no full hookups, but with water, free firewood and wifi... up until about 10pm when the lovely old man who owns the place turns off the generator. It's right on Dease Lake itself and well worth staying for the amazing scenery. The owner's son owns the mechanic shop in town. I got chatting with an Australian couple (as you do) who's old banger of a motorhome had packed in, so they were waiting a week or so for parts to arrive. We both agreed you could get stuck in worse places.
The next day was find Cassiar Day! I was exploding with excitement. I packed up the Bounder in
record time, gas tank full, and off I headed North. The journey up would only be shy of 2 hours. In my mind I knew that our favourite trout fishing spot was on the way to Cassiar. I had studied google maps for hours and narrowed it down to 3 possible lakes. We used to go fishing in the twilight after 10 pm. My grandparents and my brother and I. The boys would fish, while my Grandmother was in charge of the not so nice bits of fishing and refilling coffee and hot chocolate mugs. We would stand on a rickety old dock and fish off of that in the pristine beauty that surrounded us. The fish were so abundant, some nights we couldn't pull them in fast enough. My grandfather would smoke them and save them for winter.
I drove ridiculously slowly with every lake I passed looking for those key features that I'd recognise! What I came to realise is that
things change after 35 years. I'm pretty sure the spot where we fished from, was bulldozed over to create a rest area. I found remnants of a road that was flooded as the lake topography had changed. Never Mind. I carried on North to the next iconic landmark before Cassiar, Jade City!
My grandparents bought me a little jade frog from there 35 years ago, and I've carried it around the world with me on all my travels, so I was excited to go back there and see if there were any jade frog cousins for sale. Well Covid 19 had taken it's toll, and Jade City was temporarily closed to the public. Never mind.
Next Stop the old town site of Cassiar. The old asbestos mine is now a jade mine. But I was eager
to see what was left of the town site. The turn off was there just as I remembered, just past jade city. My heart was pounding as I was on the home stretch. I honestly didn't know what to expect. I knew the old town was fenced off, and access by rando's like me was probably frowned upon, but I was determined to go and push the boundaries. I really wasn't expecting to see anyone. Surprising to me was, what was a sparsely inhabited road a long time ago, now had quite a few houses built on it. As I got nearer I started to recognise a few things. I remember certain houses in a meadow, which were now abandoned and dilapidated, I looked to my right and saw the unmistakable site of the mountain of green mining tailings! I knew around this corner, the town was there, where people lived and worked and drank Serbian plum brandy, and played, and stole fishing lures, and socialised. It halted abruptly when I had to stop and wait for a guy with a big loader, loading tractor tires onto a flat bed. Ah... ok. Well I guess this is where it ends. He didn't acknowledge me, but I carried on carefully up to him and opened my window. He was nice enough, rugged and decked out like you'd expect a man loading scrapped truck tires onto a flatbed, in the middle of nowhere, in a ghost town, to look like. And I mean that respectfully. I explained who I was and what I was looking for, and I hadn't been here in 35 years, and he shrugged a bit and said, "well, the town sites over there, but there's nothing there. There's really nothing there. " There really wasn't. There was a gate and a sparse forest. Mother nature had done it's best to reclaim the community.
Around the corner was what was best described as a scrap yard. I asked him how close I could get, and he said, "well up to that gate really, but beyond that there's nothing, you can go turn around in the circle there. But you're welcome to go have a look just over there by my Dad. That's my Dad, Scrappy Larry over there, from the TV show." Looking at me like that would mean something to me. "We get people coming here all day who used to live in the town or want to meet my Dad cause of the show". So the entrance to the town site had become a hoarder's heaven of all manner of scrap, and the local character Scrappy Larry was a regular feature on the show Jade Fever apparently.
Disappointed. In ways, yes. But I took some photos, and paid my respects to Cassiar and my childhood and headed out. I had one long last lingering longing look over my shoulder as I rounded the tailings mountain. It just seems so odd that a place so full of life would be so empty now.
Feeling a little deflated, I carried on driving up 37, and didn't want to really drive too far, I felt like soaking in my old, yet mostly unrecognisable playground a while longer. Not far up the road I hit Boya Lake, and decided to check it out.
GO TO BOYA LAKE. What an absolutely magical place. It's a provincial park and campground, with
the most amazing coloured water, pristine in every sense of the word. There's fresh water available, no electricity or dump sites. I honestly could have stayed here a week. They have kayaks to borrow for free, and beautiful camp sites on the water. It's breathtaking. It's at places like this where you have to stop and breathe. You need to listen to the nature and look at the beauty unfolding before you. Here is where you need to take in the minutiae of nature and let it soak into you. There were dramatic rain showers in the distance and the whole scene was framed with a rainbow, while a beaver scurried along on the lake. Honestly, you cannot make this
up. Go to Boya Lake. Go. Plan to leave worries behind and enjoy.
The next morning the plan was to head to Watson Lake, reacquaint myself with the famous Watson Lake Sign Posts. I had desperately wanted to go to the Watson Lake Hotel for a meal. It was the place in town, and we always stopped there when we were coming and going. Sadly it burnt down over a decade ago. Never mind, it was off to get
some gas and then travel along the Alaska highway, not west to Alaska, as the border was closed, but East to Liard Hot Springs (also closed due to Covid) and finally Muncho Lake. I wasn't really sure what to expect or what I was getting myself into but flying by the seat of my pants is my favourite! Off I went.
Leaving the Cassiar area was a bit lonely, and the scenery distinctly changes from dramatic mountains to a plateau riddled with past year's forest fires. It was surreal in parts, almost Mordor- like. The road seemed narrower and very sparsely trafficked. You kind of zone out when you drive like that for hours, and need to remind yourself occasionally that it is a 2 lane road, and big trucks carrying cargo are likely coming at you... SO BE CAREFUL!
A few hours later out of nowhere I was in the Yukon in front of a dusty gas station and a border control crossing. (again the Yukon border was controlled due to Covid). The border people let me in, but said I needed to get out of the territory within 24 hours, and there was to be no stopping at the Watson Lake Sign posts. Well I got some gas, and played with the dogs at the gas station and then made my way into Watson Lake, said screw it and got some groceries and visited the Watson Lake Sign Posts Forest.
Sign Post Forest is a collection of signs at Watson Lake, Yukon and is one of the most famous of
the landmarks along the Alaska Highway. It was started by a homesick GI in 1942. He was assigned light duty while recovering from an injury and erected the signpost for his hometown: Danville, Ill. 2835 miles. (Wikipedia) People then over the years have added their own signs and it has grown and grown.
This was very familiar to me instantly. Although it is much bigger now! But it was nice to retrace some footsteps and some very fond memories with my parents and grandparents and my brother.
I took a few snaps, and off I went East along the Alaska Highway. After a while I think some people might get bored, but leaving that plateau and traveling in the the Northern Rocky Mountains, is one of the least boring things I can think of. Actually I don't know how anyone could be bored by this landscape. It's so dynamic, and so full of wildlife. When you are driving these roads, you learn to pick out subtle changes in colour in the distance, that you soon learn to recognise as specific kinds of wildlife. I was driving miles past Dease Lake and I saw an animal scurrying on the side of the road. Oh it was no squirrel, this was a larger mammal. I thought, oh my what is this exotic creature of the forest? It doesn't move like a lynx or mountain lion, could it be a wolf? Oh I think that is a brown tinged wolf of some kind, perhaps hunting caribou with it's pack somewhere? Maybe because this one is brown, it denotes some kind of Alpha status!!?? Oh wait wasn't that the grey one with Liam Neeson? Yeah definitely grey. As I drove closer my mind was still trying to figure this creature out. What could it be..... DOG, it's a dog Aleks, you idiot.
The Alaska Highway is definitely a more well traveled route than highway 37, there are some
spectacular sites along the way to Muncho Lake. If you are driving be prepared to pull over quickly and take in some scenery and get photos. I didn't stop at Liard, as the hot springs were closed, but.... but... The herds of wild Bison along the way made a grown man squeal. What utterly amazing creatures with their wise faces, grazing on grass and having naps. Barely taking notice of me and my obnoxious motorhome blaring Oasis while I filmed them like some kind of tone deaf tourist. Wild Bison. Amazing.
Next stop, nestled in a beautiful breathtaking valley, yes another one, is Muncho Lake. There is a
resort here called the Northern Rockies Lodge with cabins and an rv park, and rooms for rent. They have a float plane and take people on guided tours. There are fantastic facilities and a restaurant if you aren't up to cooking. I can't say enough amazing things about Muncho Lake. Enjoy the photos I have here. You need to go to this place and experience the whole journey, Bison and all.
So. That was my journey chasing ghosts up the Cassiar highway. What did I learn? I already knew I was too sentimental for my own good. But I learnt that things do change. The landscape changes, communities change, climate changes, the Earth changes, people change, but as my favourite author Robertson Davies said, "We shall have our rich memories". So I learnt that despite the disappointments I faced along the way, I have those fantastic memories. Beautiful vivid ones, and I'm going to hold them a little closer to my heart now. I am grateful for how good it was reconnecting to this land again. You should go see it. It's very special. The whole journey up highway 37 to the Alska Highway and beyond is remarkable. If you stop by Cassiar, give a nod to Scrappy Larry, and a smile for Milan and Mileva.