At Mile Marker 91 on the Alaska (ALCAN) Highway, we ground to a stop in a line of trucks. After sitting for 30 minutes the trucker behind us got out and peed on his tire. Another fifteen minutes and I got my sketchbook out. “A motorcyclist is lying across the road. We’re not going anywhere,” the trucker called to me.
“Is there a bypass?” I asked. “Yeah, but it’ll take you hours,” he said. “Might as well just wait.”
So we stood on the road and shot the breeze. My new friend was originally from Vancouver, had come to British Columbia to plant trees, broke his back in a fall, went back to Vancouver to paint houses, and then moved up to northern BC to deliver water to logging camps and gas rigs.
“I’m set to make $300,000 this year,” he told me. While we were talking, a fireball exploded over the treetops.
“What was that?” I exclaimed.
“Oh, that’s just gas,” he answered, totally unmoved. “There’s gas wells everywhere up here. It goes by pipeline to Edmonton and from there to Port Rupert and then Malaysia.” He spoke in a lyrical western Canadian accent and, yes, he did punctuate his speech with “egh.”
For the billions of dollars in natural resources coming out of this area, there’s not much sign of prosperity on the ground. A lot of people live in mobile homes, here where the temperature has dropped to −51.7° C. But there are an equal number of neat frame houses and a plethora of wonderful pickup trucks.
This place has a character totally its own. Stunted willows and fireweed grow in the grassy ditches. An occasional hemlock, spruce or fir breaks the pattern, but mostly it’s been lodgepole pines and aspens. The mountains never achieve the towering heights of the Rockies from Denver to Banff, but it’s no less awe-inspiring, even in a driving rain. As we moved west, the water started acquiring that copper-oxide green that so famously stains Lake Louise in Banff National Park.
We expected to arrive at Liard River at about 6 PM. The second-largest hot springs in Canada are here. Due to road conditions, we actually arrived after 10 PM. It turns out that the hot springs are open 24 hours.
It never grows fully dark this far north, but there are absolutely no lights from civilization. We ventured down through the gloaming. A long boardwalk led through bogs and running water. My love of hot springs warred with my fear of grizzly bears, but we prevailed and spent a lovely hour warming our joints in a misty, dark corner of the forest, accompanied by a few other hardy souls. It was midnight when we started back to our lodge.
On the boardwalk, we were overtaken by a ranger. He offered us a ride. I stood on the back of his cart, overlooking the cab. Periodically he would stop and shine a light into the boggy mist. “What will you do if you see a bear?” I asked.
“Shoot over his head and scare him away,” he answered. And to think there are people who go to Disney for entertainment.