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Travelogue - 06/26/04                                                                                                                               Links to all Travelogue pages

 

Vancouver to the Yukon

I passed through some powerfully beautiful mountain country - the Whistler/Blackcomb Mountains, I believe -  northeast of Vancouver, but I did not linger. I was tracking eastward towards the fabled Banff region of the Canadian Rockies.

Soon after coming down out of that first mountain range into lake country I happened upon a small-town fundraiser in progress featuring these swingin' line dancers. Who says we don't get wild & crazy out here in the sticks?

Somewhere in south central British Columbia I drove by a mining & mineral process equipment re-seller, which is something I never new existed. Did you? The place was such an unusual sight - acres of bizarre-looking machinery and parts - that I stopped to check it out and wound up taking quite a few photographs. The company buys this stuff at liquidation sales, refurbishes much of it, and sells it worldwide via the Internet.

click any thumbnail photo to enlarge

 

The Road to Banff

Rogers Pass through the mountains west of Banff was a pretty spectacular place. I found a forest road that was blocked by a landslide a mile or so back from the highway and I parked there for a couple of days, alternately writing and trail-biking into the wild country beyond the slide.

I began seeing more and more wildlife, mostly alongside the roads as I traveled in the RV. 

 
 
 

Sometimes pulling over to observe the local wildlife can be dangerous in the most unexpected ways. I stopped to watch the mountain goats way up on the cliff in this photo. When they moved behind a ledge out of view, I got back in my RV and prepared to drive on, but before I did I heard several loud BANGS on my roof. Realizing those goats were kicking loose rocks down from the high cliff above me, I pulled out as quickly as I could.  


It wasn't until a couple of days later that I noticed a jagged, 3" crack in the ceiling inside the cabin. Right away I suspected what had happened, and sure enough when I dug out the ladder and got up on the roof to investigate I found a large, wedge-shaped rock embedded so deeply that it had cracked the inside ceiling several inches beneath. I spend most of an afternoon repairing the hole, parked in a tranquil spot by a clear mountain stream. 


 

The Banff and Jasper National Parks were as advertised. Few places in this world are as stunningly beautiful. I don't know enough adjectives to describe it adequately. See for yourself:


(Hey, do I take some awesome photos or what?)

 

From Jasper I decided to head west again, to the city of Prince George, BC to re-provision. I spent the night a little west of Jasper and got an early start the next day, just before sunrise. In the first 15 minutes, I saw several bears, two elk, a moose and a bunch of deer. Before that morning was over I counted a dozen more bears, mostly black and one brown, grazing alongside the road, seemingly oblivious to the passing traffic.

 

Bear Facts

If that morning's drive was any indication, there are a LOT of bears in these woods. Way more bears than people. I sometimes hike and bike way back into the forest, so I've been making a point of learning how to deal with these big fellows, talking to locals, rangers and even a couple of bear hunters. Here are a few things I've learned:

  • Make noise when you're hiking in thick brush, or when approaching a blind turn in the trail. This is especially important when moving fast on a mountain bike. Most bears will move away if they hear you coming. Hand-clapping works. So does calling out in a strong base voice, or even singing, which is my favorite technique. I find that if I sing calypso songs, particularly old Harry Belafonte and Mighty Sparrow tunes, I never see any bears on the trail. Barry Manilow songs are said to put the bears into a modified state of hibernation. However, singing any kind of rap music will almost certainly cause all bears within earshot to attack immediately, even black bears.

    Seriously though, do not whistle or make other high-pitched sounds. Small animals such as rabbits and squirrels often make high screeching noises when they're being attacked by predators. This is the sound of a death in progress, an invitation for bears to investigate to see whether there's a free meal waiting to be taken away from some smaller predator.

  • If you encounter a bear in the woods, stop and then back away slowly. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Talk to the bear to help it identify you as a human. Avoid making eye contact. Don't turn your back on the bear. Don't run - you can't outrun a bear, not even on a bicycle.

  • A bear may charge at you and then turn away at the last moment. I don't know how you're supposed to know if he's going to turn away, but apparently it does happen sometimes. At that point, wave your arms, yell at the bear, make noise. If the bear continues to follow you, throw rocks or sticks to drive him away. Don't allow him to follow you.

  • If a bear attacks you unprovoked, fight back as hard as you can with anything you can get your hands on. I carry bear spray and a club most of the time now when I'm out in the woods. I bring along my 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun when local laws don't prohibit it. With its shortened barrel, pistol grip stock and shoulder strap (my modifications) it's easy to carry slung across my back. I keep it loaded with alternate rounds of buckshot and rifle slugs. It packs a punch at close range and, while I doubt you would kill a bear instantly with a 12-gauge, you might dissuade him from killing you. Of course, if you manage to fire a rifle slug into a bears heart, it will die. I'm not trying to be some kind of Davie Crockett macho man about this stuff, but I do intend to defend myself if I am ever attacked.

  • If you literally stumble into a bear (or ride smack into one while trail-biking, which has been known to happen) so that he has reason to think he's being attacked, he will almost certainly fight back. In that case, the local wisdom seems to be to take a submissive approach by laying down on your stomach and covering your head and neck as well as you can, to show the bear you're no threat. 

  • Some people recommend carrying bear spray, which is a strong pepper spray in an aerosol can. I bought some and wear it on my belt whenever I go into the woods up here. Some claim it has saved their lives when they were attacked. On the other hand, one bear hunter scoffed at the idea and said the spray will only piss a bear off more. Who knows? There seem to be more votes for than against this form of protection, so I carry it.

  • That same hunter told me a story of being attacked by a bear in his campsite one evening. His brother, who was with him, grabbed a small log from the firewood pile and slammed it down on the bear's skull as hard as he could. The log snapped in two and the bear didn't even seem to notice. As it charged at the brother, this guy telling me the story said he picked up a fishing pole that happened to be handy and slapped the bear on the snout with it. The bear instantly broke off the attack and took off running. In another story I heard just yesterday, a fellow being attacked smacked the bear on the snout with a rock and the bear stopped and went away. It seems bears, like dogs, have sensitive snouts. So I carry a hefty stick when I'm hiking if I don't have the shotgun with me.

Hell, I don't know. If one of those huge monsters actually attacks me I just might die of fright on the spot, but I hope I'd fight. Yeah, I'd fight. I'd be too scared not to. Mostly I hope I never get to find out. It boils down to karma anyway, doesn't it? I mean, you could get run over by a truck just crossing a street, right? Lots more people get run over than mauled by bears, don't they? Well, maybe not out in the woods.

Everybody up here has a bear story. I've heard some really scary ones from the locals. It seems people are killed up here every year. The papers and tourist brochures don't play it up, but according to the people that live here it happens fairly often. Bears do sometimes attack for no apparent reason. One bear killed an entire family of three at Laird Hot Springs last summer, a place I visited a few days ago. They're unpredictable and a very real danger in these parts (the bears, not the families of three). Still, in the end I don't think its reason enough to stay out of the woods any more than sharks are reason enough to stay out of the water, assuming you apply some common sense to different situations. After that, you just pays your money and you takes your chances.

I ran my errands in the City of Prince George, got out the same day and headed north. In another day or two I reached Dawson Creek and the official beginning of the famous, or should I say infamous, Alaska Highway.

  

The Alaska Highway is sometimes described as a 1500-mile dirt & gravel track through the wilderness, but that's by people that haven't been on it in the past 20 years, if ever. Certainly, that's how the road started out back in the early-mid 1940's when the American Army built it as a US/Canadian military defense route, but today nothing could be further from the truth. I have found the Alaska Highway to be a first-rate, properly paved and very well maintained modern highway, comfortably cruised at 65 miles per hour much of the time. There are occasional rough stretches, well marked, usually sections that are under reconstruction. Overall it's an engineering marvel, a  tribute to the Americans that originally carved it out of the wilderness and to the Canadian Department of Transportation for constantly upgrading it over the years since then.

 It's pleasant driving the Alaska Highway, at least in the summertime. Breathtakingly scenic, it's lightly used and I often go for long stretches without seeing another vehicle on the road. Definitely no traffic jams. If several vehicles are in the same place at the same time, it tends to be more like a social event. People wave. Drivers will often slow down & pull over to let another pass when they see they're being overtaken, this being a 2-lane highway with a third, passing lane thrown in only occasionally. Everybody is courteous. Nobody honks or yells.

Sometimes a crowd gathers because someone has stopped to watch an animal along the roadside, which attracts the attention of the next passerby who pulls over to see what it is, and so on. I've seen half-a-dozen campers & cars pulled onto the shoulder in the middle of nowhere, some people out of their cars taking photographs. Inevitably it slows other traffic that does not choose to stop - the locals and the commercial truckers - but no one seems to mind as long as the travel lanes are left clear. 

Near Disaster

The other day I managed to stop traffic all by myself, and I damned near lost my RV in the process. I was barreling along at around 65 mph when I spied an enormous bison, a buffalo, grazing along the edge of the forest.  I wanted a closer look, but by the time I had come to a stop I was 100 yards or so beyond the animal. So I backed up along the road's shoulder, something I've done before when there isn't any traffic coming up behind me. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that the shoulder, which was wide enough where I had stopped, grew narrower behind me. In fact, it dropped off steeply into a deep ravine. As I was reversing, I suddenly felt the RV lean away from the road. I hit the brakes and came to a halt just barely in time, with the truck heeled to starboard at an alarming angle. 

I tried driving forward onto the wider shoulder again, but the RV wouldn't budge. When I got out to see why, I discovered that the shoulder, which had looked solid enough, was in fact very soft along the rim of that slope. Both of my back tires had dug themselves into furrows and spun vainly when I tried to drive forward or back. The front tires had actually started sliding down the hill and stopped only because they had each plowed up a mound of earth and gravel sideways that was acting like a little wall. That appeared to be all that was keeping the entire vehicle from sliding down and dropping into the ravine below. In fact, at the angle it was sitting, it would have taken very little to topple it sideways, sending it rolling over into the deep gully. I was on the verge of loosing my RV right then and there and I didn't see any way to get myself out of the predicament.

Cars and RV's came along. Some passed by slowly. Some stopped to offer suggestions - mostly that I had better get a tow truck out there. The nearest one, I gathered, was about 100 miles away in Watson Lake. It would take a couple of hours for someone to get there and send help, and a couple more hours for the tow to arrive. I didn't think my RV would sit at that precarious angle for another 5 minutes, let alone 4 hours. It appeared ready to topple at any moment. 

I managed to get a shovel and some plywood out of a side locker and tried digging out the back tires, using the plywood to give them traction. But when I put the engine in reverse the tires just dug in deeper and the van seemed even closer to falling over and tumbling down the hill. 

I stood by the side of the road, dismayed and disbelieving, thinking my great Northwest adventure was about to come to an ignominious end right then and there. There was no question whatsoever that the RV would be totaled if it fell into that ravine. What a bummer!

Then salvation arrived in the form of a couple from Indiana driving a very big, bus-like RV. The guy graciously offered to pull me out of there and I readily accepted. I had to scramble under the downhill side of my truck and get into a locker to retrieve a heavy rope I carried there. I knew I was in danger of being crushed if the van tipped over right then, but it didn't and I soon had the line tied securely to my camper's rear end. Meanwhile, the couple with the big RV drove down the highway and found a clearing where they could pull off and un-hitch the car they were towing. By the time they returned I was ready for them.

The man backed up his rig so that it was close behind mine and I fastened the 1-inch nylon line to his tow ball with a bowline. He said, "Just so we understand each other, if your RV falls over and down that hill while I'm trying to pull it out of there, it ain't my fault. Agreed?" I agreed, and we went at it. 

His bus was angled diagonally to pull my van back onto the road, so at that point it was blocking the entire Alaska Highway in both directions. Half a dozen cars & RV's  and at least one 18-wheeler were stopped in one lane or the other, northbound and southbound, their occupants patiently watching the show and probably laying odds for or against my camper falling over before we got it out of there. It sure looked like it could go either way.

My rescuer didn't waste any time. He climbed up into his big rig and pulled forward, his RV's powerful diesel engine hardly noticing the weight of my 24' truck. My front wheels began to slide downhill and for a moment I thought all was lost, but he accelerated at the critical moment and suddenly my van was up on the highway's pavement and rolling backwards. He stopped, the towline went slack, my truck kept going. It was about a second and a half away from rolling into the rear end of the my rescuer's RV. There was not time to open the door to my cab. I literally dove through the open window, squirmed around in a heartbeat, and jammed my foot down onto the brake pedal just in time to avoid a collision. And with that grand finale, it was over. 

I was vaguely aware of people applauding from the backed-up traffic. The guy that had saved my butt came out and I gave him a big hug. I felt like a man who had just gotten a stay of execution at the 11th hour.

Later, I met up with my rescuers at the pull-off where they had left their car and I got to thank them again and snap their photograph. His name is Jerald Call and he's an auctioneer by trade (www.jcallnorthpond.com). Wherever those good people are today I wish them every wonderful thing in the world. Their timely and selfless act saved my whole trip from almost certain disaster.

 

  As beautiful as this country is, everywhere I travel up here I find more evidence of the wholesale slaughter of our forests by the damned lumber companies. I know I said my piece on this subject in my last travelogue page and I promise not to belabor the issue, but here they actually posted a sign bragging that they have replanted the forest for us (or, more likely, for themselves so they can cut it down again in 50 years). How nice. See how deep and inviting their forest is after 15 years. "Forests Forever." Thanks, assholes!

In spite of those jerks, there is still abundant wildlife and beauty to be found in western Canada. Here are a few scenes from British Columbia, Alberta (Banff & Jasper), and the Yukon.

 

 

Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, Yukon

The George Johnston Museum and Keith Wolfe Smarch's Tlingit Totems in Teslin, Yukon

 
   

 

Bzzzzzz

My RV has a leak. It doesn't leak all the time, only when there's a swarm. Yes, I said swarm not storm, because it's not water that's getting in. It's mosquitoes. The infamous, ubiquitous, ravenous Yukon/Alaska mosquitoes that can engulf a land-cruising vessel like mine as ferociously as any storm at sea ever besieged a sailing ship. These devils are a fact of life up here, one that shouldn't be too difficult to live with as long as you've got the requisite screens & repellents. Alas, for the slower among us there is a learning curve and mine just got started the other night. 

I had stopped to sleep at a roadside pull-off, a patch of bare ground cleared from the surrounding forest. It dipped down abruptly from the Alaska Highway's shoulder and led away maybe 100 meters to a level parking spot alongside a babbling creek. Well, before the night was through I was a babbling idiot, jumping out of bed over and over again to go on killing rampages throughout my little cabin's interior, slapping, whacking and otherwise exterminating as many as possible of the dozens of mosquitoes that had somehow, somewhere found their way inside. 

But I digress. 

When I'd first arrived in this campsite the bugs weren't too bad. There was the usual forest mix of big and little flies, assorted other insects, and of course some mosquitoes, but not too many to handle. Pretty much what I've gotten used to up here. Anyway, I didn't spend much time outside that evening, what with preparing and eating supper & all. Soon after that I went to bed, noting offhandedly the buildup of mosquitoes on the window screens. 

It was a hot evening. It has been in the 90's everyday since I got to the Yukon, a phenomenon that is breaking the weather records here and positively wilting the unaccustomed locals. So I had all my RV's windows open, all well-screened, and I was sleeping au natural & without covers.

I hadn't been asleep an hour when they attacked, buzzing and biting me awake. It was a call to action that I could not ignore! I jumped up and hopped around naked, cursing and swatting as many of the little bastards as I could find. Finally, satisfied that I had gotten most of them, I covered myself head to toe with a sheet and went back to sleep. But that wasn't the end of it. More mosquitoes arrived and they all converged on the only fresh blood for miles around. Me. Their buzzing just beyond the sheet I had over my head was loud enough to awaken me over and over again, and some of them were actually managing to sting right through it, but it was too damned hot to be under a blanket.

By then the screens were covered with the black vampire hoards beating their wings and gnashing their fangs against those frail nylon threads that held them at bay. Had they somehow ever managed to breech the barriers in force, I would surely have been drained dry of all bodily fluids in a matter of minutes, an insectival Night of the Living Dead. As it was, the screens seemed to be doing their job. That wasn't where the bugs were getting in. In fact, I'm still not sure where the leak is, but there is no doubt it exists. Mosquitoes are getting into my van. Fortunately the entrance also eludes the majority of the mosquitoes outside. Otherwise I'd be sleeping in thick garments and blankets no matter how hot it is, just to survive. 

I was up a lot that night, and when I slept it was entirely underneath covers, sweltering. I burned mosquito coils and slurped on insect repellent and they bit me less than before, but I didn't get a very good night's rest. All through the next day, while I drove and whenever I stopped, I was swatting remnant mosquitoes as they emerged from dark corners and from behind lockers and gear where they were hiding. All totaled I must've killed a hundred that had gotten in during just that one episode.

I've got to find that leak and seal it! Meanwhile, I'm shopping for a mosquito bed tent today in Whitehorse.

 

Starless in Whitehorse

Hearing about the Land of the Midnight Sun and being here are two different things. I understand scientifically what is happening, but on some level I find the experience of it discomforting. The sun rises around 4:00 am at this time of year at this latitude, 60 north, and sets around 10:30 pm. That's no so bad, but after it sets it doesn't go very far below the horizon, so that the sky never gets dark. It's just several hours of twilight and then the sun rises again. For most of the "night" you can read a book by the natural light. I haven't seen a star in a month. This has been a gradual process since I got to Canada, so I can't say exactly when nighttime disappeared entirely, but it's a daily fact of life now.

I miss seeing stars at night. I really do. But I'm sure I would like the winter alternative - all night and no sun at all - even less. Of course, these day/night extremes are normal for people who have grown up here and it doesn't bother them. For transplants it varies. Many develop psychological problems and start drinking heavily. For me, a temporary transient, it's an experience and tolerable as that, but it's not my preference. I'll be glad to get a little closer to the equator again in the fall.

Forest Fires

Because of the unusually hot, dry weather that is plaguing the Northwest, there is an abnormal number of wildfires burning. Several hundred big and small in BC and the Yukon combined, according to the reports, triple the number at this same time last year. I heard on the radio that a section of the Alaska Highway through which I just passed a few days ago was closed yesterday because a fire had reached it. This morning the sky is so smoky I can't see the hills outside of town and the sun is a subdued, angry red ball. Hopefully, that will at least alleviate the mid-day head today.

Mileage & fuel consumption notes

As of mid-June, three months since leaving Rhode Island, I had driven my RV 8,375 miles (from 51,774 to 60,150 miles on the odometer), passing through 19 of the United States and 3 Canadian provinces and consuming about 1,000 gallons of gasoline at a cost of more than $2,000 USD. Had I made this same trip a year ago, that gas bill would have been about $1,300, so while I do cringe a little each time I fill up the RV's big tank, the fact is these inflated gasoline prices are not costing me so dearly that I would change my plans because of them. 

Canadian gas prices are averaging around $.97 CAD per liter, which amounts to about  $2.68 USD per gallon figuring in the current exchange rate. Forty percent of that price is Canadian taxes. On the bright side, they say I can reclaim 7% when I leave the country. The Canadian government offers to reimburse their 7% GST, the Goods & Services Tax, to non-residents after they've left the country if they'll mail in a form and the receipts proving how much of the tax they've paid. It was worth a hundred dollars to me so I did it.

I hear gasoline costs between US$1.75 and US$2.00 per gallon in Alaska. That'll be a relief after Canada's tax-inflated prices.

Next Entry: 07/03/04

 
 

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