We left Fort St. John to drive north to Liard River Hot Springs in search of BIG animals – bear, caribou, moose, bison and stone sheep. Our first stop was Fort Nelson – an easy four hour drive and a comfortable rest stop – renovated Motel 6 with full kitchen and good wifi, and a very Vancouver-ish vegetarian restaurant just up the street. Perfect transition before we hit the road the next day for Liard River Hot Springs – just south of the Yukon border.
The area between Fort Nelson and the Yukon border has earned the title “Serengeti of the North“. This area is teeming with wildlife – you cannot drive this highway without seeing animals.
First up was this big boy – we watched him roll in the mud, then lurch up to his full majestic height. We saw two bison by the side of the road, but had a nocturnal visitor just outside our campsite. According to the park operator, Fred the bison makes his late night rounds, stomping noisily though the campground. A reminder that a nylon tent might not be the most practical choice for northern camping.
Caribou travel in small herds, and are notorious for coming right onto the road to lick the salt. Luckily, they are timid and move away quickly once cars approach.
Nothing timid about the Stone sheep. It falls to the driver to pay attention and move around them.
We drove by slowly and pulled up beside the male for a staring contest. Guess who won?
And then there were the bears; mainly black bears in the Liard River area – the grizzlies are a little further north. Our son Dan was perturbed that we were entering bear country without bear spray, and we were probably being a bit ignorant of the reality of travelling, hiking and camping in the northern wilderness. Certainly the locals come equipped to handle bear encounters. One of the park operators showed us his weapon of choice – bear bangers. No bullets, just a loud noise.
Signs like this one are posted in most campgrounds and hiking areas.
As if to prove a point, we saw this little fellow just outside our campground. He looked to be just a youngster and was so interested in eating that he refused to oblige with a decent profile shot.
With all the bear warnings, followed by this sighting, I was quite nervous to begin our first into-the-woods hike. There was not one other car in the parking area and we were feeling quite alone. I never did relax, in spite of my manic whistling and clapping. Once I reassured myself about the statistical odds of bear attack, I could appreciate it was a lovely woodland hike, along a creek.
We walked along for about 20 minutes to the waterfall; then I beat a hasty retreat back to our truck. Stephen was less concerned about being bear bait.
We spent two nights camping at Liard River Hot Springs campground. It was a perfect mix of rustic camping (pit toilets, no showers) mixed with a book exchange shelf at the office and homemade bread for sale. This was our site.
Liard River Hot Springs is not to be missed. It is one of the largest natural hot springs in Canada, with temperatures between 42C and 53C degrees. The hot springs are reached by a leisurely 10-minute walk along a boardwalk.
Along the way, you pass by a marshy area that promised (but did not deliver) frequent moose sightings.
And…the hot springs – ranging from scalding at the source:
…to more temperate water for those with tender skin.
We left Liard with great reluctance. Everyone we met was on their way to Alaska, or returning back south again. We only just skimmed the surface of the north and can’t wait to return next summer.
Even the highway has a story to tell – it is none other than the famed Alaska Highway (also known as the Alcan Highway). The Americans punched through 1500 miles from Dawson Creek to Alaska during WWII to protect Alaska from Japanese attack. Punched through is a factual term as bulldozers knocked down trees and gravel trucks followed behind at a blistering pace – timing was critical.
Driving such an historic highway felt somehow special, but the scenery alone was simply jaw-dropping. And the best part – we had the road to ourselves. Occasionally, we hop-scotched with cars and RVs, but the road stretched ahead with nothing but the view in front of us. No wonder this is such a favoured route with motorcyclists – we know so many people who have made the trek to Alaska. Imagine the freedom.
This bike belonged to a man who had travelled all the way from Brazil to Alaska and was on his way back south to Miami, and then to South America via cargo ship. We wanted to chat with him, but he was in deep conversation with a young couple, so we just eavesdropped.
And on to the scenery, which changed from rough and rocky to lush and green…and back again. These were our views for our four-hour drive.
We had heard about the challenging northern roads, but we experienced mainly good conditions – the odd pothole and the asphalt a little worn in spots, but very easy to drive. There are loads of rest stops and pull-outs, so plenty of opportunity for photos and just taking a breather from the road. It was reassuring to see a front end loader clearing rockfall.
We made it back to Fort Nelson for the night and visited the excellent Heritage Museum there. We watched a video on the construction of the Alaska Highway; grainy old footage mixed in to great effect. To look at the photo above and realize this was a small part of a 1500-km. road that was blazed out of the wilderness in extremely difficult conditions in just nine months is astounding.
The museum exists thanks to Marl Brown, the 86-year-old “mad trapper”, who collected so many cars, trucks and artifacts he got the order from his wife to “move them somewhere.”
Marl with one of his vehicles – most of them still in good running order.
Marl and people like him, are one of the reasons we are so keen to return. Characters, tall tales and deadly elements – this is a different and fascinating world.
We’ll be back north next summer – we have to see if the mosquitoes in Hay River are as bad as they say.
24 thoughts on “Serengeti of the North”
Beautiful country. Your pictures are amazing.
Thanks Joan, but the photos take themselves – every corner brings another beautiful viewpoint. I’ve never seen such dramatic countryside.
Delighted to open up my email and find leavingourselvesbehind.com are out there exploring and reporting back to us again. Wonderful photos and entertaining as always, thank you !
Thanks Pippa! Did you get the first posting on July 16th?
Hope to follow in your footsteps one day.
Every time we see motorcyclists, we think of you Derrill. They are a singular, happy breed of wanderer.
Great PIxs Giny, have to get back to discover Yukon and Alaska!!!
Oh you do. I Can’t wait to get there – listening to everyone’s stories and seeing few photos has really whetted our appetite.
Ah, the Alaska Highway…
Happy to see that Marl Brown is still a local character. I met him a few times when I lived in Fort Liard, NWT, and we made 13 hour trips by winter road to feast on Chinese food at the local hotspot when cabin fever set in.
Around the same time as I was in NWT, my sister, then about 20, was living in Haines Junction YT. Her boss asked if she would drive one of his trucks to Edmonton and he’d pay for her flight back. She jumped at the opportunity for a city fix. After an early morning start on her second day out, the truck started to make some unusual sounds. She pulled into the garage at Pink Mountain (which doubled as the morning coffee spot for the local guys). She walked in and asked, “I wonder if I could get someone to look at my rear end.” Needless to say, there were more than a few guffaws and snorts.
Great photos and tales, Ginny!
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Margie – you were in Fort Liard – I couldn’t remember where in the north you lived – for some reason I thought it was Yellowknife. Thirteen-hour drives in the snow for Chinese food? That is the very definition of “bushed.” I walked down the mountain from Sunshine Village when I was pregnant – hormonal and crazed and luckily for me a bus picked me up. Life in the north does give you different boundaries to live by, doesn’t it?
You knew Marl – isn’t he something? And Pink Mountain – we stopped there both ways, but did not put the same offer as your sister did on the table. Very funny story.
I’ll have to hear more of your northern tales the next time I see you.
Thank you Ginny. The vistas are stunning……..Canada Yeah!
Don’t you think the north has such a different look from the rest of Canada?
WOW WOW WOW looks so beautiful and deserted. Hope we can follow in your footsteps one day but with lots of “Bear bangers” Love your posts.
Oh definitely we will not venture back without bear bangers. Maybe we can meet up at some point?!
Delighted to be on the road with you guys again! The North sounds captivating, and you sure have a knack for bringing it alive for us all. Had a chuckle about the wildlife. We were also unhappily “mooseless” during a 5 day Algonguin Park canoe trip last week. The day we got back to the cottage, Hwy 417 heading into Ottawa was closed due to a loose moose! Go figure….keep on truckin’….
That’s always the way. We travelled all through Nfld. without a single moose sighting, but everyone we met up with had apparently see a whole herd just minutes before we arrived.
We did see a moose, but he was at the far end of a small lake, and my cheap little point and shoot does not have adequate zoom to pick up anything at a distance. Time to check out a decent camera, I think.
Hope your summer is going well.
Another great adventure.
It is, Ann. Everything is an adventure when you’re on the road and each day brings something you haven’t seen before, but boy, the north sure does offer it up.
The scenery is absolutely breathtaking! In looking at them, I can almost smell the crisp mountain air … I remember it as being intoxicating. Glad to hear you saw your share of wildlife (although it’s always the one you missed that you think of often!) My Dad used to talk of the “mad trapper”, brings back memories to hear of him again. See you tomorrow 🙂
Oh – I’m looking forward to hearing tales of the mad trapper. They are a different breed.
Thanks for capturing it all and sharing, Ginny. So beautiful. Have you read Alaska Highway Two-Step by Caroline Woodward? It captures the landscape and characters. xo from me and Maggie
Thanks Michelle for recommending this book. I used to know Caroline when she was a rep with Kate Walker. I knew she was writing, but haven’t been keeping up. I’ll look for that book.
I may well be taking that road, as far as Haines Junction, next summer. It’s gratifying to see that the road is in much better shape than in 1982, when friends from Yukon showed up in southern Alberta, with nearly shattered windshields, covered by iron grates.
It should be an amazing trip – worth the cracked windshields, if that does happen. The rocks and gravel are everywhere, and we got hit a few days ago – a quarter-sized starburst crack in the middle of our windshield and a couple of small chips. We had a temporary resin fix done this morning – it should stop the crack from spreading for a while – at least until we get back down south again.
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