Serengeti of the North

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.

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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.

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Nothing timid about the Stone sheep. It falls to the driver to pay attention and move around them.

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We drove by slowly and pulled up beside the male for a staring contest. Guess who won?

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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.

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Signs like this one are posted in most campgrounds and hiking areas.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Along the way, you pass by a marshy area that promised (but did not deliver) frequent moose sightings.
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And…the hot springs – ranging from scalding at the source:

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…to more temperate water for those with tender skin.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

“God is great, beer is good, people are crazy”

The first time we heard these catchy lyrics was at the Legion in Fort St. John. Chicken dinner, $4 beer, 50/50 tickets and a meat draw. All this and karaoke, and in this neck of the woods music is solidly in the country camp.  People are Crazy by Billy Currington was the highlight of the night – sung with raspy emotion by a rangy, plaid-clad gentleman. It pretty much sums up the way of the road up here – God-fearing, beer-drinking characters who thrive in this slightly wild northern town.

We’re on Week One of our camping trip in northern B.C. and Alberta, with our first stop in Fort St. John to visit our son Dan, who has been living and working here for the past seven years. Here we are, happily re-united.

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Before I tell you more about Fort St. John, I want to share a few photos of our drive up from Horseshoe Bay, near Vancouver. We camped for three nights along the way, and enjoyed watching how the landscape changed the further north we went.

Our first night we camped in Nairns Falls, just south of Pemberton. We’re in bear country now and the hand-written “Bear in Area” signs are a responsible warning and a reminder to be aware of our surroundings. We hiked along for three kilometres on a beautiful groomed path high above the river without seeing anything bigger than a dog on a leash.

I promise I will keep selfie shots to a minimum, especially since we don’t seem to have the knack of shooting without reflection .

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The next day we drove through the magnificent Duffey Lakes Road, a twisty, scenic route much beloved by motorcyclists. It requires full attention to navigate the hairpin turns, and after a couple of hours, we welcomed the chance to stop by this lake for a breather.

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Another viewpoint as we headed north.

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This year, everything is green and lush – the season so far has been cool-ish and punctuated with plenty of rainy days. This time last year, wildfires were wreaking havoc in much of B.C. and the damage is still evident.

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Finally, about an hour outside of Fort St. John, we are in the heart of the Peace River Valley.

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The setting around Fort St. John is stunning – the Peace River cuts through thick forest, high hills and fields of canola against a backdrop of the ever-changing big northern sky.

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Just a short drive out of town and the vistas open up. The light is different, the air is cleaner, the sky is bigger – there is a defining look.

This could just as easily be northern Minnesota or Manitoba. A northern lake, built a little more for fishing than swimming.

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Fields of canola – one of our favourite Fort St. John scenes.

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Fort St. John is not as pretty – a utilitarian northern working town set on a grid (100th St. bisects 100th Ave.), with basic shopping and streets of modest homes whose driveways are filled with big boy toys. This is a typical neighbourhood in oil and gas country.

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What Fort St. John lacks in style, it makes up for in heart. Billed as “The Energetic City“, this is a very young town, populated with young families. Huge modern recreational facilities – hockey arena, curling rink, swimming pool and library provide residents with a reason to stay beyond the oil patch paycheques.

Those paycheques attract a somewhat transient crowd, but the city is also well-defined by those born and bred here. Trendy coffee shops, artisan pizza and vintage clothing stores are finding a healthy market among the Mark’s Work Wearhouse and Quiznos customers.

And now, on to the elephant in the room, the highly controversial Site C dam project. When we first began driving up here seven years ago to visit Dan, the project was on hold, and “NO SITE C” signs were everywhere. It seemed inconceivable that a great swath of the Peace River Valley would be flooded out, after the expropriation of generations-old farmlands in some of the richest agricultural land in the province.

In 2017, construction began, and in spite of huge protests and much governmental to-ing and fro-ing, the project is indeed a go. It is due to be completed in 2024, for untold billions of dollars and untold environmental damage.

While much of the site is strictly off-limits, there is a viewpoint for the public to watch the progress.  This is part of what it looks like after a year. The dam will be built roughly in this spot, with the reservoir behind it.

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While ultimately the dam will generate the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions than any other form of energy (with coal being the worst and solar being the second best), the controversy lies with the construction.

Our son Dan works on the Site C project.  He pointed out the dozens and dozens of diesel-emitting trucks that are on the site, and what their cumulative effect on the environment might be by the time this project is completed. The expropriation of prime farmland is another factor that is impossible to gloss over.

In the north, where oil and gas extraction (and its attendant environmental concerns) are a mainstay of the economy, attitudes are different than they are in the south. People here are not cavalier or uneducated; they are pragmatic. That same attitude prevails for Site C and the final economic, environmental and personal outcome will take years to be realized.

Back to our visit with Dan. We live so far from each other and only have a chance to visit two or three times a year, so we pack a lot in.  We are in a beautiful campground just outside of town, and we’ve spent a lot of time here in the evenings, going for hikes, tossing a frisbee, and sitting around a campfire.  Amazingly, the bugs have not been too bad – we’re hoping that is a trend.

On a hike near Dan’s home.

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And… a little mishap. Being on the road is no different than being at home, as far as mishaps go. You can break a tooth ( I did that several years ago in Halifax), or you can break a car window.  We had our truck parked outside Dan’s place, and as we were leaving to go out, the old gent who mows the lawn for Dan’s landlady was in the backyard, and wondered if we were the owners of the red truck. Well, yes, we were. He thought perhaps his mower had caught a rock and flung it up on our truck. He had noticed “a bit of glass”.

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Shock and disbelief turned to action (where to find a glass place on Saturday at 4:00 pm?), turned to our new reality. The land of Dodge Rams and F350s does not carry glass for our dainty Nissan, so our new window is being shipped from Edmonton and our departure has been delayed by two days. The bill for a new window is less than our deductible, but not more than we can afford, and so it goes. What to do but be philosophical about it?

Our next stop is Fort Nelson for one night and Liard Hot Springs for three nights. So far the only wildlife we have seen is a fox, and we are hoping that route further north will live up to its reputation as being the Serengeti of the North.

Wifi in campgrounds will be non-existent, and possibly spotty elsewhere, so we hope to see you all again in about a week.