Our time in Alaska was great but now it was time to start moving South quickly. We wanted to meet our friends in Vancouver mid-August, so we had about 10 days to get there. Our GPS told us that it was a 2500 km drive to get there. So in theory that could be done pretty easily. However there are a lot of interesting short side trips possible on this route. And there was even a possibility to visit another little piece of Alaska on the way down. So it was going to be very interesting to see if we could keep our FOMO in check this time.
Our first stop was just across the border in Carcross (aka Caribou Crossing), a quite little town most of the time except for the hours when the White Pass Railway unleashes the cruise ship tourists coming from Skagway. The town’s other claim to fame is that it has the ‘smallest desert in the world’. It was indeed small. But what we found more special was that it is probably the only desert where grizzly bears can be spotted.
After this short stop our real drive south started. We had chosen not to drive down via the Alaska Highway (the shortest route) but to try the only other route via the Casiar Stewart highway.
We kept up with our tradition of the drive up North to try to sleep by a lake whenever we could. Luckily there are plenty of lakes around. And by mid August the water is very ‘comfortable’ to swim in and…most of the mosquitos are gone.
This tradition brought us to Boya lake, the first unexpected highlight of the Casiar highway: a lake that looked like an islands in Polynesia. A storm was coming up but we quickly got out of the van and jumped in. Although we had planned to drive a bit further, we decided to stay the night when we noticed that it was possible to rent a canoe. The kids had been asking to do this on nearly every lake we had come across but rental prices had been pretty ridiculous at the places where we checked. Here far away from the main tourist trail, we could not use that excuse. So the next morning Caroline went for a tour of the lake with the kids and was surprised on how well the canoeing was going. The kids even got a very nice ‘surprise act’ when a float plane came to drop off some people in the area and landed on the lake right in front of them.
About halfway through the drive towards Vancouver there was another ‘moment of truth’. In Stewart there was a possibility to detour to Hyder. We would never have heard about this little ghost town just across the border in Alaska if it wasn’t for ‘Fish creek’. This little creek is usually full of salmon in July and August. And we know that where there’s salmon there are usually bears. We had heard that due to the extreme dry conditions there had been very few bear sightings this summer. But just when we were around there had been several days of heavy rains so there was a chance to see bears. So just when it started to look that we would get in Vancouver in time easily, we tagged on an extra side trip.
The next morning, we got up at sunrise and drove to the platform. While I was still getting the kids dressed, Caroline briefly saw a grizzly in the creek. But by the time we also got to the platform, our grizzly had disappeared. We waited a couple of hours in the pouring rain, but without luck.
So we decide to drive a bit further and back into Canada to the salmon Glacier, the biggest glacier in Canada. We drove up the mountain with little hope to catch a glimpse of it because of the heavy cloud cover after days of rain. When we got at the glacier there was just clouds and mist. We talked to people who had been there for a day and a half and had not seen anything. One by one, they drove down disappointed. For hours we were peering into the mist and just when we were ready to drive down, for a couple of seconds the clouds moved and we got a glimpse of the glacier. So we decided to stick around a bit longer. Not even half an hour later the clouds completely lifted. The curtains opened and we got to see the massive glacier! We were blown away once again. Even after all the glaciers we had seen in Alaska.
We felt so lucky to get to see the glacier that we almost forgot about the true reason for the detour. On the way back down we decided to stop one last time at bear viewing platform. We had hardly entered the parking lot or one of the rangers was wildly gesticulating that we had to come in quickly. The big grizzly had returned…and he was hungry.
During one hour we watched this male grizzly, massacre one salmon after another. While in the beginning he was still eating the fish, he soon only targeted the fish for the eggs. Catch the salmon, cut open the belly, lick and suck up the eggs, leave the salmon for dead, take a sip of water and go on to the next one! An impressive sight, a real life nature documentary that left us all speechless! If anyone of us had started to think that grizzlies were ‘cute’, that image was shattered there and then.
We felt so honoured to watch this big fellow fish from just a couple of meters away. It was brutal, it was cruel. It was exactly what a predator is supposed to do. Our kids were looking on in awe. We left the site with even more respect for these big animals.
Back to Canada, we went and after this awesome detour, we had to put the pedal to metal again. But we still took the time for some side trips. We visited a couple of villages with massive totem poles and also visited the former Fort St James that now is a open air museum on the ‘fur trade’ era. We learned all about, fur trapping, the trade and how it changed the region. Lucie and Leon even had the chance to sell furs to a ‘real fur trader’.
But then it was back to the highway. After all the lonely miles on the Northern highways we were back in the ‘civilized world’ and it felt really strange to drive through more than 2 towns in a day. With still a couple of days left before our ‘Vancouver deadline’, we had the opportunity to explore the ‘Sea to sky’ highway for a bit. It was incredibly hot. Even high up in the mountains we had temperatures up to 40 degrees. We suspected it but locals told us that these were never seen temperatures. And unfortunately this region was also plagued by wildfires. The smoke was clouding the skies again from time to time and the sky was full of fire-fighting planes and helicopters again. To battle the heat, we were driving from one swimming spot to another. This was very much appreciated by our kids.
To break up one of the long drives I had been looking for a hike and came across an article about Joffre Lake (actually 3 lakes) and how apparently it had been voted “2nd most beautiful lake in Canada”. Not realizing this was also one of the most popular hikes in British Colombia, for which reservations are needed months in advance, we just showed up at the trailhead without anything. But we got lucky again because while we were preparing to skip the hike and move on, the ranger that we talked to, came to our van to say that they had a cancellation and that we could have the cancelled ticket. Very nice! The lakes were stunning and we could easily see how this was voted 2nd most beautiful lake in Canada. I also went for a short dip in the top lake with water coming straight from the glacier. But even after a summer of swimming in lakes all across Canada, this was really much too cold for me.
Our last stop before Vancouver was in Squamish where we hiked the Stawamus Chief, a massive granite monolith. We chose to hike the ‘harder route’ to avoid the hiker traffic jams on the main route…and it was hard! The trail was not really maintained so we had to look for our own trail, crawling over boulders and fallen trees. I think we have never done so much time over a couple of kilometers as we did here. But the views were amazing and the 2nd and 3rd peaks that we climbed to, had better views and were a lot less crowded than the main peak… at least that is what I told my family members that were not really happy with my choice for the ‘harder trail’.`
In the end we arrived just in time to meet the first of our friends. It was really nice to spend some time with people from back home, get some updates from the home front and also find out how they had experienced their trip in Canada.
There was no time left for us to visit the town of Vancouver itself as the next friends were already waiting for us at Vancouver Island. But that was not really a problem, because even after all this time in nature, we did not feel any urge yet to explore the busy urban context of a major city anyway.