Archive for March, 2012

Canada Trip – Thursday

30 March 2012 at 11:24 pm
by Jonah

We’re back on the U.S. side of the border in a cheap but not inexpensive motel in Eureka, Montana. Berck is sprawled out on the bed saying he’s sad we left Canada. He’s trying to figure out how to move there.

Yesterday we woke up in our relatively cheap and comfortable room in New Hazelton, BC. The lady at the front desk the night before had told us to have breakfast at the New Hazelton Cafe, but we’d found a menu for the B.C. Cafe in historic old Hazelton that looked really good. So we travelled off the highway and across an impressive one lane bridge you had to take turns crossing to get across the river. Like everything else in Canada this time of year, pretty much everything was closed, including, disappointingly, the B.C. Cafe. Hazelton is a First Nation community, which is what we call Indians or Native Americans. It looks pretty run down and shoddy, junk in the yards.

So we backtracked to the New Hazelton Cafe and Chinese Take Out and ordered some truly terrible eggs Benedict, hashbrowns, pancakes, and what I thought was some okay bacon but Berck disagreed. We got some sodas at the gas station across the street afterward to wash it down and then headed along “Maple Leaf” 16 again.

It was cloudy and sometimes rainy, and we could occasionally see that there were mountains around us but not often. Welcome to the Pacific Northwest. It started graupeling by the time we got to Prince George, a metropolis. Berck got gas at Canadian Tire, and we got some Canadian Tire money! We tried to find some wifi in order to see if we could find some donairs. In Canada the most prevalent fast food restaurant by far seems to be A&W Root Beer Stands, and all of them have free wifi. So we pulled up in the parking lot and did a search for donairs.

The story goes that a Greek started a restaurant in Canada selling gyros, but Canadians hated them. So he added barbecue sauce instead of tzadziki and called them donair, and now they’re a huge hit. The biggest chain is KOD, King of Donairs, but they’re mostly an east coast thing. Canadians seem to love barbecue sauce but don’t like to admit it. We got a bag of potato chips today that were “all dressed” flavor. They tasted exactly like barbecue chips.

We found a Greek Restaurant in downtown Prince George called Kalo Donair, which have the best donairs in town. They had a newspaper article tacked to their wall that said they were the best fast food in town, above Wendy’s and, of course, A&W.

The other big chain in Canada seems to be Boston Pizza. There was even a Boston Pizza in remote Fort Watson. It looks like a Fazollis expect probably not as good. I’m pretty sure there are no Boston PIzzas in Boston.

So we ordered two small donairs (which were pretty freaking big). Berck tried to get his with XXX sauce, but the girl behind the counter said her mum hadn’t made any that day. So he got Hades. I got Sweet, and she talked us into getting tzadziki as well. They were very good. They were typical gyros (minus the French fries) but with romaine lettuce and green peppers added. We munched on them as we headed down another road that warned that there wasn’t gas for a very long time.

We’d picked “Maple Leaf” 16 because the satellite showed that there were lots of white mountains on either side of it, but it was so cloudy and rainy that we couldn’t see much of them. We drove until dark and got to Blue River. The Blue River Motel houses helicopter pilots who work in the main business in town, which is heli-skiing. It was raining when we got there, though we couldn’t find the motel at first with all the piles of snow on either side of the road that were so high they obscured street signs. The price was right, and our room was tiny (a double that barely fit).

We asked the lady at the motel office if there were any restaurants open still. “You betcha! There’s the Husky and the restaurant at the Sandman Inn.” The Husky is a gas station. We went to the other one. The other one had beer. We also had poutine and Caesar salad, and Berck had a Caesar.

Berck complained about being hot in the middle of the night, so I told him to open the window, and then he went straight to sleep.

Canada Trip – Wednesday

29 March 2012 at 10:26 pm
by Jonah

Yesterday our road luck ran out, at least in terms of snow. The day before as we approached Lake Watson, a passing semi threw up one of the larger pieces of gravel that liberally coated the road and struck our windshield right at the highest point of the steering wheel. Two spokes of the resulting star have been working their way outward since. We’d debated getting a new windscreen before our trip. Now we’ll get one when we get home (and have our insurance pay for it). We also passed a whole bunch of bison along the road, where they were digging through the snow to get to the grass, the only place it appeared to grow with thick forest growing everywhere else. Truckers we passed also slowed to get a good look at them. The bison didn’t seem to care that we were there at all. This was unlike the couple herds of caribou we passed, who always seemed to be in the middle of the road as we approached, freaking out and running off and into the woods as we approached. I think they were licking the salt off the road.

Up until yesterday morning the road had been clear and dry except where the snow from the side was melting and running across the pavement. But we turned off the Alaska Highway onto 37 south a little outside Lake Watson, and the road was completely white. This cut in half our normal driving speed of 85 mph, but the road cleared up for a while before we ascended into some impressive mountains and encountered snow packed and icy sections again. Sometimes there was a car’s width of clear pavement in the center of the road, which everyone used until someone else approached, and then both cars slowed down and pulled over so two wheels were on slushy ice.

I forced Berck to stop for gas in Deason Lake, even though he complained that he three quarters of a tank and was getting such good gas mileage having to drive that slow. We also got lunch at what appeared to be the only open restaurant in town. We made the mistake of ordering a pizza with everything (it was on the menu), which took a long time to cook. The restaurant didn’t offer poutine. The pizza was actually really good, which I think was just as a result of having so many things on it. Berck pulled off his pineapple, and I pulled off my olives.

By the time we were done, it was cloudy. The road got better but the snow piled up on either side of it got higher. Majestic peaks poked out of clouds all around us, making it difficult to tell what was snow covered mountain and was the snow falling on it. The road was virtually empty, so I guess it made sense that there weren’t any lane markings. We eventually got to a bit of civilization and a sign that warned we were entering an accident cleanup area. Traffic was stopped in both directions while a claw picked up a mangled semi flatbed trailer and put it on top of another semi flatbed trailer, which then drove off. There was a huge stack of giant logs piled up on the side of the road, so we surmised that a logging truck had overturned.

Further down the road, we were overtaken at around 130 kph by a police vehicle going even faster than we were. The speed limit was 90. The same thing happened a while later. I guess the Mounties have better things to do.

When I checked the road conditions, it just warned of frost heaves. A visit to the Wikipedia entry on frost heaves didn’t really help. But there were various spots along the road where a little orange diamond sign (sometimes saying “SLOW”) was stuck into the snow bank on the side of the road, which was almost always accompanied by a sharp dip in the road that sent out stomachs into our throats.

We drove within about 20 miles of Alaska, but it was already dusk and we wanted to get to a motel before having to drive too far in the dark. There was nothing from Dease Lake until we got to “Maple Leaf” 16, and even that was closed. Berck grudgingly admitted that we wouldn’t have made it without filling up with ridiculously priced gas at Deason Lake. I took the opportunity to wash the windshield with the first squeegees we’d encountered in a long time that weren’t encased in ice.

We drove until we got to the next town down 16, a cluster of three towns called Hazelton, New Hazelton, and South Hazelton. We stopped at the first motel we got to and were glad to find out that motel prices were closer to normal, $75 for a queen. It was quarter to 9, and we asked the lady at the front desk if there were any restaurants still open. The only one was the one next door, which was a Chinese restaurant that also served breakfast in the morning and also a selection of burgers and sandwiches the rest of the day. We weren’t really all that hungry after the pizza at 3, and the Chinese restaurant didn’t serve alcohol, so we left and found an open empty bar, with a young Chinese bartender, who we couldn’t understand at all but begrudgingly handed us two Rickard’s Darks, which we hadn’t had before. We finished the beers and decided to buy some at the open liquor store next door and take them back to our motel room. It has been our first day in Canada without poutine so far. The Chinese restaurant had fries with gravy on the menu, but that as close as it got.

The motel room had a fridge, so we kept the six pack of Rickard’s Dark we’d gotten there as Berck culled through my photos while I posted my blog entry. It was nice to have almost usable internet for once.

Canada Trip – Tuesday

28 March 2012 at 11:11 pm
by Jonah

We’re listening to music for the first time today. We’ve been listening to several episodes of This American Life in a row as we drive down the incredibly lonely highway 37 from the Yukon south through British Columbia. Berck wanted to listen to more, but he wanted me to type more, and the road has been too bumpy and the scenery too compelling to spend much time focusing on a computer screen.

As monotonous as the view out our windscreen was the day before yesterday, the scene yesterday was breathtaking. The Alaska Highway was built by the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II before the U.S. entered the war as a land route to connect the contiguous states to Alaska. But instead of building it in a straight line or one that made sense with regard to the landscape, it was built to service a series of airfields, since planes back then could only fly so far before having to refuel. So it winds through some incredible mountains along the northern border of the Northern Rocky Mountain National Park, which Berck pretty much planned this trip around. We had decided to spend the night in Watson Lake in the Yukon, and we’d made good time to Fort Nelson the day before, so when we got to the highest point of the Alaska Highway, we pulled off the road, strapped on our snow shoes, and started up a trail to the nearest mountain.

Unfortunately, the in the snow it was impossible to tell where the trail went, so we spent quite a while casting back and forth across a stone strewn gully hoping to come across it. Traversing a rock field in snow shoes, even in snow, is very tricky. Our snow shoes have nice serrated blades at our toes that we use to dig into the snow and pull ourselves uphill, keep from slipping downhill, or just dig down to stay in place. But those blades won’t dig into rock and instead tend to catch on them in midstride. That happened to me more than once, one time landing my right knee through an inch of snow direction onto the point of a rock. It hurt so bad, I thought I might vomit. But fortunately, once I got back on my feet again, it didn’t bother me for the rest of the hike.

We were about to give up when Berck decided to climb up to the top a ridge above the gully and found the actual trail. It wasn’t much of one, but we could tell it was a path because A) there weren’t bushes growing in it, B) there were melted footprints, C) there were yellow squares nailed to trees every so often. The snow was mostly down in the gully, and since we were now on the southwest side, there wasn’t nearly as much snow. Ironically, the only place there really was snow in a lot of places was on the trail itself, since packed snow melts more slowly once you’ve walked on it. When the trail had turned more to mud than snow, we switched to Yak Trax and left the snow shoes by the side of the trail. We’d gone far enough to not want to turn back to find more deep snow, but we could follow the footprints already there without having to forge a new path through the drifts. The trail was hardly a wide enough horizontal space to walk on along the hillside, and covered in snowdrifts, where those few inches lay was anyone’s guess, and we often guessed wrongly.

After a while, we passed the treeline and started switch-backing across loose shale and kinnikinick. Here it was easier to stray from the trail, which was slippery with snow and mud, but less slippery than the loose shale. We were also going pretty much straight up, about as steep as a staircase but with much less sure footing. Berck made it to what looked like the top of the slope we’d been climbing, but a wall of rock with ice in the crevices rose up, and one of his Yak Trax had broken. I got close enough to him so that we could easily have a conversation, but since he had decided not to continue without crampons, it didn’t seem worth it to climb any further.

Going down a slippery, uneven surface is even harder than going up, though we did realize while descending that the trail was marked with cairns. We chose to scramble down the kinnikinick instead of the snow covered trail, though kept close to it, since it was still the gentlest descent. Berck’s other Yak Trax broke, and he had a much harder time through the snow once we got back into the trees. Once we finally got to the snow shoes it was much easier going, though we never did figure out where the trail went, and decided the best thing to do was go down the same bank we’d scrambled up and then follow our snow shoe prints back across the rock field. By the time we got to the car, we were exhausted, sore, and thirsty. We finished off the rest of our water, added some snow to the rest of my bottle of flat Coke, and decided to stop at the next store we came to for a drink.

We passed through even more beautiful mountains, found an open gas station to get a couple of drinks and continued on. Berck stopped at the next store we came to in order to use the bathroom, which was on the bank of Lake Muncho. Lake Muncho must look amazing in the summer, because in the winter it’s spectacular. It’s surrounded by mountains and was covered in a thick layer of snow. By the lodge where we stopped, an airstrip had been plowed on the lake. Berck managed to find me an Orange Crush and a Toblerone (which is kind of “something salty”). We were there so long admiring the view that we had to again pass the pick up with Ontario plates carrying a snowmobile and pulling a boat (all recreation possibilities covered).

We eventually left the mountains behind and had to settle for hilly forests. Finally, we entered the Yukon and rolled into Watson Lake right around dusk. Somewhere we’d crossed into Pacific time, so it was only 8 pm, not 9. There are lots of motels in Watson Lake, but they apparently all close during the winter, giving us only about three open options. We decided on one and checked in. I asked the lady behind the counter what restaurants were open, and she consulted a list on the wall of exactly three: the restaurant attached to the motel next door, Kathy’s Kitchen, and a gas station/laundromat/restaurant down the road. We put our things in our room and tried the wifi, but it wasn’t working. The lady at the front desk said, yes, it wasn’t working for either, but she’d called someone.

Of our three choices for supper, we decided the one next door was the most likely to have beer. We were the only diners. We had a few Yukon Golds brewed in Whitehorse and ordered poutine and a buffalo burger for me and a Caesar salad for Berck. The quality of the poutine definitely seems to decrease the further north we go. The burger was $16 and one of the worst I’ve had. But we scarfed down everything anyway, we were so hungry. You gotta pay for stuff up north. Our motel room was $105.

We could get on the lesser of the two wifi networks back at our hotel, though barely, so we fiddled around trying to get on while we did laundry down the hall. A sign above the washer warned us that all loads must be done by 10:30 so the other guests wouldn’t disturbed by the noise. It was already 9:30. At 10:05, I put the clothes in the dryer and realized why the sign was there; it sounded like I was drying rocks. But there didn’t appear to be very many guests, and I hoped they were all at our end of the motel. The dryer was done an hour later, and everything was mostly dry. I hung up all the big things on the coat hangers and spread out all the wool socks on the other bed. In the morning they were all dry.

Tonight we’re in New Hazelton, BC after driving hard all day.

Canada Trip Day 4

27 March 2012 at 10:34 pm
by Jonah

After asking almost every motel in town their price, we stayed at the Mini Price Inn, which was the second cheapest (but looked a whole lot better than the one that was $5 less expensive. Still it was $99 pre-tax. Carol at the front desk was a native Canadian, which also swayed my opinion. It seems like most of the motel proprietors are Chinese. I suppose that makes me a little racist, but it’s like calling customer service and feeling so relieved when someone without a foreign accent answers on the other end of the line. You feel like someone who’s more like you will empathize better. Unfortunately, our only problem with the room was that the pillows were so big and thick that we hurt our necks trying to sleep on them. Berck finally gave up and just used his parka.

Most of the rooms in Fort Nelson are taken by workers in the drilling fields (we’re not sure if it’s oil or gas). The others are taken by truckers. What’s left usually goes to people on their way to Alaska. The Super 8’s parking lot was full of heavy equipment trucks and the lobby with their drivers, so I didn’t even get to ask the price there. The restaurant where we had supper had a sign that said, “Clean casual wear after 7 p.m., please.” We had poutine (topped with grated “mozza” instead of cheese curds) and some very good Kokanee Gold beers.

From Fort Nelson our route will take us west back into the mountains again. We didn’t get to see much of them yesterday. We started the day getting gas and a couple of donuts and mocha lattes at a Tim Hortons. We washed the car in the relatively huge metropolis of Grand Prairie as it was difficult to see out the windows, despite my efforts at washing them every chance I got.

We just passed the first US plate we’ve seen since leaving the country, and it was a Subaru from Colorado. Oh, and here’s a minivan from Florida. They’ve got us beat.

From Grand Praire we drove through several towns in a row, all of which seemed to be advertising stock actions by the road. The two lane highway was clogged with big rigs driving slowly, so passing anyone was tricky. In Snow Crash, Neil Stevenson envisions a future where the entire Alaska Highway comprises an unending city a hundred yards wide and hundreds of miles long. It seemed like we were driving through the start of that. But then civilization abruptly ended.

The Alaska Highway we were on was incredibly monotonous, just tightly spaced evergreens on either side of the road, which wound and rose and fell enough to not let you see too much further into your future but usually offered ample passing space for the rare time we overtook another vehicle. The speed limit 100 kph (about 60 mph) but we’ve been traveling at 85 mph for the most part with ease. We have to judiciously decide where to get gas, since towns are few and far between and usually just consist of a restaurant, maybe a motel, and maybe a gas station. I make Berck get gas whenever I’m not sure, because we really don’t want to run out.

We’re using Street Atlas 2012 on a laptop with a GPS receiver to tell where we are and where we’re going. Street Atlas uses telephone directories to show businesses, so you can sometimes see if there’s a gas station in a given town (or a motel), but sometimes they’re closed. You can also zoom way into each town and guess if they have a gas station by the number of streets in the town. If there isn’t a little grid of streets, it’s anyone’s guess. If there is, there’s probably gas nearby. Google is better, but we can only check that when we’ve got wifi, since we turned off data on our phones once we hit the border. Another problem is that a lot of the gas stations out in the middle of nowhere are closed for the winter.

All the gas stations so far have places for the price but don’t actually post it. It’s, of course, been going up steadily the further north we travel. It’s sold in litres so you have to do a little multiplication to realize how ridiculously expensive it is. Currently, however, the Canadian dollar is almost exactly the same value as the U.S. dollar, which means we don’t have to do any exchange rate math in our heads. We did have to figure out if we got a better rate using our ATM card or using a credit card. It turns out that it’s a little cheaper to use cash, so Berck tries to talk the motel people to let us pay that way, even though they want to take your credit card so they can charge you if there’s any damage. The lady at the Mini Price Inn was nice and didn’t charge us a deposit, as long as we promised not to throw any wild parties.

We’ve been listening to This American Life episodes and David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which the iPod doesn’t know which order to put the chapters in. Berck printed out a list of how they’re supposed to be, so between each essay, I consult the sheet before scrolling through to find the next story. Of course, it hasn’t mattered at all, because none of them are related to one another. David Sedaris made his living writing stories about being a penniless drug-addicted hitch hiker, and now he has chateau in Normandy, so he writes about filling his house with old artwork, but it’s still funny.

Yesterday, we were heading along a particularly lonely stretch of highway when we overtook a taxi from Fort St. John, more than a hundred miles away. It held a passenger. The next town was Fort Nelson, which was another 75 miles or so away. What a fare.

Canada Trip Day 3 and 4

26 March 2012 at 10:28 pm
by Jonah

We’re heading north on the Alaskan Highway (or the “Scenic Route to Alaska,” as the sign pointing to it said, as if there’s another one?). There’s nothing but spindly evergreens on either side of the road in various stages of being timbered. I imagine this is what driving across Siberia is like, except with not as wide shoulders. To our left snow covered peaks occasionally peak out from behind the green hills we’re driving through.

We slept in somewhat the day before, the Black Diamond Hotel being a lot quieter in the morning than the night before. We were in room number 1, which makes me think we were the only guests. It was far quieter than the Econolodge with the room doors that all automatically slammed shut with a tremendous smack. The fog had followed us to Alberta, though not as thick. Fortunately, by the time we got to the mountains it lifted, and it was a beautiful day.

Inside Banff National Park we drove up to Lake Louise, which was, of course, covered in a thick layer of snow and, judging from the people in the parking lot, a popular destination for cross country skiing. We got gas, since that was the last place we could until we got to Jasper, and then took a detour to Emerald Lake, which also seemed to be a popular cross country skiing location. There was a shop there that alternately rented skis and canoes. A sign advised that, if a strong wind blew you to the opposite side of the lake, to just tie up your canoe and walk the trail back. Another sign displayed the area that was prone to avalanche.

We just stopped in a town called Grande Cache that is surprisingly large for being so far from anything else. Its two main industries seem to be logging (or “Forest Products”) and a correctional “service,” which we stumbled upon looking for a car wash. We did find one, but it had quite a line of giant pick ups. There’s also a coal mine right next to a power plant.

From Emerald Lake, we headed back to the highway that wound between two mountain ranges between Lake Louise and Jasper. That highway is one of the most beautiful in the world, I think, lined on either side by peak after jagged snow covered peak. Berck said, “I didn’t expect it to be as pretty as this.” I’d checked the road conditions that morning, and it said the first half was red and the second half was yellow. Indeed, a lot of road had a strip of road colored slush in the middle of road, sometimes extending over into our lane. This required quite a bit of concentration to navigate. We saw several glaciers (which are a lot more impressive in the winter surrounded by snow than the summer surrounded by dirt). You can tell they’re glaciers because there is green poking out from under the snow. I took 197 pictures. March is apparently a good time to travel on this road. We were passed by a giant pick up that thought driving 70 in the slush was too slow, and we passed a sedan (twice), and that’s all the traffic that was traveling northbound that we saw.

We got to Jasper around 5 and were tired and hungry since we hadn’t eaten that day. So we stopped at the visitor center and got some information and then drove to several motels and asked how much each was. Satisfied we’d found the cheapest in town ($112 including tax) we unpacked in a comfortable room with a king sized bed at the Maligne Lodge. Unfortunately, our room was beneath a staircase with kids yelling and running up and down it constantly. We checked reviews for places to eat in town and decided on Lou Lou’s Pizzeria (and burgers and espresso and breakfast and internet cafe) and ordered poutine and a pizza and two draught beers, which turned out to be a very palatable IPA. Our bellies full, we wondered around all of Jasper’s city centre looking for a brewery. When we found it, a Londoner, who we mistook for an Aussie (she claimed to have picked up a twang while she was down under), served us some tasty nitrogen red ale and stout and asked us lots of questions. She is “an instructor on the hill” who works a second job as a waitress. When we said we were from Colorado, she asked if that was near Tahoe.

Back in our room, we found the spots were the wireless was best (for Berck was it was perched on top of the television cabinet). By around 10:30 the kids had finally stopped running loudly up and down the stairs, and I had a good night’s sleep, except when Berck was pulling the covers off me (yes, even in a king sized bed).

We’re in Fort Nelson now, as far north as either of us has ever been in this hemisphere. We’re staying at the second cheapest motel in town and had dinner at Dan’s Neighbourhood Pub. The drive north along the Alaska Highway is astonishingly boring. So far the roads have been clear, and we haven’t seen any cops, so we’ve made very good time. We even got to see a very small herd of caribou digging through the snow on the side of the road.