Canada Trip – Tuesday

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.

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