Travel blog – Vancouver to Yukon part 1 – Vancouver to Watson Lake

I’ll try to keep these brief as I’m writing them in spare time (as you’ll see later, I have more of it than anticipated) in my room.

I write this five days into my journey to the Yukon. I departed Vancouver on Wednesday and drove, via the Alaska Highway, to Whitehorse, where I currently am.

Day one started a bit rough – my rental car wasn’t ready when I arrived, and while waiting for it I learned by email that a family friend passed away the night before.  But fortunately, this meant the day could only get better.  The drive out of town, despite the massive amounts of construction, was quite nice – especially the views of still-snow-covered Mount Baker on the way East.  I stopped for lunch in Hope at a vegan juice bar (the last thing I expected in such a small town), and headed North on Highway 1 from there.  I’m thankful I stopped when I did – I discovered my iPhone charger hadn’t been working properly, and since my iPhone is also my GPS, I would have lost it altogether if I hadn’t adjusted it!

As soon as I got out of the Hope area, I discovered, as has been the case ever since, that I was one of very few people driving a small vehicle.  The entire road is full of pickup trucks and SUVs – I already felt a little out of place!  Fortunately, most of these drivers are used to driving these roads so the drive has been (relatively) smooth.

I had plans to meet a friend (who has been working up in the Quesnel area) for dinner somewhere along the road, and Williams Lake ended up being the destination – the timing worked perfectly as he arrived less than five minutes after I did.  After a very filling dinner I continued on and arrived in Prince George in the dark, exhausted!

It was not long after leaving Prince George that I lost cell phone connection (not that I was using it much anyway), and started to lose radio stations. Fortunately I had the iPod in my phone to keep the trip entertaining.  The drive is pretty much the same thing for most of the route all the way from just outside of Vancouver to Fort Nelson.  There are some nice mountains to look at and to make driving interesting, and a bunch of trees.

Two things stuck out on this stretch though.  First, was the amount of pine beetle kill.  Huge swaths of pine forest were just brown or going brown from infestations.  It was so heartbreaking to see what was likely such a beautiful forest going completely dead.  And we’re scratching at the bottom of the barrel and harvesting these dead trees before they rot – trying to salvage what is left of our once magnificent and plentiful forests.

The other striking thing, particularly North of Prince George, was the amount of energy activity going on.  Everything from extraction to processing to pipelining to distribution.  Virtually every turn-off that wasn’t into a major town was for some sort of oil or gas facility.  Literally hundreds of kilometres of this activity stretches through a large part of Northern British Columbia.  The size is overwhelming.  Fort St. John is known as the “energetic city” as it’s a hub of all of this – a small town at the centre of so much fossil fuel activity.

Anyway, shortly out of Prince George I did a double-take as I passed a wolf standing on the side of the road – I hadn’t expected it and it took a minute to figure out what it actually was!  A beautiful animal, which I hope survived its journey over the highway!

I stopped for lunch in Dawson Creek (I kept looking for a sign I could photoshop an apostrophe-S into, but had no such luck), and continued on to Fort St. John, where I grabbed a coffee and continued on my way.  North of here I started to realise that very few people were going the same direction as me, and in fact there were very few people at all, save a few oversized trucks lugging massive construction vehicles.  There’s something rather exciting about being in places that relatively few have visited – and the peaceful drive was really nice.

It was also around this area that technology became less and less useful.  In addition to no cell phone signal (which I anticipated), my GPS (I use the TomTom app for iPhone) became less and less accurate, and less and less complete.  Destinations often didn’t exist in the app, and even if I could find a town in the app I couldn’t find any particular “point of interest” to actually tell the app to send me to the general area.  I was usually most successful searching for a petrol station and getting directions to whichever I found, but even that was sketchy.  By the time I crossed the Yukon border, it also lost the ability to tell me what the speed limit on the road I was driving was (and it became less and less accurate as I approached), and driving times were wildly inaccurate.  My drive from Fort Nelson to Whitehorse (which GoogleMaps estimated approximately the same as TomTom did) took literally two hours less than suggested – and I don’t speed in any meaningful way.

But anyway, I digress. Fortunately, I had fairly reliable paper maps (old school!), and occasionally a tourist info centre would come in handy.  And even more importantly, the drive is one single road – the Alaska Highway starts in Dawson Creek, BC, and goes all the way past Whitehorse.

I spent the second night in Fort Nelson, where I had a great dinner at Boston Pizza (I had such a bad craving for it, and it was fortunately next door to my hotel)… the next morning I stopped at a grocery store to buy something for lunch (there are not many reliable stops along the way), and a gas station to fill up and check fluids.  Strangely, the station I filled up at didn’t carry winter windshield washer fluid, so I had to wait until I got to the Yukon to top up.  And then: on to Watson Lake!

This is where the drive finally got interesting (sorry to have bored you with everything up to here!)  The very North end of British Columbia and South end of the Yukon is a beautiful stretch of the road.  There were mountains, and valleys, and despite the fact that many things are closing up around this time of year, I think I did the drive at the exact perfect time.  All the leaves are just starting to change colours, so the view was constantly a palette of greens, reds, yellows, blues (of the lakes and mountains), and whites (of the mountain-top glaciers).  None of my photos have quite captured any of it just right – it must be experienced in person to be truly grasped.  I could go on and on but I won’t – the whole journey on this day was just astounding.

The drive included some more wildlife spotting too – a family of bears crossing the road ahead of me, and many, many, herds of buffalo all the way along the highway.  There’s something rather unreal about seeing wild buffalo in the actual wild, and not just in a zoo!

This stretch also crosses the BC-Yukon border five times – I always knew when I had crossed the border because my GPS would all of a sudden start telling me the speed limit again.  Shortly before one crossing, I noticed something peculiar that mimicked something I’d noticed a number of times en route: a sign announcing an approaching town (“Swift River”) with another sign attached below it that read: “Closed.”  I’d seen these “Closed” signs numerous times along the way when announcing services en route – some close seasonally, but more are closed for good.  But this entire town was closed.  It was so interesting to observe – improved fuel economy (and, also likely, reduced resource activity) has eliminated the need for a number of petrol stops along the road.  I was easily able to drive a day without stopping – but even if I need to stop every couple of hours I still would have had more than enough places to do so.

The final provincial border crossing of the day came shortly before my stopping point, Watson Lake, Yukon.  I took in the “Sign Post Forest” which is an amazing collection of signs either stolen from random places around the world or created by contributors.  From there I hopped across the street to the Northern Lights Centre where I happened to arrive about 10 minutes before their twice-daily planetarium-style presentation on the Northern Lights.  I checked the forecasts and sadly I will likely miss any showings of the actual Northern Lights on this trip.  But it was interesting to learn about them anyway!  From there I checked into my accommodation, a converted WWII US Air Force base (yes, the US military was responsible for much of the development of Canada’s North – they built most of the Alaska Highway for us).  I was told the only restaurant in town was closed in ten minutes so hopped in my car and grabbed a bison burger (local!) and called it a night.

Up next: Watson Lake to Whitehorse!

I’ve posted some photos on Flickr – more will come with time but likely not until I return to Vancouver!

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Update: a facebook friend pointed out there is a story about the specifics of Swift River: http://www.yukon-news.com/news/14558/

    Reply

  2. Mountain pine beetle sure changed my old city of Prince George. I go back about once a year at xmas time, and in 2005 when I went, everything looked very different – many of the wooded areas around the city were all chopped down including my old school – the woods were our playground!

    Reply

  3. […] Island.  After moving to Vancouver, I decided it was high time I complete the set, and went to the Yukon this past September.  The trip was so amazing I decided I needed to see the other two ASAP.  So I […]

    Reply

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