So... 2020 was meant to be a full year of travel. I’d taken a leave from my job and was super excited about our plans. We’d leave in January and travel through Argentina until mid-April then return to Canada to visit family for a month or so. Eastern Europe would be next – perhaps for four months if we could stand not seeing grandbabies for that long, and then…well, maybe Indonesia! Or the Philippines! Anywhere that’s hot.
Well, I don’t need to tell you where those great plans went.
Mid-March, 2020…COVID hits the world. Our Argentinian trip comes to a quick close. Within two weeks of the first headlines about the virus, Aaron and I are on a plane flying back to Canada, super sad to cut our trip short but glad to have found a flight home as the pandemic ramped up – so many people didn’t.
Back home, April, May and June crawl by. Nothing to do but watch the news and freak out. Summer hits, COVID settles down a bit and Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s top doctor okays the idea of travelling within BC. Parks Canada tells British Columbians that we have first dibs on campsites.
“Wanna do Northern BC?,” Aaron asks me. Northern what? As in cold? “I don’t think so,” I say. “I don’t do ‘cold.’ Shorts, sandals and sunshine – that’s what I do.” But Aaron keeps at me. “It’ll be great,” he says. We could go as far as the Yukon! The Yukon? That’s waaaay north! I’m cold just thinking about it.
My honey starts looking at campers though. And then he buys one. I guess we’re going up north.
In two days, our new 22-foot camper is loaded. Well, it’s not new – a 2007 – but… it’s new to us. And now that its cupboards are full of food, kayaks are tied on its roof, bikes are locked to its back, and warm quilts cover the full-sized bed where we’ll sleep for the next six or so weeks, I’m suddenly super excited!
We leave mid-August, driving east then north through Alberta to see Aaron’s boys and some bouncing grandbabies. And then head north and west toward where we will formally start our northern BC trip.
My head bobs as we drive along Highway 40 just before Grande Prairie. I look at Aaron questioningly. “Frost heaves,” he explains. “Water seeps through the cracks in the highway, freezes in the winter and pushes the pavement up.” We bounce up and down for a few miles. Thank god I don’t have to pee. A truck starts to pass us then stays alongside us as a woman rolls down her window.
“Do you have some bikes?” she yells over to us.
“Yeah,” I yell back, wondering what the heck she’s going on about.
“Well, they’re back there a couple of miles,” she says, nodding that way. What? I don’t understand.
Aaron does though. “Thanks! he says, giving the kind Samaritans a thumbs up. “The bikes must have fallen off,” he says as he makes a u-turn across the empty highway and heads back the way we came.
“How could the bikes fall off?” I ask in disbelief.
“The bumper must have broken off,” Aaron says without a speck of impatience. Hmmm, I’m seeing an interesting side to this man.
We spot the pile of crumpled metal on the other side of the highway about two kilometres back, just as the couple said we would. Aaron makes another u-turn and stops just before the wreckage. He gets out.
“Yours is okay,” he says as he maneuvers it from the pile. “Mine’s not so good.” It’s a mangled mess in fact. Both tire rims are twisted and the tires and tubes are beyond repair. “Crap,” he says, the first sign I’ve seen that he’s pissed.
Throwing both bikes and the heavy metal bumper onto the floor of the camper, we head into Grande Prairie. With the patience of a saint, Aaron goes from one shop to another, buying a rim here, a tire there, another rim here, and another tire there. Lastly, we head out to the industrial area of town to a see a welder about a bumper.
Hours later, we’re done and back on the road, bikes and bumper repaired.
We reach Dawson Creek two hours later, a huge red and white sign stating we’ve reached the start of the Alaskan Highway.
We pull the camper into the parking lot in front of a Tourism Information Office, curious to find out more about the Alaskan Highway and this town at Mile Zero.
BC's wildlife fill the Tourist Office - we gaze up at a gigantic moose head and a similarly massive bison, and walk through the many displays of bear, wolf, mink, and so much more.
The Tourist Office shares space with the Station Museum and we roam about for a half-hour or so, learning about how the Northern Alberta Railway, in 1930, was extended from Alberta to the border with British Columbia where stood a tiny backwater called Dawson Creek. Here, the Canadian government said, a brand-new highway would be built linking BC to Fairbanks, Alaska, to support World War II efforts. The railway brought 17,000 American troops and Canadian contractors (Aaron’s grandpa was one of them!) to the little town to clear the land and build the road. We can almost feel the pain the men felt as we look at the photos of them, see their sweaty faces and filthy bodies, see them hacking through brush, clearing the thick forest. Look at them straining against straps, struggling knee-deep through mud as they pull a dozer on a make-shift sled, the only way they can get it past the mud to construct the 1700 kilometre long Alaskan Highway in a mere nine months!
We head toward Fort St. John, the next big town. Unlike the frost-heaved road of yesterday, the highway out of Dawson Creek is wide and immaculately maintained, an undulating ribbon of dark grey-black splitting the forest and taking us over miles of green rolling hills.
We pass the occasional small break in the wall of spruce trees where we spot oil refineries and work camps. Just after the highway takes a strong left turn, we cross the Sikanni River and see the Sikanni River RV Park and Campground on the left.
“Sikanni Chief Falls should be coming up,” I tell Aaron as I check maps.me, silently thanking those smart techies who developed a mapping app that shows me, without using my valuable data, where I’m going even when there’s no cell service. We continue down the highway. “Watch for a sign,” I tell Aaron.
I discovered Sikanni Chief Falls while perusing the internet for cool places to see in northern BC. It will be our first destination and is the only plan I've made. Fourteen kilometres past the campground, we see a wide gravel road to the left with a big white sign saying Sikanni River Ranch, Mile 171. “This must be it,” I say. “But, it's too late to go now. Let's come back tomorrow morning,.” I say, bookmarking the turnoff on maps.me.
Eight kilometres later, we pull into Buckinghorse River Provincial Park. Other than two other campers, we have the place to ourselves. The rain’s slowed a bit so we walk through the scrub behind our campsite to check out the river where I'd read somewhere that Artic Greyling could be caught. We’ve brought our fishing rods with us and though neither of us know much about fishing, we’re determined to catch some fish on this holiday.
“It's pretty low," I say, looking at the mostly dry riverbed. "No fish in there, I'd say." Clearly, dinner will be something from a can tonight.
It’s a dull, drizzly morning that greets us when we wake the next day, and I put the kettle on. It’s lovely to have so much right at my fingertips – I’m so used to living out of a backpack when I travel, and to have a kettle at hand, with coffee, milk from my own little fridge…Well, I feel downright spoiled.
Aaron goes outside to unhitch the trailer while I make breakfast. We grab our raincoats, jump into the truck and head back out to the highway and back to the turnoff we’d seen yesterday. Following a slightly greasy but decent gravel road, we see several roads splitting off it at about the fifteen-kilometre mark. We follow the sign on the far-left branch that tells us Sikanni Falls is 1.6 kilometres down that way. A few minutes later, we drive into a small clearing surrounded by tall aspen.
The trail is mostly flat. We savour the silence as we wind our way through the tall white aspen, saying thank you to the canopy above us that keeps the light rain off us. A half-hour in, the flat trail ends and what looks like a precarious goat trail heads downward.
After picking our way carefully down the creek bed, we find ourselves on the edge of a cliff with a stunning view of the huge falls.
Wild water explodes off a rock edge high above the ground, becoming a river that flows toward us then to our left through high cliffs and a gorgeous green valley.
Hoofing our way back up the steep slope, we discover a previously-missed turnoff from the trail.
With nothing but time, we follow a much easier pathway through a carpet of bright green bunchberry plants.
A quick, easy climb up a rock outcropping brings us to a place where spongy mosses in crimson, dark green and gold carpet the landscape and rocks have been artistically etched with lichen.
Dotting the autumn landscape are small bursts of purple Erigeron, the little daisies that I love so much. Though the view of the falls is not as good as the one down the steeper path, it’s a gorgeous alternative for folks with kids or bad knees.
Back at our campground, the rain that seemed so light and invigorating during our hike is now just a nuisance. We stay inside our warm trailer and make plans for tomorrow.
We wake to yet more rain and rush to rehook the trailer to the truck, trying our best to avoid a soaking (well, Aaron rushes around). We pull out and head north.
Similar to yesterday’s road trip, forest flanks the highway on both sides, mostly aspens and poplars, their delicate leaves green but for the occasional splotch of autumn gold.
Two hours later, we drive into Fort Nelson, an old fur trading post back in the 1800’s, and a once-bustling city that grew out of the Alaskan Highway construction then expanded as natural resources were discovered. A poor housing market and low oil prices in recent years has devastated Fort Nelson, but, as the biggest town in the proximity of several beautiful parks, they have grown their tourism industry.
As we drain our unmentionables at the RV sani-station, we spot the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum on the other side of the highway. Its colourful and haphazard array of wood shacks and World War II-era trucks and machinery intrigue us enough to do a u-turn off the highway and double back to check it out. We’ve erred in our timing, however, and no one’s around to guide us through the place. So, we wander around on our own.
Like a little kid, Aaron climbs on to all the big, old bulldozers and crawls into the old cars.
We peer through the tiny windows of the general store and old wooden post office, and into the trappers’ cabin whose door is topped with a grand set of weather-bleached moose antlers and a pair of ancient snowshoes. It’s a cool spot – would have liked to get the full tour. Next time, I guess.
An hour further along the highway, we arrive at Stone Mountain Provincial Park. It’s raining again, but so gorgeous we don’t even see the rain.
The scenery feeds our nature-loving souls and we feast our eyes on the purple fireweed and goldenrod blooming at the edge of the road, admire the creamy blue glacial waters rivers and pretty waterfalls, and gaze longingly into canyons that call for us to put our hiking boots on and explore them.
The campsite we’d hoped to stay at is just off the highway on an exposed tree-less clearing, and though several campers are parked, no one’s outside. The wind is blowing the vegetation sideways along the highway and we decide to continue on to the lower-elevation at Muncho Lake.
There’s no end of available sites when we pull into the Strawberry Campsite – where are all the travellers, I wonder? We find a perfect spot at the lake’s edge, protected from the wind on all sides by walls of aspen, quickly set up camp, and climb into our trailer. Outside it rains, but inside our little rolling home, we’re warm and cozy. At twenty-two feet, everything is within arm’s distance, but the extra room from our slide-out makes it feel grandly spacious. There’s something special about camper-travel – I’m loving how everything we need is so close at hand. No need to drive somewhere to get food – it’s right there in our fridge, right beside the stove we’ll cook it on. We have our sweet little nook to eat at, a cozy bed to sleep in, and our own shower. There’s even a little bathtub that Aaron may (or may not) let me fill up with our valuable water.
Morning brings sunshine and we drag our lawnchairs and morning beverages to the lakeshore behind our trailer.
Yesterday’s wind has disappeared and the surface of the lake is dead still, mirroring perfectly the green hill on the other side. We sit quietly, taking in the silence and beauty.
After a breakfast of bacon and eggs (cooked on our own little stove), we pull our kayaks off the roof and drag them to the water. Three kilometres up the pretty lake then back feeds our souls and exercises our arms, then, because the sun we’ve seldom seen thus far on this trip is still shining, we head across the highway toward the hiking trail we’d spotted yesterday as we drove in.
Traversing the wide, mostly dry riverbed, we find the trail promised by the earlier sign. Though only mildly steep at first, it soon becomes almost vertical. We climb as far as our old knees and lungs can take us and get a spectacular view of Muncho Lake.
I look longingly up to the cliff above, wishing we had just a little more stamina, but…we don’t.
We drag our sore legs back to camp and crawl on to our bed, a little embarrassed that we have to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon but ecstatic that we can.
An hour later, we rise, our limbs now stiff and sore. Aaron goes outside and starts a fire. I heat up a can of chili, grate some cheddar cheese, and pull out some smokies from the fridge. Then head outside to the now crackling fire. Aaron skewers the smokies on metal rods and we settle into our lawnchairs, watching the smokies turn dark then glisten with hot, bubbling juice. We place them into readied hot dog buns, then pour chili and cheese on top. Delicious. As are the marshmallows we roast on the same skewers to a golden brown an hour later.
Not ones to relax in one spot for long, we get back on the road again in the morning. With high hopes of soaking our tired, worn out bodies in the Liard Hotsprings Provincial Park, we’re sorely disappointed to find the hotsprings closed due to COVID. For a moment, we contemplate staying and sneaking in at midnight when the park rangers are sleeping, but, as we weigh the idea against the story Aaron told me earlier about the woman who, just a year prior, was killed by a bear on her way up to the hotsprings, we decide to keep driving.
Just past Liard, I spot my first moose!
Then, bam, bam, bam. We go around a corner and see three caribou with immense antlers that tower over heads that seem too frail to hold the huge racks.
Sadly, they are completely disinterested in posing for me and I only manage to snap a couple of bums as they move back into the trees. A couple kilometres later, a fat, round-faced black bear similarly ignores me, too absorbed in the sweet grass to look up when we call.
But then we hit a big bison herd.
They are much kinder, a few curious ones lifting their shaggy bearded heads from the grass to pose. I wonder what they’re thinking? Are they wishing they had a camera? That weird woman hanging out the truck window would be a good shot.
We continue on to Watson Lake. A formal COVID-checkpoint has been set up to ensure anyone who’s been outside the Yukon or BC (their bubble) cannot stay in the Yukon unless they quarantine for two weeks. Because we went through Alberta, we can’t enter. Seriously? Yes, seriously. You can either go to Whitehorse and quarantine for another week, or head back to BC. They tell us we can stay in Watson Lake until tomorrow but then we must leave. Sigh.
But wait…Aaron has an idea.
“Could we go down to Atlin for a week then come back? We’ve already been out of Alberta for a week so that’ll satisfy the two-week quarantine,” he tells the inspector.
“Sure! You can do that.”
Oh you’re so smart, Aaron! But…wait…where the hell’s Atlin?