Driving: Bear Necessity

Driving: Bear Necessity

Heidi Posner
Heidi Posner
Behind the wheel of an SUV, Darcy Frey searches for the elusive grizzly in the untouched wilderness of northern British Columbia

Halfway through a 1,300-mile road trip in remote northern British Columbia, I began to suspect that an encounter with a grizzly bear was, on the whole, far less likely than the chance that my fear of it was going to make me lose my mind. For days I'd been hearing stories: from the campground operator who was chatting at a pay phone when the fog lifted, revealing a rampant grizzly 10 feet away; from the park warden who opened the outhouse door and found one sitting on the can. Soon I was spotting them everywhere—bears on the hillside, bears in the valleys, bears right by the side of the road! On closer inspection, all these apparitions dissolved into logs, boulders, black plastic garbage bags shifting in the breeze. No matter. One night I saw so many snouts and claws against the wall of my tent that I abandoned my lakeside campsite for the stale air of a cheap motel.

Quivering in my boots, let me just say, was not my initial response to the Great Outdoors. A week earlier, when I was still in Vancouver, I was mostly filled with desire—to see a grizzly, to see the country in which it flourishes. As I pored over maps, my eyes kept wandering toward a great loop of northern highway. Passing towns called Toad River and Telegraph Creek, crossing five mountain ranges and two time zones, it promised to bring me into a vast subarctic wilderness, perhaps the last true wilderness south of Alaska and the Yukon. I talked a friend into joining me, then rented an SUV. The promise of wilderness is the promise of human disappearance. The only question was, just how lost could we get in a one-ton, four-wheel-drive GMC?

Given the choice between driving and washing dishes, I would just as soon wash dishes. The constant roar of the engine, the ceaseless vibration, the immobilization of every muscle but those in the eyes and hands—drive like that for eight hours and when you finally crawl out, you're lucky to be able to walk and talk. As it happened, the Alaska Highway, which we took across northeast British Columbia, was no longer the teeth-chattering endurance feat it must have been when U.S. and Canadian troops first poured the gravel back in 1942. Now mostly paved, the highway passed enough scruffy roadside settlements for us to find three hot meals a day and, when we tired of camping, a bed under a dry roof. But earning our I DROVE THE ALASKA HIGHWAY bumper sticker still meant putting up with long distances; broad, empty plateaus; and pavement straight as a line of longitude.

After four days of driving, though, we finally reached Stone Mountain Provincial Park, and a whole new landscape wheeled into view: rugged, sawtooth peaks aproned in black shale; turquoise glacier-fed rivers rushing through the valleys; intrepid bands of willow and spruce clinging to the banks. Evening was coming on, a milky twilight that lingers at this latitude for three hours, and large flakes of snow drifted through the August air like ash. Heading down the far side of the pass, I once again spotted dark shapes in the woods, but these held their ground. I coasted to a stop, killed the engine, and marveled at this bit of symbiosis: a young bull moose and his female companion had skittered out of the trees to lick minerals from the surface of the road. For 20 minutes they ignored our presence 15 feet away and feasted on the highway, breath pluming from their nostrils. When they'd had their fill, they turned and cantered along the side of the road, stiff-legged, hoofs splayed, as if they couldn't quite get their front legs to operate in concert with their rear. And for half a mile, we drafted them with the hazards on, sharing the road.


On the advice of a park ranger, the next morning we explored the Wokkpash Valley, hiking along a broad, rocky riverbank by following an old horse trail. On each side, mountains rose steeply from the banks, stilling the wind, and in that silence five velvet-gray caribou came rock-hopping across the river. After days of heavy rain, though, the river was on the rise; running out of dry bank, we had to turn back.

The next day we returned to Stone Mountain Provincial Park to hike across shallow creeks and sloping meadows covered in purple fireweed. The hiking was easy—and dry this time—and ahead of us, where we planned to have lunch, we could see a blue-green alpine lake shimmering in the sun. Lunch would have to wait. There, on the trail, perhaps 100 yards away, arose something large, furry, and brown—high, powerful haunches and swishing tail. Realizing we were staring at the rear two-thirds of a mountain lion, we watched, downwind, as it sneaked through the high brush along the edge of the lake. When the wind changed direction, so (hastily) did we.

Two hikes, two impassable roadblocks: now that we'd reached the wilderness, it wasn't yielding easily to our designs.

Back in the safe car, we hit the border of the Yukon Territory and turned south along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. Built in 1972, the Cassiar was even emptier than the Alaska Highway. We drove for hours without passing any cars or human settlements, the road so foreshortened by all the hills that, rising to a crest, it looked to catapult us into thin air while the towering pines on each side carved the sky in a deep V. And as we drove into deeper and deeper country, past thick spruce forests and silent, aspen-lined lakes, our sightings accelerated: wolverine, red fox, marmot, eagles, owls, loons.

But there was still the matter of bears, which had remained out of sight, though never out of mind. It may be the case that, as all my pamphlets pointed out, bears generally avoid contact with humans and will move away if they hear you coming. But tell that to the hiker who has spent an afternoon up a tree, at a slightly higher elevation than the grizzly's slashing 12-inch claws. Tell that to the park ranger who has encountered a black bear, assumed the fetal position, and remained perfectly still for an hour while the bear licked and nibbled his ear. Tell that to me as I sat in Mae's Kitchen, trying to gulp down a breakfast of hash browns and bacon beneath a large color photo of two men standing over the bloody corpse of a grizzly, shot nearby in 1999: "825 lbs., 12 feet tall. This is the largest bear found this side of Yukon in many years," read the handwritten caption. "The older man was eight yards away when he had to shoot. The bear had been tracking him for three kilometers."


Toward the end of the Cassiar Highway, there's a 25-mile spur road that heads west over the Coast Mountains to the border of the Alaska Panhandle. One reason to take this detour is the string of stunning glaciers along the road, arrayed like jewels on a chain. Another, if you are so inclined, is Alaska's Tongass National Forest, whose rivers and creeks are the spawning ground for millions of Pacific salmon and, in late summer, an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet for the park's population of bears.

Whether I was so inclined shifted moment to moment, depending on whom I spoke to last. When I stopped at the visitors' information center to pick up a trail map, the woman behind the desk actually laughed out loud—"Do you know how many bears we've got this summer?"—and suggested we'd be better off going to have pizza. But when I asked a friendly (dare I say bearish-looking?) park ranger about the safety of hiking, his eyes lit up, and he directed us to an old dirt mining road, with instructions to follow it to the end, where we'd have good bear-visibility high above the trees. It appeared that the last words we might hear in this world would be his: "Have fun!"

Within a few miles, the dirt road began its steep ascent into the mountains. Up and up it went, past scenery so improbably dramatic it bordered on melodrama: sheer, densely forested mountainsides and thundering waterfalls and, to the left, the gradual unveiling of the Salmon Glacier, a six-mile thoroughfare of sparkling ice. After 17 miles of white-knuckle driving, we reached a sign—END OF MAINTAINED ROAD—and then . . . nothing. Nothing that showed any evidence of human trespass. And everything we'd come this far to see: to the north, a ridge of rock and tundra-covered mountains, all above the tree line; to the south, the Salmon Glacier, spreading like a rippling white ocean to the horizon. That this was the wildest land I'd ever reached by car was apparent the instant I set foot on it. There, by the side of the road, was a 10-inch bear track in a field of snow and, 10 yards beyond, the largest pile of scat I'd ever seen, black as my fearful heart.

With only animal trails to follow, keeping our bearing with the glacier at our backs, we hiked up the ridge, picking our route, constantly weighing the luxury of soft moss underfoot with the chance that a bear might have gotten the same idea. Each new step was a choice and a demand—to pay attention, to be alert. For bears, yes, but also for every small detail of the land: the way the dwarf willows hugged the edges of creeks, and the button-sized wildflowers flourished in the late-summer sun, and how all the vegetation finally gave way at the top to vast, lunar fields of shale and ice.

It wasn't until 10 p.m. that the last light had faded from the Western sky and reluctantly we returned to the car, bouncing back down the mining road toward town. Even with the engine's whine and the sound of wind blowing through the windows, we could hear a ruckus, so we pulled over to investigate. Running alongside the road was a creek, and running in the creek were thousands of salmon—jumping, thrashing against the current, ignoring the thousands more that lay on the rocks, belly-up and whitening in the chill, dark air. There, too, in the midst of the carnage, was a massive pitch-black mound of fur. On this moonless night, it was no more distinct than a shadow, but I knew—the way you know someone's coming up behind you without turning your head—that this was a bear.

For about a minute, we watched as this beast—this Rorschach test of my fears and desires—splashed around with a lighthearted ferociousness, rearing and pouncing, batting a half-dead salmon like a soccer ball. I won't say that I wasn't afraid. But fear, surprisingly, was not my primary emotion. For that minute, I was absolute alertness—all senses, no brain. This was what I'd been after all along: I had all but disappeared. For a moment the black mass vanished, and I jumped back toward the open car door. But then I heard the thick timber on the far bank snap and pop, and the willows shake: the bear was gone.


The Itinerary

In northern British Columbia, distances between towns--and gas stations--are long; fill your tank every chance you get. Hotel options are listed below, but if you're comfortable pitching a tent, there are good provincial campgrounds along the way.

DAY 1 From Prince George, head northeast on Highway 97. Stop at Pine Pass for the first great mountain view, and then spend the night in Fort St. John at the Quality Inn Northern Grand (9830 100th Ave.; 800/663-8312 or 250/787-0521; www.choicehotels.ca; doubles from $72).

DAY 2 Drive north on Highway 97 (now called the Alaska Highway) and grab a hearty trucker's lunch at Mae's Kitchen (Mile 147, Alaska Hwy., Pink Mountain; 250/772-3215; lunch for two $10); then continue north to Stone Mountain Provincial Park. At the entrance, take a short hike on the gentle Flower Springs Trail, or on the strenuous Summit Peak Trail for stupendous views. Drive to Toad River and stay over at the Toad River Lodge (Mile 422, Alaska Hwy.; 250/232-5401; www.toadriverlodge.com; doubles from $32).

DAY 3 Continue on the Alaska Highway to Muncho Lake Provincial Park, and have lunch at the Northern Rockies Lodge (Mile 462, Alaska Hwy.; 250/776-3481; lunch for two $17). Back on the Alaska Highway, stop to luxuriate in the steaming water at Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park. In Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, brush up on the aurora borealis at the Northern Lights Centre (819 Frank Trail; 867/536-7827; www.northernlightscentre.ca), and spend the night at the rustic Watson Lake Hotel (Ninth St.; 867/536-7781; doubles from $60).

DAY 4 Head north on the Alaska Highway for 14 miles, then turn south on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (Route 37) to Eddontenajon Lake. Check in at the Red Goat Lodge (Cassiar Hwy.; 250/234-3261; doubles from $56) and rent a canoe to paddle the lake. Have dinner just down the road at the Tatogga Lake Resort (Cassiar Hwy., Iskut; 250/234-3526; dinner for two $20).

DAY 5 Drive south on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway to Meziadin Junction; then head west on 37A to the twin border towns of Stewart, British Columbia, and Hyder, Alaska. Turn right at the end of Hyder's Main Street and follow the gravel road to the Fish Creek viewing platform to watch bears feasting on salmon. Continue for 11 more miles to take in spectacular views of the Salmon Glacier. Go back to Stewart for a salmon dinner of your own at the Bitter Creek CafŽ (313 Fifth Ave.; 250/636-2166; dinner for two $33) and stay at the King Edward Hotel (405 Fifth Ave.; 250/636-2244; www.kingedwardhotel.com; doubles from $46).

DAY 6 Backtrack east on Route 37A to Meziadin Junction, before driving south on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway to Kitwanga. Head east on Highway 16 to Smithers, and spend the night at the Stork Nest Inn (1485 Main St.; 250/847-3831; www.storknestinn.com; doubles from $47). DAY 7 Continue east on Highway 16 and stop for a hike in Babine Mountains Provincial Park. Follow Highway 16 east back to Prince George.


In northern British Columbia, distances between towns--and gas stations--are long; fill your tank every chance you get. Hotel options are listed below, but if you're comfortable pitching a tent, there are good provincial campgrounds along the way.

DAY 1 From Prince George, head northeast on Highway 97. Stop at Pine Pass for the first great mountain view, and then spend the night in Fort St. John at the Quality Inn Northern Grand (9830 100th Ave.; 800/663-8312 or 250/787-0521; www.choicehotels.ca; doubles from $72).

DAY 2 Drive north on Highway 97 (now called the Alaska Highway) and grab a hearty trucker's lunch at Mae's Kitchen (Mile 147, Alaska Hwy., Pink Mountain; 250/772-3215; lunch for two $10); then continue north to Stone Mountain Provincial Park. At the entrance, take a short hike on the gentle Flower Springs Trail, or on the strenuous Summit Peak Trail for stupendous views. Drive to Toad River and stay over at the Toad River Lodge (Mile 422, Alaska Hwy.; 250/232-5401; www.toadriverlodge.com; doubles from $32).

DAY 3 Continue on the Alaska Highway to Muncho Lake Provincial Park, and have lunch at the Northern Rockies Lodge (Mile 462, Alaska Hwy.; 250/776-3481; lunch for two $17). Back on the Alaska Highway, stop to luxuriate in the steaming water at Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park. In Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, brush up on the aurora borealis at the Northern Lights Centre (819 Frank Trail; 867/536-7827; www.northernlightscentre.ca), and spend the night at the rustic Watson Lake Hotel (Ninth St.; 867/536-7781; doubles from $60).

DAY 4 Head north on the Alaska Highway for 14 miles, then turn south on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (Route 37) to Eddontenajon Lake. Check in at the Red Goat Lodge (Cassiar Hwy.; 250/234-3261; doubles from $56) and rent a canoe to paddle the lake. Have dinner just down the road at the Tatogga Lake Resort (Cassiar Hwy., Iskut; 250/234-3526; dinner for two $20).

DAY 5 Drive south on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway to Meziadin Junction; then head west on 37A to the twin border towns of Stewart, British Columbia, and Hyder, Alaska. Turn right at the end of Hyder's Main Street and follow the gravel road to the Fish Creek viewing platform to watch bears feasting on salmon. Continue for 11 more miles to take in spectacular views of the Salmon Glacier. Go back to Stewart for a salmon dinner of your own at the Bitter Creek CafŽ (313 Fifth Ave.; 250/636-2166; dinner for two $33) and stay at the King Edward Hotel (405 Fifth Ave.; 250/636-2244; www.kingedwardhotel.com; doubles from $46).

DAY 6 Backtrack east on Route 37A to Meziadin Junction, before driving south on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway to Kitwanga. Head east on Highway 16 to Smithers, and spend the night at the Stork Nest Inn (1485 Main St.; 250/847-3831; www.storknestinn.com; doubles from $47). DAY 7 Continue east on Highway 16 and stop for a hike in Babine Mountains Provincial Park. Follow Highway 16 east back to Prince George.

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