The Stewart-Cassiar Highway
The Stewart-Cassiar Highway, first built in 1975, is the northern-most and most remote part of British Colombia. Stretching from Kitimat in the south to the Alaska Highway 22km west of Watson Lake in the north, the Cassiar Highway is 874km long, with 722km between Kitwanga and the Alaska Highway.
Day 12 of the Bikepacking Canada Adventure started with me waking up to a perfectly dry tent, with no dew on it, and all my food hanging safely from the rafters of the building covering our picnic table. Couldn’t ask for a better start. By the time we were ready to go, it was almost 9am, so we cycled to the General Store to top up our water bottles. Our goal for the day was to make it 150km to Meziadin Junction and camp somewhere close by. The day started great and we were making good time, enjoying the scenery. I was having fun doing a slalom down a hill when I almost rolled my tire off the rim because of the low air level while running them tubeless. After losing some of my sealant and having to re-inflate my tire, we were back on the road. I noticed a bit of a rattle and realized that somehow my rear cassette had come a bit loose but without the proper tools I was left with the choice of backtracking 200km to the nearest big city or carrying on up the highway. I decided to push forward. My rear tire was starting to get pretty worn, what with all the gravel I had been riding on. With fingers crossed I made my way to the Yukon. The change from riding on the Yellowhead Highway to the Cassiar was apparent from the first moment. In just this first day, we were blown away by the beauty and quietness of the region, and saw three black bears to boot. Being apprehensive at first, we quickly got used to the little buggers and they always ran away when they saw us.
In the end, we didn’t quite make it to Meziadin Junction but camped about 15 km before it in a nice spot we found just after the Nass River, having ridden 139km and climbed 939 metres. These Forest Service Road campsites would come in really handy over the next week, as they generally have fire pits and flat ground for pitching a tent. Needless to say, the mosquitos were unapologetic and took every opportunity possible to eat us. This would be the first of many days where all stops were immediately followed by putting on layers and a bug net.
Day 13 started with us waking up to the insatiable mosquitos and rain, we decided to sleep in and wait it out. By around 8am the rain was done and we were able to pack up and ride 15km to Maziadin Junction where we could refill our water, eat breakfast and get a fresh coffee. This late start meant we didn’t get going on our way until about 11:30am. Within just a short amount of time we started seeing more and more bears, counting a total of 11 for the day. The day was quite overcast and we didn’t have the best views of the surrounding area, but the riding was great and the transport trucks made us feel safe by giving us lots of space when passing.
We rolled into Bell 2 at around 6pm and rather than cook food, I bought a wrap, cookies and coffee. At Bell 2 we met Ollie from England. He was working at the Station and had been in the area for the past several years, as it provides him lots of time to heli ski in the winters. Having done lots of bike tours previously and knowing the importance of giving a helping hand, he generously gave us a few energy bars and wished us well. Just as we were about to leave it started to rain so we decided to wait longer and let it die down before riding the 11km to our hopeful camp spot at the rest stop. While waiting we met a bunch of geologists working in gold mining exploration and had some great conversations about our respective tours. All-in-all, a great way to kill time. Reaching the camp site gave us a grand total of 121km for the day and an elevation gain of 1453 metres. Not a large number overall, but due to the late start and rain, it was a respectable accomplishment. This definitely was not the best campsite, as we just pitched our tents next to the road at a rest stop, meaning there was the occasional truck passing by in the middle of the night. While we were laying in our tents, I heard some branches breaking and asked Fedoor if he was outside or in his tent. He told me he was in his tent and we decided to talk very loudly and hopefully scare away the bear that was likely in our area. It seemed to work and after a few minutes we didn’t hear it anymore.
Day 14 had us waking up about 11km north of Bell 2. When I got out of the tent, Fedoor was chatting to a trucker and he was telling us to be super careful because there are apparently 20,000 grizzlies in these mountains. Thanks buddy for making us super paranoid. Getting on the road nice and early after a roaming man breakfast we had ambitious plans to ride all the way to Iskut and then another 17km to a campsite at over 1000 metres of elevation. In my experience eating with mosquito swarms all around, a roaming man breakfast in when you cook your food and coffee while wearing a mosquito net and then walk around as fast as possible while eating, in order to keep the mosquitos at bay.
Throughout the day we saw 9 more bears, but as we were starting to notice, most of the bears just ran away as soon as we came near them. And if that didn’t work, a quick blast of the signal horn usually scared them off into the bushes. This was one of the first days where the clouds were high up and we were afforded panoramic views of the valleys and surrounding mountains. The only problem with days like these is that you seem to stop every couple minutes to take more pictures. During these few days we went through several avalanche areas where the mountains descend right to the road, making for spectacular views. With up to 8 metres of snow in the winters, it’s understandable why these regions pose an avalanche risk in the winter. Fedoor and I made good time overall and I would either wait for him at the top of climbs or after blowing past him on the descents. Although riding a much more aero bike and carrying way less gear, it was great to be with someone for this part of the journey. Not just because of safety in numbers, but also for the camaraderie it provided us.
Reaching Iskut after 150km we found out that the grocery store and entire first nations community is completely closed to non-residents, but we were lucky enough that they would get what we wanted and run our cards for us. So we celebrated the huge day of biking with 2 litres of ice cream and a bag of cheezies. Not a bad dinner. After leaving Iskut we had a 17km ride with about 250 metres of elevation to get to Morchuea Lake. It was a tough and gruelling way to finish off the day. Fedoor proclaimed that that was the last crazy long day he would do. I told him no problem. We are not in a rush. We had an awesome camp spot with a beautiful view of the mountains and glaciers. Needless to say, it was another Forestry Rec Site. We ended up camping a couple kilometres before the lake, but after setting up camp we cycled the rest of the way down to check out the lake. Some views are worth the effort. The total for the day was 167km and 1843 metres of climbing. A pretty big day.
Day 15 started with us waking up in our camp spot a couple kilometres up from the edge of the lake. We decided that if the weather was nice in the morning we would go check out the lake and glaciers again. Unfortunately we woke up again to rain, so had a bit of a lie-in. After the rain slowed, we got up, enjoyed another roaming man breakfast and got back on the road. With such a late start we didn’t really set any goals for the day but figured we just make it to Dease Lake, the first non-Reserve town along the highway before re-evaluating our overall plan for the day.
Leaving Morchuea Lake we had an awesome downhill from almost 1200 metres of elevation. Unfortunately there was a bit of road work going on and we had a 5km stretch of gravel to ride through. I took it nice and slow, trying to keep to the smoothest parts. As I neared the end of the gravel I noticed my back tire was getting soft and it was pissing out sealant. With no more extra sealant, it was time to take the tire off, clean out the sealant, take the valve stem off and put in a tube. I also noticed a bit of a tear in the outside casing of the tire, so I also installed a tire boot for good measure. Of course, getting all this done took the better part of an hour and we didn’t finish our 40km ride to Dease Lake until about 2pm. We decided to treat ourselves to a proper bite of food and went to The Shack for some Bison Burgers. To help wash it all down we went to the grocery store and bought a 6-pack of beer. While at The Shack, we met Anthony, Lana, and their two kids who were heading home to Whitehorse after a mountain biking trip to Burn’s Lake. After talking with them and sharing our adventure I asked if they would be kind enough to let us put our tents in their backyard when we reached Whitehorse. They said they would be happy to and gave us their phone number to contact them when we reached town.
After a way too long rest we pushed on to the Rabid Grizzly Rest Stop and then reached the Sawmill Point Forest Rec Site, where we were able to camp right beside the lake on a properly build 4×4 platform for pitching tents on. After the previous day’s ride it was good to have a short 107km day, with an elevation gain of 1195 metres. The camp spot was great as it also had cross-beams attached to trees all over the place, making it super easy to hang food out of reach of bears and other animals. There was also a mountain stream running into the lake which provided super cold and fresh water to refill our bottles with. As an extra precaution, I added a water purification tablet before drinking.
Little did we know, day 16 would be our last full day on the Cassiar Highway. When initially planning our day’s ride we decided that we should try to get close to the Alaska Highway junction, just in case we had problems with the Conservation Officers manning the checkpoint. At this point we still weren’t sure if we would be allowed into the Yukon Territory. When looking for a spot, we found one that was showing about 166km away. Because we didn’t have a phone connection, all distances and points were as a bird flies. This meant that our day would end up much longer than expected.
After pushing my bike back up to the main road, I left it against a tree and walked back down to give Fedoor a push as some of the hills were pretty steep and with his setup it would be a challenge to make it. We got on the road pretty early and continued north towards Jade City and further on Good Hope Lake. We both ended up stopping in Jade City to buy some souvenirs and check out the 3 house town. As we were getting towards Good Hope Lake, we descended a pretty big hill and were awarded with a pristine view of the lake and its emerald waters. What a sight. Finishing the distance into town we were both getting pretty excited to be somewhere there was a grocery store and wanted to treat ourselves to icecream. Unfortunately, the town was completely shut off to outsiders and nothing could be gotten. This was the only place along the entire route where I also heard someone shouting at us as we cycled past. It was clear we were not welcome and that they didn’t appreciate us cycle touring during Covid-19. Trying to get as close to the border as possible, there was no time to dally about, and we got to turning them pedals. Leaving town was amazing and we had awesome views of the lake behind us with the mountains in the distance.
While at a rest stop about 17km before High Lake we met a couple of Czech travellers that were one their way south after having spent some time in the Yukon. They were kind enough to fill our water bottles and told us they were allowed to enter the Yukon after having told the conservation officers that they had been travelling in B.C. for the previous month. The last 17km we all basically uphill and tested both mine and Fedoor’s will and determination. We ultimately ended up riding 192km with an elevation gain of 1850m. We were both pretty tired by the end, especially with those last 17km being almost exclusively going up until we reached High Lake, where we eventually set camp. As had been the case throughout most of the tour, our longest days always had the best weather and the most stunning views. Perhaps that is why we pushed on, as we were enjoying it too much to stop. While Fedoor was not impressed with the distance we had ridden, we were both thankful to have finished the day with the brutal climbs and not to have needed to do it first thing the next morning. Throughout the entire massive day we saw a couple bears, a couple moose and had a great front row seat of a fox catching a squirrel and eating its head before running off with the remainder of its catch. I thought it was pretty cool to get to witness nature in its most basic sense, so long as we are not on the menu.