The Road Less Traveled

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Life hands you only so many opportunities to see a ghost, so I hang my head out the window and start calling for one.

"Here, modie, modie, modie," I yell. There's no proof this kind of thing works, but I have to try. The man I met last night said that he'd seen ghosts standing right by the side of the road.

I didn't know whether to believe him. He was being paid to sit in the middle of nowhere and count salmon -- just under 200,000 so far, with a lot of summer yet to go as the fish moved upstream to spawn, their silver fins cutting ripples -- and that might have made him a bit off.

On the other hand, if I were a ghost here, where the Yellowhead Highway hits the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, in northwest British Columbia, I'd certainly hang out around salmon streams, so a guy counting fish would be a natural to be on the end of a manifestation.

The ghost in question is a kermodie -- for centuries, the natives called them spirit bears, or ghost bears -- a subspecies of black bear that is whiter than a polar bear. Like all bears, they move with utter silence; unlike their relatives, though, they move through the forest looking like a patch of snow on vacation, glints of white against the dark trees.

It's fitting that one of the only places in the world where kermodies live is here, where the Stewart-Cassiar Highway begins.

This is an unknown chunk of territory: The northern half of British Columbia is bigger than California, but moose outnumber people by a considerable margin, and between the narrow corridors cut by a couple of highways are endless stretches of pure wild.

You may have dreamed about driving to Alaska on the famous Alaska Highway, but did you know that there are two great roads to the Great North?

There's the 1,500-mile Alaska Highway -- nicknamed the Alcan -- which gets all the press, and then there's the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, which is rougher, more remote and so scenic it makes the Alcan seem as exciting as a parking lot.

The Cassiar offers glaciers, mountains that block half the sky, fields of wildflowers set amid forest so thick that almost no sunlight filters down to the two dozen or so species of fern that grow in the loam.

The Alcan was built in a frenzied rush, to help protect the continent's western flank after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It's a path of least resistance, taking the flattest route possible.

The Cassiar, by contrast, more or less finished just 30 years ago, is the result of dozens of trails getting stitched together -- ancient trade routes used by Canada's native peoples, and paths beaten by gold miners, trappers and even the guys looking to lay the first telegraph line to Europe.

It's a road built of the ghosts of other roads.

Drive the Alcan, and you'll be seeing a lot of other cars. On the Cassiar, you'll likely have the view to yourself. It is remote (parts of the highway have been designated emergency landing strips for small planes), and its reputation -- there are few services and only one small town -- keeps people away. The fact that nearly a quarter of it is unpaved scares off even more people.

But from the south end of the highway -- midway between Prince Rupert and Prince George -- to the north, where the Cassiar hits the Alcan just outside Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory, it's about 450 miles of the best scenery Canada has to offer.

First Nations people

On this trip, the kermodies -- said to number fewer than 500 -- resolutely refuse to appear. There are other consolations, though.

I'm hardly 20 miles up the Cassiar before I spot a mother black bear with two cubs. Any day you see a bear -- any kind of bear -- is a good day.

It's late in the year, and Mom has to get her kids fat for the winter. But instead of going for the big nutrition -- fish, squirrels (about 2,000 calories each) -- they're munching on a favorite bear snack, roadside dandelions.

The descendants of First Nations people -- the first people who came to the region -- are still around. The Gitxsan have lived in the area for thousands of years, and at Battle Hill, barely off the road, they remember the great warrior Nekt, who wore armor that made him look like a grizzly bear.

First Nations culture was almost wiped out of British Columbia by the 1950s, but then the pendulum began a swing in the other direction. Today, there's a thriving resurgence of the old ways, which shows up on maps and can be confusing: Some maps call the next village up the line Kitwancool, but the place is really Gitanyow, a Gitxsan village that has a totem pole worth seeing.

No matter what you've heard, totem poles are not sacred, or objects of worship. They're more like something between a family crest and a history book. Raising a new pole required a party that would last for days, and the carver's role was so important that he could be killed for getting the details wrong -- it was like writing the past.

The "Hole in the Ice" totem pole has been watching over Gitanyow for more than 140 years, telling the story of a man who saved the village from starvation. Through the hole in the center of the pole, you can see some of the dozen or so other poles that share the field; behind them, a river separates the village from the road, like a protective barrier.

The Gitxsan traded and occasionally fought with the Tlingit, Tahltan and Nisga tribes. In the mountains west of the Cassiar, fire eaters performed elaborate ceremonies, and the most prized item a family could possess was a "copper," an elaborately decorated shield made of a metal that was brought down the old trade routes.

It would have taken people weeks to walk to the copper sources. Now you can drive the Cassiar in a single day, but that isn't much fun. Just gawking at the peaks of the Seven Sisters guarding the south end of the road takes hours; then there are the lakes a shade of blue that make pure turquoise feel like a failure. Half a day can easily pass while you watch the water and wonder why Crayola never thought up a crayon color like that.

And if you hurry, you miss what has to be one of the great side trips in North America -- past the blue glow of Bear Gla-cier to the twin towns of Stewart, British Columbia, and Hyder, Alaska.

Border towns

The road down to the towns follows a stream that's pouring out ground fog like a jammed chimney. The high inland forests give way to coastal forests -- more spruce and hemlock, and the clouds are much lower. In winter, it snows here like no other place on the continent. According to town records, the single-year record is 1,104 inches of snow.

Stewart and Hyder are not exactly normal border towns. Or maybe they are. The Canadian side, Canada's northernmost ice-free port -- not that many ships ever come -- is home to about a thousand people. The streets are neat and well tended, lined with tidy houses and shops.

As soon as you cross into Alaska, the pavement stops and the road plunges into potholes. About a hundred people live on the Alaska side, and most of the tourist traffic comes only to get "Hyderized."

Getting Hyderized is pretty simple: You down a single shot of 190-proof booze in one gulp, and you're done. Bragging rights go with having a lower number -- meaning you've had your shot sooner, and been traveling in the north longer -- than anyone you meet.

One gets Hyderized at the Glacier Inn. The walls of the bar are covered with dollar bills, part of an old miner tradition. You tack up some money, sign it, and if you come back flat broke from a season in the gold fields, at least you have a stake to start you on the way home.

Back on the Cassiar, drive past Meziadin Lake, past more tongue-twister names: Ningunsaw Pass, which separates the Nass and the Stikine river systems; Natadesleen Lake, Kinaskan Lake, Todagin Mountain, where you can see "stone sheep" -- rock formations that look like mountain goats designed by Walt Disney.

When the first white explorers came through the region, they didn't bother to rename everything, unlike much of North America. The landscape was too big, and there was too much to cope with. So they accepted the First Nations names and kept moving.

Scale is difficult to explain here. The Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park covers a bit more than 1.6 million acres of land. There's not a single town, settlement or road anywhere in the park, but there are huge herds of caribou swimming across wide rivers, moose, coyotes, bighorn sheep and more than 140 species of birds.

Once, from a plane circling one of the volcanic cones that dot the Spatsizi and its neighboring park, Mount Edziza, I watched in amazement as a wolf trotted out to stare at us as we went by his ridgeline.

Gold rush route

Today is beautiful and cool. I break out the picnic supplies -- bread, honey and peanut butter. Behind me, a couple of cars roll across the metal bridge over the upper Stikine River, which at this spot flows wide, flat and cold.

A bit of history: On July 17, 1897, a small ship, the Portland, docked in Seattle with a "ton of gold" on board, found in the wilds of the Klondike. There was a worldwide depression going on, and the idea of piles of gold sitting around, just waiting to be picked up, was more than a lot of people could stand.

By the winter of 1898, more than 100,000 people had started north, loaded with hopes and dreams and a staggering lack of common sense.

This was supposed to be the fastest way to the gold fields: Hop on a boat in Seattle, get off in the little town of Wrangell, Alaska. From there, transfer onto a paddlewheel boat, which would take you up upriver to what's now Telegraph Creek, 50 miles or so downriver from where I'm sitting, where the old Cassiar trails cross the Stikine River, but as far up the river as you could go before the Grand Canyon of the Stikine made it impassable because of Class VI rapids.

From there, you walk a couple hundred miles to Teslin Lake, following the same First Nations trade routes that the Cassiar is based on, build a boat, get to the Yukon River, and after a couple of days floating merrily downstream -- there you are, ready to stuff your pockets full of gold nuggets.

The problem was that you were making this trip in the winter, which meant you walked in neck-deep snow while facing 60 mph headwinds coming off the glaciers. Most of the would-be miners found that a little discouraging, and turned for home.

From the Stikine, it's only a couple of hours to the Alaska Highway junction. The trees get smaller, drawing in on themselves, as if preparing for the cold northern winters. Two fishermen throw strings at rivers, hoping to bring up Arctic char, and a blocked road hides what was once a huge asbestos mine.

The Yukon border runs along the 60-degree latitude line, only a couple of miles south of the Cassiar-Alaska Highway junction. The Arctic Circle is less than a day's drive from here; even closer are the gold fields of the Klondike gold rush, and the wide waters of the Yukon River. The Yukon Territory is amazing, and Alaska waits beyond.

But this is where temptation always strikes. I pull the car off the road, look back, toward the Horseranch Range, the Coast Mountains, toward where the Stikine draws water from the largest undammed watershed left in North America, where the footprints of natives and trappers and miners led to this highway.

And as always, I have one thought: Surely, I have enough time to go back and just do the Cassiar again.

When you go

Getting there: The easiest way to get to the Cassiar from Baltimore is to fly to Vancouver, British Columbia. From there, you have two choices: catch a commuter flight to Prince George, where you can rent a car for the trip; or rent a car in Vancouver and drive north through the gorgeous Fraser River Canyon to get to the Cassiar.

Driving, you can do a great loop trip: Cassiar to Watson Lake, then south on the Alaska Highway to Dawson Creek, before cutting back across to Prince George or points south. Take four days if you're in a hurry or a week to really enjoy it.

The highway: The Stewart-Cassiar Highway, Highway 37, is open year-round; the best time to drive it is from mid-May to early September. Although nearly a quarter of the road is unpaved, the two extended sections of good gravel shouldn't present a problem for any kind of car.

Services: There are not many places with services on the Cassiar. You can buy gas at Bell II -- they also have a nice hotel and campground (800-530-2167), or at Iskut and Dease Lake. Most people break the trip into at least two days, spending the night in Stewart / Hyder, where there are excellent motel choices, including the King Edward Hotel (250-636-2244), and the Ripley Creek Inn (250-636-2344).

Dining: There are also campgrounds along the highway, including Meziadin Lake, at the junction of the road to Stewart / Hyder, and Kinaskan Lake, south of Iskut. There are a few hotels in Iskut, including the Tatogga Lake Resort (250-234-3526). The resort also has a restaurant, but Stewart / Hyder is the best bet for eating out: Bitter Creek Cafe for pizza and Mexican food in the evening, Brother's Bakery for baked goods and nice deli foods.

The Cassiar is a great place for a picnic, because there are so few places along the way with services. Dease Lake is the only actual town along the route, although there are a couple of villages where you can buy gas. Stewart / Hyder is about 37 miles off the Cassiar.

What to bring: Be sure to pack layers of clothes: weather can change quickly, from the usually dry interior to the wet coast. Nights are cool, but in summer, rarely cold. Check all your car's belts, hoses and fluids before you get on the Cassiar. Get a good map, plan out your day, and don't even think about hurrying.

For more information:

Tourism BC: 800-HELLO-BC; www.hellobc.com

Alaska Travel Industry Association: 907-929-2842; www.travelalaska.com

Stewart-Cassiar Tourism Council: 866-417-3737; www.stewartcassiar.com

Northern British Columbia Tourism: 800-663-8843; www.northernbctravel.com

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