November 1, 2013, Category: Alaska, Travel

The Cassier Highway is magical. Brilliant. Why people choose the Alcan over this less-traveled road I don’t know. One of my favorite days ever.

Day 18: The Cassier Highway

Check out the novel: Trudge On, Soul

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The icy wilderness of Alaska is the perfect place to lose yourself. But Warren doesn’t want to lose himself. He wants to lose someone else.
The book, Trudge On, Soul, is the result of three long years of late nights, critique groups, and editing. If you haven't read the blog, I'd suggest you stop reading and at least click here to read the preview chapters of the book. The blog and pictures have spoilers and the book is a much better read. Think of the website as a documentary, and the book as an engaging movie. Triumph Motorcycles did an article on my Adventure here. A Photo Album of the trip is available here. Click here if you want to jump to the start of the blog with an index of each day.

The Adventure Continues...


DSCN0843Today was exceptional. Or my expectations were so low it just seemed that way. Or being placed at the tail end of two cold and rainy days made it just appear high and mighty. Regardless of the reason, I feel that today was amazing. But you be the judge.

I started the morning talking big, using terms like “sunshine,” “bears,” and “salmon.” But honestly my expectations were rock bottom. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I wasn’t down like I had been when I wrote in my journal the night before (a good night’s sleep cured that). And I was looking forward to the day but I just didn’t expect too much out of it. I was hanging out with one of my best friends, we were riding motorcycles, and we were having an awesome adventure. So rain or shine, we’d have a memorable day.

I also had to talk big because I didn’t want to cast a shadow on Mike’s excitement with my debbie-downer talk of rain, wind, and bear-less riding. He was really excited. We were going to a place he’d been talking about for months. A highlight of the trip for him. I was excited for him and did my best to play it up.

DSCN0849So in that spirit, I introduce (drumroll)…..(still rolling)….

The Signpost Forest

Back in 1942, according to Wikipedia, a solder was ordered to repair a sign in Watson Lake. He added one of his own, pointing towards his distant home, and unknowingly gave birth to the Signpost Forest. Watson Lake is now the proud mother of thousands of ever-growing signs all plastered on a labyrinth of walls spawning across several acres.

We parked and walked through the forest, looking at signs, license plates, and other items that travelers had planted. For some reason the experience made me think of H.R. Pufnstuf and when Mike went to take my picture, I tried to capture the moment in an expressive pose.

WP_20130902_004-001

We left the famed forest and hit the Alcan Highway.

DSCN0864There are two main routes through British Columbia, the Alcan and the Cassier. Originally, we had planned on riding the Alcan for the entire route but several conversations with locals convinced us to consider veering from the plan for the more remote Cassier. These three points were the foundation of the Cassier debate:

  • Stewart Alaska (an ideal place to watch bears fishing for salmon)
  • Winding Mountain Roads (after all, we were on motorcycles)
  • A More Scenic Drive (according to several people we talked to)

If you know me, you also know I had a list of reasons why we shouldn’t take the Cassier that were rooted in concern and fear. They were as follows:

  • What if we hit bad weather, even snow (gasp), on the winding mountain roads?
  • There aren’t as many gas stations, what if we run out of gas?
  • A breakdown would be much more difficult on a remote pass like the Cassier
  • We would miss out on several Alcan Highway sights

When voting finally took place on the Cassier proposal, the Alcan lost 2 – 0. (Incidentally, the partisan voting was 100% along the following party lines: Adventurers voted “Yay,” Non-Adventurers voted “nay”).

We backtracked up the Alcan to the market/gas station at the Cassier Junction, which we had passed the night before. I was chugging along relaxed and content to follow Mike with my low expectations in full swing when he threw out a curve ball.

DSCN0853As I learned on the Top of the World Highway, when Mike gets excited he chooses a single word to repeat over and over again. (Exhibit 1, Day 15: “Yup! Yup! Yup! Yup! Yup!”). He launched our fantastic day with a sudden burst of excitement that I heard over my headset:

“Bear! Bear! Bear! Bear! Bear! Bear! Bear! Bear! Bear! Bear!”

Sure enough, up on the side of the road was our first bear in weeks! We pulled over and watched him cross the road behind us and then lumber (to Mike’s sheer delight) through the trees. It’s almost embarrassing to admit how excited we were. Finally, a wildlife!

I congratulated Mike, who was grinning ear-to-ear as this was his virgin bear spotting (I had been the first to spot the others). He was glowing. I couldn’t help but smile and think of my own day two weeks ago when I had lost my bearginity in Haines, Ak.

We were still a buzz of excitement when we stopped for gas at the junction. With a huge smile still stuck to his face, Mike broke the news to the lady behind the counter, “We just saw a bear!”

She didn’t flinch, just kept punching the credit card machine and grumbled, “Yeah, it’s because of those stupid animals I have to bring the garbage can in every night.” Mike and I looked at each other and almost laughed. Almost. That might have thrown her over the edge; she did not seem like a happy person.

DSCN0883She also told us the day before a motorcyclist had rolled in white as a ghost. He had stopped to look at a black bear without realizing the cub was on the other side of the road and she charged him. He gunned it and, fortunately, came away relatively unscathed (I’m thinking his shorts didn’t make a clean getaway). We kept that in mind throughout the day.

From there we turned south, on the Cassier, and the changes were immediate. Instead of long straight stretches of highway, a narrow unpainted road curved back and forth through the trees, around ponds, and over streams. Instead of crossing vast bridges high above rivers, we crossed what amounted to little more than ramps across creeks. The fall colors appeared bolder, our jokes seemed funnier, and we saw bears all day long! Sitting bears, running bears, hiding bears, climbing bears, eating bears, arse scratching bears, and, yes, lumbering bears. Mama bears, papa bears, and baby bears (who’s been lumbering in my forest?). Bears, bears, bears, bears, bears, bears…just as Mike had said. Nineteen of them in all.DSCN0886Although our day was filled with bears, photography opportunities were limited. My SLR was packed behind me and it wasn’t possible (or safe) to dig it out when we passed bears on the site of the road. I had a point and shoot around my neck, but for some reason it was taking way too long to focus and I missed most of the shots I tried to get in a hurry. I also had the GoPro running at times, but because this was the first time I’ve used it on an adventure like this, I had a lot to learn (most of which I didn’t learn until after getting home and reviewing the video). The hazy spots on many of the recordings are either raindrops or mosquitoes splattered on the lens. Next time I will clean it more frequently. I also should have tried various mounting locations and not spun my head around so quickly when it was on my helmet. That said, I still think I captured some nice moments.

DSCN0888The second bear we saw during the day may have been a grizzly, I think he had a nice hump. I spotted him first and got quite animated in my excitement (which made Mike feel a little better about his earlier reaction). I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember Mike commenting that he was glad he wasn’t the only one that exploded like a kindergartener at the site of them. The rest of them we encountered throughout the day were definitely black bears. It was a lot of fun riding through such gorgeous country and knowing that at any second there were high chances we would see bears.

DSCN0903Often, we’d spot what we thought was a stump in the distance. But as we got closer, the stump sprouted a snout, paws, and teeth. Sometimes they were sitting on the edge of the road eating berries and didn’t budget as they eyed us suspiciously while we rolled past. Other times they’d run into the thick trees as we approached.

My favorite encounter was when a mother and her two cubs stood up on their hind legs like meerkats several yards off the road. As I passed each of their heads turned in unison, following me along my journey. The cubs were the cutest little things. It was incredible.

Another time two cubs shot up a tree as we drove past. I turned around for a better look and watched as they climbed higher and mom sat at the base. When she ran off into the forest, the two of them looked like each other like, “Hey! She left us!” They slowly picked their way back down the tree and then chased after her.

Another time, we encountered the same situation explained to us by the grumpy junction lady (the misadventures of the messy pants motorcyclist). Mother bear was on the left and her cub on the right. I cautiously rolled past as slowly as I dared. She didn’t charge and after I passed her, I turned around and saw her cross the road to her baby. This incident is on the GoPro footage.

Over the course of our 365 mile ride, there were a couple of small villages where we gassed up and grabbed snacks. We hit one civilization free stretch of 150 miles with nothing but a handful of cars, thick forest, jagged mountain peaks, and several bears. It was great.

WP_20130902_012One stop was at Jade City, which isn’t really a city but rather several buildings along the side of the road where they cut and carve jade. It was interesting to watch the long, tedious process. Big saws running all day long with water keeping them cool as they cut and cut to slice through a single jade rock. No wonder jade is so expensive, it takes forever to make anything out of it. While looking in the store, we ran into a young couple from Germany 1400 miles in on a grand bicycle tour of North America. They started at Prudhoe Bay and had been cycling/camping for weeks. You can read more about their trip here. Man, I’d love to do something like that.

DSCN0869At another stop we ended up spending two hours chatting with other adventure bikers. A trio of riders recommended a side route that sounded like fun, but in the end we decided that taking an extra day to ride rugged, sandy terrain with street tires might not be the best idea. We’ll have to get that one next time.

We also met a British rider riding solo on a Tiger 800XC like mine. He’d bought it in Anchorage and was making his way to Argentina. I totally want to do that!

DSCN0891We fell short of our goal, Stewart, by about 40 miles. Dusk was approaching, we found a gorgeous campsite at the Meziadin Lake Provincial Park, and we wanted to dry out our gear before the sunshine faded away. Once our wet gear had been strung about, we enjoyed another feast of mashed potatoes.

We sat around our campfire late into the night, talking about every topic under the sun (and moon). We used the parks Wi-fi to say hi to family and then gazed up at a dazzling array of stars. It was brilliant; the Milky Way splashed across sky, satellites crept like wandering stars, and meteorites occasionally bolted past in long streaks of light. I just wish I hadn’t been so tired; that night deserved to be enjoyed all the way until sunrise. IMG_2809

With my headlight on, feet resting on the fire pit, and leaning back in my chair I wrote the following in my journal:

What a beautiful day. I can’t find words to capture how I feel. Happiness, wonder, excitement, brotherhood, passion, curiosity, pleasure. I could write pages of words and it would still fall short. Under these millions of stars, I truly feel at peace. There is no stress, no worry, just raw gratitude. My life is good. I have wonderful family and friends and have enjoyed many fantastic experiences. It’s ironic that this night would not have been as meaningful without the two difficult days preceding it.

Even in the toughest moments I haven’t wanted to change a single thing about this trip. Not the snapped throttle cable, not the rain, nor the days where wildlife eluded us. But last night when I went to bed, I remember feeling adventured out and ready to be home. Had that wish been granted, I would have missed today. Amazing. I wish I could apply this same grand adventure attitude to the daily routines of my life. I’ll work on that one.

Click here to continue to Day 19.


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3 thoughts on “Day 18: The Cassier Highway

  • By Keith Pipkins - Reply

    Your travel report is amazing. Thanks.
    Keith in Natural Dam, AR

  • By Yeoman Bowman - Reply

    you crack me up; great writing

  • By Yeoman Bowman - Reply

    p.s. love the ‘Grail’ reference

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