“Yeah, I rode to Alaska,” I’ll tell anyone who will listen, as I point to the ‘Alaska’ patch on my riding vest.
It’s true, and it’s not.
Where I live near the left edge of Canada, there is a bit of Alaska that pokes down through our roof like a frostbite victim stretching a finger into a warm pocket. They call it the Panhandle and at the bottom of it is the colourful, historic and disconnected town of Hyder, population 87.
I say disconnected in the geographic sense, at least from the rest of Alaska. Hyder sits at the head of the Portland Canal, a narrow fjord that stretches about 120 miles to the Pacific Ocean. There is one road into town, from Stewart, British Columbia; but no U.S. Customs office guards this border crossing. People are free to cross from the Canadian side as they please. Going back, they are required to wave at the Canada Customs office as they pass.
But as they say, getting there is half the fun. I was on a solo motorcycle trip through northern British Columbia, headed west on Highway 16. My destination was Prince Rupert where I was to catch a coastal ferry to Vancouver Island. Somewhere west of Smithers, I passed a large directional sign that indicated Highway 37 North would take me to Alaska. I overnighted in Terrace, B.C., and kept thinking about that directional sign. I had a couple of days to kill before my ferry reservation kicked in, so why not? As someone once said, “A plan is better than no plan. Not following the plan is better than following it.”
With a few extra days to kill, I figured why not make a side trip up to Alaska?
So I pointed my 1999 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Drifter back east on Highway 16 to the sign and pulled into the gas station beside it at Kitwanga on the Gitwangak Indian Reserve. The friendly locals sold me gas, Gatorade and pepperoni sticks and told me that Hyder was 220 kms (136 miles) up Highway 37, over two coastal mountain ranges. Reachable on one careful tank of gas.
“Gas is no problem,” one said. “There’s a gas station at Meziadin where you turn. Watch out for bears.”
Highway 37 is called the Stewart-Cassiar Highway or the Dease Lake Highway, depending on who you ask, but it actually runs far past both Dease Lake and the ghost town mining centre of Cassiar, all the way unto the Yukon where it hooks up with Highway 1 to Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska.
It’s a paved two-laner carved through a hybrid of West Coast rain forest and northern subalpine scrub trees. Built mostly to access mines and logging operations, it welcomes the hardier of tourists who use it to access the crystalline fishing lakes and camping in the region. And to look at bears. I lost track of the number of bears who came out of the underbrush to watch a motorcycle pass by. I also lost track of the number of steel-and-rivet bridges that span mountain canyons and churning rivers.
No matter which way you turn, everything looks amazing. Here you can see the heavy moss hanging almost like tinsel from a Christmas tree.
Distracted by the views of coastal mountains and sights like the Nass River and Meziadin Lake, I didn’t pay much attention to my gas gauge either. This became a problem when I hit Meziadin Junction and looked at the burned out hulk of a gas station. I guess news travels slowly in the north. A gas check told me I had about 35 miles left in the tank and a map check told me I had 37 miles to Hyder. Fortunately, it’s downhill.
What a breathtaking downhill it turned out to be. Highway 37A winds through rugged coastal mountains draped in glaciers. It runs right by the awe-inspiring Bear Glacier and then whips through mountain switchbacks before popping out in Stewart, B.C., which shares the border with Hyder. I roll into the first gas station I could find (there are two.) Regular gas only. It starts to rain.
Bear Glacier is so close to Highway 37A, that you can feel the icy mist. I couldn't resist taking a picture in front of this icy behemoth.
Stewart was a thriving gold and silver mining centre, but that was 100 years ago and time has not been kind. The only growth industry in town now seems to be painting ‘for sale’ signs. The museum is interesting and some of the buildings retain their turn-of-the-last-century charm. And it’s a thriving metropolis compared to Hyder, two miles down the road.
Hyder begins where the pavement ends. It looks like a cross between a western ghost town and a coastal fishing village. The barmaid in the clapboard hotel looks surprised when I say I have a reservation. She checks a sheet of paper, shrugs and hands me a skeleton key with a plastic fob attached. She takes my $35 (Canadian or U.S. money accepted at par) and directs me to my room (outside, up the stairs out back.)
I unpack the bike and haul my gear up to the “room.” The room is about six feet by 10 feet, door and window on one side. Contents are an army cot, a night table with lamp and a chair. Outside my room is a walkway with railing and I’m leaning on it contemplating my evening when a black bear walks down Hyder’s main street. No one seems to notice but me.
The accomodations at the hotel were so skethcy, even one of the local bears opted to run off and stay in the woods.
Hyder is like Alaska’s forgotten orphan. Hyder kids go to school down the road in Canada. Phone lines are Canadian as are other services.
When I am confident the bears have left, I do some sightseeing. I don’t bother to lock the room, the window is broken anyway and doesn’t latch. I walk down to the dilapidated dock where a large fortune in silver once was shipped out. Now it’s a precarious parking spot for some fishing boats and the twice-a-week U.S. Mail float plane, Hyder’s only connection with the rest of Alaska. Bald eagles cartwheel over a scenic wooden walkway across the marshland at the head of the inlet.
On the way to find some dinner, I meet a dozen adventure bike riders from Montana. They have parked by the hotel and are ungearing. They invite me along on a ride into the wilderness. “There’s a river about four or five miles up the road where grizzly bears whack salmon out of the river,” one says. I look at my street-tired cruiser and their adventure bikes with knobbies and sigh. I’m more than slightly jealous, and have to pass. They pull out and I look to get Hyderized.
There is a ritual associated with visiting Hyder and I am anxious to partake. I check out the two open restaurants in Hyder and choose the more colourful. I sit at the bar and ask about being Hyderized. The bartender smiles, produces a paper bag with a bottle in it, pours me a shot glass full and says “cheers.” I down the colourless liquor after toasting the bartender, the stuffed wildlife heads on the wall, the bar, the town of Hyder and Alaska in general. The liquid sears all the way down and leaves the lingering afterburn of moonshine, grain alcohol or battery acid; possibly all three.
I order a steak sandwich and watch tourists go through the ritual. Some gulp, some sip and their reactions vary from choking and gagging to having to sit down. It’s entertainment on a Friday night in Hyder.
If you want to make your adventure to Hyder complete, you need to get Hyderized at the local watering hole. Don't ask what it is, just shoot it down and hope for the best!
I pass a rough night in my cell; trying to digest the steak sandwich and shivering from the cold sea air blowing in the unclosable window. For breakfast, I head to the Canadian side. Before I go, however, I ride up the muddy, potholed street to the post office with a request.
“Will you stamp my passport?” I asked the postmaster.
“No,” he says. “Try the gift shop; she might.”
The gift shop isn’t open yet, so I head for the border, marvelling at the thick growths of moss along the road between the two towns. The Canadian border guard is chatty and curious about my bike and my trip.
“Come back,” she says with a wave.
The road to Hyder is desolate but that's almost what makes it great. You can appreciate all that nature has to offer along the way to a unique destination. I'm sure that i'll be back.
I think about the bears, the glaciers, the eagles, the mountains, the rivers, the colourful locals, the moonshine and suddenly the bad hotel, the rain and questionable food don’t seem that significant.
“Hell ya,” I reply. Maybe next time on an adventure bike, with a big gas tank.