Saturday, June 11, 2016

Look for Alaska - Days 1-6 - The Trans Canada Hwy

Day 1 - We departed Blaine, WA at 7am and headed to British Columbia. It occurs to me, as the customs woman is questioning us, that I have never crossed into Canada via a land border. It's always been by bridge, tunnel or ferry which all charge a toll. #MichiganProblems

We arrived in the town of Cache Creek, BC around lunch time. It's the first WELL STOCKED town along the trans Canada highway so it's a common pit stop for Alaska travelers. 

I went into the Royal Bank of Canada to exchange some currency and was greeted with a sign that said "As of May 1st we only exchange currency for our customers that have accounts with us." 

So I asked how much to open an account and she said I needed an appointment. Boo. It's surprisingly difficult to get your money exchanged on this side of Canada. The stores will all take your US dollars at even par but the actual rate is 1.229* So spending it without exchanging is like leaving money on the table. 

*$1.23 Canadian = $1.00 US

I asked the bank teller if anyone in town could exchange my money for me. She thought about it and sent me to the auto garage down the street. Hmmm...that's odd. Why the hell would an auto garage exchange currency? 

The owner of the auto garage gave me a story about how his wife is from California and they're headed there soon so he'd buy my American cash. Then he told me he'd only give me 10 cents extra on the dollar. I thought about it and countered with 15 cents. He countered my counter with 13 cents. I agreed. Told him I'd sell him $500 USD. He said he just needed to go to the bank and get cash. We went to eat lunch in the meantime. 

The currency scam they're running in Cache Creek became clear to me as I ate my lunch. Bank teller refers people to the mechanic. Mechanic has an account at bank so teller can exchange money for him at the fair market rate. The mechanic negotiates with tourists and keeps what's left. In this case, he gave me $565 for my $500 which was actually worth $615. So he makes $50 just for driving to the bank...and he probably gives the teller a cut. #RespectTheHustle

We got back on the road after lunch and made our way to Quesnel, our last "big" town. The rest of the drive was full of grand views. The kind that sneak up on you and suddenly you're looking at a bright blue lake surrounded by pine trees in a valley between towering, jagged peaks. BC is no joke. It makes all other wilderness I have ever seen look like a quaintly landscaped backyard. 

Our first stop is in Bowren Lakes Provincial Park which is actually 75 miles off the route. I don't normally prefer to go this far out of the way but I am glad we did. We are WAY the hell out in the wilderness and I even saw a mama bear and her cub climbing some trees on the side of the road. No joke. Like 10 feet from the car. 

The lake we are camped next to is gorgeous. Totally secluded and surrounded by raw, undisturbed nature. I think I will blow up the kayak tomorrow and do some exploring. It's the safest way to get around in a foreign land that is teeming with unpredictable mammals. 

Day 2 - We went down to the lake and busted out the kayak. The scenery here is so incredible. I had to tell myself, "Don't take this for granted. Soak up this scenery." Even when you are aware of it, the saying "You don't know what you got till its gone" always ends up being true. 

I had my dog with me and we spotted a bald eagles nest. When we got close they were stirring and doing their impressive eagle calls. Probably because there was a kayaker parked under them. Or maybe they were considering having poodle for dinner. 

I met a local guide who was fishing from his canoe. We didn't exchange names but we had a long conversation. He told me where to see moose and wolves. He's also convinced that grizzly bears hunt humans. As we paddled our separate ways he said, with a serious face, "Nature is taking over..." Then he smiled, "it's a good thing!" As I write this I can't decide if he was crazy or spot on. Maybe a little of both. 

Noah and Sam spent the afternoon playing on the shore. Sam playing with his toys, Noah hitting rocks with his baseball bat. They've been getting along great lately and they have been very well behaved during school time. I think being in a remote, natural setting has a very positive effect on them. In fact, I am 100% certain it does. 

I have had the Canadian National Anthem in my head all day. I only know the first few lines though so it's driving me mad. I would look up the rest of the lyrics but we are in a remote valley in the middle of British Columbia and Internet is a little scarce. 

Oh, and in case I forget to mention it, Bowren Lakes is a paddlers paradise. You pay $60 for a permit and you can do this entire 100k chain of lakes that make a loop around 9000 foot mountain peaks. The whole thing takes 6-10 days but there are shorter options. There are campsites with bear caches, fire rings, toilets and even firewood all along the route that are included in the price of your permit. We will definitely be back here one day with 6-10 days to spare so we can ride this world class paddling trail.

Day 3 - Wildlife has been showing itself often. We have seen 4 black bear while driving and the bugs are OUT OF CONTROL. The noseums almost make the mosquitos seem tolerable. For those of you who have never been eaten by noseums, let me try and fill you in. Mosquito bites itch for one night, then you shower or go to sleep and it's done. You forget about it and the bites heal. A noseum bite gradually becomes more and more inflamed until an intense itch hits you. Then you scratch it until it bleeds. Then, when it scabs up, the itching starts over and you scratch yourself bloody again. It goes on like this for weeks. Bug spray, screen doors and other standard big deterrents DO NOT work on them. It's miserable. Anyhow I have been scratching the entire drive today so that's what's on my mind. 

The drive today started out flat and full of pine trees. If you've ever driven the Seney Stretch in the U.P. Then you know what the drive was like. We stopped in Prince George (the 4th largest city in BC) and suddenly we were back in civilization. We went to Costco and it was like suddenly being transported to 11 and Gratiot. We stocked up and goods, ate at the food court, and hit the road again. 

Then things started to get interesting. Signs warning us of mountain roads with unexpected changes in weather, wildlife corridors and more signs warning us to get gas because the next stop wasn't for 160km. I heeded the signs warning and ended up at a backwoods country store with a Swedish owner. He served hand dipped ice cream, Swedish food and FISHING KNIVES. I picked up a Morakniv filet knife for $20 Canadian. Morakniv, for the non fishing enthusiasts, is one of the brands that made Sweedish steel the gold standard for knives. Back in the day they were known for their iconic red handles and super sharp and durable blades. Anyhow, all you really need to know is $20 for a Morakniv is a steal! (Steel?) 

We are at a Provincial Park about 20km* from Chetwynd. We are camped right on the lake. The site is incredible. I could live here it's that awesome. We plan to head into town this weekend for the International Chainsaw Carving Championships...which I hope is as unusual and awesome as it sounds! 

*I will be reporting all distances and measurements using the metric system to help you, the reader, become more acquainted with Canada. 

Day 4 - It's 10pm and it's still bright as day outside. We went to the International Chainsaw Carving Championship today and it was awesome. Here are some pics. 

Day 5 - You ever watch an artist sketch something? They draw a series of lines that looks like nothing. They gradually add more lines and POOF it hits you. The genius of their work becomes apparent with that one key stroke of the pencil. That's kind of how it happens when you watch a guy with a chainsaw turn a log into a sculpture. It's different than sculpting too because they can't just mold a pliable substance into a recognizable form. They have to work within their limits and every cut is engineered with their trained eyes. It's very striking to see a guy in camouflage overalls pull this off at the highest level. 

Today was the final day of the Chetwynd Chainsaw Competition. They announced the winner and they had an event called "Quick Cut" where the competitors have 90 minutes to create something out of a log. It sounds like 90 minutes would be a long time to sit and watch this but it drew a nice crowd and everyone sat still as these 12 people sawed away. At the end of the event they auctioned off the pieces. Some of them fetching as much as $1200. I had my eye on a nice owl but knew my $350 bid would be quickly overtaken (the piece sold for $950). 

This event is in its 13th year. After the event they place the large sculptures from the main contest all over town. There are around 150 already in place and they are worth traveling here even if the chainsaw competition isn't in town. 

Tomorrow is a short drive. 100km to the town of Dawson Creek, the beginning of the Alaska Highway. We are stopping for laundry, shopping and basic maintenance. After that, we are stepping off into the north country. 

Oh, and sunset happened around 11pm last night. I was awoken by the sunset at 4am. We knew the days would be long up here but experiencing it is still totally weird. 

10:30pm out my window

Day 6 - Mile 0 - Alaska Highway

Well, we made it. We are at the beginning of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, BC. The towns in BC are surprisingly ordinary and suburban. As long as they sell Coffee Crisp and Wunderbars I don't care what the towns are like. 

We arrived in town around 11am and immediately started doing maintenance and cleaning. I took the rig to the car wash, Jessica knocked out some laundry, the boys organized their Lego mini figures and I took the car to get an oil change and a spare tire. Now you're probably wondering why I needed a spare tire? During our preparations for Alaska travels it came to my attention that we have been traveling for 2 years sans spare. Don't judge. I fortunately never needed it and now I have it so I WIN. 

We wrapped up the day with some pitchers and pizza and tomorrow we hit the AK HWY. Next Stop: Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park. I will post more when we get to Yukon Territory. 

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