The Cassier Highway

Google Street View are now just about everywhere (which probably includes your gastrointestinal tract), which once again allows me to do a re-run of one of the Pacific Northwest wilderness roads I drove back in 1999 (last year, via Street View, I did a rerun of the Dalton Highway, which is 500 miles long and goes up to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska).

Out of all the roads I drove in the far north, the Cassier Highway was the best, both for its awesome scenery and real ‘wilderness experience’, not to mention the bears. From Watson Lake, in the Yukon, the Cassier Highway runs due south into British Columbia for 450 miles to the Skeena Valley, east of Prince Rupert. You get the usual warnings before setting out on the Cassier Highway: don’t contemplate the journey unless your vehicle’s in top condition, take at least two spare tyres and spare fuel containers, blah, blah, blah After doing the Dalton Highway such warnings were old hat. I wasn’t the least bit worried about tackling the Cassier Highway, the first part of which runs through endless, silent birch trees; an enchanted forest…


The Cassier Highway then climbs up into hills that are the tug of war between the Cassier and Skeena Mountains. All along the highway there is a never ending chain of lakes, rivers and streams..


There’s nothing along this northern stretch except an occasional, remote Native American settlement. There was no other traffic on the road (this was in September, with the tourist season just about over). I drove for a solitary 150 miles before I saw the first gas station. I tanked-up and went to the small store to pay for the fuel. The blinds were pulled down and the door was locked. I knocked loudly. Still no sign of life. I was about to walk back to the car and drive off with a free tank of fuel when I saw one of the blinds twitch. I could hear the sound of bolts being drawn back on the door. The door hinged opened. I cautiously went into the store. A gas stove was going full blast and it felt stiflingly hot. Sitting round a table were eight Native Americans, men, women and children. They were all hard at work, rubbing away at scratch cards. These cards were a promotion by the gas company. If you bought a certain amount of gas you got a scratch card. You could win anything between one dollar and fifty dollars on the scratch cards. There was a huge pile of them on the table. Losing cards went straight in the bin. The winning cards were stacked in a neat pile beside the oldest Indian. I paid for my fuel. The Indians didn’t seem too concerned about taking my money. The following pic is that gas station, at, appropriately enough, Lake Hope…


I ended my first day on the Cassier Highway at Dease Lake (I think I’ve already mentioned how many lakes there are along the Cassier Highway). This is the mid way point. Dease lake is known as “The Jade Capital of the World”, because of the jade mines there. Sounds rather grand, doesn’t it. The reality is a small, ramshackle community of 700 people, strung out between the Cassier Highway and Dease Lake. This is the largest population centre along the Cassier Highway and the only non-native community. Back then it had just one hotel, the Northway Motor Inn, where you could find clean sheets, a comfortable mattress and inviting pillows…


The second part of my drive down the Cassier Highway was under intermittent, heavy bursts of rain. The road wound through green forests beside towering mountains. On the drive I saw places called Bear Glacier, Bear River, Bear Paw Ranch and the Rabid Grizzly Rest Area. I soon discovered why there were so many references to bears. I’d only been driving for a short time when I saw my first one. I was trying to get the car through another stretch of road works. The rain had turned the road surface into a mud bath. I struggled to keep the car moving. I glanced over to my left. There was a pile of earth beside the road. On top of the pile was a big brown bear. It sat on its backside and gazed curiously at its surroundings. The car was doing only 5 miles an hour and was slipping and sliding through the mud, just yards from the bear. I hoped it wouldn’t come over to investigate. I was acutely aware that all I had over my head was a canvas roof, and all I had under the bonnet was a 600cc engine which struggled to keep the car moving in these conditions. The pepper spray was close to hand. Fortunately I didn’t need to use it. The bear remained up there on top of the earth pile. It seemed to enjoy being king of the castle.

I saw my next bear shortly afterwards. It was another brown bear, smaller, foraging in the undergrowth beside the road. I was through the road works now and was making good speed. I put my foot down. The bear glanced round at me as I whizzed by.

There were others, glimpsed in the forest, on the distant hillsides. Why so many? Did bears like rain? By now I was becoming used to the critters. Throughout the 2CV Alaska Challenge I had unsuccessfully tried to get a photograph of a bear beside the No.1 car. Now I had my chance. I saw a small bear messing about in a stream on the hillside. It looked harmless. This was my chance. I pulled up and carefully positioned the car to get a good shot. Then I walked a little way back up the road. It was a perfect photograph. The winding mud road, the No.1 car, the forested hillside, the low clouds, the towering Coast Mountains, except, that it was a small bear, so small that I could hardly see it through the lens of the digital camera. I took some shots, knowing the bear wouldn’t come out clearly, and walked back to the car. As I got to the car, I don’t know why but I turned around. In the very spot where I’d been taking photos a few seconds before, a huge black bear was strolling casually across the road. I mean this thing was huge, it looked bigger than a Citroen 2CV. I held my breath, hoping the bear wouldn’t notice me. It didn’t. Like all bears it was on its way to the opticians. After that I gave up trying to photograph the bears.

After a hard day’s drive I came into the village of Kitwanga, which is the southern terminus of the Cassier Highway, where it meets the Yellowhead Highway. I’ve always seen the Yellowhead, which runs east-west and is also called Highway 16, as the dividing line in British Columbia between so-called ‘civilisation’ and the wilderness. The Yellowhead Highway is still remote, but once on it, and all points south, you’re definitely aware that you’re back in the human world. North of the Yellowhead Highway you’re acutely aware that you’re in another realm. This next pic is taken from the Yellowhead Highway. The turning on the right is the start of the Cassier Highway, which will take you 450 miles due north to the Yukon. Notice that the Yellowhead is a paved road, whereas most of the Cassier, when I drove it, was dirt and rock…


Google Street View, whilst re-lighting the memories of bods like me, does give a somewhat limited and sanitised view of things. So I’ll end with a photo that was actually taken while I was driving the Cassier Highway in September 1999. It’s not a high definition photo, because back then the internet was all low bandwidth, but I’m sure you can see how wet and slippery the Cassier Highway is, and the mud plastered all over the Yukon Queen…


The Yukon Queen: A Record-breaking Journey and the Story of an Amazing Car


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1 Response to The Cassier Highway

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