All You Need To Cross Canada Is A Dog And A Toyota Land Cruiser
Photography by John Montesi
We were rerouted nearly three hours east of Vancouver before we hit a northbound highway that was open. The wildfires in British Columbia rendered the Pacific Northwest apocalyptic and grim, the sort of disaster that usually comes from far away on the evening news was suddenly tangible. Campgrounds and motels were completely booked, smoke poured from forests in every direction, gas station lines ran long, billboards were hand-painted to thank firefighters and offer free cookies to evacuees and first responders. I fueled up and turned North and watched almost every other car head South. After filling up on gas, we (Hank is included when I speak in first person, as he is such a powerful personality and companion that I really cannot claim to have been totally alone) had a quick dinner, saw a smoky moonrise, and crashed hard in anticipation of many more days of intense driving.
The next day saw unending hours of driving, the Land Cruiser humming a steady rhythm on the byways of British Columbia. Canada soon revealed itself to us as a place with staggering scale and climate zones that put ours to shame. Seven hours of driving did little to change the selection of trees or the nature of the rocks, and this would prove the same for the coming days, too. Making our way further north, it was smoky but not as grim as it’d been earlier.
After spending the night in a town called Smithers, we set out for the surprisingly developed cluster of biking trails nearby, and I wondered if this was far enough North to be officially considered “bear country.” Leaving the Toyota in a trailhead parking lot devoid of signs with bears on them, I pedaled towards the first incline while Hank sprinted alongside, exuberant with freedom from the car and a new selection of smells. After a little over a mile of trail, we came to the first big junction. Here was the map of the trail system and all the high-contrast signs about bears. Alongside the map hung a whiteboard and marker where I saw more than a few unsettling notes: “Saw a really big squirrel with two baby squirrels,” followed by “Saw the mama bear and cubs again today!” I read them aloud to Hank, as if having someone to share the bear sightings with might lighten the mood.
I kept Hank on a short verbal leash, and we rode along without incident, albeit at a higher-than-normal level of neuroticism. This ride set the tone for much of our time north of the 49th Parallel—more worry than warranted, utter isolation that defies geography, cramming in an activity every second that the sun is shining, and the gnawing sense that bears are always watching.
We rose early the next day to make one last grocery stop, and I soon learned that the small town of Smithers serves as the hub for a staggeringly large chunk of British Columbia. The parking lot held a few other inconspicuous vehicles with faraway license plates and overeager adventure gear, clearly preparing for their own treks along North America’s remotest roads. Here I refilled my cooler with basic sustenance, as a look at the map revealed the Cassiar Highway to be extraordinarily thin on intersections, gas stations, anything, for that matter. It was a strange notion, once on the Cassiar I wouldn’t need a map until I hit Alaska some thousand miles later. Just before I left Smithers, an older Canadian man approached my truck after seeing my license plate: “You’re a long way from home!”
“I sure am!”
“Where to from here?”
“You’re a long way from there, too!” He laughed the self-amused smoker’s laugh.
The pump clicked and spit a few errant drops of gasoline, and we headed towards the official start of the Cassiar Highway about an hour north of us. After a few minutes, we passed a slam-on-the-brakes waterfall where salmon were leaping upstream through a narrow valley. Amid the days of thick pines, this was a tangible glimpse into the world I was headed towards. I stopped to fuel up again at the junction gas station and tried not to do the math of liters to gallons or Canadian dollars to American ones. The Land Cruiser is a resolute companion, but its thirst is prodigious. Hank sniffed around and I turned my phone on briefly, well aware that it likely wouldn’t have signal for several days once we left this spot. Of course, the further you go, the less you miss out on. And so, after confirming this to be true, I powered down and headed north from Mile 0 of the Cassiar Highway.
The first few miles are disappointingly tranquil, with a bright center stripe on smooth pavement and trees so thick that you could be next to anything and have no idea. About the time that thought crossed my mind, I passed a gravel road and got curious; the terrible gas mileage and constant humming of the all-terrains are worthwhile sacrifices for places like this. Another opportunity quickly appeared, and this time I braked and caught the entrance. We bumped our way down the rough dirt road through the trees, completely enveloped on both sides. I swore to follow it for at least ten minutes, even though it bent in exactly the opposite direction I needed to go.
After a couple of minutes, an offshoot trail appeared to the right, and almost immediately after taking it we saw the unmistakable shimmer of water through tree trunks. A clearing appeared and revealed with it a massive lake encircled by mountains and trees. Parked in the clearing was an old Chevy pickup with a massive camper attached to it, which I regarded with deference. We were far away from anything and anyone else, which can lead to the strongest bond or the biggest threat, depending on how one approaches the situation. Hank found some fish bones and promptly began gallivanting around with a spine in his mouth. I tried to catch up to him which delighted him even more, and my verbal admonitions drew the Chevy driver out from his camper shell.
“Greetings, traveler!” he hollered from around the joint pursed in the middle of his lips.
“This is quite a spot, isn’t it?”
“I almost drove right by it!”
“Most people do,” he said. “Where ya coming from?”
“Texas, heading to Alaska.”
“Oh man, great trip. We just went up to the Dempster from Ontario.”
The friendly camper had a friendly dog Collie mix for Hank to play with, and I was glad to have found a man and a few girls with paddle boards rather than a man who has a few issues with people bothering him. I caught a few unfamiliar fish as they watched with a piercing curiosity, and as soon as I released the third one, they paddled around a bend and silently glided out of view.
* * *
Back on the road, the miles piled on. I didn’t say goodbye to the fellow drifters any more than I said hello to them, and I could feel the solitude enveloping as we plunged northward into the faint, green parts of the map. The days grew longer as we gained latitude and the distance between stops increased with the latitude. For every epic, solitary pull-off and attendant view, there was a yearning for the safety of numbers and convenience stores. Hank and I spent our nights in the truck, terrified of the sheer number of bears and thinness of my nylon backpacking tent.Whenever possible, we stayed at the few famed rest spots along the Cassiar Highway, where all manner of motorcycles and rugged adventure rigs filled parking lots and road-weary travelers grilled brats and ate canned beans in the communal barbecue areas.
I hoped to cross paths with a new Instagram friend I’d been introduced to who was about a month ahead of me and already beginning her trek southward with her own dog, though we found ourselves separated by a maddening hundred miles. The same day that we didn’t manage to connect, I sliced my finger viciously with a freshly-opened can of black beans and realized that I was over three hundred miles from the nearest hospital.
The next morning, after what felt like an eternity of forest and patchy pavement, the map indicated that I’d be crossing into the Yukon Territory, and I had reason to hope we’d reach the positively booming town of Whitehorse that night. I headed north out of Dease Lake, made a stop at the famed Jade City—a ramshackle collective of buildings and geological equipment, where the residents hawk all manner of jade products to the few but steady pilgrims on the Cassiar Highway—and nearly drove straight off the road at the sight of Good Hope Lake, a body of water that ranged from emerald to turquoise and appeared like a good dream emerging from the endless forest. As had become custom, I stopped in the middle of the road and threw the Land Cruiser into reverse to get a better look. Without moving from the middle of the highway, I briefly opened my map book to look ahead to the next gas station. It seemed wise to top off here, in the First Nations community with a population of roughly 38 and a collection of the most scenic cabins I’d seen anywhere to date.
I pulled into the post office/convenience store/gas station/all-other-services building, which featured a gravity-fed fueling tank quite similar to the one that sprayed my face full of gasoline on a Texas ranch a decade ago. A man sat on an egg crate out front and whittled on some sort of wood product yet to take form, studying me with a standoffish and otherworldly glance while his mouth worked a tiny hand-rolled cigarette.
I left my credit card with the clerk at the counter and returned outside, grateful for my experience operating agricultural fuel tanks. I pumped a few gallons and returned inside to pay, fighting the urge to do the mental math of Canadian dollars per liter to American dollars per gallon. I let Hank hop out to stretch too, and I noticed the clerk was now sharing the stoop with the whittling man. She attached an iPhone to a weathered boombox that soon let out a familiar Eminem song from a decade ago. I thought about ingratiating myself by singing along, but decided to turn around and face the lake instead, as Eminem asked for the real Slim Shady and I wondered at the sheer logistics of telecommunications in the northernmost reaches of British Columbia.