Stewart, B.C. – We are overlooking the Salmon Glacier, on a road that curls up the ridges overtop of the great flowing track of ice driven forward by its own weight. In the sun it dazzles the eye, gliding imperceptibly around a corner, with race stripes of medial moraine rock debris giving it black curves like a remnant alien roadway from the last ice age.
Below us the Salmon Glacier spills out of the Alaska Boundary Range, the largest and north most sub-range of the Coast Mountains, just northeast of Stewart, BC. To get here you need to enter the US and pass through Stewart’s co-joined twin town Hyder at sea level, before finding yourself back on Canadian soil and pinnacling 1310m/4,300ft later at a viewpoint overlooking the glacier.
Pass across the border into the US, no customs to deal with, that’s reserved for re-entering Canada; then ride through Hyder on Granduc Road. Forty kilometers of winding mountain road, sweeping vistas and neatly marked historical mining sites later the glacier is laid out below you, a river of ice who’s runoff becomes the Salmon River itself. It’s a ride of beautiful continuity.
In good weather getting here’s a doddle, for those willing to dare a bit of dirt road. In bad weather (read wet) those without any experience might want to give it a miss, as locals informed us it can be “challenging”. The area’s no stranger to rain, but we’ve lucked out (for a change) catching it on a sunny day giving us an opportunity to sight-see.
An aerial view is great, but we’d heard rumours of a side road that would take us down to the glacier proper. Unfortunately, the way was barred by a recent rockslide, obvious from the viewpoints above. Still Kevin Miklossy and I probe a couple side roads in a vain attempt to get up-close and personal with the glacier, and maybe cool off from the shirtsleeve riding weather.
Photographer, Glenn Simmons has returned to a bear-viewing platform a few kilometers out of Hyder hoping to snap grizzlies chowing down on salmon returned home to spawn. He’s sitting on a walkway, with busloads of retiree photographers in wait… Hours in wait, wrapped in the odor of dead fish, who, reproductive duty fulfilled, have died. Fish Creek then lives up to its name.
Kevin and I are contemplating another road, the Road actually that links Granduc to the Glacier’s base. Glenn has already talked to the man selling postcards back at the viewpoint, and the intel is that the unmaintained road is impassable due to a rock slide.
It’s my turn to foot-drag. I am tired. I’ve twinged my back, pinching a critical spasming point between my shoulder blades into a stab of pain. I’m 100% sure the road is a fool’s errand. I’m unwilling to try convince Kevin of this, because experience has left me 100% sure he won’t be convinced.
Instead, feeling whiny, I beg off heading towards the viewpoint above us. Out of sight within two corners I’m regretful in one, this is an adventure after all and Louise never looked at Clarke and said, “I’ve twinged my back a bit, can I meet you at the hotel?”
I u-turn the R1200GS Adventure, still marveling at it’s incredibly tight turning circle, and head back, but Kevin is just a fleeting glimpse of KTM orange thought the trees, shooting off down the side road.
At the summit viewpoint, overlooking the Glacier and the spur road below, I walk out onto a rocky outcrop. From here I can trace Kevin’s path to the exact point of its impassability – boulders, gravel, rubble and all. Sitting, looking out over 12,000-year-old ice, there is no clarity.
You have hopes for trips like these; adventure, warm camaraderie, open communication, laughter, being listened to as we encounter some of the most soulful views and moments of our lives. You hope to share the experience, feel embraced by your cohorts and respected in the process.
There is a change of wind, and glacial mists curl up over mountainside and engulf me in an apt metaphor. The world is a shadow in the white, the road hidden, the view eliminated, and there is no clarity. Lost somewhere in the mist is the possibility of what this adventure could have been, covered over in the elemental quiet and white.
When it clears I’m left with uncomfortable reality; we’ve traveled together, we’ve seen amazing sites, and experienced great moments, but we’ve strung them together with more uncomfortable and upset silences than I ever care to repeat. Hang a right to the universe next door and there was laughter, jokes and grins, here in this one it simply feels like the pact of three friends riding together has been broken. For that I’m ashamed.
The wind changes directions, the cloud fades away again revealing the glacier. It’s an act that smuggles in a small truth. Over these flows days have swiveled and diminished along inscrutable axis creating seasons with light’s growth and absence. 12,000 years of unwritten history puts our month of riding into context, we are small things struggling to grasp the world and each other. The sun regains the sky, lowering itself over the coastal peaks, positioning for imminent dusk on an aptly named Sun-day.
The ride back starts slow, the R1200GS Adventure is a leviathan among bikes, but fueled by downwards momentum, drunk on a warm day’s sunshine, and ultimately alone our pace increases. Things are simple with a bike, I often anthropomorphize these machines, but in reality you never need to navigate a minefield of moods, emotions, and inexplicable logic, just potholes. Lots of potholes, a rollicking slalom of them played through on a mountainside clinging road.
Thumb a button, kill the traction control. Feel the rear end slide. Slip by the German tourists in the rental car who kindly pull to the side. Blat by the truckload of Alaskan’s who don’t, with a moment’s regret for the gravel kicked up – somewhere on the Dempster the rear mud-guard tore off. There’s no redemption, but the joy of riding alone, just a pure act of joy. Common sense and concern for the “team” become a faint static radio signal in my mind’s background.
If Kevin has problems, I’ve left him with the “ever reliable” Sat-phone. I check in on Glenn at the bear-viewing platform with his clique of 65-plusses. Any bears yet? Nope. I head on, secure in my having seen a grizzly back on the tundra just north the Circle – a gratifying experience that was more private, less synthetic and a hint more dangerous than the platform.
I slow through Hyder, Alaska, but the town isn’t drawing me, it’s an old-fashioned, mannish, calloused-handed, mustached, hard-hat and plaid-shirt sort of place. While across the boarder sits Stewart, BC its quieter, more sophisticated brother.
Stewart is small town quaint, open, well kept and social, Hyder is dark, closed in by trees, rough-hewn, steeped in a Wild West outpost feel that Stewart has outgrown.
We leave Stewart knowing this is a special place. Behind us we leave the outsized grandeur of roads and glaciers, the roads that question the limits of our ability, travel that questions the limits of ourselves, sights that inspire and keep us in check. We are headed home, course charted and distractions unwanted, for the familiarity of Vancouver and our people there. For me Stewart is the last outpost, a roadhouse on the way to and from northern adventures, not to be missed and marking the transition back to our everyday southern world.
– Photos by Kevin Miklossy and Glenn Simmons