Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stewart to the ALCAN Part 1 - Stewart

Our first experience of British Columbia’s provincial parks was very positive. Neat and tidily laid out, the park at Meziadin Junction lies next to a beautiful lake with the same name (the Meziadin bit, not the Junction bit). With mountains in the background, the lake's still waters serve as a reflecting pool that stretches out along its tree-lined shore for miles. We woke to clear blue skies and the realization that crows had attacked one of the freeze dried meals that we’d inadvertently left outside in a ditty bag. Bloody crows! Bloody messy things! Striking camp, Sledge said that he’d heard the ride down to Stewart was worth the detour and we soon set out in that direction for breakfast.

Less than mile up the road we turned left and found Fjordland, which, honestly, I’d only ever read about in guide books. Books that show aerial pictures of pristine inlets with a cruise ship in the foreground and vertiginous landscape in the background, in other words always looking inland. Based on this perspective, heading towards the sea down a fjord didn’t seem possible. I don’t know why. I guess I thought fjords could only be accessed from the water, but then I thought avocados were weird when I was younger, too. We stopped and marveled at Bear Glacier, worried about global warming briefly, took a few photos and realized that the cloudy little micro-climate we were in was chilly enough to warrant an extra layer. And we both turned on our bike’s electric hand warmers. 

Following the turbulent Bear River’s winding path down towards Stewart led us deeper and deeper into the fissure until we reached a sheer canyon where the road had been carved out of the undersides of a narrow split in the granite looming above us. From there the scenery opened out into a wide estuary that was as naturally chaotic as you’d hope for. Driftwood and bracken piled up on shallow sandbars of river rock scattered across the wide expanse, an ever-shifting navigational hazard courtesy of the spring’s floods. The green, mineral-rich water looked like a kayaker’s playground. 

Stewart dangles like a little good luck charm at the tail end of all this natural grandeur. With a population of just under 500, down from 10,000 at the height of a gold and silver mining boom in the early 20th century, Stewart sits two miles from Hyder, Alaska, at the pointy end of the Portland Canal. This is relevant only because the area was part of a long-running border dispute between Canada and the United States. As you might imagine, the purchase of the Alaska territories from Russia in 1867 was completed with somewhat ambiguous terms and years of wrangling between the United States and Canada ensued until 1903 when a formal treaty was negotiated. The biggest sticking point appears to have been four islands in the Portland Canal (in this case the term ‘canal’ means ‘channel’ since there is nothing man-made about the Portland Canal). A compromise to share the islands 50/50 between the two countries was introduced by the British delegate for the sake of political expediency. A move that so pissed off the Canadian judges they refused to sign the agreement, while news of the British ‘betrayal’ spread like wildfire and fanned the flames of Canadian nationalism for years. We, on the other hand, just wanted some breakfast.  

The Ripley Creek Inn on 5th Avenue houses a restaurant that doubles as a toaster museum. Old toasters are a model of simplicity, but few in this collection were the pop-up type. Each one had an electric element and some novel way of leaning the bread towards the heat. The user still had to watch over things, but could now make piping hot toast on demand at the breakfast table. The Inn's smoked salmon was pretty good, but the coffee needed a little bit more oomph. 

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