I woke before Lydia, relieved to still be alive and not squished under the drunk tires of a dying pickup truck. As quietly as I could, I wandered from the tent to investigate the clamor in the night. Presumebly Jamie had returned, stuck his truck on a rather steep ledge, and freed himself. All the obvious signs were there: struggling tire tracks, a skid path, and chunks of disturbed mud. It had played out exactly how I interpreted.
But now the clouds were thick. The storm I had dreaded was near ready to hit, and we had mountains with worry of snow still to cross and a top heavy Wrangler. I checked our food: no bear had found it, but some rodent decided to eat a hole right in the middle of the bread. Ah well, eat well ya little bastard as I’m sure you’ll never eat bread again in your isolated life!
Breakfast consisted of bell pepper, or capsicum as Lydia informed me, hummus, and a touch of spam. Breaking down our disasterous camp took patience, but as the adventure progressed we became artists at setting and destroying camp. We worked like a well oiled machine, and I like to think that we were some kind of record breakers (definitely not, but don’t take this from me). But in this instance, we were clumsy and slow. Once completed, I popped the keys in the ignition, pleased at a successful first night, only to cringe as it growled and died. A second attempt yielded the same results. With my fingers still holding the key, I was absolutely still as a flashing moment of panic crossed my mind: I had no idea how to fix a car and we were more isolated than I’ve ever felt.
Panic is a silly creature. When it first rears its ugly head you have a fleeting moment to utilize it to your advantage and use it as fuel instead of fear, but wait too long and it sets itself in your brain like a well ingrained wart, festering and churning bad thoughts into your peripheral. I’m one to indulge in self pity at times, but now was not that time. So I grabbed that ugly beast, shook it up a bit, and laughed as it whimpered. With panic now subdued, I looked at Lydia with a guilty grin, “let’s start walking!” And would you believe that after not seeing a single car all day before and not watching any cross the bridge above our campground that morning, we managed to flag down two locals almost immediately? They were hauling ATVs, happily dropped their trailer, and jump started my Jeep with the advice to “keep it running until you find gas!” Thank God.
Nervously, I watched the guage on my gas tank plummet. We were carrying 5 gallons more, but that was only about 60 miles given the condition of the road and Steve’s insatiable thirst for fuel, and fuel was liable to be farther than that. We were fortunate though, as the little red line fell to E and below, as the engine struggled to continue, we found a gas station and bought enough to carry us to cheaper full. Now, with Steve full and happy, Yukon loomed on the horizon, and so did the joys of crossing the border.
Canada’s border is hit or miss. They’re either super understanding or they assume we’re all dumb American tourists out to smuggle weed like polar bear cartel. This time, they were fantastic. We smuggled our contraband bell peppers and went on our merry ways, though they batted an eye at the entirely too suspicious Australian, Lydia. But only one eye. Across the border one enters Yukon, and Yukon is gorgeous, but very desolate. If you want to feel small and alone, spend some time up there. Perched barely noticably higher than the exspanse of frozen marsh before you, the road is like a miniature lookout post to see miles into the tundra. Moose slowly meander across the swamps, chewing aquatic grasses and prickly needles, and tundra swans elegantly stretch like frozen ballerinas in nearly every kettle pond in sight as they arch their necks in creeping unison. The light always glows strangely in the Yukon too, as if the sun is always at the perfect angle to confuse you. I’m not sure how to better explain it, honestly, but it’s a colder, more scrutinizing light, and one quickly loses track of time under its gaze.
To our pleasure, we escaped the storm in Kennecott. Whether or not it would catch up to us was another question we’d learn tomorrow, but for the time being, there was only a gentle breeze and much warmer weather. Alaska is just perpetually cold, I guess. And with the setting sun, we made camp in Beaver Creek, Yukon, beside a cute diner with decent comfort food, warm staff, and fantastic showers. Our goal the next day entailed that we reach the Cassiar Highway.
Now here’s where things get really interesting, if they haven’t already. We packed up to lazily leave Beaver Creek with little intent on rushing our journey. I was happy to feel weather warmer than freezing and Lydia was absorbing the simplicity of life beyond Seattle, so neither of us really had any serious agenda or pressing deadline other than “we’ll make it back at some point.” And at this point, I must take a moment to brag about my ingenious Jeep tetris-ing as it kinda puts things into perspective for ya. A good friend of mine had salvaged an old cargo rack for my Jeep and welded special parts so it would fit appropriately off my rear hitch. It needed two straps to counter balance it, but it was sturdy and only cost me a 12 pack of shared Torpedo IPAs. On that rack, we wrapped my suitcase in a tarp, attached it like gear champions, and balanced the cooler on top of that. Inside the Jeep was my entire summer’s life, and Lydia’s entire year’s life. On top of the Jeep was my kayak full of my gear and my friend’s kayak (who paid me to bring it back home to California, but we pretended it was Lydia’s so we could both feel like badass advenurous women, and we enjoyed a few free beers with good conversation from it too) full of camping gear. The Jeep was full to the brim with anything and everything! And each day we had to take it apart and put it back together in the morning.
So that was us: two initially-stereotyped-as-helpless women traveling through Canada under the somewhat falsified illusion that we were both Alaskan river guides from Denali with a penchant for danger and a lack of concern for elaborate hygene wrapped in an image of rugged survivalists. I mean, Lydia was actually a pharmacist from Australia, but the rest was true (though she was more prone to shower as well) and it was much more fun to hear her try to talk like an experienced kayaker rather than admit she had no idea what was going on.
Back to chronological details… for those driving, it’s an abrupt turn onto the Cassiar Highway. Seriously, you’ll drive right past it if you’re not paying attention, despite the million signs down the way that label it… those are somehow easy to miss. The highway doesn’t look like your stereotypical highway, more like a side steet to a residential area. But given its isolation and lack of travel, it’s quiet, simple, left to disarray, and laneless. Yes, there is no lane, so enjoy taking your lane out the middle with the comforting knowledge that you probably won’t see anyone to worry about hitting. Most choose to travel through the AlCan Highway, but I’m partial to Cassiar… maybe because it is so isolated it’s a lil more exciting, and beautiful. Though I must warn, it’s a very rough road. You’ll spend your energy dodging frost heaves, bears, potholes and anything else you can imagine, so drive alert and be prepared for something to go wrong… cause you’re pretty much on your own out there if something does happen. Headed south, the road begins like a rollarcoaster, and it’s quite fun to speed over the narrow hills.
The Jeep was long packed and we had spent some hours on the road. Lydia was growing disappointed that she hadn’t seen a bear as I had promised her we’d see one at some point. That time of year, the bears are panicking about hibernation, so they’re eating all the berries in sight and tend to be extra active. Patience is the key with bears. With increasing remoteness, about seven bears in an hour filled Lydia’s request. We had the opportunity to insult one when we parked about five feet away from it on the side of the road as it nibbled rose hips (yes, we were close, but we did not leave the car out of respect for the bear). I told it something along the lines that its mother was a dirty whore and slept with Yogi and Pooh… he was unphased. Lydia took an obligatory selfie through the window with it.
Substantial bear taunting left us fulfilled and eager to return to the road. Good Hope Lake was up ahead, and we made camp on an ATV Trail by a trash turnout on the banks of the lake. The water made Lake Tahoe look dirty, and those glorious stars I missed so much were back. In the twilight fire light of pink sunset, there is nothing more eery than setting camp among the sudden, solemn chorus of nearby wolves, the echoing realization of mortality and prey-identity against the tactical union of the pack. It was the first time I had ever heard a wild wolf, and it gave me shivers. By the howl alone, it was obvious that these were big wolves, and we later learned from some local gypsies that the wolves that claim territory on Good Hope Lake are some of the most aggressive, most fearless, and largest wolves in all of Canada… would have been nice to know that beforehand. So camp there with caution. The gypsies told me of their encounters with those wolves, and how they had legitimately been run out of their mountain cabins by the pack with little intent to return. But our unintentional balls earned their respect. Anyways, they welcomed the night with their mournful songs and grew silent as they prowled in the moonlight. We lit a large fire to help keep them at bay, and kept our ears keen to noises in the woods. Bears AND wolves… fantastic. Beavers began their nocturnal shenanigans, and a few times we spooked them, sending them frantically slapping their tails on the water below us. I commented to Lydia that the beavers were crazy active, “here comes another up the hill to us!”
But my smile quickly faded as I realized a) why would a timid beaver go out of its way to approach us and b) it’s bigger than a beaver. Bear? Shit… bear. “LYDIA! GET THE LIGHT!!! I’M BIGGER THAN YOU BEAR!!!!” I yelled as I stood up and waved my arms in the direction of the bear. I couldn’t see a damn thing, and I figured if it were to charge I’d be done because… I couldn’t see. At least, I’d buy some time for Lydia to jump in the Jeep and save herself. The light revealed the foe, and to my dismay, it wasn’t a bear… I saw the squating body and V-stripe: wolverine. Christ, I’d rather have the bear.
“Oh god No! It’s a wolverine! The most pissed off animal in all of Alaska! They’re worse than honey badgers!” I yelled and panicked.
“Wolverine? Like… Hugh Jackman?” She was legitimately confused. Along with squirrels, Australians have no idea what wolverines are. I laughed and scolded.
“No, no. I wish, but no. They’re just pissed off giant badgers with huge teeth and zero fear.” (The gypsies confirmed this and that we were “better off with the Good Hope wolves than the Canadian wolverines.”) It was stalking us. I could hear it prowling in the bramble below the trees. I was damn near ready to turn tail and flee in the Jeep, leaving camp behind. But I could see its eyeshine in the flickering fire light, and I wanted a closer look at my enemy. So I shined the light on it, revealing it, and as it turns out, it was merely a silver fox. He ran.
“Dammit. Just a fox. That was a lot of hype for nothing.” But as long as he was there, there were no wolves as he’d run the second he caught scent of them. So we fed him bred when he trotted up next to us, and let him lick our dishes clean when we went to bed. Hey, it was the least we could do for our personal lookout.
As usual, morning meant camp break down and breakfast. I cooked a big pot of coffee for myself, as Lydia didn’t like coffee, and we snacked on almonds, craisens, and cheese sandwiches before hitting the road. No surprise, the further one drives down the Cassiar, the more isolated he becomes. Eventually, after miles of isolation, you reach Bell 2 Lodge, where we stopped for one of the best $20 buffet I’ve ever eaten and cheered with Canadian beer as we plotted further logistics. God, we were so full. But before food coma could set in fully, we hopped in the car and drove deeper into the inevitable darkness of night in British Columbia.
It caught our eyes: the flickering golden orb in the sky ahead of us. My immediate thought was that perhaps, in the horrid drought of the West, it was the floating sparks of a nearby forest fire. I was obligated to research. I was not apt to willingly overlook a potential fire where fires run rampant. But the left turn did not reveal a fierce inferno. Instead, it revealed a rudimentary camp full of people. I told Lydia to get out and make sure everyone was ok and to confirm that there is no fire, shooting tufts of angry, smoldering embers into the sky.
“Come an stay honey, come an stay. We’re fine.” The woman told Lydia, who then asked if we could camp there. “Of course, of course! Wherever you like!”
Without warning, a burly man popped from the woods. I merely wanted a restroom, but Bear, as I learned his name, insisted that we share a beer with him. His family and friends were intriguing, at best, but I’m a fan of enduring the ridiculous for the sake of the story. The man to my right was either so old or so drunk he could barely talk… it was hard to tell and I’ll never know. And the man to Lydia’s left was, as we learned the next day, so drunk that he could only tell us terrible puns about Canada that only he could understand, so in that regard… they were funny as hell. But amidst the hilarity of Lydia’s companion and Bear’s absurd family, someone stole my car keys (I should add though, that I had the key to start the car, but the trinkets were missing and I could not, absolutely not, leave them behind). The night rolled on and I did not notice the absence of my keys until much later in the company of others, and to this day, I question whether or not it was intentional to hold us back, a ploy to discretely kidnap us.
The missing key piece was immense, it’s as if they knew how personally valuable it was to me. A few years prior, a very dear friend, Rick Blair, had given me a rubber chicken foot chain for my keys. The chicken foot had come from some pro snowboarder in Canada, and when Rick took the gift from the boarder he immediately thought, “this does not belong to me.” For the time being, Rick served in the Air Force and suffered the woes of deployment and traveling conferences where he used the chicken foot to mark his luggage, and one day Rick met me, the chicken-farmer-converted-kayaker, and knew immediately that the luck of the Canadian athlete belonged to me. So he snuck up behind me as I shifted gear around and grazed it across my face, consoling after I panicked that it was “only rubber” and explained its purpose as a well traveled Air Force gift from Canada destined to be carried by me. (Remember earlier how I mentioned that as a traveler you become oddly territorial of the most benign and random items? The chicken foot is one of those benign items.) As the night rolled on, I rolled the keys in my hand, and my heart skipped a beat. Between using the outhouse at Bear’s camp and sharing a beer with James’ crew (the other group in the chaos) the chicken foot had vanished. I was devastated. Frantically, I retraced my steps as best I could but the claw was gone without trace. James assured that I’d find it in the day, but I doubted his assurance. It felt like a trap… the foot was missing without recognition or reason, and despite my efforts I could not find it in the dark.
I set a defeated camp near James’ massive tent and returned, disappointed, to the group. In my efforts to find the foot, I realized I had not yet fully determined why these people were all here. I randomly recalled the stories from my Nana of the horrible gypsies she knew in the pre WWII era of Ayr, Scotland, and how, as I adopted my nomad life, one day she sized me up upon my return and shivered as she mumbled under her breath with absolute disgust, “GYPSY.” I looked at James as I sipped my beer. These people fit every image my Nana had described: thrify, shifty, dirty, strange, and strangely gathered without any explanation. “James,” I asked skeptically, “are you guys gypsies?”
His companions laughed, but not quite the kind of laugh you’d expect when others find something absurd and laugh it off. The kind of laugh that almost implies the answer in itself because it’s strangely proud beneath the humor. “Pretty much,” James smirked. And he explained why they were there. In the fall months as the rain returns, the exotic mushrooms in the forests of British Columbia explode with life, and everyone was here to harvest and sell them to the weird Asian markets that buy them up. Blue Chanties, Pine Mushrooms, Yellow Chanties, Velvet Caps, and the potentially lucrative and difficult to obtain Bear Bread. He said tomorrow we would be helping him, we had no choice.
So pretty much, in this moment, we had been vaguely kidnapped by Canadian mushroom-picking gypsies that took my car keys hostage. … alright.
James damn near personally dragged Lydia from the tent when she refused to get up. He served us coffee and drove us an hour into the woods, warning us to stay near him as a rival band claimed territory out here by one of his own patches, and mushrooming is serious business. With thousands of dollars at stake, and poor rain fall to promote successful growth, competition was brutal this year over the few mushrooms that took root. The band on the far hills of the Nass River were known to slash tires out of spite in previous years, and he warned that they held no hesitations against killing a man that crossed into their territory. Their camp perched in plain sight by a public, dirt road, and though they could not guard the road as their own, our presence was still unwelcomed. Their location was strategic, to own clear sight of the road meant they could keep eye on any that pass by their domain. We slowed to stare at them, to gain the face of our enemies. RVs built the walls of their disgraced castle, and between the crevices of pickup trucks and canvas tents, haggard men placed heavy footsteps with shotguns in their arms. They stared back at us.
What the actual f*ck had we found. Here we were, forced to work at the hands of gypsies in the middle of nowhere in British Columbia on the savage territorial lines of rival mushroom gypsy bands. I mean seriously, who the hell has this happen to them? Sometimes I wonder if God just random chooses words and throws them at me as challenges. He’s up there, rolling two dice with random words and bam: “Mushroom…. gypsies. Deal with that, Courtney. Ha.”
“I used to do heroin, and I nearly killed myself,” James added. “I’ve cleaned up since. It was a dark time.” Lydia voiced that characteristic groan she does when she’s convinced we’re gonna die.