Outdoors/Adventure

Traveling the Cassiar Highway, ‘the correct’ alternative to taking the Alcan through Canada

Junction 37 Services marks the end of the Cassiar (heading north) and the turnoff to the Alaska Highway in Yukon Territory

For my friend Michael, there’s no other way.

It’s the Cassiar Highway, a 450-mile lonely stretch that is one of two options to get to Alaska by road from the Lower 48, or bust. Every time the conversation turns to someone driving to or from Alaska, his ears perk up: “Did they take the Cassiar?” Most often, the answer is no, they took the more heavily traveled Alcan Highway. He looks visibly disappointed.

A few weeks ago, I texted him early one morning from the Airstream I needed to haul north from the Lower 48. The gist was essentially, really Michael — tell me straight — driving with a trailer up the Cassiar vs. the Alcan. Which is the better bet?

Before he could respond, I saw the news that part of the Alcan had flooded out. This was before there was a detour in place. I texted him back: “Nevermind, saw the news. Cassiar it is!” to which he assured me that the Cassiar is always the correct answer.

When the Alcan became an option again with the pilot car detour, I doubled down on research. This included hopping on the phone with a colleague’s gracious and well-informed husband whose alarmingly sharp memory quickly recalled route numbers and stopping points, when I couldn’t even remember what I’d driven yesterday. Toward the end of the conversation, he leaned Alcan as the best bet. Faster — even though it’s a little longer — and more services along the way, which is key for someone with my gas mileage hauling 4,000 pounds of trailer.

I found myself a little disappointed in his conclusion. I’d started to wrap my mind around taking the Cassiar, in all of its remoteness and unknowns, for me. His advice, if I decided to go Cassiar, to take not one but two full cans of extra diesel with me just in case rang in my ears.

I bought an extra can at Walmart, which solidified my decision. New Airstream in tow, I was going to try my hand at a new route.

I informed my cousin, who was joining me for the journey straight from Brooklyn, New York. He brought his humor, adaptable nature, and excellent taste in food and wine for the epic road trip. Otherwise, he had zero idea of what we were about to do —and he was fine with that, waving off information when I tried to provide it to him. When I announced that I’d decided on the Cassiar, he asked: “Who?”

I picked him up in Portland, Oregon, set a Milepost travel planner on the passenger’s side dashboard, and pointed our rig north to the border.

I’ve driven the Alcan several times, most recently this past spring. It never ceases to shock me at how industrialized this romanticized highway gets, particularly the sections in British Columbia that feature the greatest hits of oil and gas extraction. Extensive sections of the Alcan are littered with low-lying man camps on muddy fields off to the side of the road, and frequented by tractor trailers hurtling down the highway and throwing gravel at my windshield in their wake.

I braced myself for a version of Richard Scarry’s “Busy, Busy Town of Oil & Gas Extraction” as we crossed the border into Canada just north of Bellingham, Washington.

But that first afternoon and evening drive was a dream. We got a tour of verdant farms as far as the eye could see, framed with low-lying and lush mountains. We drove into more mountainous terrain, following a river that trailed farther and farther down as the winding roads climbed until we had dramatic views of a deep canyon far below. We stopped for the night in a golden-hued, arid-appearing region dotted with sagebrush on the hillsides that appeared folded in the lowering sun.

Each night of our journey, the sun set noticeably later as we proceeded north.

By Day 2, we had reached the foot of the Cassiar. Camping overnight to start the highway early the next day, I had a mixed sense of excitement and anxiety. I didn’t know what the next couple days of travel would bring on this new highway, and tried to assure myself that I had the skills to cope with whatever might come up — from popped tires to bears, or worse, unwanted human encounters.

The entrance to the Cassiar from Kitwanga along Canada’s Highway 16 is a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it type deal. There is signage advising travelers to “come prepared” for notoriously remote Highway 37, but then it’s just a casual right-hand turn on what might be a residential road.

And, it’s almost immediately a refreshingly beautiful alternative to the Alcan. It helps that the southern section of road is clearly recently paved; smooth as can be for the first 60 or so miles and winding through forests with glimpses of nearby mountains. There are also zero services and few other travelers. The remoteness is apparent and awesome.

Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park campground

We made excellent time, readily achieving our goal of making it halfway up the Cassiar on day one. We stopped at Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park at a leisurely — for us — 5 p.m., and immediately found a waterfront campsite. The afternoon was sunny enough for warmth, but cool enough that mosquitoes weren’t thick and clouds cast interesting shadows across the bright blue lake and nearby mountains.

My cousin and I settled in for our much-anticipated charcuterie night. The sun cast that dramatic sub-Arctic warm glow across our campsite, illuminating the water, picnic table, and white wine in our plastic glasses. We sat by the campfire long after the sun had set, still thrilled with our setup and good luck, talking late into the night.

The following day our objective was to complete the Cassiar. The road turned more rough in sections where it was in the process of being repaved; some stretches were gravel and I slowed to a crawl. We heeded advice to diesel up at every opportunity, and I was always glad we did when the next stretch of highway turned out to be just as remote and long as the last.

We ended in Yukon Territory; the conclusion — for us — of the highway was as unassuming on the Alcan side as it was back at Route 16. We found camp quickly.

Overall, the Cassiar was stunning. Remote, yes, but it’s the highway I imagine when I think about driving north to Alaska: rugged, framed by shockingly beautiful and dramatic scenery, and wild. I went slower than I would have on the Alcan, but also dealt with almost none of the tractor trailer traffic that’s so prevalent on the other highway. I would and will absolutely do it again.

I’ve already told him in person, but Michael: you were right. In a world with so little that is black and white, the Cassiar was hands-down the right choice.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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