Traveling on the Cassiar Highway, the “good” alternative to Alcan across Canada

For my friend Michael, there is no other way.

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

A few weeks ago I texted him early one morning from the Airstream that I needed to fly north from the Lower 48. The main thing was basically, really Michael – tell me straight – driving with a trailer on the Cassiar against the Alcan. What is the best bet?

Before he could answer, I heard on the news that part of the Alcan had been flooded. This was before there was a detour in place. I replied by text message: “It does not matter, I saw the news. it’s Cassiar! to which he assured me that the Cassiar is always the right answer.

When the Alcan became an option again with the detour via the pilot car, I redoubled my search. This included hopping on the phone with the kind and knowledgeable husband of a co-worker whose alarmingly accurate memory quickly recalled route numbers and stopping points when I couldn’t even remember what that I drove yesterday. Towards the end of the conversation, he leaned on Alcan as the best bet. Faster – albeit a little longer – and more service along the way, which is essential for someone with my gas mileage who hauls 4,000 pounds of trailer.

I found myself a little disappointed with his conclusion. I had begun to think about taking the Cassiar, in all its remoteness and unknowns, for myself. His advice, if I decided to go to Cassiar, to take not one but two canisters full of extra diesel with me in case it rang in my ears.

I bought an extra can from Walmart which reinforced my decision. New Airstream in tow, I was about to try a new route.

I informed my cousin, who was joining me for the trip directly from Brooklyn, New York. He brought his humor, adaptable nature and excellent taste in food and wine to this epic road trip. Otherwise, he had no idea what we were about to do – and he was fine with that, waving information when I tried to provide it to him. When I announced that I had chosen the Cassiar, he asked me: “Who?

I picked it up in Portland, Oregon, placed a Milepost trip planner on the passenger side dash, and pointed our rig north to the border.

I have driven the Alcan several times, the last time last spring. It never ceases to shock me how industrialized this romanticized highway is, especially the sections of British Columbia that feature the greatest successes in oil and gas extraction. Vast sections of the Alcan are littered with men’s camps low on muddy fields by the side of the road, and frequented by tractor-trailers hurtling down the highway and throwing gravel at my windshield in their wake.

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

But this first journey of the afternoon and evening was a dream. We circled verdant farms as far as the eye could see, framed by low, lush mountains. We rode over more mountainous terrain, following a river that dropped more and more as the winding roads rose until we had a spectacular view of a deep canyon far below. We stopped for the night in a golden-hued, barren-looking area dotted with sagebrush on the hillsides that seemed to bend under the setting sun.

Each night of our trip, the sun set noticeably later as we advanced 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 had no idea what the next few days of travel would bring on this new highway, and tried to make sure I had the skills to handle anything that might come – from flat tires to bears, or worse, unwanted human encounters.

Entering the Cassiar from Kitwanga along Canada’s Highway 16 is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair. There are signs advising travelers to “prepare” for the notoriously remote 37 freeway, but it’s just an occasional right turn on what could be a residential road.

And, it’s almost immediately a nice, refreshing alternative to the Alcan. It helps that the southern section of the road is clearly recently tarred; smooth as possible for the first 60km or so and meandering through forests with glimpses of nearby mountains. There is also no service and few other travelers. The remoteness is apparent and impressive.

We had an excellent time, easily achieving our goal of reaching half of the Cassiar on the first day. We stopped at Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park at a quiet – for us – 5pm and immediately found a waterfront campsite. The afternoon was sunny enough to warm up, but cool enough that the mosquitoes weren’t thick and the clouds cast interesting shadows on the bright blue lake and nearby mountains.

My cousin and I settled in for our long-awaited charcuterie night. The sun cast this dramatic subarctic warm glow over our campsite, illuminating the water, the picnic table and the white wine in our plastic glasses. We sat by the campfire long after the sun had set, still delighted with our setup and good luck, talking late into the night.

The next day our goal was to complete the Cassiar. The road became rougher in the sections where it was being repaved; some sections were gravel and I slowed to crawl. We heeded diesel’s advice at every opportunity, and I was always glad we did when the next stretch of highway turned out to be just as far and long as the last.

We finished in the Yukon Territory; the conclusion – for us – from the highway was as modest on the Alcan side as it was back on Hwy 16. We quickly found camp.

Overall the Cassiar was beautiful. Remote, yes, but it’s the highway I imagine when I think of driving north in Alaska: rugged, framed by incredibly beautiful and dramatic scenery, and wild. I went slower than I would have on the Alcan, but also faced almost no tractor-trailer traffic so prevalent on the other highway. I would do it and absolutely do it again.

I already told him in person, but Michael: you were right. In a world with so little black and white, the Cassiar was definitely the right choice.

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