The town of Stewart, British Columbia, Canada

You know you’re nearing Meziadin Junction when the more prosaic stretch of spectacular Northern British Columbia highway you’ve been following is brought to life by a rising crown of luminous peaks – and that distant glint grows to become an imbroglio of glaciers and clouds lit up by sunbeams dying and reborn. You know you’ve arrived at the junction – perhaps the most unmistakable fork in the road that ever was – when you reach Highway 37A, the turn-off, rising into that scrum of mountains, lonely, empty, and beckoning like a Shangri La scene.

I’d driven past this crossroads before and marveled at the start of that 65 kilometre stretch of road. Also called the Glacier Highway, route 37A is much more than a rural drag of asphalt. It’s an event. Which is why taking the fork this time feels like a real decision. A true veering away.

Minutes later I’m in a subalpine valley squeezed between towering granite walls. My face is plastered to the windscreen in an upward gaze of disbelief that compels me to stop every 200 feet to take photos of mossy cliffs and waterfalls. A certain kind of oblivion causes you to stand in middle of the road with your camera, uncaring of the truck drivers forced to veer out of your way. I awake from that stupor and force myself to continue down the road without stopping.

Though Highway 37A is easily a world-class attraction on its own, my terminus lies further ahead at the end of the road. I’m travelling to the town of Stewart – an enclave of 500 souls located beside a Pacific fjord at the northernmost tip of the British Columbia coast. Stewart’s claim to fame is its mining tradition that dates back to the discovery of gold at the end of the nineteenth century. A handful of old heritage buildings survive in town, projecting some of the antique patina and frontier mystique of Dawson City, in Yukon.

But history isn’t the only reason why I’m headed there. What draws me is the bizarre geopolitical anomaly of which Stewart partakes. For just a few kilometers down the road from Stewart is the village of Hyder – situated across the border in neighbouring Alaska. While the two communities share much the same history, they exist in very separate realms. Hyder, a pint-sized hamlet of several dozen homesteaders, lies in an administrative no-man’s-land far removed from U.S. officialdom. The town has a fiercely libertarian attitude. There is no law enforcement. Its denizens don’t pay taxes. And because of either grizzly bears, or the second amendment (depending on who you ask), firearms are de rigueur.

But more to the point: Hyder is physically cut off from the rest of Alaska by an impenetrable wall of Coast Mountains known as the Alaska Boundary Range. The Portland Canal, one of the longest fjords in the world sitting at Hyder’s doorstep, offers no short-cut. The only practical way in and out of the erstwhile gold rush entrepôt is by road from Stewart. Because of that, Hyder is completely dependent on Canada for many of its everyday needs. The town uses Canadian areas codes, electricity and sometimes currency. Tourists visiting Hyder have no choice but to come through Canada. Even their respective national holiday celebrations – the Fourth of July and Canada Day – take the form of an amalgamated four-day birthday bash.

These circumstances, born of accidents of history and geography, make Hyder something of a de facto Canadian town. But in this surreal nexus of soft borders and phantom historical crossroads to which I am headed, the question of where one country begins and the other ends may very much be a matter of opinion.

*

Stewart, I discover, is very low-key. In contrast to the estuary it straddles beneath dramatic mist-drizzled mountains, the town feels austere. Even industrial. But some fancier looking stores, cafes and hotels cluster along its main road. One of them is the Ripley Creek Inn – Stewart’s diamond-in-the-rough. The lodging complex of renovated heritage buildings is the town’s most pronounced monument to the Stewart of legend. I’m staying here in a small wood cabin that once belonged to – and is named after – a hermit-like prospector from Finland named John Lehto. This and the other specially-named Ripley buildings are peppered with antiques and cast iron relics, making the hotel a genuine throwback to another age.

At the very end of the 19th century, prospectors from the Klondike Gold Rush drifted here on rumours of mineral wealth. After gold was discovered in 1899 brothers John and Robert Stewart arrived in 1902 and founded their namesake town. Hyder, meanwhile, was established in 1907. Originally called Portland City, it changed its name after the U.S. Postal Service flat-out rejected it, saying there were too many other American towns called Portland. The community’s unusually strong linkage to Canada was foreshadowed by its choice of new label: borrowing the surname of Canadian mining engineer Frederick Hyder.

The next few decades saw huge swings in the fortunes of the two towns, as gold, silver and other precious metals were found – and as the cycles of boom and bust did their work. Because of the extreme vertiginous terrain, miners had to become mountaineers overnight. Old black-and-white photos of the area show caravans of workers and horses trudging laboriously across glaciers, or hauling buckets of ore down steep mountainsides. People from all over the world came to work in the big mines (named Premier, Granduc, Big Missouri) on the Canadian side. Some of those people, whose nicknames were testament to the size of their characters, became local legends: Marmot River Casey, Alphonse the Frenchman, One-eyed Mike, Broken Ass Shorty, ‘Hoot Man’ Billy Orr, and Ski Pole Hazel.

“The amount of strength and energy the old timers had in order to work out here blows your mind,” says Jim Simonelli, a former Stewart resident who runs a backcountry logistics business in the region. “Pack horses wearing snowshoes going up into the mountains and glaciers. People camping in minus thirty degree weather. It makes the rest of us seem soft.”

Today, Stewart survives on a smattering of mineral exploration, logging and tourism. A newly refurbished port facility sends a trickle of ore and raw timber to China. The town’s residents, still a hardened bunch by Northern B.C. standards, make their money working in industry in the warm months. By winter they disappear into the mountains to backcountry ski and snowmobile (the Stewart-Hyder area has one of the highest snow packs in the world, often exceeding 100 feet every winter).

But it’s the height of summer in Stewart as I walk into Toastworks – a café and vintage toaster museum attached to the Ripley Creek Inn. The place is filled with people engaged in lively conversation over daylong breakfast plates, bowls of homemade soup and artisan baked goods. Here I meet Frank Kamermans, the bespectacled owner of the Ripley. Originally from Hamilton Ontario, Frank first visited Stewart while on a road trip in the mid-1980s. He never left. Frank is a wealth of knowledge about the area. He tells me to visit Fish Creek, just outside of Hyder, the site of a popular bear viewing platform. I am also urged to make the 35 kilometre drive, along the same road past Fish Creek, to the iconic and spectacular Salmon Glacier, situated back across the border in Canada. When we get to talking about Hyder and its residents, he is a bit more circumspect.

“They’re a little different in Hyder,” he says with a grin. “They voted for Trump and Palin. When I first arrived, you could still find some Wild West there. People shooting at your car tires if you drove too fast through town. It’s still got the characters. It’s just a bit more quiet now.”

*

Later that day I cross the border into Hyder. Whether due to expectation, or actual fact, the Alaska side feels different. The mountains are burlier, time seems suspended (the clock here – if you can find one – runs one hour behind Stewart), and you are greeted upon arrival with a stretch of old abandoned buildings that were once the commercial drag. A banner hangs over the road showing a smiling cartoon ghost and reads, “The Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska.”

The border crossing at Hyder Alaska, USA.I meet Dick Simpson, a 59 year-old roofer from Vancouver, Washington, who grew up in Hyder. He left when he was younger and returned several years ago to build what he describes as “the first recycled home above the fifty-fifth parallel.” Like most of his tribe he is spirited and irreverent.

“Hyder is one of the wonderful places where you get to be an American and a second class citizen of Canada,” he says. “Most Canadians have this thing about America – the big brother next door. Well, guess what. My big brother next door is right over there.”

We’re standing below a narrow clear-cut in the forest that runs up the mountains as far as the eye can see – the physical boundary line between Canada and the United States. Dick, who wears ripped jeans, a plaid shirt and a worn cap, walks me through town. Hyder, he tells me, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t exist in a total administrative vacuum. It has a post office with a mail plane that flies in twice a week. The U.S. Forest Service also has a considerable presence here. When I ask him to give me a sense of how physically isolated Hyder is from the rest of America, he doesn’t miss a beat.

“Around thirty years ago there was a murder in the town’s bar,” he says. “It took three whole days for the Alaska State Troopers to arrive on the scene. America is still as far away as it was then.”

A resident of Hyder, Alaska, sitting in his home

Dick Simpson

I’d heard similar stories. People in Stewart told me that the Alaska police visit Hyder once or twice a year but that residents receive warning of their impending arrival when the officers disembark the ferry in Prince Rupert, further south on the B.C. coast, for the long drive up.

But more than anything, Dick says, it’s the Canadian Border Service’s Agency post on the boundary that projects the most authority. Because U.S. Customs is absent here now, there is no requirement stop while crossing from Canada into Alaska. But on the way out, every vehicle is met by two Canadian border agents who dutifully ask about firearms, tobacco, alcohol, and bear spray. Between midnight and 8am, when the post is still open – but unmanned – drivers heading into Canada use a yellow phone to speak to a remote agent who can raise the mechanical barrier.

The border has a long and infamous history. In the 1970s, miners who used to cross between the two countries blew up the border barrier after tiring of the delays it caused. In the 90s, when the Canadian customs post only operated during the day, a few bad apples in Hyder smuggled guns and cigarettes into Canada by night. Bootlegged goods from the maverick hamlet were later tied to crimes in Edmonton and Prince George, and the Canadian government clamped down.

Much later in 2015, when Ottawa got the idea to close all overnight border traffic to save operating costs, Hyderites, who were barricaded-in, nearly rebelled. The dispute that followed triggered a diplomatic spat between the two countries, which was resolved by the installation of the night phone.

A restaurant in Hyder, Alaska

I leave Dick and continue along the road before turning onto a side street with big homes on unfenced lots beside the rainforest. Here I find ‘The Bus’ – a fish and chips business run out of a white school bus with outdoor tables for eating alongside it. Dick’s brother Jim Simpson and his wife Diana are the proprietors. Jim catches the fish while Diana takes the orders and does the cooking.

As I wait for my halibut fish-and-chips, I acquaint with Jim who’s just returned from being on the water. He tells me he met Diana 37 years ago in Oregon after leaving Hyder to find a wife. They knew each other only 18 days before tying the knot. It also slips out that Jim’s deck hand, a man he calls George, was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear at a nearby camp in 2003.

Diana hands me a paper plate containing a slab of thickly battered fish.

“No better seafood around,” Jim says smiling, as I bite into a piping hot edge of batter. “In Stewart they have to get all their fish from Vancouver. No regulations on this side. I pulled that halibut out of the water yesterday.”

When I ask him if he feels in any way Canadian because of the close ties to Stewart, he makes a dour face.

“Hell no, I’m a Yankee all the way. I don’t really interact with Canadians. They tend to talk bad about my country. Not that I care all that much. You can say whatever you want about me or America – so long as you don’t talk shit about my kids, my wife, or my dog.”

“What’s the biggest difference between Hyder and Stewart?” I ask.

“Stewart is like a normal society,” he says. “Hyder is a get up everyday and try to survive sort of place. It’s an OK life. Everybody here knows your name. But at the end of the day, we don’t have anything here.”

*

The next day I drive up the bumpy Granduc mining road, along high mountain switchbacks, to reach the lookout over the Salmon Glacier. The icefield, nestled in the Boundary Ranges, is fifth largest in the world – and the largest accessible by road.

It’s overcast and drizzly when I depart. When I reach the top I’m disappointed to find the lookout over the epic expanse of ice shrouded by an impenetrable grey. I find no one else there apart from a Nova Scotian who calls himself “The Bear Man” and who’s been living in his car and selling books and CDs to tourists all summer. He is asleep in the back seat. Despite my temptation to wake him, I leave him to his bliss.

I navigate the badly potholed road back down the mountains, catching a glimpse of the glacier through a fleeting break in the clouds. I cross the remote border back into Alaska and soon arrive at the Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site on the Salmon River. There is a public bear viewing platform here on the edge of the seventeen million-acre Tongass National Forest. Most visitors to Hyder come during the chum salmon spawn, beginning in August, to see the black bears and grizzlies feed.

I buy a ticket and walk onto a long, elevated boardwalk overlooking the river on two sides. Apart from your camera and rain gear, patience is the most important thing to have on hand here. Bears emerge only a few times a day. And no one knows exactly where, or when, they’ll appear. Visitors loiter restlessly, constantly scanning the river while watching the body language of others, hoping to get an early tip on a bear. Some people work in teams, coordinating their movements by mobile phone. More than once an entire mob of tourists fast-walks across the platform, each person following the other, on a false hunch that someone has seen a bear at the other end of the platform. The level of dedication and competition is almost comedic.

Tourists at Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site in Hyder Alaska, USA.

A black bear at the Fish Creek Wildlife viewing platform in Hyder, AlaskaAs that happens I glance down below the platform railing and see a young black bear emerge from the trees. It looks up at me and I casually grab a photo of it before it slips back, disinterestedly in the bush. I marvel at my luck, which was entirely absent up on the glacier. After a distant glimpse of another bear, I decide to head back to Stewart.

Just as I pull out of the parking lot, I realize I’ve forgotten my passport at the cabin! My mind starts to race. What does this mean? Will I be refused entry to Canada? Will I be trapped in Hyder forever, having to work as a deck hand on Jim Simpson’s fishing boat to eke out a living? When I pull up to the customs post I’m met by a uniformed officer, a city person, who is awkward and too well-groomed for this wild west environment.

I explain my situation and hand her my Ontario driver’s license in lieu of the passport. She is clearly unimpressed. After I answer the battery of usual questions, she takes the card to her work partner. They exchange words briefly before she saunters back.

“OK,” she says with relaxed authority, handing me the card. “You can go ahead. But don’t forget your passport next time!”

The barrier goes up. As I drive past the boundary clear-cut rising steeply above me, I note that what just happened wouldn’t occur with such ease anywhere else in the world. Maybe the Alaskan town’s live-and-let-live ethos is more infectious than the neighbouring Canadians are willing to admit. Or maybe Stewart and Hyder simply aren’t that different after all.

This article ran in the summer 2018 issue of Explore magazine. 

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