Peace River and Pine Pass

After 2000km on the Alaska Highway I left it just before Fort St. John to ride West towards Hudson’s Hope on the Peace River. Traffic had gotten progressively worse the closer I got to the larger towns of Fort St. John and Dawson Creek, so I was happy to get off the Alcan. I also assumed somehow that the hills would be over – boy was I mistaken! Right after the turnoff at Charlie Lake, 80m down, 70m up, 170m down, 200m up, 400m down to the Peace River – and steep hills, just crazy. At a 10% grade downhill I topped out at 80.54km/h heading for a sharp turn at the bottom with roadsigns recommending 40km/h – good thing I have those two Magura disc brakes with my heavy load!

Pushing up one of the many steep hills along the Peace River valley

The Peace River valley is markedly different from the boreal forest landscape of the last weeks. Large farms, horses and cattle grazing, the smells of fresh cut grass and dry hay – with hot temperatures above 30C a quintessential summer day like in the corn belt of the midwest.

After the 8hr, 155km day it took to reach Hudson’s Hope I decided to have a semi-restday, and use the morning to go up to the W.A.C. Bennett dam. This massive earth-filled dam was built in the sixties; it creates the 363km long Williston Lake and together with the smaller downstream Dinosaur Lake dam it creates 1/3 of all of British Columbia’s electricity needs.

At W.A.C. Bennett dam visitor center

The tour at the visitor center is quite informative; the underground powerhouse with its 10 big generator wheels is particularly impressive – and nice and cool on a hot day like today. For additional and less BC Hydro centric, more critical information see the Wikipedia page on the Bennett dam.

Of interest is also the enormous generosity, helpfulness and trust of the local people. I originally wanted to hitch a ride to the dam since it’s 22km from Hudsn’s Hope and some uphill (didn’t want to add 44km to my afternoon ride). When after 1/2 hr standing by the road nobody stopped I walked into the nearby restaurant called “Freddie’s”. I mentioned that I noticed a German flag outside and sure enough, German chef Freddie comes out of the kitchen and we chat for two minutes (in German, of course). When I mention my plan to hitch a ride up to the dam he asks: “Do you have a drivers license?” Of course I do! before I fully comprehend he already holds out his car keys in front of me and offers for me to take his car and drive up myself. Can you imagine! Offer your own car to a complete stranger you have talked to for maybe two minutes? And not even accept gas money for it? Unbelievable, but true! So I drove up in Freddie’s car – something entirely unusual as I haven’t been driving in a car for many weeks – and enjoyed the next tour of the dam.
Or Kathie from the visitor center, who not only watched over my bike while I was visiting the dam, but also gave me lots of useful information, fresh drinking water and generally wished me well. There really are many friendly people up here…

After a tour of the Hudson’s Hope museum across the street and some deliciously fresh apricots bought at the local farmer’s market I finally start my half-day ride around 3:30p. A few km West of town is the Dinosaur Lake created by a smaller dam. It’s visitor center focuses more on the MacKenzie exploration history and the many dinosaur tracks found here. Since it closes at 4pm I only have a few minutes in its cool building. The day’s ride starts in earnest after crossing the peace River suspension bridge (which offers great views of the dam and downstream river).

Peace River bridge at Dinosaur Lake dam

A 300m hill is waiting in full afternoon heat of 32C in the shade – unfortunately there is no shade, so this is a hot one… I long for some refreshment, as I reach the next lake. (Due to the extraordinary heat-wave up here in Southern BC I will try to post on techniques to stay cool in a separate post :-) Good thing today is only a half-day…

At Cameron Lake between Hudson's Hope and Chetwynd

After another long ascent past Moberly Lake there is a satisfying 300m descent down to Chetwynd, where I cruise down at 70km/h on excellent roads. Evaporation cooling from a wet bike jersey, shade at 8pm and high speed wind really cools me down, so much so that I can hardly walk in the grocery store in Chetwynd, as my leg muscles have cooled down and contracted. I have excellent veal cutlets for dinner at “Buckroads” and then hurry to the nearest RV park – it does get dark here around 10pm, something I have to get used to again…

Next day I start early (8am) for another long day West and then South on Hwy 97 across the Pine Pass. The first 50km or so are uneventful and rather boring, just a flat road through the forest back into a valley of the Peace River Country foothills. I have lunch at the Silver Sands Cafe (73km from Chetwynd) and meet/chat with French touring rider Florence, who will stay here for the night. Thus she avoids riding in the heat of the day – however she couldn’t have known at that time that she would encounter major thunderstorms the next day, while I kept just ahead of that front and stayed dry…

The scenery is really beautiful, with very clear water in the Pine River and lovely mountains, trees and flowers everywhere. Also some old-growth, tall trees here (30m+), mostly poplars and spruce or fir, which create shade even at midday. Only two aspects I don’t like so much here: a) the road has no more shoulder, which forces me to monitor the traffic and pay close attention several times to avoid becoming roadkill; b) there are three massive high-voltage powerlines running along the valley, and it’s hard to imagine a more striking contrast to and eyesore in the otherwise unspoiled wilderness.

After a very hot climb up to the Pine Pass I reach the Azouzetta lake lodge. At first it looks like it’s closed, but that’s just because they are working and low on staff; owner Curtis waves at me and invites me to use the lake access and then come back up for a cup of coffee. I enjoy swimming in what is probably the clearest mountain lake I have ever seen. I tell Curtis this is the closest to paradise I have seen this far North! If you’re ever in this area, make sure to check out this jewel of a lake!

Lake Azouzetta

A few more hours of riding past the Powder King ski resort and the Bijoux Falls. Finally I reach my goal for the day, the Windy Point lodge at MacKenzie Junction. It is run by the Dutch van Boois family, with 3 kids, a cat, many dogs and horses a lively and welcoming place which I can highly recommend staying at. Like so often, it amazes me when I think about how much ground you can cover on a bike, only using your own muscle power; in just three days I rode through the Alaska Highway boreal forest, Peace River farmland and Pine Pass mountain area – just wonderful memories!

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