I was sad to leave Toad River and the Steward family.
It’s amazing how fast you are adopted by families on journeys like mine. Everything is so intense. The suffering so deep. The loneliness immense.
When you arrive in their homes, in mere minutes you become their family and they yours. But like hundreds of times before, all I could do was thank them for their generosity and bid them farewell.
“There are two grizzlies just after summit lake… They are right on the side of the highway eating roots and are not moving,” Steward’s last minute words of caution kept playing out in my mind as I fought my way through the final 100 kms of the northern Rockies.
Sure enough, two days after leaving Toad River, after crossing the highest point of the Alaska Highway—Summit Lake at 1,295 meters (4,249 feet)—I came face to face with the two male grizzlies.
I watched them dig for roots about 60 meters south, unsure of what to do next. I tried to hold the horses still; they had yet to see or smell the bears and they just wanted to walk. We turned in circles for a minute while I considered my options. Due to the narrow highway, there was no way I was going to risk trying to ride by the two grizzlies.
While I analyzed the situation, I saw that the North Tetsa River ran parallel to the highway, deep within its steep banks. The river was plagued with large boulders and to drop onto it, I would have to ride the horses down the steep bank also full of large rocks. I knew it would be dangerous for the horses but it was my only option.
I kicked the ponies up and rode to the bank, hoping the bears didn’t see or smell my horses and that Mac and Smokey remained oblivious to the danger that lay ahead.
It took some convincing to get Smokey to go down the rock precipice but he did and Mac followed behind. The horses fought their way south in the river while I ducked in the saddle. Praying that the bears, only a few feet to our left, did not see, hear, or smell us. The sound of the horses hooves sinking into the water, sometimes as deep as their bellies, and hitting the large boulders beneath was petrifying.
“Please God stay away, please God stay away, please God…” I whispered this prayer over and over again while we made our escape, my knees shaking.
It was a scene fit for a Western movie. When I felt like I was far enough from the beasts, about 400 meters south, I kicked the horses out of the river, over the bank and back onto the side of the highway. When I looked back, one of the bears was standing up on his hind legs, trying to smell us.
I continued whispering my mantra and when we finally turned a corner where they could no longer see us in the distance, I kicked the horses up to a gallop.
Riding for half a kilometer in that river may have kept us alive but it also caused Smokey to lose one of his back shoes and loosen the other. So, just 4 kilometers away from the grizzlies, I was forced to take out my shoeing tools and get to work.
Under heavy rain, I managed to nail on a new shoe and reset the other before continuing south.
A few days later, against all odds, we rode into Fort Nelson. My body ached from my hair to my toes but I felt more alive than ever. Only 450 kilometers and we finish the Alaska Highway.