Did we ever tell you about the time we almost died in Hyder, Alaska?
Well, sit down and grab some popcorn. You’re in for a good story.
In August of 2013, mother nature cancelled our plans to spend a few weeks with the grizzlies of Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Country. Twenty four hours of torrential rain in June of that summer caused wide-spread flooding in Alberta – floods that included washing out Highway 40 over the pass.
So where were we to find bears in August?
Why Alaska, of course.
Jill, who needed to cross Alaska off of her ‘states to visit’ list, needed no convincing and as we drove into Jasper from Wateron we hooked a hard left and started the journey along Highway 16 to Hyder, Alaska.
Hyder is at the very southern end of the Alaska panhandle, so this small detour is not quite as insane as you might think. But nonetheless, Jill drove the 1100 kilometres so we could look for bears at the famed Fish Creek viewing platform.
While there are campsites in the town of Stewart, we were urged by the local tourist information office to put up our tent in the national forest on the US side. It would save the quick trip across the border each day and it would also be generator free.
We drove into Alaska (there is no crossing going into America, only coming back into Canada, as the road dead-ends on the Hyder side), past the Fish Creek platform and found an abandoned rock quarry where a few other campers had set-up shop. It seemed perfect.
This is bear country, obviously, but it’s actually more than that. It’s a bear super highway. We positioned our tent next to a gigantic bolder on one side so that our car could be parked at the other tent entrance. In other words, we positioned ourselves strategically to be out of the way of transient bears who might happen to walk through on route to bigger and better things, namely dying salmon.
The first night was divine.
The second night, as I was looking for Jill’s book in the trunk, a small black bear came up behind me, sat down, and tried to figure what in the world I was doing. Jill alerted me to its presence and when I turned around, the bear took off, almost embarrassed to be caught looking.
But the third night all hell broke loose. As my mom says, it’s not the four-legged animals you have to be careful of, it’s the two-legged creatures.
After a productive day of shooting, we collapsed into our tent and fell immediately to sleep, only to be woken around midnight with a set of headlights shining into our tent and three guys yelling at each other.
At first we assumed it was noisy campers arriving late and being rude.
We should have been so lucky.
No, it was a pick-up truck full of three extremely drunk guys, with more beer at the ready.
Oh, and did I mention they had guns?
What could possibly go wrong with three drunk guys with a pick-up truck and guns. It’s like the start of a bad country song.
Well, for starters, the drunks decided they wanted to park behind the four huge boulders that blocked entry into the actual quarry.
Why not, is what you should be asking.
Here’s where it gets good.
They strapped a flimsy chain around one of the boulders, attach it to their pick-up and then gunned the truck in the hopes of moving a rock three times the size of their pimped-out ride. The only (well, not only) problem was the truck was aimed at our tent. If the chain snapped, the truck would fly forward and almost certainly kill us.
And it’s not like they didn’t see the tent. They openly discussed how annoying we were for selecting our location and how, if we died to alleviate their annoyance, it would call for another round.
Where were the other campers? Hiding and praying.
We on the other hand were figuring out how to get out of our tent and into the car without alerting them to our presence. You never know what might cause one of those guns to be fired.
While we debated this, our guardian angel somehow kept the chain from breaking long enough for the boys to lose their patience.
Unfortunately for us, they had a newer, “better” idea.
Why not drive the truck around the boulders by taking it up an embankment littered with trees; an embankment that is roughly a 70 degree angle.
With this plan, if they lost their traction or if the truck just plain rolled, our pesky tent would again be in harms way.
We knew we were running out of time, so as they positioned their truck to face the quarry (and away from our tent), we escaped via our strategic back entrance and into the car without having them notice the lights go on.
Safe for the moment, we talked about what to do. We could leave now, but they could shoot us. Best to wait for a moment when they might miss our departure.
Thankfully, that moment came sooner than planned when their truck got wedged between the boulder and a tree, narrowly avoiding rolling over and onto the tent.
Equal parts angry and bored, the boys decided they should go for a walk. To shoot fish. (You read that correctly.)
As soon as they left the quarry, the other campers came out to make sure we were alive. Most assumed we had been killed. (Thanks guys!) Everyone packed up as quickly as they could. Three decided to go further up the road – the dead end – in the hopes they’d be left alone.
We decided the dead-end was too risky and made the decision to drive back through Hyder to the Canadian border. Of course that meant we had to drive past the crazies.
As we neared the drunks, I told Jill to floor it. We kept our heads down and didn’t slow for a second as we raced by them, all the while we heard bangs hitting our car. Not bullets, thankfully, just large rocks and beer bottles. I guess they shot too many fish and were left with only crude weapons. Small miracles?
As we neared the border, we were shaken but thankful to have the safety of Canada within our sights. But the border guards were clearly wondering why a car was planning to cross at two in the morning.
The three young guards on duty came out and immediately processed the shock on our faces. They were everything you’d hope to find in a law enforcement officer: kind, compassionate, professional and efficient. I’ve never been so proud to be Canadian.
After we told them our story, they informed us that Hyder is a town without law.
I’m sorry, what?
Apparently, Hyder doesn’t have a state trooper office and the closest American law enforcement officer is an eight hour boat ride away. Hyder is truly the text book definition of the wild west.
They even have a saying for it: Hyderized. People get beyond drunk, do stupid things and never pay the consequences.
Well, now Hyder, what a fun town you are.
But as the border guards informed us on the realities of life in the Alaskan town, they also wanted to ensure us of our safety.
While they couldn’t enter America, they could do us one better. I kid you not, this is what was said next:
Border guard #1 to border guard #2 and #3: “Boys, tonight we’re shutting down the border!”
And then the three men, clearly enjoying their first moment of excitement – ever – stand across the road, sidearms drawn, ready to fight anyone who dared to try to cross into Canada.
It was a beautiful sight.
We spent the evening in the parking lot of Stewart, BC’s tourist information office, thanks to the encouragement of the border guards and the local RCMP detachment. Apparently a wolf joined us for a nap, but we were too dead to the world to notice.
The next day, we went back into Alaska, to report the incident to the Fish Creek rangers, so they were aware of what was going on in their small protected area, if you can call it that. Not only did they seem non-plussed by it all, Jill got to enjoy the last drop of Hyder weirdness.
While getting coffee at a food truck in Hyder (yes, food trucks are even a thing in Hyder, just not, you know, law enforcement), Jill was recounting the story to a few shocked locals who apologized on behalf of their community. The food truck owner wondered aloud if her nephew could have been involved and, on cue, he pulled up on his quad (cliche, I know, but sometimes cliches exist for a reason).
Not only does the nephew saunter over to Jill – and his aunt – declaring loudly that he did it, but he proceeds to yell at Jill for calling the State Troopers.
Now, when the incident happened, it was dark. We never saw anyone, nor had the foresight to copy down the license plate. Apparently the Canadian border guards, however, put two and two together and called the State Troopers. (Can’t you see the State Trooper receiving the call, eight nautical hours away, yelling to his partner to start up the boat and buy supplies? “Mr. Border Guard? Can you ask the criminal to wait around? We might be awhile.”)
The nephew, though in his thirties with a kid, has been an individual many people have wanted to see behind bars for some time. Apparently he makes a habit of driving down the main fishing river to see how many spawning salmon he can run over and will use the local wolf pack as target practice.
We never could have proved that this individual standing in front of Jill was responsible for the previous evening’s ongoings. But now, as he berated Jill, he gave himself away. No one ever said criminals were smart.
As Jill walked away from this bit of ugliness, he came after her and declared we should leave town if we couldn’t handle a little booze and guns. In fact, we weren’t welcome around these parts and for our safety, we should never return.
While this is happening, I’m sitting in the car as this dude stares me down. I have no idea what is going on. I get out, a little worried, just as Jill returns and urges me to not get into it. Get into what?
Fish Creek was exceptional. Most of the people we met, particularly locals from Stewart, were incredible. But we decided enough was enough and said our goodbyes to what must be the only lawless American border town.
The State Troopers never did follow through with pressing charges, even at the urging of the RCMP and the Canadian Border Guard Service. I guess their boat must have gotten lost.
And as scary as the incident was, it might only rank as the second weirdest experience we had during the summer of 2013.
Most importantly, we escaped with our lives and a great story, even if I did lose a jacket in the process of trying to frantically escape the quarry. Oh, and we got this photo for our troubles: