Eli Orzessek fails to spot a bear, but feels the fear and finds his sense of adventure in the wilds of Canada

A road built by war ironically begins in the Peace River Valley in northern British Columbia.

Constructed by American soldiers during World War II, the Al-Can Highway's purpose was to connect the mainland United States with its frozen northernmost state, Alaska — cutting across Canada to do so.

After a day of flying and driving we stop for lunch in Dawson Creek — not to be confused with the similarly named 90s teen drama — where a monument to Mile Zero of the highway stands in the middle of a sleepy intersection.

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On one corner stands the Alaska Highway House, where the most Canadian guy I've ever seen wears a bulky patterned cardigan over a white shirt and a black bowtie. He's telling a story of how this famous road came to be, a collaboration between the Canadian and American governments which claimed many lives.

Up the road where the highway actually starts, another local museum displays an eclectic collection of unusual artefacts and mundane memorabilia from the town's history — including a bear won at the Dawson Creek fair in 1959, lots of weird taxidermy and a DIY snowmobile made by two teens in the 1950s.

It's the start of the ultimate bucket list road trip for many Americans — particularly those in their later years. A huge shiny campervan sits in the carpark and a chihuahua wears himself out barking at me through the window.

Kinuseo Falls, Monkman Provincial Park, Tumbler Ridge UNESCO Global Geopark. Photo / Destination BC/Mike Seehagel
Kinuseo Falls, Monkman Provincial Park, Tumbler Ridge UNESCO Global Geopark. Photo / Destination BC/Mike Seehagel

While our group munches on bison burgers at the AlCan Smokehouse, I notice a nondescript building across the street with a sign saying it is the "Planetary Peace Commission". The waitress says it's never open and no one really knows what goes on in there and who's involved.

Dawson Creek is just a transitory stop along the way to our main destination. We won't continue up the famous highway, but will veer off to the side to head to another town with a name that sounds like a teenage fad: Tumbler Ridge.

Hiking Tumbler Ridge on the Alaska Highway. Photo / Destination BC/Emanuel Smedbol
Hiking Tumbler Ridge on the Alaska Highway. Photo / Destination BC/Emanuel Smedbol

Here, we'll be following in the footsteps of dinosaurs. While Tumbler Ridge officially became a town only in the 1980s due to a coal mining boom, it has a much longer history as a paleontological hot spot. Only 15 Tyrannosaurus rex footprints have been found in the world and nine of them were found in Tumbler Ridge.

We're welcomed for a meal at the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery, a former school now packed to the brim with fossils, bones and footprints. At the helm is enthusiastic paleontologist Dr Lisa Buckley, who describes the facilities as part museum, part workshop — but "instead of cars up on blocks, we're dealing with bones up on blocks".

One of the most impressive bones on display is a huge mammoth tusk, which draws ooohs and aahhs as it's brought out. It's broken at the end, and Dr Buckley deduces that the animal would have chipped a tooth while digging around - but that didn't stop him living a full life.

"He was at the prime of his life when he died," she tells us. "About middle-aged, probably quite handsome and woolly — I'm sure his broken stubby tusk did not detract for the ladies."

Once the evening hits dusk around 10pm — as is the way in this part of the world in summer — it's time to head down to Wolverine Creek to see some of these footprints in their natural environment. The light has to be just right to set off the shadows in the tracks. We stumble down a rocky path, headlamps on, and scan the rocky terrain below for evidence of prehistoric life.

Luckily, we've got paramedic and volunteer Anthony Moreau-Coulson to guide us to the right spots - first noting that a bear had definitely been in the area over the past day — and with a torch pointed at just the right angle, the tracks are unmistakable. Discovered by a pair of local boys in 2000, they've grown to be a popular attraction over the years. So popular, in fact, that a footprint was stolen by a local man who got caught out when he was admitted to a mental health facility and bragged about it to another patient.

Down in the dark by the rushing river, I let my mind go wild and a Jurassic Park-esque scene unfolds before me. Having grown up in the era, this is the stuff of my dreams.
Tumbler Ridge is located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and these rugged surrounds ensure there's no shortage of adrenalin-fuelled activities.

An early rise sees us shooting up the Murray River on a jet boat with Wild River Adventures, a pirate flag blowing out the back. Helmed by Randy Gulick and his son, the boat takes us on a bumpy, yet relaxing, journey through beautiful emerald water and woodsy landscapes - perfect for bear spotting.

Kinuseo Falls, Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia, Canada. Photo / Getty Images
Kinuseo Falls, Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia, Canada. Photo / Getty Images

As we round the final bend, the sound of what we're here to see is roaring up ahead. It's one of the most epic waterfalls I've ever seen. Kinuseo Falls is wide and wild and rocky, with white water thundering over in all directions. It makes a dramatic backdrop as we chill on the rocky riverbank for a lunch that features elk jerky and Caesars — Canada's bizarre version of a Bloody Mary infused with clam juice. While we're eating lunch, I'm suddenly glad I haven't managed to spot any bears yet.

The next stage of our journey takes us to the sky — a chopper tour of the Monkman Cascades and Park with Ridge Rotors.

It's my first time in a helicopter and what a ride — sitting right by the open door is mildly terrifying at first, but the incredible mountain scenery soon quells the nerves. It's Christmas tree country, with spruce pines dotting hills with melting glaciers. When we land briefly next to one in the chilly mountain air, it suddenly doesn't feel so summery anymore.

The journey ends with a stop at yet another phenomenal waterfall — this place is flush with them — and I indulge myself in one of those cheesy "legs over a cliff" photos I thought I'd never take.

On a later hike through the same mountains, we visit a set of rock formations known as The Shipyard. These massive cliffs resemble the bows of famous ships, the Bismarck and the Titanic. There are plenty of bear warnings around and we make noise at each corner to scare them away — I'm still hoping to spot one, but the bears are shy during my visit. However, there's the occasional mountain goat and if you focus on the hills hard enough you can spot marmots running around. It's difficult, though, as these strange weasel-like critters are basically the same sandy colour as the landscape.

Wolverine Dinosaur Footprint Site, on the Wolverine River, Tumbler Ridge UNESCO Global Geopark. Photo / Destination BC/Mike Seehagel
Wolverine Dinosaur Footprint Site, on the Wolverine River, Tumbler Ridge UNESCO Global Geopark. Photo / Destination BC/Mike Seehagel

When we finally reach the Titanic rock, the view is breathtaking. And what better way to celebrate it than by getting a picture in the Titanic pose at the "bow" of the ship?

All this time in Canada has turned me into an adventure guy - legs over the cliff and all.

And if you really want to see bears, I'm told the best place to do so is at the local dump.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Vancouver.

Further information: See destinationbc.ca.