Monday, July 8, 2013

Travel Post: Northern BC

I spent the last week and a bit travelling in the great Northern part of our beautiful Province, soaking up the cuisine in some really, really remote areas! As a City girl whose most rural experience was living an hour outside of London, I was a bit nervous to travel North. It just seemed like such a long drive, and I was sternly warned (but ex-Northern folk) that I would have trouble finding food to my liking — a warning that, as you will see, was not valid! The distances quickly seemed not so insurmountable either, with 100 kms quickly turning into a casual jaunt rather than an epic road trip in its own right by Island standards.

What I noticed more than anything else was the the difference in interpersonal interactions as the towns dramatically decreased in size. Despite the fact we say that everyone knows everyone in Victoria, everyone really, really knows everyone in a small town, and even if they don't know you you are welcome. Every person that passes has a greeting or a wave, and invitations to stop in and share a drink flow freely. Stories are held in generational memory with family histories seemingly woven together like braids.

Should you ever find your travels winding your way up that direction I hope that this will be helpful to you - if not it will give you a little insight into what the Northern half of BC eats like!

The post is presented not chronologically, but in distance from Victoria in kms. 

Cache Creek (430 kms)
Four hundred kilometres isn't too much by the standards we considered in this trip, and is really only four hours past Vancouver (traffic depending). Approaching Cache Creek you would almost think you were in the deserts of the southern US, not the middle of BC. However, this marked the end of the dry climate as we started a long, boring drive North through 100 mile house and beyond.

This pit stop on the highway is extremely kitsch, done up in the style of Grease with old neon signs galore. While the glory days as a place to bury supplies (hence 'cache') along the road North are long gone, the glory days as the junction town of the North are also gone, erased by the quicker but far less picturesque Coquihalla route East.

As the sign approaching Cache Creek said, Hungry Herbie's was found "one block past the DQ" - and a great alternative to DQ it was! A truly classic Drive in, they took our order through a window as we sat on the patio giving our dog a reprieve from her corner of the back seat. I do have a nostalgic love of diners, something that are definitely plentiful in the North!

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A thin patty and toasted bun made this runion burger feel extremely classic

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Dry and hot with dusty terrain covered in scrubby brush made a butterscotch milkshake a welcome treat. 

Williams Lake (630 kms)
A few hundred kilometres later and we stopped at, as it is affectionately known, 'the puddle' to sleep. The town surrounds a large, beautiful lake named after a first nations leader who stopped an uprising against the local settlers. While my anti-oppressive spider senses are tingling to tell me there is probably more to this story, this will have to be left untold, at least in this post! This is about the food...

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My mexican-inspired meal with a side of deliciously garlicly caesar at Karen's Place filled me up after a long hard day of driving — by which I mean being a passenger. It's tough work, but someone's go to do it!

I will also note that the breakfast buffet at the Best Western filled our bellies well! Plenty of options for everyone from cereal to muffins to hot plates with meaty delicacies and a waffle maker that temporarily defeated me, but I won out in the end.

Prince George (875 kms)
Our stop in the "Gateway to the North" was brief, and mostly spent in the kitchen of friends, but we did delay our departure in order to capture their Saturday Public Market. "In Prince George, you're either a Walmart person or a Market person" explained our host. While this isn't really so far off Victoria either, it was interesting that there is such a distinction.

Like the Moss Street market, this market features artisan vendors intermingled with food vendors and farmers. The set up reminded me much of the old market that used to be in Chinatown, but with more selection of fresh fruits & vegetables.

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Despite the market barely being open at 8:30 there was a line up around the corner for bread from this in-demand bakery

At our host's instructions we made sure to get the "Real" bannock from the Bannock Attack! stand. We had to wait a few minutes, but weren't disappointed. I haven't had bannock since I was in girl guides (and I am skeptical of the authenticity of that stuff regardless!) so I was excited to try it.

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Fresh out of the deep fryer, the bannock was cut in half and spread with cranberry and orange jam. The result was akin to a jammy fritter. A beautiful treat to start a Saturday morning epic drive!

Burns Lake (1085 kms)
If I hadn't had a hot tip to stop at the New Leaf, I probably would have blown straight through the little stretch of shops at Burns Lake that looks like every other little town along the highway. Instead, we found ourselves in a full-fledged health food store complete with a gorgeous little cafe with an espresso machine and delicious menu of home-cooked foods.

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My taco salad was just the right thing to fill my belly with fresh vegetables and spicy goodness

Smithers (1235 kms)
Our stop in Smithers was largely for sleep, but we did stop for a late dinner at the Hudson Bay Lodge. The lodge sounds and looks historic, but I don't think it actually is - there is a rule in Smithers that the facade of buildings must match an "alpine feel." The inside was pretty luxurious, and I just about had kittens over their swanky bathrooms. The food was upscale, with pretty adventurous menu with fancy presentation. The end result was pretty tasty, and I was extremely excited that the ravioli craving I had been describing on the drive on the way up was so supremely satisfied!

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My ravioli craving was fulfilled at the Hudson Bay Lodge

Stewart (1565 kms)
Stewart is a boom-bust resource town with a long history. Driving into town was the most beautiful scenery of our drive, with steep mountains on both sides still topped with crisp, white snow. A stop at the Bear glacier midway through the drive brought home the remoteness of the North we had arrived in.

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This glacier came right up to the highway 50 years ago

We were pleasantly surprised when family members returned from scoping out the main drag to report that they had discovered a food cart! This prompted me to report back to friends in Victoria formerly of the North that all hope was not lost. The Dash food cart is run by a chef from Whistler, and features modern "city" cuisine fused with Northern style. When asked why he chose Stewart of all places he explained that he was engaged to be wed to a woman from the US (an explanation that will become clear shortly!). Sadly, his wedding was imminent and he was closed for several days, so we were unable to try a full meal here. Perhaps our next trip North will fare better for food truck consumption!

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The Dash Root Beer float was a refreshing dessert after a beautiful home-cooked dinner

Across the street from the Dash and a little bit down we also found an adorable breakfast spot, the Rookery, inside of a toaster museum. Surrounded by ancient methods of browning toasts the "quaint little bistro" with local food we were told we would never find up here was discovered — even boasting homemade bread with heritage grains! 

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As usual I could not resist ordering the huevos rancheros!

On our last stop we visited the bakery, which boasted "the best buns in town." In many ways the fact there is still a bakery that supplies fresh bread to the town is testament to how remote Stewart is! Although there are still grocery stores that, I'm sure, stocks mass-produced bread we ate nothing but local bread during our visit. 

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No Tim Hortons here — just fresh donuts from scratch!

Hyder, AK (1570 kms)
Hyder is the very tip of Alaska, a little pocket of the US so small that for all intents and purposes it is a suburb of Stewart. There are less than 100 residents, and the few children that live there attend school on the Stewart side. Their area code is still 250, and the roads and power are provided by Canadian suppliers.

That being said - you can still get Everclear on the American side, leading to a lucrative business for the Glacier Inn intoxicating Canadians who wish to drink their strong liquor. While it is no longer the 190 proof version that it once was, the 151 Everclear is still a kick in the throat going down.

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Ready to get me Hyderized

We visited the Glacier Inn for some dinner and a chance to get "hyderized" and were not disappointed. I am certified hardcore now. It is most excellent! There are a few other restaurants in Hyder, but sadly we didn't get to try them... not even the food cart, which is actually a bus! Foiled again.

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Bills dating back to the 70s line the walls of the Glacier Inn

Dease Lake (1835 kms)
Many hours North again but still somehow many hours South of the Yukon is Dease Lake, the last stop for gas in the North part of the Province, boasting a population of almost 300 people. The landscape is just foreign enough to be a little bit surreal; the landscape is coloured muted greens and greys and browns. The roads are permanently gouged from tires with chains in winter, and snowmobile tracks run parallel to them. Wild strawberries run over all of the unkempt space, and I was told when they are ready to harvest it they are delicious eating.  In former years, Dease was kind of a hub of Northern resource-related government offices, but cutbacks have meant the population has dwindled accordingly. Still, it sustains several restaurants including a food truck, a pub, and a decent grocery/liquor store. Sadly, we missed the food cart - but it still means that Victoria is way behind in terms of food carts per capita!

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We had several delicious diner meals at the little cafe, Rumours, although rumour had it that it will be closing in a few months

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And what would visiting up North be without a gun above the bar in the pub...


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