Latitude 63.3367° N
To a truck driver, the Haul Road to the Arctic Ocean is North America’s final frontier. But since I’m a not-really-trucking kind of truck driver, crossing the Yukon into Alaska is mine.
Only the bold drive the lonely, two-lane Alaska-Canadian Highway, known to the world as the Alaska Highway. Here, cellphones flash No Service for hours, there are 290 moose to every one elk wandering the muskeg and the boreal forest of coniferous trees and almost no people.
Barren, beautiful, breathtaking wilderness.
It is a surprisingly good, two-lane road, with a small shoulder, stretching 1,483 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia through Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska. There is a 35 mile section of teeth-rattling, washboard gravel west of Haines Junction undergoing reconstruction. Highway crews are in a continual battle with permafrost.
Built in eight months during the Second World War, the highway has been shortened 313 miles over the past seven decades by simply straightening it. The US paid the entire building cost of the original highway and turned the Canadian portion and facilities over to Canada when the war ended.
Black Beauty has taken us as far east as one can drive in North America to St. John’s, Newfoundland, as far south in the US as the Mexican border in California and Texas, along the Overseas Highway to the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica in Key West, Florida and as far west as Victoria on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
We have been waiting more than four years for an opportunity to capture THE trucking prize for a Lower 48-based driver — an Alaska license plate. The behind-the-scenes trucking story of navigating this route and its bureaucracy to obtain this souvenir will be in Part Two.
We enjoyed a dream, end-of-winter, pre-tourist season drive. Bare and dry roads under sunny skies. The winter drive is terror on 18 wheels, I fear. There is no salt applied to the roads. The sub, sub-zero temperatures make it useless, the sand sprayed on the highway is slightly better than useless.
Typically in the middle of April there is a foot of snow on the ground, the Weigh Master at the Whitehorse Weight Scale told us.
“Usually I need three tanks of heating oil in the winter, this year I used one” he said. “I had my snow machine out once. To get my Christmas tree.”
We pulled a team load, sheetrock to Anchorage bound for the construction site for a 60-man camp at the Arctic Circle. There is no better way to enjoy the panoramic spectacle than from the climate-controlled driver seat, with the Bose suspension, in a big rig, high above the asphalt and muskeg.
We saw it all — without blowing snow and howling winds — wild animals, glaciers, frozen lakes, scrawny, bottle-brush shaped trees that look like Arctic bonzai, the tops curling under, and the lingering sunrises and sunsets. Mother Nature sent a grizzly bear out of the woods, close enough to photograph, yet far enough away to enjoy.
We were virtually alone, driving 30 to 60 minutes during the day before passing another vehicle, usually a team transport truck. How do they do that? Drive from Seattle to Anchorage and Fairbanks on the mostly winter road. Drop, hook, repeat. It looks grueling. The Yukon is entirely dependent on trucks for all supplies, the weightmaster reminded us. No trains, no boats.
The trip out gave us no time to stop. North of Fort Nelson at Muncho Lake we passed hundreds of buffalo grazing, literally, at the side of the road. MacGyver said the herd’s grandpa, with his giant testicles banging against his knees, turned his head towards the truck as if to charge, but thankfully was quickly distracted.
The Yukon portion of the highway, which really starts at the Watson Lake Weigh Scale, dotted with large pullouts, plowed in winter, equipped with garbage containers is pristine. Not so much the Alaska side. Memo to the US, when there’s no garbage can, people drop their plastic and leftover food in the pullouts and ditches, attracting animals to the roadside. We saw it.
Our original trip included a couple of days in Anchorage after delivery, but alas, and a little unexpectedly, we found ABSOLUTELY no truck parking. There are three spots in a dirt lot but it looked uninviting. We found the welcome mat has been pulled in at the usual places. Signs on every post at Sam’s Club warned that vehicles parked overnight will be towed. The manager told me that the city and the state have clamped down on RVs parking for free in retail lots because campground, motel and hotel owners are losing money. Tractor-trailer drivers were swept into the crackdown.
“I’d like to let you (park), but it’s a $5,000 fine,” he said. “I can’t.”
We decided that since we had water, food and access to outhouses in the pullouts along the highway we’d experience the wilderness and visit Whitehorse.
“Don’t you think it’s funny that you, who hates camping, has been essentially camping for eight years,” MacGyver asked me as we drove east out of Anchorage with a watchful eye for marauding moose.
“It is funny,” I said. “But it doesn’t seem like camping to me. Maybe it’s because I have Stuart Weitzman pumps in the tractor.”
We followed the highway, along the river(s) — there are more than 12,000 including 9,728 officially named rivers, streams and creeks in Alaska and I lost track in my notes — under the Matanuska glacier away from Anchorage.
We parked in a pullout near MP 119, there are many along the stretch called Glacierview, between this marker and MP 89. I tarted up packaged Indian food with slices of fresh, sweet red and orange bell peppers, and we watched the sunset. In the morning we drank pourover Peet’s coffee with our steel-cut oats, pure maple syrup and banana slices and looked at the glacier in awe. Ain’t life grand.
Here’s the most startling thing about wilderness — it is hard to hear the quiet. It was so quiet our ears hurt. They rang and tingled, drowning out the quiet.
There are two other aspects of northern life that are fascinating, the constant threat of a brush with calamity, moose, buffalo, caribou and grizzlies abound, and the light.
“I see wild animals on the lake,” I told MacGyver as we were traveling through Kluane Provincial Park toward Whitehorse.
“What kind?” he asked.
“Ones with four legs,” I blurted out.
“That narrows it down from birds, snakes and kangaroos,” he replied.
Between the misshapen, shrunken boreal spruce on the frozen lake I could see them, what could be elk or caribou or moose but I couldn’t, okay, I didn’t really know the difference. Once we had Internet MacGyver took great delight in explaining the rack and snout differences — remember the high heels, I’m a city girl.
Moose, big snout to nose around the swampy muskeg and square rack. Elk, pointed face and antlers like outstretched arms.
Then there’s the light in the land of the almost-midnight sun. The days were gaining light at an astonishing rate of six minutes a day. On April 10 when we drove through Whitehorse, sunrise was 6:55 AM and sunset was 9:09 PM. Eighteen days later, sunrise was 5:57 and sunset was 9:56. On the summer solstice, June 20, sunrise will be 4:27 and sunset 11:37. And while the sun will dip below the horizon, it will not be completely dark.
“I’d stay away in June,” said Darcy, who moved to Whitehorse 20 years ago, and knew exactly how many days until the sun begins its retreat — 66. “People are a little squirrely,” he said. “They don’t get enough sleep.” We were riding our Brompton bicycles around Whitehorse when we met Darcy.
Tourist season is the roughly 75 days between late May — Victoria Day in Canada and Memorial Day in the US — and the Labor Day weekend. He recommends visiting in early May when the campgrounds and motels begin to open and September through early October when the hillsides are ablaze with color. In between, the highway is a clogged mess of RVs.
From May to October, the Yukon is bursting with pinks, purples and reds. The most predominant flower, and official provincial flower is Fireweed, which is the first thing to grow after a forest fire. There are five Yukon flowers found nowhere else on earth including the white Yukon Draba and the highlighter yellow Goldenweed. A staple in Yukon local cuisine is the low-bush Cranberry, which ripens in August and September.
Whitehorse is a surprisingly hip town, more city slickers than mountain men. A paved walking and biking path has been built along the Yukon River through downtown. There are excellent restaurants featuring local food items. A new place, Baked, serves a tasty whole wheat cranberry-coconut scone, we returned twice for the scones, and hearty tomato garbanzo bean soup with chunks of vegetables.
In less than 24 hours, we met Yukon players, including well-known artist Jim Robb. Our hotel room was decorated with his work. Downstairs in the Gold Rush Inn bar and restaurant, we found ourselves sitting next to Mr. Robb. A regular fixture we were told, by performance artist Sharon Shorty, who sat down on our other side.
During dinner at the Wheelhouse, decorated with artifacts from sternwheelers that plied the river in the 1930s and serving local fare, our waitress Heather revealed that she grew up working in the family business, the Otter Falls truckstop and RV park. “We stopped there,” I told her.
It took us almost four days, start to finish, to travel 3,210 miles, two of those days were spent on the Alaska Highway. On the return trip we spent seven days, even though we cut 200 miles from the trip by turning south onto Highway 37 west of Watson Lake and driving into British Columbia through Dease Lake on an even narrower, no shoulder, two-lane highway.
Turning east onto the Yellowhead Highway towards Smithers for the last leg before crossing back into the Lower 48, MacGyver asked me: “Have you see enough trees and outhouses?”
Yep, I’m done for awhile.
Eat, sleep, see.
The Young Motel, Tok, Alaska. A two-double bed room, $87 US. Next door at Fast Eddy’s, they know what they are doing with the fresh-frozen Alaska Halibut.
The Gold Rush Inn, Whitehorse, Yukon, one queen bed, $125.72 US.
In Whitehorse, if you want to break the bank, you dine at the Wheelhouse. With Yankee dollars it’s a steel. Try the Slow Roasted Pork Belly, $15 Cdn., in a birch syrup glaze with sauteed kale, apple cider vinaigrette and caramelized apple, the Arctic Char, $34 Cdn., and the Elk Bolognese Penne, $27 Cdn. All superb.
We returned a second time to Baked for a must-have, cranberry-coconut whole wheat scone, $3.41 Cdn. — go figure, weird price, especially since Canadians eliminated pennies and round up and down.
Featured in the NY Times, we were served at the Burnt Toast Cafe, by a stand-in for a Brooklyn hipster, slightly rude and disinterested. But the Croque Madame, $10 Cdn., on sourdough with smoked cheddar was hearty and gooey.
Visit the meticulously restored and refurnished SS Klondike and the Yukon Transportation Museum.
Find Yukon artists, including Jim Robb, at the North End Gallery.
Invest in the MilePost. THE northern bible is a two-inch thick guide to Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, BC and Alberta. It’s ideal for RVs and motorists, and we found it helpful in the truck.
Watson Lake MilePost Forest, near KM976. It was too dark to stop.
Teslin, the Tlingit First Nations community and home of the Yukon Motel. Stop at the giant pullout at KM 1242 for a view of the lake. Teslin has a diesel fuel stop with a grocery store, restaurant and Heritage Center.
Otter Falls at KM1539 is the only real truck stop on the entire route with 25 parking spots, showers and laundry. The owners told us truckers keep them in the business during the winter, but this past year has been “extremely” slow.
At Kluane Lake, west of Haines Junction, there a discreet sign on a big pullout that says no overnight parking. But in April, we figured we’d flout the law.
Beaver Creek is the last stop in Canada. The US border checkpoint is called Alcan Crossing.
The Tesoro fuel stop in Glenallen, Alaska is known locally as The Hub. There’s a good souvenir store and an IGA grocery store where I found garlic Naan.
Gakona River Pullout offers a picnic table and a fantastic view of the glacier and the river.
Alaska 1 through Glacierview, MP119 to MP89, especially MP 95, offers spectacular views of Matanuska glacier and river.
Before Anchorage is Palmer, a much smaller town, where, if we had been traveling without the truck, we would have stopped at the Palmer City Alehouse.