BootsnAll Travel Network

Trip Report: Alaska Highway

So here’s your quick history lesson/introduction for the Alaska Highway.

Pearl Harbor, December 1941. The threat of the Japanese. Suddenly, the 49th state of the union was a major concern of national security. Japan sits only 600 miles from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. As a matter of fact, Japan attacked and actually landed troops on US soil in June 1942 before retreating after a brief battle with US troops. The only way to get supplies to Alaska was via ship or plane. There was no road from the continental US into Canada and into Alaska. Thus, it was decided that we needed to build a road to Alaska. We received Canada’s permission–well after we actually started making the road. But make the road we did. It was a military road, not open to the public. 1,422 miles from Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction, Alaska. Crews started at both ends and met in the middle at Contact Creek. All in 8 months and 2 weeks. Winter months, mind you. In the freaking wilderness. The numbers (courtesy of an Alaska Highway guidebook):

– US troops used in construction: 11,000
– Civilian workers: 16,000
– Pieces of heavy equipment: 7,000
– Bridges constructed: 133
– Culverts installed: 8,000+
– Cost: $140 million
– Began: March 1942
– Completed: October 1942
– Opened to the public: 1948

So there you have it. 1,422 miles of rough road completed in 8 months. It was a crappy road; after all, it was built crudely by military personnel who didn’t really have the experience with these kinds of things. Which is why the Public Roads Administration came in a few months afterwards to do the paving and improving of the highway using private contractors. Still, the road is considered an engineering marvel. And to drive this stretch of road and to imagine what all the workers went through just blows me away.

Day 1: Edmonton to Dawson Creek

It was a long drive, especially when I was low in gas and exited the freeway when I saw a gas pump sign.  Little did I know that I’d have to drive in for 6 miles to get to the station!  Then, when leaving, I got stuck in Suburbia Hell.  Driving in these little communities with dead ends and no where to exit back to the main road.  Construction of these houses were everywhere.  The name of the town is Spruce Grove.  Suburbia Hell.  One hour after exiting the freeway, I found my way back. 

We continued on through Whitecourt and to Grande Prairie, Alberta (not Texas), where we checked out a sad version of a Farmer’s Market and even more sad, the Costo didn’t have those awesome hand-dipped Ice Cream Nut bars like they do in Portland.

We ended the day sitting in construction traffic with the hot sun blinding and cooking us while we sat, waiting as patient as we could, for our column of cars to make it through.  We were definitely ready to call it a day after 400 miles.

Day 2: Dawson Creek (mile ‘0’) to Fort Nelson

Here’s where it all began.  Mile ‘0.’  And of course we had our obligatory photo taken at the start of the Alaska Highway.  Tooled around town reading about the history and waving on the bicyclists, motorcycles, RVer’s and other road trippers beginning the journey. 

Day 3: Fort Nelson to Coal River

We started the morning at the Fort Nelson History Museum, and proceeded on to check out Liard Hot Springs, our planned camping spot for the evening.  But being attacked by those blood sucking mosquitoes changed our minds.  I figured that we could outrun them by driving further on.  Boy, was I wrong.

We settled for camping at an RV park at Coal River.  Big mistake.  Those suckers were relentless.  We were in our tent by 7pm, held hostage by the buzzers outside.  The sun was out, it wasn’t too hot and I had magazines I could pass the evening time away.  Well, the sun was out.  But Lisa, being the Science teacher and purveyor of weather related facts, kept pointing out the oncoming clouds.  The storm clouds.  I chose to not believe that we would get wet, and thus left the rainfly off the tent.  However, at the first drop of rain, I leapt into action.  Too late.

The downpour was sudden, and like those mosquitoes, didn’t let up.  I sprang out to attach the necessary connections, and in the process, was left bare and exposed to the heavy pounding of the wetness, plus unable to defend myself against the onslaught of the gnats (British term for mosquitoes).  Ankle slap, leg swipe, face brush, arm wave of despair.  Man, they got me good.

Back inside the tent, I dried out to the best I could.  Then the lightening.  And the rumble of thunder.  Distant, then growing ever closer.  Minutes later, it was as if we were in a THX surround sound theater.  It was that loud, that close, that scary.  For an hour we endured.  Hoped that Lisa’s little $20 GI Joes (oh, sorry, now it’s just Joes) would hold on.  And it did.  All night.  It rained all night.  The lightening and thunder show was only over an hour, but the driving rain continued well into the morning.  Around 8am, at our first break of no rain, we quickly disbanded camp and promised that our next night of sleep would be in a real bed.

Day 4: Coal River to Watson Lake to Whitehorse

Nice, easy 100 mile drive into Watson Lake for breakfast and to check out the famous Signpost Forest.  Back in 1942, a US Army soldier working on the construction of the Alaska Highway put up a signpost announcing the distance of his hometown.  Since then, Over 60,000 signs have popped up, including signs for Newberg, Wilsonville, Corvallis and other Oregon locales.  People have made their own signs to hang up.  The most inventive was a pair of flipflops signed and nailed to a post.

From Watson Lake, it was another 275 miles into Whitehorse, the Capital of the Yukon, where we did find a hotel to check into complete with laundy facilities, a real shower (not some coin-operated metered 7-minute only shower from the campground, with icky floors that deemed flipflops a necessity) and cable.

Day 5: Whitehorse to Takini Hotsprings

We spent most of the day exploring the history of Whitehorse and the impact of the railroad and goldrush.  In the afternoon, we drove the short distance to Takini Hotsprings for a great long soak at the odorless hotsprings, and then a very restful night of camping at the campground.


Day 6:  Takini Hotsprings to Dawson City, Yukon

This day was supposed to take us from Whitehorse to the Alaska/Yukon border, a total of 303 miles. Instead, we made the decision to drive up the Klondike Highway northbound to Dawson City, heart of the Klondike and home of the Klondike Goldrush. That was when prospectors discovered gold on Bonanza Creek on August 17th, 1896. Next thing you know, 30,000 would-be gold-seekers began their trek to Dawson City, over the difficult Chilkoot Trail from Skagway and then on northward hundreds of miles to Dawson City.

Driving the highway was one of isolation. Only a few towns between Whitehorse and Dawson City. Less than 50 cars driving the opposite direction.  Just nothing on all sides; I don’t mean nothing.  Just forest and trees and mountains surrounding us.  Quite spectacular, really.


Day 7: Dawson City

We spent a full day touring the town and taking in all the historical attractions and museums. 


Day 8: Dawson City to Delta Junction, via the Top of the World Highway, aka the 60 Mile

Note from our highway travel guide:  “CAUTION:  Allow plenty of time for this drive; average speed for this road is 25 to 50mph.  DRIVE WITH YOUR HEADLIGHTS ON!  The Canadian portion of Highway 9 was seal coated a few years ago, but there were numerous gravel breaks in fall 2004.  On the Alaska side, the highway is gravel from the border to Chicken.  Top of the World Highway is a narrow, winding road.  There are no guardrails.  Some streep grades.  Watch for soft shoulders and washboard.  Great views!”

What a beautiful drive.  It really wasn’t as bad as we thought.  And we did allow for plenty of time.  It took almost 6 hours to drive the 180 miles to Tok, where we stopped for an early dinner and drove to a nice state campground near Delta Junction.

Day 9: Delta Junction to Fairbanks

Delta Junction is the end of the Alaska Highway, though most folks driving the highway consider the end to be Fairbanks.  Nonetheless, we took our photo at the “End of Alaska Highway” post near the Delta Junction visitor center, then proceeded the other other ‘end’ towards Fairbanks.  En route, we stopped at Rika’s Roadhouse and Landing at Big Delta State Park for more history, and also learned about the trans-Alaska pipeline.  After a brief touristy stop at the North Pole (Santa and Mrs. Claus were there!), we made it into Fairbanks just in time for the Golden Days Celebration (their version of our Portland Rose Festival).

My internet time is running out, so that’s it for now.  It is Thursday, July 26th, and so far I’ve had no bites regarding the sale of the car.  I’ve taken it to a used car lot, and they won’t touch it because of the Check Engine light and because of the mileage (164,000 and counting).  I fear that this will turn into another Honda Accord donation headache.  I still have Friday to unload it, but time is closing in.  If I can find Internet in Seward this weekend I’ll write up our report for Denali National Park and for Anchorage.  But for now, it’s time to run.  I really need to invest in a laptop cause it seems that wireless is readily available in many of the places we’ve visited….


2 responses to “Trip Report: Alaska Highway”

  1. Mel says:

    I believe you will find internet at Grant Electronics on 4th in Seward. $2 for 15 minutes. And across the street at Sweeties…peppermint saltwater taffy.

  2. Jonas says:

    How was Dawson Creek? I heard it’s a really tough place to visit. Lots of drama and teen angst.

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