The Alaska Highway

 

IMG_2950The Alaska Highway is a special place. It’s 1,390 miles long, stretching from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska. It was built back in the 1940s by the military to defend the Pacific coast from Japan, who already had control over three of the Aleutian Islands.

Today, it’s the primary route for tourists and residents moving to the Last Frontier. While its reputation as a dangerous, rocky route precedes itself, it’s mostly paved now. When the conditions are right (i.e. NOT in the wintertime when the land is blanketed with snow) it’s just as safe as any other secluded highway. I’ve always been able to find a place to camp along the side of the road, albeit tucked away, and it only costs the time and energy for you to set up camp.

Stretches can be secluded and wild, but there are plenty of small communities that provide gas, food and accommodations. Nevertheless, conditions can change in an instant, so you won’t want to miss an opportunity to top off your gas tank, even if it’s half full.

IMG_2938            This past September marked my third voyage across the Yukon and the Northern Rockies, which made it easier for Kellie to trust me as this would be her first trip. I’ve spent thousands of miles on this road, and I’ve learned to always carry a Road Atlas and an updated Milepost Guide Book, which gives incite to the entire highway from mile to mile.

We began our day in Wrangle-St. Elias National Park. We woke up early to an incredible sunrise that took our breath away – one of those that you can only get when camping in the backcountry. After breakfast, we headed towards Tok, Alaska to merge onto the Alaska Highway.

We took advantage of the sunny weather by embarking on a short hike overlooking the Tok River Valley. We weren’t expecting to do much hiking in the Yukon, primarily because we weren’t going to have any bear spray. Apparently, it’s not permitted to cross the boarder, so we ditched that along with some other allegedly illegal paraphernalia at the “Welcome to Alaska” sign. I’m sure a newcomer found it and was grateful for some road magic.IMG_9702

Be sure to fill your tank up in Tok, the last town before the boarder, because fuel is much cheaper. Have your passport ready by the time you get to boarder patrol, and be prepared for questioning if you look suspicious. As long as you’re not trying to sneak any illegal items across the boarder there’s nothing to be afraid of, but more times than not, they will ask to search your vehicle.

Of course, that day he didn’t feel we were that suspicious, so he let us pass through without inspection. It sure would have been convenient to have that bear spray.

Driving through the Yukon makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world. This road less traveled weaves in and around green spruce and golden birch for miles and miles. With the Kluane Range in the distance, there are no signs of civilization, except for the occasional black bear or moose that run across the road as another brave traveler passes by. You’re only hoping to reach another gas station before it’s too late.

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After about 300 miles of driving we finally reached Destruction Bay, a small community that sits along Kluane Lake. I’d camped here before, so I knew of a perfect spot right along the lake that was free to camp on. The Jeeps tires were sinking into the pebble sand as we tried to navigate the beach in the dark, but thank God for four-wheel drive. I was happy to have reached the spot again because no one was around, leaving the beach to us.

We got situated to cook some food and enjoyed the clear night sky. We set the jet-boil up in the sand to cook some pasta for dinner. I would recommend filling your food containers primarily with dried pasta or rice and some canned protein – easy and cheap to satisfy your appetite and budget.

That night the stars put on a show for us as the Big Dipper and Milky Way lit up the sky. We lied there on the beach and looked up as stars shot across the universe. We could have stayed in that moment forever, but stern winds forced us back inside the Jeep.

We fueled up the next morning and hit the road towards Haines Junction. We continued the drive around the Kluane Lake, enjoying the scenery of the Kluane National Park. This is probably my favorite section of the Alaska Highway – cruising right along the waters edge with giant peaks all around, it’s just stunning.

By the time we reached the junction we had the ambition to drive back to Alaska, only this time to the southeast. We knew of a ferry that goes through the deepest fjord in the country from Haines to Skagway, Alaska. From there we would have continued our drive back into Canada, which would put us past Whitehorse. This little side adventure would cost us, but we were willing to spend the money to explore another section of the State we had come to love. DSC_0082

We stopped into the Haines Junction Visitor Center, and they advised us the ferry hadn’t been running for a few days. Of course it was Sunday so the ferry office was closed as well. Poor timing and not enough planning, we didn’t take the chance that the ferry may be running by the next day and chose to march on deeper into Canada.

We continued across the southwest of the Yukon, passing through Whitehorse, the capital of the Territory. It’s a common stopping point because of its history and resources. We decided not to stop so we could get some more miles under us, but before long we started to get restless and knew we needed to get out and stretch our legs.

Teslin Lake was the perfect opportunity. We found a pull-off for a boat launch and took advantage of the beautiful weather to walk along the shoreline. We weren’t in a hurry, so it only made sense to get the kayak out and paddle around.

We traded turns, only wishing we had a second kayak. Teslin is a pretty big lake, surrounded by forests with fall colors on full display when we were there. We really wanted to explore, but at the same time didn’t want to leave the other stranded on the beach.

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I think this was when we both agreed that two paddleboards would be perfect for our adventures. Sadly it was only a dream, and we were still thankful we had some kind of water toy to explore in. It felt pretty sweet to be touring around Canada knowing any lake we passed by we had a way to access it.

We put the kayak back on top of the Jeep, packed up our things and away we went back on down the road, feeling totally rejuvenated after that stop. I can’t express how necessary it is to stop from time to time to breathe in the mountain air, take a walk, and not feel rushed. Even if you’re just trying to book it back to the states, remember that you are in this incredibly wild place with a long road to travel, enjoy it while you can.

That night, at about 380 miles for the day, we found a pull-off right along the river. It was a great spot, hidden from the road and all to ourselves. We cooked some egg-fried rice and sat along the river. It was another wonderful setting to conclude another amazing day.

The next morning, we made it into Watson Lake, Yukon. It’s a small town close to the British Columbia boarder. We didn’t feel like cooking breakfast, so we found a nice local spot called Kathy’s Kitchen. Definitely recommend if you’re looking for some country cookin’.

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Another can’t-miss spot I recommend is the Sign Post Forest. It’s quite an impressive collection of all types of signs from around the globe. We probably counted at least twenty from the East Tennessee region. I remembered I had my old Greene County, TN license plate and some tacks, so naturally I found a nice spot to leave my mark.

We rushed on because we knew what was coming next – the best spot on the Alaska Highway, Liard River Hot Springs. This gem is located just inside British Columbia. It is a holistic experience to soak your sore, aching body in the boiling natural springs.

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It’s only $5 for the day-use area or $26 for a campsite, with access to the springs included. They do accept U.S. currency, but only exact change. I never carried Canadian money, just U.S. cash and cards, and I haven’t had an issue with making transactions so far.

The only problem is that for how popular this destination is, there are no showers to rinse off the sulfur-smelly water, so our next stop was an alpine lake right down the road.

Muncho Lake is formed along the Trout River, a tributary for Liard River. It’s about 7.5 miles long and it’s max depth as 732ft. It’s famous for trout fishing and is home to the Northern Rockies Lodge.

DSC_0122            Five days into the trip, and we needed to bathe. We lathered ourselves up with some Dr. Bonners and submerged ourselves into the icy cold waters. We were hesitant at first, but I don’t think Kellie could continue dealing with my B.O. since she already has to deal with so much of my B.S. (LOL). It wasn’t any colder than what we’d experienced in Alaska, but we were still jumping out as fast as we could. We timed our jump to occur when the sun was blazing so we had time to warm up before the thick, fluffy clouds blocked its rays.

Once we were dried off and feeling fresh, we added some more fuel to the tank, just to be safe, before we marched over the Northern Rockies. Fuel is an expense you can’t hide from. You can camp for free and eat cheap, but you’re going to have to bite-the-bullet with the gas prices.

Fuel on average was about $115cents/liter Canadian, which is roughly about $3.40/gallon U.S. The Northern Rockies Lodge respectively has probably the most expensive fuel on the highway, at about $180cents/liter, but it’s the only gas station within a 150-mile radius. This trip can be done on a backpacker’s budget if you save your money in other ways. Consider cooking all your meals, not splurging on alcohol and other unnecessary items, and scavenging the land for free camping sites.

With about 360 miles under our belt by dusk, we found Beaver Lake Recreation Site. We discovered it was a fee-free site and we had it all to ourselves. We cooked some dried pasta and then spent some time on our private floating dock on the lake. This was probably the spookiest night, for me at least, as there was lots of activity on the lake when the sun left us in the dark.IMG_9778

It was a nice night under the stars, but I had this Jason X feeling, as if some crazy ax murder was going to jump out at us. It was dark and we were alone in the middle-of-nowhere Canada. Suddenly a loud splash came from the water…then again..and again, getting closer with each splash. We tried to play it off by dancing and singing to each other, but it was coming from different parts of the lake and eventually landed right next to our dock haven. We (or I) for sure thought it was the lake monster, but was probably only the lakes mascot…a beaver, or a few I’d say. Regardless, I was ready to tuck myself into my Jeep and lock the door.

Once the morning came and we decided we were safe from any angry beavers, we embarked on the final push of our Alaska Highway journey. 300 more miles, past Fort Nelson, through desolate farmlands, all the way to the famous ‘Start of the Alaska Highway’ sign in Dawson Creek, BC.IMG_2910

Between the dark nights looking up at the Milky Way, soaking in the hot springs along the Liard River, the diverse wildlife sightings, and vast wilderness you get to experience, the Alaska Highway is easily one of my favorite road trips. It’s a part of me. I have memories from that part of the world that I will carry with me forever.

I can’t wait to add a few more miles of that highway on my tires in the years to come and I look forward to hearing your stories as you create your own memories along the Alaska Highway.

 

 

 

 All images © 2010 – 2017 John Mason Harbison

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