The Alaska Highway – A Road of Wilderness Mystique – From Dawson Creek to Fairbanks

April 22nd, 2022 by admin Leave a reply »

The black bear interrupts its roadside foraging to glance reproachfully at the intruders. The bus driver has slowed down so that we can gape. His cry alerting the passengers is one we hear often on the Alaska Highway, and not just for bear sighting.

Dall sheep, standing out in brilliant white against rocky mountain slopes. Moose, elk, grizzlies in the distance. A lone wolf slouching across our path. Caribou sighting becomes old hat.

The highway is exploding with life and color and the salmon are running. Once, as our Greyhound bus skirts a river, we see a bald eagle swoop down on the water, talons outstretched. For a brief second it rises with a huge salmon in its vice-like grip. The salmon’s struggle and its sheer weight drags the eagle into the river. Hunter and prey actually become submerged.

As suddenly as it had vanished, the eagle resurfaces, thoroughly doused but grimly hanging on to its catch. Barely able to flap its wings, it fights its way out of the water, never releasing its hold on the salmon.

The driver tells us he had seen similar encounters – but then anything is possible along this road of wilderness mystique. The Alaska Highway’s length alone is daunting – 2,378 kilometers.

It is a picture postcard of spectacular scenery. As the road moves north and west, the landscape changes from sprawling grainfields to a more rugged mountainous land, filled with white-capped rivers, turquoise lakes and ice-blue glaciers. Classic northern forests are full of wildlife and wildflowers.

The land is also a mosaic of people who run lodges, fly bush planes, man gas rigs and drive trucks.

Travelers meet old-timers like Dean (Old Griz) Elston, who teaches “cheechakos” (greenhorns) how to pan for gold at Kluane Wilderness Village in the Yukon.

Old Griz himself is a “sourdough”, the affectionate name giving to old-timers. There is only one way for a cheechako to become a sourdough: watch the river freeze in the fall and stay to see the ice brake into grinding pieces in the spring. Old Griz, one of the bulldozer operators who helped build the Alaska Highway in 1942, has some tall tales to tell.

The road was finished in an astonishing eight months, probably the greatest engineering feat since the building of the Panama Canal. The project was a wartime venture. The highway linked Alaska to the rest of the United States and could have served as a way to move troops if Japan had attacked the territory. It also served as an overland route to supply the chain of gravel airstrips across northern Canada and Alaska that provided emergency landing facilities for the 8,000 warplanes ferried to the Soviet Union.

At the peak of its construction, about 11,000 US soldiers and 7,500 civilians with 11,000 pieces of equipment built the road at a frenetic pace of 13 kilometers a day, sometimes in temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius.

It was a hard life. The men had to build 133 bridges and 8,000 culverts. Machinery snapped, ice jams rammed pilings, flash floods ripped out bridges after heavy rainfall or rapid glacial melts, bottomless muskeg swallowed trucks and bulldozers.

Slowly, a rough, rutted track took shape, forging a highway over marshes and bogs, through forests, over five mountains and through river canyons.

The road-builders were plagued by huge mosquitoes and blackflies. A popular story is that they built two airfields at Whitehorse: one for aircraft, the other for mosquitoes. One old-timer swears that on one occasion someone mistook a mosquito for a float plane and tried to refuel it.

The Alaska Highway is still a wilderness road today, but many of the curves have been straightened and the two-lane highway is paved. There is occasional evidence of human habitation – hamlets tucked away among the trees, a cluster of log cabins, a roadside cafe or motel – but for the most part it’s a pretty lonely road.

Every year about 200,000 travel its length. We chose the easy way – we “rode the dog”, and let the Greyhound Bus drivers do the work.

The journey started at Dawson Creek in northern British Columbia, Canada, where the famous Mile Zero sign post is a magnet for tourists. The bus pointed its nose down the long, narrow ribbon of highway and over the first 900 kilometers threaded its way through serene, undulating prairies.

After Fort Nelson came the Rockies. The Highway passes through two provincial parks and through rustic communities like Summit Lake and Toad River. Then it winds through the valley of the Liard River and along an old Indian and fur-trading trail.

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