Posted by: twistsoffeet | May 30, 2010

Driving the Alaska Canada Highway


This an adventure I recommend for anyone who enjoys nature, mountain scenery, and the possibility of adventure at any moment.

After my adventure on Ganja Mon No Wata, and the decision by my climbing partner, Pete, and myself to move to Alaska, I gave my boss two weeks notice and made preparations for life in AK.  Pete decided about three days before our scheduled departure, that he was going to go to Seattle instead, and I was welcome.

Now… I love Seattle- it is a fantastic city in a fantastic state– but for someone who has set their heart on the untamed adventures of Alaska… well Seattle just won’t do.  So I went by myself.

I left Denver early in the morning and drove to Casper WY, where I hooked up with a sometimes-flame for a couple of days.  She talked me into lending her some of my prized music CDs for a few days.  Captain Beyond Sufficiently Breathless/White Witch/Hawkwind/Nektar and Shawn Phillips Bright White Light along with some Black Sabbath, Can Anybody Say Fairies Wear Boots.  All this music was designed to transport me to a far distant fantasy world. (It was all tripping music.)  Even though I no longer tripped, I still loved the music.  Alas, all of this music was never to be seen again.  But that is not the story.

I left Casper early in the morning after an night of not much sleep.  I would not sleep again for four more days.  I drove north on I-25 through WY, where I connected with what I think was I-94 (?) and headed west through WY. Then I drove through Montana and Idaho, finally reaching Tacoma, Washington.  I left the interstate highway system.  I think it was U.S. Highway 97 that took me across the Canadian border and connected with Canadian highway 2.  All of this was uneventful, and even boring, but the adrenalin in my system that was generated by the promise of adventures in AK was more than enough to keep me awake.

For those who don’t know me, I fit the profile, meaning that whenever I cross a border in North America or get stopped by the police, it is a sure bet that I will be detained and searched.  Crossing into Canada was no different, but to be honest, the Canadian Customs agents were nice and really not too much of a problem (it was just a cursory search).

After going through customs, I headed north and promptly made a wrong turn around Kamloops.  However, I quickly realized my mistake and got back on track. The scenery was beautiful and escalated into breathtaking. I am not certain what mountain range I traveled through, possibly the Bugaboos, and probably the Caribous, but I can say they were beautiful, rugged and there were very few people seen.

As I drove, I would spot rock formations and wish I had a climbing partner with whom to climb this line or that line, the possibilities were endless.  As I continued north, I saw sheep and mountain goats, along with the occasional deer, elk and even moose.  Towns were few and far between.  Towns like Fort Benson and Fort Saint John.

Then the forest fires began. The first indication of the fires ahead was the thick smoke, and then flames rising. I began wondering if I should continue or go back; I continued.  At one point, I actually stopped my truck and tried to put out small fires that had started from hot ashes floating into an area a mile from the main flame.  But I am not a fire fighter and quickly realized that not only was this a reckless and dangerous act, but possibly an act that was actually counterproductive.  I eventually came out of the mountains and came to a great plain or valley, possibly one hundred miles across and who knows how long.  As I looked across this plain, the horizon was on fire with well over twenty distinct and separate fires.  Smoke filled the air and blocked the view for hours as I drove towards this conflagration. At the time, this was the worst fire season on record in Canada, and if I am not mistaken also in the US.

All this led to the continued buildup of adrenalin that would keep me from sleeping. I crossed from British Columbia into the Yukon, and eventually the official start of the Alaska/Canada Highway, although as far as I was concerned I had been on the Alaska Canada Hwy for two days.  By this point, I reached an area where, if I saw a gas station, I filled up because the next might not be for three hundred miles.

You know your far from civilization when you are driving along, and the roadside caution signs advise to watch out for buffalo crossing, or moose crossing, or caribou crossing.  Not that I saw any of the aforementioned critters in this area, but just the fact that the signs were there told me I was not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Eventually, I came to the Village (?) of White Horse, apparently named for the wild horses in the area. I didn’t see any of these horses on this trip, but on my next trip, I saw probably a hundred of them. From what I understand, some ships that sail the inside passage from Seattle to Anchorage stop down river from White Horse and run tours up to this area.

Now, I know I fit the profile, and I am going to be searched, so besides the fact that I am now clean, why would I be stupid enough to cross the border to Alaska carrying contraband?  I had reached the border to Alaska, and crossed out of Canada. The US border station was down the road, maybe a mile from the Canadian Station. I stopped at the US station, where I was questioned and received a cursory search   They only removed my door panels and all the items from the bed of my truck, then released.  I continued along for a couple of miles, when I was stopped by a Border Patrol Vehicle. This vehicle was staffed by a veteran Customs agent (what an idiot) and a young rookie  he was apparently training. They stopped me with guns drawn and absolutely no courtesy.

They promptly put me in the back of their car and started working on my truck.  They took off the dashboard, then removed the door panels and everything from the bed and and cab of my truck. The senior agent was searching meticulously through all of my belongings when he found a bottle of army surplus Halazone water purification tablets.  These tablets were old, and had been shaken around and broken up, so that they looked like rock nose candy. The senior agent thought he had me, and wanting to show off, he put some on a pen knife then in his mouth where he turned green and started puking. I started laughing, and he continued puking.  They left me to put it back together.

After traveling another hundred miles down the road, exhaustion finally overtook me, and I pulled over on the side of the road and slept.

For those of you who have never witnessed the Aurora Borealas up close and personal, please put this on your bucket list of things to do, as it is a wonder and a source of magical beauty that will amaze, bewilder, mystify and bring joy to even the hardest of souls. I have seen the Northern lights from Iowa,  Wisconsin and Minnesota but never in a way that I was about to witness them.

When I woke up, it was probably midnight.  There was no moon and the sky was on fire.  Also, there were two bears rummaging through trash in the little area where I had pulled over. Since I didn’t want to get out of my truck with the bears right there, I decided to drive down the road a couple of miles, where I found another little cutout and was able to pull over.

I got out of my truck and stuck my arm up into the fire in the sky.  I was surrounded by the Northern lights, completely immersed in them. Bright greens, purples, fiery reds, and oranges… continuous waves of linear and circular lights that absorbed the landscape and myself; totally absorbing me in a non-chemically induced trip of a lifetime. These lights were so real, so close, so intense, that I could literally reach up into them and wrap my arm around them.  I could feel them and feel myself carried away in them.

I eventually drove on, still fully mesmerized by the experience of the Northern Lights. My senses were numbed so much that the moose and caribou, and the majestic mountains I saw on the rest of my journey to Anchorage hardly registered in comparison.

I do remember reaching Anchorage, watching the AWACS planes fly out of the Air Force Base, and watching the F16’s fly maneuvers between the towers of the Captain Cook Hotel.  I remember that I needed a beer to wash down the dust of the road, and the first bar I found ended up being a gay bar.  The bartender was cool, straight, and bought my first beer.  Since it was 10:00 AM, I was the only customer, and he told me that they actually catered to all people, meaning it was OK that I was straight.  He also directed me to some entertainment that was a little more in line with what I was looking for.

While the Alaska Canada Highway is not the adventure it was forty years ago, I still recommend it as a must-do trip. Just research when the Northern Lights will be at their brightest, and do not do it in the spring during breakup, when the frozen ground twists and turns, heaves and drops as it defrosts.

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Responses

  1. Ha! This was your best story yet!
    Someday I will experience the Northern Lights!!

    • I am so glad you enjoyed this story. As I stated in the story driving the AlCan and experiencing all of it’s beauty especially the Northern Lights is an experience I recommend for everyone.


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