I confess to having said I’d never, ever do that drive again. ” That drive” is of course the Alcan. The hundreds of miles of road of varying quality that connects Alaska with Canada and the rest of the US. It’s almost a year since I drove it, bring my dogtruck from New Hampshire to Alaska, and en route, picking up 8 dogs we had bought at various kennels. It was an experience and one that I was glad to have done, but equally, one I could quite happily never do again. So, I’m still a little bemused to find that not only have I done it again, I did it both ways this time.
Of course, I wouldn’t make a liar of myself for no good reason. The opportunity to bring home another couple of dogs from Seppala Kennels is just about absolutely the best reason I could think of. JJ Bragg had moved his kennels from the Yukon down to Manitoba a couple of years ago and as I breezed past Whitehorse a mere 15 hours into my drive, I couldn’t help but selfishly wish he had stayed where he was. That thought was amplified a hundredfold a few hours later when the truck’s dashboard lit up like a fairground ride. Fortunately I was right at Watson Lake and managed to limp into a gas station. Doubly fortunate was the fact they had a payphone as of course my cell phone had no service. A quick look under the truck found my serpentine belt flapping about, torn in two. This is when I’m so happy it’s a new truck and Ford have their Ford Assist programme. One phone call, and a bit of a wait (not complaining, I know I am in the relative backwoods) for the tow truck and a long slow ride the 250 miles back into Whitehorse.
One advantage of being hauled back was that I got to actually look at the scenery and Stan was a real hoot, full of funny stories about the locals, his hunting prowess and what trucks not to buy. I guess a tow truck company would know……………. We got into Whitehorse just after the Ford garage closed for the night, so we dumped my truck on their forecourt where they couldn’t possibly miss it and I tried to find a room for the night. Early the next morning, I was pleading my case with the Service Manager and left to explore Whitehorse whilst they tried to slot my truck into their already overloaded schedule.
Just as I had given up hope for the day and was resigned to spending another night – in the lovely, but exceedingly small city, one phone call had me rushing back to collect my keys and hit the road again. Ford had supplied and fitted a new belt, checked everything else, topped up some fluids and given Big Blue the all clear. The drive back towards Watson Lake was done with gritted teeth, but a cheery toot as I passed through town was pleasing. I also managed to catch the gas station 5 minutes before it closed for the night – and with no more fuel between there and Fort Nelson, it would have been another few wasted hours if I had mistimed that section of the trip.
The rest of the long drive to Manitoba passed without incident. I stopped to nap several times, trying to make up for the lost day by not spending a full night anywhere. I drove the stretch that is famous for its Buffalo herd in darkness, peering into the night and hoping they would stay in the woods. There is a road sign that warns of their presence for the next 100km. 99 km of eye straining later, I spot them, a large group, huddled together well off the road. Coffee and fuel in Fort Nelson, coffee, donuts and fuel in Grande Prairie, coffee and fuel in Edmonton….. are you starting to see a pattern ?
I drove across Saskatchewan in the dark. And wish I could have completely skipped that province. It’s dull, flat and they don’t like travellers. They don’t provide many signs, there are precious few rest stops, they don’t like to let you know how far it is to the next town and some of those towns display signs that say ” No services, no visiting”. (OK, maybe not the no visiting bit – but that was definitely the impression.) Eventually I reached Seppala Kennels almost exactly when I estimated I would – which I was amazed at, given the unscheduled stop in Whitehorse.
It was wonderful to meet Jeffrey and Susan. Of course, first on the list was a tour of the kennel, and finally a chance to get to meet some of the wonderful dogs that I have read so much about and come to cherish from afar. It is mostly a memory blur of barking dogs, swirling chains, muddy paws, soft fur and gentle tongues. Some dogs were all over me, some had to be won over, and a couple were just too shy to come forward. All were beautiful, and well built, well put together dogs – with a huge, diverse range of colours and markings. Of course, I forgot to take any pictures, but I do have some lasting memories. I also got to meet those “stars” of the Seppala Siberian Sled Dog project, Tonya and Kolyma, as well as being privileged enough to take “Little Lizzy Lineout” out for a walk.
The evening passed so quickly with dogtalk, that before we knew it, it was after 1.00 am. A sound sleep followed by fresh coffee and preparations for the long journey home. Kazek, Fridtjof and Irina were safely loaded in the truck, the sat nav was set for home and mid morning I pulled out of Seppala Kennels to head for Alaska with my precious cargo.
Saskatchewan is no better in daylight than it is in the dark, I managed to navigate my way through Edmonton in the dark again (mostly thanks to Garmin) and continued to build my relationship with the 3 dogs during each of the stops we had. The drive north as far as Fort Nelson is fairly easy, there are major towns within fuel tank range and plenty places to stop. Fort Nelson marks the beginning of the “interesting” part of the drive. I spent one night at Summit Lake in the Yukon, it was late September and yet already there was snow on the ground.
Being two weeks earlier with my drive last year made a big difference with the weather. It was nearly as cold through the nights, but I missed the snow storms and had lovely sunshine for most of the time, bar a spell around Pink Mountain which had a fairly heavy, but short-lived snow fall. I also managed to see different sections of the road in daylight that previously I had only done in the dark. The animals seem remarkably indifferent to our presence, the elk (or they could be caribou, I’m not that au fait with big game) in this photo had to be asked to move.
I kid you not, I did actually stop on the highway beside that big horned elk (I’m going with elk, unless corrected) and yelled, whistled and pleaded with him to turn round. Further on, I came across the Buffalo herd, they at least seem to have better road manners and stay nicely on the side of the road. I also decided to be a little more cautious taking their photo – no name calling for those huge monsters.
They are very impressive beasts and I certainly wouldn’t want to meet one who had decided the road was the place to be. I didn’t see any Dall sheep this time, but I was on the lookout for the daft beggars, after my stand-off with one of them last trip. Pushing on through Watson Lake, I made my planned stop at Teslin. For some reason, this little village has captured my imagination and I like to have a break here, and enjoy the wonderful views and the natural bay. The bridge is always an adventure to cross as well.
I stopped in Whitehorse to pick up some supplies for me and the dogs, before heading off again for the very scenic drive towards Haines Junction, with the Kluane Range as striking as ever ahead of me. The stretch a bit before Haines Junction, and then the long climb out of that town, towards Destruction Bay is probably my second favourite section of the journey. It also marks the end of the decent road surface. The couple hundred miles between Burwash Landing and the US/Canada Border Crossing is in a pretty dreadful state, much worse than last year – and the ongoing roadworks seem to consist of guys with a truck load of loose asphalt chips dumping them in the holes and hoping that the passing traffic will tamp them down.
US Customs wanted to see the dogs’ rabies certificates and stamped them up and we were quickly on our way again. Next stop, Tok – and dinner at Fast Eddy’s. The dogs got dropped just before town and we went on a mini-hike as a reward for them travelling so well. Dinner was excellent, and it was nice to be able to relax a little, knowing the dogs too were full of dinner and resting and that I was definitely on the last leg of the trip. One more night on the road – and I knew where I would be stopping – breakfast at the Euraka Lodge – “Home of the 25c cup of coffee” – although I’d pay more if they made better coffee ! The scenery on the Glenn Highway is great, passing Sheep Mountain, the Matanuska Glacier and heading for home.
It was with some relief that I finally pulled into our driveway on Wednesday morning, with 3 more dogs than I started my journey with, 5 586 more miles on the dogtruck and some amazing memories. As happy as I was, I’m sure Friddy, Kaz and Irina were doubly happy to finally get out of the truck and have a chance to free run and get to meet some of their new kennel mates.