5, 891 Miles

24 May 2011       6.00PM                 Temperature 67 F          Sunny, oh so very sunny.

I confess that when I confessed that I said I’d never do that drive again, I really meant it. Definitely meant it the first time, was fairly sure I meant it the second time and now, having done it for a third time, I’m less convinced than ever that I’ll never do it again. It is an amazing road trip, full of wonderful scenery, lots of wildlife, some great characters and long, long stretches of empty road.  Empty of houses, cell towers, gas stations, people, road markings and even for lengthy spells, other traffic.

Like last trip, I had a good reason to make the drive and just like last trip, it was exactly the same reason. I was once again on my way to Manitoba to collect some more dogs from Seppala Kennels. I can’t really think of a better justification for making that drive, but, even though in the paragraph above I admitted I would consider doing it again, the next time it will only be if I don’t have a deadline, schedule or any other kind of time pressure on me. Oh, and I’d have to have my wife with me too.

And so, on to the trip report…………..

I did eventually get away from our house, just an hour or two behind my planned departure time. The dog truck was packed and organised, a couple of spare fuel cans stowed away, Sat Nav and road map ready, food and juice within reach, MP3 player loaded, primed and volume cranked way up. With a cheery wave, I set off, under a clear, sunny blue sky, looking forward to my driving holiday and collecting our new dogs.

My route runs from Willow, down to Wasilla, along to Palmer on the Glenn Highway and then along past Sutton and Chickaloon before heading out into the relative wilds and the thousands of miles ahead of me.

mountains, river, and road
The road ahead, through those mountains, just a few miles from home.

But not even 200 miles down the road, it got increasingly grey and then started snowing as I passed through the sleepy mountaintop hamlet of Eureka. I guess they are used to the snow up there as they have the most unusual guidance system for the snowplow trucks – however, come on, it is the middle of May and it is Spring. Not up here, it seems. The photograph just doesn’t catch the intensity of the mini blizzard, but the ground was clear before it started falling.

It is snowing in the middle of May
A May snow storm , Eureka, AK

However, the temperature was still well above freezing and I knew that there were unlikely to be any real issues with snow accumulations, hopefully not even at Pink Mountain – where it seems to be able to snow, even if only 5 miles away it is sunny. I passed through Glenallan, and onto the Richardson Highway briefly, before turning onto the Tok Cutoff. This is roughly 120 miles of great driving country, and I do wish I had my motorbike to make the most of it. The weather had returned to its nice sunny self again, as well.

Usually, by this stage on the previous trips, I have seen several moose. And I was driving with my eyes peeled, looking hard. I also had my new camera ready – because I wanted to try and take a few more photographs as I travelled, making it more like a vacation than just a driving job. Finally, my first sighting of something,  a smallish, white-ish and fast-ish something. It dashed across the road and dove into the shrubbery on the other side, before reappearing in the open and looking quizzically back at the truck. My first arctic fox, and no, I didn’t get a picture, despite thinking about some frenzied braking and a couple of other, possibly illegal, driving manoevres. All I could really see of it was its tail, proudly carried aloft, as the little fella headed off into the foothills.

As I continued on my way, I reflected on the fact that not only had I not seen as many animals as normal, it seemed that there were hardly any other travellers on the road either. Maybe it was too early in the season for the holidaymakers and tourists.

And then rounding a bend, I was confronted by one of the reasons you always drive with at least some modicum of attention, no matter how quiet it seems.

A Moose standing in the middle of the orad
Moose version of the "chicken" game

The great thing about the lack of vehicular traffic is the ability to just sit and watch Mother Nature’s inhabitants go about their daily business, and seeing them regard us as a novelty to be stared at and wondered about. Eventually, this moose wandered off into the undergrowth to be reunited with her calf and I continued on my way, heading for Tok, for the first refill of the truck’s fuel tank and an early dinner at Fast Eddy’s.

Suitably refreshed and revitalised, I hit the road again, heading for the Canadian border, Haines Junction, Whitehorse and other points east. I crossed the new bridge over the Tanana River, not far outside Tok, which was still a major construction site last Fall and continued on my merry way until I left the US and entered the 30 kms of No Man’s Land between the US and Canadian border posts. It seems no-one bothers to work on this section of road, perhaps because the two governments can’t decide who should do it or pay for it – so it is in a pretty rough state. Seems there is a definite shortage of tarmac around. A minor skirmish with the Canadian Customs official ended pleasantly enough – after all, when the Customs/Immigration guy tells you “this is your lucky day”, it behoves you to smile cheerily, thank him effusively and drive on promptly before he can change his mind. A quick sprint, I mean a cautious 50 kmph drive through Beaver Creek and I’m back out on the open road.

Beaver Creek town sign, Alaska/Yukon border
First and/or last Canadian town on the Alcan Highway.

I love this stretch of road, several hundred kilometres long, between Beaver Creek and the Takhini Burn, close to Whitehorse. It has the most amazing landscapes, a real sense of desolation and isolation as well as a soul calming atmosphere. Unfortunately, the first sign you see is one that would warm the hearts and wallets of navvies the world over. Road Works for the next 182 km The frost heaves, unpatched broken tarmac areas and deep gravel sections all add up to a pretty darn tough drive for both driver and truck. There was a spell where it felt like I was at sea, riding out a rough storm, cresting high incoming rollers, before crashing into the troughs below. Slowly I seemed to get through the worst of it and by the time I passed Destruction Bay, the road surface had evened out appreciably. You still needed to keep an eye out for those frost heaves – there’s nothing like hitting one of those bad boys at 55 mph, it’ll knock the fillings right out of your teeth, at the same time as bouncing the top of your head off your vehicle roof and slamming your knees into the underside of your steering wheel. Not to mention just how far your coffee cup will travel !

As well as the outstanding scenery to marvel at, I also got to see my first bear. Quite closely, in fact. This little guy was just browsing at the side of the road, and seemed completely unconcerned by the couple of cars all stopped at strange angles on the road, trying to take his photograph. I joined the chaos, whilst keeping a watch out for those 2 main dangers in this situation – momma bear and traffic cops.

Young bear on the roadside.
My first bear, on the Alcan Highway, near Destruction Bay.

Not long after leaving this spot, I had another first sighting, this time of a porcupine. I’m not a great fan of those prickly critters, not from any personal experience I admit, but mostly based on the horror stories told by mushers of “porkie” meetings and the damage that those quills inflict on the dogs. Still, it was interesting to see one waddle down the range road, heading who knows where. And I have a confession, I’m going to blame tiredness, or the half light or too much sugar, but I initially thought it was a beaver. I quickly decided it was the wrong shape but my second thought is even more shaming – for some reason, I briefly wondered if it was a duck billed platypus. Honest enough mistake to make, they do share a certain similarity, when seen from the back, at a distance, travelling at driving speed, in the twilight – is that enough excuses for my stupidity ?  During the next 40 miles or so, I then saw several other porcupines, as my now practiced eye more easily identified them.

Dramatic evening sky and swirling clouds
Being chased by monsters in the sky. The Alcan Highway, late at night, May 2011

Despite it only being early May, those long Northern nights were already having an effect, and it was easily still light enough to drive and see without headlights, until well after 11.00 pm. I got into Whitehorse around midnight, filled the truck with fuel and headed off into the night again, keen to log some more miles before taking a break and grabbing some sleep. Once clear of Whitehorse, its environs and that oh so sneaky speed camera they have on the road, I finally pulled over at a rest stop around 01.30 am, having driven 762.5 miles. Time for a well deserved nap.

Animal count for the day – 7 porcupines, 4 moose, 1 bear, “loads” of elk.

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