4 June 2011 10.00AM Temperature 56 F Drizzle. (not the Snoop Dogg kind)
A few hours snooze in the back of the truck and back on the road, heading east, into the wasteland that is Saskatchewan. After the previous long, long day of driving, I wimped out and stopped early and booked into a motel in Saskatoon for the night. Bright and refreshed, the last 400 miles of the outbound leg were demolished with ease and I pulled into Seppala Kennels in the afternoon.
Jeffrey and Susan were already out in the dogyard, so I immediately joined them and we wandered through the kennel, meeting and greeting all the dogs, taking some photographs and getting to know the guys that were returning with me, a little better.
Dog chat kept us up late into the night and it started again early in the morning. However, conscious of the long drive home ahead of me, I had to curtail my visit, despite wishing I could have stayed a lot longer.
We loaded the truck with its precious cargo. Xaros, Turov, Echo and Nina surely had no idea what was ahead of them, but I promised to look after them and do my utmost to ensure their safety. Finally, I bade farewell to Jeffrey and Susan – not knowing if we will meet again – although I did wonder that last September, and here I was only 8 months later, back in their yard again.
I pulled out of Seppala Kennels and headed west, next stop Canmore, Alberta. Well, not really, next stop was to be the first town with a gas station, and then a couple of hours after that, the first decent safe, secluded parking area to drop the dogs. Sadly, the curse of Saskatchewan reared its head again – finding suitable places, even just slightly off the highway seemed ridiculously difficult. Finally, I spotted an area that looked like it would work ok and pulled over. I duly set up my drop bars on the truck for the first time ever – of course I’ve practiced, what kind of ill-prepared idiot do you take me for…………. (don’t answer that). The dogs came out of the truck quite happily for the most part and did what dogs do when they’ve been shut inside for a while. A quick walk for everyone, a quick stretch for me and then it was time to reload and travel again. Next stop Canmor…… yes, you know the drill.
The long miles across Saskat-don’tvisit-chewan definitely are no fun, what made it almost laughable was that as soon as I crossed into Alberta, after looking for a good stopping point for the previous hour, I found a wonderful truck stop immediately. This place even had a “dog walk” area – deserted at midnight as you might expect.
A few more hours driving and I felt the need for a nap. Alberta seems to think drivers might want to stop and rest and go to the bathroom and provide suitable places for doing so. Good old Alberta.
Next stop, Canm………., well it maybe would have been if we didn’t need fuel and didn’t have to go through Calgary. I’ve never been that fond of cities anyway, but the longer I don’t have to go into them, the more I wish to stay away from them. Somehow I ended up coming through the very middle of Calgary at morning rush hour. Not the most relaxing way to spend an hour, I can assure you. However, I survived, the truck stayed in its lane, despite not being too sure which lane actually was our’s on more than one occasion, but we emerged unscathed. The urge for coffee was strong, and the desire to drop the dogs almost as strong, so I found a suitable place to meet both needs and took a breather.
Next stop Canmore -no, really, it was. Despite having excellent directions, I chose to ignore them for some reason and found myself at the entrance of the Banff National Park, very nice and some place I would love to go, but not at the moment as I’m supposed to be someplace else. I don’t think that it was an illegal U turn, and the Mountie didn’t seem too bothered, so I’m assuming that I can’t be the first person that arrived at the paytolls and didn’t want to go any further. I did eventually admit defeat and look at the directions and figured where I was supposed to be and duly arrived at Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours.
I enjoyed getting to meet Carlin, who runs the place and most of her 170 dogs, just please don’t ask me to recall any of their names. We chatted about dogs generally, Seppalas of course and I got to spend a bit of time with Queen and Kalekh, who were coming north with me, as well as some of the other Seppala Siberian Sled Dogs she has. Tor, who is our Cuchi’s son, impressed me, as apparently he does everyone, with his incredible strength.
Early the next day, although not as early as planned, I loaded the truck again, now with my 6 new buddies and hit the road, heading north. Except I had to head south first because the lady at the tollbooth at the Park wasn’t sure that the truck would be allowed across the icefields because of the Spring weight restrictions and I didn’t want to drive a couple hundred miles to find that out. So, Calgary it is – again – and then north. Red Deer, Edmonton, Grand Prairie, all big cities, all giving me the shudders as I went through them.
For me, leaving Grand Prairie marks the beginning of the “proper” return part of my journey. Just as reaching it on the outward leg makes me feel like the adventure is over and from then on, it’s just driving, this is the point where I start to feel the road become more enjoyable again.
There seems to be a steady rhythm to the trip now, the dogs are travelling really well and I’m starting to feel that they are beginning to get to know me and trust me a bit more. It is one of the hardest parts of this trip, the long hours in the dogboxes, short drops and shorter walks, especially for dogs new to us. But they all seem to be handling it and Queen especially, seems to actually be enjoying it.
One of the best aspects of the journey as we travel west and north is the ever decreasing population makes finding good places to stop so much easier. Passing through towns now takes mere minutes as opposed to the best part of an hour or more, Dawson Creek, Fort St John, Fort Nelson all disappear in my rear view mirror and I aim for Stone Mountain as darkness finally descends – although to be honest, this far north at this time of year, it’s not so much darkness, more an enveloping gloom. At the summit of Stone Mountain, I started thinking about stopping for some sleep, but at each of my remembered “good spots”, there are campers and RVs pulled in. It’s not that there wouldn’t be room for the dogtruck, but I’m not sure just how popular I’d be dropping dogs at 2.00 in the morning amongst those sleepyheads. And there’s a big gun culture out here ! Finally, I find a deserted spot, far enough off the road to not worry about big trucks crushing us, and grab the proverbial 40 winks on the back seat.
Rolling on, I breakfast at the cafe at Toad River – good pancakes and decent coffee and then it’s onwards and westwards, Watson Lake, the ever pretty Teslin, Whitehorse and Haines Junction. Somewhere en route, there’s another snooze stop, and breakfast grabbed out of the really good bakery in Haines. Not that there’s a bad bakery and a good one, it’s not big enough to support 2 bakeries, but the one that is there, is really good.
The awesome scenery that I have already driven through is bettered in this stretch of road, through the Kluane National Park. I love this part of the drive.
It is such a wonderful area to drive through, and I’m spoiled for nice places to stop and give the dogs a break.
The Alaska Highway road surface varies from alright to you’d almost be better off driving across the tundra, but the stretch from Destruction Bay to the Canadian Border at Beaver Creek is without doubt the worst part of it all. It seems bad enough going east, running empty. However, I wince at each frostheave on the return journey, feeling so bad for the dogs back in the truck that have no idea of what’s going on or why their trip now seems to resemble some kind of wild rodeo ride. There is an ongoing scientific study on the Highway, the Shakwak Project, looking into ways that the permafrost can be used to make the road less liable to movement. As a non-scientist, my impression is – it’s not working, try something else. The subsidence in the middle of the road along the stretch where the experimental air intakes are, kind of give the game away.
Once safely through US Customs, it was a fast run to Tok, and one last treat on the road, dinner at Fast Eddy’s. The dogs got a treat too, I picked up some ground meat for them from the supermarket and they got that at our next stop, in Chistochina.
One last night on the road somewhere on the Glenallan Highway around Sheep Mountain and one final push for home. It was wonderful to pull into our driveway, home at last.
Will I do that drive again, maybe, maybe not. But every time I do it, I look back and think – wow, that is an amazing road.