6, 745 Miles

12 Feb 2017    10.00 AM     -17F   Clear and sunny

In May 2014, I made what I thought would be my last long run to collect dogs from JJ and Susan Bragg at Seppala Kennels in Manitoba. I’d made several trips over the preceding years, and was sure that I wouldn’t be driving there again. And I was sort of right……..

Early in January, the only other kennel in the US of A that has Bragg’s Seppala Siberian Sleddogs announced that they were looking to sell their dogs for personal reasons. My initial interest was tempered by the fact that Seppness Kennel is located in Minnesota, and they wanted a group of the dogs to go together and within a fairly short space of time. My wife, who really should know better, agreed that we should make enquiries and before you know it, we’ve bought 10 new dogs and I’m loading the truck for another long drive to collect new dogs.

I’ve driven the Alcan 5 times,  in May, June, Sept and October. I’ve also driven to a race in Whitehorse in early March, but the prospect of driving across a huge swathe of North America in the height of winter was a little daunting – to put it mildly. As well as all my usual precautions, I packed extra, extra winter gear, 2 sets of snowchains, a couple of snow shovels, a towrope, a spare towrope, spare fuel, renewed my membership of AAA and charged up my Delorme Inreach Explorer, which is a satellite tracked SOS device.  To make things even more “interesting,” the day I left it was a balmy -35F, and when I spoke to my wife a couple of days later, it had dropped to -45F, a temperature where all sorts of issues start arising, including our propane regulator freezing which means no fuel for the furnace – ergo no heat.  Not a problem for me, as I was well to the west of the cold air and was actually enjoying unseasonably warm weather. For most of my trip, the temperatures ranged between a pleasant 10F and a very warm 41F.

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The road stretches ahead far into the distance

There are a couple of differences between driving the Alcan in January and June, unsurprisingly.

  • It’s dark – a lot of the time.
  • It’s colder, much,  much colder
  • Alaska doesn’t bother plowing out it’s rest stops or opening the public restrooms
  • There’s no-one else on the road
  • The scenery is just as stunning, but looks much more desolate and daunting.
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Only 975 miles until the next turn !

Due to there only being one road out of the State, navigation is not really an issue, the biggest of my concerns is always making sure that Big Blue has enough fuel to make it to the next gas station. My most frequent complaint about my beloved truck is it’s truly appalling fuel consumption rate. The first day went almost exactly to schedule, and I duly pulled into my planned rest-stop a couple of hours east of Whitehorse around 2.00 am and grabbed a few hours of sleep, cocooned in my -40 rated sleeping bag, which easily coped with keeping me warm – if not a little too warm.

Driving conditions were pretty good – I was very pleasantly surprised  – I’d almost venture to suggest it was better than the road is during the summer. Accordingly, I made great time and had made it to Dawson Creek at a reasonable enough time to make it worth getting a hotel room. And thus, my schedule was set. Drive great distances during the day and sleep in a comfy bed at night. Day 3 saw me in Saskatoon, Day 4 was Fargo, North Dakota and an easy Day 5 was just 350 miles to my destination.

After spending some time getting to meet my new dogs, collecting their paperwork and loading them into the truck, it was time to reverse direction and head back north. The trip home is always longer with dogs. I tend to try and develop a routine with them, I prefer to give them smaller meals or snacks each time we stop, rather than load them up with a full meal a couple of times a day. It also takes me nearly an hour to drop the dogs, I know of guys that can drop and reload an entire truck full inside 20 minutes. I’m never in that much of a hurry and I’d rather the dogs got the chance to stretch, play a bit and get some fresh air. My route home was a bit less direct than the trip out, and I had planned to take the opportunity to go visit Jeff and Susan in Manitoba as who knows when I’ll be back that way again. It was a little out of the way, but as it turns out, it was a good plan, as it enabled me to transport an older dog from Seppness back to Seppala Kennels, where he was originally from. Another of their dogs, Tyna, seemed to be pleased to see them both and we agreed that she should stay with them – the first dog to greet her, was her mother, one of Jeff’s favourites – Little Lizzy Lineout.

After an all too brief visit, it was time once more to hit the road. From here, I feel like I could almost drive back home blindfold. Probably not a good idea, so I resisted the temptation to try. The weather continued to co-operate, apart from a cold patch between Saskatoon and Edmonton, where the dog drop was a little chilly at -3F.  I found it cold after the previous warmer days – and the dogs seemed to find it cold too, considering the Minnesota winters hadn’t been too fierce latterly. I did wonder how they were going to find life in Alaska as I watched them doing the “stand on 2 paws ” dance.

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Feeding the dogs somewhere in the Yukon.

When I travel with the dogs, I find myself unwilling to sleep in hotels. I always have the fear that something bad will happen and so I end up staying in the truck. The advantage is that I tend to get much more driving done, the downside is that the interior of my truck becomes a bit of a bombsite, with empty candy wrappers, soda cans and other assorted goodies scattered across the cab. Add in all my spare clothes, blankets, sleeping bag, pillow and goodness knows what all else, well, it is a surprise there’s space for me in there too.

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Northern Lights dance above the dog truck during a stop at Summit Lake.

As I continued westwards, I calculated that I’d make Whitehorse at a reasonable time of day and decided to see if I could cadge a free meal and maybe even a bed from my buddy Jacob at Grizzly Valley. Happily, things worked out perfectly, and I got a wonderful meal, a fabulous sleep and fun evening with people I am happy to call friends. A leisurely start the next day and things were looking good for an easy last day. Until I hit Haines Junction and a blizzard. The next couple of hours were the most difficult driving of the entire trip. Heavy snows, 50 mile an hour wind gusts and zero visibility. Fortunately, a snowplow went by and I followed him as best I could for a while. I decided to stop and drop the dogs at Kluane Lake, my favourite spot on the trip and during that break, the weather cleared and my unseasonably good travelling conditions returned.

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Argus doesn’t seem to be fazed by the gusting wind and blowing snow

An uneventful border crossing and an easy drive over the Tok cutoff saw me catch an early breakfast at Eklutna Lodge, and the start of a sprinkling of snowflakes. These continued to fall and get heavier until by the time I reached Palmer, things were a bit chaotic. People in Alaska tend to drive the same way all the time – no matter the weather conditions – and not all of them are necessarily that good at it. The last 50 miles of the journey was a little stressful and I was very happy to pull into our driveway, through a foot of new powdery snow and finally be home.

I’m sure the dogs were happy to be out of the truck too. It took a little time to get everyone into their spots, a couple of feet of snow had fallen since I left and some dog houses needed to be found and dug out. Now, 2 weeks later, it feels like they have always been here and I’m looking forward to getting them out on the trail at some point in the near future.

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Some of the new dogs getting settled in.

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.

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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.

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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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