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.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

Some of the new dogs getting settled in.

And We’re Rolling

27 May 2011       10.00AM                 Temperature 60 F          Sunny and getting hot.

I like Whitehorse. It’s big enough to have almost everything you could think you might need in a town and small enough that I don’t get my “big city” jitters when I’m in it. In the sunshine, it’s a great place to explore. In the mid May snow and sleet, meeh, not so much. Almost 2 inches of snow fell on the Wednesday, it did all turn to rain later, more sleet and rain on the Thursday – even the locals were complaining about it. So, I didn’t feel so bad, hunched over my morning coffee, warming my hands and spending most of the day in Tim Horton’s. Their seats are not the most comfortable for longer spells, but they have such a wide variety of donuts available, that even sampling a different one every half hour, meant I hadn’t worked my way through the entire option list by the time they closed (and kicked me out). Whatever happened to the customer is always right?

Friday arrived and rather than dwell on the possibility of spending the weekend in Whitehorse, I went with Oddball’s approach and “knocked it off with them negative waves“. Even so, I figured if I was lucky, I might get out of town by late afternoon. I planned a lazy morning, a last minute checkout, and to sample the few remaining untasted donuts.

At 09.40, the phone rang, which despite my having done away with those negative waves, rocked my equilibrium for a moment. The most obvious thought raced across my mind – the delivery has come in and my parts haven’t made it. So, I was only half listening to the conversation, as I mentally tried to calculate just how long I could stay in Whitehorse, and whether I should maybe see about trying to fly home, rather than just sitting about drinking coffee and eating donuts. I probably should have been paying more attention to my Ford guy, as I had to get him to repeat his story 3 times. Yes, the parts had come in, yes, they had fitted them to my truck and tested it , and yes, I was ok to come and collect it and get on my way.

Well, bang went my plan for a lazy morning.

No, you’re right, I really didn’t think that – I was too busy rushing around stuffing clothes into my bag, grabbing my books and heading out the door. 15 minutes after receiving the phone call, I marched into the Service Dept and collected my keys, threw my stuff on the back seat, fired up the truck and stomped on the gas pedal. I’ve got miles to go and times a’wasting.

So, once more into Teslin for fuel, it’s a good job I like this little place, as it is somewhere I seem to encounter more than any other location on this road. A guy from Alberta driving a Toyota pickup pulled in for fuel just as I was finishing and we had a brief conversation about the price of gas, how dreadfully bad the dogtruck’s MPG is and how nice it is to see the sun after those snowy/sleety days. A good few miles down the road, my new Albertan buddy catches up and we have a mini drag race up one of the long hills, overtaking a rather large travelling hotel, masquerading as an RV, towing a full size pickup truck, before the Toyota disappears in a cloud of dust and gravel at a great rate of knots.  At far too great a rate for the hidden traffic cop (the first one I have ever seen on the Alcan) – a short while later, I saw my race partner, pulled over onto the hard shoulder, with a fairground illuminated RCMP car behind him, and a Mountie apparently reading him the riot act.

Heading eastwards again, at a slightly slower speed, I pass Nugget City (again), Junction 37 (again) and hold my breath for the 20 miles approaching Watson Lake. With a degree of grumpiness, I pulled into the gas station at Watson Lake over 72 hours after my previous arrival there and finally consider myself to be making progress. Just as I finished fuelling, I noticed a Toyota with Alberta plates pull in behind me. We exchanged rueful smiles and I asked what he got clocked at.  153 kph on a 100 kph road. He didn’t seem that bothered and cheerfully admitted it could have been a lot worse.

I left him behind and headed back out onto the road. This next section is another of my favourite parts. East of Watson Lake are some big rolling hills and mountains, deep valleys, a couple of Provincial Parks, the beautiful Muncho Lake, the steep and winding Stone Mountain and the 300 miles to the next fuel stop at Fort Nelson. Also in there are the Liard Hot Springs, the Upper Liard Buffalo herd, although apparently they are actually Wood Bison, the Stone Mountain suicide sheep squad and some truly outstanding vistas.

A big wood bison grazing the spring grass
A wood bison just doing his thing. After all, who would argue with something that big?

I passed several of these fellas grazing at the roadside, it’s only when you stop beside one to take his photograph that you realise just how absolutely massive they are. Of all the creatures I have seen on the Alcan, these are the only ones that I have never seen on the actual road. There is plenty of physical evidence that they are frequenting both sides of the Highway, but they must be sneaking across late at night, when no-one is looking, unlike most of the animals who seem to regard the traffic as something to be played with.

Wild goats heading up Stone Mountain
Pretty goats heading up Stone Mountain

Just after passing those two pretty little goats, I saw this rather impressively horned sheep, impassively browsing at the roadside. Nothing seemed to phase him, and he just continued to go about his business as a couple of 18 wheelers thundered by. I guess that must be a common enough occurence for him.

Stone Mountain sheep grazing at the roadside
Stone Mountain sheep grazing at the roadside

Having done my naturalist bit, I motored on, climbing upwards through Stone Mountain Provincial Park and enjoying the beautiful scenery. It is in places like this you realise just how little a speck in the greater scheme of things, we are.

Looking back, the road disappears into the distance and the mountains
It was a long way from there to here
The road stretching ahead into the mountains
It's a long way from here to there, as well.

During the climb up and down Stone Mountain and passing Summit Lake, the road clings to the mountain side and encourages you to pay a great deal of attention to your driving. There are several plateaus on the drive and the area around Muncho Lake is one of the most striking. The lake itself is a sight to behold as it is the most amazing green colour – apparently due to the natural copper oxide deposits in the lake bed. Sadly, you’ll have to take my word for it, because in my photograph, it’s still frozen and covered in ice and snow.

Muncho Lake
Muncho Lake, 13 May 2011

A little further on, a crowd of caribou decided to have a party on the highway. Their official spokesman came close to the truck and asked if I could turn the music down as apparently Eminem wasn’t kicking the kind of beats they were mellowing out to, man !

A caribou in Muncho Lake Provincial Park
Yo, caribou party dis way

Leaving the caribou to get on with their nonsense, I pushed on and finally made it to Fort Nelson, filled the truck’s insatiable fuel tank and debated stopping for the night, before deciding that a dinner break would be just as refreshing and I could try to claw back some of my lost miles and time. Not too far out of Fort Nelson, as the gathering gloom had me reaching for the headlight switch, a movement off to the side of the road caught my eye. It was another bear cub, but before I could reach for the camera, it was off, into the trees. However, only a mile or so ahead, I got a quick snap of this little guy.

A bear cub in the evening darkness
Not a great picture, but I was thrilled to see another bear cub.

This bear wasn’t hanging around either, I guess the bear dinner bell had been rung somewhere. Over the next few miles, I saw another 3 cubs playing in the ever encroaching darkness. I was very pleased to have made the decision to drive on and have the opportunity to catch sight of these elusive little ones. With night now completely descended, the thrill of spotting wildlife becomes less about the excitement of a good photo opportunity and much more about not crashing into any of them. As I got closer to Wonowon and Fort St John, there were increasing numbers of deer grazing at the roadside. According to my research these were most likely whitetails or possibly mule deer – either way, they were a constant source of worry as every time I approached a group, they all lifted their heads and stared at the truck. I imagined they were contemplating the “fight or flight” response and as deer really only seem to have a “flight” tendency, I was sure at least one herd was likely to try and get to the other side of the road, for whatever passes as a suitable reason in a deer’s brain. With their constantly flip flopping large ears and their big doe eyes, they made me think of Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars. Somehow I started imagining them talking to each other in his Gungan patois and fervently hoped those deer were nowhere near as clumsy and accident prone as Jar Jar.

As amusing as I found that, I did take it as a sign that perhaps it was time for a stop, but with Fort St John so close, I kept going, and reached there around midnight, very happy to find a 24 hour gas station, that had some rather bad coffee as well as fairly reasonably priced fuel.

A more sensible person than I, would doubtless have found somewhere to stop and sleep, but as I debated the concept, the town disappeared in my rear view mirror and I was once again out in remote countryside. Dawson Creek is the next major town. In terms of the frequency of towns on the Alcan, it is exceedingly close to Fort St John, merely an hour’s drive away. Dawson Creek is the official starting point of the Alaska Highway (as it is properly named) and there is a fancy sign post indicating this, but I have never yet managed to stop in DC to take a photograph of it. From this point east, I’ll be on Highway 43 or 2, depending on how old your map is, next town Grand Prairie, Alberta.

For me, this stretch begins to mark the encroachment of civilisation in an ever more obvious way. Suddenly, the road seems less inviting, more of just a routine, not an adventure, a chore to be dealt with, not a challenge to be overcome. Slightly over an hour later, I’m navigating a big metropolis, very happy that it is 3.00 in the morning as I wander across lanes trying to find my way out of town. My ever increasing yawns suggest that it really is time for a stop and I finally admit that perhaps I should grab some sleep and let the truck rest a little as well.

Mileage for the day      1028