A Winter Drive Down the Alaska Highway

Winter on the Alaska Highway

When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. And it was time to go. The local understanding is that after two or three years in Alaska most people decide that the Last American Frontier will be home forever, or, like us, it’s leave-or-go-loopy-time.

We had checked off a list of exceptional experiences. We reached our goal of driving every main road in the state. We had run out of road and were restless. Stir-crazy might be more accurate.

Alaska – the Yukon Border

Our interactions with that corner of the planet had been interesting to say the least. We survived an eruption from the Mt. Spurr volcano. It spewed ash that blanketed Anchorage with black snow and turned the summer sky dark like winter.

Volcanic ash is really tiny shards of glass and rock so it’s recommended to not brush it off cars because it will scratch the paint. It can choke the life out of the engine.  It gets sucked into everything. It seeped under our apartment doors and windows, through every minuscule crevice and into every piece of electronic equipment we owned. During the eruption, we spent a dark afternoon sitting on the couch with wash cloths over our noses trying not to breath it in. Our poor dog probably sucked in a ton of this nasty stuff on his brief excursions outside.

Towards the end, the regular rumblings of earthquakes were starting to rattle me, especially the “rollers.” Having lived in California, I was used to the “shakers.” They weren’t as bad, but the rollers were especially creepy.

One morning around 2 o’clock, we were woken up by our bathroom making a horrific creak. My side of the bed was lifted up and down, then the middle of the bed, then Mike’s side. The blinds slammed against the window as the quake rolled along the ground. Mike went right back to sleep mumbling, “It’s just an earthquake.” It was my first roller and I was freaked out.  It took me a lot longer to relax.

Along the Alaska Highway

The need to leave grew with every trip “outside” because each one started with a three and a half hour flight to Seattle just to begin our travels cross-country. Many times the layover in Seattle was for several hours. Most of my family was in Florida so the trip was longer than flying non-stop to Europe from Los Angeles.

Sometimes it’s the little things that are the breaking point. Women will especially understand this story…

For me, our move had a lot to do with the need for a pair of shoes, black pumps to be exact. While we had a Nordstrom in Anchorage, it didn’t have the selection that stores in the Lower 48 do. I had two choices of black pumps on the day I was there. I wasn’t pleased with either one. Yes, I could have ordered anything I wanted, but it’s not the same as going to a store and being able to try things on.

Not long after that trip to Nordstrom, we made what was to be our last trip “outside” to Scottsdale, Arizona to visit go to my dear step-brother who was dying of brain cancer. Whatever the situation, when my mother and I got together, we always made the most of our time together. This trip was no different so we took advantage of the opportunity to shop at the Scottsdale Fashion Square, Arizona’s largest mall.

Another incredible view along the Alaska Highway

Still in search of the elusive shoe, I stood wide-eyed as I was confronted with what must have been thirty different styles of black pumps! And there were even more, different shoes, if I wanted to venture away to a another design.

Suddenly I knew I wanted that choice again! I yearned for the ease of finding what I needed without mail order and high shipping fees. I wanted to be able to fly somewhere quickly! The term “outside” makes it sound like I was “inside” and it was starting to feel claustrophobic, like I was in prison. It was definitely time to go!

Caribou along the Alaska Highway

Mike and I packed up our cars and hit the road on December 30th, once again, with no jobs and no prospects. When leaving Alaska, the least expensive way to move is to shrink-wrap everything on pallets and send them on an empty southbound ship. His front-wheel-drive Ford Festiva was stuffed with everything we would need before our shipment of belongings arrived at our destination in my beloved Denver, Colorado.

Leaving Alaska

My 4-Wheel-Drive Subaru GL wagon visibly wobbled as our 110-pound dog leapt from side to side, his excited baritone barking meant to scare off the caribou, moose, boulders and long shadows he spotted out in the wilderness.

The soprano section of the chorus was performed by his brother, the Cornish Rex cat who decided to perch on my shoulders for the whole 3,200-mile trip from Anchorage to Denver.

This was before cell phones were inexpensive, not that there would have been any cell towers along the route then anyway, so we had no communication between cars. We tried to find walkie-talkies but, as usual, we couldn’t find what we needed in Anchorage so we were left incommunicado.

The long lonely road

I was really sick with a fever and the flu so we started out slowly. After spending the morning packing we cut the drive short after only 200 miles to Glennallen, Alaska.

Not much in the way of daylight hours, it was pitch black by 4:30 pm. There are no street lights on these two-lane roads, it’s frigidly cold and wildlife could be anywhere so it can be really dangerous to drive at night. We had never driven past Glennallen so we weren’t sure what would be ahead. We decided to stop, rest and get an early start.

The Northern Lights (not the ones we saw – we didnt take this picture)

Our reward on this night before New Year’s Eve was the most glorious natural light show. In Anchorage we saw the northern lights fairly often but they were always varying shades of green. On this night the dancing lights were green with purple streaks. We had never seen another color until this night. Magical and magnificent!

On the road still in Alaska

Feeling better the next morning, we were up and on the road before daylight. We pointed northeast towards the Canadian border and the Alaska Highway, also known as the Alcan. The road was snowy but plowed and paved. We had to keep our eyes peeled for the occasional caribou or moose. This is a dangerous place to hit one of these massive beasts with no emergency services nearby and no way to call for help. On this day we could drive for 45 minutes at a time before seeing another lonely car.

Goodbye Alaska

When we crossed into the Yukon Territory the road changed to snow-covered gravel. Our speeds dropped down to 30 – 40 miles per hour. This was not going to be a speedy trip. There are plenty of stories about how many windshields people go through driving this dirt road in the summer. I think the snow and ice made this a surprisingly easier drive in this regard. The invisible road crews kept them pretty well plowed. The weather was good. We only ran into a few occasional snowflakes.

Hello Yukon

With no radio stations or cell phones to keep in touch with the outside world, we stocked up on books on tape – yes cassette tapes – to keep us entertained in our respective cars. Mike had a Sony Walkman rigged with an adapter into his cassette player so he could listen to CDs. We were on the cutting edge of technology back then!

Moose

Gas stations were few and far between so we always stopped to fill up when we saw one. We were never sure how far we would have to go to find another one.

To guide us, we had a copy of our trusty book The Milepost. The Milepost is the most comprehensive road trip book I have ever come across. It lays out everything mile by mile or in Canada, kilometer by kilometer. Because there is not much in the way of cellular service on this lonely highway, this is a must have book for any Alaskan road trip or driving the Alaska Highway through British Columbia and the Yukon.

Deer

Not only does it mark where everything is, it also shows where wildlife is likely to be visible. It’s amazingly accurate. It’s like the animals can read and know where to pose for the money shots! The publishers update it every year. but even with that kind of powerful information, we weren’t positive what would be open around the New Year’s holiday.

The view along the Alcan

The good thing was that we had the benefit of two cars so in case we got into trouble with one we always had the other. I had 4-wheel drive and we both carried tire chains just in case. Being Alaskan, both of our cars were equipped with block heaters so we could plug in when we stopped, keeping our oil warm enough to be able to start the cars in the morning. For safety, we carried some blankets and had lots of warm clothes just in case we were stranded. We didn’t carry water but if we were in trouble, we could melt snow in an emergency.

It was a slow drive and as dusk began to fall, we happened upon a gas station/motel/restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Destruction Bay. What a welcome sight that was! The food wasn’t memorable nor was the room but it worked for us.

That was the night that Mike’s obsession for apple pie a la mode began and continued through Canada. The saying isn’t ‘it’s Canadian as apple pie’ so I don’t know what he was thinking but he could not stop his quest.

10:45 am New Years Day Kluane Lake

The next morning we were up and moving before sunrise. We found ourselves at Kluane Lake at 10:45 am, which was just after dawn on New Year’s Day.

Morning on Kluane Lake

We hadn’t been on the road for more than an hour or so but the view was just too spectacular to miss and our dog was happy to get out of the car and have a sniff. We were happy to stretch our legs and compare notes on the drive so far.

Sunrise on Kluane Lake

On this day our plan was to push through to Whitehorse, a couple hundred miles away. We had about 5 more hours of daylight so it seemed reasonable.

A walk by Kluane Lake

As we drove along the lonely road, I lost sight of Mike ahead of me. For more than an hour, I tried to go as fast as I could, expecting to see him around the next bend but he was nowhere to be found. I was starting to panic that maybe he had slid off the road and how would I find his white car in a snowy ditch? Should I backtrack? If I did, would that mean that I would be that much further behind? I chose to push ahead.

The lonely drive

Finally I caught up with him. He was just tooling along, engrossed in what he was listening to and never wondered why I wasn’t in his rearview mirror. I was livid. It’s the only time in 20 years together that I was ever that mad at him because it was so dangerous to have drifted apart. With no cell phones, we had no way to hook up again if one person got lost.

Along The Alcan

After expressing my displeasure in no uncertain terms, we were never out of line of sight again for the rest of the trip. My stomach turns just thinking about this all these years later.

Darkness was once again, closing in on us but now it was beginning to snow. This wasn’t a few flakes. This was a heavy snowstorm. We were determined to get to Whitehorse to spend the night, do some laundry and hit a grocery store. Maybe we could find a good restaurant too. It took us another nerve-racking hour and a half, in the dark and snow, to get to Whitehorse. It was only about 6:00 or 7:00 pm so we had plenty of time to do our chores and get a good night’s sleep.

The morning of Day 4 was clear and crisp. A lot of snow had fallen but the roads were plowed. We wanted to hit the road early so we could start putting some miles behind us. We were still in the Yukon which is north of British Columbia and we still had B.C. and Alberta to go through before we were back in the States. The roads were paved and in better condition.  We started to see more traffic and towns were closer together (relatively speaking), so we were more comfortable to be driving when it was dark.

Seemingly endless road

Even back then I was counting, countries, states and Canadian Provinces, so we were debating whether we would take a quick (probably a day) detour at Watson Lake and go north to add the Northwest Territories to our list of places where we’ve been. It was only about a hundred miles to the line…each way…in the winter.

Eventually intelligence won over our competitive drive and we decided to head south instead of north. We were road weary and antsy to get to Denver. Every day on the road we were spending money and neither of us was employed nor were there any prospects in sight.

Near Sunset at Muncho Lake

Days 4 and 5 took us through some incredible scenery. Along the way we stopped at The Liard River Hot Springs for a bite to eat. We didn’t brave the winter cold for a dip in the hot springs even though it looked very inviting.

Muncho Lake

Muncho Lake is another beautiful spot. We got there around 3:45 pm as the sun was sinking just low enough to shine below the layer of clouds hanging over our heads. We saw this as the perfect opportunity to walk the dog and stretch our legs.

Muncho Lake at 3:45 pm

A bit further down the road we came around the corner at the top of a peak. The trees and plants were shimmering, covered with hoarfrost. The view was so spectacular that we both simultaneously pulled our cars over. The beauty was literally a traffic stopper for us.

After blowing through the northeast corner of British Columbia, we spent the night in Grand Prairie, Alberta. I had a crack in my windshield and wanted to have it fixed. The forecast was for temperatures dipping down to 35 degrees below zero and I didn’t want my windshield to shatter from the cold. At first we were told that it would take several days to get a windshield to fit my car, but miraculously they replaced it in a few hours.

Mike’s obsession for apple pie was not fulfilled. He ended up with apple brown betty instead. The quest continued.

The next day we made it to Edmonton where we stopped by the massive West Edmonton Mall. It’s the largest mall in North America and the 5th largest in the world. We were looking for walkie talkies so we could finally communicate between cars. We found what we were looking for but decided that we didn’t want to spend the money since we were now traveling on paved, well maintained highways.

That night, as forecast, temperatures dipped down to an overnight low of 35 below zero Fahrenheit. The hotel had places to plug in our cars’ block heaters so we were confident that our cars would start in the morning.

Jill with cat & dog in Alberta near the Montana Border

From Edmonton, we continued south to the Montana border. After almost 600 miles, we made it as far as Helena and couldn’t drive another inch. From there we made it all the way to Fort Collins, Colorado, just a little over an hour to Denver. We were exhausted. There was no getting around it.  We had to stop for the night. The next morning it was a short drive to a friend’s house in Littleton where we would crash until we found a house and jobs.

Total length of the trip? Eight days and a tad more than an hour.

About Journeys By Jill

I have spent most of my adult life working in and around TV, film & radio production. As an avid traveler, I have a goal to visit at least 100 countries using the Century Traveler's Club Country List. At the moment, I have 54 to go. My favorite form of travel is to get off the beaten path and discover weird & wonderful attractions. Basically, I wing it. I'd love for you to come along for the ride.
This entry was posted in Alaska, Canada, Hotels, North America, Restaurants, Shopping, Sightseeing, Travel, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Winter Drive Down the Alaska Highway

  1. Patti Palmer says:

    Willa Cather would be proud. What a fabulous story. Mike’s never let you out of his rearview mirror again, has he? 🙂 Thanks for a wonderful post.

  2. You are correct – I took the lead so it couldn’t happen again! I think the next trip will be south of the border. Stay tuned!

  3. Keith hamilton says:

    I’m glad you left Alaska with your tail between your legs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s