North to Alaska
The Alcan Highway – Part 2
By Rick Cleveringa
(*You can revisit Part-1 here)
***PART TWO: The Alaska Papers***
Dawson Creek Odometer reading 28398
It is 6:40 PM and I stop at the grainier gift shop. It’s a tourist trap filled with travelers. I photo the Jeep in front of the great red arrow heading me into an unknown. I drove downtown to have a look at the Zero mile marker. Exchanged some cash to Canadian dollars at BMO Harris. Gas and bad coffee in Dawson Creek and I was very excited to finally be on the Alcan. It is an odd feeling to pull onto a piece of asphalt that people live and work on. Where daily travel is no more special to them than the road in front of my house is to me. Some deep excitement of childhood adventure, some ancient wild in the blood boils and you are on just any old road for most but for me in this moment its pure adrenalin adventure. Just outside of Dawson I saw my first moose. It was dead on the side of the road. This beast was so large. I imagine the car from this clash did not survive. The Swamp Donkey was now a massive fur rug covering spoiling muscle. Seemed a real shame. I wanted to stop but the traffic was moving fast and so should I.
An hour outside of Dawson Creek, the road was empty, wet and ran up into mountains covered with pines. The Jeep passed through a great forest fire or the remains of one. Smoke was drifting across the roadway; miles of trees were reduced to black stems. The smell was a grand perfume but the sight was heartbreaking. Rain started lightly and went on till the next day. At 10:30 PM I felt very tired and was ready for some rest. I drove past a lot with a few motor homes parked for the night, so I turned back and pulled down the hill to park. Now I set up my back sleeping quarters for the first time of the expedition and lay down. My first road camp was between Wonowon and Sikanni Chief. The Jeep motel was tight but I found comfort in my tiny home.
In the early morning a dream vivid, enough to cause me to laugh out loud, woke me. It was still night so I lay back down, nodding off for another hour. By morning it was 33 degrees, around 6:00 AM, after night one snug in the back of the Wrangler I felt pretty well rested. I stepped out for a stretch and a piss, straighten out my shirts and got ready for the next big day. I climbed back into the commander seat and turned the key, the other campers still lay quiet as I pulled up the hill and back onto the highway.
Day 4 odometer reading 28560
This morning’s drive was through more forest fires; some were not completely out. There is a very large and dangerous fire North of my trek in Fort McMurray. Full on evacuations and houses have been destroyed. The roads up there are closed to traffic and where I am driving there are miles of blackened pines. Later I would find out these scrawny trees are Black Spruce and they grow only over the permafrost. With shallow roots the trees droop and are sometimes called a Drunken forest. These are charred and look like black pipe cleaners. The smoke smells like a cedar bon fire, it makes me dream of the souls of my boots roasting near the fire, pals in tents and sleeping bags near by. The road climbed up and up, away from the fires at lower elevations. I guess I’ll have a handful of trail mix and a granola bar.
What I begin to notice is where the highway is. Its laid in the middle of a 100-yard swath cut out of this wilderness. What did it take to build this? With these great open shoulders one can start to see the wild life. “What is that?” I say, there was this huge black-as-coal animal running up the hillside. I put on the tiny dash camera and all I can say is “Bear, BEAR, BEAR!” Wow my first bear in the wild, fantastic; I feel so happy right now. Soon Id see another, more and more as day ran on. That made my heart flush with joy as the Jeep climbed happily up into the mountains. Rain was changing to snow and up we went.
Fort Nelson Gas and Coffee
After a long stretch of deserted highway I pulled into to town. Fort Nelson was a welcome sight as I can never tell when fuel will be available this far North. At the gas station I see this guy on a
Suzuki motorcycle. He is in heavy jacket and matching pants, the bike is muddy and leaking fluid. I say “Hi” and ask where he’s from. “Texas” he said. “I drove up to Deadhorse and now working my way home”. “How was it? I say. “Long, bad roads all the way up. Coldfoot is the last stop for gas before Deadhorse and you have to stop there for fuel. Saw only Muskox up there. It’s just wide open. It ruined my bike. Look at my boot. Shocks leaking oil all over it.” His boots were oiled and mud caked. Damn it looked cool! “I have to change the chain when I get back. Wish I would of had your Jeep up there”. “Yea glad I have it!” I say. Somehow it made me feel like it was too easy in the Jeep.
There is some kind of camaraderie between travelers that take to the North. We parted and I said, “safe travels my friend”. I filled the tank and pumped $10 into the Gerry can just in case. The road took me up into the Rockies, rain had changed backed to snow and clouds and fog were all around. The edge of the road was a foggy uncertainty; one slip and they would never find me. This high road was empty and I loved it.
The French Hero
Snow was falling in a land that looked like Christmas. It was beautiful, crisp and pretty, air so clean you feel great. The Jeep could use a drink this morning. There was a log cabin with a single gas pump, their cafe was so inviting and warm I dreamt of breakfast, coffee and comfort. Hey I still have 2 lbs of Pete’s Jerky and trail mix in the passenger seat, so I “coffee and gas-ed” up and looked through the gift shop. On the way out I smiled at the lady behind the counter., and walk back out into the cold and slush to the Jeep.
At the pump was a young dude on a Triumph motorcycle. Jesus he has courage. You think you are doing something brave but then you see these guys on bikes. This cat was on this tiny bike, no helmet and only wearing a hoodie. You envy him, but are so glad you have a vehicle with doors and a roof to crawl into.
Up the snowy mountain road about a mile, in a roadside pullout I see a guy in an orange jump suit. He is leaning backwards on a garbage can stretching his back out. Two other men and a broken car are with him. When I get closer they run to the roads edge and start waving frantically. Now, an orange jumpsuit means one thing PRISON, … so I pull over and roll down the window. The icy air grates my face as the convict in the orange suit runs up to me. He is in his late 20’s, tall, lanky and long stringy greasy blond hair covers a bony face. Complete with a scruffy beard and a mouth missing a top front tooth, he has the face of a drug problem. He smiles and begins to yell, “WE NEED A BLAAADE!” He gets up to my window. With a deep Canadian accent he says. “A Balaaade do you have a Blaaade?” “What kind of blade do you need? I ask, “A utility knife, a knife? “Ahh Blaade! We got a busted shock and we need a blaade to cut it off. It’s the only way” The others come from their busted car towards the Jeep. “Oh you need a hack saw,” I say. “Yea a Blaaade.” “OK there was a station back about one mile you guys would be better off looking for help there.” They huddle up and decide that Fred was the cleanest and he will go back to the station and get help, if I would drive him back. So this little fella with a close cut sandy hair climbs in the passenger side.
As I move jerky and a backpack I ask him where he is from. “France” he says, the three of them are mushroom hunting. Their car broke down as they were headed for the Yukon to hunt morels. They found some mushrooms but wanted a larger haul for sale. Morels are big money in the culinary world, now this made sense, which explained the orange jump suit.
I stopped at the cabin with its dreamy cafe and chimney smoke. In five minutes Fred comes out with a hacksaw in hand. “Wow Fred that was fast, you will be a hero when you get back.” Fred says in his quiet French tone. “It will be the first time a French man saved anyone”. We laugh like hell at his joke.
Soon we pull over to the boys at the broken car, now a truck has stopped to help. If I were to guess the man in the pickup only stopped to have a look, add his two cents and watch the struggle. The boys cheered as Fred slip down out of the Jeep, hacksaw raised above his head, they called he and I heroes. “Good luck boys!” I said as they cheered and thanked me as I drove off. The road climbed up the snow fell down in a wonder winter beauty. I was thinking if they cut the shock off the car then what? I hope they fixed their ride and found the Quivria of Morels.
Deadly and Beautiful
This drive is everything I hoped for and more. The remarkable beauty of the Rockies, the loneliness of open road, it gave me time to reflect and think. To clear ones head of old duties and concentrate on the new ones to come. Mostly I drove and watched miles of pristine wilderness unfold before me. There were occasional road construction sights that made the drive interesting enough. In the middle of nowhere you have to stop for a makeshift traffic light. It was like seeing an outhouse in the arctic. You stop and wait 15 minutes or longer. It gave you time to walk about and stretch the legs.
A lone muddy pickup truck would appear and you would follow it trough some ruff stretches of mud and ungraded gravel. I liked this very much. Seeing the workers in this backdrop, heavy equipment all the way out here. Thinking it would take hours to reach your work sight each morning, I had asked a road sign holder about bears. “Yea we are armed, but the trucks make so much noise we don’t usually see bears.”
After one of these work zones, I was first inline and first out to the open road. I drove perhaps a mile on good pavement when on the shoulder of the road up came a huge beast, a massive bull buffalo wondering into the roadway right in front of me. Jesus! It is going to cross the freakin’ highway right in the path of the Jeep! I slowed way down to not hit the big fella, mostly because I had never seen buffalo in the wild and on the road. My God I cannot believe it. As I was slowing a semi truck was boring down on me, as I was avoiding the buffalo I was about to get creamed myself. The air horn blast made my hair stand up. At the last second I pulled on to the shoulder, the great woolly bull stopped in the oncoming lane, the semi blasted between the both of us with inches to spare. Fuck I could have been killed!
This Alaskan Highway is dangerous. Its full of amphetamine truckers driving 100mph trying to make a buck, slow motor homes with retirees, stopping at every chipmunk, spending there pension, and a full array of very large beasts bears, buffalo, moose, herds of mountain sheep and caribou. This makes a dangerous combination not to mention the canines and smaller beasts. There were dead foxes and wolf I saw and the dazed prairie dog I ran over. He was standing in the center of my lane, I cleared him and the Jeep blew his fur around. He stayed between the wheels and lived. Loads of Jackrabbits, they are smart, rabbits were always facing the shoulder so when they high tailed it out of there, they never ran into the road. Later in Alaska proper a porcupine would bring me to a full hard stop on the highway.
It was a remarkable drive today, I saw more bears and buffalo in this single day then I had ever seen in my lifetime, zoos and circuses combined. They are as common as house cats or raccoons at home. I made cheerful rest stops by rivers, I drank volumes of watery coffee, and I spent the day in the mountains, in snow and rain, in sunny valleys on long stretches of straight road. I drove way too fast and far too slow, I could not be happier.
At Watson Lake I had to get gas and see the Signpost Forest, which was a real historic roadside attractions. This is where I remembered one of the photos from 1980’s National Geographic magazine article I read. The place seems to have grown in the years, it was far larger then I expected. As I pulled away from the forest I thought of my brother Mike whose misfortune made this possible. Had I any hindsight I would have brought his ZAPPA 72 license plate and nailed up here. One day I will return here with hammer and nail.
The sun was in the position of 2 in the afternoon, my thought was to watch for school buses, the kids will be getting out soon. Was it really 2? Something did not feel right, was it all the fatigue and bad coffee? I looked at the clock in the radio. Its 10:20 PM. I was driving through a city somewhere and people were riding bikes and playing golf. My mind was slipping. The day never ended.
Why were these people not in bed? There were little kids walking around, it is strangely the afternoon. The entirety of the universe was off kilter the world was in trouble. Soon the earth would spin dramatically out of balance and crash into the sun, what the hell was goin’ on?
I had been behind the wheel 16 hours without a real meal, sleeping just hours, driving and driving. I was really tired but it looked like it was 2 in the afternoon. Once I cut out of town the road opened into the wild empty. Thought of bedding down can no longer be ignored. I pulled into a roadside park, there were a few trees about to hide you from the road, but no shade. I parked and climbed into the back to sleep. The sun bore down on the black roof of the Jeep heating the cab up. The light was a silvery intense beam that shot down the gravel road through the front window. Impossible to rest, I tried to relax but could not; I gave up, the sun won. Climbing out my sleeping bag I went back to the drivers seat. Started the Jeep, and pulled back onto the ALCAN. Dog tiered I drove to after midnight just waiting for the sun to sink behind the Mt Martha Black ahead. Finally I stopped at a campground in Haines Junction for the night
The Jeep needed some fuel so I filled her up and then went into the tiny store/ Gas station/ campground office. There was pretty young woman behind the counter and I asked “when does it get dark around here”? “Oh after 2AM” she said. I inquired about the abandoned campground. “Can I park for a few hours?” I believe she was going to say sure, then her mother came by and charged me the full $14 for the night which, by the clock, was actually yesterday.
I paid up and went to the grounds. I saw an OK spot but I wanted shade, I wanted dark. Last nights rain and gray was helpful, now I was sun tanning after midnight. I drove a full circle around the grounds and went right back where I started like a dog circling before lying down. I put up a blanket to curtain the back window and angled my way into the sleeping space, pulling my stocking cap over my eyes. It was 60 degrees and I had no need for the wool blanket. After wrestling my thoughts and the sunlight for an hour I dozed off. I woke in the dark, pulled the wool over my cooling body and slept till 7 am. What a day that was.
In the lake I could see this island surrounded by fog. It had a high rocky side and a long tapper down to the deep water. Many spruce trees were growing on its limestone outcrops giving it this mystic look about it. This island had to be magic? I stopped to walk along the shore of the lake, to touch the freezing cold water and taste it, to stare out at the island and wonder. Are there bears on it? Could you camp there? Would the night let you sleep in that place? The beauty of this lake compelled me. A rock or two was tossed into the peaceful surface making tiny circular waves like radar. I wished I could camp here. Promising myself on the return, if there was one, I would stop here again to enjoy this place, it was strikingly perfect.
I did stop on my return, the day was windy and pissing rain but I found a pebbly beach and sat down. I loaded my Kelly kettle with dry pine branches, the wind was very strong and the water choppy. I made a bowl of noodles and watched the lake the scene was all gray and cold. I had promised to come back and did, even if it was an hour in the cold. I enjoyed this place, beavers swimming near by as I ate the last of my ramen and headed out.
Perfection is Hell
This morning’s drive is as fascinating to me and fresh as yesterdays. Empty roads wildlife along the way brings joy to my heart. Past Snag Junction I spy a set of log cabins with a gravel lot and a sign that reads Bakery and Creperie, this demands a “U” turn. The little restaurant and cabins are so remote, the mountain views unbeatable. Its pristine and I have not had a hot meal yet. This is the place, I open the door, the tiny bell rings and I can feel the warmth of the wood stove and smell bake goods. Have I stumbled into some version of heaven? A French woman with the face of forgotten expression is behind the counter. Under the glass are shelves filled with pastries, cookies, cinnamon rolls, delicious light flaky dreams with powder sugar and cream. The menus hang on the wall, written on red chalkboards. They have headings like Full Crepe, Sweet Crepe, Quiche and Soups, ah yes it is wonderful. I say Bonjour, the woman speaks to me in French. I say sorry that’s all I know, she looks even more dull. A man then appears from behind a tiny curtain acting like a door from the back. He is smiling and wiping flour from his hands onto his apron, he has the face of a clown. I know just minutes before I walked in here I missed his antics. I could picture him with a tray of dishes 3 feet high and some slip and fall, a cloud of flour in the wake. His detached wife, no longer amused with his Chaplin like situations, is now only bored. He looks like Roberto Benigni, he ducks back into the kitchen. He said something in French to her. She pokes her head through the curtain; she says something in French to him. I can tell it was something like, “No just a poser tourist here for a cookie”. I order a full crepe with ham, eggs, cheese, tomatoes and coffee; this surely is worth a stop.
I take a seat next to the wood stove and absorb the place. It is a postcard come to life. The woody interior exudes pride everything is neat and clean. There was a bookshelf with books you would actually read. It’s all so inviting and cozy, this place was paradise, or was it hell?
The coffee had a soapy after taste, a poorly rinsed mug I guessed. Ok let’s see how the food was. My crepe meal was wonderful. The happy little man made it with care and joy, his wife served it to me with disdain. I did not mind, it was incredible, fresh, hot and filling. After the shock of the beauty of the place settled in on me, I may understand why she was bored or why her soul was dead.
I pictured them fresh from the La Cordon Bleu standing in the parking lot of these brown cabins. Surrounded by these majestic mountain views, they are smiling and excitedly signing all the papers. A man hands them the keys and drives off in his Lincoln. They hug, they cry with joy. The trailer is unpacked and they set up house, all their work and dreams and cash wrapped up in this place.
Setting up the dinning room and kitchen, painting and scrapping until the old place is venerable once more. The oven gives them some trouble, this is fixed and one day its all together. The pastries are baked to perfection, cookies, rolls and crepes all waiting to be tasted and enjoyed. No one comes. Trucks don’t stop and vacation traffic is a limited summer window at best. The closet town has a population of 103 and is 100 Kilometers away. The once fresh pastries, now hard and stale, were slid off trays into the wastebasket, her dream and smile slowly sank. The parking lot stayed empty. Olivier kept his humor and made the lightest dough in the mountains. Trucks zoomed by, groceries gathered dust just sitting on the shelf, the local bears rummaged in dumpsters getting fat.
Months later as I write this I did a little looking around. I see the place is up for sale, if you have an extra $400k you to can move to the most beautiful bakery in the world. Canadian newspaper stories from 2015 show the couple had owned it for 6 years; they had been unable to open due to water issues. The repairs had cost them upwards of $10,000 to correct, the place was a sad slow movie and I walked into scene three, “A lone traveler impressed and unaware”.
Emergency Pit Stop
After my first hot meal of the trip and certainly most tasty and memorable, all that jerky and trail mix had enough of my company and complained mercilessly. An emergency stop was imamate. As I pulled over into soft sandy shoulder the Jeep sank. No way I will get stuck here and kept racing till I saw a small flat spot next to a creek, I opened the door and dropped down. Now I had made pit stops all along the way so far, it is easy to go 100 miles before you see anything like a town. So this seems OK. The problem is I am afraid of one creature, bears, and I’ll be damned I know they can find me by scent now. Three days in the same clothes and making a powerful odor right now, all you can do is hope you did not stop in the wrong path. Man I have seen bears all along the way, their scat litters the highways edges. It was the only real unnerving thing about the trip. Still, I would do it all over in a minute.
As you pull into the towns along the Alcan. The speed limits drops to a brutal 30 kilometers per. Each town has these flashing lights on signs. When you drive too fast they flash a message Slow down, Slow down. They are ticket cams. I have been respectful to these once I noticed I was setting them off. Today I know popped one off, the message changed; it now read TOO FAST followed by a blinding white light flash. Shit, shit well there will be a ticket in the mailbox from the Yukon when I get home. That is the price of the trip?
After I set off the camera I stopped for gas. I love these old stations, they are large with cafes and often they have a shady motel attached. All of them are run down and have a road worn look that is attractive to me. Old paint over log-frames, cafes with the smell of pie and good soups. One station in Alaska was on the peak of a mountain, the view and the price of fuel was remarkable. It was on to top of the world, I wandered over to the cafe to use the bathroom. A long counter and stools greet me, a few booths and a family or two sitting, drinking coffee and eating. The smell of someone’s home kitchen on a Sunday afternoon fills my head with dreams. I’ll just stay here; I’ll get a job as the dishwasher, chuck it all in and go simple. Colorful, fruity pies filled a great glass case and I want pie. Digging deep for control, I go back pie-less to the Jeep, eat a chewy bar and drive on.
As I was edged back up to the main road in that nondescript, traffic-light-cam town, in the ditch I spy a black turkey sized bird. Its a raven and he’s about 4 feet away from me. He is a fierce looking bird, black and shiny, as wet coal. His caw sounds like a barking dog, this one is barking away in a rusty call, his partner in a pine across the road answers back in a lower Tom Waits burst.
These birds look like real scrappers, their great beaks house a large rise. They look like second rate pugilist.$100 boxers all with a high ridge of a broken nose. Each one I saw in the in silhouette against blue sky was missing flight feathers, as if they had been engaged in some life and death struggle with one of the other more dangerous locals. Its one big wildlife bar brawl up here, later tonight the authorities will have to be called in to pull these boys apart. I say goodbye, he just caws loudly at me, back to the road.
It’s about 11:30 as I reached the Alaska boarder crossing where I stop and they ask a few questions, suggesting I eat my last apple soon. The road condition shows a definitive improvement as I enter the state. WOW, Hey, Here I am! I made it! Oh Boy!
I see a Caribou cross the road near me and excitement begins. The area where I am is low flat and swampy and its hours before I see mountains or a town of any significant standing.
Tok is the first such place; it’s a wide road with gasoline, groceries and Mukluk shop. Now I feel like I have made it somewhere. I gas up at a Shell station and look around, use the muddiest magic wand I have seen yet, I think it did more damage then good. I found a grocery to buy more windshield fluid and some apples that were pricey but crisp. In the little store Doritos were $6 a bag, now I see I will be eating up the Top Ramen I brought along. Back on the road and heading to Anchorage.
Alaska was more spectacular diving, now my goal is in sight and I ball it to Anchorage. I cut off of route 2 onto route 1 and head South West. Passing towns never seen by these eyes, Slana, Gokona, Tallsona, Fishhook and Landing on 6th street and Downtown Anchorage. I made it.
I like the look of this old place; it seems a bit caught in time, like the 1950’s. It has a western feel but they’re way up North. I pass the tourist looking part of town and just by chance drive about to find a Super 8 motel.
*The journey will continue next week with Part 3 of “The Alaska Papers”