The call of the open road pulsed through my veins. As the morning air turned apple crisp and the trees began to slip into their golden fall finery, the itch started in my clutch foot. I found myself tapping to Paul Brandt’s Leavin’ playing on replay in the back of my mind. Two words flashed behind my eyes like Vegas lights.
I had a brand new car needing a test drive, friends I haven’t seen in a couple of years, and an urge to return to the north before the window of opportunity closed. The trip would take me over 5000 km roundtrip from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Whitehorse, Yukon, half of it along the world famous Alaska Highway.
The Alaska Highway – A Brief History
At the onset of 1942, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had ignited fears of further attacks along the north Pacific coast and possible invasion by way of Alaska, the closest American landmass to Japanese ports. A joint effort by the Canadian and American governments to shore up military defences and provide an alternate supply route on the Pacific Coast during WWII, the construction of the Alaska Highway (also known as the Alcan Highway) was a marvel of modern engineering that rivals the Panama Canal. The first soldiers arrived in Dawson Creek in March of 1942 and construction began in April.
In June, Japan attacked Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, adding pressure to complete the route quickly. Over seven months from April to November, 1942, 11,000 soldiers and another 16,000 civilians battled muskeg, mosquitos and mud to complete the 2400 plus kilometer pioneer road from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska, cutting through the untamed and previously un-surveyed north. Construction continued in the spring of 1943 to transform the dirt track into a permanent all-weather road along the route.
Highway traffic was restricted initially, only opened to the public after the war, with the first tourists braving the road in 1948.
Kiskatinaw River Bridge
My adventure begins at the Mile 0 signpost in the centre of Dawson Creek. The town’s agriculture roots are evident in its Art Gallery and Visitor Centre, housed in a restored grain silo and the former rail station. By September, the canola’s been swathed and hay put up, large round bales dotting the fields green with new growth. Sections of farmland recede off into the prairie horizon as I begin my travel north.
About 25 km out of town, a right turn takes me along the Old Alaska Highway, a remnant of the original, to the Kiskatinaw River Bridge. Built over the winter of 1942-43, the bridge was the first curved, wooden trestle bridge in Canada, and the only one still in use along the highway. The 190 foot high, 534 foot long bridge, with its banked 9 degree curve, took 9 months to complete, delayed by frigid -40 degree temperatures and damage to the temporary structure from the ice floes during the spring breakup. By the 1970’s, the need to accommodate heavier truck traffic lead to the rerouting of the highway and construction of a new bridge over the river, ensuring the survival of the wooden bridge as a historic site.
Charlie Lake Monument
I stop again just outside Fort St. John at the Charlie Lake Monument. On May 14, 1942, 17 men boarded a pontoon boat destined for the bivouac at the north end of Charlie Lake. Engine difficulties and rough waters resulted in orders to turn the boat to the west shore. In doing so, it was hit by two waves in succession, capsizing the vessel. Of the 17 men who went into the water, only 5 were saved. Erected in 2008 and positioned to look out over the waters where the accident occurred, the monument honours those soldiers who perished in Charlie Lake, their names engraved in the pillars that encircle it.
Heading north again, the farm fields fade and the highway begins to roll with the rise and fall of the Rocky Mountain foothills. Long stretches of lonely road are punctuated by glimpses of the snow-capped peaks, endless valleys and turquoise rivers.
The temperature is a balmy 20 degrees celsius as I leave Fort Nelson behind, stocked up on Timmy’s steeped tea to fuel my travels. (it’s a Canadian thing) Civilization slips away as the road moves west towards the northern Rockies. It is on this road that the sheer size of this province strikes me. Coming up over Steamboat Summit, the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area is laid out before you, endless green valleys rising into the Rockies as far as the eye can see, broken only by pristine waterways carved into the rock over centuries. Named after two major rivers – the Muskwa (bear)-Kechika (long inclining river) is Canada’s “Serengeti of the North” – 6.4 million hectares of culturally, ecologically and geographically diverse wilderness.
As I gaze out over the raw wilderness, unbroken by roads or towers or hydro poles, there is the sense of stepping back in time. There is no cell service here. No radio. No wifi. Just the voices of intrepid explorers and First Nations peoples who called this land home whispered on the wind.
The magnitude of the 1942 highway project sinks in. This is not a place of luxury or convenience. It’s wild, it’s remote, and it’s daunting in its expanse.
The Ultimate Experience
So, maybe I was wrong about luxury. A few kilometers up the road, the signs begin to appear – cinnamon buns, 6 km ahead. How could I resist? I take a left into the driveway for the Tetsa River Lodge, mouth watering at the thought of a gooey indulgence. I order and the mountain man in the cammo shirt and white apron calls for “one ultimate experience”. That’s a pretty confident assertion for a pastry and I wonder if it will live up to its moniker. Moments later, I’m handed a plate covered edge to edge with a four-inch thick, warm, sticky, buttery sweet piece of heaven! I am in love . . . and my pancreas is going into sugar shock! It may not be the “ultimate experience” but it certainly comes close! I order another to go and head back out into the sunshine, now beginning to ebb with the fading of the day.
I slow as I near Muncho Lake. The narrow road, nestled between the granite rock-face and glacial cerulean lake, snakes its way through the provincial park. The highway sign warns there might be stone sheep in the area and, sure enough, just off to the side of the road, I see them, their muted brown and beige blending with the scenery. They eye me suspiciously as they graze the tiny shrubs along the lake shore, despite keeping my distance. I watch for awhile, awed by opportunity to see them in their natural habitat, until they begin to wander away.
Not far up the road, I stop for the day, both inspired by what I’d seen and tired from the drive. The accommodations in the old motel are simple, but the room is warm, the water hot and the bed comfortable. With a little light left, I wander down to the lake, checking the board to see what fly-in adventure is scheduled for the next day.
The Northern Rockies Lodge is the largest accommodation along the stretch of highway from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake, comprising a lodge, motel, cabins and RV sites. It’s also the jumping off point for backcountry fishing, hunting, hiking, canoeing and tours of the Muskwa-Kechika, accessible by float plane only. The flight the next day is to Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park, Northwest Territories, a place added to my bucket list after a friend rafted the Nahanni river. Unfortunately, time isn’t on my side this trip. It will have to stay on the list another year.
Above the lake, the stars begin to appear, more stars than I’d ever seen, their presence unhindered by city lights. The snow-capped peaks seem to glow in the moon’s reflection. I begin to understand the draw of the north – what brings people back, what makes them stay. Life here is simple.
I leave early the next morning, planning a dip at the hot springs and some breakfast before moving on to Whitehorse. The sky is clear and blue but the morning air has a bite to it, a promise that fall isn’t far off and winter not long behind.
I had hoped to see at least one bison on my trip up the highway and am fortunate to come across a half dozen dozing on the apron just beyond the lodge. A bull rolls a dewy eye my way as I step out of my car to take photos, then looks away again, bored by yet another camera-toting tourist. Had they been my only encounter, I would have been happy.
I don’t expect to find myself stopped a few kilometers up the road while a herd strolls casually across the highway, blocking traffic in both directions. The wood bison in the region are an endangered species, that last original shot near Fort St. John in 1906. This herd are the descendants of a reintroduction in the 1990’s. It was estimated at 100 in 2007, and by the number of calves and juvenile bison, the herd seems to be thriving.
Wildlife encounters are common along the Alaska Highway, home to elk, moose, caribou, deer, bison and bears. Of those I know who’ve travelled this way, I realize how lucky I am to see what I did, all within the 600 km between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake. Aside from the bison, I saw five black bears grazing along the highway, the stone sheep already mentioned, and one very lean caribou sipping from a puddle at a pull out. My prize though, one I actually broke my own rule and turned around to photograph, despite the rain and 3 degree weather, is possibly a grizzly. There is debate on that, with one friend suggesting it’s a juvenile black bear. You can decide for yourself. My vote is for grizzly. (a friend with the Ministry of Environment confirmed it was, in fact, a grizzly.)
Liar River Hot Springs
Traffic cleared, I continue north about an hour to the Liard River Hot Springs, the second largest hot springs in Canada. The first written record dates back to 1835 when the Liard River was used by the Hudson’s Bay Company as a trading route. A boardwalk was built by the soldiers constructing the highway in 1942 and the springs became part of the Liard River Provincial Park in 1957. The 5 minute walk from the day use area takes you through warm-water wetlands frequented by moose and home to unique plant life that thrive around the humid pools, including 14 species of orchid. The springs are kept natural, the smell of sulphur permeating the steam that rises off the crystal clear water.
I ease myself into the alpha pool, where the water temperature ranges from 42 to 52 degrees celsius, and onto one of the submerged benches, letting whatever ails me slip away. An American heading south from Alaska takes a seat next to me. “You’re Canadian? I love that you guys keep it like this,” he tells me, looking around. “If this was the States, there’d be a casino at one end and a hotel at the other.” I see his point. Aside from the change rooms and compost toilets, the springs aren’t much different than they would have been when the soldiers found them. At $5.00 per person ($10.00 per family) for day use, a visit to the springs is an inexpensive highlight of a trip up the highway and one I intend to indulge again on the way back.
Watson Lake Signpost Forest
Bathed and fed, I continue my journey through the wilderness to the small town of Watson Lake just over the Yukon border. The signs are a little confusing initially as the highway dips in and out of B.C. a few times before committing to its direction through the Yukon to Alaska. I’d been without cell service since Fort Nelson and needed to check in with friends and family. After sending the requisite texts – where I am, where I’m going, when I’ll contact next – I take a wander through the Signpost Forest.
The “forest” began back in 1942 when a homesick soldier, tasked with erecting a directional signpost, added the mileage to his own home town. Since then, travellers from all over the world have stopped to add their own signs. Some are licence plates or street signs from a traveller’s city; others are plaques created specifically for the purpose of leaving something behind. Hats, flip flops, aluminum plates and even a pair of skis have been affixed to the posts of a forest that expands with every year. For those who didn’t know to bring their own sign, you can make one at the Visitor’s Centre.
Gassed up and fueled up, I leave Watson Lake and head towards my intended destination, the city of Whitehorse. As the road turns north and the Rockies fade off to the west, I notice the trees have changed. The aspen and birch, still green to the south, are now showing the passage of time, exploding like flames in orange and gold amid the deep green of the firs. Fall has come early here.
The weather has turned by the time I reach Whitehorse, with low cloud moving in, and cooler temperatures. I’ll get rain at some point, I’m sure. The weather holds long enough for my friends and I to take a hike up the peaks around Fish Lake. The cranberries and crowberries are in season and we meet other hikers out harvesting the low-growing fruit, while we just stop to nibble handfuls on our way up the mountain. As we climb, the trees disappear behind us, replaced by small shrubs that bend to the will of the winds that drive up the mountainside. The alpine meadows are in full fall regalia of red, orange and gold and I’m once again struck by the raw, natural beauty that surrounds me. There is no greater artist than Mother Nature.
My time, however is limited and the weather has turned. Rain pummels my tent the morning I’m to head south again and the temperature has dropped to a bracing 8 degrees. I pack quickly, tossing the wet and sandy tent in the trunk and hit the highway. The temperature continues to plummet as I move into the mountains and I pray I won’t encounter snow.
As I drive, I consider what it is that draws people to the north. An Australian girl I met told me she’d decided to come after reading Jack London’s “Call of the Wild“. A New Zealand photographer hoped to get that elusive photo of a grizzly with a salmon. The group of Swiss tourists had come for the wildlife and would not leave disappointed.
It is the hunter from Vancouver I met in Muncho Lake that most reflected my own feelings about the north.
“It’s important to come to places like this,” he said. “Our cities are so unnatural. You need to leave to be reminded this is where we come from, this is what sustains us. To be connected to the earth again. To stop and just look at the stars.”
I will go back. There is more to see. Much more to explore. The north calls to me and next time, I’ll spend more time.