Happy Birthday, Alaska Highway

On this day 50 years ago, the Alaska Highway was officially opened to military traffic, only 8 months after work began. Here’s how Wired reports on the anniversary:

Until the early 1940s, Alaska was a neglected U.S. territory. The Klondike gold rush of the 1880s and ’90s was a distant memory, and oil had not yet been discovered. There were a bunch of trees and rivers and snow, but nothing really worth exploiting, so the vast wilderness was pretty much left to the bears and the hardy few who lived on the frontier.

Although proposals had existed since the 1920s for building a highway through western Canada into Alaska, the Canadian government wasn’t very keen, and the plans were shelved.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, coupled with their military incursions into the Aleutian Islands, changed things in an instant. Suddenly, Alaska became a potential Japanese invasion route to Canada and the Lower 48, so both governments agreed that the road would now be built.

Military necessity dictated the route. It was a far cry from the original highway-commission blueprints and their more topographically friendly, meandering roadways. The Alaska Highway — like the Burma Road for moving Allied supplies from northern Burma to China — would take little account of mountains, wilderness, water or elevation.

The U.S. Army assumed control of the project, and the Corps of Engineers — augmented by thousands of civilian contractors — began construction through the northern wilderness. By any measuring stick, it was grueling, backbreaking work.

In the end, the 1,500-mile highway, stretching from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, was completed in an astounding eight months. In many places, it was a “highway” in name only, instead resembling a glorified footpath with stretches of unpaved road, murderous switchbacks and no guard rails or shoulders. Vehicles had a tough time negotiating the road, and traffic didn’t really pick up until 1943.

After the war, major improvements were made to the highway, and it opened to general traffic in 1947 when wartime travel restrictions were lifted.

To commemorate the anniversary, here are some photos our drive up the Alaska Highway in 2013. Happy Birthday, Alaska Highway, and thanks for the memories!

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Mile Zero in Dawson Creek, B.C.

After leaving Dawson Creek, one of the first historical sites along the highway is a memorial to soldiers who lost their lives in a ferry disaster on Charlie Lake.

Charlie Lake, BC

Memorial to Ferry Disaster on Charlie Lake, BC

One of the most famous sites along the Alaska Highway is the Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake (Mile Post 635), home to  more than 100,000 signs. I’m guessing that the homesick soldier who started it in 1942 never imagined what it would grow into!

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Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, Yukon

And a few shots along the highway….

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Related Posts:

Road Trip: St. Paul to Skagway, AK

Mile Zero

A Ribbon of Highway

Wrecker Ahead

We Made It!

Land of the Midnight Sun

A Tale of Two Shrines

Alaska Cruising

Canadian Food

Alaska Wildlife

No GPS, Thank You Very Much

A Conversation at the Border

The Photographer and Her Drive

Happy Birthday, Big Red!

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One of the things I missed the most when I was living in China was driving. So the first thing I did when I moved back to the States a year ago was to buy a car. In fact,  one year ago today I bought this car, and promptly christened her “Big Red.”

She’s had a busy year — 2 trips to central Indiana, and one trip to Southeast Alaska and back, not to mention numerous afternoon drives around eastern Minnesota / western Wisconsin. Everyone of the 20,000 miles has been fun!

In honor of her birthday, here are some pics of her travels to/from Alaska!

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At the start of the Alaska Highway, in Dawson Creek, BC.

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A Yukon picnic

 

Her first ride on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry - from Skagway to Juneau

Her first ride on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry – from Skagway to Juneau

Waiting to board the ferry in Juneau for the 5-day trip home.

Waiting to board the ferry in Juneau for the 5-day trip home.

 

The Photographer and Her Driver

I’m a bit slow, so it took me halfway through the drive home from Alaska to figure out that my primary role on the trip was to be the driver’s photographer.

My sister and I both enjoy photography, but she’s much more of a shutterbug than I am. Where I enjoy taking pictures, she is passionate about it. Her specialty is taking phenomenal pictures of flowers, but she’s got a great eye, so everything she takes is spot on!

We obviously took turns doing the driving on our 5700 mile journey, but it seemed like I ended up doing a bit more than she did. After a short time with her behind the wheel would notice that her head was swiveling about as she was scanning the horizon for mountain shots or the road beds for wild flowers and animals.

“You would like to be taking pictures, wouldn’t you?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, grinning sheepishly at me.

So we’d pull over and trade places again, and be on our way. I would continue driving and she would spend the next few minutes (or hours) hanging out the window or contorting herself to get a good shot out of the windshield that didn’t include the  bugs that were splattered all over it.

Here are some of the shots she took along the Alaska Highway between Watson Lake and Dawson Creek on Sunday while I was acting as her driver:

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As you can see the Alaska Highway really is a gorgeous road.

Our trip came to an end at 6 pm on Wednesday, when we pulled into my mom’s driveway and were met by a welcoming committee of my mom (she had flown home last week), brother-in-law, and friends and neighbors. Of course my mom’s first words were “when can we go again?”

And here’s the photo of the happy photographer and her driver beside Big Red. Notice the thousands of dead Canadian bugs!

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No GPS, Thank You Very Much

More than one person has asked us about the GPS we have been using to chart our way across the prairies and mountains and fjords to Southeast Alaska.

My response is always the same: I don’t DO GPS.  In fact, not only do I not use a GPS (on this trip or any other trip), but I wouldn’t even think of using one. I am decidedly ANTI-GPS. I fear we are raising a generation of people who will not have the skills to read maps.

Half the fun of a road trip is poring over the map beforehand to figure out the best route, then marking your progress across the map, from one state to another, It’s always a great feeling when you turn the page and enter a new state or province. Want to know what the next town is and how many miles away you are? No problem, it’s on the map. Want to know the elevation of the major cities and towns? That information is on the map as well. Want to know which highways are “dotted” to mark their status as “scenic?” It’s all there on the map.

The map tells you where you are in relation to something big — the city, county, state, or even country. The GPS gadget on your dashboard barking out orders isolates you from your surroundings.

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We made our way to Alaska and back using the good old Rand McNally Road Atlas and the “Milepost” book (the “Bible” of the Alaska highway). From Dawson Creek to Fairbanks, it basically tells you what you will see every mile along the way.

Here are some random entries:

Milepost 1.2: Northern Lights RV Park

Milepost 156: Large double-ended gravel turnout/brake check area with litter bins to east at top of Sikanni Hill.

Milepost 270.8: Sulfur gas pipeline crosses highway overhead.

Milepost 335.7:  Turnout. Caution — watch for bears. Do not feed bears. A fed bear is a dead bear.

Milepost 375: Tetsa River Lodge, the “cinnamon bun center of the galactic cluster.” (Of course we stopped here.)

Milepost 404.6: Toad River Lodge has been a fixture on the highway since 1950. It is known for its collection of hats, which numbers more than 6,800.

Milepost 604.4: Watch for bison on the highway.

A road trip to Alaska would be a fool’s errand without this book.

So come on, folks, disconnect your GPS gadgets and get out those road atlases you used to read.

We Made It!

On Friday afternoon, after driving 2800 miles in 7 days, we arrived in Skagway, in Southeast Alaska.

As we drove through the town teeming with tourists from the two cruise ships docked in the harbor, we wanted to shout at everyone, “WE DID IT! WE DROVE HERE!!!” But, surmising that no one would be interested in that fact, we kept the giddiness to ourselves.

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But Skagway wasn’t really our destination; Juneau was. So, after diving 60-70 miles an hour for a week, we parked the car on the lower deck of the ferry settled in for a leisurely 6 hour ride to Juneau, where my niece and her husband were waiting for us at the dock. We followed them the last 25 minute drive to their home on Douglas Island, pulling into their driveway at 10:30PM, just in time to catch a sunset pic from their deck.

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Saturday morning, we were back on another ferry bound for Sitka. And today we rode the ferry back to Juneau, where we will be for the rest of the week.

 

Wrecker Ahead

We had just spotted a sign telling us that it was 21km to Muncho Lake, our designated picnic lunch destination, when we spotted the dreaded orange signs. As we came to a halt behind a camper, we noticed that the orange sign said “wrecker ahead.”

Since we were at a place where the road curved, we could see the wrecker (the size of a small semi) up ahead, perpendicular to the highway. Looking to our right we saw that there was a 40 foot drop off the side of the highway. This didn’t look good at all.

It was clear that we were going to be there for awhile, so my sister and I decided to get out and see what was going on. This is what we saw:

The man in the white shirt was a passenger in the truck when it went off the road. He came over to where we were standing and told us his son had been driving and had fallen asleep. They had gone off the road down into the ravine, but miraculously the truck had not rolled. Neither of them were even injured.

We watched for 45 minutes as the tow truck driver got is rig into position to pull the truck back onto the highway. Meanwhile our mom was back at the car making friends with the drivers around her. It’s kind of a community out here.

To give you an idea of the remoteness of this spot, the sign on the tow truck indicated it was from a towing company in Fort Nelson, which was 100 miles behind us. The next town was 200 miles ahead of us. That means this crash had probably happened hours before we arrived on the scene. And how they had gotten ahold of the towing company we’ll never know.

Success!

Once he got the pickup out of the ravine, the driver got both vehicles to the side so that the twenty or so of us waiting could be on our way. We all gave him a big thumbs up as we drove by.

We  said a prayer of thanks for safe driving so far, and for continued safety for the remainder of the journey.