Wednesday, January 27, 2010


There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;

As I cross the Canadian border at Lyndon, Washington, Robert W. Service's poem, 'The Spell of the Yukon' spins in my mind. I know it by heart, having memorized it and other Service poems as a kid. The North Cascades rise above the river to the south, and I have a hard time keeping my eyes on the freeway. I think of Fred Becky, my old friend, 85 years old or so and still climbing mountains. I met him when I was young, and he's been an inspiration all my life. Fred climbed the first ascent of many peaks here and wrote the 3-volume guidebooks to these mountains.

On Canada Highway 1 I speed past the town of Hope, as the road turns to the left, north into the huge mountains of British Columbia, up the Frazier River valley. It's a 2-lane each direction, with dizzying drop-offs to the side into the river. I see the high water marks on the rock; spring run-off must be gargantuan.

Hope, British Columbia

The temperatures are mild, and the road is dry. Being a mountain climber, I keep looking upwards as the mountains rise, looking at the cliffs, frozen waterfalls, avalanche slopes. My son Thor always looks down into the water, dreaming of fish. The Frazier river looks cold, threatening, and miserable this time of year. It must be a wild ride in the summer; along the road I notice rafting companies advertising trips.

Frazier River canyon, B.C.

As I pass into the interior on the north side of the range, dense fog floods up the mountainsides. I'll be riding in it for the next two days, the product of a warm air mass that has filled Canada behind the massive cold air flooding the "Lower 48". I stop for lunch, comment on the weather, and the waitress asks me whether I'm complaining or bragging.

The warm air coats B.C. in dense fog

About twelve hours and 850 miles later I arrive in Prince George, smelling the pulp mills before I see the city, reminding me of my youth in Finland. It's bigger than I remember: a large casino greets visitors from the south. Rooms are expensive; I thought maybe they would want to lure me into gambling with a cheap one. I mosey into the center of town and find a very nice place next to several restaurants. After the previous week of fine food I order the macaroni and cheese dinner, which turns out to be surprisingly good. Hockey plays on every tv screen 24/7. I'm treated to LA v. Canada? Well, at least it's hockey.

A logging truck barrels down the Alcan above Fort Nelson, B.C.

In the morning I'm up early, hoping to make 1,000 miles. I drive north though the fog to the Hudsons Hope cut-off, and drive Highway 29, saving me 30 miles of the Alaska Highway. I'll miss Dawson Creek, the start, but I'm in a hurry...and I've been here before. The cut-off goes past the W.A.C. Bennett dam, a large hydroelectric dam on the Peace River. Otherwise signs of habitation and commerce taper off rapidly. Riverboats plied the river as the main source of commerce into the mid-20th century. I don't slow down.

After a few hours I gas up at the intersection of th Highway 67, the Alaska Highway. Highway isn't the same as freeway. It's a beautiful, straight, smooth road, beautifully maintained. However there is just one lane in each direction and a regular procession of logging trucks pass at high speed, headed south to Fox Creek and Dawson Creek. I keep up my head of steam, past Fort Nelson.

The next section is the only one I really worry about. From Fort Nelson, the road winds through narrow canyons over high mountains with no guard rails. But it's the 60 miles of "BUFFALO ON ROAD AHEAD" signaled by a large yellow sign and flashing light. They are serious: the largest land mammal in North America weighing 1,000 to 2,000 lbs. My car is no match for one, and they appear in an instant out of the dark night covering the road. Suddenly there they are...I brake violently, swerve right as several stand unperturbed in the center of the road. Except for careful steering, I couldn't stop in time. I sweat it out for an hour as I burn past Liard Hot Springs, a must-visit venue for every traveler of the highway. But I speed along the Liard River, the site of one of my favorite books: R.M. Patterson's "Dangerous River: Adventure on the Nahanni." I dream of paddling the river in my old "Canadienne" wood and canvas canoe I'm renovating in my garage. Patterson lived in the area in the 1920's and plied the river solo.

Thinking I'm past the danger, I speed up, only to have a huge moose suddenly appears in the road. Another slalom maneuver at the wheel; my heart races for the next five minutes...that was close. I press on to Watson Lake, my goal for the day. I arrive near midnight, and every gas station is closed; none have credit card access. I pull over to the side of the road with the truckers, pile gear to the right to make long space in the back of the car, blow up my air mattress, pull out my sleeping bag and pillow, and settle in till morning.

I'm up by 6:00am; it's still black as coal, and the warm fog still blankets British Columbia. At the service station I fill the car, check the oil, and wobble in seeking food. I ask the woman at the counter if the food is good - a foolish question, but I'm more curious if the cook is in action. He is, a wonderful local Canadian in his white T-shirt. I get the regular: bacon, eggs, potatoes, coffee. He asks how I like my eggs; 'sunny-side up!' We talk a few minutes, I'm in a chatty mood. He looks for his glasses, but can't find them. He is asking his wife, looking everywhere. I feel my pocket. I've picked them up by mistake after I signed the receipt, and have two pair in my pocket. I call to him, hand them back and get a big smile. We are the same forgetful age and understand each other on this one!

Light appears in the east over northern B.C.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.

I blast forth, the road now rolling up and down, around huge canyons, over passes and hills. Around 9:30am the first light hits the treeless, snow encrusted peaks ahead. I look in the rear-view mirror and see the clouds turning pink as "rosy fingered dawn", as the Odyssey calls it, appears in the east. Unfortunately for you, Dear Reader, my B.A. is in Classical Greek, and phrases from the Classics flood my brain from time to time.

First sun, northern B.C.

Great expanses, few towns. I don't see another car for an hour. I pass another traveler sleeping in a turnout. Now the sun is up, flooding the wooded hills ahead in a warm orange light. I calculate the distance to Whitehorse, estimating that I'll be there for lunch. I love Whitehorse. Twenty-five years ago I arrived the first time by dogteam at the end of the 1000-mile long Yukon Quest dog race along the Yukon River from Fairbanks, across Lake Lebarge. Wonderful folks provided us with a home for a few days as we rested and ate before returning home. Ever since I've had a soft spot in my heart for the Gateway to the North. More Service rings in my brain. This time, "The Cremation of Sam McGee":

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Rolling along towards the sunlit hills

It's 1005 miles from Watson Lake to my house. Like a barn-sour horse I kept the accelerator down, even passing up gas in Haynes Junction. I'll make it to Beaver Creek. Then the U.S. Border. The enormous mountains rise up vertically west of the highway; Kluane lake is immediately on the east. This might be the most stunning landscape of the whole trip, but for the storm brewing ahead. The wind blows the little Subaru hard; I hang on tight. Under the cloud I see blue sky in the arctic. Hope springs eternal; I may avoid the blizzard.

High winds and snow north of Haines Junction
Yukon Territory

The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I've bade 'em good-by — but I can't.

Here the effects of global climate change are stunning. Up till now, the road has been smooth as silk, a virtual freeway. The road from Haines Junction to the U.S. border is caving in everywhere. Red flagging and cones every few hundred yards mark the dips and cracks which can high-center a car. The permafrost is melting, and the bottom is falling out of the road infrastructure. I look west and notice the spruce trees tipping drunkenly in every direction as their base collapses. My car bottoms out, I fly into the air, held down by my seat belt and brake violently to avoid the next divot. Eyes forward...

The "Drunken Forest" near Beaver Creek,
Yukon Territory

At the border, the Customs Agent asks where I've been, where I'm going. "House-sitting for a friend and visiting my kids," I reply. "Welcome Home!" I breeze through, heading for Tok. Last trip it was -47 degrees here, and I broke the hose on the diesel pump trying to fill my truck as the fuel turned to vaseline. Today it's much warmer, with the overcast sky like a blanket on the rime covered trees.

Back in the USA, rime coats the trees

I make the first turn in a thousand miles, left onto Highway 1 and Anchorage. It's only 350 miles to go, a mere sprint. But it's dark, and caribou or moose can appear on the road. Still, I've driven these roads forever and press on at high speed, through the Alaska Range, to Glenallen, and the hub. I'm as good as home; this is familiar territory. I stop at the Hub, a gas station I've visited hundreds of times. The last turn, onto the Glen Highway and 189 miles to Anchorage. It is only 6:30pm; I'll be home at 10. I'm road weary, as I pull into the freeway to town, turn on my road, and coast up the driveway. My odometer tells me it's been 2,600 miles since Portland. I settle into my chair, open a beer and let the road buzz subside:

It’s the great, big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.


Brian said...

That was an interesting drive along with Robert service Im a fan of him also. And I would love to travel to Alaska one day I shall look in again :)Brian(:

Oystercatcher said...

Great post Ralph. You captured the length and weariness of the Road well.

Should Fish More said...

I drove the highway several times, from '73 to '80, when it was still gravel and dirt. Brings back memories of waiting days at Summit Lake for a fuel injector to come in by bus for my VW. Nice pictures.