2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Web Journal
 
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OUR ALASKA HIGHWAY ADVENTURE REALLY BEGINS:   
AN UNPRECEDENTED DELAY IN WATSON LAKE, YT

TUESDAY, JUNE 12

 
"As people know, we've had a fairly unprecedented event across the Yukon. Our crews have
been working non-stop here to get the roads reopened . . . We think -- we're hopeful --
that we will be able to get a pioneer trail through that area [large washout
between Watson Lake and Teslin] either late tonight or early tomorrow . . .
So I think . . . for people concerned about supplies, we can relax."
 
~ Allan Nixon, Yukon's asst. deputy minister of highways,
to the Canadian Broadcasting Company on Sunday morning
 
 
Mr. Nixon was close but optimistic by one day.

After his statement to the press on Sunday yet another setback occurred (unstable fill at the washout) to further delay reopening the Alaska Highway. A large convoy of semis backed up since as long as June 7 in Watson Lake was finally allowed to head toward that "pioneer road" at 7:45 PM on Monday in a controlled release.


Early pioneer roads are featured in this display at the nice visitor center in Watson Lake.
Parts of the now-paved Alaska Highway reverted to a pioneer road this past week.

The public was not allowed to go until 1 AM Tuesday, after the trucks had the new rock-and-dirt fill nicely packed down for us. 

Most RVers, including us, were asleep and unaware that the road had been reopened until they awoke on this morning. That was an effective "controlled release," which is what the highway department wanted.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED ON THE ALASKA HIGHWAY!

My previous summary ended when we arrived at the small town of Watson Lake, YT last Thursday afternoon.

A few hours later the road was closed in several places ahead of us. If we had continued past Watson Lake that afternoon, we might have ended up in a really difficult situation.


It had been raining for several days when we arrived at Watson Lake on Thursday afternoon.
Note the parallel access roads on either side of the AK Hwy.; soon they'd be filled with parked vehicles.

We expected gorgeous scenery, a bumpy ride, and some road construction delays through the remote and mighty Yukon Territory. We didn't expect flooding to shut down this major route for parts of six days, effectively stranding us 576 miles from the Alaska border.

Neither did thousands of other visitors, residents, and truck drivers north and south of the multiple affected mudslide and washout areas.

It's a perfect illustration of having to roll with the punches when you're traveling anywhere, not just in remote territories. There are some things you just can't control.

LIFELINE OF THE NORTH

This has been an interesting experience. Frustrating, but educational.

For one thing, we now understand just how dependent communities in the Yukon and Alaska are on the supplies that reach them via the Alaska Highway from distribution points to the east like Edmonton or Grande Prairie, AB.

Even the Cassiar Hwy. from Prince George, BC was rendered virtually useless in this regard because of the location of the biggest washout northwest of its juncture with the Alaska Hwy. You can see what I mean when you look at the map below.

The photo accompanying the report in the quote at the beginning of this entry shows empty shelves by Sunday at a grocery store in Whitehorse, the Yukon's largest city:


Web caption:  Stock in Whitehorse grocery stores is going fast, and many shelves are bare.
Yukon government officials say residents don't need to panic, as they expect
some major highways to be open within the next 24 hours. (photo by Mardy Derby)

Many businesses in Alaska were also affected.

Even though they also receive goods via ship, rail, and air, so much commerce and so many visitors flow along the Alaska Highway that it is truly the lifeblood of communities in the far northwestern part of this continent. It is rare for the road to be closed for more than one or two days due to snow, flooding, mudslides, wildfires, permafrost heaves, wrecks, and other acts of nature and man.

Like most folks who live in the Lower 48, or even the more populated areas of Canada, this dependency on one road was initially difficult for us to comprehend. It really opened our eyes. 


License plate on an old fire engine displayed at the Watson Lake
Signpost Forest reminds us of part of the Yukon's heritage.

The Yukon may not have very many residents (fewer than 40,000 people live in that huge province) or even very many roads, but I think the highway department must be the largest employer. Any problems with the roads affect the residents as much as those of us passing through.

When a disaster like the one that occurred last Thursday evening happens, all hands are on deck to fix the mess. The job was enormous. Helicopters and people were brought in to assess the damage and determine how to make repairs. By the weekend Watson Lake became a staging area for the multiple problem spots in that part of the region.

Forget those pesky frost heaves and gravel breaks that need repaving -- the priorities have changed.

We kept tabs on the road damage, closures, and re-openings at the 511yukon.ca website. There was a very long, detailed list on that site on Friday, June 8 of not only the Alaska Hwy. but also other affected roads in the Yukon and northern British Columbia.

This is what the 511 map looked like on Friday:

The Alaska Hwy. (YT 1) runs across the lower part of the Yukon from Watson Lake on the right to Beaver Creek on the left. That's our route.

The red solid lines near the bottom of the map are paved road closures on the Alaska Hwy. and Klondike Highway. The "Top of the World Highway" from Dawson City to the Alaska border was also closed; it's a gravel road. Red dotted lines are less traveled gravel road closures. Red cones indicate major problems that could cause significant travel delays and/or be shut down at any time last week.

The 511yukon.ca site was updated at least once a day. The three problem areas west of Whitehorse, including mudslides and washouts, were repaired in a couple of days and those parts of the Alaska Highway were reopened.


The drivers and companies I felt most sorry for were the ones with perishable products on board.
Some of them were there since Thursday, burning fuel 24/7 to keep their products cold.

Less-traveled roads to the north of us and the major mudslides and washouts nearest to us remained closed, however. The section that affected us is that long red line between Hwy. 37 (the Cassiar Hwy.) and Teslin.

Further flood-related problems developed over the weekend that aren't reflected on Friday's map.  Some residents had to be evacuated both northwest and southeast of Watson Lake because the mighty Liard River continued to rise from all the streams flowing into it. Those people were inconvenienced even more than the residents farther north who merely ran out of food, fuel, and other supplies because of panic buying.

I didn't read of any loss of life in this weather event but $$$ costs were high. I'm guessing the Canadian and maybe even the U.S. government help pay for the maintenance of this road. I don't see how only 40,000 Yukon residents could afford to do it. Not all of them pay taxes (kids, e.g.).

ANOTHER LESSON IN PATIENCE

You've probably heard this saying -- Give me patience, and I want it now! Jim and I struggle with that one a lot. We aren't always the most patient people in the world.

We arrived in Watson Lake last Thursday afternoon after having crossed into the Yukon Territory a few miles earlier. It had been raining for several days and it was still raining off and on. We were more than a little tired of rain.

We intended to spend one night, then drive to Whitehorse for the weekend. The weather was supposed to clear up for a couple days and we needed a break after all the driving we've done. Two-thirds of the population of the Yukon lives in Whitehorse, the capital of the Territory, and it has a lot of things for us to do. We also have friends there that we wanted to visit.

Too bad we were one day too late for that plan to work!

 
The sun came out by Thursday evening. There were lots of puddles in our campground the
whole time we were there from all the rain that fell earlier in the week. We're in the back (arrow).

We're mighty glad we got a campsite in Watson Lake and didn't try to just boondock somewhere for the night. A few hours after we arrived in Watson Lake the Alaska Highway north and west of us was shut down in several places and we were stuck for an unknown period of time.

We didn't know that until we were ready to leave on Friday morning, however. The worst damage was at Canyon Creek, about 75 miles northwest of our campground. The second-worst area was farther north and west of Whitehorse (the next photo shows part of that damage).

This is a photo from the first report by the Canadian Broadcasting Center that we found, dated June 8:


Caption:  In southwest Yukon, the Alaska Highway is closed between Haines Junction and
Destruction Bay because of a washout at the south end of Kluane Lake. (photo by Kelly Wroot)

See the metal culvert in that photo? Most of the culverts we've seen along the Alaska Highway are six to eight feet in diameter. That one was moved and bent with such force that it is sticking up above the pavement instead of several feet below it.

Highway reports were optimistic at first ("We might have it cleared up by Friday afternoon") but it became a day-to-day, wait-and-see game as the road continued to wash out over the weekend and highway crews battled Mother Nature.

In the washout closest to us, a hundred feet of paved road washed downstream, then two hundred feet of it was gone.

Poof. Just like that. Mother Nature can be fierce.

The water just kept coming down the mountains. The engineers and road crews were stymied. Besides trying to divert the flow of water, rocks, and debris there wasn't a lot they could do until the volume decreased at that and other washouts.


One section of the Signpost Forest, which has over 71,000 signs from visitors now

This was a high snowpack year in the northern Canadian Rockies and Alaska, even record-breaking in some areaa.

In addition to more than the normal amount of snow and consequent snowmelt in June, the region received seven times the normal amount of rain last week. That's why the highway department deemed it "unprecedented."

Watson Lake is a friendly, charming town with one evening's worth of activities in which we were interested. We ended up "stuck" there for five nights and  parts of six days.

We paid for our campsite on a day-to-day basis. Jim jokingly asked the campground owners at one point if they had a weekly rate! (No.)

We began to feel like we were growing roots -- or gathering moss!


Visitors pass through Watson Lake from all over the world. I've heard several
languages spoken by other stranded travelers in town this week.

We had several choices, none of them ideal:

  • Wait it out, which is what we did.
  • Go back south on the Alaska Hwy. and forget about Alaska this summer. That was not a viable option as long as there was any chance of the road reopening in June.
  • Go about 27 miles farther and head south on the Cassiar Hwy. (BC 37), visiting some areas in that direction until the AK Hwy. reopened. We really didn't consider that option either, but would have if we couldn't get to Alaska by the end of June or early July. We'll probably go down the Cassiar on our return trip but for now we want as much time in Alaska as possible this summer.

The mostly-gravel Campbell and Klondike Highway loop north of Watson Lake was never an option, even in good weather. Last week it sustained even more severe damage than the AK Hwy. and is still closed. It's not the priority that the AK Hwy. is.

When Jim lamented about stopping early several days ago in Grande Prairie, AB -- wishing we'd been one day farther up the road so we were stuck in Whitehorse an extra day** and not four extra days in Watson Lake -- I reminded him that he described the bike path we rode as "one of the best we've ever found" in our travels.

If we'd rushed on through Grande Prairie we wouldn't have those memories, especially if we return to the Lower 48 by another route in the fall.

(** The biggest road repair was the one on the map above at Canyon Creek between Watson Lake and Whitehorse. Other closures north of Whitehorse toward Alaska were reopened in one or two days. If we'd gotten just 75 miles farther on Thursday we'd be four days ahead now.)

IT COULD HAVE BEEN MUCH WORSE

Although we got frustrated waiting day to day to hear about the progress on the highway we kept it to a low whine. Griping wasn't productive and we were much less inconvenienced than many other folks. At least we had our home on wheels with plenty of food, a warm bed at night, and campground hookups.

We tried our best to see this delay as just part of the adventure of traveling to Alaska by road. Que sera, sera (what will be, will be). I heard some version of that philosophy from several other stranded folks who have learned to roll with the punches.

This experience also gives us more to talk about when we reminisce about our trip!


Some of the RVs boondocking at Wye Lake over the weekend

There were many truck drivers, motorcyclists, and folks in passenger vehicles who couldn't get rooms because there are so few in Watson Lake. They expected to be in Whitehorse that day or the next, not stuck for up to five days in this little town. Some had to get back to work father up the road in the Yukon or Alaska. Some had small children with them. I also felt bad for the vacationers who had a limited time to visit Alaska and had to cancel or modify their plans.

Many travelers had to change reservations they'd made ahead. We were glad we didn't have reservations ahead.


Unusual European RV parked at Wye Lake; I believe the owners are from the Netherlands.

Some travelers doubled up with complete strangers because there weren't enough motel rooms for everyone. The same thing was happening in Teslin, Whitehorse, Haines Jct., and other places up and down the highway, some more remote than where we are.

Some residents throughout southern Yukon put up as many stranded travelers as they could in their own homes and even fed them.

Despite warnings farther to the south and east, commercial trucks and travelers in RVs and passenger vehicles kept coming up the highway to Watson Lake, adding to the problem. Ditto for the other bottle-necked towns along the road.

Every day we'd ride our bikes three miles to the other end of town to see how many more vehicles had arrived. Like many other little towns along the Alaska Hwy., Watson Lake is long and narrow.


Jim rides on one of the access roads through Watson Lake on Saturday. The Alaska Hwy. (L)
runs between the access roads. Vehicles are parked anywhere they can find some space.

RVs boondocked on the access roads, nearby roads, visitor center, parking area at Wye Lake, and empty lots around town, anywhere they could find a relatively flat spot -- the closer to the roadblock the better.

A woman at the visitor center told me three lucky RVers were able to park in front of one resident's house and hook into his electricity. Now that was generous!

It's one of many examples of the hospitality shown by this community to visitors during an emergency. To the person, every Canadian we've met since beginning this trip has been helpful and friendly. Thank you!

THURSDAY: A WET WELCOME TO WATSON LAKE

The small community of Watson Lake, Yukon, population 1,500+, is highly dependent for its livelihood on travelers who pass through on the Alaska and Campbell Highways.


We were entertained by the town's small "department store." It contains a little bit of everything.

It's a symbiotic relationship because it's an important service stop for those very same travelers in this remote area.

Watson Lake is the largest town for many miles around, a good place to get food and fuel up before the long drive northwest to Whitehorse, southeast to Ft. Nelson, or south to Prince George. Watson Lake is also a communications and distribution center for the southern Yukon, a base for sportsmen and women who like to hunt and fish, and a supply point for the mining industry.

The Milepost book lists only one campground in Watson Lake, a large gravel parking lot with hookups accommodating about 140 RVs. It is located near the center of town and across from The First Wye Lake (interesting story):


Downtown RV Park in Watson Lake; we didn't stay in this one.

We found out about the newer, much smaller Tags RV Park from Mike and Terri Church's book, Alaskan Camping. At max, it holds about 40 RVs. No more than 25 parked there this week.

Tags is located across a side street from the visitor center and Signpost Forest. We are glad we chose it because it never got packed like the bigger campground. We had more room, it was quieter, and it cost less than the Downtown RV Park..


That's our white camper near the back of the campground, next to the woods.

We never did figure out why it remained only half full during the road crisis but that worked to our advantage in several ways (space, WiFi, laundry, bathrooms).

I mentioned in the previous summary that we went to the nice visitor center and toured the Signpost Forest the afternoon we arrived. I had enough to do inside that I didn't take Cody for a walk at Wye Lake that evening, although the sun did come out by then.

FRIDAY: CAN WE GO NOW?

When we discovered on Friday morning that we couldn't leave until at least the afternoon, we made good use of our time.


Overly-optimistic message at the visitors' center on Friday morning;
this was before the road started washing away at Km 1103.

We decided to get $200 worth of Canadian money so wed have it if we need it for diesel somewhere more remote farther up the road. So far weve been able to use our primary credit card for all but one purchase since crossing the border into Canada. (We were able to use our secondary card.)

We also got some Canadian loonies ($1 bills) and quarters so we could do four loads of laundry in the nice washers and dryers in the nearby restrooms. We figured that would give us more time to play in Whitehorse during the weekend.

That morning Cody and I wandered through the Signpost Forest again and took a walk on the very nice boardwalks and dirt trails around The First Wye Lake through interesting boreal wetlands and forest. All the lichens, moss, aspens, paper birches, spruce, and pines reminded me of New Hampshire and Maine on the Appalachian Trail. Several ducks floated on the lake. I loved it.

 

    

Bikes aren't allowed on the scenic trail around the lake but Jim found plenty of streets and nearby roads to ride that morning. It was a great way for both of us to work off the stress we were beginning to feel.

When we found out we still couldn't leave after lunch we went to the Northern Lights Centre at 1 PM to watch two films about the universe and the aurora borealis. Both were interesting and we considered them worth the cost of admission.

OK, now what can we do?

The saga and more pictures continue on the next page . . .

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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