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
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
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
There was a very long, detailed list on that site on Friday, June 8 of not only the Alaska Hwy. but
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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 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
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
Downtown RV Park in Watson Lake; we didn't stay in
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
We decided to get $200 worth of Canadian money so we’d have it if we
need it for diesel somewhere more remote farther up the road. So far
we’ve 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
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 . . .
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil