2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   SUMMARY OF OUR FIRST THREE DAYS ON THE
ALASKA HIGHWAY THRU BRITISH COLUMBIA

THURSDAY, JUNE 7

 
"Since completion in 1942, the Alaska Highway has held a fascination
for visitors and residents. The building of the Alaska Highway 
is an epic tale that involves mystery, hardship, and intrigue."
 
~ Dawson Creek, BC visitor guide
 
 
Now we really feel like we're on our way to Alaska!

We've been driving on the famed Alaska AKA Alcan Highway for the last three days and have made our way through the far NE corner of British Columbia to the SW corner of the Yukon Territory. This two-page entry is a summary of that journey.

CAPTURING THE IMAGINATION

If you're approaching the 49th state from the east I highly recommend staying long enough in Dawson Creek, BC, the southern terminus of this road, to visit the Alaska Highway House and watch the excellent 50-minute PBS film documenting the construction of the highway:

Entrance to this museum is by donation and the movie is shown at the top of each hour.

This is the fascinating story about U.S. and Canadian efforts to protect North America after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in WWII. In about eight months 30,000 American and Canadian troops and civilians punched a primitive 1,500-mile road through the wilderness from Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction, AK in one of the most ambitious government projects of all time.

Itís incredible they were able to accomplish what they did through such remote, rough terrain and under such extreme weather conditions:

  • temperatures ranging from minus 40 F. to plus 90 F.,
  • torrential rain and hail,
  • snow, mud and muskeg (similar to alpine bogs in Maine) so deep the men and machines got mired down repeatedly,
  • huge, annoying mosquitoes and flies,
  • pesky bears,
  • primitive living conditions,
  • etc.

In addition to all those challenges, the Black engineers and troops had to deal with incredible prejudice. The film underscores the fantastic job they did, too.

There are numerous original still and moving pictures of the men, the machinery, the conditions, and the terrain in the film and in museum displays at the Alaska House and the renovated grain elevator housing the Dawson Creek Art Gallery. They are very interesting to see.

The Alaska Highway has been a work in progress ever since. Some folks consider it to still be rather primitive. I had to laugh when I saw this more modern (note the word "dude?") wooden plaque displayed in the museum at the visitor center in Dawson Creek:

Alaska Highway:
Winding in and winding out
Fills my mind with serious doubt
As to whether the dude who built this route
Was going to hell or coming out!

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the road's completion. All of it is paved now (except through "gravel breaks," portions that are under construction every summer from frost heaves and wear and tear) and it is several miles shorter due to periodic re-routes to make it easier to drive.

The highway serves both as a critical lifeline for many communities along the way and is the major eastern route for goods and tourists to get to and from Alaska.

After watching this film you'll not only have a deep appreciation for the amazing feat the U.S. and Canada accomplished 70 years ago, you'll also have a deeper appreciation of the current paved road you'll travel on to reach Fairbanks or Anchorage.


Today we drove over the only remaining suspension bridge on the Alaska Hwy.
At 1,400 feet long, it spans the mighty Lower Liard River, as big as the Mississippi.


The Lower Liard River looks like a lake at this spot a few miles downstream from Watson Lake, YT.

Every time you cross a long bridge over a deep canyon with one of many rivers rushing below you, pass within several feet of gorgeous glacier-fed Muncho Lake with a rock wall on the other side, or hit yet another pothole or gravel break or frost heave . . . you can recall scenes from the documentary that will make you glad you don't have to travel this major artery to Alaska on a primitive dirt road any more!

It's still primitive in some ways, but it's much better than it was originally.

THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

We've heard plenty of stories about how adventurous travel on the Alaska Highway can still be:

  • long, steep grades down into numerous river canyons and back up the other side,
  • waiting for one-lane traffic through construction zones,
  • having windshields chipped or broken from flying gravel when big trucks go whizzing by too fast,
  • slowing down repeatedly for bumpy sections of the road (if you're lucky enough to see them coming and don't go airborne),
  • dodging rock slides and wildlife on the road,


One of the rocks we had to dodge is highlighted in the photo above.
Good thing no one was coming the other way!

  • possibly encountering snow through the northern Rockies or Cassiar Mountains even in the middle of summer,
  • losing phone signals in remote areas for days at a time,
  • having difficulty finding internet connections,
  • having difficulty finding a campsite in some areas if you're traveling at the same pace as a lot of other RVers . . .

That's just a start of what we've heard and read. It wasn't enough to discourage us from taking this historic route, however. The few other routes, including ferrying up the coast, have their own challenges.


Large beaver statue at the visitor center in Beaver Lodge, AB, near the BC border;
there are beaver dams in the numerous ponds and wetlands we've passed.

The good news is that after traveling the first section of the Alaska Highway this week from Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, BC to a few miles over the Yukon Territory line at Mile 612 in Watson Lake we haven't run into any major problems yet, and very little roadwork or traffic.

It's imperative to remain alert at all times on the Alaska Highway, however. The signs warning about rock slides, road work, and large game on the road are for real:

Today was our most "adventuresome" day on road so far, with some rain through the northern Rockies where you have to drive more slowly even on a dry, sunny day, thick fog in that area for several miles that reduced our visibility to about 150 feet, a foot of water on the road near Muncho Lake where a creek was over its banks (a road crew working to un-clog a culvert waved us through that), rocks in the road in several places that we had to go around, and a wood bison sauntering across the highway right in front of us:


We had to stop to let this big wood bison cross the road.
We read that they sometimes sleep on the warm pavement at night!

Fortunately, traffic was so light we could safely make these stops and maneuvers. We kept wondering where everybody was.

The most tense moment was when Jim had to swerve into the oncoming lane to avoid hitting a semi coming out of a parking area in the dense fog. Thank goodness no one was coming from the other direction.

The amazing mountain scenery and spotting lots of wildlife along the road made it all worthwhile. We saw about five stone sheep on a rocky slope, half a dozen black and grizzly bears between the road and the tree line, and even more wood bison than that.


Wood bison grazing along the highway


This is the only bear I could "catch" with my camera today.

Our critter count was good today!

We still haven't seen any elk, caribou, or moose, although the habitat is perfect for those species -- lush green grass and new leaves on trees and shrubs, plenty of water, and millions of acres to roam free.

This is gorgeous wilderness territory and we're excited to be here. The only disappointment is all the rain we've had the last three days. That's why it's so green up here.

DAWSON CREEK: IT'S ALL ABOUT MILE 0

It began raining before we left Grande Prairie on Tuesday morning. We drove only 81 miles that day to reach Dawson Creek because we wanted to spend the afternoon visiting several landmarks in town.

The historical Mile 0 post (above) and a newer one nearby (below)

In addition to the Alaska Highway House we saw both the historic and newer Mile 0 posts and the visitor center, railway station museum, and art gallery at the Northern Alberta Railways Park. 

All are within two blocks of the roundabout halfway through town. (So far most of the small towns on the Alaska Hwy. have been linear -- only a block or two wide but very long.)

Exterior and interior views of the renovated grain elevator housing an interesting art gallery

 


The visitor center and a railway museum are in the old train depot.

We passed the WalMart store on the way into Dawson Creek and decided it was too small to park overnight there.

We spent that night at the Mile 0 RV Park at the other end of town. It's a nice campground with pull-through water and electric sites for $32 Canadian plus tax. We got there early enough to get a spacious site at the end of a row. We parked on gravel with grass (and mud and puddles) on either side. The place was mostly full by late afternoon.


Mile 0  Campground:  our rig is under the arrow

One bit of advice we've heard repeatedly about traveling the Alaska Hwy. in an RV is to start early every morning and stop early every afternoon in order to 1) get a decent campsite and/or 2) be able to explore the area a little bit before moving on.

It's true. At this time of year these campgrounds fill up quickly each day and if you don't have reservations, which is our MO most of the time, you could end up having to dry camp overnight at one of the many parking areas along the highway instead of having water, electricity, maybe a sewer and cable TV, and a WiFi signal at a campground.

We had planned to boon-dock more than we're doing on our way through Canada.

So far we're spending more time at campgrounds so we can get WiFi. It's critical that we keep tabs on the weather and road conditions as we proceed up this highway. It's also important to us to know what charges are being made on our credit cards, to read our e-mail and news reports, etc.

We aren't using our personal Verizon MiFi through Canada because it's outrageously expensive. It's also useless through much of British Columbia and Yukon where there is no Verizon cell service.

COMFORT VERSUS THRIFT

Another reason we chose to stay in campgrounds the last four nights is the rain.

We're simply more comfortable in an RV during rainy weather when we have water and electrical hook-ups. We spend more time inside the camper and like having TV and internet diversions. We can use our electric space heater and not mess with the generator. We can't rely on all those solar panels for power in the rain and having hook-ups saves time and hassles; we don't have to hunt for water and dump stations.


Highway crew busy scooping rocks, mud, and debris from a culvert
in a creek as we approached Muncho Lake.


Instead of flowing under the road, the water was covering the highway at a low point.
This is how washouts of the Alaska Highway begin. Fortunately, this one was averted.

There are very nice, less expensive alternatives to private campgrounds such as Mile 0, of course.

We've seen more municipal (public/city) campgrounds in Alberta and British Columbia than in the States. We really liked the Rotary Club campground in Grande Prairie and we've seen others like it along the highway in other towns. They are a little less expensive than private campgrounds with comparable services but not as cheap as most of the provincial parks. Both city and provincial parks tend to have more spacious sites than private campgrounds (ditto in the U.S.).

So far most of the provincial parks in Canada have been farther off our route so we havenít used any of those yet. We would if we were spending more time at a particular location. The provincial parks are often in more remote locations that are less likely to have WiFi at the campsites. That's a limiting factor for us while we can't use our personal MiFi card to get online.

Above and below:  we enjoyed lunch along beautiful glacier-fed Muncho Lake.

Speaking of expenses, diesel fuel definitely costs more and more as we go farther north.

We paid $1.519/liter for diesel in Fort Nelson, the highest so far. That translates to ~ $5.75/gallon Canadian and only a little less American. Diesel is less expensive in Watson Lake, YT at the Tempo station next door to our current campground ($1.409/liter Canadian). We're hoping the next fill-up in Whitehorse costs less since it's a larger town.

And groceries? We paid a whopping $6.13 Canadian for a gallon of milk at the IGA in Fort Nelson. Yikes! It's not that much less when converted to U.S. $$. Compare that to $1.62/gallon in Colorado Springs a couple weeks ago. (Granted, that's cheaper than anywhere else we got it in the U.S., but still . . .)

Everything else -- produce, dairy, poultry, canned goods, snacks, etc. -- was two to four times what we're used to paying at WalMart in the States.

Continued on next page so it's easier to load the photos . . .

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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