How wild is the Alcan?

Traveling the Alaska Highway, part three

 

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Float plane on Pickhandle Lake, Yukon Territory

This is one of three posts about our drive on the Alaska Highway.


It used to be that the Alcan took some serious mettle to traverse.  You had to carry spare tires and car parts and know how to use them, and you might spend your nights camped in the middle of nowhere due to lack of services.

These days, the Alcan is more of a multi-day scenic drive than it is a serious technical challenge.¹  Dale, who has been dreaming about the Alcan for years, did plenty of reading and knew that the roads would be for the most part passable, but I think we both hoped, just a little, that there might be some sort of challenge, enough to warrant saying, “Yep, it was rough, but we made it to the end.”  But heck, even my biggest fear, that we wouldn’t find shelter and services, wasn’t an issue.  We couldn’t be picky, but it was easy to find at least one stopping point each night that worked for us.

So no, it wasn’t exactly the outback adventure we’d hoped for, but it was still worth doing, if for no other reason than to be in the vast wilderness of northern Canada.

Only the last 200 miles of the Alcan is in Alaska; most of it is situated in British Columbia (the first 613 miles) and the Yukon Territory (577 miles), and the route took us progressively northward.

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The Alaska Highway, in red (Source: By Luigi Zanasi, Public Domain)

Wild terrain

For most of the time, it felt as if we were traveling through true wilderness.

And really, it is wilderness.

Take the Yukon.  Who actually goes to the Yukon, except for prospectors and Jack London?  Actually, not many do–the Yukon covers 186,000 square miles (of the U.S. states, only Alaska and Texas are bigger), and yet only 36,000 people live here.  Of course, the further north you go, the less inhabitable it becomes for the average human, but this results in a whole lot of untamed territory.

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I expected the subarctic Yukon terrain to be treeless and barren, but it was actually quite scenic.  The southern part through which we traveled is part of the American cordillera and contains eight of Canada’s ten highest mountains, five of which are in the Saint Elias Mountain Range.  It also has numerous glaciers as well as the largest non-polar icefields in the world.

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We had long stretches of road that looked a lot like this, completely unbroken by any sort of civilization (other than periodic rest stops)
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Nisutlin Bay Bridge, in the Yukon.  This is the longest bridge on the Alaska Highway

Even though it was just the beginning of September, Autumn had arrived in the Yukon, and the further north we went, the more colorful the forests became.  The trees with their fall colors, combined with the shrubby red undergrowth and pink wildflowers, made the scene riotous.

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Autumn in the Yukon, plus an almost-view of the mountains (can you find them in all those rain clouds?)

The terrain could be boggy, with numerous marshy ponds, and moose love this ecosystem.  The evergreens reflected the ever-changing latitude and grew scragglier and scrawnier the further north we went.

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A Yukon state park not too far from the Alaska border
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This is what the trees in this harsh climate are reduced to!  At the Canada-Alaska border

The trees looked, well, sickly, but they deserved admiration for valiantly trying to grow in such harsh conditions (good for you, you tough little buggers).   We came up with similes for the trees—they were like pipe cleaners, or those long wiry tools that you use to clean inside of bottles, or the polyp creatures from The Little Mermaid. (Dale came up with that last one).

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The Yukon’s trees evoke comparisons to the sad little polyp creatures in “The Little Mermaid” (Source: For the Love of Stories)

“Towns” of the Yukon

Most northwestern Canadian towns came into existence for three reasons: trapping, the Alcan, or, in the case of the Yukon, the Klondike gold rush.²

Gold was discovered in a tributary of the Klondike River in August 1896, triggering one of the largest gold rushes in history.  Thousands of hopeful prospectors followed various routes throughout 1897-98, entering the region by way of the newly-created Alaskan tent towns Skagway and Dyea before starting the 600-mile journey through the mountains to the goldfields.

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Klondike routes (Source: National Park Service)

The stampeders had to pack in all of their gear, an arduous process that required moving materials from one cache to the next.  They were driven by the image of a river strewn with golden nuggets, but in reality, most of the stakes had been claimed by the time word of gold reached the outside world.  These men faced disease, malnutrition, hypothermia, and avalanches, as well as extreme weather, with summers being hot and winters being brutal (temperatures may drop as low as -60 degrees F around here).  There were murders and suicides, and work animals died by the thousands from abuse and over-exertion.  The bones of some of these animals still lie at the bottom of a place called Dead Horse Gulch.

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Stampeders climbing up Chilkoot Pass (Source: Cantwell, George G.,  Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

While over 100,000 people took off for the Yukon, only around 4000 actually profited from the seven billion dollars in gold that was found.  The other stampeders–those who survived–often left the Klondike penniless, and the towns that had supported them were abandoned.  The Yukon has numerous ghost towns left over from the gold rush era.

We entered the Yukon on our second Alcan day and, not surprisingly, saw very few settlements over the course of our time here, with the only towns of any significant size being Watson Lake and Whitehorse.

Watson Lake (population: ~1500) sits on the B.C./Yukon border, hence its nickname–“Gateway to the Yukon.”  At the Visitor’s Center we saw the Sign Post Forest, where people passing through have left behind license plates, stickers, random notes, or signs pilfered from their hometowns, for a total of 82,036 objects as of September 1, 2015 (they count again every year).

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These signs represent places from all of the world, including San Marcos, Texas, not far from where I grew up and where I went to graduate school:

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Today, Yukon’s municipalities are designated as either towns or settlements but has only one that is labeled a city, and that’s its capital, Whitehorse (population: 26,000).

Whitehorse sits on the northern Yukon River, and legend has it that the name of the town came from gold miners, who thought that the white-capped rapids of the Yukon resembled white horses’ manes.

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The Yukon River as seen from the Whitehorse waterfront
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This statue is dedicated to the Klondike stampeders as well as those who came later in the search for other minerals.  The plaque says “Yukon Prospectors’ Association Hall of Fame,” listing names and describing these men as “a special breed” who have “contributed tremendously to the Yukon.”  On the other side, a panel says, “”This statue is dedicated to all those who follow their dreams.” Nice.

For such a small town, Whitehorse had a slew of businesses, including a Walmart, two Starbucks, lots of fast food restaurants, and several grocery stores.  Granted, when we went to Walmart to get a few supplies, we found the shelves to be half empty, and the store didn’t have propane or ice.

“But they don’t need to sell ice in stores,” I told Dale.  “The locals just hike up into the mountains and chip their own blocks off of a glacier.”

“Wussy Americans, asking for ice in plastic bags,” Dale replied.

Yup.

We found the people to be friendly and helpful, and the town had a laid back, artsy vibe.

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Mural in downtown Whitehorse; there were several distinctive murals around town
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Another mural in Whitehorse, honoring the gold rushers

We met several residents who had moved to the Yukon from other countries and loved it.  Our hostess at Robert Service Campground, for example, was an attractive young woman from Germany.  She was tall and thin and piled her blonde hair atop her head in a stylish, effortless way that made me envious.  She was incredibly friendly and spent quite a bit of time talking to us about her time in Whitehorse.  She had lived here for several years, and in the winter she worked as a ski instructor and housesat for sled dog owners (I want that job!); in the summer she worked at the campground.

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Totem in the waterfront park

Whitehorse came into existence in 1900 when it became the northern terminus for the White Pass & Yukon Route railway.  River steamboats, including the S.S. Klondike (below) connected the railhead to the hub of the gold rush, Dawson City.  The Yukon River was the only “highway” in the region until the Alcan was built, and even after the gold rush faded, Whitehorse remained one of the most important cities in the region (and obviously still is).

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End of the Alcan: Alaska

We reached Alaska on our fourth day, and it was thrilling.  We lived in Ketchikan, Alaska, from 1993-94, but it was an isolated island and expensive to travel off of, and we never got to see the rest of the state.  We had always dreamed of coming back, and now, here we were, ready to explore our 49th state.

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Welcome!  Our FILTHY car, covered with Alcan dirt/mud/detritus, sits in the background


And on our fifth day, we reached Delta Junction, the official end of the Alcan.  Our journey on this storied highway was over.

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Even though the Alcan didn’t fully match all of our expectations, we loved it for the wilderness that it gave us access to.  The Yukon offered the most unadulterated territory we’d ever visited, and yet we saw only a fraction of it.  We will go back sometime and explore everything that we missed, which included historic Dalton City, and, if we travel further north, the Arctic Circle and Inuvik, Northwest Territories, which sits just shy of the Arctic Ocean.

It’s comforting to know that places such as the Yukon still exist, places where bison, as well as moose, bear, muskox, and reindeer–for goodness sakesroam,³ and where you can go for hundreds of miles without seeing a sign of civilization.  I think we all hope that such places will continue to exist, because we all want a touch of wilderness in our lives.

 


Notes:

¹ There are still several highways in Alaska and Canada that absolutely do offer the challenges that the Alcan used to present.  The Dalton Highway, for example, runs from north of Fairbanks to the town of Deadhorse, near the Arctic Ocean.  We met several people in Denali National Park who had driven the Dalton at least part way, and it was much more difficult than the Alcan.  One was even turned back at the pass multiple times due to weather.  Bucket list!

² Even though many of the Yukon towns are relatively young, there is evidence that First Nations peoples have existed in the area for at least 10,000 years.

³ Reindeer are really just caribou, but still.  There’s something called the Reindeer Preserve in the northern Northwest Territories.  I wanna go there!

The route that we took on the Alcan:
  • Day 1: Jasper National Park to Sikanni River Campground and RV Park
  • Day 2: Sikanni River Campground to Watson Lake, Yukon
  • Day 3: Watson Lake to Whitehorse, Yukon
  • Day 4: Whitehorse to Tok, Alaska
  • Day 5: Tok to Fairbanks
Canada’s territories

The Yukon is one of Canada’s three federal territories, the other two being Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.  Hard to believe, but the Yukon is actually the smallest of the three regions.  The three combined account for 40% of Canada’s land mass but only about 3% of its population.  (The Canadian government’s website explains the difference between a territory and a province.)

More about the Klondike Gold Rush

The National Park Service has great information on the Klondike Gold Rush, and Discovery has a fascinating interactive feature called The Golden Stairs: History of the Yukon Gold Rush.