General Articles

LET’S DRIVE TO ALASKA

The Alaska Highway is now open to tourists. They’ll find crazy rivers, covered wagons, six-bit beer and 1,500 miles of scenery

PIERRE BERTON August 1 1948
General Articles

LET’S DRIVE TO ALASKA

The Alaska Highway is now open to tourists. They’ll find crazy rivers, covered wagons, six-bit beer and 1,500 miles of scenery

PIERRE BERTON August 1 1948

LET’S DRIVE TO ALASKA

The Alaska Highway is now open to tourists. They’ll find crazy rivers, covered wagons, six-bit beer and 1,500 miles of scenery

PIERRE BERTON

THE LONG, lonely road to the North starts off in the flat little farming community of Dawson Creek, B.C., where the prairie meets the frontier, where the barns are built of polished brown logs and the benchland along the broad Peace River is a rich checkerboard of green and chocolate.

Five mountain ranges, three time zor. . and 1,523 miles later, the road winds up at the lu.(y, saloonjammed city of Fairbanks, deep in the blue, rolling hills of Alaska. To get there it has crossed 129 rivers, 8,000 mountain streams and some of the finest scenery in the world.

It is some road.

It cost the Americans $139 millions to build it. In eight months of 1942 the U. S. Army Engineers banged through a twisting bulldozer trail. Then 14,000 men, G. I.’s and civilian workers, sweated on the road until construction was called off in October, 1943.

first to call it by the hybrid name of Alcan” but it wouldn’t stick. The Canadian Army, which took over 1,200 miles of it in April, 1946, officially calls it “The Northwest Highway System.” But everybody who travels the road from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks—sourdough, settler, tourist or soldier-calls it simply “The Alaska Highway.” The Canadian Army still regards the highway as purely a military road—a life line between the air strips and landing fields of the Northwest Staging Route. But it doesn’t look like a military highway: there are too many civilians making the long trek north.

The first tourist to travel the Alaska Highway since the Army threw the road open to unrestricted travel this spring was a leathery little man from Massachusetts, Horace Talbot, colonel, U. S. Marine Corps (retired). I met him in Dawson Creek on June 17. He had come all the way from Clearwater, Fla., and he had been all the way up the road and back. He and his car were caked with Yukon dust, but he had a look of grim satisfaction about him.

Before the end of the year at least 2,000 tourist vehicles will follow in his tire tracks. Close to 7,000 nontourist vehicles—freight trucks, buses and army vehicles— will also travel the road. Hundreds are riding the lonely road to Alaska in every type of vehicle —in two-ton trucks with houses built on them, in jeeps with hinged plexiglass tops, in old delivery wagons, on motorcycles, in converted school buses, in big custom-built sedans, in 35-foot four-roomed trailers, in model-T Fords, even on bicycles. In Dawson Creek on a hot July day you can see every auto license from the canary and robin’s-egg-blue of Alaska to the black and yellow of Hawaii.

Dawson Creek is a crazy place for a highway to start. It was chosen as Mile Zero on the road because it is the farthest north railhead, the end of the Northern Alberta Railway. But there is only one way for the auto-borne tourist to get there: by driving the 470 miles of wretched dirt road from Edmonton through the uninspiring hills of Northern Alberta.

Many a tourist, angered by the ruts in the road

and the ferry delays on the yet un bridged Smoky River, has turned back without ever reaching Dawson Creek. In another year or two, the Hart Highway from Prince George, B.C., will be completed and tourists will be able to reach Dawson Creek from Vancouver by a far easier and more scenic route. But in the meantime, the Alaska road is still worth the trip.

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Let's Drive to Alaska

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It is a wide straight highway that stretches out from Dawson Creek, over the graceful $4 million Peace suspension bridge and through Fort St. John (mile 49). The roadbed is 36 feet wide, the gravel is deep and the curves are easy and well banked. It stays this way for about 200 miles. Then suddenly it narrows down (to 26 feet in some spots) and twists into a series of amazing hairpin turns, loops and cutbacks. This snakelike character reappears periodically for long stretches all the way to Fairbanks. There’s a reason: the appropriation was cut

before the pioneer bulldozer trail was completely rebuilt into a Class A road. Even so, it is considered the best gravel highway on the continent.

You pass the first maintenance camp at mile 20: Kiskatenaw, a huddle of

tar-paper shacks and workshops, with a small school for the children, who are many. There are 18 of these camps strewed along the highway about 70 miles apart, with names rich in the flavor of the north: Blueberry, Sikanni Chief, Swift River and Stony Creek. Each camp consists of a foreman and five men and their families.

Th e L o n el y R o a d

You reach your first eating place at mile 40: a little privately-run shack called “Joe’s Place.” You’re never more than 100 miles from a place to eat. The food is rough and ready and most of the lunch counters along the road are in converted tar-paper construction shacks.

You see your first real hunk of scenery at mile 200 where the road clings to the eastern lip of the Prophet River Valley, 1,000 feet below. The valley fans out five miles from brim to brim, stretching toward the haze in the north, a great shaggy carpet of stunted evergreens and little ponds.

Ahead of you, the road is a ragged khaki scar. It is a very lonely road. You might meet six cars in an hour. You might, on an exceptional day, meet a dozen in an hour. You mightn’t meet any.

At mile 295 the road crosses the ; unpredictable Musquaw River, which rose 26 feet in a single day, then swerves past the Department of Transport RCAF air base at Fort Nelson and heads straight for the Rocky Mountains. It climbs up the edge of Steamboat Mountain, named by an old Indian who thought the mesa formation on top looked like the prow of a ship. The Musquaw Valley below is a sheer drop of 2,000 feet;. The road twists around Mud Hillthe worst section of the highway where entire ’hunks of thoroughfare, loosened by underground streams, slide off without warning down the mountain slope. By the time it reaches Summit Lake it has plunged right up through the clouds and climbed to 4,200 feet into the very heart of the Rockies. For 160 miles you never leave these giant sentinels of living rock.

Here, at mile 419, lies the legendary ‘Tropical Valley” of the Toad and Racing Rivers, nothing more than a few hot springs, which aroused the newspaper readers of the 1920’s as the Headless Valley of the South Nahanni, 500 miles away, did a generation later.

This is glacier country and it has the prehistoric look. The mountains are raw and new as they were when the world was in crucible. There is nothing distant about the scenery here. It is right on top of you and it is a numbing sight.

And still the road heads north: past Washout and Log Jam creeks, names which hint at the problems facing the bridge engineer of the North (the tiny culvert at Washout has grown into a 100-foot trestle). Past the grand canyon of the Liard River just above the rapids of the Drowned. Up through the smoke-blue Liard Valley and over the Coal River, which is chock-full of black lignite. Over Contact Creek, where the bulldozers from the north joined up with the bulldozers from the south in November of ’42.

it is a carefully marked road. Every curve or hill has a yellow warning sign. Every bump and frost boil is marked by a red flag. Once in a while you pass one of the big yellow pieces of road machinery—the trucks, graders, cats, blades, scrapers, shovels and cranes that keep the road open. There are 950 of them.

Once in a while you see a man or two working along the road, living the lonely life that members of the maintenance crews accept. Men like Einar Nelson, a grizzled, barrel-chested, bullstrong Scandinavian who bosses the crew at Little Ranchería, works stripped to the waist in 40-below weather and—so they say-—has been known to run through the snow in his stocking feet when the mess bell sounds.

The highway moves on from the Liard, roller-coaster fashion, into the anvil-shaped hills and tiny, lily-strewn lakes of the Ranchería Valley, then on to the moose pastures of the Swift and the Smart Rivers. Innocent-looking rivers, these, in June and July—dark, liquid streams, meandering through the black moss and the blue lupins. But in spring these rivers go insane

“You’d never believe that the same innocent water you drink out of a glass could do what these flash floods do,” Major Wood Coward, the Highway system’s staff officer said to me.

A flash flood is a frightening thing. It comes where you least expect it, bursting from the quiet bushes where no stream ran before with a sound like dynamite exploding. In a matter of minutes it can dig out a 200-yard stretch of road 12 feet deep.

The Log “Skyscraper”

By mile 780, the highway has reached the lake country south of Whitehorse which feeds the Yukon River. Everything about Teslin Lake is blue. The water is a deep, abiding blue, the mountains a hazy cornflower blue and even the slight mists that sift through the valleys seem to be tinged with blue. It is a slim, many-fingered lake and the highway skirts it for 90 miles. Here, Mike McLeery, a sourdough, has a spotless lodge of peeled logs, lined with cedar.

And the highway rolls on; past the sprawling Canol ghost camp on the Teslin River; on to Marsh Lake (mile 883), a sheet of unbroken glass deep in the heart of the snow-speckled Cassiars.

Mike Nolan, a swarthy ex-detective corporal in the Mounties, runs the Marsh Lake Lodge, most ambitious of all the highway oases. This year he expects to do $20,000 worth of biggame business, aside from the transient tourist trade. From Mike’s lodge you can cruise through 300 miles of lakes on his 36-foot cabin cruiser, take 70 pounds of Arctic trout out of Marsh Lake in 45 minutes on a good day, shoot grizzly, goat, moose or caribou within 30 miles of the lodge in August, (Cost per day with meals: $8.50; with full recreation facilities: $18.50.)

Whitehorse is mile 917 on the highway and the nerve centre of the entire road system. The town boasts a wide-open Ace-away game where you roll three dice and can lose as many thousands as you care to throw away in a night, and the only three-story log cabin in the world, nicknamed “the Whitehorse skyscraper.”

The man who runs the highway from Whitehorse is Brigadier Allan Burton Connelly, C.B.E., a pleasant, soft-j spoken permanent force officer who likes to garden and listen to recorded sea chanteys in his spare time. Brig. Connelly is responsible for 1,200 miles of the highway (to the Alaska border) for the seven emergency flight strips that lie along the right-of-way and for about 200 miles of access roads leading to the flight strips. To keep all this in top shape he has $5 millions a year to spend. He hints that it isn’t enough.

Pioneers of ’48

Of the 723 men under his command, 270 actually work on the Canadian section of the highway; the rest support them. There is a vehicle and a half for every man and 40,000 spare parts on hand to keep them going. Even then the workshops are jammed with every kind of machinery undergoing repair.

In May, the highway eating places and tourist cabins were full up with settlers moving north in covered trucks and trailers, looking strangely like pictures of the wagon trains moving west in pioneer days. I talked to a tired-looking man from New Jersey. He had his wife and five children in a model-A Ford and' all his worldly goods in a tightly packed, canvastopped trailer. He was heading for Fairbanks looking for work—not sure what, but he’d heard there was plenty.

There were many like him, some with jobs to go to, others with nothing but hope. The tourists came later, in July.

And still the highway rolls north. Out of Whitehorse now and off toward the blue, snow-topped mountains of the Coast Range. Past the crumbling cabins of Champagne at the head of the Chilkoot Pass where the Klondikers burst out of the mountains in ’98. Past the fat, impassive, kerchiefed squaws, placidly scrubbing away in the creeks by the roadside.

Sixteen travelers were eating lunch at Maw Perrins’ place at Canyon Creek the day I was there. Everybody—men, women, children—wore the uniform of the highway: blue denims and loud,

red-checked shirts. Mrs. Harvey Perrins, a buxom, black-haired woman, served a three-course fried chicken dinner for $2.25. Mrs. Perrins hopes to install a beer parlor soon. (Six bits a bottle, regular highway price.)

From Canyon Creek, the highway rolls on to Haines Junction (mile 1016* whence you can drive through the mountains to the sea on the Haines cut-off road, a onetime cattle trail built by Jack Dalton, a pre-Klondike prospector. The boats will shortly be running to Haines, an Alaska port near Skagway, which means tourists can take their cars up by the West Coast Inland passage and join the highway there.

On the road goes, twisting through the Shakwak Valley to Kluane Lake, a long, slender serpent of larch-green as lovely as its name (you pronounce it Kloo-wan-ee and it sounds like a cry in the night). For 60 miles the lonely road clings to the lake. Above rist’ the huge molars and bicuspids of the St. Elias Range, highest mountains on the highway (average 14,000 feet).

And still the road moves north and west. Past a sign reading, “Beer, Wine and Women; Blackie’s Dive”; past the scores of old tires discarded on the wayside; past the neat green-and-white conveniences built for tourists by the Department of Mines and Resources.

Out onto the wide, matted floor of the Donjek River valley. There are seven trestles spanning the unpredictable, many - channeled Donjek, and every year the engineers have to repair some of them. But farther down the channel the Royal Canadian Engineers are building a new 1,600-foot steel bridge which won’t wash out.

The road moves on across the green banks of the White River, a watercourse which seems to be running with soiled milk, for this is volcanic country and the whole land is deep in the white ash which smothered the Southwest Yukon when a mountain blew up in the days before the white man came.

On past Onion Lake, where you can stop and make a wild onion salad. Past the road into Snag Airport, coldest spot on the continent, where in the terrible winter of 1947 gasoline turned to slush at 83 below.

The road swerves north toward the Alaska border and the mountains march off in a long even line to the Aleutians—Niggerhead Mountain and Sanpete Hill, Chair and Beaver and Hump and Cottonwood and far in the distance Mount Logan, 19,000 feet of snow and rock, the highest in Canada.

Across the border, you come to your first Pepsi-Cola sign and you realize that in all the 1,500 miles of highway there isn’t a single 24-sheet billboard. The U. S. section of the highway (317 miles) is civilian-operated. The rivers grow stranger than ever. Strangest of all is Yerrick Creek at mile 1340, which instead of flowing at the bottom of a valley, flows along the top of a hill.

At mile 1440, the road joins the Richardson highway, a second-class gravel road which runs from Fairbanks to Anchorage. Another three hours and you’re in Fairbanks itself, which at first glance looks as if it might have been plucked out of the State of New York and dropped in this blue valley.

For the first time in 2,000 miles you are again in a land of asphalt pavements, tile and marble store fronts and neon lights. The big new concrete buildings are crowding out the old false-fronted log shacks. There are 16 bars in town (population runs between 4,000 and 8,000). Gambling is wideopen. So is the town’s red-light district. You can buy anything in Fairbanks from an electric toothbrush to a set of falsies—if you have the money. Prices are sky-high on everything except used cars and trailers.

G.I.’s cram the streets and the air is loud with the roar of planes zooming off the hard concrete floor of Ladd Field. For this is the reason they built the highway and this gaudy little boom town is its main byproduct.

This is what the highway was created for and this, too, is what it is creating: the New North, wide-open and raucous as ever, free-spending, armed to the teeth, full of all the hopes and despairs of a new kind of gold rush, as tough and hard and ruthless and beautiful as the fancy women who walk Fairbanks’ streets. This is the 1948 model of the frontier and perhaps it isn’t very different from the earlier models, underneath the gloss.

This is the end of the road. ★