Next year marks the 75th anniversary of this legendary road across America’s Last Frontier.
By Lazelle Jones
It’s not just another long weekend getaway or Sunday drive! It’s a commitment that requires planning and preparation. But for the motorhome enthusiast who wants to explore a slice of American history and experience a memorable adventure, driving the Alaska Highway will not disappoint.
The 75th anniversary of what was initially called the Alaska-Canada Highway, or Alcan for short, takes place in 2017. Already preparations are being made to commemorate this milestone. You can start planning a trek for yourself.
Like the retooling of Detroit to build tanks, planes, and submarines; the creation, training, and equipping of an armed force (millions of men and women); and the research involved in the Manhattan Project, Americans made the building of the Alaska Highway go from zero to 60 in an amazingly short period of time.
Construction began in March 1942 in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and of Japanese air raids on some of the Aleutian Islands of the Alaska Territory. (Alaska was not a state until 1959.) In just eight months, the 1,400-mile road was carved through a magnificently beautiful but oh-so-brutal landscape.
Much of the road is not in the United States at all. It begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and winds its way in a northwesterly direction. It crosses the southwest corner of the province of Yukon, enters Alaska, and ends at Delta Junction.
Dawson Creek, British Columbia
Dawson Creek was the end of the line for the railroad in western Canada. The town consisted of grain elevators, a train depot, stores, and a few log cabins until thousands of U.S. military personnel, plus equipment, arrived for the massive construction project that was to follow. Huge tent cities and supply depots were erected. In all, 30,000 troops and civilian contractors came through here, and Dawson Creek was forever changed.
Initially, the highway was controlled by the U.S. military; after the war, the Canadian portion was turned over to Canada, and later it was opened to the public. The road continued to be improved and shortened, and today it is hard-surfaced along the entire route.
Start your adventure by stopping at the visitors center in Dawson Creek. The father of center director Joyce Lee helped to build the highway, and she shares with visitors her dad’s rich anecdotal history. A hundred yards east of the visitors center is the Mile 0 marker. The center of downtown is two blocks to the south, where the magic of the monumental historic effort still fills the air.
The Alaska Highway House museum offers a broad overview and understanding of the highway. It shows how road construction took place simultaneously in Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, Beaver Creek, and Delta Junction.
Twenty minutes north of Dawson Creek is a must stop: the original Kiskatinaw Bridge. Built like a railroad trestle using wooden beams and planks, the curved bridge took nine months to complete. You can still drive over it. So, enjoy.
At Fort St. John, about an hour north of Dawson Creek, is a collection of original equipment used to construct the highway. Stop to see it, and consider the dangerous side of construction. Casualties and fatalities from accidents ran high. At Charlie Lake in Fort St. John, a pontoon boat accident in May 1942 took the lives of a dozen men. A granite memorial honors them.
The temperature range during construction of the Alaska Highway was brutal. At 74 degrees below zero, two men froze to death while riding in the back of a truck. And 90-degree temperatures were common during the summer of 1942. It is said that the blackflies and mosquitoes were so thick that, when swarming, they could choke livestock to death.
Still, it was the cold that required more resources and resourcefulness. Soup cans were filled with gasoline and placed under the transmissions and axle housings of heavy equipment overnight so, when lit, they could keep the vehicle’s lubrication from freezing. Most workers had never experienced such extremes. Work continued from before dawn until after dark, with few available pleasures and no days off.
Fort Nelson, British Columbia
At the north end of town is Fort Nelson Heritage Museum. Its founder and longtime curator, Marl Brown, moved to town in 1957 and loves to share his stories about the past. His massive collection includes equipment and artifacts used to build the highway, as well as more modern gear.
Mr. Brown’s collection of motorized vehicles is phenomenal. His antique automobiles include a Model T Ford he acquired when he was a teenager, which he still drives. This place should not be missed, so set aside a couple of hours to tour the various buildings.
Back on the road toward Watson Lake, you may fancy a stop at Tetsa River Lodge, located at Mile 375. This place calls itself the “cinnamon bun centre of the galactic cluster” (i.e., they have good cinnamon rolls!), and offers soups and sandwiches as well. The complex includes a campground, too.
Another fun stop in Watson Lake is the Signpost Forest, where a million road, city, and mileage signs are displayed in a parklike setting. There’s a good chance that wherever you are from, you will find a sign from there.
The biggest city in Yukon is its capital, Whitehorse, situated alongside the Yukon River. It has all the services found in a big metro area, so it’s another candidate for an overnight stop.
Two important attractions that should not be missed are the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site and the Yukon Transportation Museum. The S.S. Klondike, a stern-wheeler, navigated the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City from 1937 to 1950, and so was an important mode of transportation in the Yukon. Climb aboard for your own self-guided tour.
The second must-see stop is the Yukon Transportation Museum, which features aircraft that once connected Yukon to the rest of the world. At the heart of the exhibits is the story of the Northwest Staging Route, a series of airstrips that once extended into the Soviet Union.
As part of its Lend-Lease policy of World War II, the United States provided the Soviet Union with military aircraft during the war. The aircraft were flown from Great Falls, Montana, to Fairbanks. Along the way, they made fuel stops at Watson Lake, Whitehorse, Fort Nelson, and other towns. From Fairbanks, Soviet pilots flew the planes to Siberia. The Alaska Highway connected the outposts associated with the Northwest Staging Route.
Haines Junction And The International Border
The first major stop after leaving Whitehorse is Haines Junction. From there, travelers can head south to Haines, Alaska, an open water port on the edge of Chilkoot Inlet. Or, turn right at Haines Junction and continue up the Alaska Highway along the edge of Kluane Lake (a 50-mile-long body of water, the largest in Yukon Territory). Park your motorhome along the lake and have lunch, or at least a cup of coffee; watch as the gales blow across the water and cause dramatic waves.
Stops along the lake include Destruction Bay (population 35) and Burwash Landing (population 95). The latter is home of the Kluane Museum of Natural History and a 21-foot-diameter gold pan, purportedly the world’s largest.
You reach Beaver Creek as you near the international crossing. Have your passport ready, for today if you travel between Canada and the United States, you will need it.
The Alaska Highway is officially designated as Alaska Route 2. In Tok (at the junction of Route 2 and Alaska Route 1), again you have an option. Turn left and head down to Valdez, a deep-water port in Prince William Sound, or stay on the highway and continue on its final segment.
From here, more history-related stops await. One is a right turn off the road, where signage leads to Tanacross Air Tanker Base, one of the airstrips used by planes being ferried during the Lend-Lease program in World War II. Today it’s used to support fire-fighting in the vast landscape that spreads before you.
You can see a section of the original Alaska Highway by turning left off the paved route. The twisting, narrow, single-lane road winds for a short distance beneath a canopy of trees that, left unattended, would again fill the land. If you’re in a big motorhome, you’ll want to assess and consider this before taking it this route!
Just before Delta Junction (and the tiny town of Deltana), you will cross the Black Veterans Memorial Bridge, also called the Gerstle River Bridge. This span was dedicated to the African-American engineers who worked in segregated crews, sometimes left to build the highway without adequate equipment.
The Alaska Highway ends officially at Delta Junction, but your adventure can continue! From here, you can head on to Fairbanks via the Richardson Highway.
Supplies And Sights
It takes at least a week to drive the 1,400-mile highway. Along the way, you likely will see wildlife such as bighorn sheep, moose, American bison, and an untold number of birds and other critters. You don’t want to feel rushed.
Fuel is plentiful, with diesel and gasoline service stations at most 150 miles apart (and that’s only along a couple of stretches on the highway). Groceries, hardware, pharmacies, sundries, medical facilities, and mechanical support are relatively close at hand. RV parks and campgrounds of every ilk (commercial, state, and provincial) are augmented by the virtually endless primitive RV camping possibilities along the route.
Driving the Alaska Highway underscores why so many embrace the RV lifestyle and the potential it offers. It’s awesome. There is simply no other way to put it.
The MILEPOST is a guidebook to Alaska, as well as Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, and Yukon. This travel guide contains information about border crossings and attractions, maps, and much more. To order, phone (800) 726-4707 or visit www.themilepost.com. The website alone is worth visiting, even if you do not buy the guide.
Current road conditions:
Alaska: 511 (available in Alaska only)
@alaska511 on Twitter
British Columbia: (800) 550-4997
Yukon: (877) 456-7623