Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Navigating the Alaska Highway, Part 2

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Navigating the Alaska Highway, Part 2

Mama Bear and her cub by the roadside in northern British Columbia
bison by the roadside
Northern British Columbia had some very scenic spots that we chanced upon:  Muncho Lake, Tetsa River, Stony Mountain, Summit Lake, and Liard Hot Springs.  It was in this part of North America where  we saw the most number of wildlife by the road sides: a mother bear and her cub relaxing among the grass and wildflowers, a herd of bison lying on the ground with a huge one walking along the road beside our motorhome, and a moose hiding among the shrubs by the hot springs.  There were no mileposts on the first 1000 kilometers of the Alaska Highway but we started seeing them on the Yukon.   The Highway criss-crossed the British Columbia/Yukon border several times.  So we were primed when we reached Watson Lake, the first city on the Yukon part of the Highway. 
Liard Hot Springs

Signpost Forest
We went to see the Northern Lights Museum expecting to be educated about the Aurora Borealis at $10 each.  It turned out to be just a brief video of the lights recreated on the dome ceiling for effect.  It was not worth the time and money the 3 couples spent on the ‘show’.  But the memorable place in Watson Lake was Signpost Forest where we were the 67,000th visitor to place a signpost.  Ours reads ‘Bill & Carol, Pittsburg, Ks/ Manila, Phil. 8PM, 8/8/08’ which we painted on a wooden board we purchased at a HomeBuilders’ Centre.  The paint was provided by the Visitor’s Information Centre where we also registered as Yukon Gold Passport holders, with the chance to win 5, 10, or 20 troy ounces of gold if we complete 10, 20, or 30 rubber stamps of tourist spots we visit on the Yukon!!!

Bill and Carol on the road embankment
Along the highway between Watson Lake and Whitehorse were rocky embankments (between Upper Liard and Rancheria along the Yukon part of the Highway) that were used by many to arrange rocks into letters to memorialize their passing through the Highway.  We arranged ours to symbolize BC (not British Columbia but Bill and Carol) alongside others.  We originally thought we could spell out our names but we found out how difficult the endeavor was and gave up with just the 2 letters!

Whirlpool Canyon
At another bend we saw a large arrow sign which we followed and chanced upon Whirlpool Canyon, a river that made a whirlpool as it wound its way.  There we met a Canadian couple who also followed the arrow.  They were making their way from Calgary (just like us) going to Nunavut past the Arctic Circle hauling a small aluminum boat with an outboard motor to fish.  They dry camped often and they taught us about dumping gray water (washing dishes and showering) almost anywhere and drinking creek water, as long as we were sure there was no beaver contamination.  A small town we passed was called Toad River.  It featured a gas station, a restaurant, and a country store.  There was a place there dedicated to thousands of hats and Bill pinned his Taquan Air baseball cap which he got from a private charter company in Sitka, Alaska where he went for a fishing expedition with friends in 1999. At this part of the Highway, gas was at $4.50 per gallon!

World's Largest Weather Vane
SS Klondike of the gold trade
Whitehorse is the biggest city in the Yukon.  The largest weather vane (in the Guiness Book of Records) in the world was there.  It was a DC3 plane!!!  Bill thought that it has to be a very strong wind (at least 10-15 knots) to move that plane. Smith House at Whitehorse’s LePage Park gave us 2 whitehorse pins to brag about, but so man y places, including the biggest fish ladder in the world, was already closed for the season.  So we didn’t see the salmons jumping out of the river to spawn!  We had to be satisfied with the SS Klondike, one of the biggest boats used for transporting gold to and from the Yukon River.  And the experience that topped it all?  We feasted on the world-renowned bowl of chili con carne at Tim Horton’s, the great Canadian coffee chain! Claudine (my second daughter) had gifted us with a Tim Horton’s gift card before we left Calgary…and they had it in Whitehorse!
Burwash Landing @ the Yukon
 The unfortunate thing was smoke fire from Whitehorse thru Haines Junction to Beaver Creek (50 fires around the Yukon since it had been so hot and dry that summer) stole all our beautiful scenes.  We could hardly see anything beyond the nose of Star! Burwash Landing was almost wiped out by a huge forest fire caused by humans camping (although lightning is the more common cause). 

Another unfortunate thing was the perennial damage caused by permafrost effects on the Alaska Highway, especially after Destruction Bay.  The cost of maintenance must be high.  There are always many road fissures and small ponds on the fields along its sides.  The highway had a roller coaster feel to it and evergreens in nearby fields could not grow any taller than a few feet.  Orange flags were everywhere, designating permafrost damaged areas.

Mount Churchill and White River 
And then there was White River, colored off-white due to volcanic ash from two successive (in geologic time) pyroclastic eruptions of Mount Churchill in the Wrangell Mountain Range.  The first eruption occurred in 1890 and the second in 1950. Thick layers of pumice-like ash over 340,000 square kilometers ( 211,276 square miles) severely disrupted food supply and caused the migration of people steadily southward.  The river is not recommended for boating; the ecology could not be restored.

quonset hut church
So camping on the Kluane RV Park in Haines Junction was not what we expected.  At the junction we were supposed to be able to see a glimpse of glaciers in Juneau and also the highest mountain peak of Canada and the Canadian Rockies.  We didn’t, of course.  We also thought we found a great hiking trail near the campground but we returned to our motorhome right away after we found out that the mosquitoes were sooooo hungry!  What saved the day was the discovery of quonset huts that have been turned into churches that could sit 30 people.

the end of the Alaska Highway in Delta Junction, Alaska
 The next day we hurried to resume our trek to Alaska through Beaver Junction, Yukon and Delta Junction, Alaska which was the official end of the Alaska Highway!  The signpost at the Visitor Center reads:

This highway was constructed during World War II as a military supply route for interior Alaska Military and Airfields in 1942. 7 Army regiments and 42 Contractors and Public Roads Administrators working from Delta Junction South and Dawson Creek North completed it when they met at Soldiers' Summit at Kluane Lake Yukon Territory in November 1942. At the peak of construction, 77 Contractors employed 15,000 men and 11,000 pieces of road building equipment. The total construction cost for 1422 miles was $115,000,000.

Next Stops:  Tok, Valdez, Anchorage, Homer, Seward, Fairbanks, and Chicken, all in Alaska