The Alaska Papers - Part 2

Updated: Jul 27, 2019

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway – Part 2

By Rick Cleveringa

(*You can revisit Part-1 here)

Dawson Creek Odometer reading 28398

Dawson’s Creek – the start

It is 6:40 PM and I stop at the grainier gift shop. It’s a tourist trap filled with travelers. I photo the Jeep in front of the great red arrow heading me into an unknown. I drove downtown to have a look at the Zero mile marker. Exchanged some cash to Canadian dollars at BMO Harris. Gas and bad coffee in Dawson Creek and I was very excited to finally be on the Alcan. It is an odd feeling to pull onto a piece of asphalt that people live and work on. Where daily travel is no more special to them than the road in front of my house is to me. Some deep excitement of childhood adventure, some ancient wild in the blood boils and you are on just any old road for most but for me in this moment its pure adrenalin adventure. Just outside of Dawson I saw my first moose. It was dead on the side of the road. This beast was so large. I imagine the car from this clash did not survive. The Swamp Donkey was now a massive fur rug covering spoiling muscle. Seemed a real shame. I wanted to stop but the traffic was moving fast and so should I.

An hour outside of Dawson Creek, the road was empty, wet and ran up into mountains covered with pines. The Jeep passed through a great forest fire or the remains of one. Smoke was drifting across the roadway; miles of trees were reduced to black stems. The smell was a grand perfume but the sight was heartbreaking. Rain started lightly and went on till the next day. At 10:30 PM I felt very tired and was ready for some rest. I drove past a lot with a few motor homes parked for the night, so I turned back and pulled down the hill to park. Now I set up my back sleeping quarters for the first time of the expedition and lay down. My first road camp was between Wonowon and Sikanni Chief. The Jeep motel was tight but I found comfort in my tiny home.

In the early morning a dream vivid, enough to cause me to laugh out loud, woke me. It was still night so I lay back down, nodding off for another hour. By morning it was 33 degrees, around 6:00 AM, after night one snug in the back of the Wrangler I felt pretty well rested. I stepped out for a stretch and a piss, straighten out my shirts and got ready for the next big day. I climbed back into the commander seat and turned the key, the other campers still lay quiet as I pulled up the hill and back onto the highway.

Day 4 odometer reading 28560

This morning’s drive was through more forest fires; some were not completely out. There is a very large and dangerous fire North of my trek in Fort McMurray. Full on evacuations and houses have been destroyed. The roads up there are closed to traffic and where I am driving there are miles of blackened pines. Later I would find out these scrawny trees are Black Spruce and they grow only over the permafrost. With shallow roots the trees droop and are sometimes called a Drunken forest. These are charred and look like black pipe cleaners. The smoke smells like a cedar bon fire, it makes me dream of the souls of my boots roasting near the fire, pals in tents and sleeping bags near by. The road climbed up and up, away from the fires at lower elevations. I guess I’ll have a handful of trail mix and a granola bar.

What I begin to notice is where the highway is. Its laid in the middle of a 100-yard swath cut out of this wilderness. What did it take to build this? With these great open shoulders one can start to see the wild life. “What is that?” I say, there was this huge black-as-coal animal running up the hillside. I put on the tiny dash camera and all I can say is “Bear, BEAR, BEAR!” Wow my first bear in the wild, fantastic; I feel so happy right now. Soon Id see another, more and more as day ran on. That made my heart flush with joy as the Jeep climbed happily up into the mountains. Rain was changing to snow and up we went.

Fort Nelson Gas and Coffee

After a long stretch of deserted highway I pulled into to town. Fort Nelson was a welcome sight as I can never tell when fuel will be available this far North. At the gas station I see this guy on a Suzuki motorcycle.

He is in heavy jacket and matching pants, the bike is muddy and leaking fluid. I say “Hi” and ask where he’s from. “Texas” he said. “I drove up to Deadhorse and now working my way home”. “How was it? I say. “Long, bad roads all the way up. Coldfoot is the last stop for gas before Deadhorse and you have to stop there for fuel. Saw only Muskox up there. It’s just wide open. It ruined my bike. Look at my boot. Shocks leaking oil all over it.” His boots were oiled and mud caked. Damn it looked cool! “I have to change the chain when I get back. Wish I would of had your Jeep up there”. “Yea glad I have it!” I say. Somehow it made me feel like it was too easy in the Jeep.

There is some kind of camaraderie between travelers that take to the North. We parted and I said, “safe travels my friend”. I filled the tank and pumped $10 into the Gerry can just in case. The road took me up into the Rockies, rain had changed backed to snow and clouds and fog were all around. The edge of the road was a foggy uncertainty; one slip and they would never find me. This high road was empty and I loved it.

The French Hero

Snow was falling in a land that looked like Christmas. It was beautiful, crisp and pretty, air so clean you feel great. The Jeep could use a drink this morning. There was a log cabin with a single gas pump, their cafe was so inviting and warm I dreamt of breakfast, coffee and comfort. Hey I still have 2 lbs of Pete’s Jerky and trail mix in the passenger seat, so I “coffee and gas-ed” up and looked through the gift shop. On the way out I smiled at the lady behind the counter., and walk back out into the cold and slush to the Jeep.

At the pump was a young dude on a Triumph motorcycle. Jesus he has courage. You think you are doing something brave but then you see these guys on bikes. This cat was on this tiny bike, no helmet and only wearing a hoodie. You envy him, but are so glad you have a vehicle with doors and a roof to crawl into.

Up the snowy mountain road about a mile, in a roadside pullout I see a guy in an orange jump suit. He is leaning backwards on a garbage can stretching his back out. Two other men and a broken car are with him. When I get closer they run to the roads edge and start waving frantically. Now, an orange jumpsuit means one thing PRISON, … so I pull over and roll down the window. The icy air grates my face as the convict in the orange suit runs up to me. He is in his late 20’s, tall, lanky and long stringy greasy blond hair covers a bony face. Complete with a scruffy beard and a mouth missing a top front tooth, he has the face of a drug problem. He smiles and begins to yell, “WE NEED A BLAAADE!” He gets up to my window. With a deep Canadian accent he says. “A Balaaade do you have a Blaaade?” “What kind of blade do you need? I ask, “A utility knife, a knife? “Ahh Blaade! We got a busted shock and we need a blaade to cut it off. It’s the only way” The others come from their busted car towards the Jeep. “Oh you need a hack saw,” I say. “Yea a Blaaade.” “OK there was a station back about one mile you guys would be better off looking for help there.” They huddle up and decide that Fred was the cleanest and he will go back to the station and get help, if I would drive him back. So this little fella with a close cut sandy hair climbs in the passenger side.

As I move jerky and a backpack I ask him where he is from. “France” he says, the three of them are mushroom hunting. Their car broke down as they were headed for the Yukon to hunt morels. They found some mushrooms but wanted a larger haul for sale. Morels are big money in the culinary world, now this made sense, which explained the orange jump suit.

I stopped at the cabin with its dreamy cafe and chimney smoke. In five minutes Fred comes out with a hacksaw in hand. “Wow Fred that was fast, you will be a hero when you get back.” Fred says in his quiet French tone. “It will be the first time a French man saved anyone”. We laugh like hell at his joke.

Soon we pull over to the boys at the broken car, now a truck has stopped to help. If I were to guess the man in the pickup only stopped to have a look, add his two cents and watch the struggle. The boys cheered as Fred slip down out of the Jeep, hacksaw raised above his head, they called he and I heroes. “Good luck boys!” I said as they cheered and thanked me as I drove off. The road climbed up the snow fell down in a wonder winter beauty. I was thinking if they cut the shock off the car then what? I hope they fixed their ride and found the Quivria of Morels.

Deadly and Beautiful

This drive is everything I hoped for and more. The remarkable beauty of the Rockies, the loneliness of open road, it gave me time to reflect and think. To clear ones head of old duties and concentrate on the new ones to come. Mostly I drove and watched miles of pristine wilderness unfold before me. There were occasional road construction sights that made the drive interesting enough. In the middle of nowhere you have to stop for a makeshift traffic light. It was like seeing an outhouse in the arctic. You stop and wait 15 minutes or longer. It gave you time to walk about and stretch the legs.

A lone muddy pickup truck would appear and you would follow it trough some ruff stretches of mud and ungraded gravel. I liked this very much. Seeing the workers in this backdrop, heavy