It was an opportunity too good to miss: a drive from Seattle through the Canadian Rockies and Yukon Territory into Alaska. Our trip would take us 22 days, one way, and we would journey back by cruise ship along the Inside Passage.
This great adventure began with a tour of our Ford F450, a 26ft motorhome. It would be our travelling companion – along with 14 other Aussie couples in RVs.
After negotiating a couple of off ramps we got the hang of driving on the right. Couples did their own thing during the day and met at pre-booked RV parks in the evening.
Travelling in easy stages through Washington and Idaho, we crossed the border into Canada and the Southern Rockies. The wonders of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Kicking Horse Pass, Lake Louise, Banff, Ice Park Highway and Jasper are worthy of a story all their own.
Soon the major tourist areas were behind us and ahead lay rolling hills of forest and farmland, as well as a stop at Mount Robson and Overland Falls. In the tiny hamlet of McBride our hosts at Beaver RV Park turned on a traditional spread that consisted of a weiner roast and marshmallows.
A magical walk in an ancient forest, with trees over 2000 years old, broke up the journey to Prince George. We turned north to traverse open forest, spotting many black bears on our drive. Stops at Whiskers Point Provincial Park, Lake McLeod, the furious Bijou Falls and Chetwynd (with its many chainsaw sculptures) kept us intrigued along this isolated route.
The thriving town of Dawson Creek also fascinated with its many historic buildings and quaint Pioneer Village. This town was the beginning of the Alaskan Highway.
For the next nine days and 2237km we travelled along the remarkable Alaskan Highway (nicknamed ‘Alcan’) running from Dawson Creek (British Columbia) via Whitehorse (Yukon Territory) to Delta Junction (Alaska). The majority is on Canadian soil and weaves in and out of British Columbia and Yukon Territory.
During World War II, the lack of road access to Alaska was considered a strategic risk, so in less than eight months the US Army took on incredibly inhospitable territory to build the Alaskan Highway.
During those nine days we experienced landscape that was eerily similar to that of Outback Australia in its utter isolation. However, it is cold, not heat, that makes the environment here so harsh. Permafrost (frozen ground) dictates tree height and shape, allows access to remote swampy areas for gas and shale oil drilling, turns the many lakes into solid masses, drives most visitors and human inhabitants away and sends many critters into hibernation.
Small towns such as Wonowon, Pink Mountain, Sikanni Chief and Toad River (all of which have populations no more than 200) simply close up for 8 to 10 months of the year. On our trip it was early spring and only about half the gas stations were open as we traversed this amazing country.
The many lakes and rivers were just starting to thaw but still had ice thick enough to walk on. Frozen lakes were an ongoing fascination for us who were so used to warm climates. Steamboat Mountain was the highest point on our journey and it didn’t disappoint, with a good dump of snow turning the spruce and fir forests into a Christmas card scene.
While we had already seen many native animals it was along this remote road that moose, black bears, caribou, elk, stone sheep, bison and a multitude of birds like woodpeckers and Canadian geese kept drivers and passengers alert and excited.
Simple log huts and houses, log bridges, and an occasional lumber mill were the only signs of human occupation for most of the way. Identical steel bridges traversed most rivers. At two of the more remote RV parks, power hook-ups were unavailable, which did not present any problem with our fully self-contained motorhomes: we had a generator and diesel heater as standard equipment.
Kiskatinaw Bridge was well worth a slight detour along the original route. Spanning a deep ravine, this all-timber bridge is superbly engineered – if you admire timber craftsmanship this is not to be missed.
Liard Thermal Springs and RV Park was a delightful sub-tropical oasis where we could relax, catch up with travelling companions and compare wildlife sightings. Watsons Lake’s claim to fame is the very clever ‘Sign Post Forest’, a collection of 61,000 road, town and similar signs from all over the world. We felt quiet nostalgic to find a familiar yellow ‘Kangaroo’ sign, including the customary bullet holes.
The largest town on the Alaskan Highway is Whitehorse, which is the major administrative hub of theYukon Territory.The town is modern and busy, but quaint at the same time. A well-restored ‘Klondike’ riverboat is a proud reminder of bygone gold rush days.
With two nights available in Whitehorse we hung up our keys and took an optional tour on the White Cross Railway. Our first stop was Carcross (originally Caribou Crossing) and then Fraser by coach before boarding the vintage train.
US customs checked our passports before we travelled down the breathtakingly picturesque, snow-covered and steep White Cross Pass to Skagway (Alaska) on the coast. Skagway, now a tourist town with large cruise liners seemingly in the centre of town, was once the gateway to the goldfields of the Yukon for streams of hardy
Next morning we resumed our drive heading north-west from Whitehorse. An extraordinary log bridge over the Aishihik River and an enormous lake were the outstanding features of the drive. Kluane Lake is the largest in Yukon Territory at 400,000 square kilometres and 70km long. At the southern end were clouds of steam rising from thermal springs. Visible at Destruction Bay on the lake shore was a unique and effective speed deterrent for a tiny township: a cut-out police car on the roadside.
We spent our last night in Canada on the muddy shores of Kluane Lake at Burwash Landing. The only commercial premises in town was a pub with two out-of-order fuel bowsers and an RV park without connections; it’s only open for two months each year. We passed a fun night in our motorhomes.
Our farewell to Canada was the sighting of nesting Canadian swans and a beaver out on a fishing expedition. Moving our watches forward one hour we entered Alaska and began the realisation of another dream.
The heaves along and across the highway continued, but they were now marked with red flags. Forest trees were becoming larger, gas (petrol) cheaper and populated towns more frequent.
We expected this northern trip to be cold, and had packed accordingly. Most days in May were spent in short sleeves. Sunburn on ears and faces was common. Crossing a bridge over the deep Santo Margarita River valley we were astounded at the sight below. Walking back, we looked down on large forest trees and an enormous river of ice. We estimated the exposed faces to be greater than two metres thick.
After a visit to Dot Lake we arrived at Delta Junction, which put an unceremonious end to our wonderful Alaskan Highway adventure.
Continuing along the Richardson Highway, the sparse open spaces gradually gave way to small towns and urban fringe. We just had to stop at North Pole to visit Santa’s house and buy Christmas treats for the grandkids.
The Fairbanks expressways heralded our return to a more familiar world. Beside the Chena River the River’s edge RV Park provided a delightful respite where we could savour our memories of the Alaskan Highway. Our odometer told us we had travelled 3025 miles (4868km) since leaving Seattle.
The adventure continued with a flight to Coldfoot and the remote settlement of Wiseman inside the Arctic Circle. We also flew over Mount McKinley (North America’s highest peak) before farewelling our motorhomes in Anchorage. A wildlife cruise through the Kenai Fjord completed the incredible wildlife experience.
Finally, we undertook a seven-night cruise via the Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point and Ketchikan and the Inside Passage to Vancouver.
by David & Jacoba Hinton