The gang goes North: Part 3.1

June 24-29

The Alaska Highway: Dawson Creek, BC to Whitehorse, YT

“Name’s Jim Connors,” said our neighbor at the Dawson Creek Mile ‘0’ Campground. The rolling hills and farms surrounding us reminded me of Upstate NY. It felt familiar, though so far away from home. 

An older gentleman with a hardened smile, Jim gave us the skinny on his upcoming northern journey. His beat up wood-paneled Chevy pickup hailed from Wyoming, as did Jim.

“I get 9 miles to the gallon in that thing, and the front tank doesn’t play nice with ethanol. I’ll try to keep the back tank good and full, but that’ll mean stopping every 120 miles or so.”

I did some quick mental processing, I don’t think Jim will be finding gas stations every 100 miles along this remote route.

He was traveling solo, and had figured his tracfone would get cell service up in Canada. Incorrect. So Jim would have to stop and get his bearing periodically by map, and contact family back home when he came across a town with wireless connection. Godspeed Jim, and may the roads be friendly to you and your old truck.

The sun warmed us that morning, and gave us the opportunity to dry out our soggy gear. Water had made its way into the rooftop tent and our mattress, so we took an hour to let that get some air while we did laundry at the campground and made breakfast. It’d be a long day on the road, about 350 miles in all, but with long daylight hours, we figured to get our gear and supplies in order before setting out.

Jamie popped into the market for provisions and I gave Archie an auto bath to start fresh. We stopped by the obligatory photo op by the Alaska Highway Mile ‘0’ sign in town, and began our AlCan adventure.

We only made it 20 minutes out of town before our first stop. The old Kiskatinaw bridge crossed over the river by the same name, along a long, curved wooden trestle, and served as the river crossing for the old Alaska Highway. We had lunch and walked the high bridge for a few minutes before getting on the road and eating up some miles.

SPEED LIMIT 100KM/H. We rolled through thick pine forests and rolling hills for a couple hundred miles, constantly in awe at the massive undertaking of building this highway back in the 1940’s. Through below-zero winters and mosquito-infested summers the road was constructed in haste during the war effort.

The northern Rockies came into view on the horizon, and we began to climb switchbacked roads through the smaller hills of the range. We were surprised to see our cell phones light up when we crested the pass on the highway, shining with cell service as we began to receive messages and emails. The reception quickly vanished as we plunged into the thick of the Northern Rockies.

We came upon Tetsa River Campground in the evening, with plenty of daylight still piercing the tall evergreens surrounding us. After setting up camp and cooking burgers, we three enjoyed the gentle passing of the river and birdsong in the dusk, the heat of the campfire.

Day 2 on the Alaska Highway was a dandy. We breakfasted on bagels, eggs, and yogurt. Washed it down with instant coffee.

We’d be having a short drive to our next planned campsite that evening, less than an hour. Two black bears munched on their breakfast of leaves and roots beside the highway to our right.

A minute later we passed a young couple on the left, walking southbound along the highway, as we drove north. When we spotted their old dodge solera with a left rear flat, we pulled around and headed back south.

“You guys OK? We saw a car up there with a flat. That yours?”

“Yea, its our third flat, we’re on our way back down, we tried to make it up the Demptser to the Arctic Ocean but had to turn back when it got too rough.”

Out here, you have to help each other out. They squeezed into the back with an initially reluctant Charley, and we drove them back toward the nearest town, Fort Nelson, 100km back southeast. When we reached the mountains that had offered us cell service the evening before, they called CAA (Canadian AAA) and were told to wait 3 hours for a tow. Along the way back to their car, we got the story of Bailey and Ava’s journey, and shared some of our own. We wished them well, and carried along, northward again. 

We grabbed cinnamon buns at the Tetsa River Lodge shortly after. It was a gas stop as well, but we were told, “we’re out of gas,” by the owner and resident of the lodge. The cinnamon buns were well worth the stop, though. 

Rolling into camp at Summit Lake Campground, we found a beautiful site beside the aqua waters of the glacially fed lake. The weather toyed with us, flip-flopping from sun to imposing doom. Nothing materialized as we set up camp, so we loaded our packs, rain-gear included, and climbed the nearby ridge, bear bells singing all the way. We made it 3.5 miles up into the alpine tundra, along murmuring streams weaving through the low tundra flora. Flower Springs Lake sat beneath behemoth 7000ft mountains, seemingly creating their own weather pattern. Again, dark clouds stalked us. But again, the summit pass appeared to keep them at bay.

We descended back into the basin that held Summit Lake and the shore-side campground. Jamie prepared dinner and I took a little ice bath in the lake with the sun now streaming in. 

When dinner was ready, so was the storm. It manifested out of thin air, or so it seemed. Quickly swallowing the sun, storm clouds pushed a soft but ominous breeze upon us. Heavy drops slapped the picnic table and our tent. Soon enough, heavy gusts were threatening to rip our awning from its stakes, and we emergently disassembled it and threw it in the car as rain pelted us.

We had dinner in the front seats of Archie, and watched to the west, as the storm squeezed along through the pass and left us in its rearview. Sun ripped through the distant western canvas again, and approached us slowly as the rains changed from aggressive to a light and gentle sun-shining rain. The storm had passed. 

We cleaned up camp in the aftermath, overseen by a lovely rainbow in the east. The rest of the night was calm.

We awoke to sun in the morning. Always a good start. A quick breakfast and pack-up and we were off again. Another short travel day would take us about 100km farther, to Muncho Lake. We met Jean and Steven at camp before we set out, and swapped travel stories and plans, as is tradition on this road. Everyone is setting out on their own adventure, but all journeys North go through this part of the Alaska Highway. Steven was hoping to get up to the Arctic Ocean, and stay North long enough to see the Aurora Borealis in the late summer.

Along our short drive we watched a small group of bighorn sheep licking the roadside salts, hoping they’d have the wit to stay on the shoulder. The curves and the grades of the highway don’t lend themself to sudden stops for big rigs and motorhomes.

We waited out another passing storm at the Toad River lodge, stocking up on propane and firestarters as we watched dark clouds roll over the nearby mountains and funnel through the valley.

Strawberry Flats Campground sits at the southern end of Muncho Lake, one of the largest natural lakes in the Canadian Rockies. We arrived early in the day, and have now realized the importance of getting to our next spot early and securing a site. We were fortunate to find another lakeside campsite, this one slightly more protected from winds rushing across the lake.

Again the weather played games. We spent a good portion of the evening preparing and unpreparing for rain showers. When it spat, we hid beneath the awning and played cards and listened to the Avett Brothers. While tent camping for long periods of time, moisture is the enemy. The only means of remedy is sunshine, and there’s no telling when that will come.

We started seeing the same folks we’d seen previous nights. Brian and Monica, from Anchorage, were making their way back home after several months in the lower 48. Bart and Moe from Calgary were taking several months to traverse the North in their midsize motorhome. 

That evening, the sun took over and Muncho Lake turned to glass. We blew up the kayak and floated toward the center of the long, skinny lake. Views in every direction left us shaking our head. This can’t be real. 

Jamie made gnocchi with red sauce for dinner, and I fixed a fire. Not for warmth or light, as dusk would hang around until well after bedtime and the temperature was comfortable with a puffy. Just because it’s camping. And also a bit for the skeeters.

Calm again in the morning. The lake could’ve been frozen, how still it was. The kayak was still inflated, so we took the opportunity to bring Charley along for a morning float before we moved along. Out on the lake, This can’t be real, we thought again.

We loaded the truck and deflated the kayak, set our heading toward the Liard River and the provincial park, home to the well-known hot springs and campground. Initially thinking we wouldn’t find a site to camp there, it was decided that we should at least inquire.

“Yep, we’ve got room. You can’t have 22-42, those are reserved. Go on and take a look and come back see me when you know which one you wanna call home.” Site 13 would be ours for the day, and we unpacked the camp setup yet again. We’d driven less than an hour down the road. Inching along at this rate, we’d have some ground to make up. But the hot springs were incredibly worth it, and the campground was excellent. 

We ran into the same folks again. Bart and Moe pulled into camp that afternoon, and Brian and Monica were leapfrogging with us from Muncho to Liard River. It’s odd, seeing the same handful of folks that we dub “travel buddies,” making their way along the same track as us. They’re friends just by sheer frequency of run-ins, and there’s a mutual understanding that we’ll enjoy this time, chatting and swapping tales, and soon enough we’ll part ways without a goodbye, never to see any of them again. Everyone seems to have a peace and warmth to them, this traveling, transient community. Glen from Ontario was especially sociable. He and his wife had planned to do the trip together, but she had passed away a couple years ago. So, with his homemade wooden teardrop camper and kayak, Glen was setting out on his own journey, his wife close to his heart throughout, no doubt. 

We’d be making Whitehorse the next day. It’s the capital of the Yukon Territory, and home to well over 50% of the entire population of the massive region, with the most recent census data listing it at about 26,000. A bustling metropolis relative to the surrounding remote wilderness and villages of no more than a couple hundred at most.

The morning we left Liard Hot Springs, Jamie scooped the camera and headed to the boardwalk leading through the mineral marshes to the hot springs. She spotted a moose enjoying the dense waters, drinking its fill. I was sad to have slept in.

About 7 hours to Whitehorse, straddling the BC/Yukon border much of the way, we grew weary of the road after some time and were thankful to reach our destination before 7pm. We suffered a cracked windshield, the first of many dings and dents along this route, I’ll assume. They say up North, there’s two seasons: winter, and road work. Long stretches of pilot-led construction area driving has rocks flying in all directions. And it was dusty as hell. Frequently, signs read CAUTION: EXTREME DUST AHEAD. And that even seemed to be a bit understated.

We passed massive Teslin Lake, flooded out from the heavy spring rains.  We met Len at the gas station, friendly as can be. His stop looked straight out of the 60’s- the gas pumps had the spinning numbers, and the interior of the shop was an old wooden lodge feel with half the shelves empty and some drinks in the fridge that seemed they could’ve been there for years.

 Except for some bison at the beginning of the drive, we saw no wildlife.

We struck out at two campgrounds in Whitehorse, one with no sites available, and the other was closed permanently. It seems, in the Yukon, folks spend their free time recreating. It’s all there is to do. Hunt, fish, hike, boat. Get outside. I love it, but that means that campgrounds aren’t just for those passing through or vacationing. We found the campgrounds full of locals. We found the last spot available at the Caribou RV Park and Campground south of town, and settled in for a quick night and bed. Our neighbor, seeing my trouble splitting the thick wood with my hatchet, came over and lent me his axe. Much better. Camping folks are some of the nicest, friendliest, generous people out there.

On the 29th, we hung out in Whitehorse, taking care of chores and errands. Grocery shopping, car wash and vacuum, laundry, showers. It was good to reset for the day. I pulled up to the grocery to pick up Jamie after washing the car.

“I’m guessing you’re not heading up the AlCan,” a tall Coloradan gentleman with a goatee said to me. His name was John. He could see I was drying off and wiping down the grill of the car, which was, prior to cleaning, littered with bugs bees and butterflies from the murderous long drive, as well as a thorough film of dust.

“Actually, we are headed up tomorrow.”

“Then that’s like wiping your ass before you take a shit!”

Well put.

We hiked in the afternoon along the Yukon River, beneath rain clouds that let go of a few drops but held up most of their load.

On the way back to town, I spotted a fox in a pullout, quickly set up the zoom lens and I tip-toed over for a view of the fox to try to get a good shot. He cooperated for a few minutes before scurrying away when a couple other cars stopped to see what I was photographing. 

We also stopped in and got the windshield crack treated before leaving town the next day. In the evening, we decided to get out and see the town. Jamie and I enjoyed a cocktail and app at the Woodcutters Blanket in town, and walked the streets of Whitehorse with Charley.

We grabbed dinner at a food truck and then, with 5 or 6 hours of daylight left still, scooted down the highway, splitting off from the AlCan and onto the Klondike Highway, toward Dawson City. It’ll be the northernmost point of our Northern trip. Sunset is nearly 1am and dusk lasts til 3 or 4 am, I believe.

Stay tuned for part 2: detour from the AlCan, Klondike edition.

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