Author: Clifford Brody
Date of Trip: August 2006
I had first heard about the Alaska Highway in 1949, when I was 7 years old. Known then as the Alcan Highway, its entire 1,400 miles had been carved out of northwest Canada and Southeast Alaska in only 8 months by over 11,000 military and civilian personnel. Thus it was that by end-October 1942, military supplies could be trucked north day and night to help the US Armed Forces defend the Alaskan peninsula. By mid 1949 when I first heard on the radio about the Alcan Highway, tourists were actually driving the rugged two-laner and surviving to tell the tale. I decided then and there I was going to be one of them.
Fast forward 57 years.
The trip began, without much ceremony, when a packed-to-the-gills car and I started from Washington DC early on August 9, 2006. More than once over the next 31 days, I actually got to see heaven, covering 10,578 miles to Coldfoot Camp above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and then back to DC. With the encouragement of a dear, dear friend, I decided to keep a hand-written daily journal on this, my dream-of-a-lifetime journey to Alaska and back. I had never done that before on any trip.I have included the emails and photos from this trip on my own personal website, www.cliffbrody.com, and I hope they succeed in giving you a sense of how incredibly beautiful it all was! Here’s a summary of what happened, and some lessons learned.
The first thousand miles or so from Washington DC to Fargo, North Dakota, was all interstate, and largely boring. But from there, off the beaten path I went, seeking the Lewis and Clark solitude of our country’s history along old US Highway 2. That two laner is starkly beautiful as it cuts across hundreds of North Dakota and Montana miles, hugging the Canadian border and leading to the heart of the Northern Rockies and Glacier Park. From there, it was north to Lake Louise, further north along British Columbia’s Icefields Parkway, and then on to fabulous Dawson City in the Yukon.
Turning west and south along The Top of the World Highway, I crossed back into the US at one of the world’s highest and northern-most border crossings, stopping for lunch in Chicken, Alaska (Ya’ gotta see downtown Chicken to believe it!).
I finally reached Fairbanks and then headed north, crossing the Arctic Circle, navigating the most challenging road I have ever driven: Alaska’s Dalton Road.
Next came Denali National Park, followed by a breathtaking journey southeast back into the Yukon, then southwest to Skagway and boarding the neatest ship I’ve ever seen, Alaska Ferries’ MS Columbia. Our scheduled ports of call, all in Alaska save the last, were:
· Haines, AK (7 pm, Tues., 8/28) · Juneau, AK (12:30 am, Wed. 8/29) · Sitka, AK (Wed. 11 am 8/29) · Petersburg, AK (Thurs. 1:30 am, 8/30) · Wrangell, AK (Thurs. 5:30 am, 8/30) · Ketchikan, AK (Thurs. 1:30 pm, 8/30) · Bellingham, WA (Fri. 8 am, 9/1).
Dwarfed by all the 15-story cruise ship highrises, the far-more-modest Columbia took four gentle days to sail down the coastal waterway.
Beautiful surprises lay in store as I visited Vancouver for a day, and then headed across the Cascade Mountains in Washington State to Idaho. From there, it was down through territory that I knew from trips past: Montana’s Gallatin Range, Yellowstone, and east out of Yellowstone Park along the amazing US 212 skirting the Montana – Wyoming border. This leg of US 212, known as the Beartooth Highway, was the late Charles Kuralt’s top-rated byway in all the US and shows up on just about every other list of America’s top ten scenic roads. At its highest point, you’re at about 11,000 feet and can see 360 degrees around you – a view worth the drive from anywhere in North America. Be sure to bring a picnic lunch.
After the descent from my sky-high meal on this top of the world, it was on to Devil’s Tower National monument in eastern Wyoming. I then had lunch at the very special Higbees Cafe in Sundance, Wyoming, moved on to the awesome Missouri River crossing at Chamberlain, South Dakota, overnighted at Austin, Minnesota, and did the all-interstate return to Washington DC.
Lessons learned? There’s only one main road for driving into Alaska from the lower 48, namely the Alaska Highway. As breathtaking as it is, it is very hard to drive even in the best of weather. If you are going to tackle it, buy the Milepost guide book (try Borders, B&N or Amazon) to find out what’s in store. Read it carefully, and then re-read what you’ve read before you go. Otherwise, the trip will fail. Nor should you even think of trying to work with downloaded maps, Milepost’s maps alone, or GPS units. Since there aren’t that many roads up there to start with, and even fewer turns to make, GPS units don’t count for much. Instead, buy the best detailed maps you can find. And study them!
When planning your itinerary, take it seriously wherever it’s shown that it will take one hour to do 30 miles, ‘cause it will. If it’s not because of the road surface, then it’s the wildlife, big and small. make advance reservations for each night’s stop along any highway in the Yukon or Alaska, where motels are few and far between. And, fill the gas tank ASAP after the needle reaches half-full, be ready to take whatever octane you can get (usually 89), and keep your sense of humor. Have food, blankets, a CB radio with good antenna, duct tape, and basic emergency gear easily accessible at all times, not buried in the trunk somewhere. Above all, watch carefully for those crimson flags alongside the side of the road in the Yukon and Alaska. If you don’t, the pothole or frost heave you hit at any speed over 25 mph may be your car’s last.