The Alaskan Highway adventure continues……..
Sometimes it is hard to wrap my brain around just how far it is to Alaska. And just how much of that distance is vast wide open wilderness sprinkled with small outposts of civilization where the highway traveler can refuel, pick up supplies, find a place to stay and often explore quirky sights. Tourism is key to many of these communities and each have seemed to develop interesting sights to draw the unsuspecting traveler to pull over and spend a few minutes, if not days, exploring.
“All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.” – Earl Nightingale
Along the way I have found great use in “The Milepost”, a book published each year and considered the “bible” for Alaska travelers. Mile by mile of the highways leading to and around Alaska are covered including all of the necessary as well as those quirky stops. It would certainly be easier if traveling with another person who could read along with the drive but I have made it work by doing “homework” the night before the drive and jotting down must stop locations. I would be reminisce if I didn’t mention how incredibly helpful the folks working in the many visitor centers and chamber offices along the route. They are all very gear to give you piles of handouts and lots of good personal recommendations including great hikes in the area.
The stop in Skagway was a detour off the Alaskan Highway and one definitely worth the time and effort. But there were a few interesting stops on the way north from Laird Hot Springs and Whitehorse (Whitehorse deserves it’s own mention and will be in the next post!).
Watson Lake, located just inside the Yukon border at historic milepost 635 is known as the “Gateway to the Yukon” and home to the world-famous Signpost Forest, one could argue it’s one of the most notable landmarks along the Alaska Highway.
In 1942 while building the Alaska Highway it was common practice for the US military working on the project to put up a directional post at their camps along the route. It would give directions and miledge to surrounding communities and various parts of the world. While working on the highway Private Carl Lindley from Company D, 341st Army of Engineers was injured and taken to the aid station here to recuperate. During that time Carl’s commanding officer got him to repaint the directional post here. While carrying out this task Carl decided to add his hometown sign of Danville, Illinois (2835 miles away). Known as the homesick lonesome soldier Carl later became aware of the tradition that he started here in Watson Lake. Although the original sign is no longer here, on the 50th anniversary of the highway Carl returned to Watson Lake and replaced the missing sign with a replica that can be found in the visitors center today.
Today folks place their signs and license plates and pay tribute to their hometowns all around the world. At last “count” (I was told that they now estimate based on a formula) in September 2016 there were 83,886 signs in the forest. It could take hours to read them all but just wandering around through the forest is a humbling experience.
I arrived early enough in town to also visit the Northern Lights Space and Science Center to take in their aurora borealis displays and a theater featuring state-of the-art, full-dome video and surround-sound system.
With all the cool places to visit along the route sometimes the challenge is choosing which ones warrant a stop (this trip anyway). Places like Rancheria Falls Recreation Site seem to be almost strategically placed along the route so that they provide a good stopping point for a bathroom break, a quick bit or even a short hike. Thank goodness they often have parking areas that accommodate my traveling home.
Canada seems to do a great job at building and caring for their parks. The boardwalk system here was elaborately designed to get visitors up off the fragile forest floor and keep them on the trails. Working up in the Redwoods on the North Coast of California I often thought that this type of visitor improvements would be good for both the forest and the current and future visiting public. Both the State and Federal Parks in Canada seem to recognize the need for having staff available to answer questions, lead programs, protect the resources and care for the facilities.
“As you make your way along life’s tumultuous highways, it’s important to note that you should always carry a map, have plenty of fuel in the tank, and take frequent rest stops.” – Octavia Spencer
One of the things I have been a bit surprised about – especially after the crowds that were already in Banff and Jasper – is the lack of traffic on the highway. I can drive for miles before seeing another vehicle headed in either direction. Even sitting in the middle of the highway taking a photo down the center line wasn’t a problem (okay, maybe not the smartest idea but it worked out here!).
Finding an interesting place to stop for the night hasn’t been a problem so far. Johnson’s Crossing was one such location. One of the original lodges on the highway it was first operated by Robert Porsild. The Porsilds later renamed it Johnson’s Crossing, the local name for the nearby Teslin River Bridge. Trying to limit my driving days to under 300 miles (and often under 200 miles) I am able to arrive at an RV site around mid-day giving time for a little exploration of the area. A hike down to the Teslin River revealed a family coming in from a productive day fishing for Arctic Grayling.
It’s funny how many places up here advertise themselves as “World Famous” for something, often revolving around baked goods. I did try their cinnamon buns the next morning when I hit the road and have to say that they were nothing to write home about.
Road construction on the Alaska Highway is a never ending project. Unfortunately for travelers like myself the only months that they can do the work are the months when people are visiting. There have been fairly long stretches of gravel and muddy roadways that leave the motorhome and jeep covered in road grime.
“The road to success is always under construction.” – Arnold Palmer
They key to traveling this highway as I am learning quickly and assimilating into my journey is to travel slowly, don’t be in a hurry and don’t worry about the time. Remembering that I am essentially like a turtle carrying my home along makes it easier to just let the days end where they may.
Well imagine my surprise when traveling down the Alaskan Highway near Carcross and I came across the world’s smallest desert. So of course I had to tell Annette (my Arizona friend) that yes, they have deserts in Canada! Well even though it is billed as a desert upon closer examination the only thing that makes it even remotely look like a desert is that there is sand. To be a true desert you have to have hot dry climate (not to mention a number of other key desert plants like cactus). This was really the remains of an ancient lake and the process of glaciers 10,000 years ago. Even so, it was an interesting stop along the highway and a good place to get out for a walk.
Back on the Alcan (Alaska Highway) and continuing the journey – next stop would be Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon and a place chocked with gold rush history.
“Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.” –Walt Whitman