August 09, 2004

Fort Nelson to Anchorage

August 30.   The 307 miles from Fort Nelson, British Columbia, to Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, is perhaps the most beautiful section of the Alaska Highway.   The Highway keeps getting shorter as they minimize curves.   In those places the contrast between the present 60-mph road and the WWII Highway is night-and-day.   As when we drove to Alaska in 1996, about 5% or so of the road is under construction, to repair permafrost damage and to improve the few segments of the road that are unchanged since they first were paved.   We saw many Stone (a subset of Dall) sheep, caribou and buffalo, and of course photographed a few close up.

At Watson Lake we were the only guests at a bed and breakfast run by the man who pumped gas into our Cessna N3850V in 2000, and by his wife.   Gloom and Doom, the mechanics who told us how to fix the gasoline that dampened our headliner as we flew over vast wilderness, were still there.   The huge hangar, a logistics miracle built in 1941 when there was no Highway or other road, and quite flammable, may be fitted with sprinklers next year.

August 31.   In 1942 a GI posted a sign pointing to his home town, others followed, and now the Sign Post Forest of 50 thousand or so signs, steadily increasing, is famous.   Dick stood on the car roof and fastened with stainless lag bolts a red sign he had routed.   It's about 9 feet up, 6 poles from the tourist office.  "& 2004" should be "& Corolla 2004".
                                        Click here for more on the Sign Post Forest

Along the whole AK Highway there were new little ma-and-pa businesses in long woodsy stretches, each offering the rudimentary essentials: gasoline, food and bathrooms.   There were also many shuttered buildings which hadn't survived the competition.   However, the remaining oases and the paved road made this part of the drive less of an adventure than our trip to Yellowknife.    It would have been a nice day's drive to end at Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, where 2/3 of the 29,000 people in this vast territory live, but Canada's Senior Olympic Games were beginning there, so we had to continue 100 miles to Haines Junction.   Our motel was mediocre but the nearby restaurant was "one of the best in Canada".

September 1.  Above the left shoulder of the AK Highway rose steep cliffs that were the edge of Kluane National Park, its endless convolutions and glaciers stark in the sunshine.   There had been ice on our car that morning, but by noon temperatures were in the 60's.   At the international border the plate of each approaching car is scanned and its credentials inspected by computer.   The customs officer leaned out his window, and asked, "Did you cross at Calais and get lost ?"   He was from "BANGr" and made our crossing swift and pleasant.   We stayed at the Westmark Inn in Tok, which caters mostly to tour groups, and would close for the winter a week later.   The reservation rate was lowered $30 by friendly persuasion at the desk.

September 2.   We headed north on the Taylor "Highway" to Chicken and Eagle.   The first 50 miles of that side road were through a black Hell, the remains of vast forest fires this summer.   Errant smoke clouds and scattered smoke plumes from places still burning underground had caused decreasing visibility since Whitehorse.   Some locals and travellers had told of being slowed to 10 mph, or being diverted hundreds of miles.

In 1996 Marge and I had driven the dirt road aptly named the Top of the World Highway, from Dawson in the Yukon Klondike to Alaska.   On the USA side the road is named the Taylor Highway. On it is Chicken, population 37, with no phones or indoor plumbing.   There we met Robin Hammond, postmaster, who persuasively explained that the post office is the heart of Chicken.   She told us that without enough stamp sales the post office would close, and sever communication year round, and eliminate supplies delivered by mail and ski plane when the road is closed by snow for months.   Similarly, Maine island communities die when schools close, although in Chicken the few students are home schooled, with spectacular success.   We could, she said, buy our stamps from her at no extra cost by using free USPS envelopes.   Since then we have bought our stamps from Robin in $50 increments, and so can you, by writing Postmaster, Chicken AK 99732.   Robin and her 2 teenage daughters are travelling in Egypt at the moment.   Her husband is a gold miner.   Back in Brunswick we had been trying to reduce decades of accumulations while we can still do so.   Neither the local libraries nor anyone else wanted our National Geographic magazines and maps, but Robin enthusiastically accepted our offer thereof, for the adjacent town library.   We brought and unloaded there about 150 of each: heavy !

Gold has been extracted by various methods in this area for more than a century.  One method is the dredge, which floats on a shallow pond which travels with it, as ore-bearing gravel is excavated in front of it,  processed, and deposited behind it.  A few deteriorating old dredges remain, like this one near Chicken.           Click here for more on gold dredges

The 75 miles from there to Eagle, which smoke had prevented us from visiting by Cessna in 2000, took 3 hours.   The narrow dirt road twisted and clung to cliffsides, and all around, near and far, were the brilliant yellow and orange of aspens and the red of high bush cranberries, all at the peak of color. That was interspersed with still-green birches, green conifers, black cliffs (signs warned "Beware Falling Rock"), and flashing streams far below

   Fires had been left behind.   There were many hunters seeking caribou, but later we learned the fall migration of the great herd had diverted to the northwest.   We arrived at the end of the road, Eagle, population 182, on the mighty Yukon River, at 8:15 PM.   The only restaurant had closed at 8:00, but the owner of the little motel and restaurant opened up to serve us the "daily special".   The motel floor sloped, the walls were rough boards, there were no door locks, or nails on which to hang the single towels, or sink stopper, or drawers, but perhaps to show the priorities of our society there was super satellite TV.   No credit cards, either, and no jail.

The next morning we were given a tour of the little town.   It is rich in history (Billy Mitchell, Amundsen, gold miners...) and has a splendid collection of buildings and artifacts.

The rain that started as we arrived the previous night continued, so much of the road back was slippery mud.   Nevertheless it was poignant to realize that as each beautiful view disappeared behind us, probably we would never see it again.   We stopped briefly at Chicken, and continued on pavement the remaining lonely 75 miles to the next house and the Alaska Highway.   Because of the rain there were no more smoke plumes, though only winter would end all underground hot spots.   As the road rose to about 3000' altitude, snow and dense fog enveloped us.   Three inches of wet snow on the pavement made for very tricky driving.   We were concerned that we might be trapped in a dip between two 8% grades, but after 15 miles we were back in clear air and on clear pavement.

September 4.   After another night at the Tok Westmark, we washed our Corolla back to silver again, and headed west towards Anchorage, while the Alaska Highway continued northwest towards Fairbanks.  The 6 hour drive to Anchorage was in constant view of nearby peaks, with new glistening white snow above 3000' or so.

September 5.    We are in Anchorage, population 260,000,  6900 miles and 25 days after leaving home.   Gasoline is down to $1.97/gallon.   Here is the world's highest ratio of planes to population, with many of them parked on the water in front of opulent homes.  We are spending 2 nights at an excellent hotel here, then 2 nights at a better but cheaper one, each hotel with half price coupons.    Between chores, we've been visiting Steve Widmer, a pilot who operated the airport at Norridgewock Maine for 2 years, and is a social worker and retired peace officer.


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