Alaska: Great Land in the Far North

Photo Credit: Anne Weaver

Fall colors and sun shafts light up the forests along the Alaska Highway, as the author makes her way south toward Mile Zero.

by Bobbie Hasselbring
January 26, 2017
Filed under Destinations, Travel

 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the iconic highway linking Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction. For RVers, it’s the ultimate road trip

For many RVers, the Alaska Highway is one of the must-drives on their bucket list. With spectacular scenery and fascinating history, it’s a monumental journey that creates lifetime memories. And with 2017 marking the 75th anniversary of this engineering marvel, there’s no better time to hitch up the rig and hit the highway on what has long been called simply “the Road.”

Most people begin their Alaska Highway adventure in Dawson Creek, a small town near the eastern border of northern British Columbia whose claim to fame is Mile Zero of the highway. However, we chose to begin in Fairbanks, one of our favorite interior Alaska towns, and head southeast in September with a rental trailer to the highway’s official terminus in Delta Junction.

Perched along the Tanana and Chena rivers, Fairbanks is a great place to prep for the drive and a destination worth exploring. After setting up camp at River’s Edge Resort, we head to the Cookie Jar for a sumptuous breakfast, including sticky cinnamon rolls.

 In southwestern Yukon, the Alaska Highway hugs the shore of 50-mile-long Kluane Lake in the shadow of the St. Elias Mountains.

In southwestern Yukon,
the Alaska Highway hugs
the shore of 50-mile-long Kluane Lake in the shadow of the St. Elias Mountains.

 

Then we drive to Running Reindeer Ranch where deer whisperer Jane Atkinson leads 90-minute group walks through the woods with her herd of eight reindeer. Reindeer, cousins to wild caribou, aren’t indigenous to North America, but they thrive here. Atkinson tells us about their diet, personalities and habits, including that a reindeer named Olive likes to sneak into her house.

That afternoon, we wander over to Creamer’s Field, a former dairy that has become a birding refuge. In the lush, green fields, we snap photos of dozens of sandhill cranes and Canada geese munching on the rich grasses before migrating south.  

In the evening, we join our friend Deb, a longtime Fairbanks resident, for an all-you-can-eat salmon bake at Pioneer Park, a fascinating gold rush “town” reconstructed with historic buildings. After stuffing ourselves, we stroll to the Palace Theater for a fun and rollicking musical review of the city’s history.

We wake to cool weather and cloudy skies, and after stocking up on groceries at the Tanana Valley farmers market, we head toward the town of Delta Junction. The 96 miles between Fairbanks and Delta Junction follows the silty Tanana River and is largely boreal forest — black spruce, willows, poplars and aspens — with the occasional RV park and lonely café.

Just before reaching Delta Junction, we cross a bridge over the Tanana. There’s a huge suspension bridge that runs parallel across the river carrying the massive Trans-Alaska Pipeline, an engineering feat equal to the Alaska Highway.

We churn through the Delta Junction visitor center, with its Mile 1422 marker, a signpost reflecting historical highway distance (mileage from Mile Zero is now 1,387 miles), and two giant metal mosquito statues. Mosquitoes were something the men who built the highway faced.

Flight-seeing above Kluane, Wrangell-St. Elias, Glacier Bay and Tatshenshini-Alsek, four high-reaching parks that make up a two-nation UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Flight-seeing above Kluane, Wrangell-St. Elias, Glacier Bay and Tatshenshini-Alsek, four high-reaching parks that make up a two-nation UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

In 1942, the U.S. Army carved the highway out of a vast wilderness of boreal forest, permafrost and muddy, boggy muskeg in temperatures ranging from 90 to minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Built as a military supply road in response to Japanese threats in World War II, the Alaska Highway required the combined efforts of 11,000 troops, including seven regimens of engineers, plus 16,000 American and Canadian civilians.

The job also used 7,000 pieces of equipment including several now-rusty trucks, Jeeps, bulldozers and road graders on display at Delta Junction’s Sullivan Roadhouse Museum. At the end of the 19th century, roadhouses cropped up every 15 to 20 miles along roadways to provide food and shelter for prospectors and other travelers. The free museum, filled with artifacts and period images, illustrates this bygone era.

The Alaska Highway out of Delta Junction is stick straight, cutting though the forest like a laser, until just outside the town of Tok. Small lakes, some with big white tundra swans, dot both sides of the highway. Washboard roads and frost heaves, like mosquitoes, are part of the landscape in the Far North, and we encounter our first road construction.

The weather is misty, as the landscape changes from flat plains to steep mountains, their flanks dressed in the golds and yellows of fall. On other stretches, spruce-bark beetles have killed the trees, leaving eerie gray ghost forests.

In Tok, we stop at the visitor center and pick up a free Tetlin Wildlife Refuge auto-tour CD. At Fast Eddie’s, we order juicy burgers and tap into free Wi-Fi, which can be scarce along the road.

Gaining elevation, we turn on the heater to counter the chill. September has the advantages of fewer crowds and better shoulder-season prices, but weather can be iffy, and both the sporadic rain and cool temperatures signal that fall has arrived.

It’s after 8 p.m., but there’s still plenty of light and long stretches of loose gravel. The forest seems endless here, and we pop in the Tetlin CD and pass the time learning about the area’s geology and wildlife.

We pull over at a wide turnout (elevation: 1,865 feet) with a sweeping view of the confluence of two rivers that form the Tanana. An information sign describes the magnitude-7.9 earthquake that struck this area in 2002, the largest such land quake in 150 years.

At the Tetlin Wildlife Refuge visitor center, an impressive trapper-style cabin, we return the auto-tour CD. We also take advantage of the center’s expansive decks and scopes to view more of the refuge’s forest. In a lake far below, we spot several large tundra swans that have yet to migrate south.
It’s after 9 p.m. when we arrive at a lonely RV park just shy of the Yukon border. We tumble into bed and, despite the wind howling, sleep soundly.

Near Kluane Lake, an abandoned cabin along the Alaska Highway illustrates the rugged living conditions of bygone times.

Near Kluane Lake, an abandoned cabin along the Alaska Highway illustrates the rugged living conditions of bygone times.

 

From Beaver Creek to Burwash

After gassing up in the morning, we head to the border crossing, provide our identification and quickly enter the territory of Yukon. Despite its name, more than two-thirds of the Alaska Highway is actually in Canada. While the United States built the road, the British Columbia and Yukon portions were turned over to the Canadian government soon after WWII. The rest is owned by the government of Alaska.

In the little burg of Beaver Creek, Yukon, we pause at Buckshot Betty’s to buy a cinnamon roll to go with this morning’s coffee. Beaver Creek, Canada’s most westerly community, is a small town with several gas stations, a couple of cafés, a few motels and plenty of RV parks.

We set our clocks ahead one hour, and as we cross the sparkling water at Beaver Creek Bridge, a flock of ptarmagans, the North’s “wild chickens,” crosses the road. At the Dry Creek rest area, we’re treated again to lake views and four huge tundra swans. Just a hop down the road, we spot two more of these elegant birds, then four with cygnets.

Fall is marching up the sheer mountainsides, with vibrant orange and yellow interspersed with granite outcrops. When the sun peeps out, the hillsides light up. This vast country is spectacular.

At the Pickhandle rest stop, we learn that this is one of the most important bird migration corridors in central Yukon and Alaska. Because of severe winter weather, more than 85 percent of the birds that nest in Yukon must fly south each year, and many use this route.

Stopping for a break at the Pine Valley Bakery and Lodge, we’re literally in the middle of nowhere. Who’d expect to find an authentic French creperie? Mylène Le Diuzet and her husband, Olivier, cook up delectable savory and sweet plate-size crepes, and we dig in.

We encounter road construction, then 30 minutes of washboard and frost heaves, and distract ourselves by watching for eagles and swans. To the southwest rise the mighty St. Elias Mountains, and the Yukon River below is a silver ribbon running along the base of the mountains.

Running Reindeer Ranch, a unique attraction near Fairbanks, lets visitors take a 90-minute walk on the wild side with a herd of domesticated reindeer. These gentle and personable cousins of caribou have learned to hike safely with people.

Running Reindeer Ranch, a unique attraction near Fairbanks, lets visitors take a 90-minute walk on the wild side with a herd of domesticated reindeer. These gentle and personable cousins of caribou have learned to hike safely with people.

After more road construction, it’s 6 p.m. when we finally reach Kluane Lake, a spectacular 50-mile-long waterway renowned for giant trout. We pull into a lakeside electric site at neat-as-a-pin Cottonwood RV Park. Longtime owners Maryanne and Glenn Brough tell us that the lake’s depth averages 300 feet. However, the retreat of the Kaskawulsh Glacier has caused the Slims River that feeds the lake to dry up. While the Broughs have gained beachfront, they worry about the lake’s future.

In the morning, we visit the Kluane Museum of Natural History in Burwash. The museum displays fur coats and beadwork from the local Southern Tutchone people and features excellent taxidermy exhibits, including wolverine, mountain goat, caribou, red fox, grizzly, moose, and stone and Dall sheep. It’s here we learn that building the Alaska Highway nearly destroyed the culture of these formerly isolated native people.

As we leave, we encounter a man on a bicycle, his feet wrapped in plastic bags, his clothing soaked from rain. From England, this intrepid athlete had been biking for seven months from South America to the Alaska Highway. He gratefully accepts the chocolate bars and homemade banana bread we offer.  

 

Of Sheep and Glaciers

Fall colors have become nearly fluorescent, and whenever the clouds lift, we get a glimpse of the snowy peaks of the St. Elias Mountains, the highest coastal mountain range on earth. We stop at the Tachäl Dhäl visitor center, a lonely outpost in Kluane National Park that overlooks Sheep Mountain, a monolith towering 5,000 feet above Kluane Lake. We peer through powerful spotting scopes to see dozens of Dall sheep, including lambs, scampering across the scree-strewn slopes.

Pulling into Haines Junction in the late afternoon, we head for the airport. We’ve been playing cat and mouse with the weather and have a glacier flight-seeing tour scheduled — maybe, just maybe, we’ll get lucky.

Gravel, pilot cars and road construction are all part of the Alaska Highway driving experience.

Gravel, pilot cars and road construction are all part of the Alaska Highway driving experience.

Our pilot with Kluane Glacier Air Tours pulls the blue-and-white Cessna onto the tarmac and gives us a thumbs up. He says clouds have obscured some routes, but the flight should be spectacular. Just before 5 p.m., we buckle in, and we’re airborne.

We sail effortlessly over green and gold forests, and then past Martha Blackman and Archibald mountains, the gateway into Kluane National Park and Reserve. The 8,500-square-mile reserve is wild, roadless country filled with silty rivers, mountains so high they’re permanently blanketed in snow and massive glaciers choked with 1,000-foot crevices and turquoise-blue melt pools. In fact, Kluane contains 17 of Canada’s highest mountains, including 19,551-foot Mount Logan.

In the heart of the mountains, we fly over Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, both in Yukon, and Alaska’s Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St. Elias national parks. This system of four parks was designated an international UNESCO World Heritage Site for its impressive glacier and icefield landscapes. This is land that’s folded over on itself into huge mountains, valleys and glaciers that look like otherworldly ice racetracks. Only the lower flanks of the peaks grow trees — white spruce, trembling aspen, balsam poplar. The barren upper portions are crowned with fantastic snowcaps.

Suddenly, the view opens into miles and miles of spectacular icefields — bright, white stretches of snow and ice cradled by 10,000-foot-plus peaks. This is where much of the 45 feet of snow that falls each year ends up. On the horizon looms Mount Logan, its massive presence dominant in this sea of mountain giants. It’s a view we’ll remember forever from our Alaska Highway adventure.

 

Far-North Favorites

 
Destruction Bay, Yukon
Cottonwood RV Park
Situated between Kluane Lake and the St. Elias Mountains, the remote but well-kept
RV park supplies 15-amp hookups as well as Wi-Fi access on the lakeside deck.
867-841-4066 | www.cottonwoodpark.ca

Fairbanks, Alaska
 River’s Edge Resort
True to its name, the large full-service Good Sam Park sits on the banks of the Chena River and offers 30- and 50-amp gravel campsites, hot showers and Wi-Fi.
907-474-0286 | www.riversedge.net

 

For more information

 
The Milepost
Updated annually, the popular guidebook charts Alaska, Yukon and British Columbia highways, mile by mile.
www.themilepost.com

Travel Alaska
The official State of Alaska tourism website provides  timely vacation-planning tools and visitor information.
www.travelalaska.com


 

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