We Ken Drive the Alcan–No Problem

If life is a journey, our road trip down the Alaska-Canadian (Alcan) highway was a mere excursion—except it didn’t feel that way.  My husband and I drove 2700 miles over four days averaging nearly 700 miles per day to get back home from Alaska to the lower 48.  We motored over mountain passes, steep grades, teeth-rattling frost heaves, and sharp curves with no guard rails and 700 foot drops over the side of the road.

The really remarkable thing though, is we did it all in our little Prius hatchback, our noble steed of a car. 

The Alcan is very near mythic.  I heard about this road in the early 70’s when a friend of ours, Ernie, attempted to drive it on a motorcycle.  The Alcan at that time was mostly a gravel road.  Ernie might have made it up to Alaska if not for the relentless rains sweeping through Canada that turned the gravel into rock soup.  Opened for public travel during World War II, the Alcan which connects the contiguous U.S. to Alaska, was not fully paved until the 1980’s.  Even today there are some rough patches where the pavement’s given way to broken asphalt and gravel.

For the most part, and despite the pace we’d set, I enjoyed our drive coming home from Alaska on the Alcan.  Passing through the Yukon and upper British Columbia we saw bear, buffalo, wolf, deer, and moose.  It was almost like driving through a wildlife park.  The mountain valleys were narrow and the peaks sheer.  At the bottom ran streams, turquoise in color, likely due to “glacial flour” (rock ground fine from glacier movement) lining the stream bed.  When I wasn’t sight-seeing out the window I was peacefully daydreaming.  Existential questions like “who am I” and “what is my purpose” were momentarily forgotten.  Usurped by more immediate concerns: where’s the next quiki mart and gas station?

Though our Prius hybrid takes little gas we still needed to be mindful of stations along the way.

I got worried when the gas meter dipped to two bars on the three hour stretch between Watson Lake and Northern Rockies Lodge.

We passed one boarded-up gas stop after another, closed for the winter.  Seeing the Northern Rockies Lodge open was a big relief.  I hopped out of the car to get coffee while Dale pumped gas.  A young man with a long ponytail stood behind the lobby desk talking to a chubby woman wearing a floppy hat, evidently a guest at the lodge.  I overheard their conversation, curious about the desk clerk’s brogue accent.

“Scottish,” I said when he turned to help me.

“That’s a very good guess,” he smiled.

I shrugged, the picture of modesty.  “I’m good with accents. I don’t know why, but I can usually pick out where someone’s from.”

“Ken you now?” he looked at me speculatively.  Of course I “ken.”  I’d just told him that.

“Actually, I’m not Scottish, I’m British.”

“Oh,” my eyes slid from his face then, to the lobby counter, “Well… anyhow… could you please tell me where I could buy a couple cups of coffee?”

On our trip we ran into several international people.  Canada, along with 52 other countries including Australia and India are part of the British Commonwealth, former colonies of Great Britain.  One of the fringe benefits of that exalted status is more lax immigration laws between Commonwealth countries.

We officially left the Alcan behind at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.  Next door to our motel in Dawson Creek was a casino surprisingly named: Chances.  The casino was all flashing neon lights and ringing slot machines.  I stood at our motel window gazing thoughtfully over at Chances.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to civilization.  It was so quiet on the Alcan.  So peaceful, and so natural.

 

 

 

All images:  Diana Hooley

Big is Beautiful

The tall guard at the Canadian-Alaskan border crossing asked me to take off my sunglasses so he could compare my physical appearance to the picture on my passport.

“Oh, that picture was taken on an ‘off’ day,” I joked, pointing to my passport photo.

He just looked at me.  “Do you have any firearms or hazardous material in your car, mam?”

I shook my head humbly.

“Okay then.  You’re good to go.”  I reached down to put my car in drive, but he bent his head forward, closer to the open car window.  “Good thing you’re not from Texas,” he said.

“How’s that?” I was beginning to get nervous.

“Well if you were from Texas, I’d have to say how sorry I am about your puny, little state.  Then I’d welcome you to Alaska—America’s biggest state.”

I grumbled to myself as I drove away, men and their egos.  But this past week in Alaska, I’ve learned just how true his statement was.  Alaska is large—and in more ways than one.  Let’s talk about geography first.  To get from Juneau, Alaska to Tok, Alaska you have to drive two days and spend the night in the Yukon Territory of Canada.  Oh these mountain ranges, they are such a bother to get around.  The mountains I’m referring to are in the Wrangell-St. Alias National Park, the most remote and largest (of course) national park in the U.S.  But even minus the mountains, as the crow flies, from Homer to Barrow, Alaska it’s nearly 1000 miles.

Then there are the Alaskan people themselves.  I heard Bill Maher, HBO’s political satirist, said that fat-shaming needed to make a comeback.  He was making a point about the adverse effects of obesity.  It isn’t that Alaskans are obese exactly.  My mother would say (kindly) they’re built “solid.”  I’ve never seen so many big people in one place in my life.  I feel petite.  And that’s saying something.

I think it must be from all the hearty food Alaskans eat: giant bread bowels of creamy clam chowder, sourdough pancakes, and reindeer sausage rolls the size of my fist.

Vegetables and fruit are available here, but why bother? 

The lettuce is wilted and sad-looking.  Salad won’t stick to your ribs standing in a fishing boat out on breezy Cook Inlet.  I can’t complain though.  Finally I’ve found clothing stores with my style sense:  Carhartt long-sleeved T’s, size 2X.

Speaking of fashion sense, suspenders are au couture for males, and bunny boots (not to be confused with the infamous Playboy bunny attire) serve as vogue foot wear.  In fact, I happened upon a new bride in Homer decked out in high, white bunny boots.  I asked to take her picture and her charming groom said, “Well, I guess so.”

Big though Alaska is, it’s not big enough to manage the effects of climate change.  Up here on both sides of the political spectrum, everyone is concerned about Alaska’s warming climate.

According to Alan, a commercial fisherman in Kachemak Bay, the ocean temperature has risen to an-unheard-of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Alan said forty years ago when he started out in the business, the ocean was never above 48 degrees.  The cod fishing industry has completely collapsed due to, among other problems, the warming environment.  Halibut still seems to be plentiful though.  And like everything in this state, the halibut are huge.  I watched fascinated, as a man on the dock casually filleted a 70-pound halibut that had just been caught by another fisherman.

One of the slogans you see on bumper stickers and T shirts around southeast Alaska is, “Stay wild, my friends.”  Alaskans should be proud of their wild, big state.  I’m sad though, that they’re losing the cold, the ice, and the deep freeze.  It’s a tragedy for them—and for us.

 

Image Credit:  All images Diana Hooley

Going Wild in Alaska

Out the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry window is a bank of white fog that lines the shores of British Columbia.  I know beyond that is hundreds of miles of dark green forest, taiga.  It’s such a big land up here.  Miles of nothing, miles of everything plant, tree, and animal-wise. How would I do living in such wilderness?  I’ve marveled at all those eccentric homesteaders in Alaska watching that reality TV show, Alaskan Bush People.  Could I go without my Starbucks coffee—room for cream please?  What about my allergy medication?  I guess I could sneeze and cough my way through bear country.

Suddenly I’m keenly aware of how much it takes to keep me operative.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” my husband chides me.

Dale’s ready to go native, but I’m hesitant to leave life as I know it behind. And is it really an adventure to not reserve a room in Talkeetna?  To end up sleeping in the back of the Prius huddled under some hoody jackets?  To my thinking, that’s not adventure, that’s dumb.

“All I’m saying is we don’t have to plan this trip to-the-teeth.  Let’s live a little dangerously,” Dale tells me.

I think about a documentary I saw once about a young man, Timothy Treadwell, who lived his life very dangerously.  He was so fascinated by grizzly bears he decided to live among them in Alaska.  He even made friends with a few bears—or tried to.  One, he affectionately named “Brownie.”  Then, he drug his girlfriend up to his campsite to experience the wild and sadly, they both were attacked and killed by bears.  It’s a tragic tale—yet still worth mentioning under present circumstances.

My compromise on the “adventure” part of our trip to Alaska was to not book a motel for three nights of our two-week vacation.

I know, I know, it seems risky to me too, but I’m big enough to let fate decide where I lay my head and find my sustenance in the Alaskan outback.

“You know, they do have stores in Alaska,” our friend Ed told me when I voiced my concerns about roughing it.

Thinking about having an adventure in Alaska made me remember “the law of contrasts.”  I made this “law” up a long time ago when I noticed my days seemed to be blurring one into another, dependent on the same routes and routines.  I felt a little numb driving to work, picking up groceries, and doing laundry on the weekends.  It didn’t feel like madness to me.  The problem was, it didn’t feel like anything.  I was stuck beyond feeling—until I began to jog.

What I needed in my life was some contrast.

Jogging is nothing like climbing Denali, but you have to admit there is something torturous about both tasks.  I began jogging to lose weight.  Before work early in the morning when it was dark and cold outside, I’d dutifully put on my sneakers and ran down our gravel road, a mile and back.

What I discovered beyond all the jogging pain—was true gain.  For the rest of the day I usually felt good, happy even.  It could have been the mythic endorphin “rush” runners get.  But I’ve read you actually have to run the length of an Iditarod (or portion thereof) to get a real runner’s high.  I think the suffering of my morning jog elevated my mood somehow and made me notice, in contrast, how pleasant the rest of the day was.

I could remind Dale about my law of contrasts, but I don’t want to give him more ammunition for arguments against preplanning our motels in Alaska.  Instead, I’ll take my philosophizing another direction and talk about how difficult life can be, and why make it more so?  It’s so easy to just pick up the cell phone and make a reservation. They do have cell service in Alaska, don’t they?

 

Image CreditAlaskan Bush People      Image Credit:  Alaska (Diana Hooley)    Image Credit:  Dale and Diana (Diana Hooley)