(How long is the Alcan Highway? When was it built? What does the British Commonwealth have to do with the Alcan?)
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.
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All images: Diana Hooley