Ever driven through Canada in the winter? US border to US border? It’s a trip for the feint of heart, one to strengthen and make wise, one for adventure and reflection and sleeping beneath the stars. Yeah, in winter.
Two-thousand three-hundred twenty-eight miles, or 2,328 miles / 3,746 kilometers. The roads are treacherous – windy, steep, rutted, narrow, lonesome. The views are stunning. In places, the sky is trapped between mountain peaks; in others, you can’t crane your neck far enough to see it all, and have to make a complete turn-around to catch every horizon. The Road dominates.
From the time you cross the border, you wonder how far the next town is. To be precise, where the next fuel stop is. My Dodge could go almost 800 miles if the terrain was relatively flat; my little Ranger would struggle to go 300 before coughing to a stop. I carry two 5-gallon jugs of gas in the back whenever I make the trip. Every time I make the trip. I know well that I can make it from one Esso station to the next Husky, but why push your luck? That gas might turn to shellac before I needed to use it, but I take it anyway. There’s a lot to be said for peace of mind when there’s 200 miles behind you and no sign of civilization. Uh-huh, that far.
If you like mountains, you’ll get your fill. If you like flat land, you could get eye strain staring into the distance. Wildlife? Bison, caribou, lynx, wolves, coyote, fox, horses, deer, mountain sheep, and a few others cross the road, graze the hillside, sleep on the center line. Lots of folks won’t drive in the dark for fear of hitting buffalo or caribou, but those Canadians are a fearless breed, and drive 120 km in the blackest night without a care. I’ve seen a few lessons in corrected thought, rearranged auto bodies, and at least one final blink. I drive in the dark, but with caution; still, I’ve had a few surprises. No matter how deep the snow, if a moose wants to cross in front of you, he can lope through belly-deep stuff to cover 100 yards in seconds. I’m sure they’re taking advantage of headlights pointing the way, and they appear out of nowhere right off your front quarter panel, leaving little time to react. So I drive slow, slowly, granny-style if I drive at night. Luck has a lot to do with it, too.
At 6:00 p.m. I crossed the Canadian border at Laurier and headed west toward Grand Forks, on to Princeton and Merritt, where I fueled up. at 2:30 a.m. I arrived at 100 Mile House, visited with the convenience store clerk about the beautiful night, and was on my way after filling the tank. An hour and a half later I pulled over to sleep in a rest stop that was on the edge of a small community – lit well, with houses in sight and walking distance. Two hours later I was wakened to somebody using the rest stop parking lot as a bumper car track. He’d get a screaming start from the road, careen into the lot and spin around on the frozen slushy ice worn smooth by countless trucks and cars. I woke to the sound of rubber skidding past and in 2 seconds I had my rig in reverse, ready to haul on out of there. I waited and the car didn’t come back, so settle back to sleep. Not fifteen minutes later he was back, from the other direction, and by now the other car in the lot had his lights on. I decided my luck was up, that I didn’t need two crazy drivers using me as the demolition target, and so pulled on out and hit the road.
Drove and drove and drove until Chetwynd, a quick stop for gas and relief, and then up the hill to an overlook where I pulled over to cook coffee. Out with the Coleman Peak burner, the old perk pot, some Black Gold grounds and 10-minute wait in the wind for the bubbling action. Two pots into the Thermos pump pot should last me until Fort Nelson, six hours ahead. The wind was strong, and howled through the bare tree limbs nearby. Below, the Peace River flowed below a brilliant blue sky. It was cold.
Fort Nelson is my half-way point, the place I get a room, take a shower, and catch up on the news. I sleep in, too, and take advantage of the Continental breakfast offered downstairs – waffles, French toast, boiled eggs, cereals, bagels, yogurt, scrambled eggs, meats, fruit, juices, hot cocoa, teas, a variety of coffees. For $130, it’s a nice break in the middle of a long trip and happens about the point my butt is completely weary from sitting and sleeping in the car. My knee is killing me from being in one position for so long, and it feels really good to simply stretch out flat. By 6 a.m., I’ve showered, the truck has warmed up, and I’m fed. On the road again.
About an hour north and you’re in the mountains. The road ribbons around the bases, hugging the bouldered shoulders, climbing above valleys and rivers below. Zig-zagging around curves you find you’re on a track engineered for speed – if you’re not afraid of death on ice – and consciously monitor the speedometer to keep things in check. There are a few places where signs advise 80 km or maybe 50 km, but they’re strange places and not ones where you’d expect caution to be posted. That corner a few miles back, the one that sneaks up on you at about 50 miles an hour, the one where you’d find an inexperienced driver shouting “Oh, sh**!” while slamming on the brake in the middle of the turn. Few guard rails, too, so best make about six trips from border to border to familiarize yourself with the Circuit de Monaco spots. Fortunately for me, my memory is still pretty good.
Out of the mountains and the land eases. Here you find buffalo sharing the road. They live in about a 40 mile stretch where I hear they were transplanted. They don’t travel very far, obviously; they’ve always been there, grazing, summer or winter, completely bored with picture-takers, whistlers, and gawkers. Beware them as much as the buffalo – drivers stop any and everywhere to look at the bison. If you’ve seen them enough, you’ll simply wend your way through the shaggy bodies or lined up vehicles and be on your way. Caribou are a bit more skittish, but like the road as a meeting place. Three to 40 of them will be standing in the middle, taking a break, shooting the breeze, until one sees you coming and the party breaks up. Not quickly, not all in one direction, but scatter is a good way to describe what they all do and where they go – every direction, unpredictably, with plenty of mind-changing in mid-lope. They’re competetive, too, evidenced by their effort to keep up with you and then speed up enough to cut across to the other side. Those are the beasts I fear at night. They’re just plain crazy.
And then you’re in Watson Lake, which isn’t much. Next is Whitehorse, some 5 hours away if you’re legal, less if you’re not. Gas up, grab a burger, and aim for Haines Junction 96 miles ahead. This is the place to look forward to. You can go straight and travel along some spooky highway at the top of the world, a road that I avoid if possible because Zeus probably lives there if anywhere, and end up in Haines, Alaska, a shoreline community where you can ride the ferry to Juneau or Skagway and become Alaskan again. Or you can hang right toward Tok, 290+ miles and across the US/Canada border. That’s the route I take these days, after thirty-some adult years in the southeastern communities of Alaska. Instead of the Alaska Marine Highway, I stick to the good old Alaska Highway overland route to the Interior. Which is what I had planned this trip.
I pulled over about 30 miles before the border crossing around 11:30 p.m. to catch a nap, the upcoming 120 miles to Tok an easy stretch. Border check was quick and I found the Alaska side of things well-maintained. I listen to book audiotapes while I drive, a suggestion I appreciate from my sister. I’d just changed CDs, noted that I had an easy quarter tank to get me the 90 miles, and had a conscious thought of my speed, 40 mph, being very leisurely indeed. I saw headlights beyond the hill ahead and wondered at another driver on this lonely stretch of road at 2 a.m. In an instant I was blinded by moose lights and bright head lights on a rig barreling down the center line straight at me. I swerved to the right, got past with feet to spare and felt the shoulder snow grab me. I sailed about 100 yards over the berm and gently floated to a stop – buried. The other truck was apparently unaware he’d run me off the road because there were no lights in sight in either direction.
Well. The truck was still running, the headlights still on, and I had heat. I pushed open my door and crawled out into the snow. With no cell service, and in a logical frame of mind, I thought to myself how glad I was to have a shovel in the back. And chains. And a tow strap. And then I thought how few people would be on this highway at 2 a.m. in the middle of February, so I put on some gloves, grabbed the shovel and began to dig myself out. Three hours later, I was back in the truck, heater going full blast, thawing out fingers and toes, debating on whether to put the chains on and try to get myself out, or wait for the good samaritan bound to come by in the next three days. Chains it was. Dig out the tires even further, down to grass and gravel. Lay under the front end, fasten the inside, then the outside with stiff fingers, then move to the other tire. I walked around the truck, dubious in my expectation for success. This snow was like salt, sand, granulated sugar, with nothing for traction. The slope was steep enough that it gave me pause when shoveling out the downhill side for fear it might slide and trap me against the snow bank, but I was high-centered enough to be secure. Back on the uphill side, I got down on my knees and dug out the underside. Another hour passed. Cold. Wet and cold. Not a good combination, so into the truck to warm up. An hour later, I was ready to try backing out. I made it about six inches before the back end slid back downhill. WELL, FUDGE.
Around 8 a.m. a kid in a dog truck, the kind that transported an entire kennel of canines, offered to help. Good kid. His name is Grayson Bruton, or some similar spelling, 17 years of age. He got me back on the road, learned how to take off tire chains, and he made $100. Another $100 went to the other kind soul who stopped to assist, making the first call ever on his new satellite phone. AAA is worthless if you can’t tell them what region of Alaska you’re stuck in, obtuse to the meaning of -30 temps, and that there is no “closest” town in that “region” of Alaska. After 20 minutes of geography lessons and the worst kind of elevator music, I hung up and gave the fellow $100 for his trouble. He assured me satellite phones don’t cost $5 a minute anymore, but I’m not so sure. What I am sure of is AAA needs to update their maps of Alaska or not advertise service in the state.
By 10:30 a.m. I was breakfasting at Fast Eddy’s in Tok, and by 4:00 I was in my own driveway, unloaded, and very glad to be home. Considering I’d spent a night in the middle of nowhere (according to AAA), had established my good fortune by remaining among the living, and made good time despite the detour and delay, I’d say all’s well that ends well, and driving sure beats TSA.