Wednesday, July 15, 2009

10,000 mile road trip adventure….and the Alaska Highway

Two years ago when we drove our U-Haul 4000 miles from Michigan to Alaska, my husband swore never to do that again. Since then we’ve been on the Alaska Highway 4 more times, and our trip this summer takes the cake. We decided to swing down to Vancouver, pop in at Yellowstone, then visit family and friends throughout the Midwest while taking in a few sights, all of which was to be topped off by that 4000 mile drive home. People kept asking us, “Why don’t you just fly down there and rent a car?” Why, indeed? It didn’t quite hold the appeal of the journey, and we had the time. There were places on the AK Hwy we’d wanted to visit on previous trips that we hadn’t had time to see. To gain the kids' support we gave them a budget to plan the fun activities on the trip and they researched online and decided where they wanted to go. June 5 was our big day: the beginning of the journey!

Traversing the Alaska Highway is a very Alaskan thing. North of Haines Junction in the Yukon, 85% of the traffic is American, which is why the U.S. paid millions of dollars to Canada for road improvements in that area. Here are a few snippets of my observations, culled from this trip and others on the Alaska Highway.

The road: Frost heaves are still there and they’re still really bad in the Yukon Territory north of Haines Junction and also on the Tok Cutoff in Alaska. RVs and fifth wheels were passing us regularly early in the day out of Haines Junction, but once we hit the frost heaves we passed them all. I would much rather be doing this in a car than a big rig since a car can fly over them as opposed to creep over them. Yet the road was much improved from even 2 years ago when we drove our UHaul over it. There was less gravel this time than on previous trips (20 miles or so is our rough estimate), and besides the risk of a cracked windshield and the annoyance of the dust, the gravel road is in better shape than the frost heaves.

Road construction: A number of large road building projects have been completed in the past few years, and there were only a few isolated spots that we were delayed by road construction, 30-40 minutes of delay between all of them the entire trip. Contrast that with the 1 ½ hours we were delayed at Kluane Lake last summer—and that was just one of many.

Wildlife: We saw at least a dozen black bear, a mother grizzly and her cub, stone sheep beyond counting, a family of Dall sheep, moose, caribou, elk, and bison. Nearly all the wildlife was between Ft. Nelson and Watson Lake besides the grizzly, which was seen near midnight as we neared Haines Junction. I believe the bear were displaced by the forest fires, which is why we saw so many on the way down and only one on our return trip. One caribou did not want to get off the road because it was so busy licking it, and the bear we saw were scarfing the flowers at an amazing rate (video below).

Gas: It is crazy how expensive gas is ($4.50 gallon), and twice on this trip we got so low our gas light went on, and that was in mid-Canada before we even reached the AK Hwy! We learned our lesson and didn’t let our tank get below half the rest of the trip if we could help it. Besides the rare town, gas stations are small operations where the owners live right there and are scraping by. I told one lady who was pumping our gas at a station how much I appreciated all these small gas stations and how I was amazed they could make it. The lady replied that she was going to have to close. I could sense the pain that statement gave her; this is her livelihood: providing gas and care for travelers on the Highway. It is a tough life, as evidenced by the number of gas stations that are shut down along the way, including some that we gassed up at just a couple years ago. Tourism is way down, and time and again we commented on how deserted the road was (which made for a speedier trip and less stress, but I ache thinking of how business owners must be hurting).

Adventure: We had planned to take the western route down the Cassiar Highway, cutting off 129 miles from our journey, but at Junction 37 where we were to turn we saw a sign saying, “37 closed due to mudslide.” I was very bummed because this highway follows the continental divide down through British Columbia and is incredibly beautiful (no, I wouldn’t necessarily say all of the Alaska Highway is beautiful—much is very boring). So we had to go straight on down the AK Hwy towards Dawson Creek. Just as we began looking for a campground I noticed a haze and commented, “I’ll bet that’s smoke from the forest fire.” I opened the window and smelled and sure enough, it was smoke.” The AK Hwy was closed the day before we started our trip due to forest fires, so the next village we got to we pulled off and asked if the highway were still open. There were fire trucks all around the buildings and men standing there, waiting for the fire to come, since it was heading that way, as is obvious from the picture shown here. The highway was still open so we pushed on. For 25-30+ miles the trees were burnt along the road. We saw fires still burning, and the smoke was pretty bad, though not reducing visibility. We had our masks in the vehicle from expecting Mt. Redoubt to blow, so we just put them on and that took care of that problem! When we reached Liard River Hot Springs, the first campground past the burn area, the campground was full. The campground host kindly let us set up in the day use area (pictured below). Firefighters were pouring into the parking lot in droves, getting out and walking back to the hot springs for their bath/break, then back to the front.

Hot springs: Near Whitehorse we paid $20 to swim in a hot springs pool at the campground we stayed at. It was basically a swimming pool with hot spring water. At Liard River Hot Springs pictured here there was a deck built along one side of the springs with steps leading in, but the rest of it was the natural bottom and banks covered with lush vegetation. It didn’t cost anything and is open 24 hours a day. It was an ethereal, beautiful place—an incredible gem. It soothes me just to think of it. The kids loved it because it was just the right depth for swimming (chest high), and they could choose the temperature of the water they wanted by walking further away from the incoming water.

Adventure of a different sort (are we crazy?): At our last stop in Michigan before we headed back to Alaska my friend Lorraine had a cat we all fell in love with. She was happy to give him a new home, so we had a cat with us in the car for the drive back to Alaska. It could have been bad, but luckily it wasn’t. The cat sat in laps, slept on the floor by the kids’ feet, wandered calmly around the car and used the kitty litter when needed. At night he slept in the tent with the kids. The vet had given us some relaxants which we gave him starting on the 3rd day, partly because we were driving so long, and partly because the frost heaves bothered him. Seymour is a great addition to our family, and we have a fun story to tell about getting him.

Long haul: from Michigan it took 3 days of hard driving (12-14 hour days) to get to the beginning of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek. Then we really started to pour it on and did 16 hour days, and we made the entire 4000 miles in 5 days.

Journal: I kept a notebook on the dashboard and jotted down notes throughout the day: animals seen, interesting sights, reactions, etc. Already I have referred to it a number of times as I needed a reminder of where we were on what day or wondering about charges on our credit card. I highly recommend this! I also wrote notes in my Mileposts Magazine, adding to their account of the highway.

Sanity (How did we keep the kids happy?): I borrowed “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” from a friend before we left and I read aloud to the family for many, many hours, building up my vocal strength as the trip went on. I was halfway through the last story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, when we arrived home Monday. Reading kept Doug alert driving and the kids mentally occupied trying to figure out the mysteries. Games, the camera, the calculator, and the notebook all kept the kids happily occupied on our iPhones for hours. Aurora had her brain puzzlers book and Denver had some legos he had bought on the trip which kept each of them content. And we had our moments of conversation, sing-alongs (We had great fun with Alaska Highway jingles we made up) and, lest you think this was a perfect vacation, arguments (wouldn’t be a family vacation without them, right?!).

Sanity (How did we keep us happy?): I don't recommend 10,000 mile road trips with kids, a cat, lots of relatives and new places every day as a form of marriage therapy. But we had our tent and the kids had theirs, and as long as I was reading I wasn't watching the road, which was a good thing for a backseat driver like me! Ironically, we celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary on Monday, the day we arrived home after 5 weeks in the car. Hey, one really appreciates home after a trip like this!!

Glitches: There were none. Considering the length of this trip, it blows me away that we are home safe and the worst things that happened were a screw embedded in our tire (no flat; got it pulled out and repaired in 15 minutes) and small crack in our windshield (an AK Hwy special). We were healthy and the heat wave in the Midwest was the most annoying part of the trip (Ok, I’m glossing over the traffic through Chicago and the traffic jam outside of Anchorage on the return trip).

On returning to Alaska: I’d begun to take the beauty around us here in Alaska for granted. After 10,000 miles, the drive along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage took my breath away. Of our whole trip, I think this is the most beautiful place. I really do love it. And yet I appreciate the beauty that is special to each place--even Minnesota corn fields. More than the beauty of the land is the comfort of people. We went on this trip in part because I was missing my family and friends in the Lower 48 and needed to reconnect with them. It fills my heart to overflowing to think of all the love, companionship, and warm fuzzies of this trip. People were so kind, wanted to give us things, wanted to hear about our lives and share their own. It has helped me reestablish my place in this world, and that is priceless.

Do it again? My curiosity is piqued. What is the Alaska Highway like in the winter? I really want to know. I don’t think my family wants to know, though. Maybe this will be one of those urges that goes away….


The Steve said...

That is quite a trip, I am glad you had so much fun ! I plan on making the trip one of these days.

If you are looking for another long road trip, making the drive up to Chicken, AK was quite pretty ! I didn't see as many wildlife on my trip as you did, but the scenery was gorgeous !

Michelle Waclawski said...

Ha ha. What made you think I might be looking for another long road trip??!! Actually, we laugh about Chicken all the time, and I DO want to go there! Next summer we're staying in AK, but AK is a big place, so we could still drive thousands of miles!
That's part of what I love about Alaska: it's so huge and remote one could spend a lifetime here and never get close to exploring even a fraction of it.

The Steve said...

Chicken is a cute town! Only a handful of buildings, but talking to the locals were a lot of fun.

I have only been up here for a couple of years, but I am loving it ! I agree, its so huge that I will never see everything that I want to !

Tina said...

I love your blogs.... You were wondering about the Alcan in the winter... Well, this will be our 3rd time on it in wintertime. I've never experienced it in the summer. I hear the roads are smoother because of the snow. At moments you pray that your vehicles don't give out on ya! It is a wonderful adventure. I highly recommend the trip to Prudoe Bay... That was quite a trip. We'll have to have some coffee/tea/HoCho and share stories.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your travel journal. I will be retiring in eleven years and God willing, we plan on traveling from Michigan each Spring, to Alaska, returning in the Fall. We do plan, although it sounds like you recommend against it, to either purchase a Class C motor home or a truck and fifth wheel. We expect to take between two and three weeks to get there because we want to take in all the sights and scenery, even the boring scenery.

After Christmas we intend on traversing the Southern U.S.

If you can, I would greatly appreciate some dos and donts traveling to and from Alaska.


Joseph F. Elliott
Chief Legalman (Surface Warfare), United States Navy, Retired

Michelle Waclawski said...

By all means take a motor home or fifth wheel; plenty of folks do it. It makes things much more flexible on the trip as you can pull off and eat, sleep, etc. wherever.

Personlly, I my biggest recommendation would be to get Mileposts Magazine and read it. That will give you up-to-date information about laws, businesses and idiosyncracies of the Alaska Highway. Particularly as it will be years before you go, things will change. I'm sure Mileposts will still be around; it is a tremendous resource for those traveling the Alaska Highway for the first time, and is helpful in Alaska as well.

Happy planning!

Anonymous said...

Awesome read! I currently live in bush Alaska (Chefornak) and will be flying to Bethel then Anchorage for some classes. Afterwards, I'll meet up with a friend or two to make the trek from Anchorage to Michigan. Do you have some specifics on the routing you took? I'm just starting to plan and am looking for ideas. Thanks!

Michelle Waclawski said...

I'm afraid I don't recall the route we took. I think we just Mapquested it and did a combo of Mapquest and Mileposts Magazine. Really, I personally recommend Mileposts as it will tell you where to get gas, food and lodging. And some routes are better in certain seasons, and it depends on how much time you have and how scenic you want it. Liara Hot Springs is worth the stop (in the Yukon I believe...).

Enjoy your trip!