After a recent road trip into Alaska and points north in the Yukon, we can now claim to have driven the whole length of the Alaska Highway.

Arguably the greatest feat of road building in the history of the world happened in 1942. In less than nine months, US Army troops and United States and Canadian civilian contractors scraped, filled and constructed 1,422 miles of a road from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Big Delta, Alaska. Many residents of this remote land thought at the time that such a project was impossible.

Besides being the primary conduit that carries necessary goods and supplies up the highway, it also funnels tens of thousands of tourists to the “last frontier” of Alaska.

More than half a century has passed since the Alaska Highway was built and few arterial roads, particularly in the Yukon and Alaska, have been built off the main highway.

Alaska and the Yukon are mostly roadless. There are just over 12,000 miles of public road in Alaska and less than 3,500 miles in the Yukon. There is one public road, the Haines Highway, between our Yukon home and the Pacific Ocean to the west. That span is filled with mountains, alpine, lakes and spruced river valleys.

I know this because I talked to a grizzled fellow who hiked from our road to the Haines Highway during a three-week stroll in the middle of winter.

Looking like he was sired by a grizzly bear, he added that the jaunt is far easier in the winter because you can go more direct by walking over frozen rivers and lakes.

If I were to trek east across the continent towards the saltwater of Hudson’s Bay, I would cross three to five public roads. That means that between thoroughfares there is a whole lot of wild boreal land latticed with myriads of ponds, lakes and flowages. But somehow I wouldn’t doubt that the old grizzled Yukoner has made that stroll.

Winter traveling through the north is serious business.  I mean traveling in the real north, not the mild and mannered “up north” of my home state, Minnesota. Winter cuts wheat from the chaff.

Nancy and I drove up the Alaska Highway a few years ago early in the month of January. We had flown down to Minnesota for Christmas and were driving our Prius back north to the Yukon.

Prior to leaving the Yukon for the holidays, we sought advice from our born-in-the Yukon neighbor who was a truck driver. He regularly made long runs on the Alaska Highway at all times of the year. He didn’t pontificate. In all seriousness he barked, “Don’t be a cowboy.” I think that meant don’t take any chances. The remote highway can team up with the elements of nature and kill you.

When we left Minnesota that January morning it was -24°F. And with a stout NW wind, I didn’t want to calculate the wind chill. Two, winter-weight down sleeping bags, holiday presents to each other, took up much of the hatchback. We had no problems. In Canada it’s relatively easy finding a motel with outside outlets to plug our cars oil pan heater into.

When we pulled out of the motel the next morning, in the day’s late dawning, the car creaked and thunked frigidly  onto the Trans Canada Highway. The dash lights failed to work in the cold. It was midmorning, somewhere in Saskatchewan, that they flickered and finally flashed on.

We were nearing Alberta when we spied a massive front, bearing a strong Chinook, warming ocean winds hurtling easterly, over the Canadian Rockies and spilling down onto the Canadian prairie.  The giant warming front drove back the cold temperatures and offered us a leap into unseasonably tropical temperatures. That night, in Edmonton, slush was the norm. With the thermometer rising above freezing there was no need to pull out the extension chord to plug the car into an outside outlet.

A day later found us officially on the Alaska Highway under tepid January temperatures. An axiom for successfully traveling the highway at any time of the year is to fill you vehicle whenever you can as services can be few and far between.

Traffic is never really heavy on the Alaska Highway and in the winter we experienced no RVs whatsoever. Actually we experienced hardly any traffic other than a few 18-wheelers and the random car. Summer use is dropping. It could be that folks are hard pressed to make such a trip. Or it could be that fuel costs are simply making the trip too pricey.

After World War II, Canada took over ownership of the highway.  And over the next forty years the entire span was paved. Prior to the completion of a smooth surface, it was not unusual for a traveler to have multiple spare tires and gas cans strapped to the cars roof or back bumper.

It seem like you are witnessing an old newsreel of the Alaska Highway when you still witness cars loaded with tires and extra fuel. Are they paranoid or have they not updated Milepost?  There is no better mile-by-mile travel guide than the most recently Milepost.

Now having said that it is sad to see the increasing number of old service station-café units overgrown with weeds and aspen trees, like cages, growing  around the gas pumps. At one stilled roadside station, I found an old sign laying on the ground half covered with fallen leaves and spruce needles. The other half was covered in splashes of lichens. Brushing away some leaves I was able to read the hand painted declaration: “Best Rhubarb Pie.”

Every year that we point our car up this grand highway, it seems like we discover another business gone silent. The proverbial sheet of plywood leaning against a saw horse or barrel bears the boldly painted word, usually in white,  “Closed.” Perhaps, one of these years we will have no choice but to join the traveling self-service units and be forced to tote extra treads and gas cans.

And while there is a kind of poetic justice in watching the boreal wilderness reclaim itself, I would sure miss the rhubarb pie.

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