Many Wonders (but Few Amenities) on a Legendary Highway
Title: The New York Times
By: Cornelia Dean
Date: Jul 24, 2012
Publication Type: Daily Newspaper
WHITEHORSE, Yukon Territory -- As a tourism destination, the Alaska (or Alcan) Highway does not have a lot to recommend it -- and that is the biggest thing in its favor. If you drive the 1,000 or so miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, near Fairbanks, Alaska, you will not see many motels, fast food joints, miniature golf courses, water parks or other hallmarks of North American road trips.
What you will see are snow-covered mountains, spruce forests, wildflowers, tundra and eagles, bears, caribou, moose and even the occasional bison grazing along the side of the road.
"The Alaska Highway is the legendary road of the north," Syd Cannings, a zoologist at the Yukon Conservation Data Center, writes in a coming book on the ecosystems the road crosses -- among them the Rockies (and the Continental Divide), the Yukon River and the St. Elias Mountains (which include the highest peak in Canada).
At its northern end, it enters Beringia, one of the few northern realms untouched for millions of years by glaciers. This was the landscape the ancestors of today's Native Americans encountered when they crossed the land bridge from Asia in the last ice age.
When the road opened in 1942, even military trucks did not always survive it. After World War II it was opened to civilian traffic, only to be closed almost at once when too many vehicles ended up broken down at the side. As recently as the 1980s much of the Canadian portion was paved with gravel, enough to leave many a car and truck a battered wreck.
Today, all of this can be enjoyed from the two-lane highway's relative comfort and safety, but that is a relatively recent development.
"We still get people showing up with 15 jerrycans and 9 spare tires on the roof rack," said Wally Hidinger, Yukon's director of transportation engineering. "You just don't need it. You can drive with no trouble at all, summer and winter."
Still, given the highway's relative lack of plush amenities, it pays to plan ahead. For that, you need The Milepost, an annual guide that lists campgrounds, gas stations, restaurants and so on, mile by mile. (Note that because engineers have been straightening the road's curves since it was opened, milepost designations don't always match actual mileage.)
The Guide to the Alaska Highway, by Ron Dalby, offers tips on what to pack for the trip, how to find fishing holes and where to camp. Among other things, it advises that recreational vehicles' water, propane and sewer pipes should be "tucked out of the way of flying gravel."
More good advice: Gas up every day at lunchtime (gas stations along the Alcan often open late or close early), drive with your headlights on, pay attention to the weather, and turn off radar detectors, which are illegal here.
If you make this trip, you will probably want to spend some time here in Whitehorse, Yukon's territorial capital and by far the largest community along the road. The city is home to the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site; the Klondike is one of the few survivors of the scores of paddle-wheel steamboats that once plied the Yukon River.
The Yukon Transportation Museum offers exhibits not just about the highway, but also relics of Yukon travel by everything from dogsled to ambulance. The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center has exhibits on people and animals of land-bridge days -- including the cast of a skeleton of the largest woolly mammoth ever recovered in North America and a diorama of a cave settlement of people who might have hunted it.
The premier hostelry in Whitehorse is the Westmark, one of a chain of hotels serving Alaska and the Yukon. It's not fancy, but its rooms are comfortable and its restaurant offers stick-to-the ribs fare. Nearby are other restaurants, including a Tim Hortons (purveyors of the doughnuts that are practically the national food of Canada). Also try the Burnt Toast Cafe, and ask for the bison sausage; and the Yukon Mining Company, where the specialite de la maison is bison burger.
Caption: Illustration: • PHOTO: ROAD TRIP: It pays to plan ahead if you're driving the AlaskaHighway. When the road opened in 1942, even military trucks did not alwayssurvive it. (PHOTOGRAPH BY CORNELIA DEAN)