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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Driving With my Dog to Alaska: Yukon

Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted September 4, 2012

Five years ago my dog, Beau, and I drove from our home in upstate New York to Alaska and back. The first eight installments can be found by clicking the "Traveling with Beau" link on the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page. In the last blog, Beau and I traveled through the province of British Columbia. We are soon to enter the Yukon.

This would be our longest day and we started it at 4:30 when we went for our morning walk in the dark. Dark, that is, except for the zillion stars that fenestrated the inky sky. Beau ate nothing and neither did I. Excitement, perhaps.

Beau's mood improved as we pulled into the Fort Nelson gas station alongside a huge tractor trailer with 'Lydan' written on its side. Driver Jon-without-an-h, a big man with a gregarious smile for such an early start, told me what to expect on this most challenging portion of the Alaska Highway, then we both went inside for coffee. We were the first customers of the day so the coffee was free; in reality, the women knew Jon, and I was in his shadow. 

As I watched Jon ascend the steep stairs and center his gravity in the massive cockpit, he turned back to me, “Just stay alert for animals, some days you see none and other days, you roll around a corner going too fast, and find a bull moose standing in the middle of the road staring at you. And be careful in the mountains. They are treacherous if you take the corners too quickly, especially Suicide Hill." Then he delivered a final memorable admonition, "Don't drive like dumb-shit, and maybe I’ll see you two at the hot springs for breakfast.

So off we went, headlights focused on the big rig ahead of us.  That worked well for the first 60 km, until we entered the mountains and Jon pulled off at a truck turnout to test his brakes.  We were on our own now, peering into the black morning as the caution signs for moose and other animals reminded us that we were not alone.

At our second pit stop of the morning, the stillness of the mountain air was sharply punctuated by a blast of a truck horn as a massive beast roared by. I was about to grumble about the evil monster when I caught the hearty wave and bright smile of Jon as he leap-frogged us. I wanted to jump in the jeep and race after him, but we both knew we would be foolish to move at his speed.  He would have to have breakfast without us. Sadly, we never saw Jon again, but whenever we saw a Lydan truck, or witnessed a driver doing “dumb shit”, I thought of our friend.

We had been traveling alone in the mountains for over an hour with the sun now shining brightly when I spotted two caribou walking down the road towards us. Beau saw them, too, and he sat up straight and peered intently through the windshield. I’m not sure which of us was more excited as Beau started to whine and jiggle all over, and I pulled over onto the shoulder and grabbed the camera. 

Bull caribou and yearling beside the Alaska Highway

We spent the next 20 minutes watching a bull and a yearling graze beside the road, periodically returning to the road to advance a few yards, then ambling into the brush once again.  I would like to have stayed with the gangly pair all day, but we were almost 800 km from Whitehorse, so we moved back onto the road and began to accelerate. Almost on cue, the mature caribou strolled out into the road just in front of us and proceeded to walk right down its center, not more than 10 feet from our bumper.  For the next 10 minutes, we inched forward as the bull moved to the side of the road, only to cross back into our path. Time and time again, his game continued–-at least, it seemed to me like his little game--then we finally crested a hill and they dashed into the brush and were gone. Regardless what happened for the rest of the trip to Whitehorse, we had seen and photographed our first big animals.

The scenery along the road was breathtaking. We were traveling through the rugged Canadian Rockies, with large mountains and fast-moving rivers racing along the road beside us. 

The Alaska Highway (arcing along the left side of the photo),
followed the course that the river had cut  between the mountains.

On that quiet morning, the reflection in the water was as clear
as the view above the surface.

Periodically we would come to a large lake, with vistas reflecting scenery below the surface as stunning as those above.

Stone sheep ram high on a ridge 
overlooking the Alaska Highway. 

For the most part, the road was in good condition. However, pot holes and deep trenches carved by shifting winter ice caught us unawares too often and we tempered our speed accordingly. We were also on the constant lookout for animals, and our slower-than-average speed made it difficult for the locals who barreled through in their large double-wheeled trucks, or the RV drivers who were more interested in getting to their park for the night than savoring the views.       

Suicide Hill was impressive with its tight curves and precipitous descent. On its shoulder stood two sets of  floral wreaths bearing testament to those who had been unable to control their vehicle on an icey morning. One of the wreaths contained in its circle the picture of a double-long rig that apparently went over the edge carrying a good-looking young man who was pictured beside his truck on a happier day. 

By midmorning, we had seen over 20 Stone sheep: ewes with sharp points on the horns and flat-headed calves still waiting for the first buds to appear. Males with ruggedly-built curved horns stood watch beside the road or perched in the rocky ledges high above.                                                                

Stone sheep ewe and lamb in the Rockies

We arrived at the Liard River Hot Springs about noon. Jon was nowhere to be found though other truckers had taken his place. Because the hot springs were popular with tourists, everyone seemed relaxed and in a jovial mood. Some were warmer than others, but I had a good excuse to decline the invitation to take a dip in the hot springs with an overly-friendly Minnesota woman because dogs were not allowed in the pool area. Instead, I gathered a hearty feast of chicken and vegetables from the convenience store and Beau and I had a lazy lunch and a well-deserved nap.

A large bison herd is frequently sighted near the Liard Hot Springs and Beau and I were not disappointed. Part of the herd was grazing on a hillside far from the road, but several of the cows and calves, and two massive bulls, were near the highway. Though they appeared to be resting comfortably, they were not chewing their cuds as I would have expected and when a boisterous tourist party got too close, they jumped up and disappeared into the bush. 

Wood Bison near Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park.

After crossing and recrossing the British Columbia-Yukon border, we were finally beyond the midpoint of our day's journey. Eight miles from Watson Lake we stopped at Sign Post Forest. Locals call it "the world's largest collection of stolen property" as there are signs from hometowns around the world. The first sign was placed in 1942 by a homesick U.S. Army G.I. who was one of the thousands of Americans sent north to build the Alaska Highway. He erected a sign pointing towards his hometown of Danville, Illinois. Watson Lake now maintains the site which allegedly contains over 10,000 signs. One could spend a full afternoon walking among the rows and rows of names and observing the clever ways tourists have celebrated their favorite places.  

Sign Post Forest near Watson Lake dates to 1942 and contains the world's 
"largest collection of stolen property".

It was a blazing hot afternoon and I could not leave Beau in the jeep to watch the historical movie at the adjacent Information Center. It tells the story of how the highway had been built by the American military in response to concerns of a Japanese land invasion following Pearl Harbor. Sensing my disappointment, the overtly friendly staff invited Beau as a VIP guest and we watched the movie together, then gathered outside for pictures and cold water.

Situated almost equidistant between
New York City and Tokyo, Japan,
Sign Post Forest lies a few miles from Watson Lake in the Yukon.

It was late in the afternoon when we finally said goodbye to our friends in Watson Lake, promising to visit them on our return trip. The Rocky mountains and the day's large animals behind us, we hurried on the last 440 km towards Whitehorse. 

The entrance to Teslin Bridge, approximately two hours
from Whitehorse, Yukon.

Stopping at the Teslin River crossing for dinner, we had a relaxing visit with a couple from Montana whom we had met at a rest stop earlier in the day. Driving the Alaska Highway can be like that: long stretches of nothing and no one, then you can be surprised by the joy of seeing a person you met earlier and it is as if you are reunited with a close friend. A friendly, helpful close friend. 

Dr. Smith invites comments at