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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Driving with my Dog to Alaska: The Road Home

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted November 27, 2012

Five years ago my dog, Beau, and I drove from our home in upstate New York to Alaska and back. The first 15  installments can be found by clicking the "Traveling with Beau" link on the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page.  My wife, Doris, flew into Anchorage and joined us for 10 days. 

Doris flew out of Anchorage on September 3rd, on the last direct Chicago flight of the season. The following day, American Airlines would be rerouting its Chicago plane to San Juan, yet another indication that the north is ephemeral and relatively isolated especially in the winter months.

After leaving the airport, Beau and I retraced our path from Anchorage through Palmer and the Wrangell Mountains to Tok, where we spent our last night in Alaska. We had barely reached Tok when my daughter called with the news that my 89-year-old mother had fallen at a bus stop in Toronto and broken her hip. My plans for a circuitous trip back through the northern Yukon and then south through British Columbia changed, and we headed home by a more direct route, even including the interstate after we reached the United States south of Winnipeg, Manitoba four days later.

We left Tok very early on our second morning and soon crossed the border back into Canada. Though much of the scenery was familiar, the days are much shorter now and the higher elevations in the Yukon were snow-covered. 

On our way through Beaver Creek ten days earlier, I had noticed more than the usual roadside advertising for Buckshot Betty's Restaurant and Cabins. Though I'm not one for silly local fork lore, we were both in need of a breakfast break, so I pulled onto the spacious gravel apron and parked between two large RV's, each with miniature dogs barking at Beau through the closed windows.

I entered a cozy breakfast nook already inhabited by a large table overflowing with a dozen or more people with plates spilling over with pancakes, eggs and sausage. I patiently waited by the door for at least five minutes -- I didn't want to sit down until invited to do so -- when from the kitchen burst a larger than life person who could only be Betty herself, balancing another half dozen plates in one hand and two coffee pots in the other. She ordered me to sit down in the most colorful language I"d heard all trip, and reinforced her admonition with something about her not being my mother. When I told her I wanted takeout because a had my dog in the car, she replied without hesitation to "bring the mutt inside." 

Beau and I had a delightful time with Betty, especially after the RV's left and it was just she and her assistant with the two of us. She is a legend in these parts and, as we left, she tucked a copy of the CD, "The Ballad of Buckshot Betty", under my arm. 

'Buckshot Betty' and Beau in Beaver Creek, Yukon.

Red fox along the Alaskan
highway in the Yukon.
People in the Yukon seemed to be either natives or newcomers. Betty was a native. But at one midnight rest stop in Teslin (Yukon), I found a newcomer when I inquired of her  if the northern lights were often visible during the fall. Looking at me as if she didn't understand the question, I repeated it and said we had seen them in Denali Park. "No," she answered authoritatively, "I've never seen them.
As I walked back to the jeep, I saw the lights reaching from the expanse of the northwest and hovering almost above me. The multi-colored aurora was visible for the next two hours, so brilliant and beautiful that we stopped several times so I could marvel at the wonder of it all.
Proprietor of the Kluane Museum of Natural
History in Burwash Landing, with Beau

I met another long-timer at the 95-person hamlet of Burwash Landing at milepost 1093 on the Alaskan Highway. We were the sole patrons of the quaint Kluane Museum of Natural History with its interesting taxidermy collection complete with a standing polar bear that stretched to an imposing ten-feet in height. The proprietor, a caustic young man with long hair and beard told me he was originally from Toronto. "How did you get up here?", I asked. "By Greyhound!" was his curt answer, and the conversation deteriorated from there. 

An hour-long wait along the southern stretches of Kluane Lake
due to blasting associated with new construction.

Patience is a must requirement for travel on the Alaska Highway whether encountering long  sections of road with pot holes the size of boulders, or extensive delays due to construction and the never-ending maintenance associated with extreme frost upheaval that occurs during the long winter months. 

Almost two weeks earlier I had met truck-driver Jon at  near the beginning of the Alaskan Highway. He warned me to drive carefully, especially around wild animals. "Don't drive like dumb-shit", he had said. Jon's words were prophetic on the evening of my second return day when I encountered a black bear sow and three small cubs. One of the cardinal rules is to never leave your vehicle to approach wild animals, and to beware of oncoming traffic. 

Black Bear Sow and her Three Cubs
in Northern British Columbia
One of the three curious cubs
beside the Alaska Highway

As I was pulling over the right shoulder, facing east, a robust family of about eight tourists were piled out of a large van just ahead of me. Three of them spilled out onto the road, within ten yards of the sow, and incredulously, two more fumbled around in the back of the van pulling out tripods and cameras. Just as the pair with the cameras started across the road towards the bears, an enormous blast from a 28-wheeler erupted behind our jeep and an accelerating driver swept his rig past us, barreling down the middle of the road and barely missing the tourists. The sow kept on munching grass and inching her brood further down the ditch beside the road as the undeterred visitors set up their tripod and snapped pictures.

The remainder or the trip was relatively uneventful and I was visiting my mother -- she had returned to her assisted-care facility several days earlier -- ten days after leaving Anchorage. Beau and I stayed in Toronto two more days and then returned to Ithaca. 

Beau's behavior was no different from the many other times he had returned home from a long trip. As we neared our home, he sat up, started to whine and jiggle all over. His tail flapped loudly against the jeep's seat and he dashed from the driver's side as soon as I opened the door. Around and around the lawn he ran then bounded in the house as Doris opened the front door to greet him. After his hugs from her, he was back outside, sniffing new smells for deer and squirrels throughout the property. Then, as is his ritual, he raced around the house again, this time stopping at the water dish for a few noisy laps. Within half an hour, he was stretched out on his favorite chair, sound asleep and snoring softly.

After gassing and cleaning the jeep, I returned it to the Avis at the Ithaca airport the following morning. Thirty-five days and 10,049 miles after leaving Ithaca with my boy.

It has been five years since our Alaska trip. Beau turned 16 on election day, 2012, and is still a wonderful and easy traveler. My days as veterinary dean behind me, I rejoined the faculty and continue to teach and now do research and write on the history of veterinary medicine and its impact on the future of the profession. I have given several talks about our trip to various groups, encouraging people to be more attuned to the human-animal bond and more receptive to exploring life and this great country with our dogs and other pets.

Dr. Smith invites comments at