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Traveling with Beau

Donald F. Smith

Chapter One

Five years ago tomorrow, Beau and I departed on a 35-day cross country jeep adventure to Alaska and back. We traveled through ten states, four Canadian provinces, and the Yukon. We crossed the international border eight times.

The route north and west, from New Work to Alaska

We slept under the Northern lights and in a five-star hotel. We saw caribou, mountain sheep, brown and black bears. We traded the interstate for state roads, and large bridges for ferries. We drove the Alaska Highway.

We met rich people who acted poor, and impoverished people filled with the wealth of human kindness. We met people with ugly attitudes who had nothing good to say, and radiant people with no limit to their kindness.

Though some friends and colleagues said it couldn’t done--just a man and a dog driving over 10,000 miles--we did it with only two bad days (stay tuned).

Beau at the Welcome Sign to Alaska, Day 10.

After five years to reflect and, with my 16-year-old graying English Cocker Spaniel by my side, I shall share a brief recap of our story in the hope that it will inspire others to do something as wonderful.

The Setting
On a warm May evening in 2007, I turned to my wife, Doris, “What do you think if I drive to Anchorage with Beau and we meet you there?” “Sure”, she said, “sounds like a plan”. I would be soon be completing my ten-year term as dean of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and needed some down time and a time to reflect. This adventure would be good therapy.

Rules of the Road
  • I had made only one reservation for the entire two weeks, and that was at the Hilton Anchorage. Other nights, Beau and I slept in inexpensive hotels or under a small tent. Occasionally we slept in the jeep, and on three occasions, under the stars. 
  • Driving from Ithaca to the Canadian border in Saskatchewan, we traveled state and secondary roads--our tires never touched the Interstate. In Canada, we often drove provincial roads until we reached the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia. 
  • We stopped every 40 miles or every hour, whichever came first. I never peed before Beau. We always ate together, never in a restaurant. He sat up front with me in the passenger seat, and almost always wore his seat belt.
Beau relaxing after lunch on the lawn of the provincial capital building
in Regina, Saskatchewan, Day 5.

Was I apprehensive? A few times, but not as much as I thought. There were some vicious-acting dogs in northern Alberta that really scared me, and some vast stretches of highway in the Yukon that were desolate at night, especially while Beau was sleeping. But mostly, it was a comfortable and enjoyable trip and I recommend it !

Chapter Two

Every time I got out of the jeep,
Beau  jumped over into the 

driver's seat
as if truly in command of the trip.
With our travel documents secure – passport for me and international health certificate plus proof of rabies vaccination for Beau – we said goodbye to Doris.

Beau curled up on the front seat beside me and slept. We stopped in western New York communities to pee, snack and explore—places with interesting names like Varick, Avon and Alden—then we pushed on to Niagara Falls and crossed the border overlooking the great cataract. 

The Canadian customs officer seemed to have taken his friendly demeanor from the name of the bridge, 'Peace'. "Where do you live; what is your citizenship; how long will you be in Canada; any firearms or alcohol?  The agent only glanced at my passport, nodded to Beau and saying in a kind voice, “You two have a nice day”.

Southwestern Ontario looked prosperous as we passed the rolling farmlands and small towns.  We detoured north, into the Stratford-upon-Avon region which is home each summer to the Canadian Shakespeare festival. We stopped briefly in the town of Forest, where I worked as a summer intern between my third and final years of veterinary college.(1) It was there that I had learned how to do surgery on hundreds of baby pigs which were cryptorchids or had umbilical hernias. And it was there where my first equine patient died, a mare with a uterine artery rupture after foaling. Beau and I stopped at the gate to that farm (it was still there), and I replayed every detail of that horrifying night 34 years earlier. It’s amazing how you remember your early cases the best.

Rather than take the large bridge over the river into Detroit, we drove south and waited in line for two hours for the little ferry that crossed the St. Claire River. Beau and I happily waited in queue, wandering about the water front watching the massive lake freighters grunt down the river while water-skiers danced over their rolling wakes. Beau had an unending wave of people coming up to pet him while they shared stories of their own pets--their children--they had left behind. That was to be a common theme throughout our trip.

One of the 200+ cars waiting in queue in Sombra, Ontario.
The privately-owned ferry is midway between Canada and the U.S. shore.

The crossing was swift – only a half mile separates the two docks – and we passed through customs once again. Beau made friends with Johnny Dog, as we enjoyed a lazy afternoon walk along the river in the summer heat.

Johnny Dog, selling hot dogs to visitors along the river.
We ate up lots of country roads on our zig-zag journey across Michigan. Rather than following a predetermined route, we mostly just headed west and slightly north. Arriving in Saginaw as the last rays of daylight were diminishing, we found a quiet park for dinner and a rest on the damp grass.

We didn't reach the ferry dock in Ludington on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan until 1:00am. Totally exhausted from the long day, we just slept in the jeep. With Beau's head draped over my arm I awakened only once to his soft snoring. If he awakened more often to mine, I never knew.

The 410-foot S.S. Badger prepares for loading
at Ludington, Michigan; but not before

Beau makes pre-departure friends with a 
Springer Spaniel named Cocoa.
At 7:00 am, I was startled by the sound of tires on gravel all around us. The cars were lining up to enter the ferry so we rushed to our respective bathrooms and joined the queue. Dog-friendly helpers were everywhere as they gave us doggie treats, and introduced us to the other dogs that would be accompanying Beau in the hold of the ship. The cars with pets were loaded last so they could be unloaded first. It went like clockwork; it was pure magic and Beau could not have been happier.

For security and safety reasons, drivers are not allowed to remain with their vehicles. For the first time in 24 hours, I relaxed on deck, a cup of evil-tasting coffee in one hand and a map of Wisconsin in the other. Four hours ahead lay Manitowac and the entrance to the great midwest.

(1) During the period when I was in veterinary college in Canada, it was common for the practice owner to charge summer interns with sole responsibility for occasional night and weekend emergency calls.

Chapter Three
Inhaling the brisk sea air from the top deck of the SS Badger as it steamed across Lake Michigan, I wondered how Beau and his gaggle of new canine friends were doing on the deck below. In my dreamlike trance, I imagined them having a big party while sporting the green bandanas they had all been given as they boarded the ship in Michigan.

Beau proudly wore his green 
SS Badger bandana during the entire trip.
Just before 11:00am--the four-hour lake crossing was artificially truncated by a one-hour change to Central time--the SS Badger slipped into Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Jostling my way down the narrow steps among hundreds of other people scurrying to depart the ship, I scanned the deck for my silver jeep among the vehicles that were unloaded first. Car after car spewed from the hold by rushing valet attendants, but mine was not among them. "So much for first on and first off," I said out loud to no one in particular. I hurried along the rows of waiting cars until reaching the end of the line, then doubled  back, darting among rivulets of cars the were hastily departing the ferry so they did not have to endure the log jam otherwise waiting for them in town. Still no jeep! Still no Beau!

Just then, my jeep darted past me and slid obliquely into a narrow aperture vacated by a departing car. Hours earlier, I had left all four windows open just a few inches, but now the passenger side window was wide open and there was Beau, sitting fully erect, looking straight ahead. As his eye caught  mine, he yelped and almost exploded through the window into my outstretched arms even before the jeep came to a full stop. I was too relieved to scold the young driver for foolishly opening the window. At the same time, I could not help but wonder if, in the freedom of the great ship's hold, perhaps the dogs had organized quite a party after all.

Attractive, family-operated dairy farms
were throughout eastern Wisconsin
We drove west and gently north across Wisconsin enjoying the farmland and reminiscing about the five years we had spent in Madison in the mid 1980s while I was teaching in the recently-opened veterinary school. I had taken the job because of my love for the dairy industry, and seeing farms rich in Holstein cows along the drive brought back fond memories. 

At the little town of Weyauwega, we strolled up the main street and found a park for lunch. A local woman stopped to visit with Beau and told us that during a March night in 1996, a train with 37 cars loaded with propane and other combustibles derailed just north of town. It caused such explosions, fires and concerns of residual toxins that the whole town was evacuated. People were hastily forced from their homes during the night, leaving pets behind anticipating they would be back in hours. As day three arrived and increasingly-agitated pet owners threatened to break through security lines to rescue their pets, the governor finally ordered the Wisconsin National Guard to intercede. They removed pets from houses and reunited them with their families. In some respects, this was a learning exercise for the handling of animals during Hurricane Katrina a decade later. 

The world's largest talking cow
in Nellesville, Wisc.
In Neillsville, we happened upon Chatty Belle, the World's Largest Talking Cow. Despite being in peaceful Amish country, I was pretty disappointed to learn that the massive bovine park was not dog-friendly! Continuing to our evening destination in Eau Claire with an hour to spare before the sun set, we located a nice camping site for our little tent. However, the clouds appeared menacing and the wind had a strange curdling sound, so we pulled up stakes and chose the sparkling-clean Econo Lodge instead. Despite it being a pet-friendly motel, too many men and women were sneaking their dogs in the back door and putting them in rooms not reserved for pets rather than pay the modest surcharge. It is another example of why the irresponsibility of a few people makes the integration of pets into our social culture more difficult.

In the wee hours of the morning, we awoke to an thunderous storm viciously slamming the windows of our motel. Beau left his blanket to snuggle closer to me as if to acknowledge we were fortunate not to be camping. We found out just how fortunate the next morning.

                                                      Chapter Four:
                                       WISCONSIN AND MINNESOTA

A soft misty rain clung to our bodies like a body suit as Beau and I went for our morning walk. It was barely 5:00 am, but he was ready to go and I wanted to get to the North Dakota border before it got dark.

Not far from Eau Claire, we saw damage from last night's storm. By the time we reached Monomone, 30 miles north of the motel where we had spent the night, damage from the near tornado-proportion storm was dramatic. We continued to see downed trees, wind-swept buildings and other havoc until we reached St. Croix Falls at the Minnesota border. 

Damage from the tornado-like storm that swept through
west-central Wisconsin the night before.

Beau and Hunter became fast friends
As was usually the case, we stopped at interesting places so often during the morning that it was already early afternoon when we reached the Minnesota border. In the river town of St. Croix Falls, Beau made fast friends with Hunter, a 17-year-old working at a local bike and canoe rental facility. Hunter told me how he had planned to become a veterinarian until he witnessed the death of a valuable calf one day while being operated upon for an umbilical hernia. His comment has stayed with me to this day, "I don't want to do anything to harm animals," he told me.

Princeton's Party House was paradoxically located
next to the Book and Bible Store.
The drive across Minnesota was long, but the rural, small town culture fascinated me. Places like Cambridge where I slept on the grass beside a ball field while Beau released his leash from under my arm and roamed freely; Princeton, where the "Party House" and the "Book and Bible" store were co-located in the same small mall; and Little Falls, where Charles Lindbergh had spent his boyhood on the  banks of the Mississippi. We encountered construction in several places, sometimes causing long and frustrating delays. At the Motley Dairy Queen we sat next to the perfect family: attractive blond-haired children behaving perfectly for their model-like parents. Beau and I looked rather homely and a little travel-weary by comparison and, for the first time since leaving Ithaca, I was homesick. 

I missed Doris. So did Beau. But we had each other and we were not going to turn back. We were finding out that getting there was half the fun. So far, it had been all of the fun! But to be honest, the days had  been long and we had yet to see any really interesting animals. Sure, lots of wonderful cows, some neat Amish horses, an occasional fox by the road. But the caribou, bears, mountain sheep--even the pelicans and ducks--lay many miles ahead . 

Big Tom, the World's Largest Turkey, Frazee, MN
Large turkey farms in western Minnesota caused us to stop on the shoulder of the road and just stare--I had never seen anything like that before--and seeing the sign advertising "Big Tom", we made the mandatory detour to Frazee, the turkey capital of the world, to see the 22-foot-high symbolic turkey. It was dark as we combed the streets of Fargo, North Dakota, as we looked for an inexpensive motel. We found one that was both inexpensive and cheap (there IS a difference), but it was dog-friendly and out of the elements. 

                                                             Chapter Five
                                                        NORTH DAKOTA

Day four started fine: rising at 5:45, vigorous one hour walk, shower, light breakfast and on the road by 8:00am. However--as I did not fully realize until much later in the day--I was exhausted.  Having spent 40 of the preceding 60 hours on the road, and with the euphoria of embarking on our long-anticipated journey now over, I would soon realize that the three long days of driving was taking a huge toll on me. For Beau, the toll was even greater. 

Statue at the entrance to the
hockey arena shown below. 
As was our custom, we spent the first few hours of the day seeing the community that we had entered in the darkness of the preceding night. We drove to the campus of the University of North Dakota with modern but rugged buildings and her attractive landscape. We marveled at the immense hockey arena, audaciously sited on spacious real estate in what appeared to be a high-rent area of campus. I had read about Ralph Engelstad's $100 million gift--unrestricted, it was said--that allowed the construction of the massive hockey arena and the Fighting Sioux warrier statue at its entrance. 

Massive hockey arena at University of North Dakota,
built with a $100m gift from alumnus and former goalie, Ralph Engelstad.

The modest Biomedical Research
 Facility sits in the shadow
of the expansive  arena
In what I consider symbolic of one of the flagrances of university philanthropy, the diminutive Biomedical Science Research Institute sat across the parking lot from the sports arena, its age-tattered brick shell unable to receive even a simple upgrade because it fell outside the mega-donor's vision. 

I also perceived perhaps a touch of insecurity because the campus had a string of street names suggesting an affinity for the Ivies: Harvard, Princeton, OxfordCambridge, Cornell. The monstrous hockey arena was located on Columbia Street, somewhat ironic, I thought, considering that its namesake Ivy doesn’t even have a hockey team.

As we headed west on Highway 2, the morning sun was obscured by a dingy haze that I soon realized was the gathering smoke of distant forest fires to the north and also the south. About 11:00 am I began to realize that Beau was not himself. Rather than curling up beside me and going to sleep, he lay for only moments at a time. Then unfolding his body, he would rise, look anxiously at me, circle two or three times, and then collapse with a gut-wrenching sigh into his passenger seat.  There he would remain settled for one, perhaps two minutes, then rise again and repeat the sequence: unfolding, rising, anxiously looking at me, circling, collapsing with a sigh. Something was terribly wrong.

This behavior was only part of my concern: he had not been eating. Traveling through Ontario three days earlier, he had consumed very little of his kibble, but I just attributed that to his excitement and the distraction of the journey. The next two days, I had tempted him by softening the dry food with gravy from some high-priced canned food I had purchased at a convenience store in western Michigan. But now he was refusing food completely.

In early afternoon, we stopped for a long break at Devil’s Lake, the midpoint between Grand Forks and Minot. We had driven only 100 miles of our anticipated 500-mile day. I was so concerned about his anorexia that we stopped at a supermarket and picked up a roast chicken just off the spit, and some cheddar cheese and fresh water from the cooler.  Trotting back to the jeep, Beau caught the poultry aroma through the plastic bag before I could even toss it into the back of the jeep. He could barely contain his excitement as we drove the few hundred yards to a grassy area where I laid out our picnic blanket.  I fed him sparingly, but he ate it ravenously and even pooped abundantly before we fastened our respective seat belts and once again headed west.

Acres of honey bee-laden sunflowers brought joy amid an otherwise challenging day.

What gratification I felt from Beau’s dramatic lunchtime recovery was short-lived. No sooner were we back on the smoke-infested road than he returned to his restless rising, circling, collapsing, sighing.  Neither reassuring talking nor my caressing quelled his mounting anxiety as we stuttered across the prairie at an appallingly-slow rate. For the first time on our trip, I seriously considered aborting the journey.

Rugby, North Dakota,
the geographic center of North America.
We reached a small town called Rugby two hours after lunch and I took Beau for a long walk in the vicinity of the monument designating the “Geographic Center of North America”. I marveled that someone would ostensibly calculate the distance from the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Arctic to the junction of Mexico and Guatamala in the south, and from the western tip of the Aleutian Island chain to St. John’s, Newfoundland in the east. Beau’s restlessness had created the special circumstance by which I found myself stopping to witness this obscure monument. It was another of those beautiful examples of what one sees when you take the road less traveled. I certainly would not have known of the monument’s existence had I sped across the prairie on I-94 one hundred miles to the south.

We arrived at Minot, the train capital of North Dakota, at 4:00 pm. Beau’s deterioration had reached the point where I decided to stop for the night. We found a quaint and obscure motel on a quiet road on the southeast corner of the city, as remote from activity as was possible, and we just collapsed.  Beau crawled up on the bed beside me.  Rested his head on my chest and pointing his muzzle in the direction of my lower jaw, he fell into a deep sleep, unmoving until dusk descended hours later.  I slept soundly too, the first time in four days. 

Just before midnight, we left the room for a brief walk so Beau could relieve himself, then we crawled back into bed. No dinner. Though we had traveled only 30% of our anticipated route, the break proved critical. We were not turning  back. Tomorrow we would be in Canada and in four or maybe five days, Alaska.

What was our worst day became the turning point in my experience of traveling with Beau, as well as in my maturation of traveling with myself.  I got a dose of humility and common sense in a manner that I had not experienced in the preceding ten years as chief executive of a major veterinary college.  

Sometimes the greatest lessons in life come from the most humble circumstances, or from your dog, or both.

                                                         Chapter Six


Rising at four and anxious to get to the Canadian border before sunrise, so we skipped both our morning walk and any urges to feed our hunger. Beau had barely moved all night, and he continued his restful composure. The tide had turned and we were both happy. 

We wound our way around the western edge of Minot and headed northwest on Highway 83.  The smoke of the previous day had been replaced by a dense mist that clung like a tattered fleece to the Des Lacs River on my right. The two-lane road meandered along the waterway, creating a euphoria that I had not experienced thus far in our journey. This was the wilderness into which I had wanted to submerge my thoughts.  

Ducks cluttered every pond, every quiet bend in the river. Some were solitary, some in clusters, but all bobbed their little heads incessantly into the water like energetic mechanical toys.  As the jeep passed by, we would see either an upright duck, a headless duck with tail feathers pointing to the withering moon, or a duck in rotary transition. Beau would have been amused by the sight, but he lay like a baby resting quietly after a day of colic. 

Though I was awake and well-rested, my eyes did tricks on me as the light of the morning battled the charcoal from the night sky. I periodically slapped my cheeks and lowered the window to the damp rushing breeze to remain alert. Seeing a brilliant flashing yellow light ahead of me, I adjusted my speed to prepare for what I assumed to be a slow-moving construction vehicle ahead. The distance between our vehicles closed much too rapidly and then I realized with horror that it was coming right at us down the middle of the road rather than moving in the direction that we were traveling. Its weak headlights were overpowered by the mesmerizing orange strobe. Just before what would have been the point of impact and with an ugly horn blaring in my face, I veered onto the right shoulder and careened around the giant truck. I never really did see what it was as we passed each other in the dim light, but it appeared to be some sort of a road-cleaning truck with giant sweepers on its front bumper. It was the closest we came to an accident the entire trip, and I was understandable grateful for the loving angel watching over Beau and me that morning. 

We arrived at the border hamlet of Portal at 6:45 am, and I stopped for gas before approaching the small customs house. A ranch truck pulling a loaded horse trailer had just cleared U.S. customs coming from the north, and three 40-something, salty-tongued women had climbed out for a stretch and a cigarette. One of the women--huskily-built--came over to pet Beau, then turned back to her rig and bent low under the trailer to inspect the underbelly of their truck. Averting my eyes from the Josephine-the-plumber moment, I quickly topped off the fuel tank and hastily approached the waiting customs agent. I was his only customer. 

As was typical of each of my four border crossings into Canada, the interrogation was brief and humane. “Any firearms in the vehicle?”  “No sir.”  “Any alcohol?” “No sir.”  “Do you have more than ten thousand dollars in cash?”  “Oh, I wish,” I chuckled, and the agent waved us on. The whole episode was so quick and painless that Beau hardly had time to rise and wag his tail.

Beau meeting Larry and his wife from London, 
Ontario.We discovered that his veterinarian
 was a mutual friend who, like me, had 
graduated from the University of Guelph.
Saskatchewan was always a hard word for me to spell. As a child, my mother would sometimes sit facing me in our kitchen on a cold winter night, our bodies warmed by the wood stove that remain stoked until the last child went to bed.  She would quiz me on multiplication tables, on the names of Canada's quaint lakes and rivers and mountains, and on spelling. When it came to the wheat province, she coached me like this: “Donald, think of it as a sequence of four three-letter syllables. Sas, like sis only with an ‘a’; kat, like a cat only with a ‘k’; chew, okay that’s four letters, but you make up for it by repeating the ‘w’ in the final syllable, wan.  On this August morning decades later, I recalled with remarkable clarity the touch of her loving hands and her unwavering love. Due to circumstances that were unknown to me on this August morning, I would drive to be with her in Toronto on my return trip in September.

We had breakfast 50 km north of the border at the hockey town of Estevan. Though lacrosse is the official game of Canada, hockey infiltrates every pore of family life in rural Saskatchewan. Signs for summer camps and used hockey equipment were as common as the large combines harvesting wheat. 

Harvesting wheat on the Saskatchewan prairie near Estevan

Colourful grain silos discharging wheat to waiting rail cars.
I had looked forward to seeing southern Saskatchewan during harvest time and was not disappointed. Large combine harvesters rolled across the pan-flat prairie; immense silos offloaded wheat to waiting rail cars along the rural roads. Beau sat upright, fascinated by the sounds, the motion of the massive farm vehicles and the occasional clouds of wheat dust. On his happiest days of the trip, he alternated between looking out the front window of the jeep and peering obliquely through the side window into the rear view mirror. He would look back and forth between what was behind and what lay ahead. I thought of Winston Churchill who ascribed to the notion that one could never have hope to forecast the future without a clear sense of where we had traveled. 

Weyburn, a picturesque town of 10,000 people in wheat country.

Another 85 km up the road lay Weyburn, one of the prettiest little towns I have ever seen. Copper-colored sculptures of wheat stalks punctuated a well-groomed park where Beau and I had a long stroll. It was hard to stay on schedule with these surroundings, but it was mid morning and we wanted to reach the provincial capital of Regina for lunch.

Larry and his Siberian Husky on the
grounds of the capital building in Regina.
We pulled into Regina about 1:00pm and met a friendly pair of Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the local Tim Horton's Coffee Shop. They went head-over-heels over Beau, and he loved the attention. Seeing what a well-behaved dog he was (or at least that's how they made him feel), they suggested we have a picnic lunch on the dog-friendly grounds of the provincial capital buildings. We followed their directions and spread our blanket on the flawless grass.  As we were finishing our cheese and chicken, Larry, a former member of the legislature, jogged by with his handsome Siberian Husky, and assertively shared his perceptions of American politics from a Canadian's point of view. He did most of the talking.

The remainder of the day was pretty much fast-forward because we needed to rest our heads in the mid-northern university city of Saskatoon that night. Tomorrow we would be in Alberta, and the following day, the much-anticipated Alaska Highway. I was beginning to feel the excitement.

Along the 260km stretch from Regina to Saskatoon, I rolled over in my mind the cost-benefit of camping that night vs finding a motel. Wanting another warm shower and hot dinner, I settled on the latter. However, a few kilometers south of the city, we came upon a large estuary. Though it was getting dusk, we drove around the back side of a large marsh area where scores of white pelicans and hundreds of ducks were moored on a sand bar. 

Pelicans and ducks in a secluded marshy area
south of Saskatoon.

The area was devoid of any human life and we were about a half mile from the road. Beau looked at me, and I looked at him. No words were exchanged. I backed the jeep next to a grove of small trees, and we set up our little tent. About midnight, I stepped outside to pee. Though I shivered as the air was like a chilled damp towel around my bare chest, I was dazzled by the brilliant Big Dipper balanced delicately on its handle amongst a million stars. The North Star reminded me of Bethlehem. Bull frogs throated their garumph and I heard occasional spashing that I assumed was from the waterfowl. Beau brushed against my leg as if to say, "Let's spend the rest of the night out here." We did.

                                                                    Chapter Seven


I didn't want to leave the comforting borders of Saskatchewan. Everyone had been so helpful; even the wheat fields were friendly. Ahead of me lay the Texas of Canada: obscenely rich, lusting after oil, big trucks and fast cars. Young men with no patience to wait in line for morning coffee, driving so fast that the dogs loose in the back of their pickup trucks had to lean against the wind as they snarled at Beau peering from his perch in our small jeep.

Hyperbole, for sure. 
They did have fresh toilet paper, though.
This is Alberta. Vacillating between rich and richer with the opening of tar sands on its northern reaches, she grumbles having to send money to the poorer Maritime provinces back east.

The single (not paired, like Texarkana) border city of Lloydminster that straddles the Saskatchewan/Alberta border  was founded on sobriety and strict Anglican values a century ago. But in typical Alberta fashion, that doesn't prevent oil-slathered bikini-clad women cavorting in the fine art of oil wrestling as advertised on the town's makeshift bulletin boards.

Beau and I passed over the provincial border at 10:30 in the morning. We would soon be in the bustling northern city of Edmonton where my sister sold high-end chocolate candies and my brother-in-law was a chaplain for the city. But first we stopped at the hamlet of Levoy to see how the locals not partaking of the oil boom spent their days. 

At the antique and general store we sifted our eyes through boxes of Velveeta cheese and cans of lard, honey and udder balm that were reminiscent of the general store stock when I was growing up.

The Abundant Life Wellness Center
in Levoy, Alberta
Fifty yards down the gravel road at the center of the village, sat a cluster of outdoor mailboxes beside a twisted shed. Nearby, an audaciously-placed stop sign seemed to direct passers-by into the Abundant Life Wellness Center where the fare included chiropractic, acupuncture and Chinese medicine. 

We barely got back on the road to Edmonton and were teased off again by a sign advertising the world's largest pysanka in the upcoming town of Vegreville. This was the site of a large Ukrainian settlement and the Easter egg-like monument is a reminder of the multitude of immigrants who populated the western reaches of Canada a century ago. One of these was a transient visitor, my paternal grandfather who as a young lad was a cowboy-of-sorts near Calgary.

World's largest Pysanka in Vegreville, Alberta
We barreled our way through Edmonton, not stopping to see my sister as she and her husband were temporarily working in Eastern Canada. This was fast and stressful traffic, so unlike the gentler roads we had driven earlier. The multi-lane thoroughfare over the top of the city at midday was clogged with trucks large and small, the only difference being whether they were traveling 130 or 140 km per hour. Like a Thoroughbred caught in the middle of the pack in the home stretch of the Kentucky Derby, we jostled in and around horses trying to neither use the whip nor get clipped by adjacent hoofs. I was trapped next to the rail and leaving the stampede was impossible. An airfield swept past on my left and I wondered if that was the set of runways used by my nephew, an Air Canada pilot.

Just as quickly as the traffic onslaught had developed 30 minutes earlier, it ended and we swung in a tight arc north to the small town of Onoway. I found a comfortable park for lunch and rested for what seemed like a long time. As we drove west, I felt that we were nearing the Arctic. Of course we weren't yet, but the starkness of the landscape spawned a sense of loneliness.

Late that afternoon, we reached the bustling town of Valleyview in western Alberta. We were only 250 km from Dawson Creek, the eastern terminus of the Alaska Highway. Smelling victory, Beau and I stopped at a small tourist center on the outskirts of town. It was August 17th, the 89th anniversary of my father's birth. Sadly, he had passed 40 days earlier.

Beau in a carpet of  birdsfoot trefoil
legume in Valleyview, Alberta.
As if to raise a memorial tribute to the man who taught me live a green lifestyle before it was the fashion, the entire field behind the welcome center was punctuated in birdsfoot trefoil, my father's favorite legume. We never succeeded in growing it on the home farm in southern Ontario in more than a Polka dot smattering of yellow, but here was a carpet of lush yellow. It was an uncanny testament to my dad; he would have loved to have been there with us. 

There were several other visitors whom we met: an older couple with a Shih-Tzu and young couple with toddlers. A pre-teen and her father with a baby in his arms walked along the crest of a hill.

As dusk descended and with my belly full of Arctic char (and Beau's of chicken), we drove up and down the main street looking for a pet-friendly hotel. 'No pets allowed' was the familiar refrain, especially that of a New Jersey transplant whose rudeness was matched only by his slovenly appearance. 

Totally discouraged and feeling the effects of 36 hours without a shower, I grasped at straws until we found a secluded, too-expensive, smelly motel on the west end of town. Despite the cost, we checked in. I got cleaned up and had my first shave in five days. When I emerged from the bathroom, Beau was sniffing the rug, moving from one urine spot to the next on the tattered carpet. Then he started scratching his belly. The whole floor was a mass of stale dog urine. And fleas. 

It was dark now, but we nonetheless packed up hastily, and strode out the front door with barely a nod to the orange-haired receptionist who was arguing with a older and apparently-familiar man at the desk. Driving back to the east end of town, we left the jeep half-hidden behind the welcome center. We climbed the cedar fence into the birdsfoot trefoil pasture and went to sleep side-by-side on a single blanket. The smell of the legume was euphoric. Though I remember nothing of my sleep that night, I would like to think I was dreaming of growing up on the farm back in Ontario.


                                                               Chapter Eight
                                                      BRITISH COLUMBIA

I woke up to the sound of a diesel engine idling on the road in front of the visitor center. Though it was just 4:30, the early inky blackness of the night was starting to be nudged aside by the dawn. Feeling me move, Beau sat upright then disappeared into some knee-high clover to pee. I followed, while peering to see if the man in the truck was concerned about an unfamiliar jeep parked where it shouldn't be.

Before I could fully analyse the situation in my half-asleep state, the truck took off, though I could see the man was still on his cell phone with his head was turned in our direction as he accelerated towards town.

Beau and made a beeline for the jeep and departed Valleyview. We didn't stop until we reached Grande Prairie 130 km away. A misty rain penetrated the murky dawn when we stopped for breakfast in this gateway city to the Alaska Highway. My only thought of the turn in weather was to wonder if the rain would persist throughout the Yukon route so that would not be able to see and photograph the animals in the Rockies. 

The sun was starting to emerge by the time we reached Beaver Lodge an hour later. I did some grocery shopping--as was our custom now, my first stop was always the deli, where we picked up a roasted chicken--then I topped off our gas tank and photographed a reluctant Beau dwarfed beside the world's largest beaver.

The famous mega-beaver at Beaverlodge
near the British Columbia border.

We crossed the border into British Columbia just before noon. "The Best Place on Earth", the sign read, and many Canadians feel that way. From the temperate capital of Victoria on the luscious Vancouver Island, to Vancouver, the olympian city, the third-largest in Canada. North from the fruit groves of the Okanagan Valley through some of the most majestic mountains and glaciers on the continent, British Columbia has it all. 

A few kilometers across the border sits the town of Dawson Creek, the eastern terminus of the ALCAN (Alaska-Canada Highway), more commonly known now as simply the Alaska Highway.

Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek.
Stretching almost 1,400 miles or 2,200 km west, the highway gently ascends through northeastern British Columbia, crossing the Rockies and then into the Yukon just before Watson Lake.  The highway reaches the territorial capital of Whitehorse at historic milepost 918. 

We stopped in Dawson Creek just long enough to take the requisite photo in front of the 0 milepost, then we left the rest of the tourist trappings to folks driving RVs, and we headed west. 

The first half of the Alaska Highway, from Dawson Creek
in British Columbia to Whitehorse in the Yukon.

Photo modified from "The Milepost", 2008

Beau needed to loosen up at the little town of Taylor, so we ran up and down a long boulevard-like stretch of green grass next to the monument honoring Alexander MacKenzie, the first white explorer to make the transcontinental crossing to the Pacific Ocean  in 1793. MacKenzie with nine men and a dog (named simply "Our Dog") made the journey a full ten years before Lewis and Clark's epic journey further south. 

Alexander MacKenzie and his team of nine men and a dog
traversed the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean 

ten years before Lewis and  Clark's journey.

Seven hours later, we pulled into Fort Nelson and found a pet-friendly motel for the night. We had traveled 770 km (over 450 miles) in one day, but tomorrow would be longer yet as I had made a reservation at Whitehorse's famous Best Western Hotel for the night. 

As we sat on the lawn eating a very late dinner, I chatted with a family that had just crossed the same route west-to-east. The two preteen children were too exhausted to speak, and clung to parents like half-hung wallpaper. "It's a magnificent route," said the father, "but the animals are all over the road in the mountains." His kind warning  was music to my ears. This was, after all, what our journey was all about. The glaciers, mountains, rivers, caribou, moose, bear, bison. We wanted it all, and we wanted it up close and personal.

We went to bed that night snuggled close together. Tomorrow couldn't come soon enough.


Chapter Nine

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. 

Chapter Ten


Though Whitehorse was built on the quest for gold, it was made memorable by the poetry of Robert Service, the Scottish bank worker who came to British Columbia and then was transferred to the Yukon during the 1900 gold rush. Every Canadian school child of my generation has some familiarity with the poem, 'The Cremation of Sam McGee' that tells the story of a hapless man from Tennessee whose hunger for gold took him to the frigid Arctic where he froze to death, but not before making his buddy promise that his remains would be cremated.  
The poem starts ominously,

"There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;"

As Service told the story, Sam  was cremated  by his prospecting friend on the banks of Lake LeBarge in a furnace in the hulk of a grounded river boat. As the inferno crackled and burned hotter, the prospector beat back the heat to open the furnace door. Peering out from the center of the fire was a smiling Sam, urging his comrade to shut the door and keep out the cold and storm because, "Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm".

Beau and I took the short drive to the shore of Lake LeBarge where we sat together on the bank of the lake as I recited from memory the cremation story, all 15 stanzas. It brought back wonderful memories of my childhood when I would rehearse my school-assigned poetry to the calves as I would feed them their milk, or to the cows as I would sit under them one by one, adjusting the milkers.

The SS Klondike replicates stern-wheelers of the gold rush era.

Whitehorse was built on the backs of working and sled dogs that were more reliable and able to withstand the frigid winters than horses. The name of the city that was founded in 1897 refers to the white, frothy rapids which were an image of a horse's mane. 

Despite its equestrian name, dogs defined Whitehorse
as much as the gold that built it. 

For two nights we stayed at the Gold Rush Inn, enjoying accommodations more luxurious than anything we had experienced along the route to this point. Beau was as kindly received as any weary traveler and his presence provided a welcome memory of pets back home for many stopover guests. "Oh, I wish we had our dog with us, too" became a common refrain. Beau loved the attention, though in his inimitable way he would only comport to a stranger's attention for a few seconds before returning to my side.

Though Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon, a walk along the streets gives you the impression that all the working-aged men have left town. Here in the subarctic, the men spend most of their summers in a place called simply, up north, where they harvest energy for use in southern Canada and the lower 48 states. As one sage told me when he stopped to chat with us, "The men are gone all summer, returning when they have a long weekend just long enough to impregnate their girlfriends or wives, then they head back to the gas or oil fields." 

The reception desk in the pet-friendly Gold Rush Inn was complemented 
with taxidermy: a wolf and several foxes.
During the afternoon, I was drawn to a man dressed in khaki jeans and a white T-shirt on which were clustered an array of colorful pins. They represented obscure sites and out-of-the-way places in Canada but the one that intrigued me was a pin for Nunavut. "Have you been there?" I asked. "Oh yes," he said, "I just flew in from Iqaluit last night.[Formerly Frobisher Bay, Iqaluit is the capital of the territory of Nunavut which was formed by separation in 1999 from the parent Northwest Territories. Whitehorse remained the capital of the remaining part of the Northwest Territories.]

So I asked him, "What do you do?"  "I'm a traveler," he said. Not a travel agent, a traveler, a professional traveler. Someone who spends the majority of his time visiting obscure and hard-to-reach places around the world to attain the distinction of being one of the world's 'most traveled people'.  

The 50-year-old New Yorker was ranked in the top ten on that rare club list of most-traveled people. He described some of the interesting people whom he had met on his travels:
  • The man from Madrid living in the Congo, who travels the "Voodoo Trail" to learn about medicinal plants and herbs; 
  • The two Cowboys from Amarillo who were on a Posse to rope in souls for Jesus;
  • A South African woman, schooled in London and Los Angeles, whom he met in Djibouti, and is a publisher and concerned member of a club that supports national parks throughout Africa.

Considering we had just traveled over 3,500 miles on our oblique route across the continent, I wondered if Beau and I could ever make his list.

A retired DC-3 is the World's Largest Working Airport Weathervane.

                                                                  Chapter Eleven


We encountered breathtaking scenery west from Whitehorse. The Kluane National Park and Reserve of Canada is home to some of the most majestic mountains in North America. Tucked far off the highway and well beyond our sight is Canada's highest peak, Mount Logan. Only a few hundred meters less than Mount McKinley, this and other mountains in the area are reported very challenging to climb. 

For Beau and me this day, the visible part of the range, buffered by a broad expanse of conifers, lakes and wide expanses of marsh lands gave unforgettable vistas rich in the expectation of fall colors. 

The Mountains and wetlands of Kluane National Park west of Whitehorse,
home to Canada's tallest peak, Mount Logan.

Unfortunately, Beau was having a bad day, his second of the trip. The inciting cause during our trip through North Dakota had been the smoke of wildfires. Here in the Yukon, it was the rough road. 

Many parts of the Alaska Highway are smooth and you can comfortably travel 60 miles per hour or more. However, long stretches of highway, especially in the most westerly parts of the Yukon, are poorly maintained, and the constant freeze-thaw cycles cause huge chunks of asphalt to break free, and later to be broken asunder and cast onto the shoulders by the battering of giant trucks. One driver pounding through at a teeth-chattering rate told me this was his 70th trip from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. "It's so much easier to drive fast in the winter," he said, "because the ice and snow fill in the pot holes and make the road much smoother." All I could think about was swirling snow causing reduced visibility and slippery roads.

Beau was beside himself, unable to relax. He circled in his seat, looking anxiously at me, sighing, then crumbling in a ball. He shivered uncontrollable, his long hair shaking like a mass of rust-colored fall leaves in a heavy breeze. When we stopped, which seemed like every 10-15 minutes, he would leap from the jeep and tug against his leash pulling me away from the road. He refused water and at one point, even chicken. When it was time to move on, he would be unwilling to jump into the jeep and I would have to lift him shaking back into the seat beside me.

I tried everything: I cradled his neck in my hand as we drove; I put him in the back seat braced by extra cushions. I talked to him, sang to him, told him stories, recited poetry. He just shook and looked miserable. Unlike a week earlier in the midwest, turning back home was not an option, so we slugged onward, mile after slow mile. Early in the afternoon, and by now way behind the schedule I had planned for the day, we took an extended break and Beau slept for over an hour in a soft clump of grass far from the highway. I curled up beside but didn't sleep.  

Shortly after we got back on the road, the broad expanse of Kluane Lake came into view. My Dad has often told me about this lake and the adjacent mountains by the same name. In 1979, when a $2.00 Canadian postage stamps featuring Kluane National Park was published, he sent me a first-day cover with a note inside saying that he had always dreamed of seeing this park. Like the evening four days earlier when we had slept in the field of birds-foot trefoil, seeing this lake had a special meaning for me and for my memory of my father.

Beau cavorting on the shore of Kluane Lake
At the first convenient spot, we left the highway and drove to the water's edge. I unfastened Beau from his leash and he charged down to the lake, ebullient. For the next thirty minutes, we cavorted on the shore of the magnificent Kluane. Beau raced up and down the shoreline, whipping past me, then circled and raced back. Up and back he ran; I ran with him until I was exhausted, but he kept going. Two hundred yards away, we could hear the occasional plaintive call of a truck horn, but mostly it was just the intermittent splash of the water on the shore and Beau's deep panting. I had my boy back, and he was perfectly happy. 

I lay down on the damp shore, just as the pebbles met the sand, and gazed out at the ripples on the lake. A loon landed far away and bounced along on the surface where it dipped below my line of sight then reappeared like a mirage on a desert. Beau wandered among some thorny bushes nearby, occasionally snapping at a fly or twig that ensnared his foot.  I rolled onto my back with my head on the uncomfortably damp surface, thinking how very peaceful was this place. Somewhere later, I felt Beau's soft tongue on my lips and awoke with a shutter.  

Beau was a mess of tangles and burrs. His feet were wet and dirty. I spread out a blanket for him over the passenger seat and he spent the remainder of the day cleaning himself. Though the road was every bit as rough, and the potholes as deep and numerous, gone were the episodic fits of trembling and anxiety. He became obsessed with grooming and barely looked out the window until we reached the hamlet of Beaver Creek, the most westerly community in Canada. 

Beau and host, Kim,
at the welcome center in Beaver Creek,
Canada's most westerly community.
There, at historic mile marker 1202 (the mileage of the original route from Dawson Creek, British Columbia), we stopped at the cozy tourist center. An expectant young woman named Kim entertained Beau, feeding him cheese curds while she proudly explained to me her mixed racial heritage and showed me a photograph of the young First Nation girl for whom she is the god mother. She told me about her grandmother and other First Nation ancestors and how they taught her how to make authentic Inuit mukluk boots, the kind that look so warm and so natural. 

It struck me yet again what fine people there are in the Yukon. Free, confident, proud, beautiful people who see thousands pass by on the Alaska Highway day after day, yet they retain their center, their culture, and their sense of purpose. And I wondered what the winters were like.

Forty-five minutes later, after traversing some of the most moth-eaten road I've ever driven upon, we pulled up to the quaint U.S. border crossing. A young agent looked at my passport. He checked his computer and conversed with a more senior colleague also crammed in the little cubicle. Ever so nicely, he asked for my driver's license. More conversation, more checking the computer. Then, in a most pleasant voice, he said something to the effect that I was probably okay, and he welcomed us back home. "Home", I thought, "but isn't Canada home!". I had lived in the U.S. for 30 years and still had conflicting emotions. 

A pair of Trumpeter swans just a few miles west of  the Canada-Alaska border.
The same pair (or a pair that looked the same) was in the identical site
when we returned two weeks later.

An hour later, we pulled into Tok. It was well after eight, and dusk had fallen. We found an outdoor BBQ serving salmon and ribs. Beau sat on one side of a bench and I on the other. It was to be our last night on the road and I got emotional. It was a strange feeling to be out here in the eastern Alaska, having crossed most of North America with my dog. 

                                                                      Chapter Twelve

                                                             FROM TOK TO ANCHORAGE

After our picnic dinner of salmon and chicken, we checked  into the Snowshoe Motel and settled in for the night. Their pet policy was the most rational I had seen the whole trip. There was a sign in each room welcoming your dog, stating the fee ($25) and indicating in pleasant but clear  language that your credit card would be charged appropriately should the room be damaged or soiled. I thought it was a fair, unambiguous and non threatening policy.

I slept soundly and awoke refreshed about 4:30. Beau lay beside me with his eyes wide open, waiting for his cue to get moving. Though I knew that we would be returning through Tok in about ten days, I had this strange feeling that our epic journey was coming to a close.

The sun would not rise until 6:15, but we headed out into the crisp morning. The quarter moon lit enough of the parking lot that we could see it was dotted with bouncing white puffs, showshoe rabbits. Keeping Beau on a short leash until we were away from the town, I marveled at the millions of stars spread across the entire expanse of sky.  Other than that, my head was empty and my feet just shuffled along.

We returned to the motel, packed the jeep and left Tok. At the edge of town, we stopped for a quiet breakfast on the grass as Venus melted into the dawn.

Thirty minutes later, just as the sun was peaking over the eastern horizon, we headed sound on the highway that is called the "Tok Cutoff". A long straight stretch of road  made me think we were back in North Dakota, but the Wrangell mountains far to the east assured  me that we were in Alaska.

Wrangell Mountains between Tok and Palmer

Like other travelers,  we stopped to admire the Matanuska Glacier, Its full two mile depth and 20-plus mile length was hard to imagine from the road. However, after driving down the dirt road to the glacier's leading edge and paying the fee to walk out next to it, its massive expanse and the bone-chilling air made it seem like a living organism.  

Matanuska Glacier 

We arrived in Anchorage mid afternoon. The four-lane expressway seemed too large, the cars were going too fast, the sidewalks and schools and shopping centers were incongruous with the forest and the "danger - moose" signs. Everything seemed out of place. 

The Hilton Anchorage,  luxurious and dog friendly.
We found the towering Hilton Anchorage in the center of the city.  As we stepped into the spacious lobby with its shiny and polished floors (too slippery for Beau),  we were immediately surrounded by hosts of guests reaching to pet Beau and exclaiming in various versions of "We didn't know the hotel took pets. We should have brought our dog." 

After a long walk along the river and a quick stop for some takeout dinner, we returned to the room to clean  up from our journey. In the previous 14 days, we had traveled over 4,200 miles traversing  five states, four Canadian provinces and Canada's Yukon territory.

I ran the bathtub half full of warm, soapy water and gave Beau the longest bath of his life. Off came the sand from the St. Claire River, the dust from British Columbia and the burrs from the shore of Lake Kluane. Even the green bandanna from the Lake Michigan ferry crossing was clean.

With a warm blow-dry, his soft red fur glistened once again and he fell asleep across the top of the largest  bed he had ever seen. 

Beau resting after his bath at the Hilton Anchorage.

Chapter Thirteen


On our second day in Anchorage, with Beau safely in a veterinary clinic, Doris and I drove south from Anchorage through the Kenai Peninsula, our destination being the ocean port of Seward. 

The town's name is derived from the 19th century Secretary of State, William H. Seward, who arranged for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Our 260-mile round trip was a spectacular collage of mountains and glaciers, ocean and sea life, and modern Alaskan culture. The peninsula is 150 miles long and 70 miles wide, extending south from Anchorage between the Gulf of Alaska on the east and Cook Inlet on the west. 

Naked spruce trees that had been thrust into the salt water during the 1964 earthquake and tsunami were still visible from the road marking one of the areas where the ground sank during the deadly earthquake that so devastated the southern coast of Alaska.

While following the shoreline of the Turnagain Arm only 20 miles south of Anchorage, Doris spotted a pod of beluga whales not far from shore.  The distinctly all-white whales are so common in this area that the locals call it Beluga Point. There is something truly majestic about viewing these magnificent creatures so close to shore as they pursue the salmon near Cook Inlet while avoiding the Orcas that occasionally turn the hunters in the hunted.

Beluga Whale south of Anchorage

Half way to Seward, we stopped at a State park where an iceberg-laden lake had formed as the terminal moraine of the Portage Glacier. At one time a massive 14-mile-deep glacier filling the entire valley, the Portage group is now a series of five separate ice fields of named glaciers. 

Glacier feeding Portage Lake 

Seward is a gorgeous coastal town with stunning mountain and bay scenery. Though it has only 3,000 inhabitants--almost 20% are Native Americans--it is ranked in the top ten most lucrative fishing ports in the United States. The historic mile 0 of the Iditarod Trail started here and was called the Seward-to-Nome trail when it was originally mapped in 1908. 

We strolled the streets with brightly-colored murals on many buildings and interesting local menus of caribou, reindeer and musk oxen. 

Marina restaurant with its unique local fare. 

Behind the town, the mountains rose through various layers of greens, from the tall dark spruce, to the lighter shrubs in the higher elevation, then the pale grass blending eventually into the grey rock dome. In front of the mountains was the Seward Small Boat Harbor with sailboats, cruises and fishing boats.

Seward harbor with its personal and commercial boats. The layers of 
vegetation are seen in the distant mountain.

Jelly fish swimming close to the 
surface nest to our boat.

We took a sealife boat tour of Resurrection Bay and felt the damp salt water breeze on our faces. Wildlife was everywhere, from puffins and bald eagles, to sea lions basking in the sun on a rocky ledge. We even saw colorful jelly fish right next to our boat. 

Sea lions sunning themselves on a rocky ledge.

Tomorrow we would visit the Alaska State Fair north of Anchorage, and the following day, head north to Denali National Park, the site of North America's highest mountain.

Chapter Fourteen

While in Anchorage, Doris, Beau and I stayed in a Best Western motel beside Lake Hood, only three miles from downtown Anchorage. 

Lake Hood is the world's busiest seaplane base with a constant stream of lake traffic -- we were told almost 200 flights per day -- and more on the gravel runway adjacent to the water. Because many people live in small, remote communities in Alaska with no road service, air travel (often by float planes in the summer and skis in the winter) represents the only connections to the larger world.

Float airplanes docked in the lagoon adjacent to Lake Hood

Lake Hood etiquette
for dealing with the large number of float planes 

Alaska's major roads are in the southeast quadrant of the state (not including the pan-handle that runs south adjacent to British Columbia's northwestern border). Anchorage has only one road heading south of the city (through the Kenai Peninsula), and two traveling north. One of the northern roads passes Denali Park and continues to Fairbanks 300 miles north of Anchorage. The second northerly road goes northeast and eventually reaches Tok, the route that Beau and I had come on our trip to Anchorage.

Being late August, we took in the great Alaska State Fair, located on the road to Tok just south of Palmer and less than an hour drive from Anchorage.

The fair had a carnival atmosphere
attracting people of all ages
in interesting and colorful attire.

We had seen pictures of the huge vegetables including the prize-winning pumpkins and squash weighing close to half a ton. They are products of the rich glacial soils of the Mat-Su Valley where Palmer and Wasilla are located. 

Central Alaska's midnight sun and cool weather is also ideal for members of the Brassica family such as cabbages that have topped out over 100 pounds, as well as broccoli, cauliflower, rutabagas and turnips.   

Enormous vegetables (turnips, cabbage, rhutabaga,
 and broccoli) at the Alaska State Fair. 

Palmer is also the home of a non-profit farm dedicated to the preservation of musk oxen, ancient-looking bearded animals related more closer to sheep than cattle. The musk ox is best known for its ultra fine down or underwool, called qiviut, a rare commodity that is collected, spun and knitted through the Musk Ox Producers' Co-operative. The crafts 'co-op' is formed of more than 200 First Nation women who work in their homes in tundra or coastal villages, producing scarves, caps and smokerings that have traditional signature knitting patterns and are eight times warmer than sheep wool.

Female musk ox at the Musk Ox Farm near Palmer, AK.
Dog sled on the roof of a Wasilla home in August.

Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla is also located an hour north of Anchorage, on the road that goes to Denali. Traveling through this town and also Palmer, you get a sense of what life must be like in winter when the snow allows for dog sled travel. Many of the homes store their sleds on the roofs of their houses as pictured on the right.

As we concluded our third day in Anchorage and surrounding areas, we prepared to head north to the great Denali National Park to see Mt. McKinley, the arctic tundra and possibly some grizzly  bears.


Chapter Fifteen

Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses six million acres of lowland forest that gives way to tundra and mountains in the upper levels. America's highest mountain, McKinley, towers over 20,000 feet. Pets are not allowed in this wilderness park, so we boarded Beau in a veterinary kennel operated by a Cornell graduate whom I had known when he was a student. It was the first time in over two weeks that we had not been continuously together.

Many tourists spend several days in the park and never are able to see the upper reaches of the mountain because of dense cloud cover. We were extremely fortunate, seeing the peak on three separate daylong trips into the interior.

Mount McKinley, North American's highest peak (20,320 ft) 
on a rare cloudless day.

McKinley on a partially-cloudy day.

Like most tourists, we left our car in the visitor parking lot, and traveled into the interior by park services buses. Climbing up through the wooded forest where moose are common (but rare for us during our visit), we wound around the lower mountains into the grass-, shrub- and flower-laden tundra. 

Park service buses transported visitors into the interior of Denali.
Glacial-fed rivers, more commonly referred to as "braided rivers" because of their complex oxbox configuration punctuated by small ponds, meandered through the valleys and would eventually coalesce into the great Yukon River.

Hills covered with willow shrubs and blue and soap berries 
were separated by large valleys with meandering "braided" rivers.

Grizzlies were engorging on berries and preparing to hibernate during the late fall when we were in the park. We saw several several bears from a distance on each of our three trips into the park, and twice saw them in close range. 

One was a solitary male whose turquoise ear tag suggested that he had previously been tranquilized by darting, and examined by park rangers. 

A large solitary male grizzly walking among the berry shrubs.

A two-year-old cub with bright-red loose feces
from a heavy berry diet

We also saw a sow with two cubs as they feasted on berries seemingly disinterested in our presence. 

One of the younger bear, probably a two-year-old because he was quite large yet still with his mother and sibling, showed the effects of a heavy berry diet. 

Vehicular traffic into the park's interior is replaced in the winter by dog sleds and airplanes fitted with skis.  Sleds with wheels were used to exercise the dogs during the summer months.

Dogs are excised during the summer months
using sleds with wheels attached.
We happened to be in Denali during a near-total eclipse of the moon as well as a lovely 2:00 am dancing display of the northern lights.

But nothing compared to to the trio of bear bums (sow with her two older cubs) walking away from us down the mountain road after their day's fill of berries.


Chapter Sixteen

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

All photos are the property of the author, unless otherwise designated.