“Anchorage 3067 miles ahead”, or at least that is what our GPS informed us when we pulled out of our driveway on a warm September afternoon. As we drove through Ahwahnee, my husband pulled out the mp3 player and surprised me with one of the new songs he downloaded for our journey. “North to Alaska. They’re goin’ North, the rush is on” by Johnny Horton blared out of our speakers. I immediately got the giggles, first out of the goofiness of the song, and then when the butterflies hit full force as I remembered the crazy adventure we had ahead of us.
We were driving a 1990 Toyota 4-Runner with over 200,000 miles. The decision to take it to Alaska meant several mechanical repairs and a big sense of adventure. We knew that there would be several stretches of road through Canada where we would be hundreds of miles from the nearest town, and double that to the nearest cell signal. We left on our journey with the very real knowledge that if we broke down, we would be hitch hiking a very long way to even get to a telephone.
Besides driving a car that was two decades old, we were about as prepared as we could get. We had made “built-ins” out of plywood, turning the old 4-Runner into our home on wheels for the next month. We removed the back seat and built the bed over the wheel wells for a little (a very little) extra room. This also made storage space under the bed for the plastic storage bins that held our clothing and supplies. Our supplies basically included all the necessities to be self sufficient while on the road. I carefully planned and packed several days worth of meals that didn’t need refrigeration , as well as miscellaneous dry goods, condiments and spices to lessen the burden of purchasing expensive supplies in Canada and Alaska. I also had our copy of “The Milepost” tucked safely under my seat.
We flew through California, Oregon and Washington with only one night of stay at a rest stop en route. At the border crossing into Canada, we inadvertently pulled into the wrong lane (of course). The no-nonsense boarder patrol asked us five or six different ways why we were in the wrong lane. Each time we replied that it was an accident. Apparently that was the wrong answer. We were escorted inside while they searched our car and asked many, many more questions. Finally, we were permitted to enter British Columbia.
Now that we were officially in Canada, we slowed down the pace a little (a very little) and took a scenic route through Southern British Columbia. We were excited to see a tree here and there with some fall color. We were hopeful that the further North we drove, the more color we would see.
We were not disappointed. By the time we hit the Yukon, colorful Aspen lined both sides of the road. We had day after day of beautiful weather. Each day about three o’clock, the lighting from the low late summer sun would hit the aspens just right and make them glow as if they were on fire.
On day 4 we made it to the famous “Mile 0” sign in the town of Dawson, British Columbia. We were officially on the Alaska Highway. We had averaged 500 miles a day, but now we slowed down again to “only” 200-300 miles a day.
From here, the scenery became even more breathtaking and dramatic. I think the section of road through Stone Mountain Provinchial Park and Muncho Lake is the prettiest of the Alaska Highway, maybe even the world. Up to this point, we had only seen a couple of black bear and some deer, but in addition to being breathtakingly scenic, this stretch of highway was ripe with wildlife. We saw our first moose, parked and watched as a caribou herd passed in front of our car and saw several grazing buffalo.
That afternoon as we soaked in the Laird Hot Spring, we talked about how we had finally arrived. Not that we were in Alaska yet, but we had already experienced the kind of Alaska road trip everyone dreams of.
The following day, we drove to Whitehorse. Although it is only slightly larger than Oakhurst, Whitehorse is the big city on the Alaska Highway. We were way more excited than we should have been to shop at a grocery store that actually carried fresh produce. It was also my birthday, so we had big plans for a night out on the town, or at least an awesome dinner at the “Rib and Salmon Bake”.
North of Whitehorse, we started to see and feel the infamous, frost upheavals that are the result of a road built on permafrost. Besides being a little bumpy, the stretch is spectacular. It was a beautiful, clear day with great mountain views. We spotted some doll sheep and kept our eyes peeled for grizzlies.
We stayed at a government campground that night in the Yukon. It was deserted except for us. Our site was impossibly beautiful, but we were also very aware of how very alone we were in a very wild land. This was the first time since leaving home that we had really considered the threat of grizzlies. We kept a nervous eye on our surroundings as we made dinner and settled in for the night. We were careful to leave the driver’s seat open and the keys in the ignition in case we needed to make a quick escape. Although we knew a grizzly could rip our car to pieces if it really wanted to, we felt pretty safe. We were also glad to be in the car and not in a tent.
We were thankful to be in the car for another reason the next morning. Our thermometer read 25 degrees. We coaxed ourselves out of bed at about 7:30 and were on the road by 8:00 after boiling some water for coffee. The inside of the rear window had frozen. We had gotten it open, but had a little trouble getting it closed. We would soon find out that this was the first of many times we would have this problem.
We crossed into Alaska at 10:30 that morning after more impossibly beautiful, albeit cold, scenery, and our first bald eagle and trumpeter swan sightings. Customs was much friendlier than when we had entered Canada. Just inside the border, there was even a state of the art (heated) visitor’s center with free coffee.
We were vagabonds by this time and a little lonely from driving through the mostly uninhabited Yukon Territory, but we were officially in Alaska! 2,980 miles, 8 days,13 tanks of gas and 2 books on tape later, but we made it! Our old 4-runner made it! We were almost 3000 miles from home, and our journey had just begun.