On the Road (to Alaska, not Jack Kerouac)

Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway

Driving to Alaska is an essential roadtrip. Like Kerouac in his famous beat generation novel, “On the Road”, life is about the journey itself. So at Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada, we felt it was important to represent our culture by wearing costumes for the requisite photo-op. After all, what is an epic journey without a zebra onesey?

The Alaska Highway (aka, the Al-Can Highway) would probably never exist if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor. The Highway was primarily motivated (and paid for) by the defensive plans of the United States.

Bison act like they own the road

After the war, the U.S.A. dumped, er, turned over the  highway to Canada, who never really saw much economic benefit to it all. Nevertheless, after 40 or 50 years they had paved their entire section.

The road is a lovely mosaic of crystal rivers, lakes, forests and stoic mountains. We were interrupted by goats or bison crossings, and the occasional bear at the edge of the forest. At times, the road evokes the dull ennui of unbroken spruce walls.

The sign post forest of Watson Lake

In between, were delightful gifts like Watson Lake. Besides the amazing “sign post forest” for which we were under-equipped (alas!), the morning coffee shop had pretty good coffee and a decent omelet. At the town community center, we enjoyed an empty fitness center, sauna, hot showers, and towels for a mere $5 Canadian each.

Hello Dawson City!

The hot springs of Liard River were a delightful interlude. It is an actual hot river instead of the more prosaic man-made pool fed by springs. The area is a Provincial park that is not commercialized, with just the changing rooms, outhouses and boardwalks necessary to enjoy the warm river.

Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon was really cool.  We tried to crash a dignitaries’ reception on the classic S. S. Klondike, a preserved steam-driven, paddle-wheel river boat that transported gold and supplies on the Yukon River until the 1950s. Unfortunately, we were too late for the cocktails. I hate that.

Whitehorse is where the classic Alaska Highway begins to follow the Yukon River. This is a significant and mighty river of Northwestern America. The city is just north of the river’s source. Over the nearly 2000-mile course to the Bering Sea, it’s the longest river in both Alaska and the Yukon. It’s claim to fame is that it was the primary transport for the Klondike Gold Rush.

Miles Canyon on the Yukon River

We hiked the Miles Canyon, so named because Miles was the only pilot who could safely navigate the narrows and swift water. He thus made a career of safely taking gold-dreamers downriver.

Our last stop in Canada was Dawson City which retains so much of it’s “Gold Rush” charm that Ivan was pressed to try his luck at gold panning with these two crusty, Amish folk.

Panning for Gold at the Dawson City Gold Panning Championships

Obviously, we didn’t strike it rich or we’d be writing a different blog!

Dawson City was the center of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896, and was popularized by author Jack London in “The Call of the Wild.” Walking around amongst the restored building facades has an almost Disney-esque, magical quality. Failing at panning gold, Ivan had better luck joining the chorus line at Diamond-Tooth Gertie’s Saloon and Gambling Hall. 

Ivan joins the chorus line at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Saloon and Gambling Hall

We intended to take the “Top of the World Highway” from Dawson City to Chicken, Alaska. This is an unkempt, narrow road with no guard rails and deadly, 1000-foot drops on hair-pin turns. Sounds like fun, right? Checking the weather, though, we discovered “wind advisories” with gusts to 55 miles per hour. A braver man may have taken the high side-profile Sprinter over that stretch, but not us. We chickened out going to Chicken.

Instead, we doubled back to Whitehorse and followed the official Alaska Highway path westward. On the way, we pulled over to make a late dinner on the beach of Kluane Lake. The midnight sun was still high in the sky.



Banff National Park of Canada

We decided to cross the Rocky Mountains in Canada through Banff. Time constraints and cloudy, rainy weather limited our hikes and photo opportunities. In spite of the rain, the views from one minute to the next were just incredible. Banff is, perhaps, the most beautiful mountain range roadtrip in North America.

Crazy Horse Memorial

The Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota has been on my bucket list for a while.

Crazy Horse was the war hero of the Native American Lakota tribe that defeated General Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn. Mount Rushmore is a memorial of presidents of the United States, the government that appropriated (and continues to disrespect) the lands of the aboriginals of North America. The irony that the Crazy Horse Memorial lies between the Mount Rushmore US President’s Memorial and Custer, South Dakota was not lost on us.

We landed on a very rainy and cloudy day. In my mind, the mist that covered the mountain made it just that much more beautiful. The dark splendor of the determined face peering out of the rock captures the truth of my favorite quotation attributed to Crazy Horse:

“It’s a good day to die.”

This phrase goes far beyond the literal meaning of urging his warriors to fight to the death. It is also very much about doing in life what gives oneself purpose. The deep truth is echoed in the Tao of Lao Tze and many other great philophers:  if life has personal meaning, then there is no fear of death. Any day lived to its fullest, is a good day to die.

Crazy Horse Memorial

(Click for larger version)

The mountain carving, which may take another generation or two to complete, is only one reason to go. There is a school funded by donations and admissions as well as a fantastic cultural center and museum.

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