Oops! Change of Plans
Because the summer was unusually cold and rainy and they'd already had snow at Denali (in early August!), Tom and I took a serious look at our itinerary. We had planned to leave Maggie and the Cruiser in Whitehorse, Yukon, and rent a 4WD car to tent camp up the five hundred mile long Dempster Highway across the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean. We also had to consider our plan to drive through British Columbia, which was having a worse than usual wildfire season. Before we entered Denali, BC had almost 500 wildfires, many along the Cassiar Highway, the only north-south road through northern BC. Things weren’t getting better, and if we wanted to get to Washington and Oregon, the Cassiar was our only choice. The only other road out of Alaska was the Alaska Highway, also under threat by fire and not a choice if we wanted to head to Seattle. Reluctantly, we canceled the Dempster Highway trip -- and (of course) checked the weather during the time we would have been camping there: heavy rain, highs in the 40s F, snow, wildfires, and muddy roads. We learned from some motorcyclists that their friends had to abandon their bikes after they became mired in the mud. Good call.
We left Denali and drove north to Fairbanks, hoping for clear skies so we could look for the northern lights. Nope – clouds and rain again. I doubt we’ll do this long drive again, but given enough time and resources, I’d like to fly up in the winter, as Fairbanks is one of the best places to see the aurora borealis. I have a very short bucket list, but seeing them is on it.
Fairbanks was as far north as we got on this trip, after we eliminated the Dempster Highway from our plan. We headed south again and crossed the border into the Yukon. I love the Yukon and could live there, except for the winters.
As we crossed back into Canada, we got the word that the Cassiar Highway was closed in many places due to wildfires and that the heavy smoke extended all the way to Seattle. No gasoline tankers were allowed on the road, and all motor fuel was being reserved for fire fighting. We headed for our decision point knowing that a trip down the Cassiar would put us into heavy smoke for about two weeks. When we reached the junction (Upper Liard, just west of Watson Lake), we learned that not only was the Cassiar closed, but that our eastern option, the Alaska Highway, was closed due to fires right along the road. OK, now what?
Many folks don’t realize that there are only two roads from Alaska through Canada to the US. It’s not like you can get off the interstate and take the back roads. Those are the back roads – and the front roads. They’re the only roads you’ve got. We dithered and decided to take the Alaska Highway, knowing it’s a top priority to keep that one east-west road open. We drove by fires and through heavy smoke for about 150 miles, but did not encounter any closures. Again, we were sacrificing a big part of the trip, but two days of smoke beat two weeks.
So we trudged east and south through Alberta and crossed back into Montana at Carway, Alberta, right near Glacier National Park. And a note about Montana: if you can’t afford the time or money to drive to Alaska, go to Montana. It’s the only other state that can come close to the hugeness, majesty and desolation of the Alaska landscape. It might be my favorite lower-48 state.
Glacier National Park, East Side
We spent a few days at Custer State Park in South Dakota. If you’ve never been there, please go!
Tourist attractions range from watching real cowboys round up real buffalo (bison for the picky ones) to touring the Badlands’ bizarre geology to viewing the four big white guys at Mount Rushmore and the equally large Crazy Horse monument that’s nearby.
Tom and I drove east through the US prairie states of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, a southern version of our drive west through Canada’s prairie provinces: Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Though I like the eastern US (I've lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Tennessee), I’m a child of the prairies and love to be where I can look across the wide spaces, see the whole sky, and breathe with the help of the constant wind. Middle America is not just “flyover” country to me.