At one point, Tom said, “This would be a great trip except for the roads.” Sometimes they were good, sometimes terrible, sometimes they didn’t exist at all. Sometimes drivers were good, sometimes terrible, and – sometimes – we were all alone. We had plenty of time to talk as we drove, and grouped the challenges:
Road Conditions Once you get off the US interstate highways, you’re on two-lane roads. The trans-Canada highway is not a limited access highway. Chip-and-tar surfaces are common, as is a type of dirt and gravel that dries into concrete in your wheelwells. Road construction is crammed into the few warm months, so there’s little consideration for the feelings or schedules of drivers. Often, the entire road is torn out for 5-10 miles, right down to the dirt. Whenever they can, they pave, but it's not for your convenience! Oh -- I almost forgot "frost heaves"! In the picture above, you can see the big dip and hump in the road. This is where the road, built on the permafrost (look that up), buckles into speed bumps. Many times there will be a small orange pennant by the roadside, and it's the passenger's responsibility to keep an eye out and yell, "Frost heave!" in time for the driver to hit the brakes. If you're going faster than 10-15 mph when you go over it, your head will hit the roof of the vehicle.
Animals: we saw every kind of wild northern animal you can imagine – on the road. Foxes, wolves, bison, bears, deer, elk, antelope moose, and my favorite – porcupines. In Alberta, Montana, and
Traveling Speed Bumps
South Dakota (at least) cattle are not fenced; you can expect to see them on the shoulders, if not in your lane.
Traffic Through a Construction Zone
Other traffic: enormous trucks hauling stone, crude oil, dormitories for oil workers, normal truck and car traffic with very impatient drivers (Alaska) and caravans of RVs. The trucks threw rocks and drove so fast that your only hope was to get the heck out of the way. They must carry much heavier loads than in the lower 48; they had 20 to 40 wheels. We replaced the windshield on the way north and had a star crack repaired on the way south. Caravan drivers also drove like maniacs, and we learned why when we heard that they were expected to drive 3-400 miles each day. We drove around 100 miles each day.
These mark the edge of the road for the snow plows!
Weather: Alaska and northern Canada didn’t have much of a summer in 2018, and we gave up on our Dempster Highway trip because camping in rain, snow, and 20-40 degree (F) temps didn’t sound like fun. You can expect a lot of rain and cooler temperatures on the coast and Kenai Peninsula than in the interior.
Wildfires: They were everywhere. Altering your route is sometimes an option, but we were glad to have an emergency supply of freeze-dried food with us. We stayed full of water, gasoline and propane, and kept our holding tanks empty while we drove through chancy areas, as we had no idea whether and for how long we might be stopped.
Distance between services: Reliability of vehicle and tires is critical, as is gas mileage. Often, you don’t see a gas station for 200 miles. We had a spare tire installed on the Phoenix Cruiser exactly for this reason and carried spares. We filled up when the gas gauge showed half full.
Oil Change in Alaska -- Outdoors, In the Rain
Cost: Gasoline in Canada cost up to $5 a gallon, motels cost $150 up, and food is expensive. On the Alaska coast, groceries are delivered by barge from the lower 48 once a week – maybe – in the summer. You buy what they have and pay their prices. No whining. Restaurants and campgrounds must cover the costs of their very short tourist season. We estimate that this trip’s cost was twice that of our 2007 trip.
Wood for the Winter
Climate Change: Driving through Alberta was discouraging, as it’s apparently sold its soul to the oil companies. Huge trucks dominated the highways: 20-30 wheels were common; I saw one truck with 44. Fracking and the extraction of natural gas and “oil sands bitumen” have changed Alberta from a beautiful prairie to a place where if the oil companies rule. I’m conflicted about this, as it reminds me of the 1960s, when developed countries talked about how beautiful the developing countries were: keep that place beautiful so I can come from my industrialized home to enjoy it – with no regard for the economic status of the people who live there. When you talk to folks in Alberta and northern BC, you quickly learn that they love the money flowing into their economy – they’ll worry about the earthquakes and the environmental and health effects later. There are no easy answers.
To continue the rant about what we’ve done to the environment: Glacier National Park is often called No-Glacier National Park now. The scars from old wildfires are everywhere, and when Tom rode his motorcycle up the road into the park, he was stopped along with everyone else by wildfires near the top.
In the Yukon, Kluane Lake is slowly drying up. The glacier-fed river that fed it for thousands of years is gone. Just gone. As the Kaskawulsh Glacier receded, the river changed course and no longer runs toward the Bering Sea and the lake, but rather toward the Gulf of Alaska. Interesting story: (https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/climate-change-yukon-river-piracy-1.4070153) a couple of years ago, with some devastating results today.
Will we do this again? Probably not. Though I still want to see the northern lights and still want to stick my toes into the Arctic Ocean, the road trip was a long one. I'd definitely go back to north-western Canada and Alaska if I had the resources to hire a plane and pilot and skip the roads. But for those who haven't sampled this huge and beautiful continent, go!