[Steven Brust] and [Toni Brust] allowed my stuffed dinosaur and me to accompany them on their road trip to Alaska, July 2013. They wanted to surprise their friend Erik by turning up at the restaurant he’s opened in Skagway. Our trip was beautiful, glorious, and filled with rugged fucking wilderness driving. [Here’s my flickr set of pictures, and as usual, clicking through to read the captions will be half the fun.] Apparently I didn’t take any pictures on the way home.
On the fifth day of the road trip, we decided to take highway 99 instead of 1 or 5. The nice guy at BCAA who gave us a map in Vancouver opined it would be prettier.
It was pretty. It also had switchbacks, 13% grades, and terrifying dropoffs with no guardrails or barriers. We drove up and down mountains and saw waterfalls and forests and sunlit glades. I held the steering wheel hard enough that my shoulders hurt. Later that night, stopped at a Williams Lake motel to sleep and regroup, we smoked cigarettes outside at a picnic table and talked to some other travelers in the way that you talk to people stuck in the same place you are. They were experienced Canadian travelers and said no one takes that route.
So by then I didn’t trust British Columbia very much, but the plan was to get to Skagway, in Alaska, and if one is driving to Skagway, one drives through British Columbia.
We were, by god, going to get to Skagway.
The second BCAA office we went to, plunked in the middle of some wilderness but conveniently next to a Subway franchise, was a little more helpful and nudged us to cut up on 97, instead of going around to Dawson Creek and starting at the beginning of the Alaska Highway. I left that office in possession of a whole pile of maps. And guidebooks.
We made terrible time for many hours. The desolate wilderness of BC sure has a lot of traffic. I leveled up my “passing semis on a two-lane road” skill and got used to km/h. It was evening when we got to Highway 37, the 10-hour stretch of road that has nothing on it. NOTHING. Okay, almost nothing, but taking a gas can is strongly recommended.
Gas was going to work out fine. We’d make it to the Yukon around 4:30 am and either find a pay-at-pump up there or nap in the car until they opened.
So we drove… all… night.
The rest stops have names. Totally charming names, like “Rabid Grizzly Rest Stop”, where I peed at 2 am and wasn’t brave enough to stay out of the car long enough to take a picture of the sign.
Top four favorite bits of driving in the BC wilderness at night:
4. The unpaved 8%-grade switchback, behind a semi, in the rain.
3. The bit of shoulderless road approaching a Metal Bridge Of Terror ™ that dropped straight down on either side into unfathomable depths and didn’t have any lines painted on it.
2. Not seeing any bears, moose, caribou, or other wildlife. Well, there was a fox, but I mean “vehicle-eating bone-gnawing” wildlife.
1. During the whole four hours of total darkness, we saw the first hint of the sun coming back at midnight-oh-two.
I got to drive with the full moon over one shoulder and dawn-fuzzed mountains over the other. Crossing into the Yukon Territory and hopping onto the Alaska Highway, I felt like a giant. Accomplished, you know?
Five hours on the Alaska Highway, then you turn south just before Whitehorse and you’re in the Klondike, which is a totally alien landscape of unspeakable beauty. You can feel how far you are from home, with mossy glacial rocks and bright pink fireweed scattered everywhere. When there’s water, it is often such an icy turquoise color that you look around for the title of the SF novel you must be on the cover of.
Skagway was fun, and I find I don’t have a lot of words for it. The laundromat’s soap vending machines were empty. The food was excellent — “chicken and waffles” doesn’t adequately describe a waffle with bacon thyme maple syrup topped by a breast and leg of chicken that was smoked and then fried.
Notable bits of the trip home included knowing damn well that the way we timed leaving town would mean driving back down Highway 37 in the dark and doing it anyway, feeling kinda guilty when my back hurt enough that we stayed overnight in Tacoma, and Montana doing its level best to murder us, as per the following list:
1. Wildfires. We breathed a little smoke but weren’t in danger.
2. Deer. Driving into St Ignatius at dusk, I figured there might be deer (especially with nearby wildfires) but there were three separate incidents of the little bastards running right into my road, leading up to the last one, which apparently just headbutted the car and ran off, but we thought we’d killed it and stopped and called 911 before we determined there was neither damage nor deercorpse. I drove even slower after that.
3. Hailstorm. I’ve never driven in a hailstorm like that before. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been behind the wheel for and I honestly have no idea how we stayed alive in the zero-visibility long enough to get to the shoulder, while golf-ball-sized chunks of icy slush pounded us mercilessly. After that, we stopped at a truck stop where I had eggs and wine and a panic attack while the next hailstorm passed over us.
Anyway, then I was pretty much done driving. We arrived back in Minneapolis, where we closed out the road trip with an Egg McMuffin, which had a good symmetry for me since that’s how I like to begin a road trip, but we actually started out in the afternoon.
Miles driven: 7,384
Lessons learned: Very few
Wikipedia links of interest: [Hells Gate] [Lynn Canal] [Hwy 37 (and bonus material from the gov’t of BC)] [Klondike Highway] [Bear attacks] [Gold Rush]
Our route through BC: From Vancouver, north on 99 until it reached 97. Then north on 97 to Prince George. West on 16 until 37, then north on that. When 37 gets to the Yukon it meets the Alaska Highway. West on that to the Klondike Highway, then south to Skagway. In truth, the Alaska Marine Highway (an extensive system of ferries with staterooms) might have been easier.