Day One: Dawson Creek to Toad River – 407 Miles
Magda positioned her tripod on a snowbank while I nervously watched for bears. We were pulled over in a pile of plowed snow, our flashers and headlights blazing to warn oncoming trucks of our presence on the narrow road. A cliff dropped from beyond the guardrail, which was why Magda had such an incredible view of the river valley and the giant mountains looming above it. It was cold and looked like it might snow. I paced back and forth like an expectant father, hoping our light show would be enough to alert other drivers in the gathering dusk.
We didn’t stop much on our first day of the Alaska Highway. For many miles after leaving Dawson Creek the roadway was straight and clear of ice, lined on two sides by woods, cropped well back to create a buffer between the highway and the forest line. This was likely done to prevent hitting moose. Unlike in the south of Canada, where moose warnings constantly flashed but we saw not an antler, right at the beginning of the Alaska Highway we’d spotted a giant bull at the edge of the road. It was a magnificent animal but if it had stepped into the road we would have all ended up a twisted pile of metal and moose meat.
Bear warnings were everywhere. Don’t feed them, was the mantra. I didn’t plan on feeding a bear on purpose or otherwise but we thought it would be neat to see one. The woman at our motel in Dawson Creek claimed she’d seen at least ten along the highway, but that was in the summer. She wondered why we weren’t visiting in the summer then questioned the wisdom of driving the Alaska Highway at the edge of winter. I might have said, “fewer bears”, but I didn’t realize how few at the time.
There were no bears ambling towards us on the turn-off where Magda was still shooting, but I was alert anyway. Dusk is the best time to see most animals, there was reportedly a herd of Dall Sheep that frequented the narrow curve where we were precariously parked. They lick the salt off of the rocks.
When she packed up we cautiously pulled a U-turn and headed back north towards our destination. We estimated it wasn’t too far and the darkness was closing fast. A moment later as we reached the bottom of the hill, a shadow darted across the road like a uncoiling spring. It was large and had the look of a cat so I slowed way down to see it enter the forest to our left. It looked back at us for a moment with angry yellow eyes. It was a cougar, its coat thick for winter. As we slowed to a stop it turned and bounded back into the woods, out of sight. We stared at the place it had stood for a while, then drove on.
When we reached our destination of Toad River Lodge we pulled into a packed ice parking lot then negotiated our way towards the door. Inside we were greeted by thousands of hats hanging from the ceiling like the dusty scalps of an army of truckers. The lodge was heavy on antlers, taxidermied varmints and old license plates from around the continent. We told the woman at reception we were there to check in and she looked confused and asked my name. When I told her my last name she said,
“Ian?” Without reading from the book.
Assuming my fame as a commercial illustrator had not preceded me, I got worried.
“Yes. Is everything ok?”
She called for her superior and they held a long conversation in a South Asian language, possibly Tagalog. The older woman looked at us apologetically and broke the bad news: someone had already taken our room.
This wouldn’t have been as troubling to absorb if there was another place to stay within a hundred miles, but there wasn’t. This was why we’d made a reservation in the first place. We told the pair this and spoke quite clearly when we explained that one way or another we were spending the night at their lodge. They talked amongst themselves for several more minutes and the young woman disappeared. The older woman offered us coffee and asked that we sit and wait.
We asked if we had a room or not. She said we did. We wondered how that came to pass.
“The girl made a mistake. She’s new.” The woman explained, “She thought someone else said their name was Ian and gave them your room. So now she’s going to give you her room, but must clean it first.”
Part of me wanted to object; the soft son of Methodists who’d rather not anyone be put out on my behalf. Another part, a tired and hungry frontiersman I hadn’t known lurked within, wanted her tossed into the snow. When we finished dinner we were told the room was ready and that the young woman would be staying at the older woman’s house for the night. That problem settled, we climbed into bed and slept all the way through our first night on the Alaska Highway.
Day 2: Toad River to Teslin – 373 Miles
An elk buck stood at the edge of the road, looking in both directions. When it seemed he felt it safe, he gave an unseen signal and the rest of the herd poured over the road. We waited in the pre-dawn light while the great creatures made their way across, taking in the spectacle, a segment of our brains buzzing with primeval excitement.
We’d already passed the highest point on the highway, Summit Pass, but it seemed that it had been more of grand entrance into the Canadian Rockies than their climax. Our second day on the road was accompanied by giants. Great snow covered crags caught the low sun and basked in its early light. Huge snow covered wood bison grazed by the road like boulders or the memory of mammoths. Warning signs flashed again for the bison. To hit one would not only devastate the car, but also to the last of a dwindling herd. It’s well known that millions of bison once roamed North America only to have their numbers devastated after the arrival of the Europeans. In the lower 48 the bison were all but extinct, save for a few kept in the Bronx zoo. The numbers stayed strong for some time in the north though, only to have been gradually whittled down by hunting and semi’s driving too fast. It was a pleasure to see these wild holdovers, unconcerned and certainly unafraid of our passing.
We were mostly alone on the roadway. Since Summit Pass the surface was primarily packed snow and ice. Sometimes gravel was laid down on the sharper curves. In the morning we stopped often to shoot the mountain scenery and the wildlife, but I asked Magda to give me some notice since to stop meant to slide a few dozen feet first. Occasionally semi’s hauling goods to and from Whitehorse roared towards us, filing the air with blowing snow. We tried not to think about emergencies; had we been forced to pull over there would have been nobody to help, no service stations for hundreds of miles. As an old trucker would later confide, the service stations that once had a steady business changing flats and fan-belts have all gone out of business as cars and the blacktop have improved. There was no cell service.
We arrived at the Yukon Motel where they actually had our reserved room heated and waiting. It had a slightly more modern decor than we were used to, in that it wasn’t made entirely of wood. A First Nations man stood at the counter as we checked in and asked where we were from. We told him we were from New York City so he asked if we spoke German.
“Um, no not really. Do you?”
“Ja, ich spreche klein Deutsch.” He replied.
“Well…er, that’s great!”
We wished him good evening, in English, and went to our room.