Sunday, March 27, 2011

Long Drive

We have been in Alaska nearly two years, and I recently decided to start looking for a new job back down in the lower 48. And it so happens I was able to find one back in Atlanta, GA. Due to the distance, they gave me two full weeks to get down to Atlanta before I start so we decided to make the long drive down. We were originally going to leave on Monday March 7th, but packing took longer than expected (even with my parents help during their trip up for the Iditarod). So, on a frigid, sunny Tuesday we left with the Subaru packed to the brim, bikes on the roof rack, and towing a U-Haul with nearly everything we owned.

We drove slowly getting a feel for the trailer and headed off towards the Canadian border. Soon, we were turning towards Tok on some of the last remaining Alaska Highway we had not previously been on.


I have to imagine that the border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory is the least busy US border. We arrived at the US side just as the sun was setting, and stopped for pictures in between at all of the crossing signs.



After crossing through the Canadian side of the border, we then hit some of the worst stretch of "paved" road I have ever driven on. The 80 or so miles between the border and the town of Destruction Bay is notoriously bad. There are huge frost heaves and potholes that could swallow a tire. Since we arrived at night there was zero visibility which gave us even less time to brace for impact and wince, hoping my TV which is packed in the trailer didn't just crack.

We stopped for dinner (at Buckshot Betty's) in the first town we came to, Beaver Creek, and then pressed on as we still had much driving to do. One of the downsides of hauling the trailer is we average about 13-14 miles per gallon, meaning we have to stop at least every 180 miles or so for gas. Since the towns throughout northern Canada are about 100-150 miles apart (sorry 160-240 kilometers apart) we had to stop and gas up at just about every opportunity.

Around 11 pm I spotted some weird light in the sky, so I stopped to try and see what it was. Since we hadn't seen the northern lights yet, I was keeping an eagle eye out hoping we might see them before we ventured too far south. My parents had seen them on their trip to Fairbanks, and had told us how the scientists they ran into said that sometimes they appear white instead of brightly colored. That matched the description of what I was seeing on the northern horizon now, and sure enough when I took a picture with a long exposure they turned out a greenish color (#75 on the list).


We finally arrived in Whitehorse after 1 am and checked into our hotel. We made it over 700 miles on our first day! Not a bad start, but to get through Canada in 3 days as planned we were going to have to drive at least that far each of the next two days as well.

After a quick stop at the grocery store (and the local bookstore to buy a post card), we continued on our way the next morning. We had chosen to take the ALCAN Highway instead of the Cassiar, mostly because the towns are closer together on the older ALCAN and we needed all the fuel we could get.

The Yukon River also flows through Whitehorse and we crossed it just outside of town.


Also, on the second day of the trip we began seeing lots of wildlife. From caribou on the road...


To bison on the side of the road...


In total we saw 53 bison, 9 caribou, 3 moose, and 3 deer.

Stopping for gas every couple of hours helped break up the trip. And, it was an interesting experience in northern Canada. We bought fuel in liters, and paid an equivalent of over $6 a gallon at some stations. Many of the tanks were above ground and had to be "turned on" from inside the store or hotel that sold it. The pumps looked like ones most people in the US haven't seen since the 70s or 80s.

Later in the day we crossed through Watson Lake, Yukon and stopped to view the impressive Sign Post Forest.


Shortly after we crossed into British Columbia for the third and final time of the day.


We were making good time on Wednesday, but unfortunately this all changed after dark. It started to snow right as we began entering some steep mountain passes going through the Canadian Rockies. A short way up the first mountain we had to stop and help someone who had run off the road into a small ditch. We were able to help them, but as we got back moving it started to snow even harder.

Our options at that point were limited since we were in the middle of no where. We either had to turn around and head back to the last town we had come from or continue on to the next town. Since we were already miles from the previous town, and with hopes that the weather might improve, we pressed on. Unfortunately, the weather did not improve but we were able to slowly continue driving and after a couple of hours made it to Fort Nelson in Northern British Columbia.

It was only around 8 pm and we were still a couple of hundred miles from where we were planning on stopping that night, but we decided to get a hotel there due to the weather. Of course, as soon as we paid for our hotel room it stopped snowing.

Since we had an early night, we decided to get up early on Thursday to try and make up some time. The snow from the night before had already been plowed and we were able to make very good time. In the early afternoon we reached Dawson Creek, BC which is the starting point of the ALCAN our easternmost point in Canada, being just a few miles from Alberta.


After taking some pictures of the ceremonial markers we pressed on with the drive and continued making good time until a little after sunset. With a strong hinting of déjà vu, it again began to snow as we were approaching a series of mountain passes. Only this time the passes were steeper, the snow was coming down even harder, and there were more semis on the road.

Driving slowly, we were again able to make it to the next town where we decided to stop for the night - the small town of Quesnel. By this point we had given up hope of remaining on schedule.

Friday morning we woke early and continued the drive through the Canadian Rockies. We finally made it to Vancouver, just in time for Friday evening rush hour traffic. After meeting our friend Jenny for a brief dinner at the mall by Canada Place, where we had departed from on our Alaskan Cruise, we made the journey to the US Border.

While on a map Vancouver appears to be right next to the border, it sure feels a lot longer when you are making the actual drive. It took well over an hour from the time we left the mall until we made it to the border, waited in line with nearly a hundred other cars, and answered a number of very specific and sometimes weird questions from the agent.

Back in the United States we continued down to Mukilteo, Washington (just north of Seattle) and to the home of our friends Chris and Christie, who would kindly be playing host and tour guide during our time in Seattle.

Steven

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