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Points North – Tips for The Alaska Highway

Planning a trip north this summer, perhaps to take in the Ride Yukon event in Whitehorse? If your intended route is the Alaska Highway, Ed Pretty offers some practical advice.

During World War II, the battles that raged in the European and Pacific theatres seemed far away, yet the war was on North America’s very doorstep when Japanese forces got a foothold on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The American and Canadian governments needed a secure overland supply route to Alaska to adequately defend North America against invasion through our back door. The Alcan Highway—now the Alaska Highway — was chosen from three possible routes. One thousand and 42 miles of the 1,522-mile route had to be constructed through virgin territory and was completed, unbelievably, in eight months and 12 days. The US government provided the assets, the US Army Black Corps of Engineers (African Americans) provided the muscle and the Canadian government provided the right-of-way. The route started at what was road’s end at the time—Dawson Creek, BC. 

“Soldiering on” through Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Whitehorse in BC and Yukon, it finally ended at Delta Junction in Alaska. The Richardson Hwy already existed between Delta Junction and Fairbanks where the Americans had secure inland air base. The road was fully opened for public use by 1948.

Initially the highway was nothing more than a twisting, bog-avoiding track that wound its way northward in BC, then clawed its way more or less northwest over the Rocky Mountains and finally slogged through newly exposed permafrost to its destination. Over the years this track evolved into the road that is now the lifeline for that part of the north. Prior to the 1980s when upgrading, straightening and paving was finally completed, tales of travel on the road were never without a tally of the number of flat tires, broken axles and smashed windshields and headlights. 

My own first trip on the Alaska Highway was with my parents in 1959 provided me with my one and only experience with motion sickness as we weaved between the bogs of northern BC. Today, improvements aside, wildlife, frost heaves, road repairs, new construction, snow-deck bridges, infrequent fuel stops, and true vastness still make this ride an out of the ordinary adventure for most touring motorcyclists. If you prefer the road less traveled this is the one, with 20 vehicles an hour qualifying as absolutely intense traffic—sometimes bikes being the majority. On the other hand, rest assured that if you looked at all like you needed help, those 20 vehicles would stop to help. 

Can the going get tough? For sure the most significant hazard for bikes is animals on the road, from small, invisible gray Stone Sheep on Sheep Mountain to wild buffalo in the Liard River Valley with lots of deer, caribou, elk, bear, moose and ground squirrels rounding out the list.

A dot on the map doesn’t necessarily mean gas will be available; when you see gas, you get it, and you better take octane boost. Frost heaves, nature’s speed bumps—and the craters left behind when they collapse—are probably a new experience for most riders, but they are generally well marked. Generally. Snow deck, as many of you know, is a metal grate bridge surface that tends to cause a motorcycle to dart and/or weave constantly with no pattern. The wishes of the rider are of no consequence. There are about half a dozen such bridges in the southern Yukon with the infamous Teslin Bridge being the Big Daddy of them all, stretching at least a kilometre and easily possessing the nastiest personality. 

For all these challenges, there are equally as many unique attractions. For someone from (southern) BC the mountains are not unusual but the thick boreal forest with its zillions of tiny trees certainly is. The vast, sweeping glaciated valleys are a spectacle to all. Generally, the sense of vastness throughout the north somehow eclipses that of the prairies or deserts to the south. 

Although wild animals can be a hazard on the Alaska Highway, they are also fascinating and fun to watch—from a distance. 

The history of the area is intriguing with gold dredge buckets and derelict army trucks everywhere, attesting to the two things that brought the rest of the world to this part of the north. 

Roadside “lodges” generally provide the best (and most) food and typically are also community centres and ad hoc museums all rolled into one. Most of all, the people that you will meet will long remain in your memory. 

If I were to give someone contemplating a ride to Alaska and Yukon one piece of advice, it would be to get a copy of The Milepost, which is available at most large bookstores or on the web, www.themilepost.com. This yearly updated guide to travel in northern BC, Yukon and Alaska is a tool that no first-time visitor should be without. Maps, mile-by-mile road conditions for all roads, accommodation, attractions and ads make this an invaluable tool. The Milepost at the ready or not, riding the Alaska Hwy is best described as the adventure of a lifetime. However, the diversity and challenges of the north leave the title of “sourdough” completely to those who choose to make the north their home year round. 

Seven basic road tips for the Alaska Highway

1. If you choose an all-paved route to Alaska, expect to travel up to a couple of hundred kilometres of gravel in the form of new construction and repairs.

2. If you have highway tires, expect to wear out a rear tire and of course half a front tire in 10,000 kilometres. The gravel, and especially chip seal, is ravenous.

3. Whatever your rate of travel per day, it would be wise to reduce that by one quarter to one third when calculating travel time due to varying road conditions.

4. The extended (summer) daylight hours will allow you to increase your daily travel rate if need be. 

5. The extra daylight hours in summer negate the ability to see the Northern Lights (duh).

6. Plan to camp or at least be prepared to camp. Accommodation, like gas, cannot be guaranteed and it’s a long way to the next town if there’s no room at the inn.

7. And did I say to get gas when you see it? Don’t be picky— at times you’ll be happy that it burns.

by Ed Pretty, Canadian Biker Issue #233

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