Friday, May 30, 2008

I spoke briefly with Becky that Wednesday night in Fort Nelson, BC. She worried that we wouldn’t make it to Anchorage by a decent time Friday afternoon, and therefore nullify our plans for food and beer at Humpy’s at 5pm. She had slept in Fort Nelson and drove the next day to Whitehorse(590 miles), which was a full day. Hmmm. We wanted to hit Tok, AK (970 miles) – a very lofty goal. Pulling a trailer over 2 lane mountain passes gave us an average speed of 45 mph. We decided to drive through the night until we had to sleep, find a turn off, and then close our eyes. We were gaining lots of daylight everyday so that was a benefit. Also, once we crossed into Alaska we gained an hour. The table was set.

Up at 5 am, we quickly destroyed as much as possible of the waffle continental breakfast and were driving at 6am. We were told that Whitehorse would take 10 - 12 hours by the guy at the gas station. We planned on 12 considering our stop at the Liard hot springs.

At various gas stations and rest stops we had been seeing a Tacoma with a blue tarp in the bed and Alabama plates. It would be ahead of us and then behind us, all the way through Alberta and British Columbia. Keeping track of this truck pulled us eagerly through the roads and towns along the way. We first saw them outside of their truck as they grab the obligatory photo in front of the Dawson Creek Alcan sign. 2 guys and 1 girl – maybe a year or 3 past college graduation. Every town would have us looking for “’Bama” and their blue tarp. As we pulled into the hot springs parking lot we joked about seeing them. Pow, there is the Tacoma! We chatted them up in the spring itself. They had plans for Tok as well, knowing that they were probably going to sleep in their truck somewhere. Turns out they left Alabama Sunday morning – the same day we left Indiana. We felt a little lazy about that, but then again they had no trailer. We wished them luck and pledged to see them in Tok, as they surely would arrive first.

The Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park is so worth the time to stop and chat with whomever happens to be there soaking away. We talked with a guy heading up to work on a Halibut charter in Seward, AK and a Texan heading back to his summer place in Wasilla, AK after having bought a truck in Texas to drive up. He was sleeping in it as well, though not shooting for Tok (he’s smart). Getting back in the car after a 30 minute soak was very tough and we soon found our journey getting groggy. After some coffee at the next fillup we were back on the attack. The Sirens had not won, yet. We had only tasted the Lotus, avoiding become full fledged Lotus Eaters.

We eventually made it to Whitehorse at the 12 hour mark and began scanning the strip for gas. “There they are!” Alabama was gassing up and we knew we had to gas up there as well. We chewed the rag again, exchanging hopes for Tok and the sweet release of eventually seeing Anchorage in our front windows. A car was filling next to us with Ontario plates and many bumper stickers, the main one being “Use less, conserve more.” She was chatting with a friend while pumping her gas, during which she neglected to see that she overfilled her tank and had about 2 gallons on the cement before she noticed it. She ran in, talked to the kid behind the counter, and it was quickly accessed that the amount spilled was not a huge red flag. Greg joked with the attendant after she left about her bumper sticker, concluding with, “And she’s from Ontario. What do you expect?” Neither of us knows what this means, but we do know they are an uppity province at times, it seemed funny, and whatever – we’re from Chicago so eat it. Chuckles finished, the road called.

The Yukon is truly where the wildlife comes out at dusk – black bear, brown bear, sheep, buffalo, wolves, moose, fox, etc. The wolf was truly the surprise of the bunch. We watched an animal cross up ahead from a small horse farm in the right to the brush on the left. I though it was a caribou with its head bent over when we first spotted it, but as we grew closer it was obviously a wolf. After slowing down and staring off the left, we met him eye to eye as he stood 20 yards away – much bigger and stronger than I would have expected. So cool.

I also cannot explain how unique and frustrating the permafrost is. The way it thaws and freezes over the years plays havoc with the road in ways you would need to see to believe. The 2 lane ribbon stretches out into the Yukon dusk and it endlessly and subtly bobs up and down, forcing the trailer and hitch to bump the entire way. I’m told that over time it may bend your truck frame, explaining why some trucks in Alaska and the Yukon have permanently bent frames that appear crooked as they drive towards you. My truck made it just fine and still moves in the direction you point it.

I was riding shotgun all day, devouring the Milepost and guiding Greg, whom was content to do all of the driving. Around midnight we found ourselves fighting sleep. Heading straight into the perpetual sun down didn’t help either, having long passed the beauty of the enormous and frozen Kluane Lake. According to the Milepost Beaver Creek, YT had a few hotels and was only 30 miles from Alaska, so that was the goal. If we could get a room, great. If not, we could park there and close our eyes. I’m sure there were rooms available, but at 12:30 am in the Yukon you cannot expect to find anything open. At all of the gas stations along the way we would ask for advice on where the next gas station was and how far it was to Tok, Whitehorse, etc. We knew what the book said but also wanted to know what actual people on the road said. Also, there was probably a genuine need to connect with other human beings outside of our truck. The common theme was to not expect fuel or services beyond 8 or 9 pm. Keep in mind that almost no gas pumps in the Yukon or northern BC take credit cards – you flip up the handle, pump away, and then head inside to settle up. So driving late into the night is limited more by fuel than sleep. So, no services are open in Beaver Creek as we expected. We found a gas station with a large parking lot, parked in the gravel on the side of its lot with the truck pointing up a slight incline (Greg knows how to park properly to sleep in a car – Chicago’s finest), and promptly leaned back, glancing at the clock to see it turn to 1 am.

At 4 am I awoke to a chilly 35 degree temperature and the same dusk we went to sleep in. An arctic fox still in white dashed across the road towards us. Greg stirred, felt chilly, and started the truck. We both left the idling truck to stretch, see our breath, and take a leak only to see one of the happiest sites in a long while. The Alabama Tundra was parked in the other side of the lot! How we passed them is beyond me, but they must have been dozing as well and looking for a pull off. I’d like to think they chose this sport after seeing our rig. We flirted with the idea of a note or something on their truck, but quickly decided against accidentally startling them and giving them a heart attack. Off we went, beaming and laughing about ‘Bama.

The truck kept us warm and around 4:45 am we saw the border. I had always heard that at this point in the trip you want to kiss the American soil, and I can assure you it is true. It took about 2 minutes to hand over the passports, answer a few questions, and have our passports returned. “Welcome to America” Yes sir! And thanks for the time change as well. 3:45 am now.

About 10 miles in is a chance at gas but it turns out the pumps were off, even though they did take credit cards. We didn’t have enough gas to hit Tok but that was no problem. We had been carrying 15 gallons of fuel over 3 gas cans so we simply poured 5 gallons in. Perfect.

Tok at 7 am gave us the perfect time to call Becky in Anchorage, already midway through her morning ritual. Yep, we’ll be in Anchorage around noon. After gas in Glenallen, AK we bombed for Anchorage. The weather was now in the 50’s, coffee was in our bellies, and our moods soared as Wasilla and Anchorage loomed.

What followed was a blur of meeting Becky for the storage keys, realizing that we smelt like ass after finding ourselves in the company of clean people, filling the storage unit, returning the trailer, showering/scraping off the road and filth, and finally having a few beers at 3pm while we calmly awaited Becky’s return from work. By 5 we were at Humpy’s eating Halibut, burgers, and pasta. After plenty of socializing with Becky’s friends and family we tramped around downtown a bit before passing out around midnight.

No major mechanical problems befell my 2003 Ranger. I did gain a slight pock mark in my windshield from some gravel on the Alaska Highway. No crack yet, but that will probably happen. Everybody up here has a cracked windshield though. I was told by numerous people that this makes me an Alaskan now. Everything made it safely and here I sit working at my new job.

Victory indeed!

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