Some people dream of living on a tropical island, the jungle, or an exotic destination. Bradley Zint dreamt of living in another kind of wild frontier: Alaska’s cold wilderness. In this article, he details the trip he made from sunny Southern California to Alaska driving through western United States and Canada in mid-October.
By Bradley Zint
was determined to find it, even from within the darkness. The trip was already some 2,200 miles completed, but in my mind it still hadn’t really started yet.
With a crude map of the city, we were getting closer and closer to the real “mile zero” of a journey containing some 4,000 of them. Soon enough – at the corner of 8th Street and Alaska Avenue – there it was, in great big red and blue letters. “You are now entering the world famous Alaska Highway,” it read.
The location: Dawson Creek, in the province of British Columbia, Canada. I got out of the car amidst the October cold to take a few pictures. Once snapped, we continued on into the dark and cold Canadian night.
Years ago I had the idea I wanted to live and work in Alaska. I love the outdoors and a good adventure. Alaska is perfect for both. As fate would have it, I found a job in Alaska and off I went, into the great far-North American unknown – unknown to me, at least.
I was fortunate not to have to drive the entire way to Alaska by myself. A companion came with me and planned to go back to Los Angeles from Anchorage, Alaska.
It was to be a quick trip – only about five days and with almost 4,000 miles to cover. Some of those days involved constant driving, without stopping to sleep in a real bed overnight. That meant watching the sunset and sunrise from the very same seat of my Jeep Cherokee. Any sleeping meant sitting up with the hum of the Jeep’s wheels readily turning over the highways of North America in your ears.
It was the quintessential American road trip, only at a faster pace. The United States, for all its large territory, is blessed with a safe, reliable, and extremely extensive network of roads. It’s a network that allows you to explore much of the great North American continent, with most of its geographical diversity easily accessible from the open highways.
Alaska, the 49th state of 50 states and nicknamed “The Last Frontier,” is a relative newcomer in the network of America’s roads. On the onset of World War II, the United States realized Alaska – during that time a territory, not yet a state – was vulnerable to takeover from Japan. Having already surprise-attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December of 1941, the Alaska Territory was now prime target in need of defense.
It was this need to supply military power to defend Alaska from the Japanese that forced the United States to finally build a road to its northernmost territory. The year was 1942 and Alaska was still largely unsettled, still uncharted, and still unknown. It was a vast, mysterious wilderness despite the U.S. having bought it long ago from Russia in 1867.
Furthermore, Alaska was far away. A road to reach Alaska had to cross a large portion of Canada in between it and the northern United States. Shipping men and military supplies was too difficult by sea and by air – a road through Canada and into large Alaskan cities like Fairbanks and Anchorage was the best option.
What happened next was one of the great miracles of the war and a great feat of determined engineering. The roughly 1,500 miles of the first version of the Alaska Highway – starting in Dawson Creek and ending in Delta Junction, Alaska – was built in a matter of months, from March to November of 1942. Even more amazing: Where the road was built was unknown. Surveyors traveled ahead by only miles, plotting the course through the immense wilderness around mountains and over rivers. The construction crews behind them then quickly caught up by tearing down trees, flattening the earth, and building bridges.
After the war ended in 1945, the Alaskan Highway opened up to civilian traffic. For many years, large portions of it remained unpaved and bumpy. Today, the highway has a few minor alterations from the original 1942 route and is completely paved – at least in theory. However, it’s safe to say portions of the highway through Canada’s Yukon Territory are still dusty with gravel and are bumpy as ever.
But what hasn’t changed are the views – still the grandest of roads just about anywhere – and the roaming roadside wildlife that call those northern backwoods their home.
“We should keep going,” I said. My friend agreed. We were having dinner at Fort St. John – only about an hour north of Dawson Creek. It was gloomy and chilly outside. Gas, motels and other services are few and far between on the Alaska Highway. It travels through sparsely populated corners of the world. Not knowing where food or help is can make all the difference – especially in the freezing cold.
The next major stop was Fort Nelson – a five-hour drive north. That stretch was one of the most surreal journeys of my life. Endless blackness, a nearly empty road, and infinite amounts of trees were among the few things I remember from that stretch of the drive.
Fort Nelson was not very inviting that freezing October morning. It was around 2 a.m. My friend and I were exhausted and cold.
Fort Nelson wasn’t inviting because the small town was having a late-night power outage. Out was the half with all but one of the town’s hotels. And the one hotel still open was charging a fortune.
After I heard the price, “OK, we’re not paying that,” I said. “We’re just going to sleep in the car for a few hours and then continue on early in the morning.”
A short drive later through the suburbs of Fort Nelson and we found our spot. Not warm, not cozy, but our temporary spot nonetheless. My tall frame tried to curl up as best I could in the front seats of my Jeep. I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the pale yellow permeating the car windows from the streetlight above.
“Beep! Beep!” The alarm went off. I didn’t really sleep, but it went off anyway. It was one of those mornings.
“Time to go!” I proclaimed to my friend. She was still mostly asleep.
I was dying to get going, mostly because I didn’t want anyone to approach the car and find two Californians sleeping in front of their house. But as soon as were off, we stopped quickly so my friend could brush her teeth. I’m glad at least one of us had our dental priorities straight.
Later that day: After a long day of constant driving, total darkness. We were farther north, with more snow covering the earth than before. Some of it fell lightly from the sky. Subzero temperatures and the light snowfall made the highway icy and slick – and potentially perilous to drive on.
At that hour we were on the outskirts of Haines Junction in the Yukon Territory province of Canada. I was tired, and it began to severely affect my driving. We hadn’t seen another car in at least an hour. This section of the highway in late October – already the start of the region’s long winter – didn’t have much traffic at that time of night.
Eventually my eyes gave way to being closed too long. My grip on my vehicle slipped and for a few moments the ice was king. My Jeep – heavily loaded with my things – began veering to the right until it went clear off the road, became briefly airborne and landed in the snow-filled ditch. The hum of the tires rolling along the highway was replaced with the heavy thud of two tons of steel careening into two feet of snow.
“Are you OK?” I asked my friend. Apparently she was. And so was my car – for now.
Even after the hard landing, the engine was still running, the lights still working. The temperature outside was 15 below zero Fahrenheit.
I got out and surveyed the unplanned trailblazing. The light snow continued to fall and the scene was silent, except for the deep hum of my car’s engine. I could see the tire marks all the way. We were lucky the car didn’t flip or otherwise go too terribly out of control. When realizing such luck, the moment became fun.
“Did you see that! We must’ve fell 4 or 5 feet! Look at the drag marks!” I proclaimed.
The time was around midnight, or shortly thereafter. My friend and I climbed out of the ditch and onto the road. We were discernible enough in the darkness that another truck came by. It was probably the first car we’d seen in maybe two hours.
“Are you two OK?” the driver asked from his pickup.
“Yeah, we’re fine. Our car just flew off the road, but I think we’re OK,” I answered, trying to hold back the laughter of the moment. The man inside the truck shrugged and headed off into the night, likely thinking we were foolish for walking outside in such a subzero world.
Fortunately my Jeep is a real Jeep, armed with four-wheel drive that’s perfect for driving through snow. I pulled the lever, engaged all four wheels and had no problem trudging through the snow and back onto the road.
Potential crisis averted.
The remainder of the trip was a long haul but with excellent views. Only once did we get lost, and it was not long after my car landed in the ditch. We spent a night in a motel with a bar next door. We got emergency help after gas started leaking from my engine from a family in a town of some 40 people. The man who fixed it claimed he didn’t officially have a license to do anything but sell tires.