We just completed an amazing drive of 319 miles from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake. We got off to an 8 AM start in somewhat overcast skies but a promise of sunshine. We were prepared to complete the drive through the Northern Rockies to Watson Lake.
The initial 50-60 miles were very pleasant and we really appreciated the scenery and the sunshine. We then started to climb and the snow covered mountains start to surround us. For some unfathomable reason, the Army Corp of Engineers in 1942 chose to build the Alaska Highway from south to north instead of just getting through them from east to west and then going north.
The results are two-fold. First, it is incredibly spectacular. That’s a challenging superlative for people that live next to the Rockies in Colorado. Second, there are many climbs and descents that are challenging but become hazardous after snowstorms even in late April.
Of course, that’s what we ran into. When comparing the altitude of the Colorado Rockies and the Rockies in Northern BC, the passes don’t sound too challenging. But they are. We left Fort Nelson at 1600 feet and crossed passes of 4,100, 4,500 and 3,800. Summit Lake (at mile 83) was a long climb on snowy and steep roads. Although highly nerve racking, the Dodge Ram, in 4-wheel drive, handled the climb without a problem.
The road, at this point, was narrow and snow-packed. We reached the summit very concerned about the impending descent. An amazing thing happened next. We started going down and the road widened and was relatively clear as well as a gradual decent not the 10% grade that we had already experienced. Also there were several vehicles in front of us going extremely slowly. That was fine with us. After about 10 miles, the 3 vehicles in front of us pulled off the highway to allow us to pass and we proceeded down comfortably with no problems. We had no problem following them as it kept us at a reasonable speed and allowed us to stop and take pictures and not worry about traffic following us.
We finally got down the mountain and pulled into the Toad River Lodge to get some fuel and to take a break. As I was going into the office after filling the tank, I ask a guy at the pump filling his panel truck what we had to look forward to. It turned out that he was pulling a 3,00 pound trailer over the same pass and as he approached the Summit Lake pass, he lost all traction and ended up jack-knifed. His wife went ahead to warn descending vehicles. One of the first cars to approach him offered lend him some chains. They both chained up and proceeded over the pass. It turns out that he was one of the vehicles that was in front of us when we started down the mountain. We saw them turn off the road not knowing they were removing the chains. Later when we downloaded the video we saw where they were jack-knifed off the road.
During times like these, it was easy to wonder what we were thinking. However, after leaving Toad River Lodge, it was easy to understand the pull of the Alaska Highway and the adventure of Alaska.
First we passed Muncho Lake. It was 7 miles long at an altitude of about 3,200 feet and still completely covered with ice and snow. We continued traversing the Rockies, but now at a much more enjoyable pace. The sky was blue, the scenery was awesome and we finally found our first critters.
Then, after 2,158 miles from Colorado Springs and 467 miles into the Alaska Highway, we came across a wandering herd of buffalo. We were on the edge of a ravine. We had been forewarned by buffalo signs - both road signs and poop. The sight of them was very satisfying.
Maureen learned just recently through Nina’s cousin, Brian McCarthy (of San Diego, CA), that she has a cousin, Maureen, who live in AK for several years. Thanks to Brian they were introduced and Maureen P (guess which one!) has given us advice on what to see and what to look out for on our trip. Maureen told us we would see plenty of buffalo along the highway and we should be careful driving.....she did not disappoint.
We then passed about 10 small herds and continuous signs of buffalo for the next 100+ miles. No exaggeration.....but can you imagine people cheering when they see buffalo poop and hope they can say they see if for 100 actual miles? Well, it did happen and we did see buffalo at the 100 mile area to validate our claim!!
We were then on the glide path for Watson Lake and were glad to arrive at 3:30. We’re staying at a totally functional RV park (Downtown RV Park) within easy walking distance of the famous Sign Forest. The Forest was started by a soldier from Danville, IL in 1942 who was homesick while working on the construction crew of the ALCAN Highway so he placed a sign pointing to IL and announcing how far it was to home. Other soldiers soon followed suit and thus the beginning of the Sign Post Forest. Visitors to Watson Lake added signs and to this day it has grown to 61,000+ signs.
During WWII the US needed a way to get supplies up to Alaska for the soldiers so an engineering miracle took place. Military and civilian personnel constructed the now Alaska Highway in 8 short months and 12 days which then provided a land route for supplies and troops to Alaska during WWII.
When grocery shopping have you ever “bumped” into the same person many times while traversing the isles? Well, that is what happens on this trip to AK when you all have a similiar goal. “Bob and Mary” who are headed to Skagway and are parked 2 slots over form us, saw the buffaloes also but saw 2 fighting....that had to be a fun experience. We have seen others that we have “camped” with and expect to leapfrog each other all the way to Alaska.