The Alaska Highway.

Going North on the Alaska Highway

After crossing Alberta and northern British Columbia we are now going north on the Alaska Highway heading to Fairbanks. So far the road is great. The Alaska Highway starts in Dawson Creek and connects Canada to Alaska. Before the Alaska Highway, the only way to get to Alaska was by plane or boat. The acronym ALCAN (Alaska-Canada) was adopted as the name in 1942 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when the road was first built. The most common name now is the Alaska Highway. Although not old enough to remember the highway being built, I still think of it as the ALCAN.

When finished in November 1942, the Alaska Highway was well more than 1500 miles long.  Gradually the distance has decreased slightly due to rebuilding and routing the road making the distance shorter. We are taking the 1942 route Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek all the way to Fairbanks.

Dawson Creek to Fairbanks

The major cities along the way are… there are no major cities along the way. Whitehorse is growing rapidly and might change this statement someday.

The Alaska Highway from Dawson City Yukon Territory to Fairbanks Alaska.
The Alaska Highway from Dawson City Yukon Territory to Fairbanks Alaska.

Unlike previous road construction projects, the Alaska Highway was not just an expansion of previous roads. Instead, it connected many locations that had never been linked before by any road or trail. For the first time in history, much of the route of the Alaska Highway was established by first surveying the terrain from airplanes. Most of the entire route was through untouched wilderness.

Build it Starting in Dawson Creek

The reason the Alaska Highway started in Dawson Creek is that Dawson Creek was at the end of the railway. The reason the Alaska Highway was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was to make sure Japan, who attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, could not cut off Alaska and Northwest British Columbia from the rest of the United States and Canada. This wasn’t a threat for the forts on the east side of the continental divide but would have been a huge problem for Whitehorse and the Yukon goldfields.

The first bridge on the Alaska Highway north of Dawson Creek over the Kiskatinaw River.
The first bridge on the Alaska Highway north of Dawson Creek over the Kiskatinaw River.

Before 1942, the only part of the Alaska Highway in British Columba that was frequently traveled was from Dawson Creek to Fort Saint John (about 40 miles). In the Yukon Territory, the same thing was true for the gold mining area around Whitehorse.

North of Fort Saint John, the pack trail (pack horses) to the north was traveled infrequently. Some of this trail was converted, however, the road was cut straight(ish) to the north. In every direction from Fort Nelson was wilderness. Everything north of Fort Saint John was wilderness. The only connections between settlements north of Fort Nelson were rivers. Since the rivers flowed to the sea, if the Japanese were to deny access to the coastline, the settlements depending on the rivers would be cut off from the rest of Canada.

Not a new idea

Making a road that crossed the interior of Canada from Dawson Creek across Canada and Alaska to Fairbanks was not a new idea. Both Canada and the United States had numerous locations that would benefit from the road.

At the beginning of 1942, Fairbanks Alaska was at the end of a dead-end road that started in Anchorage. The same dead-end road was true for Fort Saint John in Canada. Before 1942, connecting the two was not a priority and the money was never allocated either by Canada or the United States.

A train would have been a better choice but some of the route was way too steep to allow transit by trains. Besides that, a road is a lot easier to build than a railway.

This small red bull dozer is rigged for towing. These smaller bull dozers were made the first cut through the forest.
This small red bulldozer is rigged for towing. These smaller bulldozers made the first cut through the forest.

On December 7, 1941, all debate changed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On February 14, 1942 Congress and the President of the United States ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the road. On March 2, sixteen days later, the first trainload of soldiers arrived in Dawson Creek. This is especially remarkable due to the length of the train trip. Official construction started on March 9th.

Canada, being part of the British Empire, was onboard with the road build even more than the United States. Well before the United States was involved in the war, the Canadians were fighting in Europe.

Choosing the route

The route chosen for the Alaska Highway was to create a land link between the military airfields starting at Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, through several other airfields in Canada, to the airfield at Fairbanks Alaska. Military locations along the route that had to be included were airfields known as the Northwest Staging Route. More than 8,000 airplanes were transported to the Soviet Union along the Northwest Staging Route in 1941 as part of the lend-lease program.

When possible, existing roads were incorporated into the route. Where there were no roads, the route followed pack trails. Where neither roads nor pack trails could be followed, the Army Corps of Engineers made their own road using their best judgment as to the best location. The survey team made the decision about where the road was going to be built. There were no debates or “environmental impact” issues discussed.

The Alaska Highway north of Fort St. John heading straight north.
The Alaska Highway north of Fort St. John heading straight north.

The Alaska Highway was unique in that the area was well known… from the air. Before the Alaska Highway was started, the builders had a good idea of where the highway could be successfully built.

Army Corps of Engineers road builders didn’t just arrive in Dawson City and start building north. More road builders arrived in Fairbanks Alaska and started building the ALCAN toward the south. Boatloads of road builders arrived in Skagway and then proceeded to Whitehorse to begin building both to the north heading towards Alaska and to the south heading towards Dawson Creek. Before summer, over 11,000 U.S. Army soldiers and 10,000 Canadian and United States Civilians were building the road sometimes 24 hours a day. Most were sleeping in tents and eating Army rations.

A Red Fox on display at the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum
A Red Fox on display at the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum

The sections of the road that were already well traveled during the Klondike Gold Rush (1898) were closest to Whitehorse. These roads were incorporated quickly and expanded as part of the construction process. It is a falsehood to think that these roads amounted to much. The main trail of the Klondike Gold Rush was to walk from Skagway to Whitehorse and then use the Yukon River to get to the goldfields. Whitehorse is on the Alaska Highway, and Skagway is a harbor town to the west near Haines, Alaska.

The Mile Zero Cairn 

I included pictures of mile marker zero describing our stop at Dawson Creek but I haven’t described the meaning of the location. A surveyor has to have a starting point. At this cairn, now built up on a large pile of rocks, everything on the Alaska Highway was measured from this point. When the first surveyors arrived in Dawson Creek they already knew about the location because it was right in front of the rail yard.  The large buildings behind us in the pictures were grain elevators and part of the train station. In these buildings, grain was stored before being transported to the train.

Plaque on the side of the mile zero cairn at the start of the Alaska Highway.
Plaque on the side of the mile zero cairn at the start of the Alaska Highway.

When I mention mile markers along the Alaska Highway, I will be mentioning the location as mile marker 72 or something like that. These mile markers are all referenced to locations north of mile marker zero in Dawson Creek. A note along the way, is that after Canada adopted the metric system, the signposts along the way have changed to kilometers. The term mile marker however persists on the Alaska Highway.

While at Dawson Creek we stayed just outside of town at the Northern Lights RV Park. Our trip on the Alaska Highway, however, started at a fuel stop 100 yards south of mile marker zero; we then made a turn on the Alaska Highway at a round-about (called a roundy-round in Canada) and went north on the Alaska Highway heading to Fairbanks

This is a photo of a 1942 Canadian Military truck used in construction of the Alaska Highway.
This is a photo of a 1942 Canadian Military truck used in the construction of the Alaska Highway.

Before the summer solstice on June 21, we will arrive in Fairbanks which is at the end of the Alaska Highway. The summer solstice is important because we will be as far north as we are going to get on the longest days of summer. While the rest of our group will be staying for the solstice, we will be heading south to get a head start to see Denali National Park.

Traveling in a Group

I mentioned that we met our group heading to and from Alaska in Great Falls Montana. Before we got to Dawson City and started the Alaska Highway, we would float into or out of the same RV parks either before or after the group arrived. Once in Dawson Creek, we traveled in a loose formation up the Alaskan Highway staying in the same RV parks. Our campground at Muncho Lake was about a half mile north of their RV Park at the Northern Rockies Lodge. We visited the group daily during our stop at Muncho Lake.

Here is a photo of the RVs in our group at Fort Nelson Campground.
Here is a photo of the RVs in our group at Fort Nelson Campground.

From Muncho Lake, our group departed for a two-night stay at Watson Lake on May 29th. We also left Muncho Lake the same day, but we stopped at Liard Hot Springs only 35 miles north of Muncho Lake. Our arrival at Watson Lake was one day later than the rest of the group. 

Depending on how you divide the Alaskan Highway, the first part is either from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson or it is from Dawson Creek to Watson Lake.  This article will stop at Fort Nelson and I will pick it up later describing our climb from Fort Nelson into the Rocky Mountains and our trip to Watson Lake.

Our Route (so far)

Troubles with cell phones started at the border between Montana and Canada. These troubles have only gotten worse. Here is a link to that story and how we got a partial resolution. The story includes how we crossed the mountains just to get to Canada. Crossing into Canada

Nothing about cell phones and data has changed except that cell phone towers are now incredibly far apart. We had a small taste of no-service last summer for one hundred miles while crossing the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho. Here is a link to that story. Across the Bitterroot Mountains

We also had serious problems routing around the wildfire smoke and detail that in this story. Our route around the wildfires

When the rain stopped

As soon as the rains stopped in Dawson Creek, we started north starting at mile marker zero along the Alaska Highway.  Most of the route closely follows the locations established in 1942. Our first leg was to Fort St. John and past Charlie Lake. Two days of frequent hard rain doused the Red Creek Fire and allowed us to transit northbound along the Alaska Highway.

This is a medium sized bull dozer used for construction of the Alaska Highway. The large steel triangle is used to raise and lower the blade.
This is a medium-sized bulldozer used for the construction of the Alaska Highway. The large steel triangle is used to raise and lower the blade.

I had planned stops at Charlie Lake and Buckinghorse River Provincial parks all the way to Fort Nelson but due to the fire closures, we drove right past them.

On our first day, we traveled the route 300 hundred miles to our first stop in Fort Nelson. Fort Nelson is at mile marker 300, we spent two days in Fort Nelson after a long, long drive.

The road was in great condition and well-traveled, but far from busy. We made good time on the Alaska Highway on the first day. Our last day of travel up the Alaska Highway promises to be slow. Our first rest stop was at the Shepherd’s Inn at mile marker 72. The Shepherd’s Inn is a bakery. It was still closed because it was in the Red Creek fire zone. While there we saw fire crews cleaning up because they were using the parking lot as a staging area to fight the Red Creek fire. We were disappointed to find the Shepherd’s Inn closed.

Boral Forest

The route north of Fort St John, on the Alaska Highway, is a Boral Forest and was built as the first section of the Alaska Highway northbound from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson. A Boral Forest is a hill country found in the north and covers most of Alaska and Canada. In places, the conifer trees are stunted by long winters and the short growing season.

Boreal Forest in northern British Columbia and Alaska.
Boreal Forest in northern British Columbia and Alaska.

To the west of the Boral Forest are the Canadian sections of the Rocky Mountains. The main difference between the forest and the Rocky Mountains is elevation change. Fort Nelson and Liard Hot Springs were both in the Boral Forest. Between them, our stay at Muncho Lake was in the Rocky Mountains. When we left Muncho Lake, the nearby peaks were covered with fresh snow.

North of Fort Nelson, the Boral Forest turns into permafrost and tundra. The growing season in the Boral Forest is short and tall trees are just not found. The pine trees that I saw from the road were Lodgepole Pines which would only make one 2”x4” board. When the trees are harvested, they are probably chipped into small pieces for oriented strand board. The Boral Forest has a very limited market value as a renewable resource. The growing season is too short to replace the removed trees and have any re-growth in the foreseeable future. Another issue with regrowth is that Lodgepole pines need fire to germinate new seedlings.

The Boral Forest however is the home to vast numbers of animals.  When there are hundreds of miles of seemingly endless wilderness, the forest is ruled by animals

We expected to see deer, elk, caribou, moose, bison, and bears on our trip through the Boral Forest. Further west, as we got into the Rocky Mountains, I expected to add Big Horn Sheep, and Mountain Goats to this list.  On our first day through the Boral Forest between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, we saw three black bears and plenty of bugs smashed on our windows. Before Fort St. John, the only wildlife we saw was the smashed bugs. Further north, some of our group saw a moose and one even saw a Grizzly Bear. Further to the west, we saw more bears, three caribou, three Stone Sheep, and a lone bison.

Fort Nelson

Fort Nelson is at the intersection of the Prophet, Muskwa, and Fort Nelson Rivers, and from there you could travel north to Nelson Forks where the Fort Nelson River intersects with the Liard River. Before the Alaska Highway, the rivers were the highways. River boats were the way people commonly arrived at Fort Nelson.  The Liard River is a major waterway leading to Fort Liard in the Yukon Territory.

Fort Nelson Heritage Museum
Fort Nelson Heritage Museum

Fort Nelson is unique as it is the only snowy, non-ski resort, city that I know about that has a population of 3,000 summer residents and grows to 10,000 residents in the winter. The reason for the growth in the winter is that travel in the Boral Forest often includes muddy areas. In the summer these muddy areas are impossible to cross.  In the winter, after the ground freezes, the mud is hard and driving is possible yet bumpy. 

Gradually the summer versus the winter population change has decreased as traveling into the Boreal Forest to explore or extract resources has reduced. British Columbia has large natural gas reserves.

Mile marker 300

The southern edge of Fort Nelson is just short of mile marker 300. We stayed at the Triple G Hideaway at the western edge of Fort Nelson.  Our RV Park was right next door to the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum.  Several of the photos previous to this section were taken in the museum. They have a great collection that dates back to the fur trapper days and building the Alaska Highway.  The museum is delightful.

Mile Marker 300 on the Alaska Highway in Fort Nelson
Mile Marker 300 on the Alaska Highway in Fort Nelson

About Muncho Lake

Muncho Lake was our next stop on the Alaska Highway and I promised a picture in my last e-mail of the lake. This picture was taken from the inside of our RV. Soon I will be telling you more about our stay at Muncho Lake, including some better pictures. So, this will have to do for now.

Muncho Lake photo from inside our RV at the McDonald Campground
Muncho Lake photo from inside our RV at the McDonald Campground

What is next?

When we depart Muncho Lake, we will cross into the Yukon Territory and stop at Contact Creek.  Contact Creek is the location the southbound road builders from Whitehorse and Watson Lake connected with the northbound road builders who started in Dawson Creek, completing this section of the road. After a one-night stop near Watson Lake, we will then push further west and further into the Yukon to Whitehorse.  We hope you will be enjoying the ride along with us.

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Dawson Creek

Northwest Staging Route

Fort Nelson Heritage Museum

10 thoughts on “Going North on the Alaska Highway”

  1. Scott,

    I didn’t drive the ALCAN, however, in the summer of ’94 I FLEW the ALCAN route with stops along the way at nearly every landmark you’ve mentioned so far. We (my then nine year old son, and my mid-seventies Dad) travelled that route in my 1959 Cessna 182….lot’s of memories made during that six week journey!

  2. Be sure to stop at the Sign Post Forest at Watson Lake and leave a sign. We were there on July 8, 2004 and posted our sign with that date. At that time, there was about 40,000 signs. I’m sure there is many more now. Enjoy your trip!

    1. Already done, Stainless steel sign with stainless steel screws mounted about eight feet off the ground in a place we can come back and find it. Expect pictures soon.

  3. Mary and I still think McDonald Campground at Muncho lake was the nicest stop on the ALCAN. Thanks for the memories.


  4. I love reading about your trip. In 2001 we flew to Anchorage and rented a RV for a 2 week trip around Anchorage. John has always said we wouldn’t go again, but after reading your posts, he is rethinking!

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