After three hundred miles we are still on the Alaska Highway heading west from Fort Nelson and climbing into the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway. The road is getting steep and there are more scenic views of mountain tops covered with snow fields. Wild animals along the road are more numerous and bigger. Views of the lakes along the highway are stunning.
Departing Dawson Creek
One week after the first train load of Army Engineers arrived they kicked off the road building. Train after train arrived in Dawson Creek all loaded with construction equipment. More train loads of construction equipment followed the first train as fast as they could be loaded and then unloaded in Dawson Creek. The railyards at Dawson Creek had never seen this level of activity. Everything the builders needed for the first leg of road building needed to be in Dawson Creek before the weather warmed.
The equipment needed to be in Dawson Creek while it was still cold because the only way north out of Dawson Creek to Fort Saint John included crossing the Peace River. The Peace River was frozen solid and everything needed to be on the north side of the river. There was no bridge and the only way to cross the river was by ferry or, during the winter, by crossing the ice.
In Fort Saint John
On both sides of the Peace River, they didn’t have to build a road. The road was already there leading to the ferry landing that connected Dawson City to Fort Saint John. Getting all the soldiers and construction equipment across the Peace River would have been impossible had they waited even for two months. Cold weather for the road builders was a major advantage for the first 300 miles going to Fort Nelson.
Twenty-One Days and Three Hundred Miles Later
As supplies flooded in from every conceivable point in North America, the builders set out in bitter-cold weather to clear the road to Fort Nelson. Again the cold weather was an advantage. “Catskinners” plowed through the forest on their bulldozers knocking everything down and pushing everything out of the way. Snow, dirt, rocks, and trees all were pushed to the side to be dealt with later.
It only took twenty-one days for the bulldozers to arrive three hundred miles north in Fort Nelson. The bulldozers were followed by trucks carrying fuel and parts to keep progress moving. Equipment that failed was pushed off to the side and cannibalized for parts. Campsites for the builders were moved 15-25 miles a day to keep up with the bulldozers. Also pushed off to the side of the road were thousands of empty 55-gallon fuel barrels used to keep the machines going. Anything that caused delays in the building was immediately pushed out of the way and left for the cleanup crew.
Turning West in Fort Nelson
I am picking up most of today’s article starting in Fort Nelson. You can call the previous section a preview. The route from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson is the subject of last week’s article. Here is a link to the story. Going North on the Alaska Highway
From Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway turns west climbing into the Northern Rockies. The terrain gently rises and the dense forests on both sides of the roads continue. In 1942 when the road was being built, I am sure they were very happy to be turning west away from the dense forest. As for the builders, they were very hopeful for the upcoming spring warm-up and being away from the cold and ice.
The Muskwa Valley
The construction crews turned west generally following the north side of the Muskwa River. This means that the only major river crossing on the Alaska Highway north of Fort St. John was the Muskwa River. In 1942, south of Fort Nelson, across the Muskwa River, there was no bridge. Everything needed for the road builders needed to be north of the Muskwa River before the spring thaw. Resupply from Dawson Creek, during the summer wouldn’t be possible until much later when a bridge was built — in June of the following year.
Things changed dramatically starting in Fort Nelson. Instead of supplying the builders from the south, fuel and supplies were airlifted into Fort Nelson. While the trailblazers turned to the west, additional construction crews in Dawson Creek took to the task of upgrading the new road south of Fort Nelson. The trailblazing road-cutting crew turned west, getting their new supplies arriving daily by aircraft landing in Fort Nelson. Resupply from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson for the trailblazers was finished for the rest of the summer.
Turning west into the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway from Fort Nelson, meant that the entire effort would change. South of Fort Nelson the bulldozers cut the road for nearly fifteen miles a day. Trees were not cut instead since they were frozen they snapped when hit with the bulldozer blade. Unlike the snow and stumps in frozen mud south of Fort Nelson, the rocks to the west of Fort Nelson, in the rocky mountains didn’t yield to the bulldozer blade.
The answer to the rock problem was dynamite and lots of it. Progress, after they turned west for the next 288 miles, took much longer. Eventually, the trailblazers building west from Fort Nelson met the trailblazing road builders from Watson Lake heading south. The two crews met at Contact Creek on September 24, 1942.
Progress to building north to Fort Nelson was 15 miles per day. Progress west of Fort Nelson through the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway slowed to less than two miles per day. Cutting the trail for the Alaska Highway became very hard. The road became very difficult to build starting at the climb out of the Muskwa Valley towards Summit Lake and continued to be difficult for the next 140 miles, all the way to the Liard River. For the trailblazers, since the campsites didn’t have to move every day life became a little easier. At least they weren’t freezing.
The Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway, between the climb to Summit Lake to the Liard River, comprise 140 miles of very difficult terrain. From the Liard River to Contact Creek, the terrain was only slightly easier for the next 88 miles. Unlike the frozen forest south of Fort Nelson the mountains created huge cliffs and hundreds of stream crossings.
Not only was the terrain steep but the canyons were narrow. Some sections of the road had to be carved out of the side of the cliff. More dynamite.
Our Trip through the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway
We drove the first 300 miles of our trip up the Alaska Highway to Fort Nelson in one day. After visiting and resting in Fort Nelson for the next two nights, we departed early for our journey to Muncho Lake. The last 100 miles to Muncho Lake were very scenic going through the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway.
Fort Nelson to Muncho Lake
As we departed Fort Nelson, we immediately began to see more bears along the road. South of Fort Nelson, on the first 300 miles we saw 3 bears. The last one was just to the south of town at the end of our drive for the day. I had to hit the brakes for that one. When he saw me he ran back into the forest. When we departed Fort Nelson, we saw three more bears in the first half hour of our trip. In the next half hour, I had to report to Tami that I lost count. Was that six? I don’t know.
Most of the bears we saw were close to Fort Nelson. Near Summit Lake we started seeing caribou. Later still north of Muncho Lake, we were greeted by Stone sheep and more caribou. The bison count started going up very fast west of Liard Hot Springs.
Muncho Lake was stunning. After our 150-mile total for the day, we were looking forward to a long relaxing visit. Our campground was at the Muncho Lake Provincial Park (McDonald Campground), right on the edge of the lake with a view of the beautiful water from inside our RV. The weather was on the cold side, even though we were at the end of May.
Mucho Lake to Liard River Hot Springs
Even though it was only thirty-five miles away, it was too good to be true and we had to stop for the night at Liard River Hotsprings. No trip through the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway (in my opinion) should be done without stopping both at both Muncho Lake and Liard River Hot Springs. Camping at the hot springs was just too tempting to pass up.
Liard River Hotsprings to Watson Lake
Liard River marks the end of the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway at milepost 600. The Alaska Highway follows the Liard River west until the road connects to Watson Lake. This section of the road was easy and our campsite was a few miles west of Watson Lake at the Baby Nugget RV park. We should have stayed in town. Our campsite was good enough and way better than the parking lots you find in town, but it lacked one thing that we really like. Again, we had no cell phone service.
The Sign Post Forest
Watson Lake is home to the Sign Post Forest and the tradition is that travelers are encouraged to leave their mark by posting a sign at the Sign Post Forest. Currently, there are more than 80,000 signs in the signpost forest. The sign can be pretty much anything you want. One member of our group was able to obtain stainless steel signs, which we mounted on the posts with stainless steel screws. Our signs should outlive the posts. I think it would be cool to go back with a new sign on each visit and then remove your previous sign and then mount it and your new one both on the same post.
I love this documentary video about building the Alaska Highway.
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The start of our Alaska Highway story. Going North on the Alaska Highway
Milepost Guidebook found on this website is updated annually and you can use the book even without internet data. First published in 1949 it is the bible for travel in Alaska and northwestern Canada.
Historic Mileposts on the Alaska Highway website with key mileposts
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