Travelling the Alaska Highway to the Yukon and returning through BC has been on our bucket list since before all our kids left home. Back in those days we called the BC portion the “Stewart Cassiar Highway. But now Cassiar, a town based on mining asbestos, has been abandoned, and Stewart is a 60 kilometer diversion at Meziadin, although a pretty, glacier laded side trip. Now route 17 is more often called the Dease Highway. And highway it is, paved all the way. It wasn’t always paved. In fact, at one time it had a terrible reputation for mud and flat tires, and people visiting Alaska usually returned on the Alaska Highway in spite of its challenges. Highway 17 connects from the Alaska Highway near Watson Lake, and runs southerly through some of the most beautiful country in BC, connecting with Highway 16 at Kitwanga (near Hazelton). We heard people complaining about the windy, hilly, highway that didn’t have the lines painted yet. Really, they should have travelled it before it was paved.
It took a special alignment of stars and planets for us to do what we needed to do to take the trip. Having a good truck and camper was an important component. Also having grandkids living in Atlin (2 hours south of Whitehorse) was a serious consideration. We visited Whitehorse for a week last year and liked it a lot. But the coup de grâce was expecting the arrival of a new grandchild in Whitehorse at the beginning of September!
Technically, our great circle route began at Hope, went up Hwy 5 to Merritt, 97C to Kelowna, up Hwy 97 to Kamloops, Hwy 5 to Tete Jaune Cache, Hwy 16 to Jasper, and Hwy 40 to Dawson Creek. Dawson Creek is Mile 0 for the Alaska Highway (alias Hwy 97) to Whitehorse (YK). Then we backtracked to Mile 649 and connected to Hwy 37, went south to Kitwanga, east to Prince George on Hwy 16, and then south on Hwy 97 back to Hope.
Have you ever noticed that the great epic adventures to the North happen with a rush? For instance, the Klondike Rush, started in 1896 and more or less ended in 1898 (although Dawson City is still alive). In 1942 the Alaska Highway was constructed in 8 months (March through November), a distance of 2700 kilometers. You could say our trip was a rush, too.. We covered 6200 kilometers in 30 days. Although we stopped for several days at a few locations, it sometimes felt like we were always driving.
The Alaska Highway has wide cleared corridors on each side of the road, which, for the most part were kept clear of bushes. Apparently this is so drivers can see wildlife quickly and in time to slow down. There were a number of signs urging travellers to “Watch out for wildlife on the road”. Which we did, with little success at seeing anything along the road or on the cleared corridors. The one exception was a couple of herds of buffalo near Coal River. We did see a cow and calf moose at Liard Hot Springs, and a yearling black bear cub at Anderson Creek campground.
My most lasting impression of the trip was the beauty of this vast, open and wild country in northern BC. We were fortunate with our timing as we saw the change of seasons from summer to fall. It was apparent that the real and lasting gold in the Yukon was the gold on the leaves of trembling aspen as their colors changed when night time temperatures dropped. I would also say there was gold in the people we met who travelled or lived in this vast area. And I will always remember the caution we travelled with, that was the need to refill the gas tank frequently enough that we were assured of reaching the next filling station. I suspect this was even more important for the owners of some of the very large motorhomes and fifth-wheel trailers that we saw. The fall colours of the trees were also a notice or reminder that after fall comes winter. After a few nights of freezing temperatures there appeared to be a great exodus from the North. Or maybe it was the natural migration south of all critters visiting from southern climes. We felt part of that movement. But next time, and there will be a next time, we will stay a little longer, and take a little more time to view the scenery.