Like the Klondike Gold Rush hussy who became a genteel Seattle matron, the Alaska Highway is trying to outlive a bad reputation. Mention this 1,500-mile road linking central British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, to seasoned northern travelers, and they'll spin tales of seemingly endless dust and mud, washed-out bridges, pitted windshields, 100-mile stretches between gas stations and sparse, crowded campgrounds.
Maybe they'll even drag out their gruesomely illustrated bumper sticker, "I Drove the Alaska Highway."
The knickknack shops still sell those bumper stickers, but the highway isn't as intimidating anymore. All but 28 miles of road is paved--
after a fashion.
In a few stretches it's as roomy as a two-lane Interstate 5. And while some sections, with pavement contorted and shattered by frost heaves, still require travel at 50 m.p.h. or less, windshield and headlight protectors are not as essential as they once were.
Careful drivers, traveling slowly and giving a wide berth to oncoming traffic, report no more dings than might be encountered on, say, a truck-laden California freeway.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 10, 1988 Home Edition Travel Part 7 Page 39 Column 1 Travel Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
In "High Road to Alaska" (June 26), by Betty Sederquist, the wrong address was given for The Milepost, a 546-page guidebook for northern highway travelers. It's availabe for $14.95 (plus $3 for tax, postage and handling) from Alaska Northwest Publishing Co., P.O. Box 93370, Anchorage, Ala. 99509.
It's still not a road for high-strung sports cars, however. Construction zones can be nasty, nearly all side roads remain unpaved and automotive repairs can be erratic and expensive.
Although the highway can be driven in three or four marathon days, allow extra time for dawdling. The road still cleaves an untrammeled wilderness hundreds of miles wide, climbs over the Rockies, bridges fish-filled streams and skirts Tahoe-size lakes with nary a water-skier or casino.
Roadside lodges, about 20 to 50 miles apart, remain individualistic, mostly rustic operations. They are often unruly conglomerates of campgrounds, motels, service stations and restaurants serving everything from greasy hamburgers to great sourdough pancakes.
As major thoroughfares go, the Alaska Highway is relatively youthful. It was born violently, an offspring of war. Until World War II the wilderness of northern British Columbia and the Yukon Territory was accessible only by dog team, horse, stern-wheeler and the occasional bush plane. Pearl Harbor changed that, making overland access to strategically important Alaska crucial.
Trainload of Troops
On March 2, 1942, a trainload of troops arrived at the railhead in Dawson Creek in central British Columbia to begin building a road to Alaska. All told, 11,000 troops punched the road north in a nine-month agony of sub-zero temperatures and mud so pervasive that even bulldozers mired in the goo. Often following routes suggested by trappers, Indians and prospectors, the soldiers bulldozed three or four miles a day.
The route was dedicated Nov. 20, 1942, and military supply convoys--with bulldozers sometimes pulling the trucks through quicksand-like sections of "highway"--traveled north intermittently that winter.
Improvements have taken place regularly since then. In 1943 more than 70 private contractors were hired to upgrade the route to an all-weather road, and in 1948 the highway was opened to the public.
This summer, Public Works Canada will continue its upgrading program, and travelers can expect to encounter those 28 miles of unpaved road at the Trutch Mountain bypass near Ft. Nelson, according to Kris Valencia, editor of the northern travel guide, "The Milepost."
Grain elevators, tidy farms and lush hayfields characterize the first straight, smooth miles of highway out of Dawson Creek, an oil, agriculture and railroad town. As one swoops north, aspen and birch forests cloak the gently rolling hillsides.
Ft. Nelson, a fur trading post in 1805, lies almost 300 miles north of Dawson Creek. There sprawl motels, gas stations, restaurants and a golf course.
North of Ft. Nelson the road gradually ascends the spine of the Rocky Mountains. Massive gnarled peaks, dusted with fresh snow even in summer, vie for attention with sparkling rivers tinted with just enough glacial silt to give them a startling aquamarine cast.
The highway passes through Stone Mountain Provincial Park, with its wild sheep often visible on scree slopes, then through Muncho Lake Provincial Park where the park's centerpiece, seven-mile-long, jewel-blue Muncho Lake, laps at the edge of the highway.
About 25 miles north of the lake, Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park, with its shady campground and hot springs, has lured road-weary travelers since World War II construction days. There, too, travelers catch the first glimpse of the Liard River that the highway follows for about 140 miles. Whirlpools and rapids whip the ordinarily slow-moving watercourse to a thundering froth near Fireside, a community largely destroyed by a 1982 fire that incinerated hundreds of thousands of acres of British Columbia forest.