Alaska: Still the Last Frontier

Enjoy awesome Alaska.

My wife Binki and I have traveled by RV since 1998, spending most of our summers in British Columbia (BC), Canada. The weather is warm, we can view the mountains and glaciers from our campsite, and we enjoy taking relaxing walks into and around the small alpine town of Revelstoke.

Since we were already so far north, we often talked about driving to Alaska. We’d always been a tad intimidated though, because our two previous vans, E-150s, left us feeling underpowered and nervous should we have a mechanical breakdown in such remote countryside. This time we had an E-350, a full one-ton van built for towing. So, after spending a week visiting friends in Kelowna, BC, and poring over our trusty Alaska-Yukon Handbook and the Milepost Travel Guide to Alaska, we took deep breaths and decided to head north. The farthest north we’d ever been was Prince George, on a previous summer in Canada.

We decided to get a new set of tires for our RV, after hearing from other travelers about the road conditions ahead of us. We’d already had our vehicles serviced before leaving home in Arizona, and we try our best to avoid breakdowns on the highway, especially flat tires. It could be a very long wait for AAA, we’d heard, on the Alaska Highway.

North of Prince George we noticed changes in the road. No longer were we on wide lanes with paved shoulders we could pull over onto in case of emergency. And if we had the opportunity to drive at 50 mph, that was a luxury. The highway did have potholes, but after having driven in Mexico we were used to potholes much worse—and in greater numbers.

What demanded attention were the frost heaves on the highway—sections where the road was uneven due to thawing and freezing of the water and ice beneath the ground, creating really big dips. At times we thought we could become airborne.

Another reason to keep our speed down was the wildlife. Just before we reached Dawson Creek, Binki and I saw our first grizzly bear! And he was huge! We slowed; he stood up, considered crossing the road, then turned and disappeared into the deep brush. Also, because of the caribou on the road, we had to drive slowly so as not to excite them and make them scatter.

The Alaska Highway is an awesome work of road building, in that it was completed in just nine months. It is no longer the dirt road built in 1942 by the United States to supply and defend Alaska during the beginning of World War II. Most of the road is well paved, but there is always some road work going on.

Officially beginning at Dawson Creek, BC, the highway crosses over into the Yukon Territory and officially ends at Delta Junction, Alaska. The Alaska Highway not only provided the United States a land route to Alaska but also opened BC and The Yukon Territory to more development.

The road is dotted by various road stops with stories that make them unique. The tragedy at Charlie Lake is commemorated by a plaque at historic milepost 52, which tells how three American soldiers lost their lives crossing the lake aboard pontoon barges during a storm. Later, another describes the heroism of the Canadian beaver trapper who saved a number of American lives. Farther on, we encountered the hilarity of Beaver Creek, where we met a Canadian named Rock, who explained that the bulldozer in an old black and white photo was pulling a “deuce and a half” out of the deep mud. The truck was loaded with beer brought in especially for the Fourth of July celebration; to not arrive on time would have been disastrous!

Binki and I also toured Beaver Creek’s wildlife museum, where we saw a magnificent taxidermy exhibit of animals indigenous to the area: foxes, wolves, bears (grizzly and black), eagles, musk oxen, and wolverines. Also at Beaver Creek, we saw an old Quonset hut (a semicylindrical metal shelter), donated to the community by the U. S. Army and then converted into the neatest Catholic church.

Using special binoculars at the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, the Alonzos see bald eagles in a nest.

We continued our journey, being careful to avoid herds of bison and moose running across the road with newborn calves on their heels. Another thing keeping our speed down was the weather. The clouds were low, and the rain was a fine drizzle.The surface on many of the bridges we crossed was metal, and if you drove too fast your vehicle could begin to slide a bit and control became unsteady.

The country we went through was stunning no matter which way you looked. It was the beginning of July, and snow still was on mountain ranges off in the distance. Rivers and lakes were the most beautiful aquamarine color due to direct runoff from glacial melt.

A Strange Forest

The first town we came to in the Yukon Territory was Watson Lake, famous for the Signpost Forest located outside the town’s Interpretive Centre. The “Forest” was begun by an American G.I., who when given the job of painting the road’s directional sign also added the direction and mileage to his own hometown, Danville, Ill. Since then, more than 30,000 license plates and town signs have been added to the Forest. You can still put up your own plate, or the folks at the Info Centre will gladly assist.

The last major city we stayed in before crossing into Alaska was Whitehorse. On a rare sunny day, Binki and I took a walking tour and viewed a sternwheeler, the S.S. Klondike. The ship wasn’t particularly accessible for wheelchairs, but the history was great and the ship was lovely to visit.

We also walked the town and visited The Old Log Church, erected by the Reverend R.J. Bowen with volunteer labor and opened in 1900. The church was totally accessible and displayed artifacts of the northern missions, Inuit, and First Nations people. We learned a little of the incredible survival story of Bishop Isaac Stringer, a missionary who in 1892 accepted a posting in the Arctic north and on one particularly hazardous journey through the mountains ran out of food, becoming known as “The Bishop Who Ate His Boots.”

The Bishop’s wife, too, possessed a strong spirit and belief in faith. Twice, while the bishop ministered to native peoples or was away on church business, Mrs. Stringer bore children with no one else present. Talk about the tough life of pioneers!

The day we left Whitehorse was bright and sunny. Thirty miles northwest of the city we saw a large grizzly bear on the left side of the road and a few miles farther came upon two black bears, sitting and having a meal of something tasty. We were still awed by seeing all this wildlife.

Just before crossing the Yukon border into Alaska, we ran into another section of road work, and a flagman asked us to wait. The fellow traveling behind us was on a motorcycle, so Binki told him to go ahead of us so as not to be pelted by gravel. While waiting, he got out his camera and showed us a short video of bison walking around his motorcycle. The scene was incredible!

Once we got through the road work, the road to Tok, Alaska, became comparatively easier. From Tok, we drove to Fairbanks and parked our toy hauler for a week. We were ready for a rest and some touring.

We visited Pioneer Park and did a walking tour of Fairbanks’ historic downtown. Another accessible tour is the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North. The first thing I saw upon entering was another taxidermy specimen of an 8 foot 9 inch grizzly bear. The claws on those animals are incredible! We also saw intricate native and Inuit art and artifacts used in daily life and learned a little about the geology and environment of Alaska and living so far north.

Long Days

We spent the Fourth of July in Fairbanks but never saw any fireworks. We were so far north the sun was nice and bright at 10:00 p.m., and it never really got dark enough to see any fireworks.

From Fairbanks we drove south toward Anchorage. We stayed at Big Bear Campground, just next to Wasilla, only 40 minutes from Anchorage. We did manage a tour of the recently opened Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Boardwalk, which is guaranteed to be 100% completely wheelchair navigable. Funded by Conoco Philips and the Federal Highway Administration, the boardwalk gives you the opportunity to experience the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, a vast wetland created by the building of the Seward Highway to Whittier, Alaska. Information was available from interpretive panels along the boardwalk.

From the lowered and much more accessibly placed binoculars, Binki and I saw bald eagles in a nest. Crossing a bridge spanning a culvert, we watched salmon swimming upstream. What a great wildlife education and experience without having to go 50 miles off road!

We next drove south to Seward, known as the “Gateway to Alaska.” There, Binki and I took an accessible boat from Kenai Fjords Glacier Tours. Our boat was new, built for the 2008 season. We were allowed to preboard, and the crew was as accommodating as possible. Thankfully, my chair and I aren’t so huge, so my caregiver and I were able to access the restroom together and I could easily drive my wheelchair outside along the gangway. Because it was so wet outside, most of the time I remained indoors where it was warm.

Our boat could take 140, but on this day passengers numbered only about 40—which allowed better viewing for me. We saw marine life from humpback and killer whales to sea otters and sea lions. Our boat neared a glacier, where it was an eerie feeling whenever mini ice floes bumped against the boat.

The next stop was Homer, a fishing town. One morning, Binki saw more bald eagles on perches near our RV. We also took a scenic drive and had views of three magnificent glaciers.

Return Trip

The trip back via the Alaska Highway was quicker since we had done our touring on the drive north. We were lucky to have spent a month in the state, but it was now the end of August—starting to get cold—and many of the roadhouse stops on the highway would close business beginning in mid to late September. The drive is long, and cellular service and Internet access is few and far between.

Driving the Alaska Highway was a true experience. You can still get a sense of the pioneer spirit from Alaska’s greatest resource: the people who live there today. After seeing so many bear and moose from our van, we quickly understood how so much of Alaska is still wild and untamed.

We’d like to visit again if the opportunity presents itself. We still haven’t seen Juneau, the state capital.


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