during World War II as a supply line from the continental U.S. to
the "Alcan" -- as it was known then -- crosses 1,500 miles of North
most wild and beautiful terrain.
Once a treacherous two-lane gravel road, the modern Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fairbanks has been graded, paved and widened, but it is still a wilderness highway winding through some of the least civilized places on earth.
This is no Sunday drive; it's a guaranteed adventure. The route is teeming with wildlife, rich in scenic wonders, thick with bugs in many places and poses challenging weather at times.
"The Alaska Highway is most crowded in July and August, but people who go in the shoulder seasons of May to June or September to early October find the land just as hospitable and quite a bit emptier," write Lynn and Ed Readicker-Henderson in their Adventure Guide to the Alaska Highway.
"Without hurrying, you can drive from Seattle to Fairbanks in six days -- 10 if you want to stop and really enjoy yourselves," the Readicker-Hendersons point out. "Most people head north on three-week vacations; a month or two is better."
In winter, the highway is usually passable, but damn cold. Temperatures rarely get above zero and sometimes dip to 70 below or better. It's also dark most of the time.
Unless you live in northern British Columbia or Alaska, getting to the Alaska Highway is sometimes half the trip. Most visitors approach from the east by way of Calgary and Edmonton, or from the south by way of Seattle and Vancouver. Both cover hundreds of miles.
"On the road to Alaska, you'll wend through farms and prairies and vast acres of pristine forest," says Tricia Brown in The World-Famous Alaska Highway. "You'll climb the Canadian Rockies and breach the continental divide. You will head for the Yukon, a place-name that still rings with the promise of gold, as it did a century ago during the Klondike Gold Rush. And you'll view the famous Yukon River, so broad and unspoiled. The road leads farther north, into Alaska, where you'll explore a state highway system that, measured to scale against this landscape, is nothing more than a dozen pieces of thread thrown against a fabulous, multicolored king-size quilt."
Along the route there are fish to catch, trails to hike, lakes to canoe, hot springs to soak in and wildlife to view -- lots of wildlife, including mountain sheep, bear, coyote, moose, eagles, wolves, caribou and musk oxen.
There's also what's said to be Alaska's state bird, the mosquito -- larger than you've probably ever seen before -- and no-see-ums, mite-sized bugs that can bite you in places you've never been bitten before.
and go west into this great
wilderness, but also go prepared.
The Last Frontier
Incredible Tales of Survival, Exploration, and Adventure from Alaska Magazine by Jill Shepherd and the editors of Alaska Magazine. The Lyons Press, 2004. Order online
There's no better roadside reading for the Alaska Highway than this collection of 59 feature stories drawn from 70 years of Alaska Magazine (formerly The Alaska Sportsman) issues.
Although billed as an anthology of outdoor adventure stories, this book offers more than hunting and trapping tales. The articles range from a history of the all-black 97th Division of the Army Corps of Engineers that helped build the Alaska Highway to accounts of men and women surviving alone in the wilderness.
Reading through the varied stories spanning several decades of time, its possible to get a feel for what its been like to inhabit the last great American wilderness and how life has changed.
"Flipping through the magazines of the 1940s, one can trace changes brought by war construction and improved access via the Alaska Highway and many new airfields built around the territory," write Alaska Magazine editor Andy Hall in his preface to the collection.
"By the 1950s, writers
were beginning to reminisce about the simpler days before the war and
person recollections of the Gold Rush all but disappear. In the 1960s
begin to grapple with the influx of people and the effect of
on the state's wild places. And through those decades right up to the
there are stories of ordinary people living extraordinary lives here in
from The World-Famous Alaska Highway
Yukon Order of
A Traveler's Guide to Cruising Alaskan Waters & Discovering the Interior