North to Alaska V – Finale
Mrs. Animal and I have been planning this for twenty years. We’re now at the light at the end of the tunnel stage. Here is the final installment of the story of our planned move from Colorado to Alaska.
Driving the Alaska Highway has been on Mrs. Animal’s and my bucket list for a long time, and one day I hope to do it in nicer weather, without a trailer. Most of this post, however, will be written and pictorial documentation of our 3,200-mile drive, not only on the Alaska Highway proper, which is less than half the total distance, but on the rest of the journey as well, and then some thoughts on the time spent since. So: Enjoy.
Day 1, March 27th – Aurora, CO to Shelby, MT
I’ve been telling people that moving from Colorado to Alaska is like moving from New York to San Diego, only everything between the Appalachians and the Rockies are a different country. It’s a considerable undertaking.
This first leg was mildly interesting. Some of it was country we had seen before, but on leaving Casper on the road north we were in terra incognita (to us, at least) which would remain the case until we hit Glenallen, Alaska. That’s a good thing, as both Mrs. Animal and I enjoy seeing new country. Northern Wyoming and central Montana are both mostly cut from the same cloth, though, and it’s a pretty spare cloth. We enjoyed the drive but there was little about it really memorable.
But at the end of the first day of our journey, we landed on the closest U.S. town to the border: Shelby, Montana. That put us within an hour of the border, so we went to sleep early, intending to get up, get moving, and get to the entry station by 8AM, as the Kung Flu and our possession of firearms and ammunition was sure to make crossing into Canada a considerable task.
Day 2, March 28th – Shelby, MT to Dawson Creek, BC
As planned, we hit the border at 8AM. A precautionary note for anyone considering such a crossing, especially now while Canada remains locked down as tight as a bull’s ass in fly season: Do your homework. We showed up with negative COVID results from less than 72 hours previous, as demanded; we had all the Canadian paperwork for household goods inventory as well as the firearms and ammunition we carried through. If you’re thinking of carrying firearms into Canada, makes sure they are in the “Unrestricted” list, or you’re not going to have much luck; all of our guns that are “Restricted” or “Prohibited” in Canada had already gone north, courtesy of United Airlines.
We were complemented several times on our high level of preparedness, but the process still took two hours. While we were told repeatedly that the border folks had the right to demand we unload truck and trailer for inspection, we were let go on our way without that. But we were told that we probably would not have been allowed in at all had we not already had Alaska plates on truck and trailer, Alaska driver’s licenses, and a copy of the deed of trust to our Alaska home.
Our final step in that process was a briefing on Kung Flu restrictions. “Here is a pass to hang on your vehicle’s rear-view mirror. You can only do drive-through food,” the Border Control officer told us. “Don’t get caught coming out of a store with stuff you’ve bought.” (wink) I didn’t ask about using the bathrooms; on that topic I figured I’d best be able to plead ignorance. “Stay in your hotel rooms after you check in. Stay on the most direct route. You have five days to get through to Alaska, but if you have a breakdown or are delayed by weather, call the number on your hanger, let us know, and we’ll note it in your record, so you don’t have any trouble with that. Firearms must stay locked in your trailer.” All of that went on for some time as Mrs. Animal and I stood there nodding.
At last, that was done, and we were cleared to proceed. After taking another Kung Flu cheek-swab test, we headed into the Great White North.
Alberta isn’t much to write home about. Over vast stretches of that province, you are much like a particularly tiny bug crossing a vast plate. Around Calgary we hit the only traffic slowdowns of the entire trip, and it was there that we encountered the first issue with our entry briefing: We needed gas, so I pulled into a Canadian gas station and dismounted, card in hand, to find a sign on the pump:
U.S. Customers Must Come Inside to Pay.
I went inside, figuring that I couldn’t get in trouble if I could buy gas no other way. Turns out that the company’s card-processing software required an actual signature from U.S. customers. I mentioned the “pay at the pump” warning we had received; the clerk replied, “Oh, yeah, we know about that, eh. Nobody much past the border gives a care.”
All righty then. I noticed the snack rack. “OK if I buy some all-dressed chips while I’m here?” I love those things, and you don’t seem to be able to get them outside of Canada.
“Sure thing, buddy.” So, I did.
This first leg of the trip across Canada was the longest, as our goal was to hit the entrance point to the Alaska Highway proper that night, and, despite hitting a spot of snowy weather in northern Alberta, we did so, arriving at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, about 9PM.
And I’ll note this here: During the entire crossing, we only encountered one gas station where pay-at-the-pump was an option, that being in Fort Nelson, BC, on the next leg of the trip. Everywhere else we had to go inside to pay, and usually ended up buying drinks and snacks. We both recalled the border guy’s warning: “Don’t get caught coming out of a store.” (wink)
Day 3, March 29th – Dawson Creek, BC to Watson Lake, YT
Here the Alaska Highway itself begins.
Again, you want to do your homework before attempting this drive. There are miles and miles of miles and miles along the Alaska Highway with no facilities of any kind. When you leave Dawson Creek, you hit Ft. St. John pretty quickly, then a few small towns before the highway turns into a strip of asphalt through a howling wilderness. There are few cell phone towers and fewer gas stations. We followed the rule ‘don’t pass a gas station if you’re at half a tank or less,’ even though Mrs. Animal’s big Expedition has a 28-gallon tank and, even pulling the trailer, a pretty good range.
This first stretch of wild country winds up into the Canadian Rockies, where we spent a fair amount of time on snow-packed roads, this being the last week of March. It’s a beautiful drive, but not one to take lightly, especially at that time of year.
After the first stretch, you enter a big basin, in the middle of which sits Fort Nelson, where we tanked up again. The second long wild stretch climbs into the mountains again, which lasts until you approach the border with the Yukon Territory and actually wind in and out of that Territory before arriving at last at the little town of Watson Lake.
On our arrival at that town, signage directed us to a territorial entry station, where we had to fill out a card describing our vehicle, plate numbers, names of passengers, point of entry into Canada and destination. We were advised that we had twenty-four hours to get our asses out of the Yukon. With that on our minds, we tanked up on gas at an old gas station with ancient mechanical pumps – so again, as with pretty much the entire trip, paying at the pump was not an option – and checked into the town’s one open motel for the night.
This was a pretty stretch in late winter. I expect in summer it’s gorgeous. In fact, I expect this is the most scenic portion of the trip in good weather, and my itchy feet were bugging me to take side roads, but that wouldn’t have been an option even in a non-Kung Flu world; not with the truck full of computer hardware and the trailer attached. So, it was the straight and narrow path for us.
Day 4, March 30th –Watson Lake, YT to Tok, AK
With the Territory’s admonition to hurry up and get out fresh in our minds, and never being ones to stay where we’re not welcome, we headed out early.
On this stretch you once again travel on a ribbon of asphalt through wilderness much of the way, but at mid-afternoon we hit Whitehorse, a city of some size, and then proceeded back into the countryside. We stopped to take some photos at Destruction Bay, which not only has an awesome name but, judging from appearances, a fair amount of summer tourism. We added this place to our list of places to visit in summer if Canada ever opens back up for visitors.
Interestingly enough, it is on this stretch of the Alaska Highway where you finally cross the Continental Divide. Yes, that far west.
Around four in the afternoon, we cleared Canadian Customs at Beaver Creek, which process consisted of handing in our mirror hanger and being told to proceed directly to the border without stopping. We did so, and I admit by this point we were anxious to get the hell out of Canada.
On arrival at the U.S. entry station the officer there examined our Alaska driver’s licenses and asked one question: “Any firearms or ammo?” I handed him the lists we had prepped for Canada, and he asked one more question: “What’s this Tolley shotgun? Never heard of them.” I explained that it was a hand-made one of a kind piece made in Birmingham, England, in 1892.
“Huh,” he said. “Sounds cool. OK, welcome home.” And on that note, we proceeded to leave Canada in the rear-view mirror.
It was great to be back in the States. When we arrived in Tok, we went to the Three Bears store for gas and something for supper and were bemused at how relaxed everything was – no masks, no worries about six-foot intervals, no hairy eyeballs at our Alaska plates. We immediately felt much relieved and retired that night knowing the next day should see us home.
This was our first visit to Tok, by the way, and even though medical and recreational cannabis are legal in Alaska, there was no outlet for either in Tok. I’d figure that if one town in Alaska would have a weed shop, it would be Tok (pronounced ‘Toke.’)
Day 5, March 31st – Tok, AK to Willow, AK
Here we leave the Alaska Highway for the Glenallen Highway, which will take us eventually to Palmer, Wasilla, and the Parks Highway, which is the last leg of this long, strange trip.
We left Tok while it was snowing. It snowed all the way to Glenallen, where we were finally again on familiar ground. At Glenallen we stopped for drinks and asked the clerk about the weather. He had info from a trucker who had passed by earlier that the snow only lasted until about Glacier View, so we hurried back to the truck and headed out.
As promised, the climb to Glacier View was snowy but after that, things cleared up. We traveled on mostly snowy roads to Glacier View, then on mostly wet roads to Palmer, finally on mostly dry roads to Wasilla. There we filled the truck with gas one last time, found a car wash to hose the trip’s accumulation of gunk from the wintertime Alaska Highway off the truck and trailer, and at last headed out of Wasilla for Willow and home.
We arrived at about one o’clock in the afternoon, at our snow-covered house in Alaska. I backed the trailer up to the back door, and the balance of the day was spent unloading. But by suppertime, that was done, the trailer parked, the truck stashed in the garage, and we enjoyed our first evening in the house that was at last our primary residence.
Arriving safe and sound was only the penultimate step. We had hauled a trailer-load of stuff up, but still had most of our crap back in Colorado. So, about ten days after our arrival in the Great Land, Mrs. Animal boarded a plane back to Colorado to prep for the moving company and get the house there ready for sale. I flew back once, over a weekend, to help get my workshop sorted out and packed up.
April and May were a couple of long months, with my dear Mrs. A down there, working her tail off to get that house ready for sale, and me up here, cleaning up as the place emerged from unusually heavy winter snows and trying to plan what would eventually go where. But then, on the first week of June, all the Colorado work was done, household goods packed and on the way to Alaska, the house listed, and finally Mrs. Animal returned. A few days later our various lares and penates arrived, and at last all our stuff is again in one place.
Home at Last
And now, here we are.
I’m more at peace with myself here than I have been since I was a kid back in Allamakee County. I still have work to do on the place, and we have a hell of a lot of unpacking and organizing to do. I will still have to keep my business running a while longer to set up my retirement. But those are minor details.
As I write this, Mrs. Animal is back home, and our house is full of boxes. We are slowly unpacking and figuring what goes where, and while we cut down on our possessions quite a lot, we are still moving into a house about half the size of the one we are vacating, so there is some organizing to be done. At least now the snow is gone, and we are in the full bloom of a beautiful (and mosquito-rich) Alaska summer, which reminds us of why we came here.
And that’s the big thing: We’re here at last. After all the years of planning, of saving, of researching, the airline trips, all that – we’re here at last. Here, in this house, on this little plot of Alaskan land out in the sticks, I can now see, very clearly, all the long, happy, golden years stretching out before us.
Home, in Alaska, at last.