Journey to the Last Frontier: Guide Andy Davidson shares his Adventure to Alaska
When I woke up in Haines Junction; a small Canadian town, feeling like frozen herring wedged in the driver’s seat of my truck, I knew my journey to Alaska was almost complete. Some would say I resigned myself to that fate for trying to drive to Alaska in only three long days. If I knew what I know now, my drive across two thirds of North America would have been quite a different experience.
My drive started in southern California with my dad next to me in the passenger seat. We drove nonstop until Prince George, British Columbia where we stayed the night. I remember looking at him sound asleep after having driven from Prince George to Dease Lake, BC as night fell over the mountains. If you look up the distance between those two places on google maps you’ll see it reads “969 km” a truly remarkable feat of driving. Well, that was the average driving distance for both of us every day during our epic odyssey.
Having taken control of our monstrous truck at Dease Lake, I managed to navigate the expanses of northern British Columbia all the way to Haines Junction in the Yukon Territory. Specters of moose and deer silhouettes lined the road’s edge during a truly harrowing night drive.
The wildlife and the scenery in the northern reaches of North America amazed both myself and my father while we blazed the trail north. Crossing signs warning of moose, elk and bison were posted alongside a vista of snow capped peaks and frozen lakes. These wildlife posts contrasted the yellow human crossing signs scattered throughout Seattle, Washington; the last metropolis we had ventured through.
There we sat in Haines Junction with a Yukon cold that engulfed our truck with it’s icy grasp. I remember the frozen peaks surrounding the town; they looked as if they were cresting waves of rock and ice, bound to break upon the valley below. Storm clouds rolled in from the south across these mountains; a bad sign surely.
The town of Haines, Alaska was our destination and it lie due south. We had to travel through the storm as well as over the Chilkat Pass. The pass rises to a humble elevation of 3,510 ft along the Haines Highway, however we respected that we were in the great north and you don’t take the winter passes lightly.
We sat in the truck thawing while we game planned our drive to Haines. My research had revealed that snow plows start their plowing of the Haines highway starting at 7 a.m. Following those giant vehicles along the icy road seemed to be the best call so we headed over to the junction at 6:45 a.m. to wait for our yellow chauffeurs to arrive. We waited and waited. The only yellow we viewed were the illuminated clouds, now surrounding the valley on all sides being caressed by the rising sun’s glow.
7:30 came with no sign of the plows. Had we been forsaken? The majestic morning’s sunrise with it’s evolving shades of purple and orange and yellow said otherwise. Slowly the blue sky above became shut in by the clouds. We pressed on, I couldn’t afford missing my ferry to Juneau, which left Haines at 2 p.m. We were on our own as we charged forward into the storm.
“We will take the drive slow, we have good winter tires and you know the icy stretches of road according to the information you downloaded”, my dad said to me to quell some of my anxiety. Having only slept around three hours total in the last day, it was my dad behind the wheel now. The road beneath us was frozen, the black asphalt was a light shade of gray with wisps of frost skipping across its surface. I was confident at the start of the drive that we would make the trek to Haines with plenty of time. The journey according to our truck’s GPS stated the drive to be about 3 hours long.
“We’ll make the journey with enough time” I had said. I like to think if mother nature had responded she would have said, “sure.”
Three hours six minutes to Haines, four hours fifteen minutes to Haines, five hours thirty minutes to Haines, six hours to Haines. The GPS estimates for our drive to Alaska kept extending as we inched along the crystalline highway. My adrenaline constantly built as I envisioned having to spend two additional days in Haines if we missed our ferry. That wasn’t an option; not only because my expenses were racking up from my drive but I did not want to miss my first day of work either.
“Let’s stretch our legs a bit,” my dad announced as we slid to a stop at the border between the Yukon territory and British Columbia. A massive sign demarcating the border was the backdrop that we stood before while taking some quick snap shots. While standing there I was still anxious to get moving but was distracted by a couple of things. Frost and snow had built up on the truck during our drive; the biting wind and chill had created a frozen layer of white ice that covered the entirety of the truck’s rear. I peered closer to observe the small snow crystals stacked on top of one another, their density caused the white truck to appear as if it had just received a new paint job.
The stillness I felt at that moment, with the snowflakes gently swirling down around me was broken by a distant rumbling. The rattling of chains and the chatter of an engine brake broke the landscape’s muted soundtrack. I looked behind me up toward the decline of a small hill we had just driven over. Lumbering was not a word I would use to describe the logging truck that was charging over the frozen road. “Run!” I shouted to my dad as I ran to the passenger seat to roll up the window I had left open. The window seal clasped shut just as the behemoth truck roared passed us. It sent up a plume of ice crust from the road that soiled our freshly “repainted truck” with specks of brown dirt.
“Perfect!” announced my dad pointing to the tracks of the logging truck. “We will follow this truck’s tracks because it has broken up the ice a bit.” My elation was immeasurable as our pace started to quicken.
Six hours to Haines, five hours seven minutes to Haines, four hours to Haines. We were going to make it according to the GPS as long our rate of travel kept up. The view out of the truck; compared to the GPS map’s sterile landscape, was a wild and frantic topography. Although we now traveled behind the logging truck, the snow and ice got thicker as we started the first steep inclines of the Chilkat pass. Looking out to the side of the road revealed that the snow in areas along the pass were as deep as six feet. The logging truck with it’s weight and the trucker’s experience had sped into the distance. Without the truck’s help we started to inch along the snow covered road at a snail’s pace again. That was when we drove into the heart of the storm.
Inch by inch the snow on the road had become deeper and even challenged my dad’s driving skills; he is a professional delivery truck driver. Playfully, I had extended my hand outside of the window and let the hypothermic air cascade across my fingers. That didn’t last very long. The heater in the truck was worth it’s weight as I thawed my freezing hand in front of it; we didn’t want to get stuck there.
As the desolate landscape rolled by; devoid of any viewable life other than the small tree tops poking through the snow, my heart pumped with a vigor I had never experienced before. My breaths were deep and the words were few between my dad and I. A fear that my heart beat would trigger an avalanche due to its quaking stirred inside me.
As we had neared the top of the pass my dad looked over at me and asked ” You’re buckled in right?”. I was, but I gave the harness a couple of tugs for some reassurance before we arrived at the top of the pass, we were readying for our descent. The jagged peak rose before us with a ridge like a shark’s fin cutting through the ocean whitewash. The road was blazed white, I would guess the snow depth was around eight inches of powder; but who knew how much ice was concealed under that white blanket.
The tracks from the logging truck were long gone as we reached the peak, the valley below us was freckled with large conifers visible through the frosty clouds. The guard rail and yellow road blazes alongside the road were our only tools while we navigated the serpentine pass’ first curve. The Chilkat mountains displayed what they were capable of and I humbled myself in the presence of mother nature’s power that day.
Four hours to Haines. It was 11 a.m. and I doubted we would make the ferry. I looked outward to the road and then to the sky, it was filled to the brim with woolen snowflakes dancing in the air. The sight was ethereal but also disappointing. It looked like we were going to be spending our next few days in Haines and I was going to miss some work; but we focused on driving out of there safely.
My thoughts about Juneau, work, and a place to live all meandered around my mind as we reached the first big bend in the pass. The snow that drifted through the air suddenly caught my attention once more. The crisp opaque flakes that swirled around the bend started to flicker with a light yellow glow. The intensity of the light flashes on the snow increased as we neared the corner. My heart beat fell into sync with the radiant light waves. Suddenly, from around the corner a wave of grayed snow and ice peeled off the road into the valley below.
Our chauffeur! the snow plow truck had arrived to meet us at the top of the pass! Never in my life was I happier to see a road, a very black road traveling through the majestic valley below. As the giant vehicle passed us we decided to slide onto that side of the road and continue our journey into Alaska.
Four hours to Haines, three hours to Haines, two hours to Haines. We had done it! albeit with a bit of luck. As we descended from the Chilkat pass, every mile revealed a completely new landscape. The snow casually melted away and in its place came a light shower of rain. The dry, snowy, mountainous terrain we had left became the luscious temperate rainforest of coastal Alaska. My spirit settled knowing our drive was nearing its end.
Chilkoot lake was the spot we decided to eat lunch before driving the truck onto the ferry for Juneau. I couldn’t wait to get on that ferry vessel to finally see what my summer home had to offer. As we readied our lunches along the beautiful green Chiloot lake I had one more thought on my mind concerning our Alaskan odyssey, “Dad, where’s the bear spray?”
Story and Photos contributed by Andy Davidson Jr.