Corduroy again today. Road still in bad shape after recent rains. Slowly this mud hole is resembling a road. (Soldier’s diary, August 24, 1942)
It may have been President Herbert Hoover’s dream in 1930 to build an overland link from Alaska to the continental United States, but it wasn’t until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 that it was deemed a military necessity to do so.
The construction of the Alaska Highway was authorized by President Roosevelt on February 11, 1942, and within a month, the right of way was approved by the Canadian government. The U.S. would pay for the construction of the highway and turn over the portion in Canada to the Canadian government when the war ended.
In the best of times, it would be an ambitious goal to build a 1,525-mile road from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Fairbanks, Alaska through the three M’s – muskeg, mountains, and mosquitoes – but to literally carve this road out of the wilderness in only eight months was staggering. It took 11,000 American troops and 16,000 civilians from the U.S. and Canada, laying down eight miles of road every day, seven days per week, suffering from hypothermia, fatigue, and injuries, to complete the task. Incredible, really, when you think about it.
Bitter cold. Canteens frozen and diesel fuel like soft lard. (Soldier’s diary)
Finally, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony performed in -35-degree weather, and in the presence of 250 soldiers, civilians, and Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen, U.S. and Canadian officials opened the road.
Today’s highway doesn’t look anything like the highway that was built in 1942. That highway had 25-degree grades in some spots, which just wouldn’t do in a post-war environment. Since 1964, the Canadian Department of Public Works has been improving the worst parts of the highway each year. Today, it is an all-weather, hard-surfaced (except in spots where there is construction) highway, suitable for drivers like myself, who don’t like to drive through the muck.
I had heard that the Alaska Highway was a scenic drive, so I wanted to see it for myself. My ultimate goal was to drive from Whitehorse (Kilometer 1,425; Historic Mile 918), where I had just picked up a friend’s car (which I still had to return to the Okanagan) and drive to Canada’s western-most community, Beaver Creek (Kilometer 1,934; Historic Mile 1,202).
Here are some of the highlights along the way, followed by some field notes for those considering the same drive.
• The speed limit along this highway is 90 kilometers/hour, but the going is much slower, so consider this if you are on a schedule
• There are some rough patches and stretches of gravel road, particularly between Burwash Landing and Beaver Creek
• There are only two places to get gas between Haines Junction and Beaver Creek, and I don’t believe they are open 24/7. Best to make sure you are topped up in Haines Junction.
• There are plenty of Arctic Ground Squirrels scurrying across the highway between Whitehorse and Haines Junction. Normally, they make it across, but very occasionally, one will change its mind and try to go back the way it came. Don’t flinch.
• Cell phone coverage is spotty at best, although I was usually able to get a signal in the few towns along the way.
• At the Information Centre in Haines Junction, you can get a copy of “Things to see and do on the way to Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory”. This document gives you the distances along the highway between points of interest, but to get an accurate reading, I found that setting my odometer to zero at the junction of Highways 1 and 3, right at the police station, made the distances work out perfectly.
• There are lots of places to boondock along this highway, if you are on a budget.
• Mosquitoes are aplenty, especially in the evening.