The Alaska Highway From Whitehorse to Beaver Creek, Yukon

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)

Yukon - Kluane - Private Elbert Pieper of the U.S. Army stands sentry duty beside a trapper's cabin containing construction supplies for the Alaska Highway.

Private Elbert Pieper of the U.S. Army stands sentry duty beside a trapper’s cabin containing construction supplies for the Alaska Highway. (Credit: Nicholas Morant / National Film Board of Canada / Library and Archives Canada / PA-113220; original photo can be found here)

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.

Yukon - Kluane - Alaska Highway

Alaska Highway, ca. 1943-1965. (Credit: Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopy; original photo can be found here)

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.

Yukon - Kluane 1

It begins. The home of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest mountain. Mount Logan cannot be seen from the highway, though – it’s simply too remote. The mountains you see from the highway are pretty high, over 2,000 meters, but consider that Mount Logan is 2.5 times higher than that. Wow!

 

Yukon - Kluane 2

At Haines Junction, pick up a copy of “Things to see and do on the way to Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory” from the Information Centre. Also, the coffee and pastries at the Village Bakery were awesome!

 

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The mountains you will see along the way.

 

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And more mountains!

 

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After consulting my trusty “Common Yukon Roadside Flowers” wildlife viewing guide, I can confidently say that this is a Narrow-Leafed Arnica, part of the sunflower family.

 

Yukon - Kluane 6

And I believe this is Arctic Lupine, part of the pea family.

 

Yukon - Kluane Lake from Soldiers Summit

Kluane Lake, from Soldier’s Summit. Kluane Lake is interesting because about 3000-4000 years ago, it had a complete reversal in its water flow after the Kaskawulsh Glacier advanced across Slims River and closed Kluane Lake’s drainage outlet. The water subsequently rose 10 meters and a new outlet was formed. Instead of the water travelling 225 kilometers south to the Pacific Ocean, it now connects to the Yukon River and travels 10 times further north to the Bering Strait.

 

Yukon - Kluane 8

Although wildlife was not abundant on this stretch of the Alaska Highway, I was fortunate to have some time alone with a Grizzly.

 

Yukon - Kluane 9

The inevitable construction to improve the highway.

 

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Following the Pilot Car. (I wonder if it knows it’s a pickup truck.)

 

Yukon - Kluane Lake from Soldiers Summit 2

A view of Kluane Lake from the top of Soldier’s Summit, and the end of a short, scenic, interpretive walking trail. Well worth stopping for and stretching the legs.

 

Yukon - Kluane 11

And finally, Beaver Creek, population 103, although the woman at the Information Centre said someone was pregnant in town. I can now say that I’ve travelled to Canada’s westernmost community. Woohoo! A coffee and a pastry and I head back to Whitehorse.

Field Notes
• 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.
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