A Look Back: Adventures on the Alcan from Alaska to the Yukon Territory

Sunset and Mt. McKinley on my last night in Denali. (2007)
I moved to Alaska in the summer of 2006 and lived there for 18 months. After taking a job back on the East Coast, the biggest decision I faced was whether to have my car and belongings shipped to Philadelphia, or to take some time off and drive the 4,500 miles cross country.

And the decision was easy. At the end of the summer season in Denali National Park, I packed what would fit in my car, shipped the rest, and hopped in with my partner in crime for a two and a half week drive through some of the most awe-inspiring and boring parts of North America. 

The last night in Denali and first day of driving were memorable. Road trips are the best.

We woke around 6am after a night of celebrations and bittersweet farewells at my favorite bar in Denali – The Spike. John Allen obliged my request for a hug, which might've been the best part of the evening. He's one of those people I really couldn't ever forget. The next morning, I was happily force fed my favorite biscuits, sans gravy at the EDR (employee dining room). Then we were on our way.

The infamous John Allen, reading at Toklat. (2006)
We hit Fairbanks around 10am and continued on to North Pole. Not the North Pole, just North Pole. The only thing differentiating it from any other town in the Middleofnowhere, Alaska is the fact that all of the utility poles are painted like candy canes. We drove around small roads in town just to see what the fuss was about, but couldn't figure it out.

The fall colors were absolutely delicious – a feast for the eyes. None of the photos I took did the birch trees and painted tundra justice by any sense of the imagination. It's times like this I wish I'd taken the time to buy a fancy camera and learn how to use it. Around each corner a new hill, sparkling gold, would jump out, framed by mountain ranges in the distance.

Aurora (my Toyota Corolla) was riding low, and still is. It'll be hard to find a mechanic shop that treated her as well as the shop in Denali. The entire length of the Alcan is subject to some of the largest temperature variations I've seen and was built on some of the most volatile, angry land in North America. The entire highway through central Alaska and the Yukon is littered with frost heaves. Some are marked with pink flags, others with small signs. It's as if the road crews surrendered to Mother Nature after she chided us humans for building a road where it doesn't belong. Even slowing to 40mph couldn't prevent me from being lofted slightly into the air more than once.

Somewhere in Northeast Alaska. (2006)
Dinner was brought to us by my MSR Whisperlite stove and a couple of packages of Lipton side dishes. We'd stopped somewhere along the Alcan after crossing into the Yukon near a river. As we noshed on our very artificial dinner, a native family ferried sections of a moose carcass across the swiftly flowing water in a small boat. The animal's chest cavity, both thighs, and two men fit in the boat, but barely. One of the young men stopped to chat, and I couldn't help but ask a million naïve questions. He explained how big of a task it was to call the moose out in the morning, how many shots it took to bring it down, and how long it took to skin and clean. The entire family waited in a big red pickup for them, and we politely declined when they offered us a look at the carcass.

Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory. (2006)
Evening descended as we passed Burwash Landing and Destruction Bay on Kluane Lake. Dan skipped stones on the lake while I couldn't do anything but sit in a pile of leaves and pick my jaw up off the ground. Stunning. There were no words.

We spent the night in Haines Junction. The inn wasn't anything special, and Aurora looked so small among all the giant trucks in the parking lot. I certainly wasn't expecting much for under $100 at the end of their tourist season. Hell of a view out the window, though.

The first day of a road trip like this is always the best. You're awake, excited, and haven't gone stir crazy from sitting in the car yet. This first day was the beginning of a beautiful journey, one I think everyone should take at some point in their lives. And I had friends in Alaska who did the drive every year as the seasons changed! Keep reading the A Look Back series for more Alcan adventures!