Friday, July 16, 2010

Alaska Trip Day 5: Grande Prairie, AB to Watson Lake, YT

Alaska Trip Day 5 (Mon Jun 28): 682 miles / 1,098 km; 12 hr 13 min

View Larger Map it's super happy fun time. No more prairies. It's time for the Alaska Highway.

But first, before we leave the hotel parking lot...'s a Northwest Territories license plate. Their plates are shaped like a polar bear. How cool is that?

I alluded to this a couple of times on via my Twitter/Facebook live trip updates, but we (well, I) had a license plate game going throughout the trip. The goal: spot at least one license plate from all 50 states (plus DC) and as many Canadian provinces as possible, at some point during the trip. The result? 49 U.S. states (missing Hawaii and DC), 9 Canadian provinces (missing New Brunswick, PEI, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Nunavut), and even one Mexican "state", or whatever it's called (Distrito Federal).

Alright, so...that's enough license plate nonsense for a while. Let's drive the Alaska Highway!

Here's something I noticed just this morning. I've seen several pictures of this sign before, and all of them show a large red arrow below the sign. Alright...who stole the arrow? This sounds like a job for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police!

The Alaska Highway begins in Dawson Creek, BC, and officially ends in Delta Junction, Alaska, 1,422-miles later. We wouldn't officially finish the entire Alaska Highway until the return trip, but we would start it today.

The first hour of the highway (to Fort St. John) is actually very developed and not that interesting, but once you get north of Fort St. John, and all of the local traffic (of which there was quite a bit, even here) disappears...oh yes.

As I mentioned yesterday, I was actually afraid that the Alaska Highway would have quite a bit of tourist and truck traffic. But my fears were not realized. Most of the Alaska Highway is just as deserted as the Loneliest Road in America. This is my kind of road.

One of my main concerns going into the trip was how much construction there would be, and how much we would be delayed as a result. There were occasional construction delays (much more so on the return trip - maybe they wait until after Canada Day to start most construction projects?), but nothing too bad. Besides, I can think of worse places to be delayed by construction than along the Alaska Highway.

Uh huh...suuuure. Amber and I have a history of going places where, according to people we talk to beforehand, we are guaranteed to see a moose. Nova Scotia? "Oh, you'll see moose, definitely." Manitoba? "Oh, you'll see moose, definitely." And, of course, we never do. We would see moose on this trip...but not today. Or tomorrow. Or the day after that. Or the day after that...

I really like the pictures that include the road itself, winding its way through the mountains. We have quite a few of these.

Moose? Nope...just a deer, a.k.a. roadblock.

So...most publications will tell you that the Alaska Highway is 100% paved. Is that so? Then what is this?? Looks like false advertising to me! Granted, all of the unpaved portions are - I assume - temporary and construction-related, and mostly brief. But still, it wasn't expected. I'd estimate that based on our experience, the Alaska Highway is actually between 98% and 99% paved.

Ah, pretty. Sometimes, we would just stop the car, walk outside, and spend some time in the quiet, beautiful surroundings of northern British Columbia. I really wish we would have had more time to spend here. It's just as beautiful as Alaska, only differences being 1) not as many snowcapped mountains, and 2) far, FAR fewer tourists.

I have no idea where most of these pictures were taken, other than "somewhere in British Columbia". But I think this is Folded Mountain, located near Muncho Lake, I think. More pretty pictures from various northern British Columbia locations:

The Alaska Highway is also a great place to spot wildlife (except moose, of course...or maybe that's just us). We thought these were mountain goats, but they are actually "Dall Sheep", or "Stone Sheep", or something like that. They were all over the place around the Muncho Lake area. Neat-o!

We also saw quite a few bison hanging out by the Alaska Highway. Bison are easy to spot because 1) they like wide open spaces, and 2) they usually hang out in groups. As a result, we didn't get as excited about seeing bison as we would when we'd see...

...a bear. Yeah! This would be the first of many bears we'd see throughout the trip. Between the scenery and the wildlife, the Alaska Highway is just awesome.

But, of course, the Alaska Highway can be a bit of a challenge sometimes. It's long, and deserted, so there aren't a whole lot of services. I planned out our gas stops well in advance (Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Tok - all decent-sized towns with several gas stations), so that was never a problem. (Fort Nelson is basically a must stop for gas, and as a result, we paid more for gas in Fort Nelson than anywhere else on the trip.)

But we didn't plan dinner stops in advance, so we just kind of stopped at this here "licensed restaurant", located in the "town" of "Coal River". I should point out that the "town" of "Coal River" pretty much just consists of this "licensed restaurant" and an accompanying gas station, and that's it. Population? Probably less than 10 - just the people who run the restaurant and gas station.

This "licensed restaurant" (by name, the Coal River Lodge) and other middle-of-nowhere lodges along the Alaska Highway are having a hard time staying in business. Many such lodges along the Alaska Highway have closed within the last 10 years. I attribute this to two things: 1) There isn't a whole lot of traffic out here, you know. 2) Most people probably just wait for the established towns to eat and fill up, where gas is cheaper and food is more plentiful.

So, in summary: the British Columbia portion of the Alaska Highway was my favorite drive throughout the trip. I give it my highest recommendation. Stop what you are doing and go there NOW.

Our stop for the night was Watson Lake, Yukon. First, a couple of semantics regarding the name of this province or territory or whatever it is...
- Even though it's still technically a territory rather than a province, it is no longer called the "Yukon Territory". Its official name is now just the "Yukon".
- Road signs refer to it in sentences and phrases as "The Yukon" rather than just "Yukon". I take road signs as official word, so that should settle the debate as to whether you should precede the word "Yukon" with "the".

Watson Lake's claim to fame is something called the Sign Post Forest. The Sign Post Forest is basically a road geek / license plate geek's wet dream. (Easy,'s just a metaphor.)

Basically, people bring signs from their hometowns and leave them to be posted. Some signs are homemade (lame), others are actual signs (awesome). Some people also leave old license plates from their home state. (License plates we saw at the Sign Post Forest did not count towards my license plate spotting game. Otherwise, I'm pretty confident we could have gotten all U.S. states and Canadian provinces, except perhaps for Nunavut.)

Amber didn't have much in the way of expectations, but even she thought it was awesome. Not because she gives a crap about road signs or license plates, but as a piece of "pop art". I mean, this place is HUGE. We were there for 30 minutes, easy.

Most people leave signs from their hometown, so I had an important job at hand. Could I find a sign representing any of my past or present hometowns (Jacksonville, Tallahassee, State College, Cary, Durham)? We didn't have time to scour every single sign in the forest (that would probably take up to two hours), so I was only able to find one of the five - Tallahassee - and it was out of vertical reach for Mo the Cow Puppet. Instead, I got a Mo picture with a sign for Clearfield, PA:

Why Clearfield? Because Clearfield is kind of close to State College, and because the blue lettering on white background is trademark Pennsylvania. I appreciate that sort of thing. (I don't appreciate the stickers and other markings they put on the sign, though.) As for us, we didn't come prepared, so we didn't leave a sign of our own.

Only one more day until we get to Alaska! Sort of. Is Southeast Alaska really part of Alaska?

1 comment:

bubba said...

Distrito Federal would be the Mexican equivalent of Washington D.C. Otherwise, they are also called "states" in Mexico.