Friday, May 3, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 14: Watson Lake and the Signpost Forest

If you're taking the Cassiar Highway "shortcut" you'll miss this place, but if not then you absolutely have to stop by one of the most iconic facilities on the entire Alaska Highway.  It's right at Historic Milepost 635, actual mile marker 613: Watson Lake and its oft-associated Signpost Forest.

Odds are, if you're coming from the north, you'll have good reason to stop into Watson Lake, Signpost Forest or no.  After all, it's home to the first real grocery store you'll have seen since you left Whitehorse 270 miles (ish) back down the road.  If you're coming north the significance of that will likely not have hit you.  Yet.  But there are also a couple of good choices there for fueling up both your rig and your body.  Watson Lake is a pretty cool little town.

Watson Lake is an interesting little town for several reasons, actually.  One of the primary reasons, to me at least, is that nobody seems to really know how many people there are in the town.  The Milepost's page on Watson Lake, considered by many Alaskans and Alaska Highway travelers as the definitive answer to everything, lists the population as 1,563, which makes it a fairly substantial small settlement.  The Canadian Census, meanwhile, puts them at just over half of that at 802 residents.  Meanwhile, the official web site of Watson Lake, which you'd think would be able to put this to rights, records the population as "approximately 1200" which leads the casual observer to wonder whether they're also counting sled dogs (dogs of the north being, after all, easier to approximate than to actually count when they're not kenneled).

Also interesting is the chief tourist draw, the Signpost Forest.  The story goes that this, the original signpost forest of all the signpost forests of the world, began in 1942 when a homesick U.S. soldier, furloughed at town due to an injury, put up a sign indicating the direction and distance to his home of Danville, IL.   I've not seen discussion of whether he was correct or not; one must assume that a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be familiar with vector algebra, though the fact that it's a non-Euclidean surface raises the--well, nobody really gives a crap, do they?  It was a cool gesture.  So the soldier put up a sign saying, in essence, "my home is thataway and such and so many miles away," thus implying that he really missed it.

Apparently other soldiers thought the first one's gesture was cool, so they did the same.  Later, so the story goes, other people traveling the Alaska Highway also brought signs and added them.  The idea caught on, and soon somebody in Watson Lake was adding the huge wooden posts as fast as the tourists could nail  signs to them.  By 1990 whoever had the time to count had identified that there were 10,000 signs erected, and by 2008 the number was over 65,000.  The official web site of Watson Lake numbers the signs these days at over 72,000 and counting.

A few of those, by the way, are mine.

On one trip, we happened upon some businesses in behind the signpost forest that would, for a nominal-ish fee ($10), sell you a plank and a couple of nails, the use of some paint, and even a hammer.  We crafted a few signs (a family creation and one for each of the kiddos) and put them up.  I haven't found them on any trips since, but hey, it's cool knowing you have signs there, right? 

I haven't seen the vendors there since, so either they're only part-time or seasonal, or they stopped being allowed there at all.

It's not like they don't have enough already.  I mean, 72,000 signs.  That's a lot of signs.  It will take a lot of time to go through them all, if that is your desire.

Still, there are some cool ones.  There are license plates.  There are street signs.  There are nicely-engraved wooden plaques that must've been brought to Watson Lake on purpose.  There are city signs that make you wonder how the person made off with them without being arrested.  There are signs in languages I can't read.

Yet still, 72,000 is a lot of signs.

It's a lot of signs especially considering the other cool stuff you have to see.  Mixed into the Signpost Forest is a display of the various types of equipment used to craft such a fine stretch of road.  If you're coming from the south, you won't yet know better than to think that it makes for a cool display, while if you're coming from the north you will probably want to go up to each piece of equipment separately and kick it, and quite hard at that.  The road, after all, is the nearest thing to torture that is imaginable for some, a fact that implicates what you're looking at as the implements of torture.

Yeah, kick 'em good.

Deep inside the forest of signs, though, you'll find a building that against the towering backdrop of signposts looks a lot smaller than it actually is inside.  Trust me, you do not want to miss what's inside.  For one thing, they have coffee.  Real coffee, made from grounds and brewed in something other than a tin percolator.  They also have maps and other awesome stuff to hand out--I walked out with a whole stack of stuff I never looked at again, plus a useful map that I looked at once or twice.

Now, hey, all you who're sneering at the word "map" and all the quaint mental images it summons, you just keep in mind that your sparkly GPS won't work most of the places up in the Yukon.  That, and if you're using your cell phone for GPS like I do, your carrier will likely charge you an arm for the first few hours of data usage and a leg for the next few.

Bottom line: if you're going to drive the Yukon, learn to fold paper maps.  You'll be oh, so glad you did.  Yes, I know that for the most part the Al-Can is the only road available.  Yes, I agree that for most of the stretch, if you somehow manage to lose the Al-Can, you probably don't deserve to be driving it.  There are, however, trip planning questions above and beyond "do I turn left here?" that only a map can answer.  Use it.  Love it. Fold it right. 

Maps and coffee aren't all that the Northern Lights Space and Science Centre have to offer, by the way  (yes, it's correctly spelled Centre in Canadian).  They have an entire display built around the Aurora Borealis, another regarding the construction of the highway, and yet another that clearly lays out why that road was considered important back in WWII days.  I could've spent weeks in that centre, nerd superior that I am.  If you're at all curious about history, geography, or geophysics, you'll like it too, I promise.

All this, sprung up from one Private Carl K. Lindley's homesickness while injured.  Who could've known?


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