Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Al-Can Adventures Part 19: On to Edmonton

The Alaska Highway literature says that the beginning point of the highway--Mile Zero--is at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.  I'm not going to argue about that; there is some historical significance to Dawson Creek, and there are some touristy kinds of things to do there as a result.  There's a great big obelisk, for example, right in the middle of the intersection where construction on the Alaska Highway began so many years ago. 

As a cool historical spot, then, Dawson Creek is indeed pretty cool.  As a destination, though, it's--well, never been that for me.  Personally, I've never found a reason to stop there besides looking at the Mile Zero sign (a feat that's difficult to manage in the traffic if you're piloting a rig of any size) and refueling.  Granted, the official Dawson Creek site suggests that they have a lot to do, including an interpretive center, a museum, and an art gallery.  If you've read my previous posts, though, you know why by the time I get to Dawson Creek I neither need nor want any more interpretive anything; instead, I just want off the dang highway. 

Speaking of refueling--that shocked me this last time through.  The prior trips, fuel between (but exclusive of) Fort St. John and Tok was really stupidly expensive, but it rang up at fairly normal prices otherwise.  This last trip I still paid more than a dollar a liter even in Dawson Creek.  That hurt, man.  It really hurt.

So coming south, if your trip timer is stuck in the same region of "hurry!" that mine usually is, you'll probably just stop for brief photos of Mile 0 but otherwise you'll be looking toward Edmonton as a true destination.  That city does, after all, contain the world's biggest mall, which is in turn connected to a wonderful hotel with theme rooms and jacuzzi tubs.  I'm serious--after the ruggedness of the Alaska Highway, you'll feel like you're in paradise once you hit Edmonton.

But you have to get there first.

And the start to that getting there, at least insofar as this post is concerned, is Fort St. John, milepost 47 and a veritable metropolis at 18,000 residents.  My log book says of our arrival: "Civilization!  2:00, hit big Shell station, gas less than 60 cents/liter!  I was getting really tired of paying close to 70 cents/liter [note: keep in mind this was 1999; ten years later we were paying over a dollar a liter through most of the drive].  Air conditioning!  Ice!  Yeah!  Fort St. John--really pretty town.  Only problem--hill climbing out of the Peace River Valley is a real boogermotherbear."

Once you've had your fill of ice for your drinks and are ready to leave Fort St. John, then, your first and hardest challenge is to conquer the death hill from hell.  You'll exit town on the highway, following signs to Dawson Creek and Edmonton, and then cross over the Peace River.  After that, it's a sharp left and then climb, climb, climb, for miles.  If you're in a car that's not terribly overburdened, it's probably no big deal.  Rigs, though, will need to watch your speed and RPMs, as it's really easy to red-line there.  South-bounders (toward Edmonton), just keep on chugging upward in whatever transmission gear is most comfortable to you, your engine, and your rate of forward progress.

Stephen's Rule of Alaska Highway hill-climbing: no matter how slow, any speed forward is better than going backward.  I know, that's not too erudite, but do the Al-Can once or twice and trust me, you'll get it.

North-bounders, watch your brakes.  It's quite easy to vaporize your brake pads on your way down this hill as you see the town of Fort St. John in the distance.

Once you summit the climb, rejoice!  The tough parts of the drive are pretty much over, so long as you survive the Alberta drivers--they're just a skosh aggressive (a skosh, hell--by and large they make Jersey drivers seem downright patient and pleasant).  It is beautiful; as you summit the hill you come into canola country, and vast fields of brilliant yellow flowers await.  The plains around Fort St. John are a major source of canola seed, used to make one of the main ingredients in most vegetable oils in our supermarkets.  Whether that fact excites you or not isn't really important; the truth is that the fields are beautiful as hell when they're blooming.

Along the way, despite the fact that the tough climbs are over, there are still ups and downs.  It becomes a fairly typical road, though.  Most times I've been this path I've flown relatively smoothly from there to Edmonton, but in 1999 we were meeting friends in Edmonton and so we wanted to stop along the way to keep from arriving too late at night.  Here's the excerpt from the log book:

"Pulled into Sturgeon Lake First Nation campground--had the feel of a ghost town!  Looked around and noticed the generator/laundry room burned to the ground, apparently recently.  Headed next door to Williamson Provincial Campground.  Nice place.  Fairly empty.  Found a hookup spot quickly and learned why it was fairly empty--skeeters!  Thousands and thousands swarmed us.  Got hunkered down in the trailer.  Eventually had a skeeter-free night."

For what it's worth, the Sturgeon Lake First Nation campground site hosts pictures that suggest that the campground has been rebuilt and is currently up to date on rather nice facilities.  They probably still have their flying pests, of course, but those are fairly ubiquitous in that region.  Regardless, I still didn't stop there this last trip, as I was hell-bound to get to Edmonton and its mall.  And, I should add, the mall's fabulous hotel, where a real bathtub awaited.

Coming soon: yes, I have pictures of that bathtub.  


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