Friday, May 10, 2013

Al-Can Adventures Part 21: South, to Montana

The Alaska Highway officially ends at Dawson Creek, Mile Zero.  From there, there are several ways to get back to the United States, each one headed a different direction.  Yes, yes, I know "south" is what you thought at first, and you're correct.  But there's southwest toward Washington, due south toward Montana, and there are also options going southeast down roads I have yet to follow. 

In 1999 we were headed to Colorado, which is pretty close to due south of the Montana main crossing site.  Thus, we drove straight down Canada Highway 2 to Canada Highway 4 to the town of Coutts, Alberta, which is at the northern end of the border crossing.  A short time later we were in Sweetgrass, Montana, and back on U.S. soil. That route took a day and a partial; we'd left Edmonton the evening prior and made it a few miles down the road to Red Deer, and the next day at about midnight we made it to the gate.

That route, by the way, is what you're looking for if you want a quick pathway either up to the Alaska Highway or back to the States from it.  After experiencing the bumpy two-lane road that is the Al-Can, the four-lane highway south of Edmonton seems positively metropolitan.  Abruptly so, too--you come out of "the woods" into Edmonton, hang a southward turn, and suddenly you're in megalane heaven.

I've picked on Calgary, the other large city you'll come to, and I recognize that it's not entirely fair that I do so.  All that I know of Calgary, after all, is that it's home to a huge rodeo every year, and that from the highway it appears to consist nearly entirely of identical little box-like homes.

I'm sure somebody thinks identical little box-like homes are charming.  I'm just not one of those somebodies.

On that trip, by the way, I made a point of recording that we'd stopped for dinner at the Pizzaberg Cafe in Okotoks, and how great the experience was.  Good food, good prices, and a fabulous host were what I said.  I haven't stopped by there since, despite my logged desire to do so.  Okotoks, Alberta, just isn't my normal stompin' ground. 

The border crossing on that route is completely different from every other station I've seen, also.  That crossing connects U.S. Interstate 15 to Canadian Highway 4, and it's one of the major trade routes between the two nations.  Thus, if you imagine most of the border crossing sites as a corner shoppette, that crossing is more of a Mega-WalMart or a Super-Target.  It sports multiple lanes going both directions, they cater to commercial shipments of all sizes, and they staff it 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. It's awesome.

The other way out of Alberta into Montana is a bit different.

To get there, you actually stay on Highway 2 all the way down to Carway, Alberta.  Then you slip through a little one-lane post which actually feels like it's out in the middle of the Montana plains, and you end up on U.S. Highway 89 just outside of Piegan, Montana.  That's the gate where I had a customs officer try to demand a full bill of lading for my UHaul.  Now, maybe he was right to do so, or maybe he was just being a bit overly full of himself; I'm not sure.  I know my own opinion matches those of several friends I have that he was really feeling his Border Guard Wheaties that day.  Still, the experience underlines my warning that, especially if you're going to a more rural crossing toward the beginning of the season as we were, make sure all your ducks are in whatever row they might be expected to hold.

Also, as I've suggested before, check the open hours of whichever crossing you expect to use.  The great big crossing is open 24/7, but the one we went through in 2009 is only open from 7 am to 11 pm.  Others are open even fewer hours, based on the traffic through them, so be prepared.  The last thing you want is to have to turn around at the barred gate to head back up the road looking for a place to sleep for the night.

There are, of course, other ways to make it to/from the start of the Alaska Highway.  Granted, the trip up through Alberta to Edmonton and then over is the fastest and easiest, but I've gone other routes.

My first time, driving up to Alaska, we happened to cross in Idaho.  There was only one crossing there that I know of, and the road up into British Columbia from that point takes you through a whole bunch of places with names ending in "Provincial Park."  Sounds cool, doesn't it?  Remember what I said in a previous post about how scenic journeys are usually also dang hard on a burdened vehicle?  It was especially true on that trip, as we passed through Top of the World Provincial Park which, as its name suggests, requires quite a bit of climbing to get there.

I'll say this: it's an ooh and ahh moment once you're there at the Top of the World; I'd never seen a glacier before, and the road came up out of a hairpin turn to level out right under the face of a glacier.  Spectacular, it was.  Scary, it was, too.

The next time we headed north we were coming from California, so we crossed near Blaine, Washington, and jumped onto nearly Canada Highway 1.  We were expecting to stay on Highway 1 as it lumbered north and then take 99 toward the city of Prince George, but there was a mudslide that blocked that route.  Thus, we ended up staying on the main road, Highway 5, as it lumbered to and through Kamloops.  I recall very little about Kamloops other than the fact that the name is awfully fun to say.

Along the way, the first trip, we ended up passing through a quaint, and spectacularly beautiful, area known to the world as Banff.  Only later did I find out that it's a world-class resort.  If I'd'a had the Internet back then in 1995, I would'a probably been more prepared.  I still kick myself for not taking pictures. 

We passed through the City of Prince George several times in our western routes up, and each time through we enjoyed the passage.  You really don't pass through many "the City of" anythings en route to Alaska, and hitting a metropolitan area like Prince George is a treat.  At 80K population it's only middling-large as cities go, but that's plenty big enough to have its own Costco.  It's also a gorgeously designed town, nestled into hills and forests as it is.  True, it doesn't host the largest mall in the world, but the charm of Prince George is quite the experience regardless.

No matter which route you take to/from the start of the Al-Can, then, you're in for a treat.


No comments:

Post a Comment