Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 12: Sleeping Arrangements

The first time we drove the Al-Can I fretted over where we were going to sleep.  I didn't need to.  Granted, if you're traveling the Alaska Highway outside of tourist season and you're looking for a nice comfy hotel to sleep in, well, good luck with that.  In fact, even if you're in the midst of tourist season, unclaimed nice comfy hotel beds tend to be few and far between in the upper reaches of the continent.

Where do people sleep, then?  To put it succinctly, wherever they can.

The bad thing about the Al-Can is that there aren't a string of AAA-rated accommodations situated for your pleasure.  The good thing about the Al-Can is that you don't need 'em, especially if you take your own sleeping arrangements with you.  You'll see pullouts, appropriately called gravel pits, every few dozen miles, and when you get tired you just pull off and sleep.

It's that simple.

Yes, I know that highway patrol in the U.S. get irritated if you try that on our highways.  RCMP probably get just as irritated if you try that on Canadian highways in the more populated areas.  But up in the Yukon and northern BC?  Go for it.

I've already alluded to the fact that some of them have the best toilets available, in the form of cement platforms built atop sewage pits and enclosed in metal or wooden rooms.  They have wide metal pipes coming up out of the holes that are vaguely shaped as a simple toilet might, and atop those are bolted toilet seats. Trust me, after a while it's just plain all right, especially in the wintertime when the more "civilized" toilets are often out of commission due to freezing temperatures.

This last trip we were in a UHaul, which is actually sleepable if you have the driver and the passenger both lean against the person in the middle with enough pillows.  It kinda sucks, I suppose, if you're not a close family unit or you care about how each other smell after a couple of days, but in the early days of June there's not a lot of darkness to sleep by anyway, so you drive, you deal with it, and you drive some more.  

In the gravel pits you'll see bears sometimes, as well as other wildlife, but the good news is that in bear country the Canadians are smart enough to install the bear-proof trash cans.  All you have to do is make sure you leave them closed.  Six times through, and I've never had a problem with large wildlife.

Skeeters, though, are another thing entirely.  At times they scare me more than the bears do.

Most people look at this picture and think they're seeing birds.  That, or maybe airplanes.  Nope.  This was taken in the early dawn hours (3 or 4 am) by my bride on the last trip down.  The black soaring things you see are actually part of the mosquito swarm that surrounded our truck looking for a way in.

They laugh at your supermarket bug spray, by the way.  You can almost actually hear them laughing when they bite you through it.  Citronella to them is like Mad Dog 40/40 to a bunch of teenagers.  The only repellant I've ever found effective against the onslaught of a mosquito horde was a powder named Buhach made from dried and crushed pyrethrum flower that you spilt out into a pile on a piece of tin foil and burnt.  I haven't ever seen it sold anywhere but in Alaska, though.

The skeeter ninja cats were effective, too.

See, it was the fourth trip that I hit Whitehorse with time to camp.  On that trip we were pulling an Airstream, and so we backed the little travel trailer up into the spot we'd rented, plugged in, did our evening touristy stuff, and then went to sleep.

I woke up with a damn cat dancing on my groin.

Luckily I regained my sensibility well before the impulse to send the thing flying across the trailer was acted upon.  Our tuxedo cat, named Mittens like nearly every other tuxedo cat in the world, often slept in our bed but rarely woke me in such a special manner.  As I focused in on the strange dance she was doing, I saw that she was playing a quasi-protective little game batting flying insects.

Granted, I have no idea if her thought was "I should protect daddy from the skeeters" or "hey, this batting skeeters around and eating them while bouncing on daddy's midsection is fun."  But one of my main priorities in life has always been minimizing skeeter bites, and her antics in batting the beasties back and forth before popping them into her mouth were playing right into that priority, so I didn't argue much.

I did, however, roll onto my side.

Turns out you have to be especially observant with older travel trailers.  We'd covered up most of the pathways in, but there was an unscreened ventilation path through the stove that the pesky (and quite intelligent) flying bugs of doom had discovered.  Luckily our two kitties had, in turn, discovered the fun of skeeter ninja'ing.

And speaking of sleep, my bunk is currently calling my name. 

Happy Trails!


Monday, April 29, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 11: The Strange Un-system of Place-naming

I've always been curious why places are named the way they are.  Virginia and Maryland, for example, were named after queens--this I know, but sometimes I wonder why.  Who, for instance, chose Queen Mary to name the land after rather than any other particularly awesome historical figure?  Who figured George was a cool enough guy--whichever one we're talking about, anyway--to name a future state after him?  Likewise, Mississippi is an Indian term for great river, which I get, but then why aren't Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and the other dozen-ish states that lie along the great river's course also called Mississippi?

So, back to the Alaska Highway adventure.  It's fun journeying through Canada looking at the place names and wondering where they're from.  Many are European-style (Whitehorse, Watson Lake, etc) while others aren't (Klondike, for example, comes from a Kutchin term for the practice of hammering nets into the water, and Yukon is Gwich'in for great river).  Now, having stood there, I can understand somebody nodding and agreeing, "mm hmm, great river, good name for this," but where the white horse came from is a little trickier.  Apparently the city was named for the White Horse rapids nearby, which in turn were named because the spray reminded somebody of a horse's mane.  I suppose that makes sense.

And then there's Wonowon, BC.  Cool-looking name, right?  Must be Gwich'in?  Wrong part of the world to be Cherokee, the language from whence we managed to strip a majority of place names currently used in the south.  So where's it from, you ask?  No, really, you should ask.  Stop reading, and go there to ask someone so you'll get "the look" like I did.

*spoiler alert*

Say it out loud.  Come on, with me now: "Wonowon."  Continue if you wish: "Wonotoo, Wonothree, Wonofor...."

See, yeah--it was originally a settlement that happened to be at Mile 101 of the Alaska Highway. 

There are a lot of places along the roads through Canada that lead up into Alaska that are identified with mile names: Ten Mile Lake, Hundred Mile House, and so on.  That would be a little funny but not strange at all down in the U.S.  In Canada, though, when the name is on a sign that tells how many kilometers it is to a mile mark, it's just kind of odd.

Remember, Canada is on the metric system.  There is no such thing as a mile in the metric system.

Then again, it's really not that odd after all once you get to thinking about it.  For one thing, many places get their names according to whatever is written down by whomever is making the map.  One problem they had in planning the route initially was lack of accurate mapping, so as the highway was being constructed, a lot of the mapping was done by the engineers doing it--who were, incidentally, U.S. Army engineers.  The folks constructing the road were also U.S. Army engineers, and so a lot of the terminology used to talk about places must have been molded by the sudden influx of 16,000 folks who spoke fluent (for the most part) United Statesian.

All that said, it's also useful to point out that Canada hasn't always been on the metric system.  In fact, for much of the nation's history they used the Imperial system of weights and measures, a fact that made a gallon of gas on one side of the border not quite the same as a gallon of gas on the other side.  Tee hee!  (yeah, right--grr is more like it)

I haven't followed the specific history of Canada's metrication (a word that sounds like vacation but is much, much different) mostly because the United State's metrication was so interesting.  Basic gist of the story, though: the two nations decided the metric system would be a good thing to adopt at about the same time, thus ending the my-gallon-isn't-your-gallon issue while generating a ton of revenue for the street sign makers.  Unfortunately for the grand scheme, we down here south of Calgary proved rapidly that Americans as a group just absolutely can not do math, and so the metrication lost steam and died a rapid but relatively painless red, white, and blue death.  All of us United Statesians breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Canadians, on the other hand, proved that they could at least do basic distance conversions, and so nearly all of their road signs were converted in the mid-70's, and most of those stayed converted till this day.

Keep in mind that by that point the Alaska Highway had been built and under the control of the Canadian government for more than two decades.  Places named according to miles were named according to miles, and that was just that.

Then again, and as I already pointed out, it probably wasn't as big a conflict to the Canadians.  They can do math. 


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Another Day's Drive

I've been focusing so much on the reminiscences of my six Al-Can trips--and yes! I still have several more posts already sketched out and I'm not halfway done yet--that it's interesting (to me, at least) to juxtapose those trips with the one I took yesterday.

Yesterday's drive: Midlothian, Virginia, to Lebanon, Tennessee.  Why, you ask?  For the same reason I've driven the Al-Can usually: I'm moving.  In this case, I'm moving to Memphis.  The family is staying back in Midlo till the daughter graduates from high school in early June; after all, I can't imagine how badly she might injure me if I yanked her out of high school a month before graduation.  So we're doing the two household thing for a few weeks, and then I'll fly back to Midlo, scream embarrassing things about her as she walks across stage, and drive everybody back to Memphis to start our new Tennessee-based lives.

That's the theory, anyway.  It all sounds good till I think about how much I'm missing the fam already.  But I keep reminding myself that it's just like being out on maneuvers in the Army.

So all that being said, this has been an interesting drive so far in and of itself, and it gets far more interesting when considered alongside all of the Alaska Highway tales I've been telling.

For one thing, the worst construction sites I've faced have been stuff to the tune of "Hey, now, slow down all the way to 55.  Now jog a few feet to the right onto this newly-paved area."  That's a heckuva lot different approach from "Stop here, wait 15-45 minutes for a pilot vehicle who'll lead you over the rocks at 25 kph."

The fact that I'm traveling alone makes a difference, too.  With three or four people, you have three or four differently-timed bladders to account for.  With just me, though, it was more controllable, and to a certain extent that ended up being to my own detriment.  I mean, I was a good boy and went before I left.  Then I only drank a water and a soda on the way, and so I managed to make it all the way from Richmond to the Tennessee line (on Interstate 81) without stopping.

That's five hours.  

If you haven't sat in a driver's seat for five hours straight before--well, don't.  It makes for some awfully painful creaking and oomphfing once you finally stop.  Maybe it's just that I'm a wee bit older, but I'm blaming it on the drive.

Radio stations still suck, by the way, just as much as they did in Canada.  My lovely bride sent me along with some specially-burned CDs, and I loved listening to them, but after a couple of times through I wanted something different.  I took two spins through the radio dial, and promptly switched back to the CDs.  The last trip through Canada we listened to an entire Harry Potter book and an entire Eragon book, mostly because we were lucky to find anything on the radio at all.  More stations down here, but same crap.

Weather can still cause issues, of course.  On the Al-Can, it takes a lot of weather to slow you down, mostly because you're already going fairly slow.  That said, running into a lot of weather on the Al-Can is a fairly normal thing.  On this trip I faced a slippery rain all the way from Roanoke to the Virginia border, and again near Knoxville.  Scared me so much at times that I reduced speed from 70(ish) to about 67, in fact.

The weather that concerned me the most never happened.  I came up to about 70 miles from Lebanon (where I was stopping for the night mostly because the hotel there offered triple points) and started seeing flashes in the night sky.  Lightning, it was, and an intense storm, too.  I continued, watching carefully and concernedly, but it didn't become anything more than flashes.

Then, at about 20 miles out, I heard the screech screech screech sound that is so familiar as the national weather service warning.  What really bothered me about it was that my radio was actually turned off; I was at the time enjoying a quiet drive lost in thoughts of glorious success at my new job.  But I looked down and thought to myself, hmm, if they're reaching out through a radio that's turned off, I guess I ought to turn it on.  I did, and flipped to an active station, and sure enough I heard the warning: flash floods for this county, and that county, and that other county, none of which held any geographical meaning to me.  Finally they mentioned the communities involved: Thistown, Thisothertown, Lebanon, and.....

Ah, crap. 

So I sped up.

My thought process went like this: a) it's not raining here now; b) I'm only 20 miles from Lebanon; c) the more ground I cover while it's not raining, the less driving I have to do in SouthernHellRain.

It turned out, I made it to the hotel without seeing a single drop.  I managed to catch the TV's weather station in the hotel and saw that they'd basically pre-warned everybody; there was, in fact, a major front moving through.  Luckily, because I'd hurried, I got to sit in my hotel room and listen to the sound of SouthernHellRain outside.  And lightning, too--lots of lightning.  These southern storms are everything but boring.

Otherwise, yeah, I've already described most of the differences.  I remember driving the Alaska Highway and waiting, hoping, praying, for a pullout to rest for a moment.  On the American Interstate system we're rather spoiled by frequent (and nice!) rest stops whose signs actually tell you how far it is to the next one.  Plus, while there really isn't a Flying J, or a TA, or any of another several brands of travel plazas located at each exit, they do come along frequently. 

And so, on that note, have a great day!  I get to drive from Lebanon to Memphis today, and all things considered it's a very short trip.  I probably won't see a moose or a grizzly bear all day.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 10: Whitehorse

I will never, ever forget arriving in Whitehorse.  Never, not as long as I live.

That goes for both directions, incidentally.  No matter which direction you're driving the Alaska Highway, headed to Alaska or away, Whitehorse is the kind of place that stands out.

Why?  Well, actual, real street lights, for one thing.  And traffic lights.  And traffic signs.  And even--get this--a McDonald's.

I'm not kidding.  Six trips down one of the most remote roads on the planet later and I'm still amazed at how thrilled a normally sane human being can get over simple signs of basic civilization.  My own joyous reaction surprises me, too.

Granted, you don't see all of that at first.  Whitehorse is a rather curiously-built town.  But I get ahead of myself.

Whitehorse is at Historical Milepost 915.  Note that sometimes I use historical mile markers and sometimes I use real mileage.  The historical mile markers were installed back when the road was in United States hands, and it was by all accounts a skosh rough to drive even for tracked vehicles.  I mean, the United States Army Corps of Engineers isn't exactly known for subtlety.  That, or for road grading.

Now, don't yell at me--in a previous job, I was the executive officer in a road building company of the National Guard, in the state's version of the Army Corps of Engineers.  We just built 'em, man, and that was in the '90s.  Back in the early 1940s, there was a war going on, and the American chain of command was convinced that the Japanese were aiming toward bunking in Anchorage, eating our muktuk, sooner rather than later.  So they just built it.

Later the U.S. Army turned it over to the Canadians, who successfully made a drivable road out of the mess, but that messed up the mileage measurements a little.  Over the years I've seen considerable straightening and smoothing through the whole thing; I don't think I've driven the exact same road twice even when I've driven the same road.  Thus, the historical mileposts start down south (seems strange, sitting in Virginia calling Dawson Creek, BC, "down south" but there it is) at the same number (0, of course) as the real mile marks, but it doesn't take long for historical to grow past actual.

Still, most everything on the Al-Can is quoted by historical mile marker, so that's what I'll continue to use mostly.

So anyway, Whitehorse is at historical mile marker 915.  The Canadian-Alaskan border is historical mile marker 1221.  That means that by the time you make it successfully to Whitehorse you've survived 306 historical miles (301 actual miles) of the crappiest road this side of--well, nearly everywhere.  I can't imagine many public routes being rougher.  It's not the Canadians' fault, not really.  The weather there is just plain brutal on roads.

All that said, I promise you that coming from the north, when you come down off of the hill onto the nicely-paved, widened, multi-lane highway at Whitehorse, you can't help but breathe a sigh of relief.  Coming from the south isn't much different.  From either direction you'll find yourself thinking holy crap, it's a city.  Right here, a city.  And then I wonder if they have a McDonald's.

But the Alaska Highway doesn't actually go through Whitehorse proper.  That was pretty smart of them, honestly, but it means that if you stay on the highway you'll see plenty of traveler services but end up wondering where the town of 24,000 went.

Now, I'll tell you from the experience of a few trips that there's nothing wrong with staying up top on the highway.  If you hit it toward the end of a travel day, as we did once, there are several great places to stop and rest and *gasp* shower.  With, like, actual hot water and soap.  Personally, I've stayed a couple of times at the Hi Country RV Park, toward the south end of town, and it's been good.  The first time I stayed there it was just the first place we came to, honestly.  The second time was the next (our second) trip south, and that was when I discovered that cats can be ninja mosquito-killers of doom.  That, and cats don't walk on leashes well.

I suppose I'll have to tell that story sometime, won't I?

My first time through, though, we were bound and determined to have us some Mickey D's, and the maps we were using said there was some in that town.  So we went into town and had some.

It's harder than it sounds, or at least it was.

See, Whitehorse is built, mostly, along the banks of the mighty Yukon River.  The Alaska Highway, meanwhile, is built along a ridge overlooking the Yukon River.  To get from one to another you have to successfully navigate Two Mile Hill.

Now, Two Mile Hill isn't bad, all things considered, if you're not in an RV.  If you are, it can get a little scary, though it's nothing compared to what you've probably already faced on the Al-Can.  At the bottom of the hill lies the governmental seat of the Yukon Territory, home of the only McDonald's (and Dairy Queen, too) I can find on the map anywhere close.

It's also, I should add, home to a park where you can dip your toes into the fabled Yukon, the river from which the territory, a vehicle, and all sorts of other things got their name.  I did that on one trip--even got some pictures, which I laid around, um, somewhere--and it's pretty cool.

Other than a park for dipping your toes into the Yukon, and a McDonald's, and a fine place to rest your rig for the night, there are plenty of other fine amenities.  I found out on the third trip that a little bit of asking around will find you a well-stocked junkyard as well as a tire repair place.  Yeah, I needed that after not checking lug nuts one morning and losing a tire the next day, just a mile or so from Whitehorse.  The most important moral to that story I can give you is: always do a once-around every morning for every vehicle, checking lug nuts, flap presence, oil levels, and so on.  Never, ever, assume that things are okay, or that if they're not three old men will appear to point it out.

And on that note--yay Whitehorse!


Friday, April 26, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 9: Three Old Men

Before I get into today's story, I should mention that I'm what's known as an "old grad" from West Point.  Not that I'm particularly old (don't let the kids chime in on that), but anybody who's been gradded for more than 5 years is considered an old grad.

Of course, there's a joke associated with us old grads:

Q: How many old grads does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Five.  One to change it while the other four talk about how much better the old one was.

Get it?  We old grads are all sit around talking about...yeah, okay, you got it.  So, that leads to this story.

There's a spectacular point on the Al-Can called Johnson's Crossing.  Wikipedia says: "Johnson's Crossing is a settlement in the Yukon territory of Canada, located at historical mile 836 of the Alaska Highway, at the junction of the Canol Road where the highway crosses the Teslin River.  The community had a population of 15 in the Canada 2006 Census." 

I admit, the Wikipedia posting gives you absolutely no reason for my characterization of the place as spectacular.  Johnson's Crossing is a settlement, true, and in the Yukon, true, and the population is itty bitty, true. That said, the Teslin River is beautiful, stunningly so.  The Alaska Highway spans above it by several hundred feet, and its crossing crafts amazing vistas for everybody but the terrified driver as he pilots the vehicle carefully across the two-lane really, really high bridge to the tune of everybody else's oohs and ahhs.  Then, on the opposite side of the river (if you're headed away from Alaska) he/she reaches the settlement/gift shop/gasoline store/motel/restroom stop/watering hole/etc. known as Johnson's Crossing, where he/she can remove his/her entrenched fingies from the steering wheel.

Remember what I said about any building with a foundation being chartered for multiple uses up in the great white north?  That one qualifies.

Beauty of the gorge aside, I've hated stopping there the last five times I've been by.  Oh, I've stopped.  You don't not stop when driving the Al-Can.  It's not like an American Interstate, where if you miss the exit with the Flying J mega-truck-stop you can go another couple of exits down the road to pull off at another massive truckers' complex of a different brand name.  No, on the Alaska Highway the stops come few and far between, and you never know which ones lying ahead will be closed for the season or forever, so when you see one, you stop.  You stop and top off the fuel tank even if it's not on E.  You stop and empty everyone's bladders even if you don't think you need to go.  You stop, period.  Do not let a stop pass you by, young Al-Can traveler.  Not ever.

So, given that wisdom, every time including the last, I pulled into one of Johnson's Crossing's marked parking spots after refueling at the gasoline islands, got out of the rig, and entered a nice, pretty, clean retail establishment that would do a United States Circle K or 7-11 proud.  The well-lit retail area is served by large public restrooms where the stalls are actually painted.  The whole place smells gently of air freshener as you shop, and charming clerks are available to process your cash or credit card payment once you've decided what to purchase in their fine establishment.

I'm sure the facility makes tourists happy.  I saw it in 1995, though, and when I go in now I feel the pangs of a time long lost.  Back then there weren't parking spots; there was a big, open gravel area in which you drove to the side, applied the brake, and stopped your engine.  You then walked into the ancient cabin on creaky wood boards, entering an area that offered, in a dimly-lit space of about twenty feet by twenty feet, nearly everything a traveler, camper, or wilderness guide might want, so long as he or she wanted the single brand that happened to be stocked.  At the counters you could purchase fresh pastries or meat pies that you could then consume in easy chairs in a lounge area heated by--yes, you guessed it--a pot-bellied wood stove.

If you've never shaken off the dust of a long day in an area heated solely by the burning of wood, I suggest you add the experience to your bucket list.  There's something about being wrapped up in the unpretentious warmth of aromatic pine or birch wood heat that is truly heavenly and startlingly relaxing, in addition to being entirely absent from our modern electric or natural gas heat.

The bathrooms in the old place, by the way, were single tiny rooms containing porcelain fixtures that were probably lovingly crafted back before my grandmother was a teen.  The thought that each of the "thrones" had probably been carried individually up the Teslin River in a boat made the experience all that much more--well, special. 

Put simply, the old place had 'tude, man.  It was exactly what you needed to walk into after a long day of driving over monsterhellbumps in the great Yukon wilderness.  It was absolutely cool in the coolest way possible.

Then, sometime shortly after the fall of 1995, they "fixed" it. Ah, well.  Hell.

So anyway, our first time there, back in '95, I pulled up to an ancient gasoline pump--you know, the old white rounded-off pumps with the numbers that folded over in half?--and started topping off the tank.

My wife, at the time, noticed the three old men first.  She pointed them out to me with a quiet, "Oh, crap."

I looked over that'a'way, back behind the truck/trailer combo.

There's a look an old man gets on his face when he's watching a younger man doing something that's really rather dumb.  You've seen it before, right?  I'm finally learning to make that face, myself; my step-son is ably teaching me the fine art of "The Look."

The three old men were all making that face.

They stood in a single row just outside the front door of the establishment, each looking silently across the lot at the King's Camping Rig, each with his head tilted to the side slightly and his face pulled back into a "well, look at what the dumb kids are doing now" expression.

I'd seen it enough to recognize it, though not yet enough to mimic it.

With a sense of dread, I left the gas pump clacking and sidled over to them, joining their line and tilting my head to the same angle they were using.  Didn't take me long to see what they were making the face over.

"Well, howdy," I said.

"Nice day," the man next to me said.

"Sure is," I agreed.  "Feels a bit chilly for the evening, though."

"Yep," the same man said.  "Not gonna be long now till the snow flies."

"That's what I hear," I agreed.  "I suppose that axle's gonna be tough to fix, isn't it?"

I'd bought my cargo trailer back when I had more dreams than money, more stuff to load than trailer loading sense.  It wasn't particularly well built, being just a 4x8x4 plywood box on top of a frame.  The axles weren't on springs, and the supports were too far in toward the center which put too much distance between them and the wheel. 

You'd think a physics major would've been able to put two and torque together, but no.

Didn't help that I'd filled the plywood box up, tarped it, stacked and tied plastic totes another row on top of the tarp, hung bicycles from the sides, and even mounted folded lawn chairs on the front of it.  It looked like the Beverly Hillbillies were moving to Alaska, and it was loaded to at least twice the weight it was rated to carry.

"Kid's got a welder.  He can fix it for ya," the old man said.

There not being all that many kids in the vicinity, I quickly located the 20-something guy with a welding unit mounted on an old lawnmower chassis.  I'd never seen a contraption quite like it, but I was overjoyed when he hauled it and a heavy hydraulic jack over, used all that and a chain to bend the axle back to the shape it should have been, and braze-welded the split in it closed.  I was even happier when he said it would only cost us CAN$25, which at the time was worth about US$15.

Happily, then, we drove off into the sunset--literally.  With axles straightened and hopes renewed, we crossed the scenic Teslin River gorge and ambled our way on toward Alaska.

I never saw those three old men again.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 8: Haines Junction

I suppose there are more curious locations on the planet than the town of Haines Junction in the Yukon Territories, Canada, but I'm not sure where exactly they'd be.

Why is the town of Haines Junction curious, you ask?  Besides, of course, having as a main food establishment a business called "Frosty Freeze" in the midst of the great white north (incidentally, we ate there this last trip and found it pretty good--the local mosquitoes dined en masse at the same time and seemed to enjoy it as well).

It's curious, first, because at Historic Milepost 1016, actual mile 985, it's the first, or last, actual Canadian settlement, as defined by having single-purpose businesses and buildings, that you'll come to on the Alaska Highway.  If you're coming north, as we did our first time, you probably have no idea this is the last place with a real grocery store that you'll see before you're well into Alaska.

On the other hand, if you're coming south, as we did our last time, by the time you've bounced and jiggled this far you'll probably be saying "holy crap, they have a grocery store."

Haines is as far as I know the closest settlement on mainland Alaska to the rest of the United States.  That is, you can drive to it from nearly anywhere in Alaska that is served by roads (though you do have to travel through Canada to get there due to the mountain ranges, admittedly).  It's also in the "inside passage"--an area protected from the vagarities of the ocean by the islands it passes through--which means the trip to Haines from the south was, and still is, a safer passage by sea than a trip straight to the Port of Anchorage.  Before the Alaska Marine Highway ferries offered trips to Whittier (made possible once they finally blasted the tunnel between Whittier and Anchorage), the ferry to/from Haines was the best sea-bound choice to get to/from Alaska. That made the Haines Highway, through Haines Junction, the best way to get there.

So all that being said, Haines Junction is a curious location not only in terms of where it connects to, but also in terms of the town itself.

Like I said, the town has a grocery store.  That store bears the honor of being one of the few places I've given business to on nearly every trip I've made (all except the last, and only then because I was in a hurry).  Not that it's particularly special as grocery stores go; it's actually rather small and expensive.  But it's--well, it's a grocery store.  By that point on the trip you always have something needing restocked; hence, the special tingly feeling you get inside when you see an actual grocery store on the Al-Can.

Also at the intersection of the Haines Highway and the Alaska Highway is a large sculpture that exemplifies various species of the local wildlife.  The photograph to the right is the moose on that sculpture, called the "Village Monument," or more sardonically "The Muffin."  It's a cool sculpture.

Next door to the grocery store is another curious place: the liquor store.  That, and the library.  Yes, both.  The liquor store and the library are in the same building in Haines Junction.  No, seriously.  It's like Canada's tribute to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner combined.  I know, it's really just a matter of both being governmental functions in Canada, and those functions in Haines Junction are awfully limited in number and scope and thus are reasonably housed in a single building.  I get that.

Still, it's funny as hell.

Haines Junction is also the first time in Canada that most Alaskans will see a real street sign, and that in itself is a beautiful thing.  You actually have to make a turn, if you're on the Al-Can.  Coming south, it's a hard left, while coming north it's a hard right.  I know, I know, turns aren't that big a deal, at least until you've spent hours just traveling down the same curved road without them.  At that point, turns are a big deal.  Whoop whoop!  Hoo yeah!

So yeah, Haines Junction is an awesome little town.


(Post Script:  In researching this post further, I learned that Madley's General Store, the quaint grocery store I rejoiced to see every trip, went out of business in 2008  Another business apparently took its place till 2011.  News reports claim that another establishment is opening in late spring, 2013, to take its place, though.  Boo yah!)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 7: The Prettiest Spot on Earth

What is the prettiest spot on earth?

That's a hard one.  I've been on a boat out in the middle of the reefs surrounding Bermuda, and that's awfully awesome.  I've stood on a pullout on the Richardson Highway just north of Valdez and stared, awestruck, at that area's "Bridal Veil Falls."  Speaking of Valdez, I've been there when the cloud cover lifted and the sun hit the rocky crags that surround the town.  Outside of Alaska, I've witnessed plenty of incredible beauty in California, in Montana, in Tennessee, and several other elsewheres that definitely deserve a shot at that title.  It's a tough call, absolutely.

So, narrowing it down a skosh: what is the prettiest spot on the Alaska Highway?

That's easy, for me.  It's Kluane Lake.  Don't get me wrong: Liard Hot Springs is an awesome place to visit.  Muncho Lake is spectacular; I stayed in that campground once and was mesmerized as the sun lit up the hills on the opposite side.  As beautiful as both of those are, though, Kluane Lake has 'em beat.

Unless there's a forest fire going on, anyway.

My fourth trip, back in 1999, we were headed south, and as we muddled along closer and closer to Kluane Lake the sky grew ever darker and the aroma of burning forest filled the truck.  We were told at the stop just before there to be cautious; a major conflagration was ahead of us, just off the road, and the firefighters were all over the place.  Of course, they had the right of way.

The warning proved salient.  We pulled into one of our favorite pit stops, the Destruction Bay Shell station/bar/cafe/convenience store/etc., topped off on fuel, and continued smartly on our way.  It wasn't that we didn't feel welcome, but it was clear from the activity of hundreds of firefighters that the place we most needed to be at that moment was out of the way.  The sky over the lake was dark, anyway, with all the smoke hanging in the air.

That's an example, by the way, of what can happen on the Al-Can.  Every trip is unique, every journey has different stops and challenges along the way.

That said, the other five times Kluane Lake has been awesome, even when it's fairly windy as it was this last time (when we took the picture--hence the choppiness of the water).  It's the largest lake in the Yukon, and the Alaska Highway winds completely around its southern border.  For most of the drive, assuming it's a calm and clear day (and most up there are), you can see clear across the bright blue water to the mountain rising tall on the other side, and a reflection of the mountain dives down into the water just as deep as the original rises.  A rough gravel beach surrounds the lake on most sides, and ancient polished limbs of northern trees lay everywhere, having drifted up off the water's surface.  There's a huge turnout on the south side, and it's a popular place to stop and look and take some pictures, but there are other smaller turnoffs where it's easier to get down to the water if that's your desire.

Destruction Bay sits at milepost 1083, roughly 130 miles from the border between Alaska and Canada.  The distance doesn't sound like much, just a couple of hours at normal freeway speeds.  Taking it as slow as we were with a truck that liked to bounce off of the trailer with every orange flag opportunity, it took us the better part of a day to get there.  There are a few buildings in town, but the great big yellow building with gas pumps out front is where we've always stopped.  They've got a reasonably large shopping area with snack food and stuff, so it's worth wandering around inside too.  But....

But that lake....

Kluane Lake is spectacular.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 6: The Border

There's always been something incredibly exciting about crossing over the border from one country to another.  It's related to the act of leaving behind the customs, the laws, the society I've come to know and stepping into the unknown.  The great big wild world that's out there beyond. 

It's pretty dang exciting even when it's just Canada.

No, now that wasn't meant as a dig at our northern brethren.  I like Canada quite a lot, even to the point of having considered moving to there at one time.  It's just that they're so much like us (or is it we're so much like them?) that it hardly feels all that alien to cross into their nation.  I mean, Germany was quite a transition; they don't speak English over there.  Well, truth as I came to know it be told, they really do speak English over there, at least for the most part, unless they're mad at something stupid you've done or said.  In England and Ireland they spoke a different flavor of English than I was used to, to be certain, and they drove on the entirely wrong side of the road.  Mexico was just flat scary because of all the stories I'd heard of the completely different attitudes and water sources there.  The Bahamas?  Well, they wanted to braid my wife's hair.  A lot.  So much so, it was scary.

But Canada?  That's more like North Minnesota, eh? I mean, how different can two countries be when we have sports teams on the same leagues and it's not soccer they're playing?

Regardless, crossing the border in a motor vehicle, even "just" the border with Canada, is still interesting and exciting, thanks to the unknown of what you might face going through the checkpoint, and even more so since 9/11.  That said, relax--I've made it through successfully twelve times now, and you can, too, if you follow some basic rules of thumb.

First, before you go, make sure you have a passport for each person in the vehicle, as I don't think a driver's license will suffice for either direction any longer (though they used to--I made my first five trips on driver's licenses alone).  Make sure you have sufficient cash on you that they believe you'll be able to make it back/through, and also make sure any pets you're bringing along are vaccinated against anything they need vaccinated against, and more importantly, that you can prove it. 

On the cash thing--have cash (as much as they call for, minimum, according to the customs sites), but try not to use it much.  Most places up in Canada, even way up in the frozen north, take Visa and Mastercard, and you'll typically get the best exchange rates by using those systems or by going to a Canadian ATM.  You'll find plenty of ATMs across the south (of Canada), so you northbound Alaska Highway travelers are set for Canadian cash.  From the north, I don't recall seeing one before Haines Junction and again at Whitehorse, and then not again till Watson Lake.  Then again, the Yukon facilities operators tended to take American cash readily so it wasn't such a big deal.

Like I said before, though, nearly all vendors through Canada take Visa and Mastercard. 

That's despite the fact that Canadian money is cool.  Their loonies and the $2 multi-metal coins are way cooler than U.S. dollar and two-dollar coins.  The Canadian paper money is nearly as cool; they use pretty colors, after all.

I suppose I really am easily amused, aren't I?

As far as the rest of getting through Customs goes--well, good luck.  Try to look respectable, but try not to look like you're trying to look respectable, because that will make them suspicious.  Answer the questions directly, honestly, and succinctly, as the border agents have a thousand people to talk to just like you and don't really care whether you're heading to Alaska to move there or just to see the walruses jumping.

Check both United States customs and Canadian customs sites just before you head out, because no matter what I say here, crap changes all the time, and the agent speaking to you doesn't want to hear "well, I heard this was okay on this blog I read."  Remember, my fellow United Statesians, when you first strike out for the Al-Can, you need to follow the rules according to Canadian customs.  When you get to the other end, you need to follow United States rules.  You might get away with blowing off one or the other, as I, um, "might" have once or twice.  Then again, you might not. 

Oh, yeah, and check the hours of the crossing point you're using.  The Alaska border station is open 24 hours, as is the great big multi-lane one, the customs version of Walmart, coming down from Calgary into Montana.  The one near Vancouver is as well, but not all are, and you don't want to look like a dork sleeping in a border station parking lot overnight

Generally, it's a crap shoot who you're going to get and how you'll be treated.  I've heard plenty of horror stories, but I've never taken part in one.  (knocking on wood now)  Hey, the customs folks have a job to do, and they do it by inspecting a certain number of the people who make it through.  The less suspicious you act, the less likely you're going to be one of that certain number, but you never know when your number will be picked.  I know people whose car was confiscated at the border entering Alaska because a drug dog found "a few marijuana seeds" in it.  Granted, I know them well enough that I'm not sure I believe it was just a few seeds.  Regardless, if you've ever had, um, something like that in your car, you might want to vacuum it out before heading to customs.  You might also want to put an air freshener in it so that it doesn't reek when you open your window to talk to the agent.  You might also not want to greet him, "hey, dude, like what's up, man?"

I'm just sayin'.

But again, your mileage may vary.  My first time through the border I was pretty certain we weren't going to get through.  My truck plates were expired, for one thing, and we had nothing at all to prove that the dogs (two of 'em) in the cab-over camper were vaccinated against anything (hey, I was coming from Arizona, where it's fairly normal to vaccinate your dogs yourself).  That, and I didn't have the money to go take care of the discrepancies and get to Alaska--it was one or the other.  *sigh*

We pulled into the border station just before it closed.  The guy asked where we were going, and we told him.  He asked us other basic questions, and we answered them (the dogs, incidentally, just never happened to come up).  I saw him lean his head out the window and peer down the Jed Clampett contraption I was driving, and then he turned back to me, shot me a sideways grin, and waved the family through with a simple "yeah, good luck."

On the other side of the event spectrum, when I re-entered the United States at a smaller crossing in Montana this last time, it was right at the beginning of the season and I got a green guy, a raw recruit looking to make a difference in the world.  He asked me for my manifest--my maniwhat?  Commercial drivers need manifests; UHaul drivers only need to list the contents, unless of course a customs agent decides otherwise.  Luckily there was quite a line piling up behind me, so after he made me lift the end gate of the truck to see stuff piled from floor to ceiling all the way to the back he turned to look down the line of cars building up, turned back to me, and wished me safe travels.

Oh, and leave your Second Amendment paraphernalia at home.  You know what I'm talking about.  If you're going to Canada specifically to hunt there are rules regarding how to get your guns there, but otherwise Canadian authorities are a little more restrictive than U.S. folks are regarding what weaponry who can pack there.  And hey, it's their country. 

As for touristy crap at most of the crossings along the main United States - Canada border it's pretty nonexistent, but plan to spend a little bit of time at the Canada - Alaska border.  It really is pretty cool.  There's an obelisk erected right on it, and there's also a swath cut through the trees to the north and south along the actual border line.  It's a thrill to be able to stand in two different countries at once.  Or, as in the picture, to stand in one nation while your spouse is in another.  I know for a fact that it makes some guys very happy to have their spouses in a different country--just not this guy, with this spouse. 

And so all that said, happy travels!


Monday, April 22, 2013

To Poach An Egg

Brief, one-day break from the Al-Can story; this one hit me yesterday as particularly deep and--well, um, deep.  Hope you enjoy!  If not, hang on till tomorrow, when the Alaska Highway saga returns. 

There's something about a perfectly poached egg.  I noticed it yesterday while preparing some for breakfast, and when I posted it to Facebook I got the responses I kind of expected: "huh?" and "isn't it kind of like watching paint dry?"

Answer: not if you really watch it.

Now, think about it.  When you poach an egg, you take an orb of sliminess and bravely crack it open, and then you gently allow its contents to slide down into the bubbling-hot water.  Then, you do the hardest thing there is for a human being to accomplish.  Specifically, you do absolutely nothing.  You set a timer, and then you watch.  At first you only see the yellow core, but slowly the white around it begins to take shape. Before long, what appear to be fluttering wings of white become a cushiony cloud supporting and then surrounding the golden yolk.

When time is up, you carefully dip a slotted spoon in and under the now-cooked egg and lift it out of the water, dropping it onto a surface where it can shed some of the water that fled the heat with it.

Then?  Well, then, you can put it on bread, cheesy grits, or anything else, and enjoy the flavor combinations.  If you've timed it right the yolk is still a little oozy, while the white is puffy and firm. 

There are plenty of wrong ways to do it.  Chief among those is not allowing patience and time their due.  If you dip the spoon in too early you disturb the delicate white wings that are in the process of forming, and they very quickly dissipate into tiny tendrils of nothingness.  You can also, in the interest of faster poaching, get the water too hot.  It needs to be just barely bubbling, but it's easy to think that a rapid boil will cook the egg faster.  Problem is, too much bubble will do as much damage as your splashy spoon will in scattering the delicate work that the gentle heat is orchestrating in firming up the egg. 

Or, if you wish, you can always follow bad advice.  For my first attempt at egg poaching I followed an online recipe that told me to get the water spinning rapidly around the pot first, then drop the egg into the central vortex that was formed.  I did this with the first egg, and pfoomph!  Centrifugal forces took over and stripped the white entirely away from the yolk, which left very little egg to be eaten. Now, I will assume that that process works for somebody; else why would they put it up online?  It didn't work at all for me, though; I had to find a different way to go about the same thing, but once I found it I nailed it. 

There are also warnings out there that tell you not to attempt to poach more than one egg at a time, but I suggest the contrary to that.  In the picture above, in fact, you see I have three perfectly-poaching eggs going in the same pot at the same time, all three looking like little golden angels about to take flight.  You can have as many eggs going as you have horizontal real estate in the boiling water.  The key is in being gentle as you deposit the eggs into the water.

See, it's like writing, really (you knew I was going to bring it around to writing, didn't you?).  There are a lot of a lot of people out there who will tell you how you shouldn't have multiple works in progress, or that you should, or that you should write off the seat of your pants or from a detailed outline.  The trick to telling which advice is garbage is simple: it's all garbage.  Keep in mind that in poaching an egg the idea is simply to keep the white with the yolk until it's cooked, and you do whatever it takes to get there.  Similarly, keep in mind that in writing a story the idea is to keep the reader reading to the bottom of the page and then turning to the next, and you do whatever it takes to get there.

Also, enough can't be said about patience, patience, and more patience.  The story you're writing isn't the story you're going to publish.  If you're writing your first draft, you're looking at a raw yolk and slimy clear stuff.  It takes time for a story to gel together to be a blockbuster.  It just does; that's a fact of the creative process.  You can't hurry it, or else you get a yolky mess. 

And now that I've wrung this metaphor for all I can get out of it, I bid you good day, and good eats....


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 5: Tok

Most places I've been, if you ask me about them, I'll describe a location of some sort.  Memphis, for example, I'll talk about Graceland.  Biloxi, the beautiful beach.  New Orleans, Bourbon Street.  Richmond--well, I live here now, so there are lots of places I'd talk about.

Tok, Alaska, meanwhile, is one place I talk about primarily in terms of a person, one who really made a difference in my life when I needed it the most.

More on that in a bit.

Tok is the place I consider to be the northern endpoint of the Alaska Highway.  Yes, technically, the Al-Can continues on to Fairbanks, but other than tourists doing the bucket list thing, I have no idea who would want to go that-a-way.  I've been to Fairbanks several times, myself, both for work and for SCA events, and unless you're a geophysicist or an oil company worker I just don't see the attraction.

Anyway, Tok is where the Tok Cut-off, also known as Alaska Highway 1, and the Al-Can, also known as Alaska Highway 2, or, confusingly, just The Alaska Highway, converge.  From the T intersection one road heads toward Fairbanks, another toward Anchorage, and the third off toward Canada.  Now, I've already mentioned the service station I'd always stopped at before it burned down.  The only other regular, touristy-ish, Tok business I've been to is an RV park somewhere just off the highway.  I stopped there for the night on my fourth trip, and, well, it was a campground.  Most campgrounds are campgrounds are campgrounds, frankly.  I seldom recall much of any of them.

I know my late mother and stepfather would disagree. They were dedicated RV'ers who kept their guidebooks to RV parks close at hand while traveling, always looking to see which ones had the most features they wouldn't make use of for the best price.  To me, though, especially when RV'ing for transportation, a campground serves one purpose alone: to sleep.  To sleep, and then to awaken, refreshed and ready to rumble down the road the next day. 

I do remember that next day, actually, and the breakfast we ate in the campground's little cafe.  I ordered a stack of sourdough pancakes, tasty treats that, done right, make my mouth water.  These, though, tasted like rotten milk.  I know good sourdough is supposed to have a tangy flavor that awakens those seldom-used umami taste sensors, but the pancakes that morning went way over gently awakening the umami and into splashing it in the face with dirty cold river water.  There wasn't enough syrup in all of Tok, I figured, to make those things palatable.

Haven't eaten there again, for the obvious reason.

Still, I can't pass through Tok without saluting one business--one guy--which is pretty much the same thing in this case.

In a blog post a few days ago I described frost heaves.  I'm an expert now, but I had no idea what they were in my first trip through.  That inexperience cost me.

Speaking of cost, I'd been doing some rough mental calculations toward the end of that first trip, and after gawd-awfully high Al-Can prices on food and fuel I had $300 left to my name when I left Tok with a full tank of gas.  With 300 miles to go till I saw the lights of Anchorage, I could, probably, barely make it to town without filling up again.  At that point there was a campground on the edge of Anchorage--Centennial Park, a great spot, really--where I could stay for under $10 a day. 

Okay, then, I thought--we're gonna make it, with even a little bit to spare.

Now, up in the Yukon we'd had an axle start to split, but a guy with a welder attached to a mower chassis had fixed it right up, bending the axle back in place and brazing the broken pieces back together.  It had held over the rough road since then.

It didn't hold over the frost heaves, though.  The first frost heave sent the truck and trailer up into the air (hey, it was the first straight stretch of black asphalt I'd seen in a long time, so I was doing the speed limit and then some).  The second frost heave smacked us as we came down, and suddenly there erupted a demonic screech from behind the truck as the tire that was formerly attached to the trailer shot past at a speed that had to be illegal.

All things considered, we were lucky we didn't flip the whole rig over, but you don't really think of things like that when you're broken down on the side of the road.

Wasn't long before a couple of guys on a hunting expedition happened by and pulled over to help.  The only real help they could offer, unfortunately, was to give me a ride back along the 30 miles of beautiful blacktopped road that laid between our five-wheeled contraption and Tok.

They took me to the first AAA shop we could find.  Then I learned that the AAA policy I'd bought didn't cover what I thought it covered.  Specifically, the policy covered towing of the vehicle, but not the trailer.  Oh, damn.

The fine print.  Read it, you should.

The guy quoted me $100-150 to tow the trailer back to town, and then $1200 for a new axle.  That, and a day or two in a campground waiting for the axle to arrive.  The math wasn't hard for me to do: nope, couldn't afford it.  The alternatives, meanwhile, were awfully black; after all, nearly everything I owned at the time was in that trailer.  What wasn't in it was tied on top or bolted to the sides. 

That was when somebody--one of the guys giving me a ride, I think--suggested I go talk to Iron Dog.

Iron Dog Outfitters is a guy--Mike, I think, is his actual name--who does general repair and welding and stuff.  If you were to look up a picture of "typical Alaskan working man" you'd probably find a good likeness of him: strong, gruff, bearded, Carhartt-wearing.  That, and he'd apparently earned a bit of a reputation as a helluva good welder/fabricator/etc.  Thus, as twilight spread across the land, I (timidly, I admit) knocked on his business/home door, praying he could help but not sure what I'd do if he didn't.

He answered the door with a fork in his hand.  I explained the situation, and he looked me up and down.  After a minute of thought he told me to wait for him to finish dinner, and then just minutes later he hooked up a tow-behind welding rig to his truck, tossed me into the passenger seat, and charged off down the road.

Remember the guy who'd brazed the axle together?  Yeah, that's a fine fix for something that's not weight-bearing, but the fact that it had held the wheel on as long as it had was a fairly good-sized miracle.  Iron Dog jacked the trailer up, growled a few words about the previous workmanship, and got down to working his own special kind of magic.  He welded a steel sleeve inside the axle, then welded the broken piece with the wheel back on over the strengthening sleeve, and set the whole thing back down onto the pavement.

I asked him the question I had been terrified to voice: "how much do I owe you?"

"How much do you have?" he asked, casting a rather pointed stare toward my rig, a setup that belonged more on an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies show than on the Alaska Highway.

"Three hundred."   

He shrugged.  "Call it a hundred, then."  Oh.  My.  God.  If you've ever priced quality welding work, especially mobile welding work 30 miles away from the shop and in the evening hours, you know that that was a steal, practically a charitable donation on his part.  We thanked him profusely, handed him two fifties, and shot on down the road.  We stopped and slept for the night at a pullout somewhere in the middle of Mosquitoville, and then the next day, as I sang the chorus of "Coming in on a wing and a prayer" over and over, we finally landed in Anchorage.  Talked to people about working for them the next day, and started work the day after that.  And--we made it.

Over the years I've met a lot of people, in Alaska and Canada and in other areas of the United States too, who are also Iron Dog types.  They help you out first, and then worry about what you can do in return later.  Still, Iron Dog is chief of that village to me.  That's why every time I think of Tok, and every time I've passed through, I utter a little prayer of thanks with his name on it.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 4: A Tiny Spot Of Heaven

There's this spot on the Al-Can.  It's a tiny spot of heaven.  You know how a pet will lie in wait for the sun to come through the window at just the right angle so that he or she can settle into the spot of snugglewarmth thus created?  This spot on the Al-Can is like 4 square miles of that.  If other places on the Alaska Highway are pools of coolness, this is a raging torrent of awesome.  It's at Historical Milepost 496, actual mile 475 of the Alaska Highway, which is about 100 miles south of the halfway point between the start in Dawson Creek and the Alaska border.

(Forgive me for jumping around a bit before I eventually do cover the route in a generally southward direction.  It's just that when I think "Alaska Highway" this is the first happy spot that pops into my mind, once I finally brush away the orange-colored cobwebs of evil.)

Those who're driving north have no idea what they're in for, but those coming south have already survived nearly all the evil orange flags they're going  to have to endure.  By this point on the trip, the road finally has left the Yukon Territory and struck out due south into British Columbia.  Boy, is that a happy feeling.  While the Yukon is plenty attractive, BC is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen on this planet, and better yet the traveler can enjoy it without all the tooth-jarring rough spots in the road to contend with.  You'll be overjoyed to be able to pick up some decent speed between construction sites, while you're still enjoying the sights.

You'll be happily picking up so much speed, in fact, that you'll probably be tempted to cruise right on by Liard Hot Springs.  I was.  But don't.  Please, for the sake of lush, warm, soothing paradise, don't.

I've been to quite a few hot springs in quite a few locations over the years.  Liard is right up there--if not the best, then at least one of the best, judged solely as a hot springs area.  That fact that such a great hot springs experience is right smack in the middle of a grueling drive is what elevates it to super-special.

One of these days, in fact, I have promised my family that we're going to go there just on a vacation, without having anywhere in particular to drive to that day or even the next. 

It's crowded, of course.  The tiny spot of heaven is fairly famous; while there I met tourists from all over the world.  It's a weekend vacation destination for folks from Edmonton or many other west Canada cities.  Expect, then, to meet people from everywhere.  The great thing is that they'll all be tremendously happy people.  I don't think even Archie Bunker could stay grouchy there.

The spot to which I keep referring is officially called the Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park.  It'll cost you $10 for a family to frolic in the park for the day.  That's CAN$10, not US$10, though the difference between the two has become virtually meaningless other than the fact that the Canadian $1 and $2 coins are really cool while the United States coins are--well, not.  Regardless, most folks that I ran into just traded evenly, one Loonie for each George Washington.

I hate to admit it, but that last was awfully fun to say.

Regardless, take $10 in either currency with you, half that if you want to frolic by yourself and let your family sniff the sulfur after you return, relaxed.  The solo frolic is probably a bad idea, though, especially if you have a redhead in your home. You might return to find all your underwear burnt, and making the rest of that drive with no underwear couldn't be pleasant.

The parking lot is cavernous but also really busy.  Get there early in the morning if you can (yeah, right, you're driving the Al-Can, so good luck planning something time-specific).  It took us a few times around it to find a spot, but we eventually did.  When you offload, take your swim suit, your towel, and your camera.  Don't forget the camera.  You'll be walking across a muskeg on a plank pathway through an area they call "Tropical Valley" because the warm moist air creates a plant and animal ecology that's both unique and beautiful.  Every time I've made the few-hundred-yard walk I've seen something cool, from moose to birds to blooming orchids.  Ferns I've never seen anywhere else wave their fronds at passers-by. 

Oh, and bear sightings are possible, but don't worry.  They don't eat tourists except in tourist season.

There is a changing area up near the hot springs, and it was a nice one indeed.  I haven't been there since they announced a refit of the area, so I can only assume the new changing area is even nicer.  It's got toilets, anyway, and as I recall they're real toilets, with flushing handles even. 

The first pool is the biggest and the hottest.  It's named Alpha pool in a stunning display of lack of creativity.  It's not very wide but it's long, and there are warmer and cooler spots up and down the pool.  By chatting with some of the other visitors you'll quickly learn all about where to go to find the water that's just perfect for you.  The mostly sandy bottom is easy on the feet, too.

You'll smell the sulfur, of course.  I don't recall it being that bad, but I'm not bothered by such things and besides, I was focused on getting an aching back down into the water.

Up the path a bit farther is--yes, you guessed it--Beta pool.  That pool is a little cooler and much, much deeper.  You can actually swim in it, in fact.  I enjoyed that pool, but I enjoyed Alpha pool's greater warmth, after several long days of driving, much more.

There's a campground as well as a hotel there, and on the web site I linked you can reserve a spot at either one.  If you're driving a rig down the Al-Can to get there, though, I'd recommend considering your arrival time carefully.  I've never been able to follow a schedule on the that damnable road, missing key benchmarks six times now, and it's usually been the fault of something on the order of a land slide or a forest fire.

Plan carefully, then, and don't depend on your cell phone to make/change arrangements once you get away from civilization.

Oh, and keep in mind that it's always a small world.  Last time I was there, I ended up chatting with the parents of a woman I'd just left behind in my previous job. 


Friday, April 19, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 3: Ice, Ice, Baby

It always seems to surprise people the most when I tell them that what I've missed most on the trips up and down the Alaska Highway is water.  Sometimes it's just frozen water that I miss; sometimes it's water in general.

First thing: there are a lot of Canadians who, like many Europeans, don't think drinks should have ice in them.  In the cities in Canada I never had a problem getting ice for my drinks, but at many, if not most, of the rural stops I had to specifically ask for ice, and sometimes I got glared at for it.  I suppose one could ask someone in Canada why so many Canadians don't put ice in their drinks, but that would probably (and legitimately) just be answered with the question of why so many Americans do.

It goes beyond ice, though.  Sometimes water is hard to be had.

That observation, by the way, comes from the times I've done the trip in the eight or ten months that are considered "off season."  Yes, you can drive the Alaska Highway in the dead of winter.  Some people I know, in fact, prefer it then because there's far less traffic at that time of year, and because the snow pack evens the road out around the accursed orange flags.  Those who drive it in the chillier months, though, have a whole new level of self-reliance to get used to.  Probably half of the service stations/cafes/gift shops/convenience stores/postal offices/etc. north of Edmonton close for the winter.  I don't blame them; they probably do what I'd do--head someplace souther and warmer (like Calgary) for the "holidays" (specifically, September through May).

The ones that stay open?  They "winterize."

What's winterization?  Well, look, if your house is built to modern environmental standards by a competent contractor, you probably don't need to think of it.  Many of the houses up north, though, have to do something to prevent the fluid water in their pipes under (or beside) the house from becoming cold enough to phase-shift into solid water--ice, ice, baby.

Ice is bad.

Specifically, ice in the water pipes is bad.  Not only does it obstruct the flow of water, but water also has a curiously destructive property.  It's one of the few molecular substances that, because of its covalent structure, actually gets bigger when it freezes.  Don't believe me?  Stick a 6-pack of generic soda in the top storage cabinet of your cabover camper for the winter.

No, don't do that.  I, um, have experience at that, and if you're so inclined you can just use my experience to teach your own that the result is messy, messy, messy.  The water in the soda freezes and expands, wanting to take up more space than is available in the confines of the cans.  The cans, meanwhile, are constructed to delicate tolerances designed to hold in anything up to but not including the internal pressure inflicted by frozen soda.  Each can, then, expands till it can't any more and then explodes, thus launching a torrent of quasi-frozen (because the water freezes, but the soda syrup does not) goop all over the insides of the lucky cabinet.  Then, when warm weather happens, the water runs out of the bottom of the cabinet, getting everything beneath sticky and wet, while the soda syrup coagulates and dries in place, sealing the can shards onto the cabinet floor for all eternity.

Yeah, it's ugly.  But what do I know?  Try it for yourself if you're feeling lucky.

So, anyway, yeah, I also know from experience how bad it is to deal with a frozen water line.  One of the apartments in Anchorage I lived in had one freeze up, in fact--and yes, that was quasi-modern construction, too.  I actually didn't have to deal with it, personally, but the plumber was in and out of my apartment for hours, working the frozen spot from both ends trying to melt the clog gently enough to not melt the pipe or set the water boiling, which would then create a steam cannon.

Because of the difficulty of dealing with this, then, the smarter folks way up north turn off and drain any non-essential water flows.  I can't blame them.  Can't blame them until, anyway, we pass through (as we did) the part of the Yukon closest to Alaska (and, therefore, the farthest north) in early June and are told that the restrooms aren't open for "business" yet.  Yes, I said June.  There was still snow on the ground.  Streams were still frozen over.  Yes, June, a part of spring when Texas is already turning into an inferno.  That June.  Up near the Arctic Circle, it can still be awfully chilly that time of year, and it certainly was that year.

They made me feel better, though, by making me a cup of coffee (from water out of a barrel they kept full inside).  It was actually, primarily, anyway, a rock shop, which was why we stopped, and the guy, who must've been about 150 years old, filled up one of those old tin percolators and brewed us a pot of coffee to sit and chat with.

You really can't get life better than that, honestly--sitting and chatting about rocks and gems with somebody you've never met, and will probably never see again, over a cup of well-percolated coffee.  Black, no sugar, just like I like it.

On second thought, I guess life can get a little better, but only if you add working flush toilets.  We had to go down the road to the next roadside hole-in-the-ground potties.

"Roughing it," indeed.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 2: Orange Flags

Orange flags.  If you haven't driven the Al-Can, the mental imagery inspired by those two words may not mean much of anything to you.  If you have, they probably induce at least a shudder, if not an outright panic attack.

Why?  Well, first of all, the roads through the north are rough.

That may seem an obvious statement to you.  Of course northern roads are rough, right?  That was one of the things they talked about on that TV show all the time.  I mean, up there where it snows and stuff, they get snow and stuff on the road, and that does--um, stuff--to the roads. 

So sure, it's rough.  But what's rough?  You might have narrowly avoided a pothole on a drive recently, and in that line of thought you're probably supposing that by rough I mean there's a couple, or even a few, potholes instead of just one.

Nuh uh.

When I ran my first marathon--hell, who am I kidding?  When I ran my only marathon, I was amazed at "the wall" that I hit toward the end.  I mean, I'd been tired before.  Running long distances makes you tired.  A marathon is a really long distance, so running it should make you really tired, right?  Thus, I assumed, the wall was simply what they called it when you got really tired.


The wall, the one you hit in a marathon, is actually when your body runs out of anything and everything it can use in the immediate sense to fuel its continued operation.  It's not just a "hey, I'm really tired" signal.  Instead, it's your body screaming "hey, Bozo, I'm done here, I got nothin' left, so you just dang well better stop moving those feet right now, you hear?"

Have you ever had a major muscle cramp up when running?  The wall gave me four of those at the same time.  Luckily for me I was too numb, both physically and mentally, to stop because of it.  Somehow I shambled across the finish line despite the painful yelling my body was directing at me.

So yeah, the marathon isn't just a really long race in which you get really tired.

Similarly, the Al-Can isn't just a really rough road where you find more potholes.

Yes, yes, I know: "but they say it's entirely paved now."  Sure, it is, sort of.  But the extreme weather of the northern part of the continent tears roads up pretty fast.  Thus, there's always construction going on.  At the same time, there's always torn up road that the construction teams haven't gotten to yet. 

The Canadians don't play around with construction, either.  Most crews in the United States will take three times the amount of time and resources that it would take to just build a road in order to craft a beautiful bypass, then tear up the original surface and lay a new one down.  Once the American road has been restored to its normal grandeur, traffic is redirected over it, the bypass is dismantled, and the crew is (finally) off to another spot.

In northern Canada, it's a lot simpler and faster, though perhaps a bit more panic-inducing for the drivers at times.  The surface gets ripped off and gravel put down--and by "gravel" I'm referring to assorted rocks that may be as large as your fist--and you get to drive through the actual construction zone while all this is going on, behind a pilot car whose sole purpose seems to be to slow you down enough that you inhale all the construction dust rather than just some of it.

Once, while driving toward Alaska for the first time on the Al-Can, I happened to be at the front of the line of cars.  Their budget must've been tight, because they decided to use a dump truck as the pilot car.  Only thing was the dump truck was doing double duty, piloting us through the site while dumping its load of gravel onto the surface just ahead of us.  What fun it was!  (just kidding on the last)

I guess that's an inexpensive way to tamp the gravel down.

As rough as they are, the construction sites become a welcome sight after a while, believe it or not.  That's because there aren't any orange flags of doom in the construction sites.

Said orange flags--the bane of my entire Al-Can driving experience--are really rather diminutive in stature for all the pain they cause.  You've seen the orange flags people put on the backs of bicycles, right?  These aren't that big.  They're only a few square inches of orange plastic stuck to a couple of feet of wire that is then pressed into the soil beside the road.  Total height is about a foot and a half, or sometimes as much as half a  meter.  Sometimes they're on one side or the other, and in rare extreme situations they're on both.

Regardless of which side of the road they're on, they mean one and only one thing to the driver: slow the hell down, because this spot is rough.  And by slow down, we're not talking 80 to 60 (kph, not mph).  No, we're talking 80 to 40 or even 30 in some cases.  For the conversion impaired, 30 kph is less than 20 mph.  Imagine transitioning from a highway to an American school zone, except they have giant alligators walking around ready to shred your car if you drive too fast, and the only warning you get is a little swatch of orange on the side of the road.

The rough spot is never just a pothole, either.  Oh, it may be a pothole, but if so then it goes so far down you can smell authentic Peking duck cooking at the bottom.

(Yes, I'm aware that the opposite point on the globe from the Yukon Territories is closer to Madagascar than to China, but I don't know anything from Madagascar that would've worked in my exaggeration.)

More often, the orange flag signals the presence of a series of ridges and ruts in the pavement that look sorta like the ground does near an older tree with surfaced roots.  These create the Grand Poo-Bah of all washboard effects.  Go over it too fast and you'll wonder if your teeth are still attached, and to heck with your muffler.

They say Pavlov had his dog well trained.  Every time the scientist would ring a bell, the dog would salivate.  A few miles on the Al-Can will do the exact same thing to a driver, only with orange flags instead of a bell and a penchant for rapid braking rather than salivation.  It still works with me, actually, four years later.  Wave an orange flag at me and my hands clench around an imaginary steering wheel while my right foot presses down on a brake that isn't really there.

It's frightening how trainable we can be.

Frickin' orange flags....


Over at the APG: Q is for Quotations

Well, I did it again.

Specifically, I visited the blog over at APG and contributed another letter to the alphabet challenge.  This time it as Q.  I figure since I did both J and Q, I win, points-wise, right?

Anyway, you can read my thoughts on how an author can use quotations for inspiration or for exposition over there:  http://alexandriapublishinggroup.com/2013/04/blogging-a-z-challenge-q-is-for-quotations/.

Enjoy!  And check out the other posts while you're there; just prior to my post are a column by Donna K. Fitch on using Boolean operators to make searches better, and a post by Renee Barrett (the resident cover expertgoddess) on the care and feeding of other peoples' image copyrights.  Great stuff, and it's all free to read.

No, really.  Go there now, pretty please.  I'm done writing for the time being.  The next installment on the Al-Can Adventures won't be up till tonight.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 1: What Cross Street?

Ever had one of those phone conversations where you're technically speaking the same language, but in terms of mutual understanding, you're not?  Our second full day on the Alaska Highway, the famous Al-Can, started with one of those.  "Cross streets?  I haven't seen one of those in a hundred miles," I remember saying.

But I get ahead of myself.  Hi, I'm Stephen King, and I'm an Al-Can-aholic.  At least, I guess I qualify, having driven that stretch of asphalt and gravel that some mistakenly identify as a road in its entirety six times now.  I should add that I've taken six different routes, which may confuse some of you.  Along the path of those six crazy journeys I've picked up a story here and there, and I'm finally sitting down here to write at least some of them out in the long, mostly true, way.

Let me also add, before I begin this one, that I've not driven the Al-Can for the fun of it once.  Every time, it's been because I needed to get from one end to the other.  The first time, in fact, we were racing both the onset of winter and a leaky radiator as I headed to a new life in Anchorage.  This last time, I'd accepted a job offer down in Biloxi, MS, and had to get my stuff from one spot to another in the least expensive way possible.  Some days, mostly when I'm reposing in the twilight quietude of my own ponderings, I wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have just sold everything in Alaska, shipped a few boxes of precious pictures and memorabilia, flown down, and started anew and afresh in our new home.  But then again, I reason, if I'd done that I would've missed out on the experience.

Granted, I also often reason that experience is what I got those times that I didn't get what I wanted.

Going into the move, I had two vehicles: my old trusty (and rear wheel drive) pickup truck and a little commuter car I'd just finished paying off.  My lovely bride had her Jeep Cherokee.  We had three bedrooms worth of stuff in Anchorage plus a storage unit out in Wasilla, near where we'd started our lives together.  The plan, then, was to sell off two of the three vehicles (we picked the Jeep for its specially-inflated value in Alaska and the commuter car; a rear wheel drive pickup isn't worth much in the great white north), pack the largest UHaul we could rent (had to be UHaul; there are no competitors who'll do the Alaska-to-the-rest-of-the-U.S. thang), put the third vehicle onto a tow dolly, and boogie it on down the road.

Getting there was complicated--we'd been living in Mississippi for over a month already when we made the move.  See, you really don't want to drive a UHaul out of Alaska in the spring.  The winter is okay, as long as you don't mind stuff freezing.  The summer is grand.  The fall isn't bad if you don't mind occasional snow flurries in your windshield.  But the spring--no, don't do it.

To get back to Alaska to start the move we flew out of New Orleans, which is a decent haul from Biloxi.  I only bring this up because a good friend offered to let me drive to her place in Slidell, LA, park the minivan we'd bought in MS in her lot, and then she drove us to the airport.  The swing through Slidell in the UHaul will be a factor later.  Just--remember, that's where our minivan sat through this trip.

I bought the UHaul insurance, by the way.  I know, they say your auto insurance will cover you, but that's with a disclaimer or two, especially when you're pulling something behind the truck.  I'm glad I did, because our first night, before we'd even left Anchorage, somebody sideswiped the tow dolly on the side of the road at night.  With insurance, luckily, it was no problem! 

We packed the UHaul, and then we drove out to Wasilla and packed the UHaul again including the stuff from storage.  We ended up filling up nearly every cubic foot of it, which is quite a feat.  By that point, though, we were exhausted, and the sun was setting, so we drove to Palmer and stopped at a rustic motel on the edge of town.

(Incidentally, "rustic" in Alaska or anywhere along the Al-Can can mean an alarmingly wide variety of things.  Sometimes it means you'll need mosquito netting overnight to prevent the flying beasties from grabbing hold and flying you away to their lair--some really are that big, honest-ish.  But this one wasn't rustic in that way; it was just rustic as in they probably couldn't remember the last time they'd freshened the paint on the walls.  They actually used keys--real, metal keys--for the doors; I thought that was pretty quaint.  But the linens were clean enough, and the hot water was hot, so I have to lend a nod to the suggestion that we got what we paid for.)

The next morning our grand adventure began.  Our first full day on the Alaska Highway!

The Al-Can starts out awfully nice if you're coming from Anchorage (technically it begins in Fairbanks, but most people I know bypass that last bit to go directly to Anchorage).  Leaving Palmer, you go up and over a hill and then find yourself in Sutton, a little town that I'm not sure even has one horse.  We did stop for breakfast there in a roadside diner, and it was--well, it was breakfast.  Breakfast has rarely knocked my proverbial socks off, and this one didn't, but it was filling and nutritious.  So, filled with nutrition as we were, we left the vestiges of civilization, driving down the two-lane road that qualifies as a major highway in that part of the nation.

It's a gorgeous drive.  All of it is, actually, but the part just north of Sutton is particularly awesome.  It's a little terrifying at times, too, swooping as the road does up and around mountains as it follows the winding path cut through by the Matanuska River. 

Then it levels out and you learn, if you didn't already know, what a "frost heave" is.

Frost heaves have one of two possible origins.  Scientifically, they're what happens when nearly-freezing ground water gets up into a level of frozen earth (remember, the soil closer to the surface freezes first) and then creates what's called an ice lens, named for its shape that is similar to the lens in our eyes.  As the ice grows toward the higher freezing gradient (the surface), it forms a mound which pushes anything above it upward.  This upward growth causes entire sections of road to bulge by as much as a foot or more, thus making the driving experience awfully exciting. Or awfully terrifying, your choice.

The other possible origin, by the way, is that they're placed there by Satan to kill our cars, our trips, and our dreams.  But I like the more scientific explanation.

It was a frost heave that nearly ended the trip just as it had begun, in fact, just as it was a frost heave that nearly ended our first trip just as it was nearly finishing.  For our first trip, back in 1995, most of the road for the last 100 miles or so of Canada was still the original Alaska Highway--mostly gravel, and very few straight sections.  The road from the border to Tok, the first American city you come to, was under a lot of construction, and so I had gleefully turned my pickup truck (the same one I was towing behind the UHaul now, incidentally) and its following cargo trailer south from Tok and celebrated when I observed a nice straight stretch of black asphalt awaiting our passage.  I almost got out and kissed it, it felt so good, but instead of stopping I bumped the speed up to about 50 mph.

At 50 miles per hour, it felt like I was Speed Racer after the Al-Can, but then I hit the first frost heave, and then the second one hit me, and when the trailer came down onto the pavement the second time it broke the axle in two and turned our trailer into a massive truck anchor.

Yes, they're that bad.

Knowing they were that bad, I tried to take it slow in the big truck.  After all, who wants to drive down the Al-Can with your furniture and household goods only to open the box at the end to find 26 feet of crushed mulch in the back?  I sure didn't.  I wasn't taking it slow enough, though, as I learned when a Good Samaritan flashed his lights till he got my attention and then let me know that my pickup had bounced off of the tow trailer.

Another incidentally--nearly everybody on the Al-Can is a Good Samaritan.  It's in large part due to the great amount of mutual suffering you're all doing, but whatever the reason it's an awesome thing.  I pulled the great big truck as far off the road as I could with no shoulders (it worked okay; it's not exactly the Expressway) and soon somebody else showed up who had the torch and other tools I needed to fix the problem.  See, the truck had bounced out of its restraints and was held on by the safety chain, which hadn't been set in completely taut.  It was now, though, being dragged along halfway off of the trailer, held on by a completely stretched safety chain, and in order to get it back on I first had to get the chain off.

I used to have a picture of us after the Good Samaritan had helped us cut the chain and reattach it and the pickup was back on the trailer.  If I find it, I'll--well, I'll probably put it up on a dartboard somewhere.  That part of the trip sucked.

After tightening the straps down as much as I could, we took off again.  I took the frost heaves even slower, and eventually made it to the sprawling metropolis of Glenallen, AK, where I refilled the fuel tank with one hand while holding off the 'skeeter horde with the other.

The cutoff from Glenallen to Tok is really rather boring, traveling through mostly flat lands populated exclusively by the scrub pines that, anywhere else, would be called rather pitiful shrubbery.  It used to get really exciting around Gakona, where the road suddenly turned 270 degrees, dropped right down the mountain, spun a sharp corner over a waterfall-fed stream, and then climbed back up the other side.  Modern construction, though, has made that spot a whole lot easier on the knuckles, if not the brakes.

Arriving in Tok, I was sad to see the big Texaco had burned down and was out of business for a while (near as I can tell, it's still out).  I don't know what it was about the big gas station/convenience store with real bathrooms and such, but every single trip till then it had been our first/last stop on American soil.  This trip, though, I had to spin around and go back down the street to the Chevron.  Not that the Chevron was bad, it just wasn't the same place.  It's silly, I know, but it's meaningful.

The last 100-ish miles once you turn from Highway 1 onto Highway 2 (hey, there aren't that many roads in Alaska) and head toward the border are okay, despite seeming to be eternally under construction.  Still, as we trucked along, the construction wasn't bad but my every-20-mile pauses were showing that the pickup was bouncing further and further out of its restraints again.  I needed to call UHaul about it, I knew, and I needed to do it during daylight and probably from a phone in the United States.  Thus, we stopped for the night at the last hotel/gas station/diner/convenience store/etc.before the border (up in that country you'll usually find a little of everything anytime there's a building with a foundation) .

And we slept.  We slept well, after most of the day sitting three across on the bench seat in the UHaul.

The next morning we rose and got to work.  Heide and Jessa repacked the luggage and stuffed into the truck and then headed to breakfast while I called UHaul's service number and waited by the only telephone for a callback.

...and no, there wasn't any cell service there.  Are you kidding?

When I finally got a person on the phone, I started off just trying to describe the problem.  She didn't want to hear it, though; first, she wanted answers to the questions her computer was posing. 

"What road are you currently on?"

"The Alaska Highway."

"Is there an Interstate or highway number you can give me?"


"That's it, just two?"

"Yep.  There are only four, total, in Alaska.  This one's number two."

"Um, okay.  What's the closest cross street?"

"A cross street?  I haven't seen one for a hundred miles."

"No cross street?" She sounded incredulous.

"There isn't one."

"What's the nearest exit, then?"

"There isn't one.  Look, I'm on the Alaska Highway, passing through wilderness.  The closest cross street is back in Tok."

"How do you spell that?"

"Um, never mind.  Do you happen to have a map of Alaska?"

"I do."

"Okay, so there's one main highway that leads from Alaska into Canada.  It's right smack in the center of the border.  See that line on the map?"

"Yes, Sir, I do."

"Okay, see where that line crosses the big vertical line that represents the international border?  Zoom in on where those two lines cross and you'll see me waving at you."

"Oh!" she sounded like she'd figured something out.  "So what road is that?"

"So what road is what?"

"The one that crosses the highway you're on."

"No, it's not a road.  That's an international boundary.  Granted, they do cut a swath down--oh, never mind.  Look, can I talk to a supervisor?"

We eventually got it figured out how to tell their system where I was.  It turned out the closest UHaul service person was actually just a few miles away, right across the border in Canada, but because he was on the other side of customs I had to drive to him.

Heck, I was going thataway anyway.  I just had to hope the pickup stayed attached to the trailer that long.

Luckily everything played out okay.  The service guy was really quite nice, but all he could do was tighten the straps down as tight as he could.  Apparently it's a somewhat normal thing, as those vehicle towing trailers weren't intended to go over monsterhellbumps.  He advised me to take it slow and to watch out for orange flags.

Yeah--orange flags.  The bane of the Al-Can existence, right there, and the topic of my next story.