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!


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