Saturday, May 4, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 15: Facing Nature's Fury

As I've already said numerous times in this series, you can't predict what Mother Nature will throw at you on the Alaska Highway.  Sometimes you realize that if you'd started a couple of days earlier, you would have avoided something bad.  Sometimes if you'd started the same couple of days earlier, you would have run into something bad.

The last trip down, we ran into one of those sometimes.  Had we left a couple of days before we did, we would've run into a highway closure.  And, since the Al-Can is really the only game in town--there is no express loop around to just hop onto--a highway closure means you're stopped.

We didn't get stopped, though.  Nah, we just got to drive through a forest fire.

On the Al-Can, word travels fairly fast.  You'll be paying for the gas you pumped and end up spending ten or a dozen minutes chatting with the proprietor about what he's heard of the road conditions in the direction you're going.  More often than not, what he tells you is right.

Thus it was that we started hearing of the forest fire well before we came anywhere near it.  People asked if we were headed north or south, and when we told 'em south they would look off into the distance with a sorrowful expression, shake their heads, and wish us well in getting through the massive inferno safely.

It really was quite a biggie, too.  The official news report called it "massive" and explained that it forced the evacuation of three separate communities.  The official British Columbia wildfire site said that 2009 was one of their busiest years of record, and placed the 23,182 hectare (89.5 square miles) fire in question second from the top of the "biggest fire of the season" list. 

And we drove through it.

Honestly, I'm glad they let us drive through it rather than shutting the highway down.  Not only was it a unique experience for us all, as well as a story that keeps generating unbelieving stares and nuh uhs, but it also kept us moving down the road at a time when we couldn't afford much of a delay.

We could smell it long before we could see it, of course.  The smoke hung thick in the air after we left Watson Lake, and it just got thicker and darker as we headed toward the fire's epicenter.

When we arrived at the actual fire, we found one of our old nemeses, the pilot car, there to guide us through.  Usually following a pilot vehicle through construction helps you know which spot on the road is safe to drive on and which parts are still soft or rugged and under active construction work.  In this case, though, the road was perfectly straight and black (some of the best road we'd seen up to that point, ironically) and so the pilot car's sole purpose seemed to be slowing us down enough to induce a full-on panicked road rage in anybody who was paying attention to the inferno alongside the road.

I'd never, before, watched a tree actually fall down aflame.  I did then, though.  We saw several trees taken by the fire.  We also were joined by some relatively friendly buffalo who were slowly meandering their own way out.  Smart of them, that was.

All in all, it was probably the most memorable and unique experiences of the whole drive, and here, for the first time, are the pictures of it.



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