Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Al-Can Adventures Part 18: The Road to Fort St. John

The stretch from Muncho Lake to Fort St. John is really rather a tragedy in terms of my own personal Alaska Highway experiences.  What I mean by that is that if you're not in much of a hurry you're bound to experience some of the most beautiful sights you've ever seen.  I've never not been in a hurry through there, though, and so what I've experienced has been fraught with challenges and frustrations.

Remember what I said in the last post about beautiful scenery being a code word for difficult driving conditions when you're hauling a load?  Yeah, the road through British Columbia headed southeast to Fort St. John sports a lot of a lot of beautiful scenery.  The tragedy, then, is that I missed taking beautiful pictures of spectacular landscape in favor of nursing overworked engines and axles up and over and down and around it all. 

The grades involved in that stretch of the drive shouldn't be too surprising; that's the part, after all, that passes by Summit Lake, the highest point on the Alaska Highway.  The area around Summit Lake is chock-full of beautiful scenery, too, and I mean that in a literal way.  I've never actually taken a picture up there, usually because I've been too busy exhorting the vehicle to just make it up one more hill, but luckily a Google image search proves that others have done plenty of photography for me.  I've always considered it the third prettiest lake on the Al-Can, behind Kluane and Muncho Lakes, although I've probably been a skosh biased due to my engines' propensities to overheat there.

That said, if you're driving a relatively unladen vehicle, you'll probably find Summit Lake to be a gorgeous stop.  The Milepost magazine says there are no services up there, but they probably mean just at the actual summit, as I've sat at the Summit Lake Lodge, enjoying sodas and cake, for hours a couple of times waiting for my angry, exhausted engines to cool off. 

Incidentally, some of the pictures of Summit Lake I found online showed a curious reddish-purple flowered plant on which the blooms climb straight up a tall central stalk.  That's fireweed, so named because of its tenacity in spreading quickly through areas that have been wiped clear by forest fires.  It's quite an invasive species, a fact that renders it less than welcome in yards in Alaska, but it grows wild nearly everywhere and its flower clumps are vibrantly gorgeous.

The reason I bring up fireweed, though, isn't its beauty.  It's the plant's flowering pattern and timing that make it important to any Alaska Highway story.  Fireweed flowers start opening at the bottom of the flowering portion of the stalk in the early mid-summer, and as the season zips along the bottom flowers go away while the buds above them open.  It usually takes a couple of months for the buds all the way at the top of the stalk to open, but then once that happens you need to start watching the weather closely.  Common--and borne out by the truth, as I've watched--lore says that once the fireweed is bloomed out you only have six weeks before snow blankets the land for the winter, and you can expect smaller snowfalls during that month and a half.

Needless to say, snow makes the drive suck, at least till it's packed down.  Then, once the snow is nicely packed, it's not too bad to drive on till it starts thawing again.  

Fort Nelson is along the way.  It's as interesting as a smaller town can be, I guess, sporting the fairly standard Canadian rural construction where the highway cuts through town while access roads to each side actually lead to local businesses.

There's no fort, though, at least not that I could ever tell. Go figure.

Some excerpts from the blue log book:

"2:30 pm - 3 1/2 miles to Summit Lake.  Had to pull over; both vehicles red-lining.  Glad to; had another herd of sheep right there.  Got out the camera with super zoom lens and had a field day.  We started a trend, though--even had a tour bus pull off to take pictures of the sheep.  Beautiful country, this.  Tough on vehicles, though."


"Roads were pretty good through Fort Nelson.  Overheated mucho.  Not sure--looked like the van's problem was just too-hot coolant.  Road from Fort Nelson was great for 60 miles.  Then hit construction--first pilot car we've had to wait for days!  Good thing, too--I'd've never made it down the dirt road without him.  Didn't see any equipment at all.  He let us go--just in time for it to go from dirt to sloppy muddy gravel.  Almost lost control a few times.  Miles & miles of crappy gravel.  Finally broke onto pavement, right before Trutch Mtn Pass.  Made it up & over & 15 more miles before we saw mist below us and decided to stop for the night."

Next day:   "Awake to more beautiful weather.  Stopped for sodas--no ice!  Again!"  Later, at Pink Mountain: "Noon--getting really tired of hills."

And that, by the way, is why rejoicing happens, at least for some of us, when the road winds down the hill and into a great big sprawling town named Fort St. John.  Which, near as I can tell, doesn't contain an actual fort either.  It does, however, boast some things a south-bound Al-Canner is going to cherish even *gasp* more than an old fort--specifically, ice for your drinks.

More on Fort St. John and the road past tomorrow.


No comments:

Post a Comment