"The Last Great Road Trip"
Alaska RV Adventure
I stood in the middle of the road with my camera and tripod as I locked eyes with the big grey wolf. If he continued on his present course, he would pass within six feet of me. I was sure he would head off the road before then. Besides I had read that there has never been a recorded attack of a "healthy" wolf on a human being. I wondered if he had read that. I wondered if he could even read. I wondered how he felt. He certainly looked healthy. The story of how I got so close to a wolf began about twenty five years earlier.
There was nothing to do but laugh as I lay in the rain, covered with the heavy grease-like mud of the Alaska Highway. I had just been thrown over the handlebars of my Harley Davidson motorcycle and had slid about fifteen feet down one of the most famous highways in the world. The road grader had left a six inch high mound of gravel right down the middle of the road. My front wheel had caught the mound of gravel, which resulted in my current position, face down in the mud. Even from here, the view was splendid. As I looked back over my shoulder, I tried to gauge how long it would be before the thundering logging truck rapidly closing in from behind would crush me like a grape.
The year was 1973; I was twenty years old and bounced a lot better then than I do now. I brushed myself off, got up, and continued my journey up the 1400-mile dirt road. It was my first real adventure away from home and it changed my life forever. I have been traveling ever since.
Even then I knew I would come back to Alaska someday. I just didn't think it would take 25 years to do it, and I never thought it would be in a motor home. Nor that I would be making a Travel/Adventure film about the whole trip.
The Alaska Highway seems much straighter today than it was back then, and in fact it is. The highway department has been removing curves since the road was first hastily built back in 1942. The idea was to open a supply route north and head off a possible Japanese mainland invasion. Completed in only 8 months, it was an engineering marvel. It is a testament to the hard working, dedicated men who built it. At this rate, soon it will be one long, straight line from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska. It was amazing to see the differences between 1973 and 1998. Except for a few rough construction spots the road is completely paved. Just like a drive to the mall, with grizzly bears.
Today, instead of sleeping on the hard ground and using a rock under my cowboy hat for pillow I was driving a luxury 34 foot Fleetwood Discovery motor home. The adventures would still be there, but I would have a nice comfortable bed to sleep in at the end of the day.
An RV is a perfect way to enjoy the highway and Alaska. Stop where you want, eat what you want, and sleep when you want. There was also plenty of room for my camera and editing equipment. The nice thing about an RV is you are never more than 20 feet from your kitchen, bathroom, or bed. Ask almost any RV'er what trip they would like to make the most and almost all will say the Alaska Highway and Alaska. It is truly "the last great road trip."
Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada is the official beginning of the great road north. The entire highway is marked by mileposts and this is mile "0". In July fields of beautiful flowering yellow rapeseed line both sides of the road as you head north. The highway cuts through this fertile farm county, down into the Peace River Valley then on to Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, which both played important roles in the development of the north. Along the way you will see signs offering a look at the "old Alaska Highway". Take a good look and be glad you are on the new and improved model.
At milepost 371, the road heads through Stone Mountain Provincial Park with a good chance to get up close to the Stone Sheep found in the area. It is then uphill and over Summit Pass, one of the most beautiful parts of the highway. Milepost 477 marks the spot of just about everyone's favorite place on the highway. Liard River's Hot Springs allows one to soak their tired and dusty bones before continuing. Once you hit Watson Lake - milepost 612 - and its famous signpost forest (over 41,000 signs from all over the world), you are in the Yukon Territories.
The capitol of the Yukon is Whitehorse. From here, you can head north off the highway to Dawson City, the famous gold mining town, continue up the Alaska Highway, or head south to Skagway, Alaska. Skagway owes its birth to the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1897, the first boat load of stampeders bound for the Klondike landed here. I arrived just in time to celebrate the Fourth of July with parades, street dances, and a fireworks display over the harbor. The town is a port of call for cruise ships heading up Alaska's Inside Passage. It is not unusual for 3 or 4 ships carrying 2,000 people or more each to arrive in one day. The little town of 816 residents is overwhelmed with tourists. Most enjoy a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway along the scenic gold rush trail.
Instead of driving back the way I came to Whitehorse, I loaded the RV on a ferry for a short hour ride to the scenic town of Haines, AK. The Haines Highway is known for its grandeur and variety of alpine scenery. The road reconnects to the Alaska Highway at Haines Junction, YT. Heading northwest again, the highway goes through the Kluane National Park Reserve, which along with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, became a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site. A helicopter ride provided spectacular filming opportunities.
One more border crossing and you are in Alaska to stay. The road is now beautifully paved, but watch out for the frost heaves. The permafrost buckles the road so badly it feels like you are on a RV roller coaster ride. Hit the bumps too fast and it will give you a chance to rearrange those shelves as you always intended. The beautiful scenery of the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge will make the slow going a pleasure.
At Tetlin Junction I turned right and headed to beautiful downtown Chicken (pop. 37), supposedly named that because no one in town knew how to spell ptarmigan, the bird that inhabits the area. It was very interesting to talk to and film the gold miners there. All had a gleam in their eye and knew they were about to find the "mother lode." I continued on the road to Eagle. Here I boarded a boat for a trip down the mighty Yukon River to Dawson City, YT, an old fashioned gold mining town, complete with gambling and can-can girls.
Back on the Alaska Highway, it was a short ride to Delta Junction. This is the official end of the Alaska Highway, which continues as the Richardson Highway to Fairbanks. The Richardson predates the Alaska Highway by twenty years. After a short stop in Fairbanks, it was time for the most difficult part of the trip, the Dalton Highway north to Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton is a road of "onlys." It is the "only" highway in America to cross the Arctic Circle, it is the "only" highway in America to reach the Arctic Ocean, and "only" an "idiot" would drive a big RV up it! I went up the road in a class "A" motor home, and came down the road in a class "C" motor home. Called the Haul Road for many years, it follows the Alaska Pipeline to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. It wasn't open to the public until 1994, and I'm not sure it should be open now, at least for RV's. I could do a good business trucking large RV's back down the road while their shaken drivers and passengers fly back to Fairbanks.
The best thing about this part of the trip was that the Dalton reaches both the Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That gave me an excuse to do some flying and filming in both unique and interesting places. The Wildlife Refuge is a political hot potato with the environmentalists wanting to preserve it and the oil companies wanting to drill it. The film illustrates both sides of the issue.
From here it was back down to Fairbanks, and then on to the most spectacular part of Alaska, Denali National Park. Its crown jewel, Mt. McKinley, is North America's highest mountain at 20,320 feet. The park is one of the last intact ecosystems in the world. People come to see the mountain, but are amazed by the animals. Grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, moose, lynx, fox, and Dall sheep all wander freely and many can be seen from the park road. Filming the mountain was a real challenge since it is covered by clouds 60% of the time.
In the nearby town Talkeetna I had the distinct honor the filming the annual Moose Dropping Festival. Beyond explanation with words you'll just have to see the film to believe it.
Continuing south past Anchorage, I spent some time on the beautiful Kenai Peninsula. The main attraction here is fishing. Halibut and salmon are the fish of choice. King salmon of 50 pounds are common, with the record being a whopping 97 pounds caught in the Kenai River. Halibut tip the scales at over 400 pounds. People come from all over the world to try their luck. Last stop on the peninsula is quirky Homer, the end of the road.
This adventure ended in Valdez, which beautiful and controversial. It is called the Switzerland of North America for good reason...the scenery is inspiring. A boat tour of Prince William Sound is a must. For a real treat, get out and do some sea kayaking for an up close and personal experience with the Sound's wildlife. The 800 mile Alaska Pipeline ends here, the oil is loaded onto ships and exported around the world. Controversy still rages over the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Some say the Sound is recovered, some say it never will be.
Back to the wolf. I had two choices, jump into the car and hide, or keep filming. I was sure he would leave the road long before now, but he kept coming. The distance closed to 30 feet, then 20 feet, then 10 feet. I thought I heard him growl. I don't know who was more scared, him or me. Wait, that's not true, I was definitely more scared, much more. He was so close I couldn't film him anymore. He was so close I could have grabbed his tail. I didn't. As he walked past I realized what a beautiful and majestic animal he was and how lucky I was to have this experience. Alaska is a lot like that too.© John Holod Productions