Clinton to Whitehorse, Highway 97 / Alaska Highway

Everyone who travels a lot develops their own style, their own preferences. For me, it’s all about the journey – in most cases, getting to a “destination” is anticlimactic and I want to get moving again. When Home is the destination, however, different rules apply, and it was wonderful to get home just before 6:00 pm yesterday.

On trips like this one, I do enjoy slowing down when everything comes together, but this time that never happened, so it was a very quick trip. The drive from Vancouver to Whitehorse took 53 hours, with only one motel stay, and only 4 proper meals.

Because I had only reached Clinton instead of Quesnel on Wednesday, I had 3 hours to make up to reach Fort St. John for a meeting I had set up with another travel blogger at 3:00 Thursday. A further complication was that northeastern BC runs on Alberta time, losing another hour from my day. As a result, I was away from the motel at 02:45.

Round-Up Motel in Clinton, BC
I stopped for a large though quick breakfast at McDonald’s in Quesnel, and was on the John Hart Highway north of Prince George when I shot this at 08:20, as normal people were just getting their day started ๐Ÿ™‚ This is the point where I always start to feel like I’m in the North again – I know that Prince George likes to think of themselves as being “North”, but they’re just not, they’re simply close.

John Hart Highway north of Prince George
I reached Dawson Creek at 1:25 local time, allowing for a short visit to the art gallery, as planned.

Welcome to Dawson Creek, BC

I visit the Dawson Creek Art Gallery fairly often. This was the final day of a show titled “am-big-u-ous”, featured 5 local artists. Given my time crunch, the main reason for my visit was to get up-to-date photos for my next post at HelloBC, about the art gallery.

I made it to the charming Whole Wheat ‘n’ Honey cafe in downtown Fort St. John just a few minutes after the arranged 3:00, and that few minutes was taken up by finding a parking spot, so I was pretty pleased with my time management under these conditions!

The blogger I had arranged to meet is Gemma Taylor, who runs Off Track Travel, a travel blog that I got introduced to a few months ago when Gemma and her partner JR were in the Yukon. I thoroughly enjoy her writing style and photography, and the hour we spent chatting (mostly about travel in many forms, not surprisingly) was a great break from the road. Our paths will almost certainly cross again when I have more time.

The weather had so far been somewhat better than the forecasts had indicated, but conditions got quite bad as I left Fort St. John on the Alaska Highway, with high winds and blowing snow on the icy road. I took this shot at one of the calmer moments.

Snowing on the Alaska Highway
I’ve been stopping for meals and accommodations at The Shepherd’s Inn at Historic Mile 72 of the highway ever since I started driving the highway in 1990, and they’ve never disappointed me. It was the perfect place for a big meal and pleasant conversation before starting what I knew would be a long night.

The Shepherd's Inn, Alaska Highway
The snow was erratic, luckily, and there was less commercial traffic than normal on the highway. Some of that commercial traffic, though, is grossly underpowered for these hills and I was caught in one of the resulting slow parades for a very long time. The clearing and lights on the hill mark the location of one of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of gas wells in the area.

Heavy traffic on the Alaska Highway
This is one of the oldest remaining lodges on the Alaska Highway, the Buckinghorse River Lodge at Historic Mile 175. This was just a fuel stop for me. I was surprised to see almost nobody else here, as had been the case at The Shepherd’s Inn. I’m assuming that this is because of the tens of thousands of recent layoffs in the oil and gas industry.

Buckinghorse River Lodge at Historic Mile 175, Alaska Highway
Traffic thinned out considerably past Buckinghorse River, but the snow increased so I stopped and had a couple of hours sleep at a pull-out. After hundreds of kilometers of seeing virtually nothing man-made along the highway, the large Spectra Energy gas processing plant 20 km south of Fort Nelson is quite a shock.

Spectra Energy gas processing plant 20 km south of Fort Nelson

Normally, Fort Nelson is an overnight stop for me, but the weather forecast was for clear skies to the north and the aurora forecast was also good, so I confirmed my earlier thought to continue on and do an all-nighter aurora search.

I saw this scene as I drove past, thought about it for a minute, then did a U-turn and came back to set up my tripod and get the shot. I haven’t stayed at the Fort Nelson Hotel for many years, mostly because I’m quickly passing through and want cheap and park-in-front-of-my-room convenient.

Fort Nelson Hotel, BC

On Steamboat Mountain I came upon a truck accident – a B-train semi tanker jack-knifed into the ditch. He seemed to have lost traction on the extremely icy hill and then slid backwards into the ditch. I slowed to a crawl but didn’t see anybody around, though it looked like it happened just minutes before.

Although the skies were clear north of Fort Nelson as forecast, there was no aurora, so at about 01:00 I pulled over south of Summit Lake and went to sleep. I shot this at 04:15 as I was about to get back on the road. One of my Facebook friends commented that he never drives this section at night anymore because of the number of animals. Most of my winter sports charter driving took us through here at night, though, and it’s just slower at night.

U-Haul on the Alaska Highway on a winter night
I stopped again at Summit Lake with the idea of just sitting and enjoying the night, but an extremely strong north wind made it unbearably cold to be outside there even with all of my winter gear on. By tucking in behind the truck I was able to get this one photo and then continued on. The buildings seen in the photo are across the road at the Summit Lake Campground.

Summit Lake, BC, on a winter night

That bitterly cold stop brings up some of the things that need to be kept in mind when planning a drive like this. First, I could pack everything I need into a daypack, but I carry a suitcase full of survival gear including an Arctic-rated sleeping bag. When stopping at places like Summit Lake, if I’m going to leave the vehicle running, I roll the window down. All it would take is to lock myself out of the vehicle to die – death by freezing would be almost certain before another vehicle came along unless I was able to find something heavy enough under the snow to break a window to get back in. Don’t I know how to have a good time? ๐Ÿ™‚

It was looking like sunrise could be really pretty, so I stopped at Toad River Lodge at Historic Mile 422 to kill some time by having breakfast. This was the most expensive gas of the trip at $1.359. When I pulled away at 07:20, the sun was just starting to light up the peaks ahead.

Winter dawn on the Alaska Highway
The dawn wasn’t as pretty as I thought it might be, but with scenery like this, adding some colour isn’t that big a deal!

Dramatic scenery along the Alaska Highway
The first animal of the trip (!!) – a lone moose munching on creek-bed willows near Muncho Lake. I backed up to get this shot, and he left, though slowly.

Moose near Muncho Lake in the winter
Muncho Lake. I’m using this as the definitive shot to show why I do this drive over and over and over again. Every day is different, and I simply never get tired of seeing this country in all of its varied moods.

Winter dawn at Muncho Lake
The Lower Liard River Bridge, built in 1943, is the last remaining suspension bridge on the Alaska Highway. The Liard River Lodge on the left was abandoned about 15 years ago.

Lower Liard River Bridge, Alaska Highway
I thought about not stopping at Liard River Hot Springs, but decided to go in and spend a while soaking away some aches.

Liard River Hot Springs in the winter
Oh yeah, good idea! I had the pool all to myself, so I didn’t even have the hassle of dealing with a wet bathing suit ๐Ÿ™‚

Liard River Hot Springs in the winter
The new facilities are really nice. There are even mats along the deck so your feet don’t freeze to the wood. The temperature wasn’t bad, though –ย perhaps -15°C (+5°F).

Over the next couple of hours after leaving the hot springs, I must have seen almost every wood bison in the herd – about 250 of them. Last summer I met an Australian couple who came to the hot springs specifically to see bison after having someone at a visitor centre down the highway assure them that they would see them on the way to the springs. They saw no bison, and didn’t believe me that the bison were always north of the hot springs, only occasionally south of them.

Wood bison along the Alaska Highway
The bison wereย scattered along the highway for some 130 kilometers (80 miles) yesterday, from about 5 k north of the hot springs to 2 k south of Contact Creek. There were 3 herds of 50-60 animals each, and many small groups and individuals.

Although I wasn’t hungry or thirsty particularly, I stopped at the new cafe at Fireside to see how things were going. They just opened last June after buying the long-abandoned property. It doesn’t look like much yet, but the cake, coffee and conversation made me really glad I stopped. I suggested among other things that if a trail could be built from the lodge down to the foot of Cranberry Rapids it could be an excellent attraction, and it’s already in their plans.

Fireside Cafe on the Alaska Highway
The highway itself was in terrible condition for hundreds of kilometers north of the hot springs. A warm spell had melted the packed snow on the highway enough to turn it into glare ice, which had then pot-holed. It was as bone-jarring and deafening a drive as I’ve even had on the highway, all because the Highways contractors didn’t run a grader over it when it was soft.

I didn’t take any photos north of the road surface one that was shot just south of Watson Lake – I just wanted to get home. Just before 6:00, I was back with my family. I slept for 9 hours last night, and now it’s time to post this and get the U-Haul into town, pick up my car at the shop and then probably come back for some time in the hot tub (there are still some sore spots to deal with ๐Ÿ™‚ ).


Clinton to Whitehorse, Highway 97 / Alaska Highway — 12 Comments

  1. Were you driving the U-Haul? If so, you made really good time!

    Thanks for the report and pictures. I’ve never made the trip in the winter. One of these days…

  2. Yes, Richard, I was driving the U-Haul, helping some new Yukoners get their stuff up from Vancouver. This 53 hours was an average sort of time for me – when I used to shuttles buses from and back to Vancouver spring and fall, my best time was 33 hours (I was much younger then ๐Ÿ™‚ )

  3. Re: the picture of the stars over Summit Lake…it looks like the stars are moving. Great picture.

  4. Doesn’t help that those U-Hauls have awful tires! The place I work at is also a U-Haul dealer so I know all about that ๐Ÿ˜‰ I drove the highway last June, but that new cafe must have come later in June. Gorgeous winter shots — I can’t wait to experience the Alaska during the winter. Those two photos, the stars and the one with the sun touching the peaks, are gorgeous shots! What camera do you have?

    • My truck actually had good winter tires – I was prepared to raise hell if it didn’t. The dealer was quite curious about how we deal with vehicle problems up here, so I told him we hitchhike a few hundred miles to some place with cell service.

      The new place at Fireside did open towards late June, the owner said – way later than had been expected.

      I’m shooting with a Canon EOS 7D, with an 18-200mm lens that pretty much never comes off.

  5. Hi. Just found your blog and loving it. Hubby has just moved up to Whitehorse from FSJ so I enjoy taking the virtual tours of the highways you travel. Might be moving up there one day soon so thankful for learning as much as I can about the north county.

  6. I know what you mean about the destination being anti-climatic. I love the process of getting to it except when flying, which is always stressful to me because the airlines do so many stupid things. ๐Ÿ™‚ However, when I get started home it’s a different story. I have a hard time stopping for anything once home is my destination (wish I wasn’t like that). You got some great shots and I enjoyed reading all your comments which means I need to learn to slow down and enjoy things….even if home is the destination.

    • Thanks, Neal. The travel disease known as “get-home-itis” has actually killed many people (it’s well known in private aviation in particular), and certainly many more have had less fun than they otherwise might have. I can usually, but not always, stop to smell the roses even when homeward bound.

  7. always enjoy your posts and your journeys…and your pleasure of each new (not new to you after all those trips) discovery on a otherwise mundane shuttle up the highway.

    • Thanks, southcove. I suppose that’s a big part of why I enjoy travel so much – even on drives I’ve done literally hundreds of times (Skagway, for example), every day is a new experience.

  8. Loved seeing your winter drive on the Alaska highway ! My hubby and I drove it 5 times – but in summer ! It looks somewhat different in winter !!Nice seeing theShepherd’s Inn ! -their Texas toast l- Pink Mountain- the springs-Cranberry Rapids area – and the restaurant with all the caps fastened to the ceiling . Muncho Lake was usually one of our camping spots .It was interesting to see if “such and such “was still open and where the highway was under construction “this trip” .
    To change the subject – thank you for your part in making the Yukon Quest so enjoyable !