Driving the Alaska Highway, from Fort St. John to Muncho Lake

On Thursday, my schedule called for a 621-km drive up the Alaska Highway to Muncho Lake where I had a room booked at the beautiful Northern Rockies Lodge.

As usual, I was up early, though I didn’t plan to get away until the light was good, as my first photo stop was close by. This was the view from my room at the Northern Grand at 05:45, before I went down for breakfast.
Fort St. John, BC
Charlie Lake was my first stop, at 08:00.
Charlie Lake, BC
The attraction for me wasn’t the lake itself, but a new memorial to the 12 men from 341st Engineer Regiment who drowned when their pontoon boat swamped on May 14, 1942. Five men were saved by Gustaf Hedin, a homesteader and trapper who had been watching the boat’s progress and took his small boat out to rescue those he could.
Charlie Lake memorial
There are 12 posts like this surrounding the main memorial, one for each man. Major John M. Turvey was in command of the boat, which was delivering equipment and supplies to Company E’s bivouac site across the lake.
Major John M. Turvey memorial at Charlie Lake
The Alaska Highway north of Fort St. John runs through gently rolling country that’s now dotted with oil and natural gas wells, and criss-crossed by associated roads and pipelines. It’s a very different world than it was even a dozen years ago.
Alaska Highway north of Fort St. John
The broad view to the north from the summit of Pink Mountain, at Km 226 (Historic Mile 143) just before 10:00.
Pink Mountain, Alaska Highway
It doesn’t seem that long ago that this field at the Beatton River, now overgrown with willows, was part of a ranch and had horses in it.
Field at Beatton River, Alaska Highway
I was disappointed to discover that the access road to infamous Suicide Hill from highway construction days, at Historic Mile 156, is now a restricted gas-field road.
Restricted gas-field road along the Alaska Highway
Road construction on the Sikanni Hill at Km 255.
Sikanni Hill on the Alaska Highway
Highway lodges are disappearing at an ever-increasing rate, and there are few old-timers left. Lum ‘n’ Abner’s at Historic Mile 233 (now Km 364) dates back to about 1952 – it closed a few years after a new operation opened across the road and cut fuel prices over and over.
Lum 'n' Abner's lodge at Alaska Highway Historic Mile 233
Lum 'n' Abner's lodge at Alaska Highway Historic Mile 233
In recent years, I dreaded bringing my charter motorcoach into the Peace River district due to the crazy drivers – oil and gas workers in a hurry. I had 3 close calls on a single memorable mid-winter trip. The number of crosses along that part of the highway now is appalling.
Cross on the Alaska Highway, marking a traffic fatality
A great deal of money has been spent warning people about the possibility of encountering bison on the highway. This huge electronic sign is at the north side of Fort Nelson – it has a mate just south of Watson Lake for southbound traffic.
Bison warning sign on the Alaska Highway
I started thinking more and more about highway lodges, and when I reached another abandoned one, Steamboat Mountain Lodge at Km 531, decided to start recording in much more detail what’s left.
Steamboat Mountain Lodge, Alaska Highway
Indian Head Mountain at Km 545.
Indian Head Mountain at Km 545, Alaska Highway
All along the BC section of the highway, signs in French are being added to existing signs or dual-language signs are replacing the old ones. Another project to add to the list of government stupidity.
French-language sign added along the Alaska Highway
My next highway lodge stop was at Summit Lake, Historic Mile 392, now Km 597. This lodge has been closed for many years – I barely remember ever seeing it open, so probably since 1990 or 1991.
Summit Lake Lodge, Alaska Highway
Summit Lake Lodge turned out to have a surprise for me. Living in a tiny back room (the open door at the far right of the photo above) in truly awful conditions was a Polish guy about my age. “Wardy” claims that he’s lived there for 3 years, but I don’t know how anyone could survive there for even a few months – everything in his tiny room except the journal he was writing in was covered by a very thick layer of soot from a stove that appeared to be burning a combination of wood and diesel oil. One minute was too long for me. I didn’t take any photos of him or his accommodations, though I talked with him for a while (listened, mostly). The photo below shows the lobby.
Summit Lake Lodge

A comment posted on the blog by Darrell Ohs in June 2017 says: “Wardy is still in the back room of Summit Lake Lodge. We spoke to him in early June, 2017. Wardy says he’s been there ‘seven winters now’. Still heats his room by burning wood in a metal box, since he has no chimney he opens the window when the smoke inside gets too thick. The built-up creosote hangs from the ceiling like little stalactites. I didn’t see any signs of food or means to prepare it, so it’s a mystery as to how he survives.”

Rounding Summit Lake, still firmly frozen.
Summit Lake, Alaska Highway
Rocky Mountain Lodge on the left at Km 606 (Historic Mile 397) has an erratic history of opening and closing over the past 15 years or so. The sign on the right indicates that the Alaska Highway is part of a circle route that also includes Highway 37, the Stewart-Cassiar.
Rocky Mountain Lodge at Alaska Highway Km 606 (Historic Mile 397)
There were lots of caribou on and beside the road – these ones were right at Km 620.
Caribou on the Alaska Highway
This vehicle from Maine was well stocked. The only thing missing appeared to be Granny Clampett on the rocking chair! 🙂
Moving to Alaska
As I got near Toad River (Km 647), a large forest fire could be seen – not until past the lodge was it clear that it was in an area that would pose no danger to the community.
Forest fire along the Alaska Highway at Toad River
Forest fire along the Alaska Highway at Toad River
The first view of Muncho Lake at Km 608.
Muncho Lake, Alaska Highway
I’d been wanting to many years to have a look at the original road that climbs above the cliffs along Muncho Lake, but had never been able to make the time available. This was the day, finally.
The old and current Alaska Highways above Muncho Lake, BC
The old road is accessed at the Strawberry Flats Campground. It’s not marked but is easy to figure out. It provides an excellent walk of about 5 km round trip, with lots of variety between shady forest and superb views, some level and some steep hills.
Hiking the old Alaska Highway above Muncho Lake
The current highway, with the old road visible above it. An enormous amount of blasting was required to construct the level shelf along the lake shore that the current highway is on.
The old and current Alaska Highways above Muncho Lake, BC
I spend just over an hour hiking, then went down to the lake to enjoy the icy, pure water of Muncho.
Spring breakup on Muncho Lake
A closer look at what we call “candle ice”. As the pans of ice break up, the candles make a wonderful sound that’s not unlike a wind chime.
Candle ice on Muncho Lake
I reached the Northern Rockies Lodge a few minutes before 6:00 pm. Checking in, I was very pleased with my room, which cost $157 with taxes.
Northern Rockies Lodge, Muncho Lake
My balcony with a distant view of the lake.
Northern Rockies Lodge, Muncho Lake

I had planned to do some more walking, but after a very large dinner (an excellent Swiss schnitzel) and a beer, went to bed early so I could get off to an early start, with the idea that I could surprise Cathy by joining her for lunch.


Comments

Driving the Alaska Highway, from Fort St. John to Muncho Lake — 7 Comments

  1. Murray, why are all the lodges closing. Is there just not enough traffic (customers) to support keeping them open?

  2. There aren’t enough customers, and most of the lodge buildings are at the end of their useful lives (50 years) and need extensive work. Cars are too fast and efficient, they don’t break down very often anymore, and tire failures are rare – mechanical and tire work used to be a major source of income for many lodges. And, of course, much of the traffic is now self-contained RVs carrying people who don’t need meals or lodging. It’s “the perfect storm” for killing an entire industry.

  3. So many interesting sights – Muncho Lake, the candle ice, all the animals on the road (?because it’s Spring) ….. the forest fire ?! Would that be self-started or hand-of-man? Everything looks too icy still for a forest fire. Loved the ‘Granny Clampett’ allusion – I could just picture her!

    Marie G.

  4. Granny Clampett was sure the first vision that popped into my head when I saw that rocking chair up there! Given the location (seemed to be no road access), the forest fire was probably a lightning strike – there had been some small thunderstorms recently).

  5. Hi Murray, some info for ya. I worked as a land surveyor for PWC (public works canada) on the Alaska Highway from 1992 to 1997. First off your photos make me miss the north so so much, thanks for posting them! I think its time to stop procrastinating and get up there for that trip I’ve been talking about for 10 years now. Summit lodge and Steamboat were both open, if sometimes sporatically, right up until I left the north in 1997. Lum n’ Abners was never open in all the years i was there. Rocky mountain lodge was as you say, open one year and not the next. We had a construction camp set up behind that lodge in 1995 for a few months. I spent many days fishing on Iron Creek lake and its too bad to see the lodge closed, we stayed in the 8 room hotel section on the left side there for many months several summers in a row. I am sad to see Liard Lodge closed as I too stayed there way back when and yes it was run down then. You didnt get pictures of Trapper Rays? still open? i am a bit disapointed to see liard more developed, it was supposed to stay all natural. And beta pool was the best place to go as you could swim up there. even though the trail is officially closed…say a person wanted to go up there, hypothetically of course, is the pool still the same?

    thanks again for the pics and the incentive to do this trip summer 2014.
    cheers, Trenton

    • Hi Trenton. It’s always great to hear peoples memories of the highway even in fairly recent years – it’s changed so dramatically, and not in good ways unless your priority is just to pass through as quickly as possible. I try to ignore the Liard Hot Springs Lodge – it’s been several years since I’ve been in and the reviews keep getting worse and worse. I hope that I have a photo or 2 of Trapper Ray’s from the early days in my slide collection.

      I doubt that Beta Pool was taken apart, but it would be a wet hike up there as the boardwalk crossed over some tangled and wet areas and it’s gone. It’s also guarded by a sign saying that trespassers will be charged under the Parks Act – 20 years ago that would just mean that there was something there that I have to see, but not so much anymore 🙂

  6. Lum n Abners at Mile 233 Closed end of Oct/06 after the Restaurant was shut down by the health board, it ran as a limited Rv/fuel for a few years after but has been totally closed since about 2011. Summit Closed in about 2002..Steamboat around 06 too. Rocky Mountain is kinda a retirement project for the owner so he just opens and closes when he wants. as far as I know hes been open the last year or so. Toad River is good been their every time I go by!