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The final paving of the Alaska Highway, 1978

History of the Alaska Highway

The Province (Vancouver, BC), July 29, 1978

Motoring in the North will never be the same again

Editor's Note: Paving of the last remaining 310 miles (500 kilometres) of gravel on the Alaska and Haines Highways in the Yukon and northwestern B.C. will soon start, a $200- million job paid for by the U.S. But not everyone wants to bid the gravel goodbye.

By Peter Calamai.
Southam News Service

    HAINES, Alaska - Like Sam McGee, immortalized in Robert Service's verse, the unhappy tourist was from Tennessee.

    And he was cursing a Dixie streak as he wrestled to attach unfamiliar snow chains to the rear wheels of his air-conditioned, power-steering, V-8 car.

    We were outside the Canada Customs post on the Haines Highway, 40 miles (65 kilometres) of paved road from the seacoast town bearing that name.

    Ahead was 120 miles (193 kilometres) of gravel road to Haines Junction in the Yukon and then another 90 gravelled miles (145 kilometres) of Alaska Highway south to Whitehorse.

    And it was snowing. Thick, wet, determined February flakes that stuck the eyelids together and transformed even a gentle gravel slope into a greased slide.

    What lay ahead wasn't a gentle slope. A series of hairpin turns and stomach-tightening switchbacks climb northward above the tree line to Chilkat Pass, elevation 3,493 feet (1,064 metres).

    "We almost made it; it was the last hill that stopped us," grunted the Tennessean. "We just spun the wheels and slide backwards."

    With chains, the tourist from Dixie would safely cross the pass, as we did in our chainless rental car, guided through the total unblemished whiteness of blowing snow by poles 20 feet (6½ metres) high at the road's edge, placed there to help snowplow operators.

    At the time it was a bit unpleasant - a strain from staring into what seemed the interior of a pillow - and inconvenient, because of a missed airplane.

    Later it became a great adventure in the retelling, almost making up for Canada's tallest peak, Mt. Logan, being obscured by the storm.

    But this same drama won't be repeated for visitors much longer, no matter how bad the blizzard in the Chilkat Pass, because the last 300-mile (485-metre) stretches of dirt-and-gravel Haines and Alaska Highways in the Yukon and northwestern B.C. are about to be rebuilt and paved at a cost of $200 million.

    Tourist authorities in the Yukon Territory are enthusiastic about the road improvements, known as the Shakwak project, because it will vanquish the unwanted part of their Klondike image - the broken windshields and hours of dusty driving endured by Americans in their high-priced recreational vehicles.

    "The majority of people come up here pulling a $20,000 to $30,000 trailer," says Dunc Myers, then with the Yukon Visitors Bureau in Whitehorse.

    "We don't want to frighten the little old ladies; there isn't a road in the territory that a camper can't go on."

    This official view is understandable: tourism and mining provide, often indirectly, a living for the bulk of the territory's 23,000 permanent residents. About 300,000 visitors will come to the Yukon this year, concentrated in the summer months, 70 per cent American and perhaps one-third driving up the Alaska Highway.

    Not everyone in the Yukon welcomes the paving, even though construction jobs will go to them first and the U.S. taxpayer is footing the bill as part of a trade-off in the Alaska Highway gas pipeline deal.

    Take Wayne, who pumps gas, tends bar and practises his electric guitar when things are slow at the Dezadeash Lodge, 34 miles (55 kilometres) off the Alaska Highway on the Haines Road and the spot to discover whether the road ahead is passable.

    "When they pave the road, I'll be moving on," says Wayne.

    "They're only doing it for the U.S. truckers who are scared to drive on gravel roads. They want pavement all the way from the Pacific to the Arctic. And those people from the southern states always want to drive at 80 miles an hour (about 125 kmh)... straight ahead."

    Forget Wayne’s argument that pavement suffers from frost heaving in the Arctic winters and doesn't provide the attraction of gravel.

    Consider only the image of air-conditioned, power-steering, V-8s scooting along what used to be a packhorse trail blazed by Jack Dalton to get miners and their supplies ($150 apiece) into the Klondike gold fields.

    On a dirt-and-gravel road, the tourist feels no compulsion to "make time." When the Milepost Guidebook ($6.95 and indispensible for any northern motorist) mentions a unique Indian cemetery at Champagne, there's time aplenty to stop.

    Or you might hike into Kluane National Park, bordered by the Haines and Alaska Roads and a terrain of mountains and icefields which harbors grizzlies, Dall sheep, moose and mountain goats.

    Or you can sit listening to someone like "Old" Charlie Ross, who spends half the year 20 miles (33 kilometres) in from the highway at his placer mine on Squaw Creek.

    A motorist making time wouldn't swap drinks with Charlie and learn about the One Big Union, or the Vancouver women who stole milk en masse to feed their Depression babies, or being a carpenter on the film All Quiet on the Western Front.

    It's the poetry and history learned by a man alone in the bush with three dogs from March until October.

    And the swapping of tall tales with another prospector, Josephine, to impress the young folk from the south.

    Pretty soon, the folks young and old will drive by cocooned in a southern culture of tape-decks, television and paved roads.

Lowell Glacier, 1978

Kaskawulsh Glacier, 1978