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Alaska Highway in 1943

An Explorer's Guide to the Alaska Highway

    The featured article in the January 1944 issue of Sports Afield was an illustrated 6-page piece about the Alaska Highway, by George L. Peterson. This was one of the first "tourist" articles about the new road to be published. The wonderful cover art showing a bulldozer invading country formerly ruled by the grizzly was by Walter Haskell Hinton. Click on the cover image to greatly enlarge it.

    When Peterson travelled the highway in the summer of 1943, the new highway, though open, was still under heavy construction in many places, and was restricted to military and a few private vehicles with permits.

    To get an idea of the facilities along the highway before it was opened to the general public in 1948 see the Road Log, Alaska Military Highway we have posted. It's a mile-by-mile guide to the 1,221 miles of the highway in Canada, dated September 1, 1945.

    With the first facilities for tourists in place, the first issue of The Milepost, now the most-used guide to the Alaska Highway, was published in 1949, and in the Spring of 1950, the American Automobile Association published a 24-page brochure, "Alaska and the Alaska Highway".

by George L. Peterson

Planned as a military emergency, the Alaska Highway may prove to be an avenue of adventure for anglers and hunters when peace comes

    Apparently a lot of sportsmen are planning to pack the old jalopy full of equipment and take off for the Alaska Highway as soon as war restrictions are lifted. The country is full of game and fish, they have heard, and the scenery beautiful.

    True enough. This past summer I met a young lieutenant just back from 80 days of isolation along the Haines cutoff, a spur of the Alaska Highway. His company had gone into the wilderness, clearing the way for the new road, before frost was out of the ground. When the frost went out, the swamp land behind the soldiers became impassable and they were marooned. Planes brought them mail and some fresh food to add to emergency rations.

    "We fished when we weren't working," the officer said. "Lake trout took any bait that was offered. Men pulled them in until their arms were tired. I caught enough salmon in a swift stream one day to feed the entire company. Rainbow trout went as big as eight pounds."

    There are several reasons why a trip on the Alaska Highway would not be a success in the near future.

    For the period of the war, travel on the road is next to impossible save for military vehicles and those of civilian contractors. A control station at the start of the highway bars the way unless you have the proper credentials.

    Within a reasonable period after peace comes, the road undoubtedly will be available for civilian traffic. That won't mean an open sesame to speedy travel on a super boulevard, however. To many people, the road means a through route from Edmonton to Fairbanks. A sign just outside Edmonton proclaims that the Alaska Highway starts there, but officially the road begins at Dawson Creek, British Columbia. An old road meanders 500 miles from Edmonton to Dawson Creek. As the crow flies, the distance is 250 miles. This rough, dirt trail is muddy and almost impassable in spring, dusty and bumpy in summer.

George L. Peterson (left) visits with Major Willis Bergen, who is in charge of army chaplains along the Alaska Highway.

    The American Army, which controls and is paying for the Alaska Military Highway, apparently has no idea of building a new road or improving the old one from Edmonton to Dawson Creek. Army materiel comes to Dawson Creek via the Northern Alberta railroad. Dawson Creek was selected as the start of the highway because it is the end of steel.

    The Army planned the road as a military emergency - an inland route to get men and supplies to Alaska in case the Japanese took the territory from the sea. The Army is not interested in tourist travel.

    Under terms of the American agreement with Canada, the United States Army surrenders control of the highway to Canada six months after the war ends. What will happen to it then is a subject for endless debate in the north country. Many a worker on the road points out that sparsely settled Canada has not been conspicuous for its maintenance of wilderness routes in the past - that the cost of maintaining the Alaska Highway (its designation was changed from the Alcan Highway largely at the insistence of Canadians who disliked the sound of the name) is more than Canada can afford.

    Contradicting this view are equally insistent voices which say that the highway will be one of the greatest permanent improvements to come out of the war, and that Canada can't afford not to maintain and improve it. They point to the immense territory it opens up. Scientific parties have been exploring the country along the road with a view to oil, mineral, wood and agricultural development after the war. Canadians and Americans will find an outlet for their energies along this last frontier, the enthusiasts say.

It is easy to imagine the excellent fishing that exists in some of the waters along the Highway, until now an untried wilderness.

    Whatever the worth of the road itself, it has been worth all the cost (something like $125,000,000) for providing a route for heavy machinery to build the modern airports adjoining the highway. And for carrying the trucks which haul gasoline to refuel planes stopping at these airfields. Eventually pipelines will furnish gasoline to the entire territory along the road.

    Well, whichever view of the Alaska Highway is right, it will not be a super road when peace comes, unless the war lasts indefinitely. The highway in many spots is like a good gravelled county road. In other places it is still pretty bad.

    The 1,600-mile road was pushed through in about five working months in 1942. Army engineers, the Public Roads Administration and private contractors shared the task. Army crews cleared the way, felling trees across swamps and mountains, providing temporary crossings of rivers and creeks. Contractors or other army units followed, bulldozing their way, making hurried fills, moving up the highway sometimes at the rate of a mile a day.

    The pioneer road they built was intended to be the supply route for a straighter, better planned road to be constructed in 1943. The lessening of the Japanese threat to Alaska and the immense number of men and amounts of materials that would be involved apparently decided the Army against the super highway. Instead, they mapped improvement of the pioneer road - additional fills, cutting down of steep grades, elimination of dangerous stretches, short cuts where feasible, permanent bridges and culverts, and gravelled surface. That was the work done in 1943.

    From Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson, a distance of 300 miles, the highway is in good shape. The great suspension bridge across the Peace River - widest stream the road crosses - was completed last fall. Most of the other permanent bridges are built along this stretch. Dangerous Suicide Hill has been eliminated. Grades have been reduced to a maximum of 10 per cent. The 26-foot road has been gravelled.

    The contractors working on this part of the road completed their work and left late in the fall. Some of their personnel, equipment and camps was turned over to the United States Engineering Department, which will have charge of maintenance. Even beyond Fort Nelson, many of the contractors were ordered home. Apparently the Engineering Department, civilian branch of the War Department, is planning to do most of the work on the road until the American Army turns it back to the Canadian government, six months after the war is over.

    Above Fort Nelson the highway has not had as intensive attention. In many places it is excellent, but it still needs a great deal of work.

    Past Watson Lake and Whitehorse there is a mixture of good and bad. Beyond Whitehorse, the road follows level valleys much of the way. When the last of the road was rushed through in the autumn of 1942, frost already had solidified the ground. Along silt-covered flats, the road crews speeded, In November the highway was dedicated and traffic rolled all the way from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks. Snow and ice made a firm road.

    But spring undid some of the autumn work. Near the Canadian-Alaskan border, part of the road sank into swamps. That had been expected and crews went to work on new routings or made rock fills to overcome the swamps. This winter trucks are again moving the full length of the highway. Spring will bring more problems, though eventually they will be solved.

Alaska Highway winds northwestward from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, the end of steel, to Fairbanks, in inland Alaska.

    One problem, however, that does not have much hope of early solution is the dust. Someone has said that northwestern Canada has only two kinds of roads - muddy and dusty. Where the Alaska Highway is not gravelled, its surface is dangerously slippery in wet weather. Yet it dries quickly. And as soon as it is dry, it is dusty. I traveled the road last summer when it was so dusty truck drivers had to turn on their lights in the middle of the day to warn oncoming traffic. Between the walls of trees that hedge in the road much of the way, dust hung like a blanket. It permeated everything and made men wheeze like 20-year-old flivvers. From a hilltop, the dust, as heavy as a London fog, could be seen filling great valleys.

    People speak of blacktop or concrete for the highway, but there is no evidence the Army has plans for such work. The cost of surfacing 1,600 miles of highway would be tremendous. Anyway, the road is not in shape for permanent surfacing.

    But suppose the highway were ready for tourist traffic. What would you do for gasoline and supplies? In Edmonton and Dawson Creek many people talk of establishing gas stations and tourist camps, but the plans are still in the blueprint stage, if that far.

    There are few towns of any sort along the highway. Dawson Creek has mushroomed from 500 people to perhaps 10 times that many, but the end of construction will send most of the people back to old homes. There is a small settlement at Taylor Flats, on the Peace River, 35 miles above Dawson Creek. Fifteen miles farther on is Fort St. John, with a couple of hundred souls. The big construction camps were outside the town. Then there is no hamlet for 250 miles, only a trader or two. Fort Nelson is an Indian village eight miles off the highway at the point where the road swings from a northerly direction to northwest. After that it is 650 miles to Whitehorse in Yukon Territory. Probably a village or resort will be established at Watson Lake, but that is several miles from the road. Now there are army and construction camps along the way, but they will move out before tourists move in. It's a long, lonesome road. It may always be.

    Through the Yukon country, trading posts are far apart. The road does not hit Dawson, the old gold mine city. In Alaska the highway joins the Richardson Highway at Big Delta, a hundred miles southeast of Fairbanks. From there in to Fairbanks are several towns.

This stout bulldozer is capable of powerful doing. The tree on the left vibrates as its roots are torn up from the onslaught.

    Well, that's a pretty formidable list of reasons why sportsmen and tourists won't travel up the Alaska Highway in comfort very soon. There are several reasons why they should make the trip when the journey is feasible.

    A lot of relatives of soldiers and construction men who were on the road will want to see what has been accomplished. Alaska has always had a romantic lure. Motorists who have been everywhere else will want to try a new route.

    There is beautiful scenery galore. From Dawson Creek past Fort Nelson, the country is much like northern Minnesota or Wisconsin, but without the many lakes of those states. The country is wooded and moderately hilly. Numerous muddy streams rush by. A hundred miles past Fort Nelson the highway enters the mountains - skirts them, follows along their sides and goes over them. Sometimes the tops have been knocked off mountains to fill canyons. The rivers become clearer and the woods change from spruce and poplar and birch to pine. Rock basins cradle lakes. The Liard River tumbles through its majestic canyon, though the most spectacular part is away from the highway.

    All the way to Whitehorse the mountains continue, wooded or rocky, they are all eye-appealing, but after hundreds of miles they become a bit monotonous. They have to be taken in straight doses now, unrelieved by towns.

Parts of Alberta and British Columbia tapped by the Alaska Highway offer some good duck and goose shooting.

    Whitehorse, filled with associations of gold rush days, is an interesting place. Its pre-war summer population was about 600. In winter it was hardly more than half that, for workers on the narrow-gauge railroad that comes over the famous White Pass from Skagway, Alaska, went "outside" for the cold months. So did the river transport workers. Army engineers took over the railroad when the United States went into the war and kept it going all winter.

    The bank is the one in which Robert W. Service clerked from 1904 to 1910. He left his Whitehorse job because the bank wouldn't lend him $500 to publish his Yukon writings. The Old Log Church, where Service was vestry clerk, is still used by the Anglicans. And nearby is Sam McGee's cabin. In real life, McGee found the frozen body of a fisherman as he walked across the ice of a lake near Whitehorse. Unable to carry the body and afraid the wolves might get it, McGee made a funeral pyre. He told the story to Service, who changed it a bit for his poem.

    The Lewes River, which becomes the Yukon farther down, runs through Whitehorse and Dawson in Yukon Territory in Canada and continues a couple of thousand miles to St. Michael, Alaska. Whitehorse is the head of navigation and comfortable steamers take on freight and passengers just across the tracks from the railroad station. Once tourists were the main business, but last summer military needs were far more important. Half a dozen old vessels lay rotting on the bank, Indian children running in and out of the cabins. One, the Yukon Rose, lifted a saucy prow and looked as though she might be reconditioned.

    Two miles upstream are the famous rapids where so many gold seekers cracked up when they came from the south by raft. It is an enchanting spot on a summer night, with hills and mountains and red sky forming a backdrop to the west. The blue-green water leaps dangerously over rocks and a steady roar envelopes everything. Roses and half a dozen other wildflowers grow on the banks and people from Whitehorse, with little other diversion, wander the paths through the woods.

The bears grow fat on the garbage dumps at the army and construction camps, and men foster risky friendships with them.

    It is not hard to understand the spell of the Yukon. One wonders what Robert Service (still living in Seattle) would think of it with the bustle of the highway replacing the earlier gold boom.

    But there is also much to see beyond Whitehorse. A hundred miles farther on, the Haines cutoff joins the big road and some people see in this cutoff the eventual doom of the long route from Edmonton. It starts at Haines, Alaska, on the Lynn Canal below Skagway. It winds over the mountains through Chilkat Pass, another of the gold rush routes, and finds the highway at the foot of the St. Elias Range.

    Scenery along the Haines cutoff is gorgeous. Going south the tremendous peaks of the St. Elias Range rise at the travelers right. Save only for Mount McKinley in Alaska, several summits of the St. Elias Range tower above anything on the North American continent. Huge glaciers hang between high, jagged peaks. They are cold and aloof, yet fascinating and beautiful in a forbidding way. Rivers, waterfalls and forests add their attractions.

    North from the Haines cutoff, the highway skirts the St. Elias Range, following valley bottoms most of the way. Another 50 miles on is what many people consider the most enchanting part of all the route - Lake Kluane.

    Lake Kluane is shaped like a tuning fork, is 35 miles long. The sharply-contoured St. Elias mountains crowd down upon its vari-colored waters - waters sometimes blue-green in the sun, sometimes red as you watch from a distance at the end of day, sometimes clay colored near the mud flats where streams bring down silt.

    Here, where Soldier Summit falls off into the water, the highway was opened in the fall of 1942 and the formal dedication was held at the place where working parties from the north and south came together. From the road you look down on a high rocky island. Across the lake, more mountains close in the scene. Blue and white ice of glaciers shines in the sun.

    And so to Alaska. If it's scenery you want, the Highway is your dish.

    Game and fish? There is plenty of that, too. Every camp has bears at its garbage dump. Some become pets. Early arrivals shot the animals for their fur, but such slaughter of the fat creatures soon lost favor.

    Moose are plentiful. Indians used to hunt moose. The meat was a welcome addition to a usually scanty larder and the hide was used for moccasins and leather clothing. But war jobs have lured the braves from old pursuits and many a squaw is without the moose hide she needs to shoe her family. Soldier and civilian workers took a number of moose calves for pets. In fact, most camps were overstocked with animals - squirrels, crows, bear cubs, foxes and dogs of all kinds, especially sled dogs.

    Though not available for hunting, the government has established a buffalo herd at Big Delta, Alaska. Buffaloes get along splendidly in the far north. Among the high peaks, mountain sheep hide.

The Haines cutoff road (see map) crosses a river. The mountains are part of the Saint Elias Range.

    In the low, hilly country that stretches from the Alaskan part of the highway to the Arctic ocean, live caribou and reindeer, which are so close to being the same thing that most people can't tell the difference.

    A herd of several thousand caribou was seen near Fairbanks during the summer. Caribou have been increasing in number. At the same time the numbers of the more or less domesticated reindeer farther north have been waning. The great Lomen herds were turned over to Eskimos by the government. But the Eskimo herders have gone to better paying defense jobs or into the army. The decline in the reindeer herds is laid to inroads by wolves. However, some authorities believe that the reindeer have been joining their wild cousins, the caribou. Caribou meat is esteemed by the white men as well as by the Indians. In the wilderness they live on caribou all winter without tiring of the diet.

    On the lower part of the Highway, ducks and geese are common in the fall. Grande Prairie, Alberta, located on the old road between Edmonton and Dawson Creek, is said by hunters to afford some of the best goose and duck hunting in the northwest.

    Streams along the lower road yield grayling and Dolly Varden trout to fishermen. Farther north in the lakes are lake trout and whitefish. At Teslin Lake, which the highway follows for 30 miles a half day's journey below Whitehorse, I saw lake trout taken that looked suspiciously close to 40 pounds.

    Alaska streams teem with salmon during the spawning season and also raise rainbow trout as big as the ones that got away in the States.

    Game and fish and scenery - the highway has them all in good measure. Too bad the road isn't more inviting for the traveler.

The Schenley whiskey ad seen below is on the inside of the front cover of this issue of the magazine, and the Coxe reel ad is 2 columns wide on the last page of the Alaska Highway article, page 67. The Coxe ad talked about Coxe and parent company Bronson Reel Company earning the Army, Navy "E" award for doing outstanding war production work.