An epic family road trip sees a 10m trailer go from Canada to Alaska. By Mark Thornton with Traily McTrailerface.
It was only after we turned north at Haines Junction that the landscape of the Alaska Highway became new to us, for we had travelled this far before. In the west the first peaks of the Kluane Range of mountains rose up like a gigantic wall, their tops glowing brilliant white.
There is no way through this barrier, even the mighty Yukon River, which rises just 80km from the coast, has to flow inland and travel 3200km across the length of Alaska before finding a way to the Bering Sea.
A golden eagle drifted into view and soared, without a single flap of its wings, up the Alsek River gorge towards the peaks, heightening the spectacle. Kluane’s summits average 2500m in height. Yet they are just the guardians of the rugged Icefield Ranges more than 100km further west, whose peaks include Mt Logan, at 5959m the highest mountain in Canada and the second highest in North America.
We had left Ellie’s place in Atlin, British Columbia, the day before and camped just outside Whitehorse, where we joined the Alaska Highway. As if to herald our journey, Atlin had produced for our departure the most beautiful sunset I have seen there in nine years of visits. It was a happy omen.
It was early August 2016 and over the next month our family of seven, aged between 67 and five, plus Grizzly the Pomeranian, would travel more than 5800km through Alaska with a 10m trailer towed by a 6.5-litre Turbo V8 Ford King Ranch dual-cab ute, itself 7m long.
The trip was devised by my step-daughter Ellie, who lives in British Columbia with partner Bill, Grizzly and five-year-old Elke. Ellie wanted to gather together as many of her Australian family as she could — her mum Dianne, me, her sister Luci with husband Tim and her Aunty Jen — to share a road trip through breathtaking Alaskan country none of us had seen before.
Central to its success was the “Hideout” trailer made by Keystone. It only had sleeping room for five so Luci and Tim hired their own GMC Yukon 5.2m wagon, nicknamed Black Thunder by Tim, and slept in the back. Bill was only able to get a week off work to join us and squeezed into a single bunk with Ellie (don’t ask). The trailer was modest compared with the monster trailers and recreational vehicles (RVs) we encountered on the road. But Ellie had given it a special name.
Earlier this year the British Research Council invited the public to choose a name for a new polar research ship to replace its ageing Ernest Shackleton. More than half-a- million people voted for a variety of names but, reflecting the English sense of playful irreverence, the most popular by far was Boaty McBoatface.
The government was not amused and instead named the vessel Sir David Attenborough which, everyone had to admit, was far more appropriate. However, Ellie loved the first idea and mimicked it, naming her trailer Traily McTrailerface.
And so it came to pass that on our first day we trailed 280km up the highway from Whitehorse, through Haines Junction to Burwash Landing, a small First Nation village on the shores of Kluane Lake.
There lived Sam, a descendant of the Southern Tutchone Athabascans and an old friend of Ellie. Sam, goldminer, hunting and fishing guide and all-round handsome good bloke, insisted we stay the night at his lodge. But first he took us out on the lake to fish for giant northern pike, voracious beasts like metre-long mottled green torpedoes with racks of teeth. We bounced breathlessly around for a while in a howling gale that barrelled up the lake but we didn’t catch any fish.
Early next morning we followed the Kluane Range north-west. Arctic cotton grass lined the road and deep green armies of spruce marched in unbroken ranks up the valley walls to the tree line of high peaks. Occasionally dwarf willows, birch and cottonwoods punctuated the green with splashes of autumn yellows and reds. Ground squirrels and marmots scampered off the road at our approach.
Ellie had packed her collection of field guides to the native plants and animals, all well-thumbed and annotated over 10 years of adventuring. Elke had her own reference books in which she entered observations. Dianne had bought books by two of America’s great naturalists, the Wilderness Essays of John Muir (1838-1914) and A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1886-1948).
Both were passionate campaigners for areas of outstanding natural beauty to be set aside for posterity as national parks. Their lyrical writings and environmental ethics have lost none of their power over the years. At times as we stared at our surroundings it seemed we could hear their voices quietly over our shoulders, their words adding poignancy to our experiences throughout our journey.
We soon reached the Alaskan border and the US Customs post, complete with a huge steel frame that we had to drive through. We suspected it was electronically scanning our rig for contraband and wondered whether it would spot our Arnott’s Ginger Nuts. We didn’t ask; previous experience with border police suggested a humourless approach was best.
Alaska at last. A name that conjures powerful images and a land I have longed to visit all my life. Despite the highway being the main artery linking Canada and Alaska, we saw few other vehicles. This was no coincidence; we had planned our trip for the end of summer after most tourists had gone. It also meant we would be there for the full glory of autumn and the aurora borealis.
Stopping to savour the vast wilderness, engines off, we stood and stared. Humbled by the magnificence, no one spoke. There was no wind and the silence was complete. A landscape like this affects the way you think and behave; we were already beginning to leave old reality behind and morph into Traily Mode. You cannot be unaffected by surroundings of such splendour and scale.
Entering Alaska, we put our watches back one hour and our minds 20 years. They still use gallons and miles here and the country folk have stayed delightfully friendly. They say “Howdy” and “Y’all” and the youngsters called me “sir”, which is endearing but takes getting used to. And roadhouses really do have rocking chairs on the boardwalk.
We were now 400km from the Arctic Circle. The spruce were dwindling in size. Within an hour we had passed three derelict roadhouses, long abandoned, and wondered at the failed dreams of their owners. But the roads are mostly exceptional, smooth and well-marked, despite some patches badly affected by what they call frost heaves, which create tarmac rollercoasters. In places, Traily had to slow to 40km/h.
Our first Alaskan stop was an RV park in Tok, known as the Sled Dog Capital of Alaska. Tok has a population of 1400, with a main street 150m wide and an excellent tourist information office offering free maps and guides aplenty. It has been a trade and services centre for travellers since its beginnings as a highway-construction camp 75 years ago. We left the Alaska Highway there and turned south on the Glenn Highway, aiming for Valdez, a major fishing port on Prince William Sound and, because it remains ice-free all year, the loading point for crude oil from the Trans-Alaska pipeline that runs 130km from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields on the Arctic Ocean.
The town became globally infamous in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef about 40km out from the port, having just taken on a full load of oil. Up to 120 million litres, two-thirds of the ship’s load, spilled into the Sound. Mishaps followed bungles and ultimately the spill affected 28000sqkm of ocean and 2100km of shoreline., much of it rocky bays that, even with the best will, clean up teams could not reach. More than 11,000 volunteers arrived from all over Alaska to help, though many could do little more than wipe the rocks with paper towels.
Time is a great healer. Now, 27 years later, walking the beaches and rocks of the Sound, paddling in a kayak or cruising in a tourist boat, you would never know anything dire had happened, though apparently a few remote bays still show traces. The place once again teems with birds, fish, whales and sea otters, a photographer’s dream. We stayed longer than planned.
Make sure you come back tomorrow as the strange but true true Alaskan adventures of Traily McTrailerface continue with the family heading to the port of Valdez.
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