“I don’t think the heavy stuff is going to come down for quite a while.” Dave quips, using one of his favorite movie quotes. I look out the windshield. It is dark. And snowing. The headlights of our truck make the snowflakes look hypnotically like I would imagine stars flying past as we enter a black hole.
We haven’t seen evidence of another human life in hours. I am keenly aware that everything that matters to me is riding along this dark, icy road with me: Dave, our belongings, and our pets – and we are hundreds of miles from anywhere. After what feels like an eternity, we find a good spot to camp for the night just outside of Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, Canada.
I look at the clock, it is 6:30 pm. No need to risk it pushing on. The next morning, we are greeted by a winter wonderland under crystal blue skies. We are greeted by a view of the glaciated Northern Rocky Mountains of the Yukon in their spectacular untouched glory as they have been for thousands of years.
Traveling the Alaska-Canada (AlCan) Highway during the off-season between late September to May is not on most people’s bucket lists, but as opposite snowbirds–headed towards the snow–we travel north from the Lower 48 each fall and return south each spring.
Exploring the 1,700 miles of road built during World War II by the US Army Corps of Engineers gives a traveler a good sense of the challenges the 10,000+ troops who built the original roadway faced. It was built in only 8 months time to transport supplies and troops to the Alaskan Territory through some of the most remote areas of the Northern Rocky Mountains.
A great resource for learning more about the construction of the AlCan is the PBS episode of American Experience, Building the Alaska Highway. The road crosses marshes, rivers, mountain passes, and permafrost areas that are ongoing maintenance issues to keep the only roadway into Alaska open.
With fewer travelers than the busy summer months, off-season travel allows you to experience the vastness of the region and the largely untouched wilderness expanses that lie between the outposts.
If you choose to drive the AlCan during the off season, there are several things to keep in mind before you go.
You will see some of the most dramatic landscapes you can imagine. The harshness of the cold season does something magical to the scenery, seemingly taking you through a time portal to the Pleistocene.
As lush and beautiful as the drive is during the summer months, the winter beauty is beyond imagination. Bring your camera!
Watch out for the wildlife! During the winter, wildlife is abundant along the plowed roadway where it is easier for them to travel and graze through the deep snow.
In one day we have seen buffalo, caribou, elk, sheep, and wolves without leaving our rig. Large dark animals on icy roads during the blackest nights are not something you want to suddenly encounter.
Prepare for anything. Many of the roadside stops available during the summer mentioned in the Milepost are closed during the off season, making stretches of 300+ miles between gas or food sources common.
The primary population centers along the way (Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Teslin, Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Beaver Creek, and Tok) will have services through the winter. Other stops may or may not.
If winter storms affect supply trucks, there may be shortages along the way. Additionally, any accident or issue on the road can close the highway for hours or days while crews are dispatched from hundreds of miles away to remedy the situation. Extra food, water, fuel, blankets, batteries, tire chains, and supplies are a must.
Do not take risks. The AlCan is remote in the best of seasons, but in the off-season it is even more so. There is no cell service for the majority of the length of route (and check with your provider if they offer coverage in Canada before you go), the roads can be very icy, and the winter months have only a few hours of daylight.
With fewer other travelers, if you should slide off the road, have a flat tire, or have an accident, it will very likely be several hours before help can reach you. Play it safe to travel on another day.
Read the fuel pumps carefully before filling. Especially if you drive a diesel! Some Canadian gasoline fuel pumps have green handles, which can be confusing for those from the US that are used to green diesel pumps.
We made this mistake one year after several days on the road, and ended up spending a lot of unexpected time in the cold in a nearly abandoned village waiting for a mechanic from 200 miles away to drive out and help us…. That was not an inexpensive service call either, so bring along some extra Canadian cash!
Pack your patience. Along 1,700 miles, something will likely happen that isn’t in your plan. A flat tire, TWO flat tires, road closure, stubborn herd of bison, storm, avalanche–anything is possible and should be expected.
Seriously enjoy the travel. Sure, a lot can go wrong and it may not be an easy drive, but that also makes it part of the adventure! This type of adventuring allows you to meet and connect with fellow travelers along the same route.
Share stories and travel conditions with others. Take the time to chat with the folks who keep the fuel pumps and coffee going during the winter months – they are the ones that know the seasons of the land like no other.
Slow down and enjoy the journey as it unfolds for you – these are memories that will last a lifetime.