Roads North

Lil' Squatch hit the Jackpot near the Alaskan border.
Lil' Squatch hit the Jackpot near the Alaskan border.

One nice thing about being the slowest little jalopy on the road is that we most often have a long unobstructed view of the landscape ahead. This also means that we sometimes have a long string of less than patient vehicles trailing behind us, but we’re considerate people and we get out of the way when there’s a chance to let folks pass. My hopes are that most people can understand the obvious limitations of our ride and that the ambiguous “Keepin’ it Squatchy” bumper sticker is less aggravating than having one that says, “I may be slow but I’m ahead of you”.

Spending a week on the Alaskan highway or “Al-Can” is giving us plenty of stretches of unobstructed views. This road was built during World War 2 in order to give better supply access to our territory in Alaska when it was otherwise much more accessible to the Japanese. It was built rather quickly by U.S. Army road crews who dealt with mud and muskegs, dense forests thick with bugs and sub- freezing conditions all while improvising the route and inventing building techniques for the tough environment. It was tough to build and tough to drive and when opened to the public after the war it became an adventurous route to the Last Frontier of the North.

Frost Heave on the Al-Can - Photo by Tim Giller
Frost Heave on the Al-Can - Photo by Tim Giller

Today the adventure is steering clear of overloaded logging trucks and oversized rigs carrying massive equipment for the oil and gas fields in remote Alberta and British Columbia. The road has been re-routed in many areas and is almost entirely paved, except in long gravel sections where road crews are busy cramming a years worth of maintenance into a short summer. The log “corduroy” across soggy permafrost and mud grades of 26% are long gone but the land refuses to hold a road in places that freeze and thaw so dramatically. Lil’ Squatch still has to dodge bathtub sized

Squatch's windshield - Photo by Tim Giller
Squatch's windshield - Photo by Tim Giller

chuckholes and ride long miles of frost-heave rollercoaster and when tractor trailers are barreling down on you flinging gravel it’s not if you’ll get a chip in your windshield but how many.

What remains remarkably wild about this journey though is the land. In these far corners of Canada and where it meets Alaska are some of the best-protected swaths of wilderness anywhere on Earth. The rush to extract from these vast acres is visible along the drive, but there is still a lot land that supports all the wildest things in North America. The Boreal Forest stretches around the northern globe as the largest ecoregion on the planet. A land for Bears, Moose, Caribou, Wolves, innumerable summer birds and all the other creatures hidden in the dense spruce. Where the road cuts through is an opportunity to see many of these animals as they come to edge zone and a 1500 mile drive means it’s almost a guarantee to spot some of them.

Roadside Grizzly, Yukon Territory - Photo by Tim Giller
Roadside Grizzly, Yukon Territory - Photo by Tim Giller

Crossing the Yukon Territory we’ve left the Rocky Mountains but to the south and west rise the biggest region of mountains on the continent. Vast icefields cling to the Kluane range with the St. Elias Mountains beyond stretching into Alaska where they bump into the Wrangells. This bent and folded land is still experiencing the powerful subduction of the Pacific plate and these mountains are still rising, the volcanoes are still smoking and the Earth still quakes with regularity.

It’s hard not to feel ambivalent about roads, especially roads that take you into wild and beautiful places. It is an incredible privilege to have access to places where you experience nature that is untamed and free. But access comes at a cost. I’ve never felt more ambivalent about a road than when I had the chance to share the drive up the Dalton Highway into the farthest north of Alaska and fulfill a long dream of seeing the Brooks Range. It is an incredible land of long tundra horizons and open country where you are free to roam across if you can endure the long miles of unstable and slow squishy ground. There I saw Dall sheep and tiny tree species that didn’t grow above the toe of my boot. I also sat for close to an hour watching a mother grizzly and her cub of the year lolling around together on the soft tussocks between bouts of digging for roots and critters. However the only reason I could be there was this road that was nothing more that an enormous piece of industrial infrastructure servicing the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline and built across the last chance we have to keep a truly immense environment intact.

Roads don’t get built so that naturalists can go visit remote places. One might argue that we have plenty of roads already. Alaska seems to have it’s own ambivalence about the issue. It’s a place that so many dream of coming to, for adventure or to try and live more directly from the land. One look at a road map of Alaska and you see right away that there aren’t many. Access to most of the remote places and to many substantial towns is by plane or by boat or in winter via snowmachine. Even dogsleds are still used. However this big land, and it really is a big land, is not inexhaustible. Roads tend to lead to more roads; access in one place creeps inevitably toward the next and every newcomer wants just one little piece for themselves. It gets played out on a complex tapestry of land use and ownership: federal, state, native, pioneer, visitor vs. local.

A generous gift from an Alaska dipnet fisherman
A generous gift from an Alaska dipnet fisherman

Our road has made a long dramatic hook into the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias and near the end of the road we’ve come to the confluence of the Chitina and Copper Rivers. Walking out to the edge of a gravel bar, part of the extensive braided watercourses that fill the valley, we watch subsistence fishermen working their fish-wheels gathering Salmon by the basket load while glacier clad peaks rise 14,000 ft beyond. A Dutch traveler approaches us confused about the status of “easement” we are standing on. This is Native Ahtna land within a National Park. We are allowed to visit but activity is rather circumscribed, primarily to protect what is still a productive land that provides for the locals’ needs. Our traveler seems frustrated and disappointed that this wild land is not the free and lawless place of his dreams. With the exception of the first people to enter this place many thousands of years ago, it likely never was.

Fish Wheels and Mt Drum, AK - Photo by Tim Giller
Fish Wheels and Mt Drum, AK - Photo by Tim Giller