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Commentary: The Alcan, I Can

By Tom Dodge, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Commentary: The Alcan, I Can

Dallas, TX –

Anyone can fly or take the ferry to Alaska. But driving the Alaska-Canadian Highway is the best way to experience its sights and people. They're called eccentric, but I found them sociable and helpful. Survival dictates it. Instead of road rage you'll see road aid, as, sooner or later on the Alcan, you'll need help. In 1947, five years after its construction began, the temperature dropped to a record low, minus 81 degrees, near Yukon's Beaver Creek. Cars, and people, break down at these temperatures.

It was built by the military to connect the mainland U.S. to Alaska. It begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and goes on for 1,422 miles to Delta Junction, Alaska.

If you believe the travel guides and some people you might not try it. They warn of dizzying precipices, menacing rutting moose, potholes, long, unpaved stretches of roadway, hairpin curves, and so on.

It's not easy, of course, but it's wonderful. For its entire length there are no billboards, no endless strips of look-alike chain stores or shopping malls, no drivers changing lanes and cutting you off. There are no intersections except in a few villages and towns. No one drives while talking on the phone. There's no signal. Car radios don't work and TV hardly at all.

Leaving British Columbia you enter the storied Yukon province. Yukon is more than twice the size of Great Britain and larger than all the New England states combined but has a population of only 30,000. Oh the joy! Yukon is storied because Jack London and Robert W. Service made it into stories. Sgt. Preston of the Northwest Royal Canadian Mounted Police and his faithful dog Yukon King capturing wrongdoers in howling blizzards filled my boyhood afternoons. But in August I saw no Mounties, no blizzards, not even Dairy Queen Blizzards. There're no Dairy Queens.

What I did see were glassine lakes, silvery rivers, snow-topped mountains, and glaciers. I saw elk, moose, mountain goats, and caribou hanging around the highway. I saw two bears coming down the mountainside to fish in the river. Just 20 miles past Beaver Creek is the American-Canadian border. Alaska. America. Old Glory. I almost puddled at the sight of it.

Alaskans seem to be the way we were in the 1990s, a little on the innocent side. I actually saw bumper stickers stating, "CLINTON LIED."

There are lots of new lies coming out of Washington but if they don't know about them they may be better off.

One involves global warming. The thawing of the permafrost and the glaciers is obvious to Alaskans. Also spruce beetles, which thrive in warmer climates, have ravaged millions of acres of white spruce trees in Canada and are moving north, showing up even in Greenland. For miles along the highway you see the withering corpses of spruces ravaged by beetles.

But there's no withering of the human spirit. You sense the abundance of everything natural here, especially individual freedom. People are sunny though they get little direct sunlight. They're in no hurry. In storefronts they sit to gossip and tell stories the way we used to do on our front porches. Gas field roughnecks, fishermen, motorcyclists, teenagers, old people, Aleuts, together, seemingly in community. In Tok, I stopped in to view the sled dogs for sale at Burnt Paw & Cabins Outback. The proprietor, Bill Arpino, said, "We don't care if the dog's got floppy ears, brown eyes, and six toes. It's just her performance that matters."

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.

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