Black From the Pot: Driving the AlCan in Winter

We headed out of Dillon, Montana in the morning and made our way up I-15 through Butte and Helena, both pretty mountain towns.  Someday, I’d really enjoy staying and exploring when the weather is more conducive to doing so.  Lots of mountainous winter driving with hills and turns until we dropped down from the hills towards Great Falls, then straight north on flat land towards Shelby and the border.  Mostly flat landJust before you get to Shelby is a small canyon that the highway dips down into before climbing back up which the Marias River flows through.  It wasn’t horrible when we went through but if the weather had been icy, may have been some trouble.

Last glimpse of blue skies, heading into the storm

As we continued north, we could see the cold front to our west that had been threatening.  It felt to me like we were racing against some really bad weather, which we were.  We made some last calls to family before we entered Alberta, Canada and garnered international rates, then went through customs.  I made a point to be sure the guards had a look at Moonlight’s papers this time.  I spent good money to make certain she had them, dammit!  LOOK AT THEM!  Which they did and we began our 1,900 mile trek across Canada.

It was starting to get dark as we got underway again but didn’t start looking for a place to stop until around midnight.  We saw the town of Leduc, which had some motels listed on Yelp but it seemed too far out of our way to consider stopping.  I found one that had been rated with 5 stars just outside of Edmonton, so we went there.  We were tired and agreed to the $100 deposit, since we didn’t have enough on our credit card to use it, then went to our room.

Moonlight did NOT approve

It stank like ancient chain smoker with stains and burns on every surface, but we took showers and tried to sleep.  After an hour and a half nap, we both woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep so we packed up, and got our deposit back and left.  What a nasty place.

Cigarette burns

We drove on for another few hours and then stopped in the parking lot of a large convenience store/truck stop in Whitecourt, where we fell asleep for a few hours in our seats.  We woke up, I went inside to use the bathroom and bought hot coffee while Robert walked Moonlight, and we traded places so Robert could sleep a little while I drove.  It was pre-dawn and the traffic was heavy with many pickups and semis heading out with us to the oil and gas fields, which got lighter as the day got brighter and we made our way towards Dawson Creek, the “official” start of the Alaska Highway.  Along the way, we passed over Pink Mountain, the nefarious bane of our journey south.  In the light of day, it almost seemed like a smallish hill.  But we know better, don’t we.  Yes.  We drove on and stopped at Sasquatch Crossing where we saw a truck with it’s blinkers on and a couple of people walking back towards the lodge.  They were actually from Indian Valley, close to Anchorage, and their truck had broken down.  I hope they made it to where they were headed to down in the Lower 48, the opposite direction we were headed.  If they had been interested in going back, we could have offered them a ride.

Slipping between two storm systems

We spent the night at the new Motel 6 in Fort Nelson, where there was even a little, snowy dog area in a corner of the lot for Moonlight to potty in.  It was comfortable, and we slept so very, very well and soundly that night.

Much better!

We sure did need it.  The only trouble we had was the light switch for the bathroom had been connected to the fridge, so we had to pour out the milk I had been keeping for our coffee.  It was almost gone by that point but still somewhat annoying.  Which brings us to the subject of what we’d been eating on this trip.  Well, tamales from Texas, of course!  Back in Arizona, we bought one of those plug in coolers for our food.  We had milk, eggs, cheese, hotdogs and 5 dozen frozen tamales that my father in law had bought us before we left Houston.

Plug-in cooler

The tamales stayed frozen, for the most part, since the cooler was well packed, but as we traveled on, the other things got used up and so they started to thaw after we left Colorado.  During one of our stops in Idaho for fuel, I saw a little portable oven that is apparently popular amongst truckers, that gets plugged into your 12-volt cigarette lighter like the cooler, and bought it along with some aluminum pan-type inserts.

RoadPro 12-volt oven

I tried it out with some hotdogs first.  After about 20 minutes of driving, we started to smell the hotdogs so I picked the cooker up off the floorboard by my feet and opened it up in my lap.  Hot water from condensation in my lap!  But then it was cold water.  Yuck.  But we had hot hotdogs! Then we had hot tamales.  And hot tamales.  And hot tamales.  We had tamales for three days.

Hot food while you drive

It was a very long day, preceded by a very long night, preceded by a string of very long days, but since we no longer had our travel trailer to sleep or eat in, we were compelled to keep going.  That takes coffee, and lots of it.  Whether in the form of those bottles of Starbuck’s chilled mochas bought at the store or steaming hot, black from the pot at a lonely lodge along the highway, caffeine is the fuel that keeps the weary traveler alert and content enough to keep driving on.  Coffee and cinnamon rolls.

There are two places we stopped at where they make their cinnamon rolls fresh every day, and they aren’t too far from each other.  Plus, they’re both really good! The first we came to was the Tetsa River Lodge, where they have a great little ad in The Milepost for the “Cinnamon Bun Centre of the Galactic Cluster”.  The coffee was amazing as well, and we had a nice chat about Trump with the owner.  The next place we stopped at was at Double G, where we got more coffee and more cinnamon rolls!  Yay!  Robert took photographs of the old lights above the fuel island, he’d been wanting to since we’d passed by on our way down, so I’m glad he had the opportunity to do so.

Robert taking pictures before going in and finding fresh cinnamon rolls and coffee!

Backstory:  In 2010, when Robert and I were traveling up from Alabama so we could live together as man and wife, finally… we stopped at the Double G for breakfast one morning.  We enjoyed a wonderfully delish meal but the proprietor was super cranky so we ever afterwards called him the surly cook. He wasn’t there this time, but a super friendly younger guy was there with the coffee and rolls.  Apparently, the old guy is the owner and spends the winters down south now.  I’d love to go back through in the summer while he is there just to see if his attitude is any better.

Folded Mountain

Another long day and driving and driving.  Moonlight is starting not to like going for rides in the truck.  Even if she gets to look out the window and bark at the locals.

Wood Bison

We spend the night in Teslin at the Yukon Motel.  It’s older but clean and quiet, so we wake up in the morning ready for strong coffee and a last, great push towards home.

We make stops to fill up the truck with diesel at every major town along our way, because you just don’t know who’s going to be open this time of year.  It’s the 23rd of December and there might be folks out visiting family.  So, stops in Whitehorse, Haines Junction and Destruction Bay before we make our way up towards the Alaska-Canada Border, where the guard on duty on the U.S. side gives Moonlight a biscuit and talks about bushwhacking on his off days to a local lake in the area.  It’s remote forest, what else is he gonna do when he’s not working?  We totally get it.

The sun is going down as we cross into Alaska and is full dark by the time we get to Tok.  I briefly consider going into the RV campground to retrieve the stash I hid there but there’s no way I’d be able to with all the snow.  We continue on, keeping ourselves going with music and conversation, already planning our next adventure.  We know we’re going to do this again and we outline some of the changes we’ll make and ways to do things better.  We pass familiar landmarks in the darkness, a faint green glow to the north, not enough to really call it auroras.  We pull into our driveway at 1:22 am on the 24th of December, Christmas Eve.

What a trip!

Escape From Pink Mountain

Settling into a routine seemed to be going well as we traveled.  We would awaken around 7:30 and get dressed, take Moonlight for a walk, drink coffee, eat an English muffin and maybe some cereal or eggs and then pack and secure items inside the trailer for the day’s drive.  This past Saturday began no differently and we started out from where we’d spent the night at Muncho Lake.  Heading towards Fort Nelson, we kept seeing cars and trucks coated with what looked like frozen, brown slush.  We knew what it meant deep down inside but successfully ignored it until after we fueled up in Fort Nelson.  The coatings were becoming thicker and covered a little bit more of the surface of the vehicles.

As we climbed into the hills, we started rolling through patches of wet gravel that froze, quickly covering both truck and trailer with the same brown, icy mess.  We started to relax a little since we’d figured out the mystery.  We stopped for more fuel in Buckinghorse River, which had a cozy-looking cafe.  Sue said she wished we could stop and park the RV’s and have a hot meal but the Milepost indicated that there was an RV park at Pink Mountain only 30 miles away.  Why not just keep driving and stay the night there instead, says I.  I mean…what’s another 30 miles?  Plus, it’s not very late in the afternoon.  So, onward we went.

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I snapped this as dusk was falling near the Royal Lodge, for Veronica.

We had been warned about Steamboat Pass and how rotten the weather is this time of year and well into the spring, so when we successfully traversed that one we thought we were golden.  Not true.  We hit snow well about the time we got to the Royal Lodge and asked about staying the night but they had no room at the Inn, so we continued on up the mountain headed to the next available shelter, Pink Mountain Campsite.  As we toiled up the last hill approaching the campground, we lost traction but grabbed hold momentarily and crawled up a few feet before squirreling all over the road as tires found ice under the snow.  Sue, who had been behind us holding her own, was in danger of being knocked into a slide if we lost it and hit her on the way down, so I radioed her to go around us.  Robert was driving and told her not to since he was afraid he would hit her from the way the rig was skittering over the highway trying to find a tire-hold.  This moment of conflicting direction was enough to halt Sue’s forward advancement and she lost traction and stopped.  We did as well but also began to slide backwards down this freaking mountain.  Backwards.  I thought we were going to die.  There was a sudden stop as we bumped into Sue’s rig.  I’m convinced, even if Robert is not, that that is what saved us from dying in a mangled, steaming heap at the bottom of that hill.

Robert and Sue both had their feet planted on their brake pedals, any jolt could dislodge us all from where gravity and maybe a pebble had us.  We were in the middle of the highway, blocking traffic.  Not for long, though.  Cars, many pickups and semi trucks began to weave their way around us.  Most of them were oilfield workers and it was Thankgiving weekend for the Canadians, so everyone was in a hurry and we were in the way, dammit!  Finally, one guy pulled up by us and asked if we needed help and Robert explained the situation.  This man, who’s name was Adam, had a dually flatbed which he positioned in front of us and proceeded to put his chains on, slipping and sliding as he moved around his truck and back and forth to check on us and Sue.  I was terrified that we were going to get slid into by his truck as he backed up towards us to hook a chain up to us and send us back down the mountain, but nothing happened.  I prayed and kept my eyes shut tight as he pulled us about 750 feet up to the top of the hill and into the campground parking lot.  That’s how close we were to the top!  Adam was going back down to get Sue when we heard her on the radio saying she had just been hit by a semi.  Thank god she hadn’t been sent crashing down but she had been sideswiped and had damage.

When Adam towed her to where Robert and I were at the top, we saw that her awning had been broken and was half hanging down towards the ground, she had a busted window and the aluminum rain gutter crimped over the top of her side door rendering the door useless, among various other damage.  Robert secured spots for us to spend the night at the campground and I walked Moonlight around to where I guessed we would be parking.  The snow was deep, I was having a little trouble walking it but this wasn’t registering.  So when we drove along to find our spots, we got stuck in the snow, ice and mud that made up this campground driveway.  Robert went to find a manager or maintenance person and came back with good news and bad news:  the good news was that they weren’t going to charge us for the night’s stay, bad news was that the maintenance guy wouldn’t be in until morning.  We had power cords snaked out to where we had become mired by the camp worker, and we were just glad to be alive and warm for the night.

Truck stuck in muck.
Truck stuck in muck.

In the morning we had a visit from Wade and Joey, who were up for the challenge of trying to pull us out.  Wade is the tall, thin Head of Maintenance for Pink Mountain Campsites and Joey was a not so tall and not so thin oilfield water truck operator.  After a few tries and a huge bump, Babe and The Electric Igloo were free!  We had gotten our hindquarter hung up on a stack of logs, which made it pretty much impossible to get ourselves clear of.  They towed us up to the high point of the park and we eased our way down to the front parking lot, where we had mustered the night before.  Soon, Sue joined us, and we set to the task of making her rig roadworthy again mostly by removing parts and stopping up the airflow through her window.  Also, Robert and I were starting to think our pipes may have frozen during the course of the cold night.

Robert with Joey and Wade, two awesome Canadians.
Robert with Joey and Wade, two awesome Canadians.

We got underway and were very happy to find the road no longer slick with ice, but had warmed to wet slush once more.  Not wanting to tax ourselves or the RV’s we had a short day and I called ahead to see if the Northern Lights RV Park was open, which they were not, but since they lived there and had had their Thanksgiving dinner the day before, they would keep an eye open for us after we found dinner.  We stopped for pizza and went to find the park, and what a park!  So clean, not too big and not too small but just right…Goldilocks style.  The one rule that was most strictly admonished was no outside shoes allowed in the washroom area.  Because it is clean.  The cleanest public style restroom and laundry I have ever seen, ever.  It was worth every penny and the plentiful hot water helped to sooth our feelings about the previous night’s adventures so much that we stayed to recuperate for two nights.  The roads were fully dry and safe today.  There is heat, there is food, Robert fixed our water, we are okay once more.

Now, that's a NICE bathroom!
Now, that’s a NICE bathroom!