From Dawson Creek to Toad River… The Alaska Highway Series: Part II

British Columbia view along Alaska Highway

There is a much natural beauty along the Alaska Highway and a lot of wilderness— millions of square miles, as far as the eye can see.

The Alaska Highway, or the Alcan highway as it was known at the time, was a hurry up project, rarely if ever matched as an engineering feat. World War II was raging. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and were threatening to invade Alaska, which they did in 1942, landing on the outer most islands of the Aleutian Chain. The only way to counter the threat was to travel by ship through the North Pacific or fly in by air. The US and Canada came to a quick agreement: a 1700-mile road (2700 K) would be built between Dawson Creek BC and Delta Junction, Alaska. It was a colossal project.

Sub-zero freezing temperatures ruled during the winter and suffocating heat dominated in the summer. Along with the heat came hordes of mosquitos, black flies, no-see-ems and other biting, blood-sucking insects. Temperatures were so cold in the winter that fires would be lit under equipment to warm it up enough to operate. Muskeg sucked the same equipment down into the mud in the summer, sometimes swallowing it whole.

Team sinking in mud when building Alaska Highway

Whoa! Working conditions along the Alaska Highway were not optimal. (grin) (Museums along the Alaska Highway feature numerous photos reflecting the difficulties encountered in building the road.)

Bulldozer buried in mud while building the Alaska Highway

This is a ‘what do we do now,’ pose. (Museum photo.)

Building log bridge on the Alaska Highway

Bridges were made from logs. (Museum photo.)

Recruitment notice for workers on building the Alaska Highway

While not as clear as I would like, this recruitment notice is worth reading. They should have won a prize for ‘truth in advertising.’ (Museum photo.)

WW II army truck on Alaska Highway

Lots of old equipment is also displayed along the highway.

Tow truck used on the Alaska Highway

Steam shovel used to build the Alaska Highway

Curt Mekemson standing on bulldozer used to build Alaska Highway

Here I am standing on one of the old bulldozers.

With the threat of an imminent invasion, there was no time to consider the usual niceties of road building. Some 11,000 soldiers and engineers, 16,000 civilians, and 7000 pieces of equipment were thrown at the epic undertaking. Airplanes flew out daily to help plan routes, ‘on the fly’ so to speak, while the men struggled under almost impossible conditions. Starting on March 2nd, 1942, the project was completed on September 24th, some eight months later.

It was rough, oh yes it was rough— steep, muddy roads, log bridges, trees laid down across muskeg 15-feet deep— but it was usable. At $140 million, it was the most expensive construction project of World War II.

Original Alcan Highway

A view of the old road on its completion. (Museum photo.)

Alaska Highway in British Columbia

And how much of it looks today.

The highway can still be a bit of a challenge, but not so much that 30-40 foot RVs aren’t seen in substantial numbers travelling north on it. For the most part, the road is paved except for construction work, which can seem to go on forever. And it is shorter, by some 300 miles!

Today, I will take you over the first 400 miles from Dawson Creek to the uniquely named Toad River. The thing about the scenery along the Alaska Highway is that it is all impressive, and the farther north you go the more impressive it becomes!

Green forests along Alaska Highway

Mountains and forests rule along the highway…

Blue mountains along the Alaska Highway in British Columbia

Mountains stretching off into the distance.

Rock Face along Alaska Highway

An impressive cliff face.

View along Alaska Highway in British Columbia

Between ranges the road follows rivers, all of which had to be crossed when building the highway.

River along Alaska Highway

Sikanni Chief River

This is the Sikanni Chief River.

Sign for Sikanni Chief River

As was noted by this totem pole sign.

Stone Mountain on Alaska Highway

We were excited to see Stone Mountain, not only for its beauty but because there was a good chance we would see Stone Mountain Sheep.

Stone Mountain sheep on Alaska Highway

We were not disappointed. The sheep had come down the mountain to eat the salt that had been washed off the road from the previous winter.

Being checked out by Stone Mountain sheep on Alaska Highway

They weren’t worried when we stopped, but they did check us out. Note the kids peeking out.

Stone sheep kid

To say that they were cute…

Stone sheep kid at Stone Mountain along the Alaska Highway

Is a considerable understatement.

Toad River Lodge on Alaska Highway

Not far up the road, we came to the Toad River Lodge, which is named after the Toad River. Roadhouses were common in the early days of the Alaska Highway and even up to the time when I first drove the road in 1986. It was hard to travel over more than a hundred miles a day on rough, unpaved roads. Many lodges are closed now, no longer needed.

Baseball caps at Toad River Lodge on Alaska Highway

The lodge was quite proud of its cap collection, some 7000 from all over the world. The name, so we were told, had derived from towed, not the warty frog. Before the Canadians and Americans had completed a bridge across the river in 1942, they had to be towed across it. So they named it the Towed River. Toad is much more creative.

Toat River Lodge Toad

This fellow was staring at us when we ate at the lodge.

Beaver dam near the Toad River along the Alaska Highway

We spent the night at lodge’s RV campground. This was the view from our campsite. It was obvious that beavers had been at work on building their own lodge.

Beaver dam and beaver along Alaska Highway

And we soon saw one of the lodge’s residents. Lower left. He/she was busy building a beaver dam to assure that their lodge continued to be prime, waterfront property.

Beaver Lodges and dam next to Toad River Lodge on Alaska Highway

A view of the dam, which was literally outside our door. The builders had certainly been ‘as busy as beavers.’

Beaver working on beaver dam

Beavers often work at night, so we were excited about having these chisel-toothed mammals continue their activity as we watched from a bench next to their lake.

Beaver pushing limb to Beaver Dam near Toad River Lodge

While they worked, for the most part, bringing limbs in from across the lake…

Beaver chewing on wood chip along Toad River

This didn’t stop them from stopping for an occasional snack from their dam building material! That’s it for the day… Next Wednesday, we will continue our journey up the Alaska Highway.

FRIDAY’S POST: MisAdventures finds me playing in the woods when I was growing up, a quick ten-minute walk from my home. While it may not have been wilderness, it was wilderness to me.

MONDAY’S POST: Peggy and I continue our journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: We continue on our journey up the fabled Alaska Highway through Canada, reaching the Yukon Territory. A strikingly beautiful lake, big bison, and a sign forest of 70,000 signs are featured.

 

 

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29 comments on “From Dawson Creek to Toad River… The Alaska Highway Series: Part II

  1. Once again, an enjoyable read…being disabled I seldom get to travel so you emails are most enjoyable. From here my sole connection elsewhere is through the Internet. Google Maps gives me a lot of enjoyment when I want to go somewhere or check something out. I look forward to more of your trips.

    • I had cousins who lived up there and used to make the drive in the 50s and 60s. Hard to imagine, although the roads we drove over in Africa were equally challenging. A good vehicle and plenty of time were important. Mechanical skills were helpful as well, I’m sure. 🙂

  2. I am not sure I would have applied for a job building this highway, Perhaps an administrative job doing surveying? I can just imagine course oaths renting the still mountain air. The swearing alone would have made the sheep very nervous.
    Nice post, Curt.

    • Funny, Gerard. I just responded to Carrie before you with the comment “I’ll bet there was a lot of colorful language in use.” 🙂 Wonder if the pay was such that folks were willing to take on the challenge. I’m thinking flying out in the planes to determine the route might have been a pretty good job. 🙂 –Curt

  3. Hard to imagine folks putting up with those kinds of working conditions. Just as hard to imagine what it took to motivate them. Looking forward to your continuing trip north.

    • Money, adventure… Who knows. And the military folks didn’t have a choice. 🙂 There was also a sizable contingent of blacks (who were still segregated) working on the project under very tough conditions. But it was probably seen as an opportunity by them. It was one of the factors that led to the integration of the army after WW II. –Curt

    • I suspect you are right on about the ad, Dave. The people who went saw it as a personal challenge! Back when I led 100 mile backpack treks, I always presented them as very hard, which was true. But I would much prefer that people view something as very difficult and find it easier than easy and find it more difficult. There is a world of difference, psychologically speaking.

  4. A dream of mine! I look forward to the day when we have the time to do something like this. I knew it was a beautiful road, but thanks for the history, too!

    • The first time Peggy and I did it we had both taken a year off work, Lexi, and wandered North America including Canada and Mexico. The second time we were retired. I think the experience could be accomplished in a month including Alaska, but two months would be better. –Curt

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