Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Travel By The Top Of The World

There is another way out of Alaska than through Tok. It's a "highway", and I use the term loosely, that winds its way from Chicken to Dawson City, Yukon, Canada through the Ogilvie and Tintina Mountain Range. It is not a route for the faint of heart. It is 108 miles of mostly gravel roadway. There are no shoulders, although the tour book describes the road as having "soft shoulders." The truth is that if you put your outside wheels on what they are calling a shoulder you will roll over.....and over and over and over, as some of the fall aways are steep and long- a few are straight down and can drop hundreds of feet if you happen to pick the wrong spot to have a problem. Most people would never have a problem, excepting to say that from time to time you must pass vehicles going in the opposite direction...and some of those vehicles are oil tankers that have little regard for their own vehicles, the speed limits, and the fact that in many places the road is only wide enough for one and a half vehicles. Something's got to give! The best driving advice I can give to any of you who will make the attempt: STOP in the face of all BIG vehicles traveling straight at you and wait til they have passed. Let them be the ones who are moving when the pass takes place and the ones who are at risk of launching themselves off the side of the mountain. There are a few, very few, sections of the highway that are paved. You would think that a paved section is a good section. No! It's not. In fact it can be far worse than the gravel and when you look at the photos you will see such a location.
Now I know I just made this road seem dangerous, perilous, difficult. It is all of those things. But like many things in life, you take the good with the bad. You see the road happens to carry you across the tops of the mountain range for nearly it's entire length of existence. The view is awesomely breathtaking and if there is a better view mile after mile after mile anywhere in the world, I cannot tell you where that would be. Before getting to Chicken, we were chicken to take that route out of state. But because our nerve, our experience and our confidence all peaked at the same time, we decided we would attempt to make that run. What a great confluence of factors, what a great ride, what a great day, what an amazing experience. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger is the moral of the story of this trip. Without doing this run, our Alaskan experience would have been seriously lacking. It was an "oh my God" day from start to finish. I described reaching Dawson City in an e mail to family and friends this way:

"The road pretty much sets the speed you can travel- about 12 miles an hour, but as you drive along the peaks of amazing mountains for mile after mile (There a reason they call it Top of the World) you can seemingly see for thousands of miles in any direction you care to look. Everything was dark red, bright yellow and shades of green- never saw anything like it. A mistake on this highway would be a big one! But today there were none and we can claim the summit of an RV adventure challenge second to none."

Oh, and one more thing...even after you have made the run, you cannot reach Dawson City by land route, you must traverse the mighty Yukon River by ferry boat. That's what they call it. I call it an open ended barge. You be the judge. I'll attempt to tell the story with the photos and let them speak pretty much for themselves.

I'm only one day out of Alaska. But I'm ready to go back!

Let's start the photos from Top of the World Highway with a couple photos of the only man made thing of interest on the whole trip- the Jack Wade Dredge. As cool as the dredges are, this one looks like it recovered its last ounce of gold and then just gave up the ghost and died right there. There is an eerie beauty in the passing of man made objects that are slowly being reclaimed into the natural world into which they were previously super-imposed.

The vista is large enough to see many weather patterns at work across the area. On a clear day, yes, you can see forever...
Check out the edge of the road (Oh, and once again, if you are a new reader, click on the photos to enlarge and back arrow to return to blog). If you want to call that a shoulder, be my guest. But one tire on that edge and you will be in the river in the valley a mile below- just as soon as you stop rolling. IF you stop rolling.
The topography gives you glimpses of the road ahead. Take advantage of that to scout for on coming vehicles. Take appropriate action when you spot one. You can't get there fast anyway. You can get there alive and well, however slowly.

There is ONE way station along the route. This one and only one station advertised "emergency tire repair." You want your tires fixed here? Me? I'll drive on the rim.
There is just so much space out here. The weather changed around almost every bend. As we left the border crossing around 40 miles into the trip, the perfectly clear, sunny day gave way instantly to a line of snow squalls that plagued us for a short while. The road ahead, a sharp downhill decline, became a sheet of ice in 60 seconds or less. I slowed the coach as much as possible- there is no place to stop, if in fact you could stop. It's a good time for prayer, yes? Ice on the road. No pull off. No flat place to stop. No guard rails. No shoulder on the road. Nothing to stop you until you hit bottom should you go off the road. No option but to proceed with caution. That is the story of this entire 108 mile piece of roadway.
Instant ice ahead with no warning what-so-ever. At this moment in time I was paying for gravel, not paved surface with an ice slick on it.
A short time later, the weather was nice again. But not all rigs make it across the rough road without some trouble. We stopped to help by loaning some much needed wrenches to replace two belts that this rig had thrown. It's not a place you want to be stopped in the middle of the road!
Finally, below the highway in the distance and across the mighty Yukon River- Dawson City.
Ferry? You call that a ferry?
OK. Two vans maybe, but a 43' coach and a van. I'm not so sure...
Terminal. Hello! Where's the terminal? You don't need no stinking terminal? Just beach that little sucker? Then drive it off on the other side?
OK, if you say so. Off with the old, on with the new. "Yes, Greg, the emergency brake IS ON!"
"Boat ride? What boat ride? Nobody told me there was gonna be a boat ride? Hey This is cool!"
All ashore that's going ashore!
Welcome to Dawson City, Yukon! Alaska is in the rear view mirror for now.

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