Alaska. A place so wild and remote it has become a legend. Modern technology and modes of transportation have partially opened it up, but still vast tracks of land lay untouched by machines. Many tourists visit Alaska each year, especially in the summer months. Wide-open spaces, abundant wildlife, frontier and first-nations cultures, fishing, hunting, and hiking are just some of the many things that attract people to Alaska.
Summer temperatures are comfortable, ranging from jacket to t-shirt weather. Long daylight hours allow visitors to maximize their time and stray far from their circadian rhythm. Fishing opportunities abound on every bay, lake, and river. A thriving tourist industry provides fishing charters, air and land bear tours, various shows, and much more. Visitors can stay on the road system and enjoy a great mix of modern comfort and rustic appeal, or they can turn the difficulty level up and explore endless possibilities off the main routes.
The harbor at Homer Spit at sunrise. July 2019.
The water was glassy smooth on the Cook Inlet. July 2019.
Only a small portion of Alaska is connected to the North American road system. Anchorage and Fairbanks are connected, but Juneau and Nome are not. Many smaller cities and towns are scattered throughout, with most of the ones in the southeastern part of Alaska connected to the road system. A gravel road extends north to Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean. This road is challenging in the summer and dangerous in the winter for the unprepared.
As summer gives way to fall, the weather turns cooler long before it does in the “lower forty-eight,” as many Alaskans call the contiguous states of the US. Fireweed sends its purple blooms out in full force giving the landscape a purplish-red hue. Soon snow comes, and unlike many places in the lower forty-eight, it actually stays.
My first trip to Alaska took place in July 2019. We fished and enjoyed comfortable temperatures. We also viewed a car launch, an Alaskan tradition held on July 4 at Glacier View Campground. People bring their old cars, point them toward a cliff, tie down the gas pedal, and let physics do the rest. Matt Snader brought his aging camouflage limousine, and sent into history. Read more about how it almost did not happen in his book here. He is probably best known as the slightly crazy Mennonite guy who moved his family to Alaska, bought a camouflage limousine, drives rickety boats, experiences things many only dream about, and writes all about it in his Alaska Adventure Books, which can be found here.
My first time driving to Alaska came in June of 2020. Two friends, my cousin, and I drove from Chester County, Pennsylvania all the way to the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska. We broke down near Zanesville, Ohio on the first day, but once that was repaired we had smooth sailing. We decided to drive out to Seattle and then enter Canada, as that kept us in the US longer. Even though it took about half a day longer, we wanted the advantage of Cell service and cheaper gas.
We drove straight through, only stopping for food, gas, or facilities. Our only other delay was stopping at a friend’s place in Montana for elk tacos and a nap. Some of us could sleep in a vehicle better than others, so there was usually someone awake enough to drive. The drive through upper British Columbia and the Yukon were absolutely gorgeous, and I would 100% recommend the drive. In the one day we were in those two provinces we counted 12 bears near the road.
The scenery in Yukon is gorgeous! This was taken summer of 2020.
Our rig for the 2020 trip. This picture was taken at 9:07 p.m. on June 12 2020.
In late August 2021 I took my third trip to Alaska with a group of friends. We spent some time exploring. We hiked, made a bugle out of kelp root, and played golf in Anchor Point. A friend offered to take us halibut fishing on Cook Inlet, but the water was too rough over that time.
I stayed several more weeks after the rest left. Traveling to Seward, I stopped at Exit Glacier and randomly decided to hike the Harding Ice Field trail and camp at the top above the tree line. Also on the agenda was a hike and volleyball with the local Mennonite youth group.
I immensely enjoyed my first three trips to Alaska, all of which happened in the summertime. I decided it was high time I go to Alaska in the winter. I gave it some thought and figured something would work out. I knew I wanted to go, but I was not sure exactly how it would work.
In late 2021 Matt Snader asked me if I could drive a vehicle to Alaska for him. Of course I could not say no to a winter drive to Alaska, even as challenging as I knew it to be. I called my buddy Shawn Coblentz, and he sounded excited it. We both were a little unsure about the safety of such a long drive in the wintry North Country. Would there be slippery roads, massive snowdrifts, whiteout snowstorms, surprise attacks from large wildlife, medical problems, or the risk of getting stranded at temperatures far below zero? We could only guess. After studying the internet, it seemed like there should not be too many problems if we knew what we were doing.
We left in early January of 2022, from Lancaster County, PA. The trip up to the Canadian border in North Dakota consisted of getting details ironed out and picking up several things. We also encountered a snow storm the first night in Michigan, so we put the Ram 1500 in four-wheel-drive and kept going. We almost ran out of gas in North Dakota, but I took a gamble and stopped at a random farm. My knock was answered by Donald Steel and his son. They both braved the negative twenty degrees Fahrenheit to show me North Dakota’s good old-fashioned hospitality as they emptied five gallons of gas into our tank before refusing to let me pay them back.
The border crossing took place the second night and went mostly smoothly. This was when we felt like the trip was officially started. After five hours we stopped for a mandatory Tim Horton’s stop for TimBits and coffee in Saskatoon, SK. In the parking lot I saw a snowshoe hare; this was the first time I saw one in its winter white. Most of the animals, though, would wait till British Columbia to appear.
Saskatchewan and Alberta passed with just normal road trip stuff. This was the first time either of us had taken the direct route through Canada, so we had plenty of new sights to see. Because of our tight schedule, we had decided to drive straight through, not stopping at nights. This worked out for most of the trip, as Shawn can literally sleep anywhere, and I can’t even sleep in my own bed. Normally this would seem like a downside, but it also helps me be able to stay awake longer. The only problem was there were half as many drivers as the previous trip.
We stopped at a scenic overlook in remote British Columbia in the middle of the third night. We turned off the truck, climbed out, and began to observe the pristine nighttime wilderness. The thirty below air was crystal clear, and a half moon was shining down in all its glory, flooding the snow blanketed landscape in soft pure light. An occasional crystal gave a brighter flash then surrounding snow, making the night come alive with stars above and below.
We stood beside each other and stared into the glorious night. We listened, but heard nothing…not even silence. No sound of distant motor, no static hum, not even a snowflake landing could be heard. We could not even hear ourselves thinking. The wind was completely still, halting every tree branch.
It was cold. I knew it would be. I did not regret purchasing the warm clothing I had picked up. The heavy hitter of my outfit was a Cabela’s Guidewear Coat, especially with an Under Armour hoodie underneath. A double-layer balaclava did well at keeping the cold off my face. A cheap pair of gloves warmed my hands. My socks were Darn Tough wool socks, which performed far above my expectations. They did so well that I was able to wear them with Crocs the first half of the trip, even at temperatures well below zero if they stayed dry. Darn Tough makes excellent socks, with some focusing on warmth and some on style. An unconditional lifetime guarantee takes a lot of stress out of a purchase. Another needed resource was Indera thermals.
Somewhere around twenty below zero the rules change. Now I am not an expert on subzero temperatures, but I can share what I observed. Anything with an exhaust pipe or chimney gives off a huge steam cloud. Those of us in moderate temperature zones have probably seen steam coming out of exhaust pipes while a car is still warming up. In the lower temperature regions they never stop steaming.
The dry cold is more comfortable than a wet cold. When you have the proper insulation, subzero weather is invigorating. Oxygen molecules are closer together, bringing more air into your lungs. Exhaled water vapor freezes onto facial hair, which is actually oddly satisfying.
We were delayed in British Columbia for about 15 hours due to some damage on the trailer after sliding into a stationary logging truck. Neither vehicle was majorly damaged. Thankfully it was close to Fort Saint John, the last large town before Whitehorse, YT. We were able to fix it quickly, and bought a couple extra tools for the Yukon.
We were most intimidated about the segment through the Yukon. Having traveled the Alcan Highway before, I knew that we would have trouble finding gas. The truck was on the small side for how heavy the trailer was. This meant we used a lot of fuel, and so had to stop often to fill up. Gas stations in the parts of Canada were often rustic deals where you pay inside. This meant that by the time we got to British Columbia and the Yukon, most places were not selling gas at night. It is not a big deal for semis with gigantic tanks, but small rigs like ours were not as fortunate.
Four gas cans joined us in Alberta, and then later two more. The last time coming through the Yukon we pulled into Beaver Creek running on fumes and prayers. I was not willing to sit beside the road at fifty below zero with no gas. We scouted the route ahead for gas stations on Google Maps frequently and drove on the top quarter of our tank. Many existing gas stations in British Columbia and the Yukon were closed due to winter or Covid-19. Few were open 24 hours a day.
We left Fort Saint John and drove northwest towards the Yukon with six filled gas cans in the back. The long stretch before the Yukon border is my favorite of the whole route. Wide sweeping valleys, shimmering lakes, abundant wildlife, and a stretch of gravel road all add to the charm. British Columbia has a mix of classic Canadian trees and subarctic trees, giving the traveler the best of both worlds. Much of this was hidden to view due to the early nightfall, but one cannot escape the wonder.
The light bar flooded the road and roadside with daylight white, revealing Canada’s finest displays of snow covered evergreens. We did not have moose guard, so the light bar was important for safety. That night, the fourth night, we saw several moose, thirty or forty bison, a huge bull elk with a rack the size of Central Park, and a cow elk.
In the middle of the night we stopped at a small gas station. We talked to several guys who were there. The one told us that the generator was not working, so no one could pump fuel. The other told us a functioning gas station lay an hour on. He also told us that the temperature was negative fifty degrees. I forget if he meant Celsius or Fahrenheit. If he meant Celsius, the temperature would have been almost sixty below zero Fahrenheit.
A big rule change happens at negative forty degrees, coincidently the same place the two temperature scales are equal. We were well below that, meaning gasoline had the possibility of freezing. We decided to empty four gas cans into the truck’s gas tank to make sure they would not freeze. We needed some of that gas for the trip to the functioning gas station, as well as enough to keep the truck running till six in the morning when the station opened.
I stood there beside the truck in the negative fifty degrees emptying gas cans into the truck. The Cabela’s coat was living up to every expectation I had for it. The balaclava from Canadian Tire was also doing well at keeping out the cold. I was experiencing temperatures far lower than anything I had ever been through. The pristine wilderness, extreme cold, risk of being stranded, struggle for alertness, rare wildlife, and the peaceful wintry night all came together to create an extreme and wonderful experience. I was happy. We had overcome so much already, most of which I did not write about, that I was becoming fairly hopeful we would make it to Alaska just fine.
We slept in the truck that night, letting the truck run to stay warm. A lot of truckers were doing that, so we decided it should work. We slept well and woke up to more gas left than expected, so we hit the road.
We fueled up in Watson Lake, Yukon the next morning. Andrea’s Restaurant was the place for breakfast, and I bought the trucker’s breakfast, a hearty and delicious country breakfast with eggs, several breakfast meats, toast, and more. Snow started falling at a medium rate, and we continued up the road. The Alcan Highway is often built on top of a berm, so the wind would sometimes blow the snow off the road. The snow storm concealed distant scenery, but I liked how everything looked in the falling snow.
Wintry bridge. Photo Credits to Shawn Coblentz.
My phone died on the ski slope the day after arriving, so most of my pictures were lost. Shawn was kind enough to share his photos with me. Some of them are lower quality due to being pulled from videos.
A problem we encountered was opposing traffic. Vehicles would whip up major snow clouds creating whiteouts. They usually did not last long, but they lasted long enough to drift into the other lane or off the road if you were driving fast. This can be especially dangerous if another vehicle is following the first. The best solution was to drive at a medium speed and slow down as soon as we saw a vehicle approaching. You do not want to slow down too quickly or you break loose and skid. If you slow down to quickly, you risk skidding in front of an oncoming semi, and if you slow down too little you risk drifting in front of a semi in the whiteout. We had a few hair raising moments, but we quickly adjusted and drove a little slower than we had been.
The secret to safely driving on snow is to not make any quick changes of speed or direction. If you only change speed or direction slowly, you will usually have traction on snow. Another key part is keeping your speed at a rate where you do not have to change speed or direction quickly. The faster you go the harder it is to slow down slowly.
Around lunchtime we saw the Nisutlin Bay Bridge come into view. We crossed the multiple span structure and rolled up to the Yukon Motel & Restaurant. We fueled up, and I bought some delicious vegetable and beef soup. The temperature had climbed back up a little, but it was still intensely cold.
We saw a spectacular semicircle sundog. Photo credits Shawn Coblentz.
The rest of the Yukon went fairly quickly. We bought six more gas cans in Whitehorse because we miscalculated how much gas it would take to get to Tok, Alaska. We filled up again at Haines Junction, Yukon. I then kept driving, going slower because of the slippery roads and because it was more relaxing. Suddenly I found myself going through Beaver Creek with plenty of gas to spare. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we prepared for the border crossing. We passed the Canadian border crossing office and drove the long stretch of “no man’s land” to the US checkpoint. Several caribou crossed the road ahead of us, the first I had seen in real life.
The US border crossing went well, and we drove on into the night. It was the fifth night, completing the three-day segment through beautiful Canada. We added a can of gas and drove on towards Tok.
Then we saw it. Never had it looked so beautiful before. A self-service twenty-four hour gas pump, open and ready for use in the middle of that cold Alaskan winter night!
All photos by Sheldon Beiler unless otherwise noted.