Before I start the story of the trip down the Alaska Highway, let me tell you about the Alaska Highway Bible. If you are going to take the trip yourself, you simply must purchase a copy of the Milepost. Yes, half of it or more is advertisements. But the other half is so valuable, you forgive the ads. The book is a mile-by-mile narrative of the road, including places to stay, sites to see and the always important location of gas stations. It’s also full of Alaska Highway tidbits.
For example, I learned that ALCAN (which the road is more commonly called, at least by Alaskans) was the call letters the military designated the project, thus the capital letters. It was the Army Corp of Engineers who constructed the road once World War II broke out as a supply route between the Lower 48 and Alaska. In 1942, more than 10,000 men completed the project in less than eight months.
The first Milepost was published in 1949. It has been updated annually ever since.
Day 1, Drama 1
With the U-Haul and the van all loaded, a drama unto itself, my sister and I drove to a coffee stand in the dark and cold at 8:30 a.m. on October 6, 2017. I stood in line behind a car in the drive-thru while my sister sneakily put a few large garbage bags in the nearby trash bin since I’d cancelled the trash service at my house a week earlier.
Once situated again, we pulled onto the road and a couple blocks later we followed the curve of the road onto the highway. Aloud, we both said goodbye to Anchorage and settled in for the very long drive. We were at mile 1 of a 3,000 mile journey.
From Anchorage you drive north and east to Tok, the last Alaska town before you cross over into Canada. There is a point, like the tip of an upside down triangle where you can go north to Delta Junction. From Delta Junction, you can turn due east and drive straight to Tok. Or, from the bottom triangle point, you can go northeast to Tok on a road called the Tok Cutoff.
Everywhere, including the Milepost, it is written as the Tok Cutoff. People call it the Tok Cutoff. Not surprisingly, then, we were looking for a sign that read Tok Cutoff.
After we passed Paxton (see map), my sister said it didn’t feel like we were on the right road. We kept going until we saw a sign for Delta Junction, confirming we were most definitely not on the right road. After so many miles on the wrong road, we debated whether or not it was easier to go on to Delta Junction.
We decided to turn around.
Turning around wasn’t an easy task because of the narrow road and the construction. As we followed back the road we’d just drove, we wondered how we could’ve missed the sign. We were both watching for it.
The map is a little deceptive because it makes it look like we actually made a turn in order to get on the wrong road. But the reality is that you slow and turn to take the Cutoff. To get on the wrong road from the triangle tip required no effort at all. It was just an continuation of the road. No slowing. No turning. When we finally got back to the place we should’ve turn, it became clear why we missed it.
The highway sign said Tok Junction and since it wasn’t called Tok Junction anywhere we assumed that wasn’t our road. Then, as we slowed to make the turn, we finally saw a regular-size street sign that said Tok Cutoff. It was the only place along the road that used the same words as is on every map and in the Milepost. And how is one supposed to read a street sign when driving by at 55 mph?
Day 1, Drama 2
We lost two hours on our little detour which led directly to the next drama.
Running on empty.
We were on the correct Tok Junction/Tok Cutoff road for about 10 minutes when my sister asked if we were going to come to a gas station soon. She said the van had one quarter of a tank gas.
I pulled out the trusty Milepost to learn we still had a ways to go to the next gas station. I calculated how many miles I thought we’d have in a quarter tank. Remember I’d owned the van for only about two weeks. The van was on its third tank of gas and we were now towing a heavy U-Haul. So my guess was pretty much a stab in the dark. Still, I thought we’d be okay provided the gas station was open.
One of the cautionary tales you hear about the Alaska Highway is how quiet things are when tourist season isn’t in full swing. Basically October through April. Lots of hotels, gas stations, restaurants and convenience stores are boarded up over the winter.
So you can imagine how my stomach sank even further when, a bit later, my sister said, “Sister, you are going to kill me.” She’d misread the gas tank. When she said we had a quarter tank, in fact, we were at one-eighth of a tank. But at the same time, it was a little bit funny and completely in keeping with how the weeks, days and hours before had gone.
At that point there was nothing to do but continue forward. The nearest gas station behind us was definitely too far away. The only option was to continue on.
We were both on edge ticking off the miles. And we were so happy when we pulled into the gas station. And to find it opened. My sister snapped a photo of the gauge.
What we had no way of knowing was how much closer to actually running out of gas we were going to come a few days later. In the dark. And with no cell service.
It’s easy to be flip once you know you are saved and the tank was about to be full once again. Relieved or not, we still decided we had to make fun of the gas pump. It was the kind we’d grown up with. There was a lone pump and it didn’t take a credit card. A throwback to our childhood.
Again, we had no perspective. Turns out, we were going to be seeing almost nothing but gas pumps like that one for the whole of the trip, except near the larger cities.
Is there such a thing as tempting fate? I don’t know. But Day 2 was going to dawn with even more drama and a larger time loss. We should’ve kissed that lone gas pump in gratitude rather than made fun it.
You never know, maybe things would’ve gone differently.
But on Day 1, we did make it to Tok. It was dark when we arrived so we didn’t realize how quaint it was until the next morning. Photos are from the next morning.
Next month, I’ll share the story of the ALCAN Day 2.