Destination Wednesday: North To Alaska

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Photo credit: Sergei Akulich via Unsplash.

So who drives the Alaska Highway in winter? Besides me, I mean?

I grew up in Fairbanks, and my parents were perpetually restless types with scant tolerance for Alaskan winters, so I actually made that trek a dozen times in the 1960s, if you count going down as one trek and coming back as another.

Those trips really should count double, since there is nothing half-hearted about taking on the Alaska Highway in winter, even one way – and even these days, when the road is better, the cars are better, the weather is warmer, the means of communication are more advanced, and the emergency response is better and faster.

Driving the Alaska Highway in winter is an experience unmatched anywhere outside of Siberia, and nothing in Siberia gives you the screamin’ meemies like the long pull down into Snag, Yukon Territory, on a -50 day when your brake fluid is the consistency of bean curd and your steering wheel moves as easily as a bulkhead door on the Titanic.

There’s a tradeoff for the sheer panic: sheer beauty. The Alaska Highway is a breathtaking trip under any circumstances, but especially in winter. People get hung up about the darkness but forget that it’s light from about 10:30 to 3 in Fairbanks in mid-January. That’s quite a lot of light, and there’s something very special about a Far North dawn, when the cold has taken down every bit of moisture in the air and left only crystalline oxygen and enough sunshine to frost the pine trees in diamonds. What’s more, the twilight is beautiful, the moonlight is glorious, the stars are boundless, and did we mention the northern lights? There’s no lack of light in the Far North, only a paucity of sunlight.

Before we get carried away with the lofty prose, let’s look at some of the more tangible advantages of driving the Alaska Highway in winter.

Less traffic: It’s not like the Alaska Highway in summer is the Far North version of the Dan Ryan, but there are 31 flavors of truck to deal with, 16-wheel and otherwise, and speed-limit obsessives in Subarus, so sometimes it feels like a week-long slog behind a mess of Sunday drivers. There are stretches of the Alaska Highway where you just want to go, and in the winter the green light is on. The only problem: Once you have the space to go the road may not play along. But when does it ever?

Smoother road: Speaking of which, the Alaska Highway is currently paved throughout its length, but only nominally. Many summers of big-rig beatdowns have left the road potholed and crumbling in stretches. A good snowpack masks those imperfections and delivers a much smoother drive. The tradeoff is nominal: just a little traction, that’s all.

Easier on the car: Surely I jest? Well, no. As long as your car starts and is given ample warmup time it can handle the below-zero stuff pretty well, as long as the thermometer stays on the small-number side of -30. What your car doesn’t get subjected to in winter are the rocks that can shatter your windshield or puncture your radiator, and the chuckholes that can shatter your tierods. In the summer, the Alcan is a toll road that charges a windshield per trip; in the winter, you might be able to skate by. So to speak.

Less demand for services: This is a two-edged sword. Many of the roadhouses and small motels along the road get full in the summer; in the winter they don’t fill up but fewer of them stay open, and hours at the only other services that really matter – restaurants and gas stations – are shortened to mirror sunup and sundown. On the other hand, if you’ve never had a restaurant all to yourself you just might get the chance on this trip.

No mosquitoes and other pests: The bears are hibernating, the hawks have eaten the ground squirrels, and the mosquitoes are dead. The wolves aren’t going to bother you. You’re good.

Great people: The Far North is an intentional place. People don’t usually wind up there by accident. They really want to be there. Their reverence for their surroundings is evident, their resourcefulness is legendary, and their saltiness is matched only by their kindness. And driving from Calgary to Alaska will definitely give you a whole new respect for Canadians.

Sound like your kind of trip? If it does, you’ll want to bear some things in mind, namely:

Dress warm: Lots of down, lots of layers. Filson whipcord pants and insulated bibs. And Sorels – the best you can buy. Bring gloves and mittens. Don’t think you can overdress for this trip, because you can’t.

Bring along tire chains: Chains and studded tires are legal along much of the road, but don’t invest in studs. If your car has winter tires or aggressive all-seasons you’ll be fine. Pack the chains for emergencies. And know how they work before you leave.

Be alert for changing weather conditions: Actually, the further north you go the more benign the weather patterns are. And there’s not a lot of airborne moisture anywhere along the way. But it does snow, and especially on the southern stretches of the road conditions can change quickly. The road is well-patrolled and extremely well-plowed – it’s almost never closed – so you’ll be able to get through. But getting through’s not the point. Keep your radio tuned to a local station, and pull off the road when things sound bad.

Make reservations, and tell people where you’re going: Realistically, you’re not going to drive more than 300-400 miles in a day. Some days you’re only going to do 200. So plot out your trip beforehand, check for services, and make reservations before you go. At the start of your driving day, call your next stop, tell them where you are, when you’re leaving, and when they can expect you.

Don’t rely on your cell phone: Cell service is nonexistent outside of the larger towns, meaning that when you really need a cell phone service won’t be available. Gas-station and motel phones are your lifeline, making this a real old-school trip.

Cut off before you get to Fairbanks: I grew up in Fairbanks and love it dearly, which is why I wholeheartedly recommend that you avoid it at all costs. Gertrude Stein’s observation about Oakland – “there’s no there there” – goes double for Fairbanks in winter. Instead, jump off the Alaska Highway at Tok Junction and take the Glenn Highway to Anchorage. Anchorage is a real city that has figured out how to cope with long Alaskan winters: shop indoors and light everything. It’s also a better point of departure if you’re only traveling one-way.

Get an engine-block heater: At -45, you can destroy a car engine by trying to start it. Install an engine-block heater, and don’t forget the heavy-duty extension cord to go along with it. Don’t think you won’t use it; there will be plugins everywhere you stop for the night. They’re sort of modern-day hitching posts.

1949-milepostPack a winter survival kit: The Canadian Automobile Association recommends a hefty-yet-compact kit that includes a survival candle, a tow chain, road flares, and a fire extinguisher. Survival blankets always come in handy, as do ropes and ratchet straps.

Buy a Milepost: The Milepost is the bible of Far North driving. It tells you everything – what to see on a mile-by-mile basis, where to stay, where to get gas, how long places are open, even where the nearest gold-panning is. It’s a relentlessly old-school guidebook that’s perfect for a country where the internet is a very sometime thing and a book in the glove compartment is the handiest option.

Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.

2 thoughts

  1. ‘Avoid Fairbanks’ and “Anchorage is a real city”? If your driving the Alaskan highway in winter and want to see Alaska why would you go to Anchorage, (the Seattle of the North). You might as well have stayed home and drove around your own city, now i am not saying Fairbanks isn’t a city or that it has more to offer than Anchorage, (it doesn’t) but it seriously is more “Alaskan” than Anchorage….and no I do not live in Fairbanks I live in the woods of Northern Alaska near the former town of Livengood.

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    1. After living through plenty of Fairbanks winters, I can say that it’s strong meat — not as strong as Livengood, but strong nonetheless. If a cheechako is looking for a pot of gold at the end of their Alaska Highway adventure, they might be disappointed in Fairbanks. They’re less apt to be disappointed in Anchorage. As long as they’re up there, maybe they should visit both and judge for themselves, eh?

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