Making the 49th trek to the 49th state with my dad
The author’s father, David Morse, 75, stands aside the 141st Meridian West - the border between Alaska and Canada on April 29. It was his 49th time to make the trip.
How long is your memory lane?
For my father, the distance once was approximately 1,532 miles, now listed at 1,327 miles. The shorter length is not due to mental decay, but rather rerouting and continuing improvements to the Alaska-Canadian Highway, or ALCAN.
A little over a month ago I had the privilege to drive, or rather, to ride along with my father, David Morse, age 75, on his 49th trip over the ALCAN.
Completed in 1942 as a tie between the lower 48 and the Great Land for use by the military, then opened to public access in 1948, my father made his first trip in the summer of 1958.
Once a route that guaranteed a broken windshield, a couple flat tires and the need for a extra gas can, just in case, and often all three, the modern road surface is mild by comparison. But much is the same with the wildlife along the road, both a concern and a wonder.
After leaving Olympia, Wash., at noon on April 25, we pressed northward across the border in my father’s motorhome, a 30-foot Safari, making it to Hope, British Columbia.
The next day, we made it to Prince George, then decided to eschew the shorter, more recent Cassiar Highway, turning eastward towards Dawson Creek on April 27.
We found the famed Mile “0” marker there where we took pictures to commemorate the trip.
Three hours outside of Dawson, we hit a snowstorm near Trutch Mountain, with flakes building up on the windows that the windshield wipers found difficult to whisk aside.
Pressing on, the snow subsided, allowing us to make it to Fort Nelson. We stopped early, knowing that to reach the next major city – and more importantly gas – we would have to drive in the dark.
We started early April 28, leaving in the growing light of the early morning, and happened along 12 elk, fortunately on the side of the road, just outside city limits.
Our wildlife adventure grew abundantly, as we passed more than 70 bison outside of Teslin, Yukon Territory that afternoon.
By the end of day four, we had passed the forest of road signs and license plates of Watson Lake – where dad logged a quick siesta, while I renewed memories among the continually expanding temple to signage. By 10 p.m. we had reached Whitehorse, exhausted and ready for sleep.
Pulling out by 9 a.m., day 5, we stopped briefly four hours later to count more than 50 sheep on Sheep Mountain, adjacent to Lake Kluane. Two hours later, after traveling over some of the journey’s worst road between Burwash Landing and the border, we saw a couple moose – then enjoyed a prolonged stop at the border for the obligatory pictures – then crossed Customs and reentered the U.S.A. by 5:30 p.m.
A couple hours later, we pulled into Tok, tuckered and calling it a good day, as they all were.
Upon starting out, Day 6, we made our only directional error, after we noticed that all the oncoming mileage signs noted the declining distance to Fairbanks, and not to Glennallen or Anchorage.
We had missed the turnoff to Glennallen in the early morning light. A careful executed K turn has us going in the right direction with only a 15-20 minute delay.
The detour was not a detriment. “Enjoying the experience,” Dad would say.
The road was rough between Tok and Glennallen, rivaling that on the Canadian side, which once had me airborne as I handed my dad a handful of Cashew nuts, with my seatbelt unfortunately unfastened. It provided a hearty laugh for both of us.
It was in this segment that we saw more moose, some caribou and seven mountain goats, but we didn’t stop now, for we were on a mission – conquer the ALCAN, and get to Eagle River, my home.
Dad said the one animal missing, and that in great number, were the rabbits.
“There used to be thousands of rabbits along the highway,” he said.
Memories and recollections
We arrived to Eagle River by 5 p.m., greeted by my mom at my aunt and uncle’s house and treated to piping hot spaghetti. My mother had opted to fly up to Alaska – a very smart decision.
Granted, a trip of such duration – this one, six days for us – allows for ample opportunities to reflect on one’s life – but tremendous spans for silence. With my daily allotment of words at roughly 22,500, give or take another 20,000, my dad’s score, once vastly more, tapering off with time, somehow we needed to fill the time.
Enter Serius satellite radio.
Technology is wonderful, with satellite radio, in particular, a tremendous invention.
Once the antennae was duct-taped to the roof just behind the front air vent, the device provided near-constant filler during our waking, and driving, hours.
Not setting any speed records, we favored the tortoise vs. hare approach, passing only one moving car the entire trip – only to have that vehicle un-pass us as we took a scenic turnout, to enjoy the spectacular view.
Seriously, satellite radio was great, with the 40s, 50, 60s, and, yes, 80s stations adding diversity to the Southern Gospel Quartets (my dad’s favorite), along with occasional Waylon Jennings, Elvis and Johnny Cash CDs.
Nothing could have been better than the recollections along the journey that went thus and so.
“And when you were three months old, in the summer of 1960, we were driving a ’54 Chevy and we stopped here,” Dad told me. Now, I’m the one who’s 54.
Dad had me between tears and laughter for most of the trip, as his mind sharpened in remembering bygone excursions along the route.
One of our favorite things to do was to look for the overgrowth and abandoned roadbed of the early editions of the ALCAN, to see if the new course was indeed an improvement on its previous form. In all cases, yes, save the memories of earlier adventures.
Looking back, the time with my father was invaluable.
I doubt that he’ll ever drive up this way again, and the next time I do, either coming or going, will conjure up tremendous memories of times with dad.
By the way, after watching me graduate from UAA with a BS in Nursing Science on May 2, then my daughter, Amalia, their only granddaughter among eight grandchildren, graduating from Chugiak High May 15, the time for the return trip had come.
The next day I was privileged to have my parents and my daughter, as passengers on my first run of my fourth-season as a rail guide for HAP Alaska, introducing them to the other guests on the train, and treating them to lodging at the Denali Princess Lodge, and dinner show, before returning late May 17.
In the early light of May 18, my parents packed up the motorhome and began the trip back to Olympia, WA – driving the route for my dad’s 50th time, renewing memories together.
They returned home safely, late May 23, with my dad driving more than 16 hours on the last day.
The motorhome was little worse for the wear, except a cracked windshield and a broken headlight.
Oh well, just another part to the memory, as Dad would say.