The Yukon. Just the name of the place conjures up images of wilderness. Nothing other than pine forest, bears, and gold. The truth is pretty close to this assumption, and because of its wildness, the Yukon and driving the Alcan (The Alaska-Canada Highway) was one of the highlights of our entire trip.
After an amazing three weeks exploring Canada with my parents, we finally had to say a sad goodbye to them at Vancouver airport. With the date of our flight home looming in just 3 weeks time, we stayed in Vancouver for another night before hitting the road north.
That evening was spent catching up with an old friend of mine, Dom, and his girlfriend, Jo. I had not seen Dom for years and completely by chance, they had planned an almost identical trip to us, but in reverse. Alaska to Argentina. Starting their trip as we approached the end of ours, we had planned to cross paths in Vancouver to exchange stories and have a few beers.
We met them at a bar in the Gastown district and one drink quickly became six as we talked the night away. Interviewing small businesses as they travel, Dom and Jo (MacoAdventure) are exploring how entrepreneurs across the North and South America are starting businesses with a view to achieving both profit and purpose. Balancing making money and making a difference. After hours of talking, we agreed to stay in touch and not let it be so long before we caught up again. The next morning, with coffees to remedy our blurry heads Lyndsay and I headed north.
At several points on our trip through the states, people we had met had told us that the ‘Alaska highway’, the road to Alaska through the Yukon region of Canada, was a car killer. Horror stories of cars breaking down in the middle of nowhere with hundreds of miles to the next building, and just feet to the nearest bear, were playing on our minds as we drove our of Vancouver. In preparation for this mammoth drive we had stocked up on essentials for the journey: trail bars, dried food, two jerry cans of extra fuel and enough water to drown a moose. Hoping that it wouldn’t come to us needing to rely on these backup essentials we journeyed further and further north.
After the comparatively busy roads of Vancouver and the arterial Route 1, we turned off the main road at Hope and headed north on the 97. It was immediately evident that even in this relatively populated area, we were in the Canadian wild. The journey was sadly punctuated by a dead black bear in the middle of the road, the RV which had hit it parked 100 feet further down the road. This sad sight was a stark reminder that a momentary lapse of concentration whilst driving could cost the life of an animal and potentially much more. Especially considering the size of the wild bison, moose and bears that roamed across these lands. The 97 road would take us as far as Prince George that day, a stopover town with a cheap motel, gas stations and supermarkets, where we stocked again for the next leg of the journey.
The next day, back on the endless 97 we set off with the tiny settlement of Toad River as our destination. We had thought that this leg would see the start of the deterioration of the road and with it more challenging driving, but huge road working projects underway had ensured that for the most part, the road was good. Human presence in this northerly section of British Columbia is pretty sparse. We would go three hours without seeing a building and when we did find signs of life, for the most part, they were tiny settlements with a single fuel pump. 11 hours and 2 black bear sightings later we arrived at our stop for the night, the lovely, if a little mosquito filled, Toad River. The setting of the cabin we stayed the night in was idyllic, with a mountain rising above the lake the cabin overlooked.
The next day on the road we finally crossed from British Columbia into the fabled Yukon territory. We had been stunned that we were able to drive almost 24 hours in one direction and still be in the same state. 24 hours of driving in the UK and we could have gone from the most Southerly tip of England to the most northern shore of Scotland… and back again. The Yukon was stunning in its solace. We must have seen just 10 vehicles on the road in as many hours. Endless pine forest stretched out in every direction, the sole break in the forest being the strip of tarmac and grass verge beside the road. The only soundtrack to our rest stops was wind whistling through the dense forest that lined the road and just a few steps into the forest and you felt like the first person to have ever walked there.
That day we had the privilege of seeing another three bears up close. In general, they seemed pretty unbothered by our presence once they figured out we weren’t a threat, this meant that we had the opportunity to watch for several minutes from the safety of the car. Only feet away, and with us the only people for miles and miles it was much more personal and much more memorable than our sightings of bears in Yellowstone and Yosemite. The Yukon also gave us the opportunity to see a heard of Bison and their calfs lying in the sun just by the road.
We stopped for lunch in the town of Watson Lake where we learned about the rich gold rush history of the area and read about the building of the Yukon road at a time where America needed a method of defending Alaska. It put into perspective our experience of the Yukon wilderness from the comfort of a car in the height of the northern summer, versus the hardiness of the men and women of both the gold rush and the road building during the Second World War. Our third day on the road ended in Whitehorse and the luxury of the local hot springs where we spent hours soaking in the late evening sun.
The fourth day of our journey would take us to the border with the 49th state, and the self-proclaimed ‘last frontier’, Alaska. Upon arrival to the border, we showed our paperwork and passports to the border official, who, after several minutes of inspection https://rolexcleanfactory.com and many questions, told us that we had to report immediately to Anchorage and to customs. It transpired that the instruction we had got from Homeland Security when we had called them up seek advice on how to extend our stay was wrong. We had visas that were due to run out two weeks before the date of our flight home, so we had been told to get ESTAs, (paperwork for tourists that covers a short stay) and that these would tide us over. The official at the border had told us that we could not use the ESTAs to enter via a land border and that although he would allow us entry on our visas, we would need to go to customs to sort out the issue before they expired. Leaving us just a few days to sort the issue before we became illegal immigrants, not a status that either Lyndsay or I fancied in a country with a tendency for tight border control.
We spent the night in the small town of Tok, Alaska. Tok gave us two things, a huge and delicious pizza that put Lyndsay and me into a deep food coma, and a puncture in our car’s tire. Ironically and very fortunately, after days of driving through the back and beyond, we would get a puncture in close proximity to a garage that would fix the tire in no time at all. Tok also signaled the end of our journey on the Alaska highway as we would now head South to Anchorage. Far from being a car killer, this road, although challenging in places, had been amazing and provided some unforgettable sights.
Due to the immigration issue at the border, we changed our plans, drove the 10 hours to Anchorage, and after hours of searching for the customs office eventually found they found they were closed for the day. The following day we returned and spoke with the immigration officers who told us in no uncertain terms that we’d need to leave the country on expiration of our visas, two days later. Not ideal. Lyndsay and I hadn’t envisioned ending our amazing 11-month trip being thrown out of the country prematurely, and so pleaded with the officials to look for a solution. One officer took pity on us and kindly went off to see if he could help us out. After a 15 minute wait which left our nerves frayed and nails bitten he informed us that he had found a loophole. It led to us to filling out a visa extension form that (hopefully) would allow us to remain legal visitors in the country until our flight home.
Like a bad comedy sketch, one thing went wrong after another. First, we were directed to the wrong office to submit the form, then we found out it could only be submitted by post and would have to be sent to Texas, the other end of North America. Having only two days before our visas ran out the chances of the forms being received in Texas and them processing before the expiration of our visas was slim. In order to submit the form, we had to pay a cool $600 which could only be paid using a money order. On arrival to the post office, we (reluctantly) tried to pay for the money order, but they wouldn’t accept credit cards and out debit cards did not work with the post office machines so cash was our only option.
With hefty bank fees for overseas withdrawals and temperamental cards, we knew that withdrawing the money from an ATM would be difficult, therefore we decided the best option was to find somewhere we could change up the Canadian dollars we had. Easy, you would think to see as we were right next to the airport. As it turns out, not so easy. Amazingly the airport neither had a currency exchange or an ATM capable of giving more than $100 at a time, so we headed into the city in search of a bank. Upon arrival to the bank they told us that we could change currency, “yes” we exclaimed, but only if we had an account, “Oh no!”. After much searching we found an ATM that allowed us to withdraw the sufficient amount, returned to the post office, paid for the money order in cash, and mailed the form with significantly lighter wallets. American customs don’t make it easy.
After all this we felt we have earned the right to stay in the country, so headed off to explore Alaska, and hoped that we have done enough to keep our adventure going until our original planned departure date.