It took Dave Cartier a minute to realize he’d lost the wheel to his trailer.
It was his regular, bi-weekly run from Whitehorse to Tok, en route to Fairbanks and Anchorage, and the Alaska Direct bus driver was too busy rockin’ to the Grateful Dead.
Cartier was hauling five passengers in the van — one of his biggest loads this winter.
“I often have just one, maybe two people,” he said.
“As long as we have one person in the system we go.
“It’s more like a taxi service.”
Alaska Direct doesn’t make money, said Cartier.
In fact, it’s been losing money for years.
“But it’s the only service from Whitehorse to Fairbanks and if we didn’t do it, nobody would.”
When the owner died last year, Alaska Direct almost went under.
But the drivers managed to convince the owner’s widow, Kathleen Lofgren, who lives in Hawaii, to keep it running.
“Everybody involved loves it so much we just don’t want to let it go,” he said.
A subsidy from the Alaska’s department of Transportation keeps it operating, said Cartier.
Greyhound used to connect Alaska with the Lower 48, via Whitehorse, and when that service stopped, Alaska Direct became Greyhound’s “interline partner.”
“But we still have to call Greyhound’s headquarters in Calgary every year to remind them we exist,” he said.
Although it’s been running for 17 years, few people know about Alaska Direct’s service, said Cartier.
“We never advertise because we really can’t afford it.”
Cartier runs the Whitehorse end of things from his home at 5th and Ogilvie.
Alaska Direct’s old office, on Main Street, was turned into a parking lot.
But Cartier doesn’t miss it.
“It used to be the morgue,” he said.
Meanwhile, disconnecting the lopsided trailer and hauling it off the road at minus 50 didn’t faze Cartier.
He retrieved the tire, located on the opposite side of the highway in deep snow, and cranked some early Bob Dylan.
After making a few calls in Beaver Creek, and munching on a homemade chocolate éclair, Cartier was still grinning and ready to go.
“We never have trouble with the vans; we keep them pretty new,” he said.
But the frost heaves play havoc on the trailers.
“I just had that axle repaired last year.”
Cartier took his Beaver Creek passengers right to the door. “You going to your mom’s?” he asked one young guy.
Cartier has lots of friends in the communities.
He was 16 when he left BC to come work in a sawmill in Beaver Creek.
He ended up floating down the Yukon in a homemade rowboat, marrying a Yupik woman and living in Pilot Station on the Yukon Delta, where he became mayor for eight years.
He ended up in Tok, but when his wife died a few years ago he came back to the territory.
“There used to be lodges every 50 miles along this highway,” he said.
“But every year more and more places shut down.
“You’d think it’d be the other way around — that there’d be more places, but there’s less.
“Now, there’re no services between Destruction Bay and Beaver Creek all winter.”
Cartier slammed on the brakes.
He’d just driven by a ramshackle place on the side of the highway before Northway.
“I’m also the mailman,” he said, leaping out with a folded up letter in his hand.
He came back a few minutes later with a frozen package of moose meat.
“If you mailed that letter in Beaver Creek it would go to Vancouver then Anchorage, then Fairbanks before coming back to Northway,” he said.
“So we take care of each other along the highway,” he said.
Besides moving passengers, the odd piece of mail and some cargo, Alaska Direct also carries blood samples from clinics in the communities to Whitehorse General Hospital.
“We bring supplies from the hospital to the clinics too,” he said.
This year Alaska Direct also had many requests to carry groceries, after A-1 Trucking stopped the service “because there was no money in it.”
Cartier, who used to drive from Tok to Dawson, has been on the Whitehorse run for a couple of years.
And he never gets sick of it.
“It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the world,” he said.
“I can’t believe I get paid for this.”
Every now and then, Cartier would screech to a halt, roll down the window and start taking pictures of the mountains, rivers and mist.
“Nature’s always changing,” he said.
“The same thing looks totally different on a different day.”
Cartier likes to think of his run as a low-budget northern-lights tour.
“It’s not a typical bus service,” he said.
“We stop and take pictures.”
He remembers one trip when he had a van full of Japanese tourists from Yellowknife.
“They’d just been on this expensive northern lights tour and didn’t see any,” said Cartier.
“Then they took my bus, for a tenth of the price and we had this great show — we stopped for an hour and took photos.”
Driving this desolate stretch of highway, Cartier has met people from all over the world.
One of the most interesting passengers was an 80-year-old German who’d been a prisoner of war in Fairbanks and was returning more than 60 years later to visit the town he once knew.
There used to be a lot of independent travellers, said Cartier.
“But over the years they’ve decreased, while the tour companies are getting busier and busier.”
Nowadays, it’s mostly young backpackers who take the bus, some locals moving between communities, and Americans whose vehicles broke down driving up the highway.
Last summer, Alaska Direct also started running trips between Whitehorse and Dawson City twice a week.
That route actually paid for itself, said Cartier.
“But driving that stretch of road doesn’t hold the same appeal.”
Cartier does the return trip from Whitehorse to Tok in just over 14 hours. It costs him about $250 in gas.
“With gas costs up, we raised ticket prices for the first time in three years,” he said.
Prices rose $5. It’s now $185 to go from Whitehorse to Fairbanks.
Cartier pointed out the St. Elias range.
“When warm air mixes with the cold you get mirages,” he said. “Sometimes those mountains flatten out and sometimes they look like skyscrapers.”
As evening fell, he screeched to a halt one more time, to photograph a couple of moose on the side of the road.
“There used to be lots of caribou here,” he said.
“They used to march across the road like armies, but their migratory route has changed.”
He still sees lots of grizzlies, moose, wolves, coyotes, and even saw a marten chasing a rabbit once.
“I could drive this highway thousands of times and never get sick of it,” he said.
Alaska Direct runs from Whitehorse to Fairbanks and Anchorage twice a week all winter, and three times a week in the summer, when it also adds Dawson to its service.
For information or reservations call 668-4833 or 1-(800)-770-6652.