The Alaska Highway turns 70 this year.
That’s still a few years shy of the more magical 75, but fans of the highway, which winds its way from Dawson Creek, B.C., through southern Yukon to Alaska, have decided it’s still worth celebrating.
Not only is it a good excuse to dress up in vintage military garb and imbibe, it’s also a chance to swap stories of near-death driving experiences along the once-notorious road, now largely tamed after seven decades of government largesse.
There’s no denying the thin ribbon carved through the wilderness all those years ago remains near and dear to many Yukoners. For some, it’s the trail that first led north, for others south. Still others know a certain section so well they could almost travel blindfolded (not that we’re recommending that).
So, scoff at this highway homage at your own risk. Like it or not, in these parts, the Alcan is not just any old road.
Construction of the highway officially got underway March 8, 1942, but the dreaming and scheming started long before that.
Story has it Alaskan dog musher Slim Williams first drew attention to the need for a land link between his state and the lower 48 back in the mid-1930s.
To make his point, he drove his team all the way to the Chicago World’s Fair. But he didn’t follow the route we all know and now love. Instead he travelled from Fairbanks to Dawson City and then Whitehorse before heading south to Atlin and Hazelton.
Apparently a beggar for punishment, Williams repeated the trip a few years later by motorcycle.
But when wrangling over the best route for a road began in earnest, his was just one of four considered. Another went from Dawson to Watson Lake before going south. Still another left the Yukon River at Eagle, heading west across the Peel River watershed to the Mackenzie River at Norman Wells.
In the end, Whitehorse was allowed to stay in the picture. The American army moved in – prompted in part by that major skirmish across the pond – and managed to push a road through in less than a year.
It wasn’t pretty, or even passable in some areas, but it served the purpose.
Dignitaries gathered at Soldier’s Summit in November 1942 to mark the moment, and life in the Yukon was never the same.
The Alaska Highway is a big part of the reason we enjoy the life we do.
It’s the reason we can fill our gas tank and still have money to buy food for supper.
It’s the reason the Yukon is the most mature of Canada’s three northern territories – economically, politically, culturally and socially.
And it’s the reason this year’s Rendezvous organizers have included an event or two to celebrate the 70th anniversary.
May it continue to twist and heave and connect us to the rest of the world for many more moons to come.