When I ask somebody about how they arrived in the Yukon, they will often give me a colourful account of travelling the Alaska Highway. The long drive through northern boreal forest and the Rocky Mountains has often served as a transition between an old life and a new one.
I came north for the first time in 1971 as a graduate student’s assistant in a 1949 Mercury one-ton pick-up that broke down an hour before arriving in Fort Nelson, B.C.. I spent three days camped in the ditch beside the truck while my boss hitchhiked to Ft. Nelson to look for a fuel pump.
The highway was pitted with potholes; dusty when it was dry (we once spent several hours lumbering behind a semi because it kicked up too much dust to pass it safely), muddy and slippery when wet. Flat tires, broken suspensions and breakdowns were commonplace. The gas guzzlers of that bygone era required more frequent fill-ups.
The numerous lodges along the way were a welcome sight after running the gauntlet of perils that were part of the newly constructed highway. In its heyday, the Alaska Highway was a unique wilderness corridor that its inhabitants proudly referred to as the “longest main street in the world.”
Of course the accounts aren’t as robust as they once were: the highway has been paved and straightened and automobiles are much better built than they were back in the day.
Sadly, many of the old lodges have gone out of business, been abandoned and are decaying and overgrown with vegetation. Others burned down or were demolished. Those of a younger generation have missed out on a unique social phenomenon. The memory of this era in northern history is at peril of being lost.
Fortunately, that is not going to happen, thanks to two intrepid Yukoners: author Lily Gontard and photographer Mark Kelly, and their brand new book, Beyond Mile Zero: The Vanishing Alaska Highway Lodge Community. This new issue from Harbour Publishing will be launched at Baked Café April 7, as the kick off for the Air North First Light Image Festival, which will follow at the Old Fire Hall. Featured guests at the launch will be Ellen Davignon and Murray Lundberg, both of whom will have remarkable experiences to share about life on the highway.
The book was borne of a road trip along the Alaska Highway taken in 2011 by Mark Kelly, his wife Brooke and their newborn son, Seth. Each time they stopped, Mark would take out his camera and start taking photographs. Brooke suggested that Mark create a photo essay about the disappearing highway lodge culture. Three years later, he approached author Lily Gontard and the idea for a book was born.
Over the following years, they travelled up and down the Alaska Highway, visiting lodges, recording countless hours of personal histories from former and present lodge owners, and taking thousands of photographs. From these were selected the accounts included in this important book — 240 glossy pages of text with 167 (I counted correctly, I hope) photographs, packed into a compact volume. It should be easy for travellers to carry this book with them on their journey from Mile Zero in Dawson Creek British Columbia to mile 1422 at Delta Junction, Alaska, or to any point in between.
The photos, whether historical and contemporary, colour and black white, are sharp and expressive. They include highly personal family portraits of lodge owners and their families, contrasted with haunting photos of derelict lodges, with broken windows, peeling paint and crumbling décor. The archival photos of the early lodges give the book a sense of depth and passage of time, by illustrating the lodges, many now vanished, from the early days of the highway. The eight maps guide the reader sequentially through the text (and along the highway) to the lodges, past and present that populated this iconic route.
This is an important piece of historical work that captures the will and determination of the hardy individuals who made their living catering to the millions of truck drivers, bus operators and tourists who have travelled the route over the past eight decades. It was hard work with countless ups and downs. Families were raised operating these lodges, and a spirited linear community thrived.
Take the Williams family, for example (I first met Mike and Jan Williams when I arrived at Kluane Lake the spring of 1971). Beyond Mile Zero introduces the family, two adults and four children, who operated a lodge that looked out over Kluane Lake.
Mike’s job regularly took him away from his family and he wanted something different: something in which the whole family could be involved. So they packed up their belongings and left Oregon behind. First they leased a lodge at mile 1118, then they purchased the Silver Creek Lodge at mile 1054 in 1969 and renamed it Kluane Lake Lodge.
The children became the home-grown work force when they weren’t attending school at Destruction Bay, more than 50 kilometres away. The Williamses also fostered children — as many as a dozen upon occasion.
The highway was rerouted in 1975, the business shut down and they moved to Destruction Bay to operate the lodge there for a year. Mike also obtained a commercial fishing licence and supplied whitefish to customers from Haines Junction to Beaver Creek. He continued to do this after he got out of the highway lodge business, until they sold their property and moved back to Oregon in 1996.
There are many unique personal accounts like this in Beyond Mile Zero, which makes this volume a fascinating social history of the lodge culture through the decades. In fact, the only disappointment may be that they weren’t able to pack into this book all of the stories that they gathered, but it would have been much too long and far too bulky.
Beyond Mile Zero: The Vanishing Alaska Highway Lodge Community documents an important era in the history of Northern BC, Yukon and Alaska. The stories and images gathered by Gontard and Kelly will serve as a lasting testament to the rapidly vanishing highway culture.
This book will not get old. As the years go by, and more memories are lost and the old buildings disappear, it will continue to speak to travelers and should be a popular choice on store shelves for years to come.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.