Beyond Mile Zero chronicles Alaska Highway’s vanishing lodges

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.

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read