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Book launch evokes Alaska Highway memories

The launch of the new book Beyond Mile Zero took place at the Baked Café April 7. More than 100 people crowded into the tiny space to hear author Lily Gontard and photographer Mark Kelly share their experiences.

The launch of the new book Beyond Mile Zero took place at the Baked Café April 7. More than 100 people crowded into the tiny space to hear author Lily Gontard and photographer Mark Kelly share their experiences of gathering stories and images of the lodges up and down the Alaska Highway.

The featured guest speakers for the evening were Ellen Davignon, author of the delightful memoir of life in an Alaska Highway Lodge, titled The Cinnamon Mine, and multi-talented author, Murray Lundberg.

They reflected on their experiences with the Alaska Highway lodges from two different perspectives. Davignon saw lodge life from the vantage point of someone growing up in the lodge at Johnson’s Crossing, one of the few lodges that still operates today. Lundberg viewed them from the perspective of a long distance trucker and tour bus driver of many years, who relied upon the services that the lodges provided.

Davignon’s father, Robert Porsild bought an abandoned army camp located on the west side of the Teslin River, and sold off some of the buildings to raise money for his highway lodge. He built it from scratch. Originally, a Quonset hut was converted into a rudimentary café, with three tables and a wood-fired stove for food preparation.

They hauled water from the river, and the comfort station was a biffy out back, complete with a 2X4 that was used to “knock down the pile” within, if it got too high, thus ensuring the comfort of customers.

She read an excerpt from her book, The Cinnamon Mine, which, in my mind at least, ranks as a Northern classic. She related the story of the time her parents went to town to attend a dance and left 10 year-old Ellen and her 12 year-old brother Aksel to run the restaurant during their absence. That was the way it was in those days; the lodges were frequently family operations and everybody had chores to perform from an early age.

Murray Lundberg worked as a commercial driver on the Alaska Highway back in the period when the highway was transforming from the pioneer road to a modern thoroughfare. He likened the highway to a woman who was, for her first 50 years, independent, hard and extremely interesting. Then she went off to finishing school (as the highway was straightened and improved), and much of the inspiring character was lost, along with many of the roadhouses.

As a driver on the highway it was always a comfort to him in the dark of winter to see the welcoming “open” sign in the lodges along the road. “People who travel the highway today in their motor homes don’t know what they are missing,” he said, adding that the lodges and the people were a big part of the “magic and the mystery” for him.

He noted that over the past two years, an alarming number of the old lodges have been destroyed by fire either from arson, or misadventure. He congratulated Gontard and Kelly for creating their new book as a reminder of a vanishing social phenomenon.

Their stories, and others I have heard recently have sparked many memories of my own of travel on the Alaska Highway. I remember making a number of visits to one highway lodge when I first came to the Yukon in 1971, where the lodge owners smoked pot and played rock music on their cassette player between customers. Each arrival at the gas pump caused a flurry of activity as they fanned away the cloud of smoke in the dining room and sprayed the air with freshener.

In 1995, I made the trip in December from Vancouver. The weather started out gently enough, but after leaving Prince George, the snow started to fall, and it continued and worsened all the way to Fort Nelson.

Stopping in Chetwynd, I bought a pair of snow pants to keep warm as the car I had purchased in Lotusland seemed incapable of generating enough heat to keep me warm. I fought to keep awake in the darkness with the snow blowing at an angle across the beams of the car’s headlights. It hit -48C in Watson Lake where I sought a replacement fan belt for my car while I waited out the cold spell.

A few years later, during my active, but impoverished early history hunting phase, I hitchhiked up the highway to Snag Junction in order to visit the legendary weather station where the coldest temperature in Canada was recorded. Along the way, I regaled the American who picked me up with stories of the history of the country we were travelling through.

We had just crossed the river at Koidern, and, running low on gas, my temporary chauffeur decided to fill up his gas tank. He pulled up in front of the gas pumps and leaned out the window to examine the price on the pumps. Meanwhile, a scruffy bearded man with long, wild hair emerged from a little shack where he had been lurking in wait for a customer. To me, he looked like he had spent too long a winter alone in the bush and still hadn’t recovered.

The America driver naïvely inquired if the price displayed on the pump was the actual price, or did he have to double that amount. In those days, gasoline was sold by the gallon, and this pump did not appear capable of displaying triple digits. The wild-eyed mountain man looked the American squarely in the eye and announced: “Mister, if you have to ask a question like that, you don’t need gas.” He promptly turned around and retreated to his shack, from which he refused to re-emerge. Fortunately, there was another lodge a short distance farther along the highway.

I made it to Snag, but my attempts to hitch a ride back to Whitehorse afterward failed because there was a washout and traffic had slowed to a trickle. I pleaded with an elderly American couple driving a luxurious RV to give me a lift to Beaver Creek. I had the standard burger and fries in the lodge and lamented loudly when I learned that there wouldn’t be a bus for another two days.

Fortunately, two of the patrons offered to give me a lift, once they had finished their meal. Imagine my surprise when I followed them outside and along the row of rooms to a Bell Jet Ranger. The helicopter ride was very memorable, but that is a story for another time.

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.