Even though on Day 2 of our late-April Alcan journey to the Lower 48 there was enough snow to get stuck in off the side of the road and temperatures were in the 20s at night, my road trip pal and good friend Bailey and I figured it was just a fluke of that particular day.
Sure, we wore our big puffy jackets in the mornings as we sipped coffee with mittens and watched our breath curl in front of us. Sure, breakfast was made and consumed in a cold hurry; lunch was sometimes entirely concocted in the truck. When sleet was coming down sideways and the covering at the gas station wasn’t enough to stop it blustering onto our down sleeping bags in the truck bed, we hurriedly shut everything up.
We were in great spirits! Seriously. It was a testament to the excitement of the journey and how well we clicked together as road-trip partners that even in uncomfortable moments, we just kept it moving and enjoyed ourselves, even reveling in the absurdity of the “suck.”
By Day 3 we had made it to the Holy Grail of the trip, as in Liard Hot Springs in British Columbia, and it did not disappoint. Gray day though it was, we giddily found a campsite quickly, packed up a couple backpacks with our swimsuits, and walked the serene wooden boardwalk back to the beautiful green springs tucked in the woods. We stayed in the springs for hours, until we both admitted to feeling famished. That night we ate mac and cheese with greens and Aidell’s chicken and apple sausage, sipped Bailey’s Irish Cream, and slept incredibly well.
Waking up to a charming mix of snow and sleet the next morning, I was motivated to drink coffee and gun it out of there. But Bailey pushed to do one more soak, with our coffees, and I’m so glad we did. When we finally set off on the road, we were warm and refreshed.
That was a good thing, because that day, driving the Canadian Rockies toward Fort Nelson and ultimately Fort St. John, brought more snow and a stretch of surprisingly muddy, rutted road under construction that required four-wheel drive. Wind howled as we crawled up mountain passes over snow-drifted pavement where slushy tracks were the only indication of where a vehicle was supposed to go. I howled along to Tom Petty and Wilco to keep my spirits up and my focus on the road. (As I’ve shared before, Bailey grew up in Las Vegas. I grew up in Massachusetts. She drove her fair share of the route, but not that day!)
When we finally made it to Fort St. John, I was relieved to see only snow swirling down. It was flat and paved.
I was not relieved to see what my husband accurately described in a group text as “fresh Canadian hell.” If it’s been a minute since you’ve driven this route, allow me to share with you the features of much of the Alcan in British Columbia: it’s gas land, with all the man camps, alcohol, sulfur smell and flares that go with it. Alberta brings logging and coal mining, and Saskatchewan features oil derricks biting mechanically toward the ground as far as the eye can see. I don’t excuse myself from it. I liberally use fossil fuels and other resources. But it was sobering to have such an enormous component of this fabled route and drive feature brazen and abundant extraction, with all of its trimmings.
In Fort St. John, we wondered where we could camp for the night after driving so long. All of the campgrounds were still closed for the winter. We briefly considered staying in the Walmart parking lot, but then actually saw Fort St. John in its bill-boarded, oil and gas advertised, “Winners” and “Chances” casino’d glory, all enshrouded in a nasty, gloomy, whirly snowstorm teetering on rain, and decided to keep driving.
Bailey had the Hipcamp app downloaded, and I’d used it once before with good results. It’s basically Airbnb, but for camping. Individuals list their land and features, and name their nightly price. We found a reasonable one near Dawson Creek that featured a venue for weddings and other events, and — Bailey exclaimed — a rock-climbing wall, and decided to request to book it. It sounded like a summer camp.
Our request was accepted within the hour, with a friendly message, and we punched the address into Bailey’s phone. My skepticism started when we veered onto the second rutted dirt road of the day, this time with a fresh layer of wet snow. My wariness only increased as we approached what was the supposed venue.
“I see a gate,” I said. “But where’s the sign? This just looks like a house.”
We drove past and Bailey messaged the hosts. That was, indeed, the property. We turned back around and I veered carefully into the unplowed driveway, pulling up alongside a lopsided farmhouse. Vehicles of all types — trucks, trailers, RVs, a plow — dotted the snowed-in property. Five dogs came out to greet us. Soon after came the two hosts, a husband and husband pair that looked to be about our age if a little younger.
They were very friendly and welcoming, and I felt a little less uneasy. They pointed at a nearby barn and offered that it would be a warm and sheltered place for us to hang out if we wanted. My heart soared. Eating indoors?! I bit. But first, I asked for help navigating the driveway. I was unsure, even in four-wheel drive, if I’d make it, and with all of the snow I couldn’t see the path to the barn. One of the guys walked ahead of me, pointing the way.
Pulling up alongside the barn, I immediately got stuck. The same fellow coached me out of it. A little later, I tried to level out the truck so we could sleep in the back. I got it stuck again. I had to go back to the house and ask for help. He offered to move it for me, and I gratefully said yes. Bailey and I watched as he rocked the truck back and forth — reverse, then drive, repeat — until he’d reached a precipice on the reverse, with the truck just a little bit poised above the rut. He gunned it smoothly forward, out of that section of the driveway, and back to the main area.
He explained he was going to plow us out an area to sleep, which he did. I parked the car overnight facing the direction of their house and then the driveway exit.
We remembered that detail with gratitude the next morning, because it’s what enabled us to get out of there as quickly as we did.
Next week: The final installment of Alli Harvey’s Alcan adventure.