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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Please Don't Tell Our Parents

Top of the World Highway, AK & Dawson City, YT, Canada  10/03-05/06 (Day 161-163)
Please Don't Tell Our Parents

Ever done something and not realized precisely how dangerous it was until it was over? Anyway, here we go.  

To get to Dawson City from Alaska we have to take the Top of the World Highway to the Poker Creek, AK border post—the Northernmost border crossing in the US. The Top of the World Highway is less than 70 miles long, but the narrow, high altitude semi-surfaced road makes the most of every inch with sheer drop offs and hairpin turns. More than once we really do feel like we’re on top of the world.  

In addition to the generally rough road conditions, the weather up here can go from clear to blizzard in a heartbeat but as we cross over into Canada the skies are cloudy but the road is dry. We stop to send some mail from the dinky little post office in Chicken (the only real town on the Top of the World Highway), then drop down into Dawson City in Canada's Yukon Territory.

Though the town peaked during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s, Dawson City is doing a better job of making a comeback than many nearly-ghost-towns we’ve seen. There’s a growing artistic community, a surprising number of young residents and many of the historic buildings have been lovingly restored and turned into guesthouses and cafes which do a pretty good tourism business in the summer.

When we arrive town is mostly shuttered for the season. Luckily, we have our [email protected] trailer behind us so all we need is a scenic spot to pull into. This proves to be surprisingly hard to find in an area that’s been mined to within an inch of its life—not much but rocky mine tailings everywhere—but we finally find a place to call home.

The next morning we head back the way we came for the return journey into Alaska via the Top of the World Highway. The day starts off clear enough, but about an hour out of Dawson City the clouds drop and snow begins to fall. As we climb higher, the snow starts coming down thick and fast and the wind picks up tossing the white stuff through the air and up over the road creating near zero visibility and building drifts that obscure exactly where the road ends and the sheer drop-offs begin.

At the highest point on the road and just a few miles short of the border crossing, conditions get so bad that Eric simply stops the Silverado, unsure of which direction he should be steering the truck in. Fighting off visions of being snowbound and stranded in the middle of nowhere on a road that’s about to be closed for the season or unwittingly driving right off the road and into the ravine below, we weigh our options. There’s the idea of turning around and driving 60 miles back down to Dawson City and out of the weather. But if we can’t see clearly enough to move forward we figure there’s no way we can see well enough to safely turn our 20’ long truck around on the narrow road.  

Besides, we know we are practically at the border crossing and that the road drops down from there. The weather is bound to be better on the other side, we reason, so forward it is, then. But how? Like any good co-pilot, Karen gets out and slowly walks backward down the road, guiding Eric like those people who inch planes into their gates on the runway at an airport. It’s the only way we can make sure that we stay on the road.

A few minutes (which feels like an eternity) later, we are safely through the worst of the weather and a cold, wet Karen gets back into the truck (thank goodness for heated seats). When we finally reach the border crossing, the guards seem surprised to see anyone out in the storm and they ask about the conditions we’ve just driven through. It’s not until we start giving the staff at the Poker Creek border post our weather and road report that we realize just how much of a gamble we’d taken.

That night, safely camped in our [email protected] trailer next to a creek in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, home of 18,008’ Mt. St. Elias (the second highest peak in the US), we’re still debating whether we were being brave, adventurous or just plain stupid when we chose to keep driving through the high mountain white out. All we know for sure is that there’s often a really fine line between a great story and a terrible disaster.

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