When old folks like me go silent for a long period people are apt to think them dead. I’m not dead, I’m in Alaska. Jerry and I drove up last week to take care of our house in Manley Hot Springs. It has been more than a year since we were here. A year ago last fall we hurriedly drove south from here to care for Jerry’s brother who had just had open heart surgery. Bert then went to Arizona and shot himself a few months later and we were kept from traveling for some time because of a dispute over his will. That dispute persists, but we are now more free to move about.
We left Bellingham on Wednesday, crossed the border into Canada at Sumas, where the Canadian customs agent quizzed us closely about guns. He described the penalties and troubles that would come upon us if the truck was searched and a gun was found in it. He told us that they frequently found guns on cars going to Alaska. (Note: there is now a bill in the Alaska legislature to prohibit the enforcement of any Federal gun regulations!) We must have looked honest enough to avoid the hassle of having the truck searched and that day we drove as far as Quesnel BC.
The drive up the Fraser River gorge is a geology demonstration. The river has carved its way through the earth leaving naked rocks and hills as the climate changes from the wet and green south to the arid upper reaches of the river at Cache Creek B C. There it’s a hilly desert, bare of much vegetation except straggly trees here and there and some desert sage and grass.
All day Wednesday in lower British Columbia we were still in Spring. The willows were turning yellow green and some trees beginning to flower.
By the time we got to our Thursday stop at New Hazelton (just east of the Cassiar Highway) it was cooler and spring was just beginning, but we still had no warning of the change that was in store for us.
We have made this journey before, even earlier in March, and though we encountered snow, it was the wet snow of early spring in the far north. This time, unexpectedly, we drove the entire Cassiar Highway in real winter. We had anticipated snow in the higher regions, but it was deep freeze all the way. We stopped briefly — a stop for the poodles to use the out of doors and to pour a little American gas we had brought in cans (a lot cheaper than Canadian gas).
Most of the way it had snowed, but at this stop the sun was shining and the mountains were icily majestic.
The air sparkled with tiny floating ice crystals. The dogs were eager to get back into their warm cage in the truck.
Once past lower British Columbia there is little choice of place to stay, especially with pets. This land is huge and unpeopled. Most of the hotels along the Alaska Highway are only open in summer, and they have a short life span. The Milepost, the standard highway guide to the far north, has many a big shiny ad about a place that turns out to be boarded up and abandoned when you get there. It’s a hard-scrabble life in this frigid unforgiving wild part of the world.
We know pretty much which places are likely to endure. We went a few miles out of the way to Watson Lake for the third night. I think I have never been so cold. A man we met told us that his car said it was 8 (Fahrenheit). There were two motels side by side. One allowed pets and that’s where we stayed. It was only moderately clean and the beds had sheets made of some sort of jersey that pilled and bothered Jerry’s skin. Inside it was hot. Our room was next to a heavy outside door that had no handle on the outside. Jerry opened it by wedging a screwdriver and prying. The lady who checked us in told me that she locks that door at midnight and if I needed to take the dogs out after that I should go through the lobby. I wondered what one would do in case of fire.
It was snowing hard the next morning when we set out, going northwest.
We have a favorite place to eat breakfast at Rancheria and we were hungry. When we got to Rancheria it was un-plowed. The snow was deep around it and the windows and doors boarded. So we drove 2 more hours to Teslin, a First Nation town where there is a motel and restaurant. That is a reliable place, though in the few years that I have been traveling this road it has changed hands three times. It is now run by a Chinese family.
We got some breakfast there and continued to Destruction Bay for the fourth night. That is also reliable, and caters to truckers. It is well run and clean and has a restaurant. Again, it was extremely cold, but not snowing. The next day we started before sunrise. The roads at this time of year are in bad shape. There are many frost heaves, dips and pot holes. It snowed on and off all day. In some places the road had packed snow cover, in others there was bare asphalt where the strong wind had blown it clean. I did very little driving because Jerry is more experienced at winter driving. It was a hard day for him. We had a pleasant breakfast at Buckshot Betty’s in Beaver Creek, just south of the Alaska border. Betty herself was not in attendance; we were told she had done the night shift. We were waited on by a middle aged Australian woman who said she had been a nurse in the outback before coming to Yukon. She said she was going back soon to spend a year warming up.
When we crossed the border we expected the road to improve, but even though it had been redone a couple of years ago, it has deteriorated badly in the last year. Jerry says a lot of research has been done by Americans, Russians and Swedes on how to prevent this road deterioration in the north, but the resulted is that they now understand why it happens but not what to do about it.
It was still snowing when we got to Fairbanks. The next morning we did some shopping and set out in a light snow and temperature about minus 5 for Manley Hot Springs and our little house. By the time we arrived in the early afternoon it had stopped snowing and the temperature had risen to about 10 Fahrenheit. When we pulled up to our house the snow was a couple of feet deep and there was a berm at the road from the work of the snow plows to keep the road clear. Our house looked so snug and tidy in the snowy world.
Our neighbor, Joee Redington, who lives across the road came by with his snow mobile and offered to get the sled which attaches to it and haul our stuff (and us) up to the house. That was lucky, because otherwise we would have had to shovel our way in; the snow was too deep to walk in it. So after all the groceries and gear had been transported I got a ride in the sled to my front deck.
Jerry discovered that the power had been turned off, despite the fact that we pay to keep in on because there is a heat tape in the well to keep the pump from freezing. Jerry can fix anything, and eventually he got the power back on — after all, he once owned the town electric company. He got the oil burning heater going. Joee gave us some dry wood and Jerry started a fire in the wood stove. The house slowly began to warm up. But the pump wouldn’t work so we had no water. Jerry and Joee hauled some water from the Redington’s well for us to drink and to cook with. I shoveled a couple of buckets of snow and brought them inside to melt for toilet flushing. It takes a long time for snow to melt, so we couldn’t flush until the next morning. A small amount of water spilled on the floor and we discovered that the valve on the big water jug was broken. The floor was still so cold that the water froze before I could wipe it up.
I made spaghetti sauce on the wood stove for dinner and Jerry shoveled his way to the shed where there was a propane tank which he hooked up to the kitchen stove. Then, finally, we sat down to have a glass of wine. Some of our wine and part of a case of Coke we had in the back of the truck had frozen. One bottle broke and a few Coke cans split, but we still had a good supply. The dogs immediately took possession of the sofa.
We were absolutely exhausted when we finally got to bed. Since then we have done some serious thinking about trying to maintain this place at our age — 81. We love this place. We worked together to convert it from an oddly divided up, dirty, and uncomfortable space to pretty and convenient home. I love the wildness of the surroundings. Our lot is criss-crossed with moose tracks. The woods behind us stretch for hundreds of miles. But I think we will put the house on the market, make one more trip in the fall to get our things and say goodby to Manley. It makes me sad, but one must deal with the realities of getting old.