The Old Woman Rides Again

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.

Following a camper up the gorge


The naked earth along the Frazer River


All day Wednesday in lower British Columbia we were still in Spring. The willows were turning yellow green and some trees beginning to flower.

Flowering trees and a greening willow

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).

Jerry gasses up on the Cassiar

Most of the way it had snowed, but at this stop the sun was shining and the mountains were icily majestic.

Snow and ice on the mountains

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.

The road from Watson Lake

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.

The only large wild life we saw -- a caribou

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 little house in the snow

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.

The old woman rides on Joee's snow mobile sled

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.

The poodles and all their toys on 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.

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12 Responses to The Old Woman Rides Again

  1. It does sound like a lot of work … but it made me want to make the trip! I love reading about your adventures. I don’t know how to drive in snow! Your photos are great!

  2. Dale Favier says:

    So wonderful to get a post from you again! You both are certainly intrepid. I can’t imagine us making that journey twice a year! Though the mountains, we’ve been too long away from them…

    Wonderful photographs.

  3. Welcome back – I have missed your informative and beautiful posts. I rarely see snow, and never to the levels you have experienced this trip. The scenery was incredible – and I loved the caribou. Thank you.
    And I am not surprised you were exhausted – it sounds like a very, very challenging trip.

  4. Annie says:

    Ha! Wonderful post but you make me feel guilty now.

    I haven’t posted since Feb 21 and have been assuaging my guilty conscience with, “well at least Old Woman hasn’t posted in a long time either.” No more.

    I love that drive up the Stewart-Cassiar (doesn’t start in Stewart, doesn’t go to Cassiar!) and I love your descriptions of it. The pic of the Caribou looks like he is marching across the road in a most stately manner. Very sorry to hear you are giving up your Manley home, I understand, but still. You do look youthful in the photo though.

  5. Lucy says:

    What a contrast to your last post. The slightest shiver of snow or ice on the road and I cancel all car journeys; I can’t imagine making a trip like this, with uncertain lodgings and food en route, and an unheated house at the end of it, though like Dale I do long for mountains. Once again your intrepidity is astonishing.

    Like the picture of the brave doggies cosy on their sofa!

  6. Pat D says:

    You bring back vivid memories of winters in Alaska! We used to make jello a few minutes before dinner was ready, put it out on the front porch at -20 and it would be ready to eat when we sat down. We could tell the temperature by how far up the frost on the doors/walls went. We dodged moose to get to school (all 9 students in my class).

    My parents moved from Talkeetna in their late 50’s saying “Alaska is a young person’s state.” It’s not so much anymore, but Manley in winter? That’s a real challenge! You certainly brought back the memories!

    If you get a chance, drive home via the Parks and stop in Talkeetna. It’s morphed into a quaint town – goosed by tourism, but still retains it’s charm.

  7. Hattie says:

    We just got back from Mexico, but reading about your adventures is giving me wanderlust.

  8. pauline says:

    What an adventure! It’s always difficult to leave a place one loves. Where will you make your main home then?

  9. Friko says:

    Intrepid is the word! Others have used it before me and it is truly appropriate.
    How wimpish we here in the UK are compared to ‘frontiers people’. I whine if I can’t get the car out for a week and have to walk to the village shop, which is all of 250 yards away.

    I am not sure that I would risk the journey, even well prepared and in a four wheel drive truck. I admit though, the views are magnificent and I could see myself tagging along maybe, if I had a strong, handsome character like your Jerry to lead the way.

    Isn’t it sad when one has to accept that there are things one had better not do again. On the other hand, if one were to come to the end while on a wonderful adventure, in the full possession of ones mental and (elderly) physical faculties, wouldn’t that be something? Out with a bang rather than a whimper?

  10. Rain Trueax says:

    I’ve wanted to make that drive up the coast to Alaska but not at this time of the year. I’ve thought about taking the ferry one way, the one that lets you bring a vehicle and doesn’t have much luxury. It sounds expensive but maybe easier on the body as even at almost 70 driving day after day gets to me.

  11. Patty M says:

    Amazing! Thank you so much for posting this – the pictures are beautiful – breathtaking! And they show me things that I probably will never see for myself. At 55, I cannot imagine making a trip like that. In Pennsylvania, I remember the temps getting into the teens a few years ago. Brrrrrr!!!!

  12. annie says:

    That post was exhausting. The cabin sounds so amazing, over the years that I have been reading your blog I always love it when you are there.

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