ALCAN Highway in Summer

Right after Chris and I were married in 1974 I went to Alaska to work as a carpenter during the Pipeline boom. My father, who was already in Fairbanks working as a carpenter, called me to let me know that they needed more carpenters and the Union was willing to give journeyman status to anyone who cold pass written and practical tests. Since I was still working on my degree, I thought this might be a great way to earn some summer money. So even though we were newly weds we thought it expedient that I go up and get work and then Chris, Gina and Mariana could follow. My sister Darcy was 16 at the time and she was in Seattle visiting with plans to fly to Fairbanks so Dad suggested that we could use the money saved by not flying if Darcy and I drove up the Al-can Highway, a 2,200 mile drive with 1,000 miles of gravel.

Darcy, Thatcher and I piled into my VW minivan and headed North. I planned to let Darcy help with the driving so that we could make better time. We were in Canada driving on a divided highway enjoying the beautiful vistas of the Canadian Rockies. Darcy was driving when I pointed to a view that I thought she should see, as she did she allowed the car to drift into the median. As we drove down the bank the car tipped suddenly to the left and I fell into her lap whereupon looking up, accessed the situation and while still in her lap took the wheel in my right hand and gently steered the car back onto the road where we proceeded on as though nothing had happened or we would have, that is if Darcy hadn’t lost her nerve after the startling event and decided that she didn’t want to drive anymore.

To conserve cash we slept in the back of the van where I had made a bed. After the first day the roads were narrow 2 lane paved roads making it necessary to drive a little slower. As I was driving a stretch of rural road with no shoulder and deep bar pits a woman in a sedan decided to pass an oncoming truck. As she was coming toward me in my lane I began to doubt that she was going to be able to make it. I glanced into my rear view mirror where I saw the grill of a semi. I slowed as much as I dared with the truck behind me, the vehicle she was trying to pass hit the brakes hoping to help her get by faster but at the same time she decided to abort her passing goal and hit the brakes hard. I could see that this was not likely to turn out well so I was looking for someplace to go besides into here grill but before I deserted the roadway for a deep bar pit she had locked her brakes so hard that she was fishtailing badly. She did finally get behind the oncoming car enough to pull out of my lane but in doing so she lost control and went into the deep bar pit on the far side of the road. I didn’t stop because it looked like she was fine and there were people who were stopping. When I checked the rear view mirror there was no sign a truck. I often wondered if the driver had pulled off to help or to recover from the adrenaline rush he had just experienced. A second time we had been spared a delay or worse.

As we got to the portion of the road that was gravel we were advised to install plastic guards over our head lights to protect them from rocks thrown up by passing vehicles, which we did. It began to rain and it continued to rain and rain and rain. The mud thrown up by the passing semis coated the entire car so thoroughly that not only could you not see what color the car was but you couldn’t see where the door handles were. The windows were completely blocked except where the windshield had been kept clear by the wipers and the washer fluid. We stopped for gas and fluid and the station attendant used a hose to wash off the windows all around.

400 miles per day was about the max on the gravel portion of the road so after about a week of driving we reached the Alaska boarder where we were excited to be back on pavement, but we soon realized that we could not speedup much because no sooner had we accelerated than we would have to brake for a nasty pothole. As we stopped for gas we learned that the road had actually been closed behind us because of the excessive rain damage to the road.

Each night, when we stopped to sleep, we would tape mosquito netting over the vent windows so we could have some fresh air without being devoured by mosquitoes. The legendary insects were so multitudinous that when we left the vehicle it was hard to avoid breathing them and they were hungry! Even with our taping efforts a few found a way into the car so we were swatting all through the night.

When we arrived, Dad gave me a crash coarse on carpentry and after buying a complete set of the required tools I took the carpenter test. I passed the practical test — build a saw horse using my hand tools — but failed the written test. I was a little week on how to build concrete forms. Armed with my tools I went to a home construction site about a mile from Dad’s place and asked if they needed a carpenter. I went to work the next day. After a month I took the test again and passed. I got a union job immediately at $26/hr. Working six 10 hour days per week. I brought home $1,100 a week. Still sounds pretty good for a student but in 1974 that was BIG money for labor.

A few long weeks later Chris and the girls boarded the Alaska Marine Highway ferry in Seattle which would take them to Haines in Southeast Alaska, but this was still a long way from Fairbanks so I had to drive down through part of Canada to pick them up a distance of about 640 miles, a 13 hour drive. Much of this trip was over gravel roads. Mom and Aunt Dorma came along to help with the driving and to enjoy the adventure. We planned to drive round trip without stopping at a hotel. We arrived to see them disembark from the

Mariana & Gina running off ferry

ship. As you can see from the picture Gina and Mariana were excited to get off the boat after several days at sea. The distance proved to be too great for our driving crew so we stopped at a roadhouse to sleep for the last few hours of the night.

A few weeks after arriving in Alaska I marveled at a article in the news paper about a young woman who had bicycled from the east coast to Fairbanks while her husband came by airplane. She said that one time she was stopped at the side of the road to let a semi go by, which is what she always did since the road was so narrow and the wind created by the passing truck knocked her off balance and she fell into the bar pit. After reading the article I wasn’t so impressed with our little adventure.

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