That Time We Went on An 18-Day Road Trip Through Canada
June 9, 2017 / By Katie Hnatik
Every year, a new Milepost is published. My family always had one on hand. The Milepost is “an extensive guide book covering Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and British Columbia.” It provides information, mile-by-mile, for all the highways including rest areas and campgrounds, details and maps of cities, attractions, and side roads throughout. It’s very useful when you’re going camping or looking to explore in remote areas of Alaska that don’t have large road signs directing you.
Camping was a staple weekend activity for my family when I was growing up. We had a handful of camping spots that were our regular haunts and we would visit them many times during the summer. I think that my love of traveling, exploring, and nature comes from those early experiences. When my brother was older and had a car, I got to go on camping trips with him and my sister-in-law. They were more into exploring than my parents by that time and we would go to new and interesting places. I think my parents had already done their exploring by the time I came around. They knew what places they liked most and felt were most worthy of a precious weekend trip. Through trips with my brother, I learned that I loved road trips. They really cemented my love of exploring unfamiliar places.
Chris and I love going on road trips together as well. Long ones. When I was 18, on a whim, we drove to Dawson City in Yukon, Canada, a 515 mile, 11.5 hour drive from Anchorage. We left on a Friday night, camped somewhere along the way, and arrived in Dawson City mid-day on Saturday. The people of Dawson city are quite friendly. As we drove through the town, people standing on patios and walking along sidewalks would wave as we passed by. We spent some time walking around the small town, marveling at old buildings from the gold rush era. We watched some small birds who had made their homes along the sides of some of these buildings underneath the roof awnings in dozens of small round nests that resembled beehives all packed together.
We walked along the Yukon River, and I thought back to so many stories of the gold rush that my dad had told me throughout my childhood from the many books he’d read, often stories of ill-fates and treachery. One particular story that readily comes to mind is that of a man who had come to the area full of hope of striking it rich, changing his life, and bringing his fortune home to his family that he’d left far away. Day after day came and passed with no luck. One day, he walked up onto a hill near camp, sat down disheartened and thought hard about his time there, away from his family. He decided, sitting on a log on that hill, that he was done, that he would throw in the towel and head home, which he promptly did the following day. Just a day or two later, two other men from the same camp set out to gather firewood. They climbed the very same hill and started dragging the log that the first man had sat on days before. As they dragged the log along the ground, it scratched into the dirt, revealing a large gold deposit right below their feet. Excitedly, the men quickly brushed the dirt back over the gold and headed down the hill to stake their claim. Had the first man just scuffed the surface of the ground beneath his feat, he’d have had the riches he came for.
After wandering the town, we went to a restaurant for dinner and ordered a beer simply because I could since the legal drinking age was 18 there. We then found a place to camp for the night, and drove back home on Sunday.
The Milepost doesn’t change much from year to year other than the pictures that are used, some updates to road conditions, and maybe some different highlighted side roads. When Chris and I started road tripping and camping together, I bought a new Milepost every year, just because I found new inspiration for places to explore by looking at the pictures.
In August 2004, when I was 21, Chris and I were both working for Subway, the sub sandwich franchise, and living at his dad’s house. We had staggered work schedules, which meant I spent a good amount of time at home alone. I would often spend my time looking through the Milepost, planning weekend excursions. Flipping through the book, neat pictures of beautiful landscapes or interesting attractions would catch my eye and I’d stop to read about them. Quite by accident, I started finding a lot of places through the Alberta and the British Columbia provinces of Canada that intrigued me. Google Maps didn’t launch until 2005, but The Milepost included a chart with mileage between all the major cities. I would find the closest major city to get the estimated mileage, and then determine an approximate driving time based that.
Soon, I had fleshed out a crazy plan that we could drive to Edmonton, AB and then down to Vancouver, BC and back. I think Chris thought I was crazy at first. I remember getting the feeling of being a little kid being patted on the head by an adult saying, ‘oh, that’s cute,’ before going about their business. But I kept pointing out all of the cool things along the way, including things like an awesome science museum in Edmonton that he’d like and a cool dinosaur museum in Drumheller, AB, and the West Edmonton Mall, the largest mall in North America with an indoor water park and amusement park with a roller coaster (he loves roller coasters and Alaska doesn’t have any that you’d consider real ones) that I agreed to go on if we went on the trip. He finally got excited and we started making real plans.
Once we had a skeleton of a trip planned, I started looking for other attractions that we could see along the way, places that were already on the rout we would be taking. We took two weeks and a couple of days off work and made an 18-day itinerary. We were lucky enough that Chris’ dad let us borrow his GMC Safari van. We took the back seats out and made the back into a comfy bed. It made it possible for us to save money along the way. Rather than paying for hotels or even campground fees, we were able to spend a large portion of our nights sleeping in rest areas which meant that we could save up for staying in hotels in some choice locations. It also meant that we could drive longer hours since we didn’t need much set-up for our sleeping quarters. We had a lot of ground to cover in between our destinations.
We started in the very early hours of the morning. So that everyone would know where we would be along the way, we left an itinerary at Chris’ dad’s house, stopped at my brother’s and parents’ houses on our way out and left copies there as well, just in case something went wrong. Then we were on our way.
2004 remains one the worst years for wildfires on record in Alaska, caused by an overly dry and warm summer and a rash of thunderstorms. 6,600,000 acres were burned that year in various fires. This included the Taylor Complex fire which, by acreage, was the largest fire in the United States from 1997 to 2007. It started August 9th, burned over 1,305,000 acres, the edge of which was about 5 miles from Tok, AK.
We had to pass through Tok on the way to the Canadian border by the rout we were going. It’s a small town with a population of about 1,300 which sits about ninety miles from the Akaska, Canada Border. We knew there were ongoing fires in the area, but there were no highway closures and it was difficult to get specific information on the exact area affected at the time. As we drove North, the sky became more and more smoky. At one point, while Chris drove, I fell asleep. Chris suddenly woke me up saying that he could see flames near the highway. They turned out to be part of controlled burns that were being conducted to coral the wildfire. Nonetheless, it was hair raising to be driving so close to a wildfire. It was early evening, with several daylight hours left, but the sky was dark, the sun a barely visible red spot by the time we arrived in Tok. We had planned to spend the night in this tiny town, but the air was so thick with smoke we decided to try and make it through the border instead with the hope of reaching clearer air. We stopped at the small convenience store/gas station, grabbed some snacks, made a quick check-in call to family, and were on our way. We expected to reach the border before it closed for the night, so long as they didn’t change their hours due to the fire.
With relief, we made it through the border. We hadn’t planned on driving so late at night. It wasn’t long before we were out of the smoke. Chris was driving since I tend to have terrible night vision. There are no street lights along this remote stretch of highway, but as we drove, moonlight lit the foreground and my eyes started playing tricks on me. Or so I thought. There were odd shapes that seemed to loom across the highway ahead. Focusing my eyes, I tried to make out whether it was shadow or tricks of light, and soon Chris was doing the same. He began to slow the car and as we got nearer, we were finally able to make out a large herd of buffalo. Neither of us had seen wild buffalo before and we were beyond ecstatic! There were adults and babies and they were taking their sweet time wandering across the highway. Chris turned on our emergency blinkers and we waited happily and patiently while they crossed. We opened our windows and listened to them grunting, warm steam of their breath coming from their noses in the cool night air. No other cars came while we were there. They cleared the road in front of us, but remained along the edge, some still crossing lazily behind us as we drove away.
A few minutes down the road, we could see the lights of an oncoming semi-truck. Worried about the trucker and the buffalo, we wanted to warn the driver. Chris pulled to the shoulder, turned his blinkers on and got out in front of our car, waving his arms until the trucker pulled to a stop. After a quick chat and wishes for a safe drive, we went our separate ways. We spent the night in a truck-filled rest area along the highway, happy to be out of the smoke and still excited from our buffalo sighting.
Before leaving the Yukon, we stopped at Signpost Forest in Watson Lake. If you’ve never heard of Signpost Forest, it is exactly as the name describes… a vast and growing forest of signposts. It started in 1942 when a homesick U.S. soldier working on the creation of the Alaska Highway erected a signpost pointing toward his hometown of Danville, IL and showing the distance. It has since grown to over 77,000 signs from around the world, signs pointing the rough direction of far off cities and countries. It’s not just street signs. Visitors have left all sorts of mementos here from stop signs, to a fireman’s helmet, to a boot nailed to one of the posts, each including the visitor’s hometown, the date it was hung, and often a greeting or message.
On our way out of town, we stopped at a gas station and a guy at a nearby pump said “from Alaska, eh?” His “eh” was pretty exaggerated and I think it was purposeful. I think he saw our Alaska license plate and was being silly, making fun of American’s making fun of Canadians.
We drove for hours through quiet farmland and finally made our way to the city of Devon, forty minutes south east of Edmonton in Alberta, where we spent a day at the Devonian Botanic Gardens now titled University of Alberta Botanic Garden. A beautiful, 80-acre garden that contains one of the most tranquil areas of any garden I’ve been to: the Kurimoto Japanese Garden, a 5 acre authentic Japanese strolling garden. With rolling hills, a pond with a simple walking bridge, interesting statues, and a belfry, every angle of the Japanese garden makes for a good photo. Throughout the garden grounds there are little surprises; hedges trimmed into interesting shapes, and statues nestled in the lush greenery. My favorite part of the whole garden was the tropical plant and butterfly show-house, a warm, humid, indoor garden, full of beautiful tropical plants and trees, a koi pond with a bridge, and butterflies free to fly throughout the building.
For a few more days, we stayed in Edmonton which is a big city. Being from Alaska, it was huge and exciting! I remember seeing a wall covered in posters for concerts and events and I felt like that wall was something straight out of a movie. Alaska has events, but not nearly enough to warrant plastering a wall with posters for them. Having lived in Denver, CO as an adult, it seems silly to have been so intrigued by such a small thing, but whenever I think of Edmonton, I think of that wall. I also think of beautiful old buildings. There is some impressive architecture here which make this a very pretty city.
While we were there, we visited the West Edmonton Mall where we took a submarine ride underneath a big pond in the middle of the mall with windows looking out at fish in this underground aquarium, watched a pirate show performed on a big pirate ship in that same large pond, and marveled at a flock of pink flamingos casually hanging out in a glass enclosure with their own pond further down the mall. We went to the World Waterpark inside the mall, which has some pretty awesome water slides, 21 in all, and the world’s largest indoor wave pool, and then to Galaxyland, the world’s largest indoor amusement park with 27 rides where, yes, I rode my first rollercoaster.
We also spent a day at the Muttart Conservatory, a set of 4 huge glass pyramids, each of which houses a different biome, with plants that thrive in the climate of that pyramid. There are arid, tropical, and temperate pyramids, as well as a featured pyramid whose display changes up to eight times per year. The botanic garden and the conservatory were similar in some ways, but each had unique aspects. If you were hard pressed to choose between the two, my vote would be for the Devonian Gardens. If you have time for both, though, they are each worth a visit.
One last attraction in Edmonton was Telus World of Science. When we were there, it was called The Odyssium but has since been through a 14-million-dollar expansion. It has lots of different galleries, including a robotic laboratory where you can program pre-built robots to perform tasks, and a space gallery with a radio-controlled replica of the Mars Pathfinder. There are plenty of hands-on displays, many of which are geared toward children of varying ages, but also plenty to keep the adults occupied. It also houses Canada’s largest planetarium dome. The center is undergoing yet another expansion which is expected to see it triple in size.
Satisfied with our time thus far, we drove south through the Canadian Badlands to Drumheller where the Royal Tyrrell Museum is located and spent a day looking at dinosaur fossils and reading about the history of the area. If you’re in this area and have an interest in dinosaurs and paleontology, this is a must-do with over 130,000 fossils and 47,000 square feet of exhibits spanning the 3.9-billion-year history of the earth!
We then moved on to Calgary. We arrived just as the sun was going down. Again, this was before the launch of Google Maps, so all we had to navigate by was our paper maps out of the milepost and a city map that we had picked up along the way at a gas station. Let me tell you that the roads in Calgary are frustratingly confusing and you are much better off there now with the availability of GPS. We stayed in a cheap motel that night, relieved to have found our way to one after many dead ends and wrong turns through the maze of nonsense roads.
The next day, we visited the Calgary Zoo, another find from the photos in the Milepost. I’m not a fan of zoos. I have trouble finding joy in seeing animals in cages, but I was impressed by this one, and it’s no wonder that it has gotten widespread recognition. The enclosures were expansive. Elephants had large community areas with activities to keep them occupied. The lion area was large and you were likely to view them far in the distance, hearing roars as they lay in the grass sunning themselves. In 2013, the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums has said “the Calgary Zoo sets itself apart as one of the top zoos in the world.” If you’re in Calgary, and you can find your way to the zoo, definitely take a day to explore. It’s huge and you’ll need the entire day to really appreciate it.
From there we were on to Vancouver which became one of my favorite places. It has all that I need in a place. It’s surrounded by ocean and mountains and wilderness. The city itself doesn’t shut out the wilderness either. Buildings are covered in ivy, trees and flowers planted everywhere, in all the entryways, sidewalks, nooks, and crannies. Some buildings even have large trees growing on top of them.
We stayed at the Lonsdale Quay hotel. The Lonsdale Quay is a mall right on the edge of the water. The top floor is a hotel and its windows on two sides look out at a pier and shipyard. The second floor is filled with shops, and the bottom, at the time, was a large fresh market with tons on produce, and food vendors. The Seabus ferry terminal is located at Lonsdale Quay and carries passengers on a 15-minute ride across the bay from the north shore to downtown Vancouver and back.
This felt like the most luxurious part of our trip. It was our last big stop before we would hightail it back to Anchorage. We were tired from our manic adventure thus far and had planned on spending 3 days here to relax and explore. We would wake up in the morning, head to a little coffee shop on the second floor to get our morning caffeine fix, and then go down to the market to grab our snacks for the day.
Our first outing was to Lighthouse Park. This is a lovely, 185-acre park on the edge of Burrard Inlet in West Vancouver. If features hiking trails through a first growth Douglas Fir forest. Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar are also interspersed. Some of these trees are about 500 years old and 200 feet tall. You can walk out to large, rounded rocks along the shore for a view across the water toward the Greater Vancouver area and watch sailboats that frequent the waters. From some areas along the shore, you may also have a view of the lighthouse within the park. There are many trails here. If you’ll be hiking, be sure to grab a map or take a picture of the trail system at the display in the parking lot. You can easily spend hours enjoying these trails, lush with vegetation. Weekends are busy, but if you are free on a weekday, this is a peaceful destination.
We spent the next day downtown. We took the Seabus from Lonsdale Quay right to downtown Vancouver and spent the day wandering down streets, checking out shops and cafés and walking around Sunset Beach where artists gather in the evening to sell crafts and paintings. It’s a very relaxed and happy environment. At the end of the day, we made our way back toward the ferry. We still had a few hours before the last ride, so we stopped at a theater along the way to watch a movie. When we got out, it was pretty late and dark. Walking through an unfamiliar city at night can be nerve racking. Vancouver, we learned, had a drug problem and we happened to be walking straight through an area where homeless people spend their nights. We walked quickly and got to the ferry in time, relieved to be headed back to our hotel.
We were enjoying Vancouver so much that we crunched the numbers on our drive time back home and decided that we could extend our stay for one more day and just drive a couple more hours each day on our way back. We spent a day walking around the water and enjoying the view from our hotel, watching men work on boats, blue herons fishing from the dock, seagulls searching for morsels dropped along the walkway and picnic tables along the water, and jelly fish and seals in the water.
On our last day, we packed the car in the morning, checked out of the hotel, and went to see the last of the attractions on our list. We drove through Stanley Park where I saw my first ever raccoon (I love raccoons!). Then we went to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. This park has, of course, a bridge suspended 270 feet above Capilano River and 460 feet long. The bridge is sturdy, so much so that it withstood a 300-year-old, 46-tonne Douglas Fir tree that fell across the west end of the bridge in a wind storm in 2006. It does move however, as you walk across. When a lot of people are on the bridge, footsteps tend to synchronize and you can feel the bridge bouncing underneath you. It’s quite an experience. Across the suspension bridge are trails through old growth forest and the Treetop Adventure, a series of seven suspension bridges, 100 feet high, that allow you to explore the evergreens from a new perspective. The newest attraction, the Cliffwalk is a walkway along the canyon walls. This wasn’t a feature during our first visit in 2004, but we went back in 2011. A cantilevered walkway, high along the canyon wall, with a glass platform you can walk out onto and look at the canyon floor far below, this was the most nerve wracking part of the park. If you can handle the heights, it’s worth the experience.
It was a wonderful end to our time in Vancouver. We grabbed some dinner and then it was time to hit the road back home. We were leaving later in the day than we had expected (not a surprise since we always linger at the end of our adventures). We found someplace within a few hours to sleep for the night then back to driving. We made it back to Anchorage within 3 days. Those days went by in a blur and before we knew it we were crossing the border. The wind had changed when we drove back through Tok, so the smoke had shifted and the air was more bearable.
I can’t say that I was happy to be home. I missed the highway as soon as we got back to town. I was anxious to see my cats, however, and to take a good, hot shower.
This was a life changing trip for Chris and I. We had seen so much, so many changing landscapes, two big cities that were very unique from one another. I knew so much more of what lay beyond the borders of my home state. We had followed through with a huge and elaborate plan. I was beyond proud of that. We had been very far from home in unfamiliar places and things went fine. If we could travel like this, then what else could we do? It was all spawned out of curiosity and a willingness to put in the work to plan and to follow through with a go and see attitude. It changed us in a big way.
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