North By Northwest: A Solo Motorcycle Adventure from Georgia to Alaska (Day 12)

August 16, 2019

Day 12 – 7/9/19

Astute readers will have noticed an absence of drone photos since I crossed into Canada. The reason is that Canada implemented new drone regulations in June, and they don’t offer reciprocity for FAA Part 107 certifications (the US requirement for commercial drone operations, which I have). Canadian citizens can take an online exam for “Basic” drone operations, but they also need a Flight Review for “Advanced” operations. Foreign drone pilots like me would have to request a Special Flight Operations Certificate well in advance of planned flights and identify specific dates and locations for these flights. Unfortunately, I just didn’t know when and where I’d want to fly during my several days in Canada, so this wasn’t going to work. In other words, no drone photos until I get to Alaska.

The morning weather forecast proved to be accurate, and it was cold and rainy when I loaded up the bike.

Given these adverse conditions and with the Scale of Risk foremost in my thoughts, I decided to wear my high-visibility vest. On the way out of Grand Cache, I saw some large wildlife on the side of the road, a bit too close for comfort.

I also noticed a huge power plant and a sign that explained why the locals thought I’d rolled into town like I owned the place.

After about 15 minutes, the fog and rain limited visibility to about 100 feet all around, and I was very glad to have my neon yellow vest.

There were several stretches of roadwork, but I didn’t encounter any significant delays. My timing was actually good, since most of the new pavement appeared to be very fresh, albeit potentially slippery in the rain. The low clouds and rain persisted for the entire two-hour ride into Grand Prairie, where I stopped for gas and some hot chocolate to warm up. Another hour on the road and I was clear of the rain as I crossed into British Columbia.

Thirty more minutes of riding put me in Dawson Creek, famous for being Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway. I took the required photos of the two Alaska Highway markers and stopped for lunch at Tim Hortons.

A brief pause for some background about the Alaska Highway: I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that most Americans probably haven’t heard of the Alaska Highway, also known as the Alcan. Of those who have, fewer still are familiar with its history and significance. The idea for an international highway connecting Canada and the US had been around since the 1920s. The enormous cost of actually constructing such a highway, though, proved to be an insurmountable hurdle during the Great Depression. All of that changed with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the threat they posed to Alaska and Canada, and the need for an overland supply route and link to airfields. Construction of the 1,387-mile Alaska Highway began in March 1942, and incredibly, was officially completed in October of that same year. 

The construction itself was an engineering marvel, but I think a lesser-known aspect of the project resulted in a more far-reaching and enduring legacy: Of the nearly 11,000 US Army Corps of Engineers Soldiers working on the Alaska Highway, about 1/3 were African Americans in segregated units. You’ll recall from my Tuskegee Airmen visit that the US armed forces were segregated at the time, predicated on baseless beliefs about African Americans’ fitness for duty and ongoing discriminatory practices in the country. Soldiers in these segregated units, most of them born and raised in the Deep South, were loaded onto trains and sent to Alaska and Canada with limited information about their final destination or mission. In the months that followed, they overcame unthinkable hardships, inflicted by nature and man alike, and proved the doubters wrong. While researching the story behind the Alaska Highway, I came across this triumphant photo of the north and south construction crews meeting in the middle.

The New York Times reflected on this event in 2012 with a callback to their contemporaneous reporting in 1942:

“Corporal Refines Sims Jr., a Negro from Philadelphia, was driving south with a bulldozer when he saw trees starting to topple over on him,” the account said. “Slamming his big vehicle into reverse, he backed out just as another bulldozer, driven by Private Alfred Jalufka of Kennedy, Texas, broke through the underbrush.”

It continued, “Immediately after this Yukon version of driving the golden spike, Sims and Jalufka turned their bulldozers around and began widening the opening.”

The story captured the public’s imagination. The Engineering News Record called it “two races, working together to build a lifeline to Alaska’s beleaguered defenders amidst the most spectacularly rugged terrain and horrendous weather conditions imaginable.” The Army even promoted the story in Yank, its magazine for the troops.

When the highway was officially dedicated, Corporal Sims, Private Jalufka and two other soldiers, one black and one white, were there to hold the ceremonial ribbon.

I was looking forward to visiting the site of this dedication ceremony at Soldier’s Summit in a few days. And as I began my trek on the Alaska Highway, I thanked all of the Soldiers, especially those in the segregated units, for making it possible. For a more in-depth look at the Alaska Highway’s construction and the African American Soldiers who worked on it, I recommend the book We Fought the Road.

About 20 minutes outside of Dawson Creek, I took a minor detour to see the wooden Historic Kiskatinaw Bridge, which was a permanent structure to replace the temporary crossing built by the Army for the Alaska Highway. It remained in service until 1978 when the Alaska Highway was rerouted to a new bridge, but you can still ride across the old wooden one today. So I did.

Continuing with the bridge theme, Canada has many open-grate steel bridges, which can be nerve-wracking for those of us on two wheels. I got to ride across an especially long one at the Peace River near Taylor and also saw a very large pipeline crossing off to my right.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, with the now-familiar mix of rain and roadwork.

I pulled into Fort Nelson and checked into my hotel, taking note of the house rules posted outside.

After a pleasant jog, I picked up some supper down the street and turned in early, having no trouble falling asleep.

Daily portrait challenge: The Tim Hortons trio on their way to Alaska.

It was a long, tough day on the bike, but my longest day was now behind me. No more 400+ mile days on this trip; at least, that was the plan.

Total mileage: 476.7

Lodging: Lakeview Inns & Suites, Fort Nelson, British Columbia