They used to appear every 50 kilometres or so -- oases in the wilderness for those travelling the treacherous Alaska Highway. Now, one by one, they’re closing – shutting the door on a chapter of Northern history. By Peter Sheldon
James Downton, manager of the Johnson’s Crossing Campground and Bakery an hour east of Whitehorse, fiercely guards the secret to his “world famous” cinnamon buns. “It’s like asking Colonel Sanders what’s in his chicken,” he says. But he’s willing to tell me, under one condition. “I’ll reveal it if you buy this place.”
Indeed, Downton would gladly hand me the recipe, sliding it right across the white countertop along with the keys to his Alaska Highway roadhouse. The place has become more burden than business since his family bought it 17 years ago. This warm May morning it sits empty, as it has for too many days recently. A pair of day-old buns languish in the oversized display case. A trophy-sized trout hangs on the wall, with only Downton to marvel at its size.
“Everyone’s driving through to Whitehorse now,” he says, pulling his cap down to his eyes. There, he says, RVs can park free at Walmart, and trucks can gas up for less than it costs him to fill his pumps. His family-owned roadhouse still makes enough to break even, but he’s tired. He put it up for sale two years ago, but has yet to get a good offer.
Downton’s story is hardly unique. An era is coming to an end, and with it, a culture. As I pull out of his lot, cinnamon bun in hand, I know that over the next three days, motoring south for 1,440 kilometres from Whitehorse to Dawson Creek, British Columbia – “mile zero” of the Alaska Highway – I’ll encounter a dozen more roadhouse operators with similar tales of woe. For a wild diversity of reasons, from highway improvements to the strong Canadian dollar, from swine flu to tightened health regulations, the lodges of the Alaska Highway – many almost as old as the 67-year-old road itself – are being shuttered. But what I don’t realize here in Johnson’s Crossing, and only discover as the highway miles roll past, is that a few new owners are working against the tide of time, fighting to preserve these fabled institutions of the highway. Whether they’ll succeed is not the question I’m looking to answer. I’m looking to discover what will be lost if they don’t.
The Alaska Highway, or Alcan for short, was completed in 1942. It was built to supply Alaska during the Second World War. After the war, driving it recreationally into the wilderness of the Great Northwest became a sort of pilgrimage. Some did it once and kept the bumper sticker. Others began doing it yearly. Roadhouses sprang up, each a sanctuary for drivers who survived the muck, gravel and blindingly steep grades the U.S. Army deemed an acceptable “highway.” Drivers would pull into these lodges, leap from the car and kiss the ground, then wander inside for a spare tire, water for their rock-riddled radiator, dinner, or a bed.
“The roadhouses became destinations of their own,” says Earl Brown, an editor for the Milepost, which describes itself as “the bible of North Country travel.” Brown, of Fort Nelson, B.C., has lived along the Alcan his whole life. His father even owned a roadhouse – until the government straightened a kink in the road, leaving the lodge 12 kilometres deep in the bush. For a quarter-century, Brown has plied the storied highway, working on the Milepost like a labour of love. It’s an encyclopedia of factoids so excruciatingly detailed it’s beyond useful, but lately those details have included what read like obituaries. He hands me several pages of notes entitled “Recent changes”: Mile 101, Petro Canada, burnt down. Mile 147, Mae’s Kitchen, used to have food and rooms, now only gas. Mile 397, Rocky Mountain Lodge, only open one month in 2008, not open in 2009. On the second page are a list of a dozen more closures. Most shocking of all, he tells me, is the shuttering of the Toad River Lodge, the most famous of all Alcan roadhouses. It shut from November to March last winter, the first time it had closed in decades.
These closures are, for many, a tragedy. The roadhouses, dotting the entire 2,300-kilometre route from Dawson Creek to Delta Junction, Alaska, are the elders of the highway. In the innocent past, visiting them represented an adventure within the adventure of seeing the Yukon and Alaska. They were down-home, often gimmick-laden, always loveable – offering not just the expected services, but odd collections, a surfeit of tacky souvenirs, hot springs, water slides – even “the world’s largest glass beehive.” More importantly, the lodges housed hundreds of road stories, unwritten but remembered by the owners and employees and repeat visitors – people whose lives had been largely lived out along the highway. What would it mean if the Alcan loses its roadhouses and their people, and becomes just another road?
At kilometre 1,244 I pull into the Yukon Motel, in the First Nations village of Teslin. Out back is the lodge’s owner, Steve Kramer, pulling a giant steel wand out of a pipe in the ground. He’s checking the level of his gas tanks. “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it,” he says, and the fuel on the dipstick evaporates, leaving nothing but the odour of petroleum wafting over the parking stalls.
“I start to worry when the lot has been empty for a week,” he says, but that hasn’t been a problem these days. Kramer is enjoying his best spring in the four years he’s owned the place. He credits repeat customers for much of that, but notes that it’s his extras – not his fuel – that are making him money. “Sure, gas is a drawing card,” he says. “But once people stop, they putter around the animal museum, maybe buy some lunch.” Steve says his lodge should be paid off in another seven years, but he plans to keep it open for five years after that, to build a nest egg. “We’re really lucky being so close to Teslin,” he says. “I don’t know if we could do it if we were somewhere else on the highway.”
Indeed, he says, just 10 kilometers up the road, his parents’ old lodge is fairing much worse. Mukluk Annie’s – famous for his mother’s salmon bake and his dad’s free boat cruises on Teslin Lake – closed its doors this past spring. It had been losing money, so Steve and his siblings bought the lodge, their childhood home, off their now-retired parents. “That place seven or eight years ago was so busy you could hardly even get in the door,” he says. “You just figured it would be like that forever.”
As I wave goodbye I spot two German couples at the door, scanning a copy of the Milepost, raving about the “pleasant ride” that the highway offers in contrast to the German freeways.
They’re part of a group driving RVs from Vancouver, and say they pull over wherever the Milepost tells them too. They tell me their next stop is Whitehorse. “I hear Johnson’s Crossing has great cinnamon buns,” I yell, but it turns out they’ve just had lunch.
My own stomach is rumbling late that evening when I arrive at Rancheria Lodge, kilometre 1,099, where I’ve arranged an interview with owner Linda Bouchard. I pull in to the gravelly gas bar three hours late and pass three sets of legs hanging out of a van’s front engine. The legs in the blue oil-stained overalls jerk and bend, each twitch corresponding with a clang and shout from beneath the vehicle’s hood.
Inside the lodge I find Linda slumped over a coffee, looking very comfortable in her chair. “You’re going to make me cook, aren’t you?” she says.
“I don’t have to. Do you have anything ready?”
“We got potato chips,” she says.
“I’ll have a burger,” I reply, with an apologetic shrug. Then I settle into the doorway so I can yell my questions into the kitchen. The deep-fryer yells back. The Bouchards bought the lodge three years ago. Her husband spent most of his working life as a logger, and they wanted to try something different. And this is certainly different: Bouchard says there isn’t much she doesn’t do here, except rest. She’s working long hours, soon to be even longer if she can’t afford to pay new workers when her son leaves in the fall. She hasn’t been away from the lodge since December. I ask her what she’s learned from owning the place. “Don’t ever buy a lodge,” she says. And what does she make of all the other roadhouse closures? “Well, I thought it was going to help me,” she says, laughing and handing me my plate. “But it didn’t.”
Then the man in the oil-stained overalls strides in. He’s Dennis Bouchard,
Linda’s husband. Beside him are the other two sets of legs, belonging to a pair of women from Alaska. I ask about the van and they tell me a tale too cruel to be true. Last winter, the pair, Shaune O’Neill and Lorrie Moffitt, were moving to their new home in Anchorage when, one by one, they had three cars break down along the highway.
“I’m on the phone with U-Haul and they wanted to know our location,” Moffitt says. “I say ‘We’re in the middle of nowhere, how’s that?’ So they say, ‘Well, you should stay with your vehicle,’ and it’s gotta be minus a thousand outside and the wind’s blowing.” The Bouchards sit back, sipping coffee and chuckling at the story they’ve heard a dozen times before. The women’s first breakdown came within sight of the Rancheria Lodge here, and the Bouchards came to their rescue. “For all the bad luck, we had the best luck,” says O’Neill. “The Bouchards let us park our truck here all winter, helped us for hours and would only take $100.”
“We bought this business to service people,” Dennis says, with a shrug. “If we can’t do that, it’s going to come back to bite us in the ass.”
As I figure out pretty quickly on the Alcan, the formula for a roadhouse is simple: Set up along the highway, preferably on a deserted stretch, and let everyone know what mile marker it’s at. Before anything else, make sure you’ve got a functioning, well-stocked washroom. Next, put a few gas pumps in front and a campground behind. Employ an oil-stained local to change flat tires. Inside, open a greasy spoon with a chatty waitress offering at least one larger-than-life baked good – you’ve gotta be “world famous” for something. Give sage road advice as people pay at the till. Help distribute the local mail from the daily Greyhound bus. If you wish, offer a bed for the weary, and a bit of civilization for hitchhikers. And if you really get creative, explore a niche – perhaps trucker hats on the wall or a mini-golf course. But above all, expect the strange things that can happen along a near-endless highway through the wilderness.
Case in point is my visit to the Muncho Lake Lodge at the Alcan’s kilometre 745. Four rusty oil barrels barricade the driveway, indicating the place is closed. I would’ve driven by if I hadn’t spotted a woman rummaging through automotive equipment at the side of an open garage door. She waves me in and introduces herself as Joanne Middleton. “We’ve just come to check out our new purchase,” she says, beaming. She and her husband, Brian McDonald, are rearranging tools of all imaginable shapes and sizes. They say they’ve just taken possession of the lodge and are preparing to open it.
But they’re not newcomers here – the couple’s roots on the Alcan go deep. Both grew up in camps for the crew who built and maintained the road, and McDonald’s grandfather was one of the aboriginal guides who first lead the American army through the woods. After 30 years in Fort Nelson, Brian bought the lodge and he and Middleton “moved home,” in their words. “We aren’t here to make money,” she says.
They weren’t expecting guests, either, which is why we all turn when a man in a black sweatsuit stops his car, wanders over and rests his elbow on an old-fashioned gas pump, the rotary numbers frozen in time. “I used to be the tire man here 41 years ago,” he says, showing off a rusty smile. He says his name is Ron Lang. “The rigs used to pull in with a flat tire and head for lunch. By the time they were done eating, their truck would be ready to go. I could change a back flat in 25 minutes – fastest time on the highway!” Lang says he’s “just passing through,” and though he’s never met McDonald and Middleton, it’s just the sort of fluke encounter I’ve begun to expect along the Alcan. For all its length, the highway is like a little town, with roadhouse owners 100 kilometres apart like nextdoor neighbours.
It’s this sense of community that McDonald and Middleton are hoping to preserve. “You don’t see a lot of investment in these places,” Middleton says. “We would like to see the day when we can showcase the history of the roadhouses at our property.” They aren’t calling it a museum – they aren’t quite sure what this showcase will be. But they know whatever it looks like, it’s disappearing with each successive roadhouse closure.
Business is alive, if not well, at the Buckinghorse River Lodge – kilometer 278 – where I find myself plunked in front of a wooden table the next morning. Across the room hang a set of photographs of a cowboy who rode his horse from Alaska to Mexico. All that time on a steed makes me thankful to have found a bed last night, after chatting away most of the evening with Ron Lang and the gang at Muncho.
Breakfast here is served on a plate as big as a spare tire, and Jake Buma, two tables over, plows through it with ease. Buma is a truck driver, with a sharp trucker hat, dirty trucker boots and a big trucker appetite. He’s almost done with his meal, and he wasn’t even hungry. “You’re not ready to eat but you kind of feel obligated,” he says, washing the meal down with a cup of coffee. “You feel like you should stop and spend a couple bucks.”
“We give them every tenth meal free,” says Howard Shannon, referring to the truck drivers who are the major source of his lodge’s revenue. Back in 1999, Howard says, they had just 35 truckers who would stop regularly. Thanks to word of mouth over their shortwave radio, the number of truckers has now soared to 1,600.
“That’s a lot of cups of coffee,” he says.
We wander outside and in the cool spring air Shannon’s wife Val jumps into a story from the summer of 2004. “It was the 15th of August, I’ll never forget it,” she says. “Ten inches of snow fell that day.” It shut the highway down, and nobody left the lodge. Those who’d been caught out on the highway eventually started rolling in one by one, looking for space. “We had people sleeping in the showers,” Val recalls, shaking her head. They fed them and housed them, and when the plows came through they waved goodbye. “Sometimes we think with our hearts instead of our heads,” she finishes.
I was told there was a monument signifying the end of the highway in Dawson Creek, but the city has drifted into existence so gradually I begin to fear I’ve passed it. Then, racing through a set of lights as they turn yellow, I see the “mile zero” obelisk go whizzing by my side window. In my rearview I briefly study it: It’s tall, perhaps made of stone – and then it’s gone. I’m no longer sure where I am, but it’s certainly not the Alaska Highway. Suddenly, after three days on the Alcan, what’s outside my windows is too mundane to hold my gaze. I’m back in the real world, with four-way stops and parking lots and no lodges or animal museums or legendary cinnamon buns. I’m not quite ready for all this. I already miss the culture of the Alaska Highway – miss the fact that I’ve left it behind, and curse the fact that history itself is leaving it behind. I find myself rooting for the lodge owners who are resisting that tide. I stall the car in front of a barbershop. My journey is over, so I head inside for a haircut.