PUBLISHED: 2:45 PM on Thursday, November 30, 2006
If You Want To Go To Anchorage in December, Fly
Exploring Alaska By Barbara Turley

Photo by Barbara Turley
  After a couple of days in a Haines motel, even getting as far as the Canadian Border seemed like a great accomplishment.
Spring, summer, or fall, the residents of Southeast Alaska definitely should make a northern road trip. Merely flying to Anchorage or Fairbanks leaves out all the rewarding scenery, wildlife and history along the way. However, as my family and I found out one December, these highways can be very hostile in the winter.

A few years ago, my husband, Kim, and I, along with our daughter, Mariann, her husband, Jarod, and their family set out for Anchorage and their new home the day after Christmas. Kim had a meeting in Anchorage to attend right after New Years, so we were going along to help transport their belongings. With our three vehicles, we felt that the trip probably would be safe enough, but that it might be an adventure. We definitely were right about that.

We needed to be in line at the ferry terminal at 5:15 a.m. Three-year-old Kylie was so excited that she didn't object at all to getting up so early. One-year-old Sabrina had no idea what was happening, but she was quiet. The four and a half hour ride to Haines was pleasant. All of the drivers were able to get some sleep to make up for our early start and the long day ahead. We expected that it would be well into the evening before we reached Beaver Creek, where we had motel reservations that night. We were approaching Haines when they announced that the Haines Highway (crossing over 3,493-foot Chilkat Pass and 3,215-foot Three Guardsmen Pass) was closed. Since Juneau's weather lately had been light rain, it had not once occurred to us that there might be any serious storms there.

Photo by Barbara Turley
  Because the icy roads demand the driver's full attention, the glorious winter scenery can go unnoticed.
There were two other parties on the ferry that had planned to drive north. As soon as we were off the ferry we called the Canadian Border and asked if they could send a snowplow across the pass with a convoy of five vehicles, which would all stay right together. They said no, they were shorthanded, conditions were terrible, and they weren't sure it would be open by the next day, either. Next, we called the border out of Skagway. The ferry hadn't left Haines yet. That road crosses 3,290-foot White Pass, the road is steeper with more hairpin turns and exposure, and there is more avalanche potential. "Closed," they told us. We all found motels.

We learned that the pass was open when we called first thing in the morning, but car trouble delayed us a bit. Never one to take much for granted, Kim phoned the border before we left Haines. The pass was closed again. All the cars they had let through that morning (I think there were four) had slid off the road. Another foot of snow was predicted for that night.

Violent wind and pouring rain buffeted the motel all night. We were correct in guessing that the precipitation was snow on the pass. When we called the border in mid-morning, we were surprised to learn that they had just opened the pass. They cautioned us that the road problems included rock fall, avalanches on the road, flooding, and snow, but that the major problem was that the solid ice road was extremely slick. While we were quickly getting our things into the cars, we noticed that Kylie was well aware of our tension about the road ahead. She was singing to herself, "Wet, wet, wet. Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous." Finally getting to the Canadian Border, only 41 miles from Haines, seemed like quite an accomplishment.

According to our original plans, we should have been apartment hunting in Anchorage by this time, but at least we were on our way.

We soon stopped on the icy road and put chains on our van and the small Festiva. We had no actual trouble, but progress was very slow. It was late afternoon and completely dark when we reached Haines Junction, only 150 miles from Haines. "Is this Anchorage?" Kylie asked. When we told her no, she innocently inquired, "Did we take a wrong turn?"

The next place where we could stay overnight, Destruction Bay, was still 70 miles away. After the high-anxiety traveling we'd had all day over the slippery road through blowing snow, past mudslides and recent avalanches, we decided to stop for the night in Haines Junction. We left there a little after 7:00 the next morning. Mariann and Jarod's van, the car that she and I and the kids were in, gave us no trouble on the whole trip. Even without chains, we'd not had a single skid on the trip over the pass. With a rear heater, the kids in the back seat were completely comfortable. The outside temperatures dropped as we continued on and the other two vehicles started having more and more problems. Now, three days into the trip, we ate lunch at Beaver Creek where we'd planned to stay the first night.

We learned that the temperature was -14?. The Festiva wasn't running well at all. While Mariann and I ordered some warm food in the restaurant, Kim and Jarod took it to a mechanic. He said that we'd already done all that could be done for it when we'd put cardboard in front of the radiator and wrapped the front end in canvas to protect it from the cold. All there was to do now was hope that it would keep running.

By the time we reached Tok, another 140 miles up the road, Kim's van was starting to have trouble. Now the temperature was -30?. It was early evening already, but we headed on another 130 miles to Glennallen in hopes of reaching Anchorage the following day.

The cars just barely started the next morning. Travel was slow for us on the slippery Glenn Highway. The road is narrow and twisty as it drops through a rugged canyon approaching the coast and somewhat warmer temperatures. It was a balmy -10? in Anchorage when we finally reached there that afternoon. The Festiva and Kim's van both recovered almost immediately. The Ford van, the women and children's vehicle, was a used car with Fairbanks experience. It was built for the north, and had no trouble at all, other than one minor skid. The roads were icy for almost the entire 800 miles.

Returning to Juneau 10 days later in our van, Kim and I used a different strategy. We left Anchorage early, drove fast (to keep the engine warm) on icy roads in temperatures down to 45? below zero, and caught the ferry out of Haines that night. By good luck, we managed to miss a moose on the road in the dark, only had one minor skid on the ice, and were in Juneau less than 24 hours after leaving Anchorage.

Our belated New Year's resolution that year was something about not driving to Anchorage in the winter. We've kept that resolution.