Great Alaska Adventure: I Love Riding in the Mountains
Yesterday we arrived late and tired at Watson Lake, so we didn’t visit the world-famous sign post forest. This morning on the way out of town, we stopped by the greatest collection of “I was here” memorabilia in the world. No one knows for sure how many signs, license plates, road markers and other assorted markers are hanging in the forest because the number grows every day as more people leave something that marked their presence at a particular place. But some estimates go as high as 100,000. I believe it.
For those unfamiliar with the sign post forest, here’s a little background. When the U. S. Army was blazing a path through the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness to build the road on which I’m riding these days, a particularly forlorn GI Joe added a sign to a post with distance markers to various points along the under-construction highway. Only his sign was for his hometown of Danville, Illinois. Soon several other soldiers followed suit and there were dozens and then hundreds of additions. The soldier’s simple beginning is now home to as many as 100,000 signs from every state in the union and probably a hundred foreign countries. Some have a town’s name. Others have the name of the person who left the sign. Most have both.
It’s one of the most famous and visited attractions on the Alaska Highway. I didn’t leave a sign, but I may someday on a return trip. I know I was there and you know I was there, but I’m not sure I care if an untold number of strangers read my name among thousands of others. It’s a great tradition and no harm is done by adding another sign, but it seems little more than 100,000 voices crying in the wilderness.
When we left Watson Lake we were back on the highway surrounded all day by mountains. We didn’t actually ride any twisties today, but hour after blessed hour I sat back with the wind in my face (and the occasional dust cloud fathered by Chip Seal) and took in an amazing panorama of snow-covered peaks, lush green forests, rapidly-flowing crystal clear creeks and rivers, mirrored-surface lakes and a mostly blue sky that made the perfect backdrop to the ride. I have already decided I will be back. And more than once. The Alaska Highway isn’t the only road in the Great North, and I want to explore more of them. Anyone up for the ride? The ride, perhaps, of a lifetime? There’s history to be learned and explored, relics of the two-legged and mechanical kind to be encountered, and an immense wilderness teeming with living things that will make you feel small yet very connected to universe.
Daily Pie Report: I stopped for morning pie at a ramshackle roadside eatery that had been recommended by a bearded gent in another ramshackle roadside eatery, but I came up empty handed in my quest for crusted satisfaction and settled for a homemade banana nut muffin. Undaunted, I pressed on to lunch where I snagged a piece of homemade apple pie and snuck a bite or two of Marilyn’s blueberry slice. It was good, but nothing to write home about. Except that I just did.
Lunch was in Teslin, site of a 2,000 foot grated metal bridge over Teslin Lake. It’s the longest bridge on the Alaska Highway. Once Marilyn motored from the east end to the west end, she admitted it wasn’t as nerve-wracking as she had been building it up to be all morning. I missed a photo op as we went over the bridge, so I backtracked while lunch was being fixed and took a typical tourist shot of the bridge.
Teslin is also home to the Tlingit Heritage Center where we spent an hour learning about one of the First Nations group’s history over the past 200 years. The Teslin Tlingit (pronounced “Kling it”) are also known as the Inland Tlingit to distinguish them from ancestors who live in the Juneau area. Their traditional ways, like many native peoples, are being diluted, changed, or destroyed as a result of inevitable contact with outside cultures. In the Tslingits’ case those alien forces included Russian traders in the 19th century, Hudson Bay Company traders in the late 19th and early 20th century, and finally the presence of thousands of soldiers and new opportunities to make money during the building of the Alaska Highway. We spoke with an elder woman who was at the center making beautifully beaded footwear about passing on traditional arts. She said she learned from her aunt and she’s trying to teach young Tlingit girls, but they don’t have much interest in the traditional ways. Inevitable, I suppose, that native cultures are subsumed by more powerful outside forces, but it will be a shame if all the traditional ways are lost.
We finished up the ride to Whitehorse, YT, by about 5:30 and checked in to a pretty shabby Ramada Inn. This place has seen better days, but seems clean enough and had an attached tap room where I could savor the local brew: Yukon Gold, advertised as “A Beer Worth Freezing For.” Tomorrow we’re going to take a day off from riding and see what Whitehorse has to offer besides Yukon Gold.