Day 11: A “Mile 0” Interlude
When I plot routes for various adventures, I usually include a non-riding day every 6 or 7 days for such things as sight seeing, laundry, resting, and just taking deep breaths. Today in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, was such a day. There’s much to see when riding (mountains and grizzlies come to mind), but there’s a multitude of sights to be enjoyed and things to learn when the wheels stop spinning for 24 hours.
After taking care of various domestic chores this morning, we rode two miles into downtown Dawson Creek. For those who may not know, in March 1942 Army engineers designated Dawson Creek as Mile Point 0 as they began the daunting task of building a road through the wilderness to Fairbanks, Alaska, in response to the urgency of World War II and the fear of a Japanese attack on North America. Eight months later, they had completed the 1500+ mile road that skeptics said couldn’t be built in any amount of time. More than 30,000 military and civilian construction laborers, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, and the vast army of logistical support workers needed to feed and supply them worked in some of the most unimaginably dangerous conditions outside of combat that the war would produce. Landslides, explosions, drowning, freezing and various illnesses took their toll on the heroes who built the road that Mark I and will have the pleasure to travel on for the next five days as this Adventure continues.
Much of the original road is gone, as later generations of engineers and road builders straightened, flattened and paved the original dirt and gravel road that connected Alaska to the lower 48 states (via Canada of course) in 1942. In fact, the road is about 200 miles shorter today than when first completed. But many parts of the original road still remain, and as I motor along, I’ll say a distant but heartfelt thanks to the courageous and dedicated men and women who cut, blasted and bulldozed their way through the wilderness and opened a vast and beautiful territory to tourists, entrepreneurs and, of course, adventurers.
At the Visitor’s Center in the old railroad depot, museum exhibits not only focus on the Alaska Highway (sometimes but incorrectly called the AlCan Highway) but on early life in Dawson Creek and Northern British Columbia. Relying on material donations from Historical Society members and others willing to part with family memorabilia, the museum reflects the importance of the land and its animal inhabitants. Hundreds of taxidermically preserved furry, feathered and scaly critters line the walls of the small museum, along with collections of children’s toys, telephones, kitchen gadgets, medical equipment, parlor pieces, homespun and handmade household goods and–well–you name it. In its totality, it tells the story of the people who lived and died, worked and worshipped, and suffered and succeeded in a harsh country.
Additionally, a block away, the Chamber of Commerce has created a mini-museum they hope to expand to a larger presence focussing exclusively on the building of the Alaska Highway. Although it only takes half an hour to go through this small collection of artifacts and photographs, it is professionally done and does an excellent job of describing the trial and tribulations involved in building this incredible road. I hope they succeed in their quest to create a more extensive museum to tell this inspiring story that unfolded during World War II.
One other visit today worth noting was to the local art gallery which is housed in a converted grain elevator. Beautifully restored and repurposed, the gallery has three floors of locally produced art, as well as an art studio on the top floor where today young artists were experiencing the childhood joy of finger painting. It’s a great facility and although all the art was not to my taste, much of it was of professional quality. Entry was free but they provide a donation box and as I dropped my offering, I thought about how important institutions like this one are to the identity of small communities everywhere.
Winters are brutal in this country, but the short summers, filled with 20 hours or more of daylight, are wonderful. I noticed lush fields and deep hay meadows on the ride here, and today, as I looked at the abundance of prismatic flora planted everywhere, I realized what a green thumb and lots and lots of sunlight can produce, even if it’s only temporary. I guess if you live in a cold and stark winter environment for nine months of the year you create as much beauty as you can during the other three.
I saw a sign on a restaurant that offered fresh blueberry pie with a burger entree, so we went in. It was unlike any blueberry pie I’ve had before, but the blueberries were absolutely the freshest, sweetest I’ve ever had. What a treat.
Tomorrow we’re back on the road, enjoying the improbable result of the Herculean labors of soldiers 75 years ago.