Before cellphones or GPS, cross-country trek was ‘journey into the unknown’

An Alaskan adventure
This 1982 VW camper van was our home for eight months.
This 1982 VW camper van was our home for eight months.

We were at a gas station in British Columbia, headed north to Alaska, when an old-timer strolled up to our Volkswagen camper.

“If you drive the ALCAN [Alaska-Canadian Highway], you gotta cover those headlights,” he said.

As he got into his pickup truck and sped away, we could only imagine what he said to the woman in the passenger seat: “Those young kids don’t know what they are getting into.”

In the summer of 1989, when my husband and I were in our early 30s, we drove from Buffalo to Alaska.

Looking back more than 30 years, from today’s world of cellphones, GPS and the internet, that road trip was a journey into the unknown.

All we had were a few AAA campground books, a thick stack of maps and The Milepost, the don’t-leave-home-without-it guide to gas, food, lodging and wildlife on the Alaska-Canadian Highway. Yes, we knew that seniors traveled to Alaska in RVs, but we couldn’t find anyone our age who had made the trip.

We happily took advice from the old codger in British Columbia. At a hardware store, Dan bought a pair of headlight protectors, wire cages that looked like a hockey goalie’s mask, and screwed them onto the front of the 1982 Vanagon.

Karen Bjornland story about her favorite trip to Alaska.
Photo Credit: Dan DesjardinsPHOTO PROVIDED
A summer road trip to Alaska in the 1980s was filled with rough conditions — but intrepid travelers were rewarded with up-close views of pristine beauty.

In 1989, the Alaska Highway was 1,700 miles of mostly unpaved road that snaked from British Columbia and up through the Yukon Territory before crossing the border into Alaska.

For eight days, we crunched and bumped along a two-lane ribbon of gravel and mud. With the road noise, clouds of dust, stones spitting at our vehicle, insects splatting on the windshield and stretches of teeth-clattering washboard, 200 miles was an average day. To enjoy music over the din, the volume on the cassette player was turned up high.

When the road dust was especially thick and eye-stinging, the windows were cranked shut. To stay cool (no air conditioning), we dipped cotton bandanas in water and wrapped them around our heads.

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But we were young and just married, and determined to drive to Alaska. What we didn’t know was that in less than five years, the ALCAN would change dramatically. By 1992, the last original gravel section was paved over. 

Today, as we hover near retirement, we could drive there again, as old codgers with cellphones and laptops, but it would be a nice smooth ride instead of a rough “where-the-hell-are-we” journey. A quick internet check tells me that driving to Alaska is still an adventure, as cell service is spotty and gas stations can be many miles apart. The Milepost, now 71 years old, available in print and at, is still an essential guide.

In 1989, after eight days on the ALCAN, we traveled three weeks in Alaska, exploring every paved highway south of the Arctic Circle. We exited Alaska via the Cassiar Highway, 500 miles of unpaved Canadian road with even less civilization than our route into Alaska. And yes, the Cassiar is now a paved highway.

The trip was our best summer vacation because it was our honeymoon and part of our Blue Highway Tour, an eight-month trip in which we traveled only on two-lane roads whenever we could. We bought a used van, quit our jobs and camped in more than a dozen U.S. national parks.

Karen Bjornland story about her favorite trip to Alaska.
Photo Credit: Dan DesjardinsPHOTO PROVIDED
The Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake, Yukon. A homesick soldier who was working on the Alaska Highway put up the first sign in 1942. There were about 10,000 signs when we were there — today there are about 80,000.

Trip journal

I kept a journal of our 1989 trip to Alaska. Here are excerpts from the ALCAN/Alaska/Cassiar section of our tour.

Dawson, British Columbia                                                                                               
June 20: We’re on the Alaska Highway! The scenery is slowly changing from wheat fields, silos, horses and cows. Many more trees, aspen and spruce, rolling hills. Saw a fawn in the morning, a young buck in the afternoon and then a baby bear.

Laird River, British Columbia
June 22: Saw small groups of stone sheep, goat-like creatures that nibble grass near the road. Did the highest point of the Alaska Highway, about 4,000 feet. Campgrounds with showers are sparse now. Our choices are primitive B.C. and Yukon Territory government sites for $5, which are always scenic, or private campgrounds with big RVs behind lodges and motels.


Rancheria, Yukon Territory
June 23: We’ve traveled 600 miles on the Alaska Highway, and today we really got down and dirty. A real nasty stretch. Dust and gravel the size of your fist. Picked up two German canoeists who got a flat on their way to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Only one guy could speak English so we didn’t talk much. In the evening, a boardwalk took us into deep green woods through ferns and flowers, to Laird Hot Springs. We soaked alone in a 100-degree natural pool and avoided the 120-degree pool, which was crowded with oldsters. Saw two moose on the way back.

Lake Laberge, Yukon Territory
June 24: Long hike along Lake Laberge. Rocks covered with bright orange lichen, clumps of tiny subarctic flowers and tall stalks of purple-headed chives. Free night of camping, only locals here. Huge black ravens, the official Yukon bird, cawing.

Moose Creek, Yukon Territory
June 25: So many wildflowers along the road. Fireweed, with spikes of magenta, wild roses and blue-purple lupine. The road was good, except for two stretches of mud. How could a vehicle get through that mud at night? When we went to bed at 11, the sun was just starting to go down. We are the only people at the campsite but there are lots of big jackrabbits.

Dawson City, Yukon Territory
June 26: Walked along the Klondike River, where the Keno, a sternwheeler from the 1930s, was docked. The streets in town are gravel and packed mud but have boardwalks. Saw a Haagen-Dazs shop tucked among the tin-roof wooden buildings. Gas is extremely expensive: $2.58 a Canadian liter.

Tok, Alaska
June 28: We made it! Celebrated with salmon and halibut at an outdoor fish bake. Tok is a crossroads for travelers in and out of Alaska, so everyone stops, exchanges information, cleans up and buys groceries. We chatted with all kinds of people. Everyone wants to talk about what they’ve seen and where they are going next. Caught our first glimpses of the Alaskan Range: rocky, snow-topped peaks that seem so close. The drive today was beautiful but rough, unpaved all the way, narrow and pitted. Passed through the hamlet of Chicken, where a sign said “Population: 25 nice people and one grump.”

Fairbanks, Alaska
June 29: Saw the Alaska oil pipeline. Discovered a new flower today, the bright orange and yellow arctic poppy. Camped right in the city, near the airport. $10 but we used our $50 state camping permit.
Chena River, Alaska
June 30: Mosquitoes are intolerable! We saw two more moose today, a cow and her calf.

Fox, Alaska
July 2: Hike to Granite Tors. Fifteen miles and 3,336 feet elevation gain, in spruce woods, over rocky slopes, through tundra, birch forest and bog. Took us eight hours. Saw no other hikers. The huge granite towers rise up from the tundra like a forgotten village left by ancient people. I wore a bear bell on my daypack. Took more than an hour to cross the tundra on spongy vegetation, our feet sinking into three to six inches of water with every step. When the trail faded away, we followed cairns (heaps of rocks) or sticks tied together like tepees. The next morning, we washed our hair in the small Coleman cooler. Saw a huge moose (cow, female) on the road to our campsite.

Hess Creek, Alaska
July 3: We crossed the Arctic Circle. Dan couldn’t get to sleep until 3 a.m. because there was little darkness. We are planning our gas stops because they are scarce. Another free campsite and we were alone. No picnic table, water or outhouses. Saw a “dust devil” in the road, twirled right in front of the van. Found the best pit toilet at a general store, a little log building chinked with moss. It had a needlepoint picture on the wall and a real wooden toilet seat.

Denali National Park
July 5: Camped outside the park with 50 RVs in a big dirt lot on the Tanana River. We’re sitting 15 feet from the cold, rushing water right now. Farther down the river, we saw thick blocks of ice and snow under a bridge. Ate dinner inside the van because of high winds.
July 6: Saw it for the first time! The Great One! Mount McKinley, a massive white monster.
July 7: Traveled on a school bus with a park guide for 10 hours into the home of the grizzly bear, moose, caribou, marmot and ptarmigan. For the second day, we saw McKinley, God’s massive armchair, slip-covered in white. Grizzlies, 100 to 200 feet away, had light blonde fur. Our campsite, Sanctuary River, is one of the best of the trip. Seven sites, no RVs, mostly tents. No fires, bear boxes, chemical toilets.
July 9: Hike to Cathedral Mountain with 16 people and a ranger. Saw Dall sheep, ewes and lambs, high on a ridge. We left the sun shower hanging on the van all day, and before dinner we took turns standing naked next to the van under a delicious cascade of hot water.

Wasilla, Alaska
July 10: Our campsite is incredible! A few feet from Finger Lake, silty and gray, with snow-streaked mountains in the distance. Saw Mt. McKinley for the fifth day in a row.

Clam Gulch, Alaska
July 12: The splendor of the day was Portage Glacier, 40 miles from Anchorage. We were in awe as we came upon the massive expanse of blue and white ice, which is visible right from the road.

Homer, Alaska
July 13: Magnificent views as we drove into Homer. The harbor is cold and deep blue or green, depending on the time of day, and sharp, triangular mountains rise from the water. A hippie town. Children have flowers in their hair, several natural foods stores. No mowed lawns, only wildflowers and vegetable gardens in front of homes and businesses. Pickup trucks.

Ptarmigan Creek, Alaska
July 15: Exit Glacier hike, a strenuous uphill climb on a path next to the brilliant blue edges of the glacier to the vast whiteness of an ice field. Sitting on plastic bags, we sledded on our butts over the pink algae-tinted snow. Descent through a mind-blowing field of wildflowers — fireweed and lupine, violets and daisies — and many more. Saw a black bear and a marmot.

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Anchorage, Alaska                   
July 16: Had dinner with a family that lives outside Anchorage. A friend back home gave us their address and phone number. Three boys ran up to our van, the bear bells tied to their pants jingling. We slept in the van on their gravel driveway.

Glennallen, Alaska
July 17: Today was a tough haul. The road was either under construction and ripped up or buckled from frost heave.

Skagway, Alaska
July 20: Camped in city campground. $6.25, with firewood and flush toilets.

Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory
July 22: Arctic ground squirrels! Dan had to swerve to avoid one that was standing in the middle of the road on its hind legs. At our campsite, a squirrel scampered into the van.

Boya Lake, British Columbia
July 23: On the Cassiar Highway. Canned ravioli for dinner. We really need “real food” but haven’t seen any grocery stores for two days, only gas stations with canned food and soda. At one stop, when I asked if they had milk, the clerk handed me a box of dry milk. No radio, no newspapers, no showers. 

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