Sunday, May 29, 2011

Finding the Original Alaska Highway

 We do it.

We touch Mile Zero on the famous Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, BC, and head northwest to Alaska.

The highway's famous because it's a Baby Boomer, a classic, an original. Born out of need in World War II. The U.S. needed to defend Alaska in case the Japanese attacked it, too. But how? There's no way from here to there unless you fly. 

Or take a boat.

So,in '42,  thousands of  U.S. and Canadian military and civilians built this road, down from Alaska and up from Dawson Creek, BC.

So this highway is historic. Famous.  Classic. An original. And one of the greatest engineering feats of the last century.

But here at the start, it's hard to tell where it really begins. The city maintains five starting places. So take your pick: A monument in the shopping district, another in a traffic circle. Still there are three more at the side of a big parking lot.

I can't tell which one is the classic start, the original start, so we just pick one, take pictures. And go.

About 18 miles into our historic journey, we discover a fraud. A big betrayal. This isn't the original Alaska Highway. Oh, it does the same thing, gets from here to there, but the years have straightened and widened it and in places moved it so the big rigs, carrying oil, lumber and even food, can pass through more quickly.

The surface we traverse is younger than I am.

We discover this remodeling of history because at Mile 18 we see a sign leading us to the OLD Alaska Highway, to a spectacular curved wooden bridge built in '42 and still in use. It's a classic. An original.  190 feet of it. A sign says it took nine months to build this bridge. It was the first of its kind in Alaska and the last one still in use. But not as part of the highway anymore.  Instead, it's inside a provincial park. For tourists to use.

So we use it, and enjoy the view of the massive ravine is scales.

The awesomeness of this historic bridge -- and my need to absorb more -- leads us to where we are today. At the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum  in Fort Nelson, BC, about 250 miles away from that bridge. We find something original, something classic. A museum about Fort Nelson and its past, told through  display cases of mostly just stuff from the '30s and '40s. And mounted game.  A white moose. Caribou and stone sheep. Even fish.

And then there's a video about the building of the Alaska Highway, some fabulous pictures documenting the travails, and cars, trucks and big machines outside, all used in building the highway.

But the best, was  Marl Brown, who was 10  when the highway was built. He started this museum and caretakes all that's in it, including a car barn with fully operational antiques,  a Packard, a Studebacker  and a 1924 Model T he bought in 1950 for $100.

He's 79 and looks comic-book silly with his unkept white beard and hair. The twinkle in his eyes indicates he intends to create all this silliness. To entertain. To educate.  And I love it. Because he' a classic. An original. And I found him along the Alaska Highway.

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