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Driving with My Dog to Alaska: Leaving Canada, Arriving in Alaska

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By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted October 7, 2012

Five years ago my dog, Beau, and I drove from our home in upstate New York to Alaska and back. The first ten  installments can be found by clicking the "Traveling with Beau" link on the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page. In the last blog, Beau and I were in Whitehorse.  

We encountered breathtaking scenery west from Whitehorse. The Kluane National Park and Reserve of Canada is home to some of the most majestic mountains in North America. Tucked far off the highway and well beyond our sight is Canada's highest peak, Mount Logan. Only a few hundred meters less than Mount McKinley, this and other mountains in the area are reported very challenging to climb. 

For Beau and me this day, the visible part of the range, buffered by a broad expanse of conifers, lakes and wide expanses of marsh lands gave unforgettable vistas rich in the expectation of fall colors. 

The Mountains and wetlands of Kluane National Park west of Whitehorse,
home to Canada's tallest peak, Mount Logan.

Unfortunately, Beau was having a bad day, his second of the trip. The inciting cause during our trip through North Dakota had been the smoke of wildfires. Here in the Yukon, it was the rough road. 
Many parts of the Alaska Highway are smooth and you can comfortably travel 60 miles per hour or more. However, long stretches of highway, especially in the most westerly parts of the Yukon, are poorly maintained, and the constant freeze-thaw cycles cause huge chunks of asphalt to break free, and later to be broken asunder and cast onto the shoulders by the battering of giant trucks. One driver pounding through at a teeth-chattering rate told me this was his 70th trip from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. "It's so much easier to drive fast in the winter," he said, "because the ice and snow fill in the pot holes and make the road much smoother." All I could think about was swirling snow causing reduced visibility and slippery roads.
Beau was beside himself, unable to relax. He circled in his seat, looking anxiously at me, sighing, then crumbling in a ball. He shivered uncontrollable, his long hair shaking like a mass of rust-colored fall leaves in a heavy breeze. When we stopped, which seemed like every 10-15 minutes, he would leap from the jeep and tug against his leash pulling me away from the road. He refused water and at one point, even chicken. When it was time to move on, he would be unwilling to jump into the jeep and I would have to lift him shaking back into the seat beside me.
I tried everything: I cradled his neck in my hand as we drove; I put him in the back seat braced by extra cushions. I talked to him, sang to him, told him stories, recited poetry. He just shook and looked miserable. Unlike a week earlier in the midwest, turning back home was not an option, so we slugged onward, mile after slow mile. Early in the afternoon, and by now way behind the schedule I had planned for the day, we took an extended break and Beau slept for over an hour in a soft clump of grass far from the highway. I curled up beside but didn't sleep.  
Shortly after we got back on the road, the broad expanse of Kluane Lake came into view. My Dad has often told me about this lake and the adjacent mountains by the same name. In 1979, when a $2.00 Canadian postage stamps featuring Kluane National Park was published, he sent me a first-day cover with a note inside saying that he had always dreamed of seeing this park. Like the evening four days earlier when we had slept in the field of birds-foot trefoil, seeing this lake had a special meaning for me and for my memory of my father.
Beau cavorting on the shore of Kluane LakeAt the first convenient spot, we left the highway and drove to the water's edge. I unfastened Beau from his leash and he charged down to the lake, ebullient. For the next thirty minutes, we cavorted on the shore of the magnificent Kluane. Beau raced up and down the shoreline, whipping past me, then circled and raced back. Up and back he ran; I ran with him until I was exhausted, but he kept going. Two hundred yards away, we could hear the occasional plaintive call of a truck horn, but mostly it was just the intermittent splash of the water on the shore and Beau's deep panting. I had my boy back, and he was perfectly happy. 

I lay down on the damp shore, just as the pebbles met the sand, and gazed out at the ripples on the lake. A loon landed far away and bounced along on the surface where it dipped below my line of sight then reappeared like a mirage on a desert. Beau wandered among some thorny bushes nearby, occasionally snapping at a fly or twig that ensnared his foot. I rolled onto my back with my head on the uncomfortably damp surface, thinking how very peaceful was this place. Somewhere later, I felt Beau's soft tongue on my lips and awoke with a shutter. 

Beau was a mess of tangles and burrs. His feet were wet and dirty. I spread out a blanket for him over the passenger seat and he spent the remainder of the day cleaning himself. Though the road was every bit as rough, and the potholes as deep and numerous, gone were the episodic fits of trembling and anxiety. He became obsessed with grooming and barely looked out the window until we reached the hamlet of Beaver Creek, the most westerly community in Canada. 
Beau and host, Kim,
at the welcome center in Beaver Creek,
Canada's most westerly community.
There, at historic mile marker 1202 (the mileage of the original route from Dawson Creek, British Columbia), we stopped at the cozy tourist center. An expectant young woman named Kim entertained Beau, feeding him cheese curds while she proudly explained to me her mixed racial heritage and showed me a photograph of the young First Nation girl for whom she is the god mother. She told me about her grandmother and other First Nation ancestors and how they taught her how to make authentic Inuit mukluk boots, the kind that look so warm and so natural.

It struck me yet again what fine people there are in the Yukon. Free, confident, proud, beautiful people who see thousands pass by on the Alaska Highway day after day, yet they retain their center, their culture, and their sense of purpose. And I wondered what the winters were like.

Forty-five minutes later, after traversing some of the most moth-eaten road I've ever driven upon, we pulled up to the quaint U.S. border crossing. A young agent looked at my passport. He checked his computer and conversed with a more senior colleague also crammed in the little cubicle. Ever so nicely, he asked for my driver's license. More conversation, more checking the computer. Then, in a most pleasant voice, he said something to the effect that I was probably okay, and he welcomed us back home. "Home", I thought, "but isn't Canada home!". I had lived in the U.S. for 30 years and still had conflicting emotions. 

A pair of Trumpeter swans just a few miles west of  the Canada-Alaska border.
The same pair (or a pair that looked the same) was in the identical site
when we returned two weeks later.

An hour later, we pulled into Tok. It was well after eight, and dusk had fallen. We found an outdoor BBQ serving salmon and ribs. Beau sat on one side of a bench and I on the other. It was to be our last night on the road and I got emotional. It was a strange feeling to be out here in the eastern Alaska, having crossed most of North America with my dog. 
Tomorrow we would be checking into the Hilton in Anchorage.
Dr. Smith invites comments at dfs6@cornell.edu

View original article: http://veterinarylegacy.blogspot.com/2012/10/driving-with-my-dog-to-alaska-leaving.html
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