The Permafrost Highway

Looking down on a section of the Permafrost Highway

Somewhere north of Haines Junction, Yukon Territory and say, 30 miles south of Tok, Alaska is a stretch of the Alaska Highway (AlCan Highway) that really test one’s resolution and will  to “go north.” This 250-300 mile stretch of highway appears to suffer from the freezing and thawing related to the permafrost, and nothing suffers more than the road itself—in particular the asphalt.

Sometime after passing through Haines Junction, one gets the feeling that Canada—or at least the Yukon Territory doesn’t want the traveler to leave as the road seems to deteriorate the farther up the road you travel. I was reminded of that line from the song Hotel California, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave…”

After 75 or so miles of dodging potholes and uneven folds of asphalt, I found a campground about 50 miles before the Alaska border. I fell asleep in the back of my truck wondering if the Americans had an answer for permafrost’s unrelenting war on asphalt.

The next morning, my hope in Yankee engineering and road crews wilted—before I was even five miles past the border. As it turns out the Americans have lost the battle to permafrost as well.

It’s comical to observe the various methods (dare I say, “patchworks”) employed in attempting to alleviate the effects of permafrost—from new asphalt to chip-seal patches that probably last no longer than a week after a few heavy trucks have roll over them. Adding to the comedy are the occasional signs that warn, “ROUGH ROAD,” as if all the other road mines along the way were somehow insignificant.

Once in Alaska the speed limit increases to 65 mph compared to 80-90 kph in Canada. I want to see someone drive that part of this road at 65 with their cruise control on. In such a case, we would be talking about someone with a death wish, or at least someone who has fallen out of love with their vehicle. Very few stretches occurred where I was able to travel over 50 mph due to my truck’s stiff suspension.

Speaking of stretches, there are those places where the highway as been repaved (my guess within the last year) and like a mirage, seems like a normal two-lane highway suddenly, but in another half-mile to a mile, potholes and massive heaves reappear in the asphalt, preventing you from anything that resembles a relaxing drive—just as you start to think that maybe they’ve finally got it figured out. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a shooting arcade (or “Whac-a-Mole”) as you’re driving through a gallery of mixed asphalt obstacles that are continually popping up with little time to react.

Permafrost pothole detail

Given the shortened season for road construction up here, it seems like maintaining this highway is a lost cause. It will likely never be smoothed out completely—at least not in this particular stretch. After all, why would Alaska want to fix the remaining miles of their highway that simply and only allows people to exit to the Yukon Territory (Canada)—and the same goes with the Yukon and the remaining miles in their road leading to Alaska (U.S.)?

One has to wonder if there is any discussion about returning these roads back to dirt/gravel. In the case of permafrost, road graders would simply blade, thus re-leveling the road each spring in time for a new crop of tourists. Surely this topic gets thrown around from from time to time, but when do asphalt roads ever experience a downgrade?

In all of this grim reporting of road conditions, there is some comfort in knowing that not too far from Tok, Alaska, the permafrost is somehow subdued and the road stays smooth sailing all the way to Fairbanks (and Anchorage I’m assuming)—60 mph easy.

However, there is the return trip to keep in mind if one wishes to return to those places where home is somewhere in the latitudes of Calgary or below. For now, I have almost two months of preparation; that is, psyching myself up for the return trip down the Permafrost Highway .