In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark departed from St. Charles, Missouri, for a two-year exploration of America, inaugurating a grand American tradition that has persisted to this day — the road trip. Maybe it’s due to my airline pilot lifestyle, but I have never been a fan of travel for travel’s sake. I stand in stark contrast to my father, who was born with an adventurer’s heart and has been to many a remote locale in his years on this planet.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, his wandering took him on flights of exploration through Canada to Alaska no less than five times, lifted on the wings of his Cessna 182. We’ll call this his Alaska period. I can recall, as a teenager, accompanying Dad and my ever-suffering mother on two of these flights of fancy before adolescent hormones dictated that they continue on alone. As the intervening decades have slipped by, however, I have often thought of those flights as the epitome of aeronautical adventure. Recently, a growing urge began manifesting itself in my sedentary middle-age soul, slowly forming into a yearning to maybe try it for myself.
A flight to Alaska will take you just about as far away from wherever you might call home as you might want to travel while still keeping you within the confines of North America. A quick check online showed more than 2,300 miles of farm fields, trees and mountains between my home in Wisconsin and Fairbanks, a daunting distance. Still, though, as I turned the idea over in my mind, I slowly warmed to the notion that maybe my dad and I could make that trip one more time. I thought about that for a couple of years before mentioning it to Dad, who, while long in years, still has the heart of a 20-year-old. Ultimately, just last year the idea matured into decision, driven by the basic fact that, at the ages of 51 and 82, there clearly is no time like the present.
Flying to Alaska is not something you embark on one afternoon like a $100 hamburger flight. Flying to Alaska requires planning, lots of planning. Most importantly we had to determine a route. There are three established aerial tracks one might use to venture to Alaska from the lower 48.
The first entails a flight up the beautiful Canadian coastline and the Inside Passage. It is the most direct track for those on the West Coast and, most importantly, those not afraid of flying over frigid water. For me, though, the thought of flying over a thousand miles of sea and desolate shoreline was a big turnoff. In the Piper Arrow rental, we would have no rafts or even life preservers. In such cases I deviate around large lakes.
Westerners will find the “Trench” route through British Columbia more direct, but it necessitates an imposing 300-mile stretch of flight over wilderness with no comforting alternatives for a landing in the event of an engine failure. The experience of one off-airport landing in my life was enough for me to look elsewhere.
That left only the third possibility. From our starting place in Wisconsin, the most convenient and the least challenging route was to follow the Alaska Highway over Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon to the 49th state. This path was built during World War II to transport troops and materials to Alaska and has acted as a lifeline connecting communities along its course ever since.
And so it began very early one morning late in June. Dad and I hoped to make Edmonton, Alberta, by nightfall but would settle for setting foot on Canadian soil. The Arrow was laden down with supplies, suitcases, extra oil, tiedown ropes (don’t expect to find them in Canada) and maps. Lots of maps. Dad brought his entire collection from 35 years ago to augment my own.