Lessons Learned Winter-Roadtripping to and from Alaska


Over the last four consecutive winters, my friend, Ashley, and I have taken turns either moving to or from Alaska.  Every year whoever was moving somehow convinced the other to drop everything and accompany the 4,000+ mile road/ferry trip to/from the frozen north in the coldest, darkest depths of winter.

This year, in January 2017, I picked Ash up in our hometown in western PA in my “new” 2008 Chevy Equinox, hot off the used-car market.  After a little winterizing (installing bloc, oil pan, and battery heaters, balancing fluids for down to -60*F, and buying some spanking new Blizzak tires) we drove nearly 3,000 miles to Bellingham, WA to get on the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) M/V Kennicott to Juneau, AK.  After four days in Juneau, we drove aboard the M/V Aurora for Haines, AK.  From Haines, we drove the last 700 miles (across Alaska, British Colombia, Yukon Territory, and back into Alaska) to our final destination in Fairbanks.  

Every year has been different.  Every route a little varied.  We’ve been blessed with some of the best company for different legs of the journey from year to year.  And each trip seems to outdo the last. 

Wendy, Madi, Ashley on our first winter ferry trip.  December 2013.

Ash, Madi, and Chels heading for the ferry terminal in January 2017.

Every year when people hear about what we are doing, we get the same reaction: concern.  “Why would you DO that?”  “In the WINTER?”  “Do you gals know what you’re IN for??”  Beneath empty bags of popcorn, in a pile of sleeping bags and chocolate wrappers, unable to reach anything in the backseat, maybe we don’t look like professionals.  But after all, we do know a thing or two about what it’s like to drive and ferry to and from Alaska in the icy heart of winter, and laugh – most of the way.

So, feeling like salty dogs on the last day of our most recent voyage, we began compiling a list of some of our favorite lessons learned along the way – on the Alaska Highway and the Alaska Marine Highway – over the last four years, while the the world was frozen.  

If by land:  The Alaska Highway

  •  When you run out bathrooms, use the outhouses. When you run out of outhouses, don't bother pulling off the road.  In the rare event that another vehicle passes by, be sure to make direct eye contact, smile, and wave. 
  • When your car starts making strange noises in the Yukon, turn up the music. (What other option do you have?)
  • Drive it ‘til it dies.

After getting towed to the finish line in 2013.  RIP, Beast.

  • When it dies, accept rides from strangers, only if their car has at least as many miles on it as your dead car, and only under the condition that you can DJ the rest of the trip.
  • Be sure to eat three square meals a day on the road: popcorn and chocolate for breakfast; chips and chocolate for lunch; chips, salsa, and chocolate for dinner. 
  • If border patrol forgets to ask if you have fruit in the car, start peeling that orange as you roll up the window and wave goodbye.  (Oops!)

Snacking frosted donuts at Canada border patrol

  • Things to do in Regina, AB: ask all locals how to pronounce Regina, AB.  

Sunrise near Fort Nelson, BC

  • Things to do in Beaverlodge, BC: pet the world’s largest beaver.
  • Things to do in Watson Lake, YT:  Sign post forest.  You will get lost.  But you might also get found.

My people have been here.  Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, YT.

World’s largest beav.  Beaverlodge, BC.

Frozen shores of Lake Kluane, YT

  • Things to do in Toad River, BC: drink homemade wine with Canadians. Listen to fiddle music and light Roman candles.  
  • Things to talk about in Toad River, BC: dogs.
  • Things to do in Whitehorse, YT: recite Robert Service poetry along the mighty Yukon River on a cold, foreboding night.
  • Things to do in Kluane Lake, YT: behold one of the coolest lakes you’ll ever see.  And keep your eyes open for Dall Sheep on the road and mountain sides!
  • Things to do in Destruction Bay, YT: learn about the flag of the Yukon.  Watch for the cop.  And eat poutine (you’ll be thankful for something that sticks to your bones).

Near Destruction Bay, YT

  • Things to do in Haines Junction, YT: get gas. 

Between Haines, AK and Haines Junction, YT.

  • Things to do in Tok, AK: fuel for the homestretch with hot chocolate at Fast Eddie’s.
  • Things to do everywhere: watch the skies for the aurora!

Photo credit: Ross Dorendorf

  • Food to eat in Canada:  more Timmy Ho’s, please.  
  • Hotels to stop at along the way: don't be a bitch. Sleep in the car.  The more upright the better.

The more upright, the better.

Or on the ground.  The more dogs and down the better.

  • If you can find what you're looking for in the back seat, something went wrong with your packing methods. (Keep only passports accessible.)

In case you need to be told, next time, don’t bring the complete set of summer tires on rims.  You could have so much more room for activities!

  • If you have a dog, let him chase the car down dirt (or ice) roads in every province or state.
  • Every trip needs a mascot.

Boozer.  Somewhere in northwestern AB

  • Try to resist petting the porcupines.  

So cuddly

  • Skinny dip at Liard Hot Springs. Preferably on New Year's Day under a full moon.

Liard Hot Springs, BC.  Air temperature around minus 20*F.  Water temperature = perfection.

Frozen sunrise.  Northern BC.

  • Invite everyone you meet or stay with to join your roadtrip. Especially if you don't have room.  It’ll work itself out.
  • When they tell you to watch out for bison on the road, take them seriously.  Whoever they are.

Plentiful roadside bison.  Northern BC.

  • Karaoke in at least one random town along the way.  Preferably kamikaze style. 
  • If someone you never met offers you a place to stay, accept it. Especially if her name is an animal from a Disney movie. 
  • ADVISORY: Time zones change as you drive. 
  • How to plan around weather: Be ready for everything.  Then, deal with it. 

Sign in Fairbanks the day after completing our most recent trip.

  • What clothes to pack: It doesn't matter, you'll never change.  And you'll never be able to find anything even if you wanted to. I swore I packed 2 pairs of underwear….

If by sea:  The Alaska Marine Highway

Boarding the M/V Kennicott at the Alaska Marine Highway System terminal in Bellingham, WA.  Photo credit: Chelsey Harshell

  • How to afford the ferry: go in the winter, bring all your own food and libations, and sleep on the floor (or on a plastic recliner in the Solarium).
  • How to make friends on the ferry: ask if people want to play Settlers of Catan. 
  • How to make enemies on the ferry: play Settlers of Catan.
  • When Catan goes sour, play spoons. Elbow pads, kneepads, and helmets recommended. 
  • If spoons get old, play knives.

Get real.  Photo credit: Gabe Donohoe

David and Chels, departing Ketchikan, AK on a gorgeous day

  • If a group of Army dudes threaten to beat you at spoons, threaten to poop in their car. Side note: be ready to poop at all car deck calls, just in case.
  • Attend all car deck calls even if you haven’t lost at spoons, and even if there's no more chocolate or wine left to grab. Pet ALL the dogs.
  • Farkle. All night long. At least one night on the ferry. 
  • Develop a signature dance move that can shamelessly be used to diffuse any tense situation on the ferry, between strangers, or for the rest of your life.

Totem Pole Park, Ketchikan

  • If you don't have your own room on the ferry, start doing crossfit or practicing your signature dance move in the aft lounge. You’ll soon have the biggest room on the ship to yourself.
  • If he has a stringed instrument, make him your friend.
  • How to stay physically active for days on the boat: take advantage of rough seas announcements to walk laps around the deck. High winds and bare feet will enhance this experience. 
  • If a stranger offers to share a block of chocolate, don't think twice, it's alright.
  • Ways to be an asshole on the ferry: 1) burn a bag of popcorn in the cafeteria 2) monopolize the microwave by heating up 8 consecutive bowls of soup.
  • Things to do in Ketchikan: run the boardwalk, venture through Totem Pole Park, hike through a snowy rain forest before sunrise, skip stones and hunt for sea glass on Coast Guard Beach.

Coast Guard Beach, Ketchikan, AK

  • Things to do in Wrangell: find the closest bar, then sprint! (Neighbors from the ferry invited.)

Wrangell, AK

  • Things to do in Sitka: run 6 miles from the ferry terminal to town only to find that the brewery is 5 miles further out of town. Then take a cab. 

Brews of Baranof Island.

  • Things to do in Juneau: find a stranger to take you in, along with all the bums you picked up along the way. Slide two miles across a frozen lake to be swallowed into the belly of the Mendenhall Glacier. Rope swing through a forest at night, high above the city lights, mountains, and sea. Hike 5 miles through a snow-covered mossy rainforest to Herbert Glacier. Spend a night listening to Mudroom tales in an old downtown church. Remember your new friend with the stringed instrument? Have him play for you on stage at the Alaskan Hotel on a Monday night, and paint the town red.

Juneau nightlife.  Photo credit: Ashley Harshell

Gabe and Ash in the belly of the Mendenhall Glacier

  • Things to do in Petersburg: stay on the ferry. 
  • Things to do in Haines: start counting eagles.

Roadside bald eagles can be thick as Christmas ornaments in the trees along the Chilkat River near Haines, AK.

Wrangell, AK

  • In every town possible, drive, run, hitchhike, or cab it to the very end of the road.
  • Things to do at the end of every road: dance on the beach.
Photo credit: Ashley Harshell

Photo credit: Ashley Harshell

  • Read The Strangest Story Every Told (by Harry D. Colp) as you head north from Petersburg past Thomas Bay.  Then watch your back.
  • And watch out for whale tales!
  • Sing the shit out of some Stan Rogers as you drive off the ferry.

Reading the Strangest Story Ever Told with our Juneau roommate on a stormy winter day.


By land and sea:

After several weeks living in a car, sleeping upright or on dirty carpet-less floors, subsisting on popcorn and chocolate, we passed the final intersection before Fairbanks – the last chance to continue the journey instead of reaching our destination to declare the adventure on pause (until next year).  We would have been just as happy to turn the car around, and do the whole trip again in reverse.  Perhaps indefinitely.  This inspired our final lesson learned, cliché as you please.  It really isn’t about the destination.  That word must be just an excuse for the adventure.  What will our excuse be to do it again next winter?