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2019 - Trip Report - Driving to Alaska 1947

Driving to Alaska–1947–

By Marian Johns

I inherited my wanderlust from my parents – especially my mother who was game for any travel adventure. The first trip I remember taking with my parents was in 1947. My dad, Paul Gaskill, was intrigued with the highway to Alaska that had been built in response to the threat of Japanese attack.

On March 8, 1942, three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Army’s Corp of Engineers began construction on the Alcan (Alaska-Canadian) Highway. It was officially finished less than 8 months later on October 28, 1942. “Finished” is a loose term because the highway was in constant need of repair, maintenance and improvement. This was a military road and it wasn’t until after the war that it began to be used by the general public.

So, in the summer of 1947 my father’s dream of driving to Alaska became a reality. I know my mother was a very willing participant because she loved to travel and had actually been to Alaska once before when she and several of her fellow teacher friends took the Steamship Princess Louise on a cruise there in 1934. At that time the Alcan Highway was not paved.

In preparation for our trip, my dad first built a small, open trailer to haul our camping gear. But in the end I guess he figured towing a trailer might be more trouble that it was worth, so instead he built a box that was strapped to the roof of our car which was a 1939 Chevy. My parents bought that car in Michigan on their honeymoon in 1939.

Since my dad was a dairy farmer, he wasn’t able to take long vacations, seeing as how the cows had to be milked twice a day. But for this trip he was able to hire a neighboring farmer to take over for the five and a half weeks we were gone. There were five of us, me, my brother, Bill, who was only three years old, my mother, Jo (Josephine), my dad and my Grandma Gaskill, age 75.

We lived near Bellingham, Washington which is only about 12 miles south of the Canadian border, so it didn’t take us long to cross the border and begin the Canadian portion of our trip. First we followed the Fraser River north. I remember seeing Indian-filleted salmon drying on racks along the river.

At some point we turned east and drove through Banff National Park (but didn’t stop) on our way to Calgary. From there we continued on to Edmonton, Grand Prairie, Dawson Creek, the Yukon, Whitehorse and finally the Alaskan border.

We reached Fairbanks on my seventh birthday. I was given a pair of beaded Indian moccasins and a store-bought birthday cake. I wore those moccasins until I eventually wore a hole in them, but I have kept them anyway since they are the only souvenir I have of that trip.

I have vague memories of the midnight sun and someone’s kennel of sled dogs. I was a fan of the Sergeant Preston radio show (the Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman and his husky, King). I’m sure that’s why I have always been partial to huskies and why we have Siberian huskies even now.

From Fairbanks we continued on to Anchorage. Somewhere south of Anchorage, we were detained for four days because the road ahead was washed out. During this time, we and a couple of other stranded families camped in the barracks of an abandoned Army camp. I remember playing with the other kids while our fathers went fishing. One day they caught a total of 77 grayling, a tasty, trout-size fish. While the men were fishing, my mother and the other wives gathered wild rasp.berries and made raspberry jam.

We stayed in old Army barracks quite a few times. I can remember trying to plug up holes in the walls and under the wooden floors to keep the mosquitoes out. We even pitched the tent inside the barracks trying to escape the mosquitoes. They were so bad, Grandma, a

prim and proper lady, who normally only wore dresses, was forced to don long pants to protect her legs. One night, closer to home we camped in an abandoned house, but usually we just camped where night fall caught us and pitched our tent.

After our four-day delay, we continued south to Haines where I remember seeing a movie theater that was showing some movie about a horse that had been playing in Bellingham before we left home. Funny how we remember trivial things like that.

My folks took photos during the trip, but the camera had a light leak so even the best ones have white splotches. They also kept a diary. It’s interesting to compare their perspectives and observations. My dad, being a farmer, talks about crops he saw along the way and other farming and dairy issues, while my mother recorded pretty flowers and beautiful scenery.

In the diary, my mother talks about places where the road made what seemed to be unnecessary jogs. During construction, permafrost caused the civil engineers endless headaches. If patches of this permanently frozen subterranean ground thawed, they became bogs and the road was forced to detour around them. She mentions half buried bulldozers along the road where they had gotten so mired they couldn’t be extricated and had to be abandoned.

Somewhere we passed General Eisenhower, who happened to be traveling on our road going the other way, but I don’t actually remember this; I just remember my mother mentioning it. I do remember going to some hot springs (Laird River Hot Springs, I think) and taking a swim – it was more like a bath really.

On the way home we drove through Jasper and Banff National Parks. I remember stopping to see the Athabaska Glacier and Lake Louise. We crossed back into the USA in eastern Washington and stopped at Grand Coulee Dam. I only remember the dam, but according 

to the diary, we visited Waterville, my dad’s hometown and saw some of his friends in that area.

Soon after we got home, my mother was diagnosed with TB and she had to spend the next two years in a TB sanitarium in Seattle. Being a farmer’s wife was hard work so in 1950 when she was well enough, we moved to Los Angeles for her health.

Then in 1958, my mother decided it was time for another trip adventure, so just after I graduated from high school we drove through Mexico and Central America to Costa Rica – but that’s another story. ~ Marian