Photo: Jeff RowsamSummer 2012 (V6I2)
II by Erin Linn McMullan II
To the tough men who built it, the highway is known simply as The Road,” wrote Don Menzies, in his book The Alaska Highway: A Saga of the North
, published in 1943.
More remarkable than punching 2,690 kilometres of road through bush and permafrost in just eight short months was the goodwill between Canada and the U.S., working together as neighbours and suspending for a time the notion of borders.
Bill Kreider was 21 years old and newly discharged from overseas duty when he first travelled the Alaska Highway, in the summer of 1949. “The Road” was so new that the only map he could find was from Shell Oil. Kreider describes it as washboard gravel from Dawson Creek north, with tire casings by the thousands thrown beside the road all the way out to the treeline.
“I remembered then that in Dawson City they said to put five extra pounds in your tires. I only had one flat tire on the whole trip.” In those long, station-less kilometres outside Whitehorse, Kreider also ran out of fuel, but was rescued by a young man in a Canadian army vehicle who offered to fetch him gas.
This summer, Kreider, now 84 and a retired L.A. motorcycle police officer, will mount his 1942 army- model Harley Davidson and join what’s been called “the Super Bowl of military convoys,” starting up the highway on Aug. 4. Together with 96 other vintage vehicles--some shipped from as far away as New Zealand and Belgium--Kreider and his family will join 250 enthusiasts from around the world in commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the Alaska Highway.
The convoy’s second-in-command, Jeff Rowsam, 55, will drive his lovingly-restored 1941 canvas-topped Dodge half-ton--the same make and model as the first truck photographed leaving Mile 0 at Dawson Creek, B.C., during road building. That original half-ton, driven by the road crew’s Corporal Ottawa Gronke and Private Robert Bowe, would be the first to travel the entire length of the highway. Leaving Sept. 22, 1942, they drove the first stretch--over 1,658 kilometres to Whitehorse--in 71 hours. Then on Nov. 20, after the red, white, and blue ribbon was cut at Soldier’s Summit to officially open the highway, the two continued on to Fairbanks, Alaska, arriving roughly 32 hours later.
Rowsam, a retired Caterpillar sales engineer living in Wisconsin, was part of a reconnaissance crew who visited last year to plot out this 27-day return trip for the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA).
Moving slowly across the landscape, the fleet of vehicles will be several kilometres long, rumbling like thunder and emanating the scent of motor oil, baking canvas, and palpable excitement. Travelling at around 40 km/hour, the procession of vehicles will raise a cloud of dust, just like in old photographs, points out convoy commander Terry Shelswell, who will lead in his 1952 Willys Jeep updated with modern turn signals.
The 53-year-old Canadian-born engineer has been involved in planning the logistics required to mobilize the fleet and explains he was inspired by his trip twenty years ago as part of a smaller convoy--only 45 cars--celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the highway.
Kreider’s first trip during the summer of 1949 took him about a month, and, as young as he was, it was physically demanding. But he remembers how tickled he was to see the tiny Richardson’s ground squirrels popping their heads up and whistling at him as he rode his Harley up the highway and the mirage of a moving road ahead as it flooded with baby ptarmigan.
Rowsam points out there is often a personal connection that influences collecting these
touchstones--whether it’s reliving a certain era or growing up as he had around military vehicles, with his dad in the service.
His dad’s stories led to a lifelong fascination with transportation machinery, including the bulldozers used to build the Alaska Highway. The Caterpillar D4s and D8s worked through adverse conditions to clear trees and brush, reshaping hillsides and climbing steep grades, often slipping backwards. In summer, the heat of the bulldozers’ engines sunk them in thawing permafrost; all their mechanisms froze in winter, even when left running.
During construction of the highway, military work crews were spread out into different encampments, working towards each other from opposite directions: north from Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson; south from Carcross and Big Delta, Alaska; north and south from Whitehorse.
Working under wartime secrecy and intense pressure, crews often had little knowledge of the larger plan. News of their progress in the Whitehorse Star was confined to accounts of their arrival, calls for more civilian crew, and a short-lived column about camp life until the highway’s official opening.
Post-war, the new northern supply route would offer increased opportunities for business, industry, and tourism. Previously, freight and passengers travelled by ship up the Inside Passage to Skagway and inland by rail; only a fortunate few could afford to fly. Reaching the communities had once taken days, traversing muddy pioneer roads. Now it could be accomplished in hours.
For Kreider, the Alaska Highway will always remain an adventure. In 1949, Fairbanks locals asked him if he would continue with his motorbike up to the Arctic Circle, but after one look at that dirt road, he turned around. Heading south back down the highway, he missed the rain, but not its after-effects, as he followed big tractors and road graders through debris where “the whole mountain came down” in a mudslide.
“One time I was going too fast and went over a hump in the road. There was a lake on the other side. When I hit the water, I couldn’t see for the steam and thought I was going to drown, but the bike and I made it through. I was lucky it didn’t rain between Dawson and Edmonton on that dirt road,” Kreider remembers. “I was very impressed with the people in your great country of Canada who couldn’t believe what they saw in me and encouraged me along the way.”
This August, for the anniversary journey, Kreider will use his vintage bike to pass specific messages from the commander down the length of the convoy and assist in blocking traffic as they pass through communities.
Shelswell says the group will attempt to stop in small towns for quick morning and afternoon breaks, offering an impromptu car show and a chance to hear and share stories. “We'd be more than happy to meet veterans,” he says, as well as those who drove rugged all-wheel-drive vehicles in later service for mining, logging, and farming operations.
Planned stops include a full day at the Yukon Transportation Museum, in Whitehorse, on Aug. 25, and a half-day at the George Johnston Museum, in Teslin, on Aug. 26. All are invited to come out and meet the convoy and watch vehicle maintenance in action.
“This is a really great opportunity for the Yukon Transportation Museum to work within an anniversary and illustrate the living history,” says Janna Swales, director of collections and research for the museum.
And for those in the convoy, it’s simply the trip of a lifetime. Y