Alaska Highway

views updated

Alaska Highway

The Alaska Highway, sometimes referred to as the Alcan (Al aska-Can ada) Highway, is the final link of a binational transportation corridor that provides an overland route between the lower United States and Alaska. The first, all-weather, 1,522-mi (2,451 km) Alcan Military Highway was hurriedly constructed during 19421943 to provide land access between Dawson Creek, a Canadian village in northeastern British Columbia, and Fairbanks, a town on the Yukon River in central Alaska. Construction of the road was motivated by perception of a strategic, but ultimately unrealized, Japanese threat to maritime supply routes to Alaska during World War II.

The route of the Alaska Highway extended through what was then a wilderness . An aggressive technical vision was supplied by the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the civilian U.S. Public Roads Administration and labor by approximately 11,000 American soldiers and 16,000 American and Canadian civilians. In spite of the extraordinary difficulties of working in unfamiliar and inhospitable terrain, the route was opened for military passage in less than two years. Among the formidable challenges faced by the workers was a need to construct 133 bridges and thousands of smaller culverts across energetic watercourses, the infilling of alignments through a boggy muskeg capable of literally swallowing bulldozers, and working in winter temperatures that were so cold that vehicles were not turned off for fear they would not restart (steel dozer-blades became so brittle that they cracked upon impact with rock or frozen ground).

In hindsight, the planning and construction of the Alaska Highway could be considered an unmitigated environmental debacle. The enthusiastic engineers were almost totally inexperienced in the specialized techniques of arctic construction, especially about methods dealing with permafrost , or permanently frozen ground. If the integrity of permafrost is not maintained during construction, then this underground, ice-rich matrix will thaw and become unstable, and its water content will run off. An unstable morass could be produced by the resulting erosion , mudflow, slumping, and thermokarst-collapse of the land into subsurface voids left by the loss of water. Repairs were very difficult, and reconstruction was often unsuccessful, requiring abandonment of some original alignments. Physical and biological disturbances caused terrestrial landscape scars that persist to this day and will continue to be visible (especially from the air) for centuries. Extensive reaches of aquatic habitat were secondarily degraded by erosion and/or sedimentation . The much more careful, intensively scrutinized, and ecologically sensitive approaches used in the Arctic today, for example during the planning and construction of the trans Alaska pipeline, are in marked contrast with the unfettered and free-wheeling engineering associated with the initial construction of the Alaska Highway.

The Alaska Highway has been more-or-less continuously upgraded since its initial completion and was opened to unrestricted traffic in 1947. Non-military benefits of the Alaska Highway include provision of access to a great region of the interior of northwestern North America. This access fostered economic development through mining, forestry, trucking, and tourism, as well as helping to diminish the perception of isolation felt by many northern residents living along the route.

Compared with the real dangers of vehicular passage along the Alaska Highway during its earlier years, today the route safely provides one of North America's most spectacular ecotourism opportunities. Landscapes range from alpine tundra to expansive boreal forest, replete with abundantly cold and vigorous streams and rivers. There are abundant opportunities to view large mammals such as moose (Alces alces ), caribou (Rangifer tarandus ), and bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis ), as well as charismatic smaller mammals and birds and a wealth of interesting arctic, boreal, and alpine species of plants.

[Bill Freedman Ph.D. ]



Christy, J. Rough Road to the North. Markham, ON: Paperjacks, 1981.


Alexandra, V., and K. Van Cleve. "The Alaska Pipeline: A Success Story." Annual Review of Ecological Systems 14 (1983): 44363.