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On the Road
The Alaska Highway is no longer the legendary rugged "pioneer" road carved through an unforgiving wilderness. Today, due to constant improvements and rerouting, it is largely a modern thoroughfare on par with any major highway in North America. Its dramatic evolution has not, however, diminished its historical significance, the continuing impact in the region or the romance ascribed to it.
Driving the highway now, one can still find (and explore) abandoned sections of the original road and see traces of the American Army's presence in the converted buildings that line the route, Quonset huts turned into churches, barracks that are now motels. If there is construction and road work underway, you can get a vague sense of the challenge of building a permanent road on such terrain and in such a climate and, while rumbling over extended sections of gravel, dust, and mud awaiting its blacktop, the occasional reminder of what the highway was like until quite recently. But again, these conditions are becoming more and more rare as the highway becomes wide, smooth, and divided for much of its length. This doesn't, of course, limit the sale of "I survived the Alaska Highway" bumper stickers.
Today, the convoys that snake their way along the road are made up of RVs and 18 wheelers. The highway quickly became a major destination for a particular form of tourism that is less about place and more about distance traversed. And the trucks, a constant presence since the road first opened, continue, in greater and greater numbers, to ferry the goods (and a remarkable number of pre-fab buildings) to and from the growing communities and expanding industry that is the "new" north, "the last frontier." It isn't hard to find a latte on the highway and the Wal-Marts, McDonalds, Starbucks, Tim Horton's, Canadian Tire, and Zellers, etc. that now populate communities across the country have settled along the highway as well, squeezing out the independent operations that were the sole commercial presence until fairly recently. As it did in the 1940s, the Alaska Highway continues to feed change into the North, a change that continues to have a complex and controversial impact.
I was, and remain, an outsider to the region that the highway traverses. Like so many before me (whose experiences were presented in the exhibition), my time passing through northern British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska, was brief. My first visit was an intense rush from Dawson Creak to Delta Junction and back (including the initial journey north from Edmonton) during the height of the 2004 tourist season and at the peak of summer construction. For good measure, and in order to immerse myself in a kind of "authentic" experience of the highway, I made the return trip in a rented RV, accompanied by my then seven-year-old daughter Maggie. It was a summer holiday that was more research than relaxation, where "camping", visiting roadside attractions, and buying souvenirs was approached like an ethnographic field trip that included the collection of oral histories and the documentation of key sites and customs (such as the RV pump-out station). Maggie's participation certainly enhanced the journey, making me visit sites I may have passed by (mini-putts and ice cream stands, for example) and ask questions that would never have occurred to me (Why are all RVs basically the same colour?). While there were extensive areas of construction and forest fires were ravaging the region, our journey included no heroic struggles or serious obstacles. Losing one disc from my digital camera and watching the RV's sewage hose disappear down the aforementioned pump-out drain was the worst of our difficulties.
In the fall of 2004, I returned to the area once more, this time with my father to retrace the section of the highway between Kluane National Park and Fort Nelson. This second visit was a very focused one, instigated by my wish to better document Soldier's Summit and to photograph the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum and interview its curator Marl Brown. Marl Brown (who moved north as a mechanic with the Canadian Army in the 1950s and who recently drove one of his vintage 1920s trucks from Fort Nelson to Dawson City in the dead of winter) was a great guide, both to the history of the highway and the many abandoned sections we were able to find and explore (like the treacherous Trutch Mountain). The Fort Nelson Heritage Museum is a classic community museum; a wonderful catchall exuding unbridled enthusiasm for the region. The museum (a collection of odd buildings, vintage vehicles, and abandoned construction equipment surrounding a central log structure on a large plot of land) has become a prized artifact in its own right. Its massive collection is a piece of still expanding installation art that influenced the development and presentation of the historical section of The Road exhibition.
Driving the highway in the late fall of 2004, with many of the businesses outside of major centres closed, and only minimal tourist traffic, the road felt empty, the landscape seeming far more present and daunting in the deeper light of autumn. The highway was so quiet that I could stand in the middle of the road above Muncho Lake, as the sun bathed the sky in rich purples and pinks, with my camera on a tripod straddling the yellow centerline and patiently wait on exposures slow enough for the daguerreotypist. (In January of 2006 I visited Whitehorse to install the exhibition at the Yukon Art Centre. The highway in winter is, from a Southern Ontarian's perspective, remarkably busy.) At Soldier's Summit, up along the long abandoned section of road that overlooks Kluane Lake, I photographed the weathered wooden cross that marks the grave of the American soldier Alexander Clark Fisher. It is a site heavy with a sense of loneliness and sadness, so far from home, only outweighed by the intensity of the Tlingit photographer George Johnston's photographs of a funeral at Teslin, images that belie the highway's reputation as a bringer of progress to Native communities. While the highway has had (and continues to have) a significant impact on individuals and communities in the North, it is clearly the First Nations communities along the route that have truly been most profoundly effected and Johnston's haunting images (and the film about him by Tlingit filmmaker Carol Geddes that was included in the exhibition) capture this.