A shot from when my buddy (pictured) and I last drove to Alaska, here pointing down the road leading out of Dease Lake towards the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.
Photo: Raphael Orlove

“Yeah, there’s a non-zero chance of polar bears,” is always a good thing to hear when planning a road trip.

In a few months I will be driving from southeast Alaska up to Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories. I will be in a car I have never seen, on a road I have never driven, to a place I have never been. As such, I asked for some advice, and what I got was very reassuring. Kinda.

This isn’t exactly a drive I always wanted to do. It hasn’t been some dream of mine since childhood.

What was a dream of mine since childhood was to drive from the top of the West Coast all the way up to Alaska, a dream I had since the very first time I heard of the ALCAN, the road that stretches up from Washington State, through Canada, and into Alaska. My friend’s dad drove it back in the day and it struck me as the consummate adventure. I held tight to the idea that I could get into a car in my hometown of Davis, California, point north and just keep going until I reached Other America.

That drive I did. A couple years back, my buddy who grew up around the corner from my block in Davis needed to drive to his work as a tour guide to one of the glaciers in southeast Alaska, and he needed someone to drive with him. I jumped at the opportunity, flew across the country to meet him in Seattle and up we went, taking the Cassiar not the Alaska Highway in his old Volvo 240 station wagon.

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How that went is a story for another time, or really a collection of stories that are probably too boring to hear in the abstract. Nobody wants to hear about the fox you met on the banks of the Stikine River, or the hatchet you foolishly slept with in the middle of bear country, or any of the soul-stirring views you took in that, you know I’m really getting off track with this tangent.

Back to the Arctic Ocean drive.

Photo: Raphael Orlove

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So my buddy, with whom I did the drive up the Cassiar to Alaska, is doing a rafting trip that ends in Inuvik. His rafting group needs a car waiting for them when they get there. For a car to be in Inuvik, somebody has to drive a car to Inuvik, somebody who is not a part of the rafting trip itself. My buddy called me up out of the blue and now that person is me.

The plans is that he and I will meet in Alaska, I will get into a rented car, rented not from a rental company but from a local woman in Alaska. (It’s a small town, up there. Small enough, apparently, that people will rent out their cars for several weeks for another townsperson’s friend to drive a thousand miles north to another even more remote small town. I pointed out to my buddy that this woman must be very trusting; I could theoretically just steal the car. Right at that moment I realized that, no, I’m driving to the end of the road. There is nowhere else to go but back to where I came from. I’d effectively be returning her car one way or another.)

In driving to Alaska the first time, I got used to a few things about driving up north. Don’t drive at dusk or at night, because that’s when large animals are out and that’s when you hit them. (Someone we knew totaled their car hitting a moose while making the same trip up the Alcan the same time as we were driving the Cassiar.) Be aware of bears. (Someone was also killed by a bear in British Columbia while we were driving through, as well.) Always stop for gas if gas is available no matter how full your tank is already.

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But I wasn’t exactly sure how the Klondike Highway is, or what it’s like going all the way up to the ocean. I googled around and found that, oh, there are polar bear sighting tours up in Inuvik. Polar bears kill people.

“Yeah,” my buddy told me over the phone when I brought this up. “There’s a non-zero chance of polar bears.

“You’re in the area where brown bears and polar bears mix,” he continued, “and produce viable offspring.”

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Ah yes. “Viable offspring.” Always good to hear.

“They probably won’t bother you, just the smellies,” he encouraged me, referring to any food or food-like material I might have. I remember being warned about toothpaste on my old hiking trips into the Sierras.

“I would sleep in the car would be my thought,” he explained. “No smellies in the car. Probably the beef jerky should stay in the bear canister.” How far away should the bear canister be? “100-200 yards.” Cool.

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He later assured me that the bears “wouldn’t be too bad,” as his personal whitewater rafting Yoda told him. I told him I wasn’t too worried either. I’m practically an expert, I assured him. I knew not to drive at night. “Oh don’t worry about that,” he laughed. “When you’re driving, there won’t be much of it anyway.”

Photo: Raphael Orlove