Junction 37 (by Jim Sweeney)

Lara and I are leaving Junction 37– where the Cassiar Highway meets the Alaska Highway in the Yukon Territory next to the border of British Columbia. The thermometer behind us is pegged at 50 below. We are on a skiing and climbing trip to the Canadian Rockies.

Whitehorse was cold but nothing like this. We didn’t know what to do, so we just drove on. But as we drove, each mile grew colder. First the speedometer quit working, then our music died. The heater seems to be pumping cold air.

The cold is a beast. It crawls from the floorboards, creeps around the doors and slips through the windows. It was ready to consume us.

The highway rolls wicked through here. In the middle of nowhere we’d seen two modern four-wheel drives in the ditch. One of them was a truck, upside down.

Behind us, before we left the gas station I asked the guy, “What‘s the word from the Cassiar?”

He said, “Two Yanks in a Ford truck froze up and waited for twelve hours till someone came along,” The man wore black artic suit, a blue down coat, white bunny boots and a orange balaclava stood a top his head. He looked like Cat-In hat.

“Looks like we’re going down the Alcan.” I said to Lara while putting my arm around her. The Cassiar is the faster of the two highways, but it’s more remote.

My Subaru groans to a stop where the Cassiar T-bones the Alaska Highway. The break pedal is tired and sluggish. Behind us the main lights from the gas station flicker once before going out. Our headlights illuminate a patch of signs across the Alcan. To the left, the way we came, are Alaska and Whitehorse, to the right Watson Lake and Fort Nelson. Beyond the signs is a frosted forest and above that the sky is monster-movie black. The stars flicker pure white.

We turn right. Off to the side of the road a half frosted sign reads “Watson Lake 22 km.” I drive for five miles in second gear. The speedometer is possessed, the cd won’t eject, Joni Mitchell bounces song to song and won’t turn off. Slowly the car loosens up. I keep the Subaru around 47 miles an hour, sometimes pushing it to 55 in second gear. The needle on the temperature gauge slowly rises.

In Watson Lake we stop at a diner that is also a gas station. Every vehicle in the parking lot is running. A polite kid in an orange button down shirt and over combed hair waits on us. The atmosphere, the other patrons’ dress, and even the menu, make me think I’m in an old movie.

Leaving Watson Lake I drive slowly and carefully. We have already traveled 400 miles today. We wear hats and gloves. Lara’s feet are inside her sleeping bag and I have mine wrapped around my ankles with only my Nikes protruding to operate the gas.

On the road to Laird Hot Springs, in the dim glow of our headlights, we see buffalo, moose, caribou, a coyote, another fox and a yellow-eyed lynx, her bristled ears silhouetted against a distorted, frozen backdrop. Twice owls fly into range of our headlights. While I’m wondering what they are doing out in this cold, out of the dark come two yellow eyes scurrying along the roadside. It’s a weasel whiter than snow, headed in the opposite direction.

At the Hot Springs we park by the boardwalk that leads to the pools. The raised wooden walkway is longer that I remember but we skip all the way to the pools under a blooming sky. The aurora flaps her wings green, blue and red. Suddenly, a blue flame half the sky in length explodes into iridescent waves that spread across the heavens.

The main pool at Laird Hot Springs is ten to fifteen feet wide and a hundred yards long. Neck deep from end to end, it’s a very hot spring but the sulphur smell is minimal. I swim under water using my hands to feel around me and touch everything from tiny pebbles to man-size boulders. Upstream, the water is boiling and there are bubbles everywhere. Big blasts of hot water ripple from the source at the top of the pool. Lara doesn’t like it up here. It’s like a little volcano. So we move below to where the water is a bit cooler and the bubbles aren’t so violent. She floats right over them gazing up at the sky with a smile on her face.

After awhile a pleasant trucker joins us in the pool and describes the road ahead. “It’s cold all the way to Fort Nelson,” he tells us. “Then it warms up, a little.”

This is an original work posted by permission from the author. This work is not to be reproduced or replicated in any form without the express written consent of the author.


Jim Sweeney splits his time between Alaska and California.

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