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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Road to the Future

June 15, 2003

Whitehorse, Yukon: June, 1949

Three years ago, the military road commonly known as The Alcan Highway was turned over to the Canadian government.  It was renamed The Alaska Highway and  declared a public thoroughfare. 

The public was unimpressed. 

They’d heard about that rough old trail, the mud and the dust and the washboard.  Horror stories abounded of breakdowns at 40 below,  spring run-offs that wiped out whole sections of road and left travellers stranded for day, even weeks, on end, and dust so bad that wipers had to utilized to keep the windshields clear.  How bits of mountain kept breaking off and piercing tires and radiators and big holes appeared out of nowhere to have their wicked way with shocks and frames.  And shoot,  wasn’t there a family that had lost a small child when, with a sound like a B-52 gone amok,  a ravening horde of mosquitos  had swooped down and carried her off? 

Oh, well, they’d also heard about the magnificent scenery, the sparkling lakes and rivers and snow-capped mountains; the mighty glaciers and abundant wildlife; the endless reaches of wilderness.  Sure be nice to go and see all that, catch some of  those fish.  But what did it take to get there?  A truckload of supplies, tires and patches,  parts, and barrels of gas?  Gallons of insect repellent?  Could they make the trip in the amount of vacation time  they had and what if they were caught in between wash-outs? What then, indeed!!

Well, friends, I’ll tell you what, then.

There is a little book on the market this spring,  published in Anchorage by the Alaska Research Company, with most of  the information being collected and compiled by William Wallace.   Quite appropriately entitled The Milepost, this  small gem provides the answers for all the hows, wheres, whys, what fors, and how much’s of   just about anyone who might be considering a journey of discovery into North America’s last frontier.   It contains information on access roads, supplies, Customs & Immigration. It lays out regulations for hunting and gives directions to some of the best fishing holes. It names names of the best travel and transportation facilities and delivers a thumbnail history of the areas through which the adventurers must pass.  Best of all, it provides a mile by mile description of the highway itself, identifying scenic wonders,  highlighting points of interest, and acquainting the traveler with available facilities for both human and vehicular attention.

Whenever possible, Mr. Wallace gives recognition to the intrepid entrepreneurs who, for whatever reason, have followed the cats and grader to some of  the wider spots on the road and set up their roadhouses and service stations there, giving up the comfortable and familiar for the uncertain livelihood on this difficult road.  One such man is Bob Porsild,  who moved his family from Whitehorse to an empty army camp on the west bank of the Teslin River, about 80 miles south of Whitehorse.   Shortly after reading the Milepost cover to cover, I drove out to Johnson’s Crossing to meet the man whom Bill Wallace described as being “very accommodating” and an “old timer of the north,” to sample the “good home-cooked food,” and, perhaps, to hear in his own words, Mr.  Porsild’s  prognosis for the future of the road that many had called That $#@*& Cow Trail to Nowhere.”

I found Bob Porsild, in blue chambray shirt and bib-overalls, in front of a barrel stove in the front room of his newly built lodge, demonstrating, for a couple of middle-aged men,  the best method for making a fire in a barrel stove.  “You make a pile, two logs on the bottom, one in the middle on top but a bit sideways, to leave a little space for draft, d’you see?  Open the draft in front, and the damper in the chimney and away she goes!”  The men looked dubious.  “Will it heat this whole place?  Looks like you’d have a houseful of smoke before long.” Stoves have been made of old barrels for years but this stove was of unusual construction, having one barrel set lengthwise on top of the other, connected with a short pipe at the back and the main chimney exiting the top drum.  The men kept walking around it,  bemused by the second barrel, unable to perceive the need for it, even when their host explained it’s purpose as an additional heat chamber.   “Then why do you need the pipe between?” one of them asked.  “Wouldn’t it just heat up from the bottom barrel or do you have to channel the heat into the top one?”

Mr. Porsild gazed at his pupils for a moment.  Then, with a wicked twinkle, he picked up one more log. “Well, the fact is,” he admitted, “that sometimes when you’re cutting wood for the stove, you get careless and saw it a little too long.   When that happens, it’s good to have that pipe at the back , to be able to bend the extra length up into the upper barrel.”

He put down the log and sauntered into the kitchen, leaving the men to decide if their legs had been pulled or not.

Smiling to myself, I knocked softly at the door frame, smelling fresh bread and the delectable aroma of roasting meat.  “Mind I join you?” 

Elly Porsild, a small round woman with a sweet face, turned from the stove and waved me in.  I   “Of course not. Come, have coffee.  Bubbi, find the young lady one of the good cups….”  I soon came to realize that when you were company in Elly’s kitchen, you did not drink from the usual heavy mug, you had your good strong Danish coffee in a proper china cup and saucer.  With cookies, or fresh rolls, perhaps a sandwich or two.  And soup. 

While Elly served lunch to the handful of customers in the dining room, Bob, as he insisted I call him, and I sat and became acquainted over a smorgasbord of  open-face sandwiches, with beet pickles and onion-rings on the side, followed by fresh berry tarts mounded with whipped cream.  He had received his complimentary  copy of The Milepost and thought it a good effort. “Wallace was a fine fellow.  Seemed to understand how hard it is to get going out here on the Highway.  We hit it off pretty well, went down and got some grayling for supper and had a scotch or two afterwards. Yah, pretty good sort.”   He gave his now-cool coffee one last stir, tucked the spoon under his thumb and drained the cup.  “Tak for mad, skat,” he said, bending down to kiss his wife on the cheek. “Thanks for the food, darling.”  He started for the back door calling back over his shoulder  “Come on, I’ll show you around.”

Elly laughingly waved away my thanks and efforts to start clearing up. “Skynde sig. Hurry up, he won’t wait for you.”  I thanked her again for the good lunch and hastened to catch up to the big Dane as he strode across the yard. 

“You’ve accomplished a lot since you been here,”  I said breathlessly as I caught up to him. “How long did it take you to build your lodge?”

He paused and looked back at the big, two-story building.  “Nearly two years,” he ad- mitted. “First I had to tear down the mess hall and the other buildings that were here and then sort out the material I needed and sell the rest.  It was hard, we used all our money to buy  the camp and even though we had a little café at first, we were pretty strapped for cash.  But we all worked, Elly and the kids and me, and we managed. It’s not finished by a long shot but it’s coming.” 

This was the opening I’d been waiting for.  “So, tell me Bob.  Why did you come here, take this all on?  And what do you see happening with the Highway in the years to come?  Do you think it’s going to get better?  Will the traffic increase?  What is the future of this part of the country, can you tell me?”

Bob looked out at the highway as it curved past the entrance to Porsild’s Hotel and Fishing Lodge and swooped right and up, out of the valley.  “Why did I come here?”  He shook his head.  “Because this IS the future.  This Alaska Highway.  Before this road was built, we were nothing, we had nothing.  We had bust and boom, good years and bad, little pockets of civilization here and there, connected only by waterways and bush planes that could land on ice or water.  Now, we are connected by this road, not just our little communities but the Outside.  To British Columbia and Alberta and Alaska.  The country is opening up, for commerce and for travel.  We can come and go as we please and others can, and will, come, as well.”  He paused, smiled, and said simply,  “And we are here to make them welcome.”

I visited with the Porsilds for the best part of the day, met their son Aksel and three delightful daughters, Betty, Ellen and Johanne, and spent a happy hour with them at the piano, adding my somewhat tentative contralto to the strong harmonies rendered by the convivial group.  Then we had to have coffee and cinnamon buns.  And a few of the tarts left from lunch, and a bag of cookies to eat on the road.  It was with real regret I finally said my good byes and headed back to Whitehorse, windshield wipers slapping in a vain attempt to clear my windshield of dust as I followed a freight truck for forty miles before he caught a glimpse of me, pulled over and let me pass. 

Wearily, I rubbed the dirt out of my eyes and settled down for the last section of rough and winding road into town. 

A road to the future, Bob Porsild had said.   The Milepost had stated it a bit more grandly. “A link,” it had stated, “between the industrial regions of the U.S. and the fabulous natural resources of Alaska, a great trade route penetrating  the incredible riches of northwestern Canada’s wilderness and a permanent monument between two great nations.

 Well, that remained to be seen, didn’t it?

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