Chronicling the Vanishing Alaska Highway Lodge Community

I’m very jealous of what Whitehorse based Lily Gontard and Mark Kelly have managed to pull off with their delightful book, Beyond Mile Zero: The Vanishing Alaska Highway Lodge Community (published last month, Lost Moose, 240 pages, $24.95).

They’ve taken an idea that I turned into a measly two or three columns in the Whitehorse Star some 10 to 15 years ago and developed it into a full-fledged book.

I wish I’d had the time and patience to track down the owners and former owners, do the interviews and spend the two years it took them to do such a thorough job.

Mark Kelly started where I did, by noticing the number of roadside lodges that were no longer there all of a sudden. Sometimes it was just that they were for sale; sometimes they were no longer for sale, but abandoned; sometimes they were simply gone, with nothing but the remains of a foundation and the pad where the gas pumps used to be.

Kelly shot pictures, many hundreds of them. About 100, including some archival photos obtained from the time when a lot of these places were in their prime, made it into this book.

Kelly and Gontard came up with a list of 96 lodges that stretched from Dawson Creek (Mile Zero) almost to Delta Junction (Mile 1404.1). The number gets to be a little uncertain, since some of them were in more than one place and others, like Beat and Jyl Ledergerber’s Beaver Creek RV Park and Motel (formerly Mile 102 Beaver Creek Lodge; the Alas/Kon Border Lodge; and the Westmark Beaver Creek Lodge) have had more than one name.

The book had its genesis as a magazine article in Geist magazine, where Gontard has an advisory connection, after Kelly showed her his photos and wondered if they might be worthy of a photo spread.

And then it grew into a book, one that the publisher actually relented on and increased the page count from 224 to 240 pages, seeing the value of the material they were having to cut.

“We didn’t realize just what we were getting ourselves into,” Gontard says. “When I moved up in the ’90s, there were quite a few lodges. I drove out in 2006 and there were hardly any, and when we went two years ago, there were even less.

“It was the hunt for all the owners that took a lot of time. We wanted to have, as equally as possible, lodges from BC, Yukon and Alaska, and Alaska was the hardest material to find of the lodges.

“It was great to find people who wanted to share their stories and had been wanting to for many years.”

“No one ever asked,” Kelly says, “outside of controversial things,” like when some lodges got shut down because of changes in water regulations or the requirements for on-site fuel storage.

What has been missed, until this book, was a narrative account of the tiny communities that grew up around each of the lodges, composed of family and the work force, some of whom would stay for years and perhaps even end up buying the operation themselves.

Not every establishment is as fortunate as Toad River, which ended up having a maintenance camp, a small community of about 40 people, and a well equipped rural (K to 9) school right across the highway from its lodge and RV camp.

The decline in the number of lodges goes hand in hand with technological and infrastructure changes since the 1940s, when the road was new and raw. The road is shorter now, even than it was when I first drove it in 1976. It is generally either paved or chip-sealed, and even with frost heaves and potholes, is a smoother, faster, safer drive than it was in the heyday of the lodges – or even 40 years ago.

Vehicles are better too, in many ways: more comfortable; capable of getting more distance out of a litre of gasoline; less likely to blow a tire (part of the road improvements).

There just isn’t the need for as many of them as there used to be.

So it’s good that Gontard and Kelly have put together this book, a memorial to a way of life that is largely gone and may very well not be seen again.

Here’s hoping that the book does well, because its creators have enough material for a sequel, and it would be good to tell some of the rest of the stories.

Beyond Mile Zero: The Vanishing Alaska Highway Lodge is available at Mac’s Fireweed Books on Main Street in Whitehorse.

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