They rolled out of Dawson Creek, B.C. on August 4: 77 historic military vehicles, plus 36 civilian support vehicles, with drivers from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, even the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Their mission: a 6,600-km northern odyssey to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Alaska Highway.
Their average speed of 56 km per hour is a blistering pace compared to what it took to punch a rough war-time road through muskeg and mountains from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks, Alaska back in 1942.
“We like to find an anniversary, or some sort of event that we can tie in with, and this was a perfect opportunity for us to do that,” explains convoy spokesperson Wendy Rowsam.
She and her husband, Jeff, are members of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA), an 8,000-member international group of collectors and admirers of classic military transport.
The MVPA, she says, conducts convoys on roads with military significance or history, such as its 2009 trek retracing a 1919 U.S. Army convoy along the Lincoln Highway from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, California.
The Rowsams own a variety of military vehicles, including a World War Two dump truck, a Korean War-era pickup and a couple of vehicles from the Vietnam War era. They’ve also accumulated a number of military bicycles from around the world.
“The military used bicycles in all of the wars in different capacities,” Rowsam explains.
“That’s a real neat collection to display, because people don’t often see military bicycles all gathered up in one spot.”
After taking part in the 2009 outing, the Rowsams decided they wanted to join the group’s next venture.
Through eBay, they located a 1942 Dodge WC21, a pickup-style half-ton with an open cab, and had it shipped from Oregon to their home near Green Bay, Wisconsin.
“We really wanted a World War Two vehicle that had some connection to the highway,” Rowsam says.
The WC21, she points out, was actually the first model of truck that drove the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse.
“Our truck isn’t that truck. No one knows really where that truck is, but this model of truck was that first vehicle, so that history was very attractive to us.”
After more than two years of restoration work, Jeff had the truck ready for the road this past April.
“We put some miles on it to make sure everything was working right, and then we set out on our adventure.”
The 70-year-old vehicle made the 3,200 km from Green Bay to the Dawson Creek staging point in 12 days with no problems, Rowsam reported by phone from the Mile Zero campground.
“Our truck is an open-cab truck, so coming out here you get all of the elements, the rain and the wind and sun. It was a lot of fun.”
Along the way, the Rowsams hooked up with a group of MVPA voyagers from the southern U.S. Despite their relatively snail-like pace, they encountered no resentment from other highway users.
“We are conscious of our speed, and we keep spacing between each vehicle so that traffic can pass and get in between us,” Rowsam says.
“If there are any large trucks or we’ve got a string of traffic, we look for a safe place to pull over part-way onto the shoulder and allow traffic to pass.”
While the modern Alaska Highway bears little resemblance to the 1942 original, the convoy planners added some challenge to the trip in the form of dirt and gravel roads such as the Dempster, Top of the World and Robert Campbell highways.
“We think that will be a great part of the trip, kind of give us a look at what it might have been like driving through the area years ago when there were trees right up to the road, that kind of thing.”
Besides Convoy Commander Terry Shelswell, the 200-member contingent includes a safety officer, a march unit officer who determines how vehicles are grouped for travel, a medical officer and a communications officer.
“We have radios along the convoy column and a repeater station so we can stay in contact from front to back,” Rowsam says.
Then, there’s the maintenance team that brings up the rear of the column in case of mechanical problems a driver can’t readily fix on the roadside.
As well as a large complement of tools and towbars for towing even the largest vehicles, it includes an ex-Engineers officer and three former military mechanics.
“They’re kind of the olive-drab triple-A service,” Jeff Rowsam explains.
While olive drab is the predominant convoy colour, and Jeff himself is from a military family, a military background is not a prerequisite for belonging to the MVPA.
Still, the sight—and smell—of these workhorses can evoke strong nostalgia among people who have served, Jeff says.
“When it gets hot in the sun, it all smells like military canvas,” he chuckles.
“When veterans come around and they get close to these vehicles with the canvas on them, they take one whiff and say, ‘Boy, did that take me back to the old days!'”
The MVPA convoy will reach Dawson City on August 13, then travel through parts of Alaska before returning to Yukon via Beaver Creek on August 22.
A one-day layover is scheduled at the Yukon Transportation Museum on August 25. More information can be found at www.mvpa.org.