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Going Beyond Mile Zero

From Dawson Creek, the Alaska Highway wends its way north and west to its final destination: the mile 1422 signpost at Delta Junction.
Peck Pool Hall
A historical photo from Beyond Mile Zero.

From Dawson Creek, the Alaska Highway wends its way north and west to its final destination: the mile 1422 signpost at Delta Junction. Years of road re-routing has shortened the route, so the Mile 1422 signpost is now only 1387 miles from Dawson Creek.  

Over the last few years, writer Lily Gontard and photographer Mark Kelly have been driving back and forth along the highway collecting stories and images from along the highway.

Initially, says Gontard, the project centred around the abandoned lodges, the fossils of the highway lodge community: abandoned garages, piles of old tires, broken windows and peeling wallpaper.

Kelly started photographing the lodges almost by accident. “My son was born in 2011,” he says. “My wife Brook and I were driving my parent’s motor home back down the highway for them because they flew home. As we were driving, we were stopping regularly to feed the baby. We would stop, and I would poke around while Brook would feed him. We’d stop at these abandoned lodges and I’d go for a walk and photograph them.”

Even then, it wasn’t Kelly who decided to do something with the photos. “Halfway down the highway, Brook suggested I turn it into a photo essay.”

The seed was planted, but it took another couple of years, when Kelly was going back through all his photos, that he decided to act on the idea. “I gave Lily a call because I knew she was a great writer. She thought it was an awesome idea. At first I just wanted to turn it into an article, but she said it would work as a great book.”

Gontard says she wanted to be involved with the project, but she didn’t know how much. Maybe she would write the introduction, she says. “I’m on the board at Geist Magazine. I sent the photos to the editor and said I could write an introduction. They were sold on the idea. It took about a year to get going. We began interviewing people, starting with the Bouchards at Rancheria lodge, and as we did the interviews, we decided that this was a book.”

Or at least, Gontard had reached that conclusion. It took Kelly a little longer. “Most Decembers, I take time and go somewhere warmer,” he says. “I was going to take the camper down to the Southwest US. I was driving down the highway and photographing a bunch of stuff in the winter, which I’d never done before. 

“I got to a place called Williams Arizona, which is a Route 66 town. My wife bought me a book about the ghost towns of Route 66 and the lightbulb went off. I called Lily and said we should do a book. She was like ‘yeah, man, I told you that already.’”

So Gontard contacted a designer she worked with before, who was now working for Harbour Publishing. “We were going to self-publish the book, but she told us to submit a proposal.”

As the two were out doing a research trip for the book, they got the news that Harbour was going to publish the book.

The book celebrates the dying culture of the lodges that sprang up along the Alaska Highway, a thriving culture of radicals, entrepreneurs, pioneers and sometimes crazy people who lived and worked along the road, leading to the Alaska Highway gaining the nickname “the longest main street in North America.”

As they met more and more people who lived and worked along the highway, the story of the community emerged. “We began to uncover a hidden history,” Gontard says.

Since coming up with the idea in 2014, the two have make five road trips along the highway. They’ve driven over 8000 km, or about the same as driving the highway from tip to tail four times. They set out with current edition of the Milepost and a list of lodges from 1947 and 48 to see which ones were still around.

In the two years or so they were working on the project, they conducted 40 interviews and took over 5000 photos, hearing the stories of the mavericks and entrepreneurs who run these places, pioneers in aviation, outfitting, tourism.

But, says Kelly, if it hadn’t been for the people, the book probably wouldn’t have happened. “We probably wouldn’t have written the book if I hadn’t stopped at Rancheria on that road trip to Las Vegas. The Bouchards [Linda and Denis] were so welcoming. If I had any crustiness from them in any way, I probably wouldn’t have gone ahead. They gave us the courage to continue. Might not have been the best place to photograph, but they were the most welcoming. Everyone was like that, but they were the first.”

Kelly says his favourite photograph is one he took in 2011 at the Lower Liard Lodge. “It’s of a red chesterfield in a dilapidated room. This photograph was hard to make, because it was so dark. I was in there for a long time surrounded by mouse poop and wondering if the ceiling was going to come down, but the room felt like it had stories to tell. I kept wondering what the stories were in this room.”

By the time the book got published, the lodge was gone, claimed by fire, as is so often the case. Sometimes it’s accidental. Sometimes its deliberate.

“The couple that ran the Lower Liard Lodge, their CB Handle was the Laughing Leprechaun,” says Gondard. “Now you go there and it’s burned down. And you do have to wonder what life it must have been there.”

Kelly say part of the change that’s happening is because people these days are rolling through in buses that are self-contained houses on wheels. “They need so much more power. It reminds me of the story Amanda Harris of White River Lodge told. People will come into her spot, which is hands-down one of the nicest place on the highway. They’ll ask her if she has the right amount of amperage, and when she doesn’t, they just drive away. She’d never recoup the cost of upgrading. She sees that as a shift in the Alaska Highway life. It makes the lodges a little less relevant. People are pretty self-contained in those units. People can go so much further. Lily has a golf diesel that can do 900 km a tank. In the old days, there were lodges were every 20 miles because people needed to fill up so often.

“Someone mentioned there might be a need for electric recharging stations sometime in the future. Generators fuel the lives of these people. One of the owners said they need to sell 70 tanks of fuel per day just in order to turn the generator on to sell that gas.

Gontard says people these days want Internet at their camping sites. “If you have internet, they’ll just stay in their RVs, and if you don’t, they’ll just drive away. People think they can take the south with them wherever they go. It’s a misunderstanding of what the north is.”

The list of lodges that are still going is getting shorter and shorter every year. The book is a celebration and a memorial of the lives of the people who lived there, says Kelly. “The steamboat is another original lodge. That one burned down, too. It was arson that time. It was the only Canadian lodge along the route originally. And there’s the Summit Lake Lodge. I Photographed a lot there. It was a regular stop for me [when it was open]. It was a friendly place. Lots of old photographs on the wall, which were all gone by the time I started this project. All the windows were mirrored to keep the midnight sun out. In 2011, all the windows were intact, but when I went back all the windows were broken.”

Gontard says that’s not the book she set out to write, but the narrative emerged in the writing. “When I read the book once I was finished, I was very sad. I’m emotionally invested in these people. It’s a time we’re not going to see again because of regulations and laws. Can’t have people putting up businesses with an outhouse, hauling water from a creek. A lot of the entrepreneurial spirit is lost. People have a different expectation of what sort of services they should get. It’s not realistic.”

Lily Gontard and Mark Kelly will be at the Dawson Creek Library on May 25 for a presentation and to sign copies of the book.