Alaska Highway: Longest Mail Route
This is an article that came out in the Weekend Magazine Number 14, in 1963.
Photo Story by Richard Harrington
 
The postman starts his run; he has three days and 918 miles to go.

Norman Arnott checks his special mail
Ready to roll into the vast north, Norman Arnott checks his special mail. A pouch may be fine for cities but Norman needs a tractor-trailer as well.

At 8:10 A.M., with the temperature 20 below, we wheel past the famous Mile Zero sign in Dawson Creek, B.C. This is the start of the Alaska Highway and I am riding north with mailman John Pryor on the longest rural mail route in Canada -- 918 miles along the highway from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse, in the Yukon.

It will take us three days to make the run, along what would seem to most people a long, lonely, wintry highway, where you could be lost forever if you strayed off the road. But to John - and to Norman Arnott, the other regular mailman on the route - it's the longest village street in the world. Their friends appear like magic when they hear the mournful hoot of the mail-truck horn, which sounds a bit like that of a diesel locomotive.

We pass transports heading south to the Fort St. John railhead, and John greets them in the standard way, with a stiff, outstretched arm, or a pointing finger. We have to speak loudly to be heard in the small cab. It's barely big enough for two, but it's well heated and 1 feel a little foolish in my parka and heavy clothes, while John is wearing only a light jacket.

Eighty-three miles from Dawson Creek the pavement ends. From now on, it will be gravel, snow, treacherous ice. We'll make 37 stops at regular post offices and at unofficial mail drops - army maintenance camps, tourist lodges, general stores, even a pool hall. Mail picked up at one spot for delivery further along the route is hand-cancelled by John, making stamp collectors' items.

Mail here is often a personal affair. At one point, John picks up mail tied with a string to a doorknob, since the people are away. In return, he leaves a small bag tied to the door. A woman expecting a letter from her husband angrily blames John when it doesn't come. "Why didn't you bring me my letter?" she asks. John shrugs and turns out his Pockets good-naturedly to prove he isn't hiding anything.

Late in the afternoon, the light becomes vague and flat. The countryside is desolate and forbidding, with only a few bare poplars and bushy spruce, and the road is icy, dotted with the frozen carcasses, of rabbits hit by cars and trucks. In peak years for rabbits, the road is known as "the fur-lined highway," and they have to be removed with scrapers.

At 7:30 P.M., we check into the hotel at Fort Nelson, our first overnight stop, where John has a good big supper - he eats lightly all day - and goes directly to bed. Just 12 hours later, we're pulling out on the second lap of the long haul. It's 12 below this morning, and John has to crawl under the truck with a hammer to loosen a frozen brake. It's warm in the cab, though, for the engine has been running at idling speed all night - right under my window. A fine, powdery snow is falling. It looks like a bad day for driving.

Lonely, snowy and often dangerous, highway is sometimes almost invisible.
Lonely, snowy and often dangerous, highway is sometimes almost invisible. It begins at the famous Mile Zero sign in Dawson Creek, ends in Whitehorse.

We pass six moose, belly-deep in the snow, about 150 yards from the road. They show no alarm, just watch us curiously, like cows. Then we spot a long trailer, hauled by a passenger car with California licence plates, stuck at the roadside. Two men hail us. They broke down last night without tools, food or heat and just sat there, helplessly.

"Why didn't you walk the five miles to the next lodge?" John asks. They shrug and crowd into the tiny cab with us. We drive them to the lodge where they mutter a grumpy and ungracious "Thanks" and go for help.

"Pilgrims!" says John, with contempt. He complains at some length about pilgrims, the local name for tourists, and their driving habits. They head up the Alaska Highway ill equipped for the trip, in summer clothes, without food or any kind of equipment for emergencies. Obey slip and slide all over the road and frequently cause accidents or, at best, end up in a snowbank. Apparently thinking they have the whole North to themselves, they often stop in the middle of the road to take pictures. I count at least five new signs marking the sites of fatal accidents, and there are many more, unmarked.

At 7:30, we pull into Watson Lake on the Yukon border, the second overnight stop. Here we meet Norman Arnott, also stopping over, on his run south from Whitehorse to Dawson Creek. He and John work in a game of curling, solemnly shaking hands at the end. They both look forward to this and do it regularly.

Chains are needed
Chains were needed to get mammoth mail truck moving when it had to stop for trailer jack-knifed on road.
Optimistic Jimmy Allison brings sleigh to take home mail when he greets John Pryor.
Optimistic Jimmy Allison brings sleigh to take home mail when he greets John Pryor.
On the third day there are nine stops and we pull into the post-office yard at Whitehorse at 4 P.M. with our remaining 240 bags of mail. John will have a day off before heading south, but he'llspend much of it having the mail van checked and serviced.

A few days later, Norman has made the round trip, and I join him for the long haul back to Dawson Creek. Already the stops and the people along the route are becoming like familiar landmarks and old friends to me. It's much warmer now -- 40 above, in fact. We are travelling light, with only 100 bags of mail. Norman's scat is well cushioned but mine is bare and my back aches constantly from the bouncing.

The road is treacherous, very slippery. We pass one car deep in the snow at the roadside, only the top of its roof visible. A little further along, a transport lies on its side. The transport's driver had been cut off by a pilgrim as he was trying to pass.

Norman, too, has his brush with the pilgrims. We are starting up a long grade when we come upon a tourist car and trailer jack-knifed across the road. Norman has to stop. "I've had it," he says. "I can't make it barefoot."

He climbs out and puts on the "jewelry" -the tire chains - and we wait until the pilgrim is untangled and on his way. Then we grind slowly and painfully up the hill, while Norman has his bitter say ~ the pilgrims. We pass three cars and a couple of house trailers, abandoned. It is slow going, with or without the jewelry, but we pull into Dawson Creek, on schedule as usual. It's now so mild that the streets are awash.

Heavy mail bags are unloaded at a bleak, snowy stop on the route.
Heavy mail bags are unloaded at a bleak, snowy stop on the route. The big van is loaded with more than 300 bags.

Both Norman and John have had accidents, but usually minor ones. A car has plowed into Norman's van, with the driver dozing at the wheel. They've had near collisions with moose. They've been forced "into the rhubarb" - the muskeg or brush along the road - and they've coped with spring floods and with such disasters as the collapse of the Peace River bridge in 1957. But, Norman and John boast, the mail has always gone through.

The postmistress, Alene Peck, checks mail.
Special service is offered by this post office; it is also a pool hall. The postmistress, Alene Peck, checks mail.
Slippery roads often land even experts in the ditch.
Slippery roads often land even experts in the ditch. Here, Arnott (Left) stops to help another driver whose huge truck has rolled on its side in soft snow.
 
After a day on the road, a driver needs a break
 
Rest and refreshment are always welcome.
Rest and refreshment are always welcome.
Here, Pryor enjoys a glass of milk and chat with Mrs. Hattie Close.
Enthusiastic curler, Arnott is an honorary member of clubs in two towns on his route.
Enthusiastic curler, Arnott is an honorary member of clubs in two towns on his route.



E-Mail any comments to Hank Suderman
Back to the Main Transportation Page
Back to the Trucks Page