Michael Dougherty is secretary of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition and a long-time Yukoner.
At 6 p.m. sharp on Wednesday, May 30, the last scheduled Greyhound bus headed out down the Alaska Highway from Whitehorse to all points south and east on the continent. A “for lease” sign had already appeared on the front of the Whitehorse bus depot. This departure marked the end of an important chapter of northern travel in Canada, which began just weeks after the end of the Second World War. But it also ended a chance to take a remarkable 5,578-kilometre road trip to Montreal or 5,459-kilometre run to Toronto, journeys that took about 90 hours.
Greyhound Canada’s July 9 announcement means we will see this “last bus” scenario repeated many times. Communities right across the West – everything west of Sudbury – will be affected by the end of October. The dislocation and distress this decision will cause along the Trans-Canada and Yellowhead highways should not be underestimated.
For those of us in the Yukon, bus travel has been an important connection to the rest of the country since the first commercial service to the region began on Oct. 1, 1945. The British Yukon Navigation Company, using 21-seat Dodge/Hicks buses, operated this pioneering bus line. (The company also ran the steamboats then operating on the Yukon River and its tributaries.) Highway lodges sprang up along the route to service travellers drawn north by tourism or jobs. Most of those lodges have become historical footnotes, and now Greyhound’s bus service will be one too.
The loss of bus service across the West and North of Canada will deny many their only chance to experience the grandeur of our land. Just how many people of modest means will ever get to see the true wilderness that borders this narrow highway for most of the 1,400 kilometres from Dawson Creek, B.C. – Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway – to Whitehorse?
The driver who drove the last bus south from the Yukon capital on the 950-kilometre leg of the trip to Fort Nelson, B.C., spent 12 hours behind the wheel. Years ago, Greyhound had a relief driver sharing the load, but cost-cutting left just one driver for the whole schedule to Fort Nelson.
Of course that was a 12-hour journey if nothing went wrong. Things can go wrong. As a passenger I have been asked to help the driver clear a recently hit caribou off the road, along with impact debris, so we could drive on.
I once heard of an incident in which a radiator hose blew far from any community or highway lodge. The bus driver found a length of hose to make a temporary repair, and the passengers formed a line and, using empty water and pop bottles, got water from a nearby creek to refill the radiator.
Every bus driver I have known over the quarter-century I have taken this route along the Alaska Highway has always followed the code of the northern highway driver and has never passed someone in distress.
The final bus travelled to Fort Nelson in the lingering light of a late spring northern day, which sees dusk lasting well after midnight under a full moon. This stretch follows for the most part the route cut in 1942 by thousands of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers troops, including three “Negro regiments,” as battles raged in the Aleutian Islands against Japanese invaders. Lawrence Hill, the author of the award-winning The Book of Negroes, was the Berton House writer-in-residence this winter in Dawson City, Yukon. One of his goals while was to research a book on the construction of the Alaska Highway by those trailblazing African-American soldier-engineers.
The army construction crews followed survey teams led by local trappers and wilderness guides into the vast forests heading south from Whitehorse and north from Dawson Creek. Two other crews worked east from Delta Junction, Alaska, and west from Whitehorse.
Over the past three decades mountaintops have literally been levelled and valley bottoms filled to straighten the route and eliminate terrifying grades, making the trip a whole lot safer and less demanding for driver and bus.
The vastness and grandeur of northern British Columbia and Yukon overwhelm this road’s thin veneer of development. The reality of just where you are was underlined by the wording in the decision of the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board this past February, which eventually granted Greyhound the right to terminate its Yukon run. It refused the company’s request to immediately terminate that schedule and ordered it to keep running until June 1 because “immediate stoppage on these routes and route segments would endanger public safety given the harsh winter climate, inhospitable terrain, and the isolation of those living and working along these routes.”
Neither the isolated terrain nor the climate has changed, but bus service is now history for many who have depended on it for years. Northern bus drivers understood the signals indicating when to stop along the route to pick up a First Nation couple coming into town from their remote cabin. I have seen drivers make unscheduled stops to provide a lifeline for folks stranded at a highway lodge by bringing a needed auto part to get them back on the road. Losing the three-times-a-week service will be hard for many who relied on the bus for supplies or to get to a larger community for a medical appointment.
What about the people in Wawa, Ont., Wadena, Sask., or Whitecourt, Alta.? As Canadians we recognize the vastness of our country, the sparse populations of many regions and climatic challenges we face. Reliable bus service filled an important public transportation gap for many of us far from rail lines or a major airport.
The Alaska Highway bus trip offered spectacular scenery all along the journey. As a passenger I was guaranteed the opportunity to spot wildlife such as mountain caribou, stone sheep, elk, bears – both grizzly and black – and moose along the road. The driver normally obliged passengers with a stop around Liard Hot Springs, the second-largest hot spring in Canada, where the bus literally has to halt and slowly thread its way through herds of bison.
Watson Lake’s Signpost Forest, Muncho Lake at the northern end of the Canadian Rockies, Stone Mountain Provincial Park, Steamboat Mountain and a host of other landmarks on the route will now have to be taken in from a private vehicle or on a summer charter tour bus. The end of Greyhound service has left many of us Northerners in the lurch and denies visitors a spectacular and inexpensive way to visit Yukon.
A sunset over a Prairie wheat field in Saskatchewan, a line of antelope heading up a coulee early one morning somewhere east of Medicine Hat, Alta., or clouds building over Agawa Bay on Lake Superior are memories I will cherish, as well as the tales told by seat mates from the tens of thousands of kilometres I logged on the bus. Many needed the bus for much more than enjoying the scenery. What is going to happen to them?