The cold, heavy air had the faint metallic taste of wet gravel.
My boyfriend shrugged on an extra layer and pulled out his tools from the back of the car. He handed me a hammer before laying in the slush beside the road and preparing to change the tyre.
The sky was overcast and the air was hovering around freezing in the breathtaking mountain pass where we had stopped. Clumps of ice accumulated along the side of the Jeep as if they were barnacles and the wheel wells were almost frozen solid. I was charged with knocking out the ice in an attempt to spare our remaining three tyres. I kicked it with my hiking boots, but the ice around the rubber refused to budge.
I set to work with the hammer.
We were off the side of the Alaska-Canada Highway, known locally as the Alcan, in northern British Columbia. The bleak 2220km stretch of road was constructed during World War II to move military hardware and personnel to Alaska, taking advantage of its strategic position at the top of the Pacific, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1942. It was a significant feat in a largely uncharted wilderness.
We are also a couple in our 20s — one Australian, one American — we are also camping in our car and we also broke down in a remote spot. We passed the area just a few weeks before they were found shot dead near their blue Chevrolet van on this isolated stretch of road.
The Alcan has been rerouted and repaired many times over the years, but to this day it is the main thoroughfare linking mainland Alaska with the continental United States. We had passed the official start in Dawson Creek earlier in the day and were bound for Anchorage, our final destination, deviating slightly from the road’s end in Delta Junction. Like Mr Fowler and Ms Deese, we were having the time of our lives.
On paper, it was spring, but it seemed this part of Canada missed the memo. We had driven through snowstorms all day, but we discovered the weather actually brought a sense of camaraderie among the other road users. We had witnessed the legendary kindness of Canadians first-hand earlier that day when we stopped to help a Subaru that had slid off the road and gotten stuck in a snowbank.
Eight cars pulled over to help, all with local number plates. One man set about hooking up a tow rope while the other drivers looked down and collectively decided to try and push it back onto the road.
In a matter of minutes, the car was on the bitumen, the embarrassed driver given a slap on the back and friendly warning, “Next time bring snow chains, eh?” Before we knew it, everyone had climbed back into their cars and vanished. It was chilling, though our experience was that people up here helped just because it’s the right thing to do.
My boyfriend successfully changed the tyre, finding a large puncture caused by a sharp piece of gravel. Local authorities spread it onto the road after big freezes to help travelling vehicles grip the ice.
Fortunately, we brought two spares.
The sky cleared and the air warmed slightly as we continued on our way. We saw an abundance of wildlife along the sides of the road. Bison were calving, and we saw their tiny caramel-coloured babies hiding in the middle of the herd as nearby brown bears watched with interest. Caribou looked up and stared at us warily before vanishing back into the woods. Black bears prowled, eagerly looking for snacks.
It’s frontier country, incredibly beautiful, and at times it felt like we were the only two people on earth.
Liard River Hot Springs was one of the highlights of our trip. We stopped for a quick dip and met some locals who were working at a construction site nearby. We dashed into the change rooms and quickly changed into our swimwear before racing out of the cold into the warm water.
The springs are crystal clear, with a bluish tinge, and surprisingly hot. So hot, in fact, we lasted only a few minutes before we had to hop out and cool down in the frigid air. We got back in and our bodies slowly adjusted, relaxing deeply after several days of camping. We could have stayed for hours.
It’s just 20km from where Mr Fowler’s and Ms Deese’s bodies were found, and it breaks my heart that this is where their journey ended. The world is a wildly unpredictable place, but it’s devastating to think that what was such a magical experience for my boyfriend and I was so tragic for others — not just Mr Fowler and Ms Deese, but for their families and the local community left shocked over the random and horrific attack.
Here is what Mr Fowler and Ms Deese didn’t get to see.
Our destination that night was Watson Lake, a tiny town of 790 people a few hours further up the road into the Yukon Territory. We stopped for a hot homemade meal at a local diner and were just pulling out of town looking for a place to camp when we spotted something unusual.
The tiny town is home to the so-called Sign Post Forest, a collection of some 77,000 signs from all over the world. It’s believed to have been started by a homesick American GI, who put up a sign to his hometown in the American state of Illinois back in 1942.
It’s since taken on a life of its own, with signs from all over the United States, Europe and even a handful from Australia. The multitude of sign posts gives the impression of a real forest and the effect is amazing.
To be honest, the Yukon feels vaguely familiar.
In some ways, it’s the cold version of outback Australia. The terrain is rugged, the distances are vast and the people are welcoming and friendly. While the landscapes are undeniably beautiful, there is always a sense of relief to reach the next town and enjoy luxuries like toilets and running water.
Whitehorse, the capital and the only city, is built on the shores of the Yukon River. The region was occupied for several thousand years by Canada’s First Nations, however, the Klondike gold rush attracted tens of thousands of people trying to strike it rich in the late 19th century.
After days of camping in the car, we were delighted to see a wide range of cafes, bakeries, diners and restaurants off the main street. We parked and made a beeline for one, ordering hot drinks and sumptuous breakfasts before taking turns washing our faces with hot water in the rest room.
An estimated 300,000 people drive the route each year. Many are Alaskans and Yukoners, “sourdoughs”, who purposefully drive south to visit friends and family. Most are visitors like us, “cheechakos”, who meander north, wide-eyed, determined not to forget a single minute of the journey.
Destruction Bay is one of those places.
The highway crosses the Kluane Lake, an enormous body of water halfway between Whitehorse and the US border, before running along the shore for about 50km. In the late afternoon, as we approached, the setting sun cast a golden glow across the water. It was truly one of the most stunning places I’ve seen.
As we drove past, the first tourists were setting up their tents, backing their boats into the water and unpacking their fishing rods. It was quiet, but it was easy to imagine the bustle of tourism services and crowds of visitors that were preparing to descend over the course of the following weeks.
Before we knew it, we were at the border to the United States. Signs tell the history of the road and flags mark the respective sides. There is no fence separating the two countries, but a clear line has been meticulously slashed through the trees as far as the eye can see in both directions.
Truthfully, we weren’t quite ready to leave Canada.
In the end, a swarm of mosquitoes made the decision for us, forcing us to take refuge in the safety of the car. We fired it up and continued down the road into Alaska.
Kirrily Schwarz is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @KirrilySchwarz