Alaska Search for Flathead V8s

by Rex Rice

When I was a boy growing up in the Pacific Northwest, we had a Spring ritual that was lots of fun. Our family would go out into the woods and look for Trilliums, a rare lily with three white petals at the top of a thin stalk. We would shout: “I spy!” when we found one. Here we are many years later and my wife and I still play this game on road trips, but instead of Trilliums, we look for  flathead Fords during our September camping trips. Even though we live on a small island near Port Townsend, Washington, that many people come very long distances to visit, when September comes, we pack our camping stuff into our old Toyota truck and take off. In 2001,we went to New York and back, sending a few pictures to Editor Jerry Windle for the ‘They’re Still Out There’ feature of the V-8 Times. In 2002, we drove to the Southwest and back, sending a few more. We have noticed that spotting flatheads from the road is getting tougher as the years roll on. In September 2003, we tent-camped to Alaska. We found that Alaska is like the lower 48 used to be years ago. We didn’t see many cars but we saw plenty of trucks. Here’s what we saw on this camping trip.

We drove onto the Alaska Ferry, Malaspina at Bellingham, Washington for the trip up the Inside Passage to Alaska. This ferry is one of nine that travel this route. Although it holds 700 passengers and 88 vehicles, it was only 1/3 full because this is the ‘off’ season. The scenery was spectacular with whales, dolphins, sunsets and great tours in towns along the way. We camped on the deck although cabins were available. It’s a few notches below the huge cruise ships we saw but the scenery is the same, (and the price was right). The trip took four days, stopping at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka before driving off at Haines. It helps to have a map of Alaska, the Yukon and British Columbia handy as this trip unfolds.

Just outside of Haines, we ‘spied’ our first flathead, a nicely restored red F-5 flatbed, for sale but no price listed. From Haines it was just a few miles to the Yukon border where we went through customs. Fuel prices were high here, around 90 cents Canadian per liter, but added to the exchange rate, I didn’t bother to figure it out but let my credit card company do the math. We re-entered the US again just past Beaver Creek. We dodged a bear and several moose in the road before we camped for the night at Tok, with 43 degrees and light rain. Between the roaring river and the truck-busy highway, it was a noisy night.  The next day, we met my brother-in-law and his wife in Delta Junction and followed them to their home in North Pole, just south of Fairbanks. Yes, it’s Christmas 365 days a year in North Pole and the place is decorated to suit. The post office is very busy in December, handling Santa’s mail.

The next day we drove out the Steese Highway towards Circle to ride ATV’s up into the mountains. Many Alaskans drag trailers around behind their big 4X4’s loaded with ATV’s. These knobby tired little guys took us across streams, up streams and through scrub forests to ‘way above the timberline. Most of the way was loaded with ripe blueberries and no bears, a great combination. On the way back to Fairbanks, we ‘spied’ a yellow F-8 at Long Creek and a red F-8 dump a few more miles later. The whole area was dredged-mined for gold, leaving miles of gravel piles along the road. Maybe these F-8’s were used for hauling bullion.

We spent a few days exploring Fairbanks and the Fords popped up like trilliums. A daily driver ’40 sedan was parked along a busy street, while a ’50 panel was spied in a front yard, ‘BEST OFFER TAKES IT’. Nice body. Just a few blocks away, a white F-6 flatbed appeared to be in use. On the outskirts of town, we found a rusty step- van surrounded with junk. Before we left Fairbanks, we saw a blue ’52 F-8 with large gas tanks, looking like it could easily run the Alaska Highway. Hiding behind some newer trucks was a faded red F-8 dump with current license plates.

Leaving Fairbanks, we drove south on the Parks highway through the first rainy weather on the trip, so Denali, though very close, was hidden from view. By the time we got to Anchorage, we had outrun the rain, but it caught up with us that night. We didn’t see any flatheads on this route.

Anchorage was a shock, 250,000 people, mostly driving cars, not 4X4’s like Fairbanks. The only ‘trillium’ spotted was a red ’51 coupe in a storage yard. We spent a day exploring the Kenai Peninsula, walking on glaciers, watching Beluga whales and ‘aaahhing’ and ‘oohing’ over the spectacular scenery. We saw old trucks but they were all brand ‘X’. One night in Anchorage, we saw the Aurora Borealis that stretched from horizon to horizon, a fantastic sight.

After a few days in Anchorage, we headed east on the Glennallen Highway that connects Anchorage to the Alaska Highway. We had a copy of ‘The Milepost’, a fat book that covers everything on the road in Alaska. By the end of the trip, it was dog-eared and worn. Don’t drive Alaska without one! We also found out that after September 15th, campgrounds, gas stations, museums, etc, close for the season. I had to return to Haines Junction when I found all of the gas stations were closed, an 80-mile waste of time and fuel.  Near milepost 123 we spotted a rusty green ’52 F-5 cab and chassis with no glass. That must be a chilly ride. The bumper is bent just like my ’52 F-1; how does that happen? A little further on we saw a green ’48 F-5 with the wheels removed. As we drove farther east, it began to get colder. We camped near Glennallen and awoke to 24 degrees and frost. We have light sleeping bags, good for about 40 degrees so we wore all of our clothes to bed. Soon, we were driving on ice and snow. We rolled into Haines Junction in the Yukon after a day of icy driving and rented a motel room since it was 18 degrees, the first motel of the trip. Near White Horse, we saw a nice ’51 F-1 covered with a bit of snow. Watson Lake is the town where people have brought signs from their hometowns and mounted them on poles. Did they steal them? A large forest of signs has been created and we could have spent hours wandering through it. But my wife wanted to get to Laird Hot Springs so she could get warm. We spent the better part of the day there, a wonderful place to camp and soak.

As we started to go south, it began to warm up. Plenty of wildlife was to be seen, moose, caribou, bear and deer. Traffic was very light. I could stop in the middle of the road and take pictures, taking plenty of time, not a vehicle in sight. Near Wonowon, BC, we found a terrible campground, the only one site available, but without a mis-adventure or two, a trip would have little to talk about later.

By the time we got to Hixon, BC, it was cold and raining. We found the Paradise Motel, a great place just off the highway. With ‘60’s furniture, one channel TV and a kitchenette, we were in a 1960 paradise.

Continuing on the next morning in the rain, we decided to drive the 52-mile side-trip to Barkerville, a BC Heritage park. In a pouring rain, we decided, since we drove so far, to pay admission and go in. It was good decision as it was fantastic! We spent the whole day, wallowing in the rain and immersing ourselves in this ghost town brought alive by real life characters hired by BC Heritage Parks. All that was missing was a few flat-head Fords. We found a wonderful private campground in Deep Creek with plenty of stacked firewood so we had a great campfire. Once again, we were the only campers, it being the ‘off’ season.

Driving down the Thompson River to Cache Creek, the scenery was awesome. We stopped there to check my email but the library (and museum) were closed, a familiar scenario since 9/15. But there were flat-head Fords! Two F-3 pick-ups were sitting next to an antique store downtown, both needing lots of work to put right again.

Soon we were into hot weather, driving down the beautiful Frazer River and entering Washington State at the tiny town of Sumas. We camped one more night at Larrabee State Park, where we camped the night before we sailed on the Malaspina 23 days before. We covered 2,045 miles in our old ’90 Toyota pick-up with no trouble, making dull conversation for that part of the trip.

Lesson learned: September is a good time to visit Alaska but we would have fared better if we had driven up to Fairbanks and taken the boat back, reducing the time we spent trying to find open gas stations and camp grounds after the 15th. And every year will see fewer flathead Fords.