From here to the coast of Alaska, the Haines Highway passes through three ecological zones named after the dominant tree species and general climate of the region.
A. Coastal Western Hemlock Zone
A mild and wet climate prevails in this region of temperate rainforest. The coniferous forests are among the most productive ecosystems of the world and are home to trees of great age and massive proportions. Standing dead trees, called “snags”, and fallen trees crisscross the forest floor. These wind generated features and the gaps they create in the forest canopy provide for a wide variety of habitats.
Sea ducks, such as the Surf Scoter, migrate here in great numbers and the Stellar’s Jay is a year-round resident. Colourful Townsend’s Warblers, Pacific-slope Flycatchers and Golden-crowned Kinglets perch in the old-growth forest canopy.
B. Mountain Hemlock Zone
This zone ranges in altitude from 400 to 1000 metres above sea level. Dens stands of mountain hemlock occur at low elevations with Sitka spruce and subalpine fir common among the creeks. Mountain hemlock and subalpine fir dominate the upper elevations and the trees become smaller and gnarlier. With increasing elevation the forest thins to a parkland where three clumps (krumholz) dot a landscape of subalpine heath, meadow and fen vegetation.
The Mountain Hemlock Zone has short cool summers with up to 5,000 mm of annual precipitation, most of which falls as snow. The deep snow pack can cause avalanches and caution is advised for spring skiers and snowmobiliers.
C. Alpine Tundra Zone
This rugged, treeless zone, located high in the mountains, is treasured by hikers, skiers and snowmobilers. Ice and snow meets rock and tundra and the plants are typically small and grow close to the ground. Species like moss campion escape drying winds by forming cushions or mats and they can grow to dinner-plate size in decades. Other plants, like woolly pussy toes, grow fuzzy hair that helps to trap warm air, and reduce water loss and insulate them from the cold winds.
The Haines Road (1992 Install)
The road constructed by the U.S. Public Roads Administration in 1943 was a basic haul road. It was built in a hurry as an emergency supply line and project engineers chose the easiest route, ignoring local advice about trouble spots. According to one Haines resident, "They learned later that there are a number of places where experience is more important than science."
The road saw little maintenance over the next year. Fighting had ended in the Aleutians and the Haines road was no longer a military priority. The crews who re-opened the road in 1945 found several wash-outs, a large slide at mile 45, and collapsed bridges on the Klehini and Blanchard Rivers. Maintenance work over the next few years required much rerouting around trouble spots.
Driving the road remained a challenge due to the narrow roadway, hairpin turns, and the steep ascent to the summit. In 1977, the United States and Canada signed an agreement, the Shakwak Project, to improve the highway corridor from the U.S. border to Beaver Creek, Yukon. The United States spent $83,485,000 Canadian funds for the Haines Road reconstruction. Canada managed the project and Canadians and Americans did the work. Between 1978 and 1990, the Haines Road was relocated and surfaced creating a modern highway capable of bearing year-round heavy truck traffic.
The Haines Road winds through a mountain pass infamous for severe storms. At times, the roadbed disappears under drifting snow, while blizzards or dense fog can reduce visibility to nothing.
Since 1963, when the road was first opened for winter travel, various measures have been taken to make the road safer for travellers. These include survival shelters and tall poles set along the edge of the road to mark the location of the roadway under deep snow. From 1963 to 1974, there were also five staffed checkpoints along the road. The driver checked in at each station, and word of his coming was radioed ahead to the next point. If the vehicle did not reach the next checkpoint in a reasonable amount of time, a search party was dispatched.
Today's traveller does not face the same hazards. During heavy snowstorms, drivers are stopped at either the US/Canada border at Pleasant Camp or at Haines Junction, until maintenance crews have cleared the road.