Earning your damage
cracked windshield alaska highway
Photo: Chris Hunt

I debated the merits of springing for a new windshield last spring. I’d managed to accrue a handful of small-ish chips and cracks over the winter, and I’d even had a couple of the more egregious faults sealed and repaired. But it got cold during a road trip to Missoula last January, and I actually watched as a crack visibly wandered from one rock chip on the passenger side all the way across the bottom of the windshield to the rock chip on the driver’s side. There’s no patching that crap.

I’ve given up the glass repair deductible on my insurance. My rig, with its near-vertical windshield is a rock magnet, and my insurer actually threatened to drop me if I made another glass claim. What might be glancing blows on a traditional vehicle tend to leave quarter-sized impact craters, usually within my field of vision. Talented glass guys can repair some of them, but I’ve resigned myself to a new windshield every year. At least.

So when I left Idaho Falls on an Arctic fly fishing Odyssey at the end of June, I did so with a pre-cracked windshield. Considering my route along the Alaska Highway and then up the Dalton Highway and over the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean and eventually back south to the road system of Prince of Wales Island, I figured I’d earn a few more pits, chips and cracks, and that replacing it was pointless.

And I was so right.

The first new crater happened north of Fort Nelson, B.C., on the Alaska Highway. I was traversing a short stretch of road construction, with fresh gravel providing the perfect environment for the impact. A truck driving relatively slowly in the opposite direction kicked up a rock and sling-shotted into my windshield. If I didn’t have the glass between me and the rock, the damn thing would have left an exit wound out the back of my head.

I got lots more. Lots of little pits and dings and cracks. And then, driving the Cassiar Highway between Prince Rupert and Prince George, an industrial truck pulled onto the highway off of a gravel road just ahead of me. I watched as it gained speed, and I pumped the brakes a bit—I was towing a small camper and needed a bit more reaction time when folks decided there’s room for a big rig between me and them.

It was an empty hauler that had apparently just dumped a load of road base, and it was spraying gravel everywhere. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t slow down enough to get out of its jetwash, and I got nailed by a marble-sized rock. It hit the lower left corner of what was left of my windshield, and sprayed glass all over the dash. While the rock didn’t actually come through, it hit hard enough to shatter a four-inch circle. I picked glass out of my defrost vents off and on for the next couple of days, and, after a rainstorm mixed with a little sleet just south of Jasper, Alberta, the crack connected with a host of others, and the windshield was officially shot.

At first, I was bothered, but within minutes, my Zen kicked in. After all, the crack I started with was enough to justify a replacement. The rest of the chips, cracks and craters? Incidental contact on a life-time road trip across the north to some of the most amazing fly fishing on earth. Through that cracked and pitted windshield, I glimpsed vistas among the most beautiful on earth, hundreds of northland critters ranging from black bears and grizzly bears to stone sheep, woodland caribou and woodland bison, not to mention moose, eagles, elk, black-tail deer and Arctic foxes.

I traversed the southern Yukon and crossed the fabled river three times on my journey. I watched grayling rise happily to fat green drakes below a series of waterfalls on the Rancheria River through that windshield, and it seemed so perfect that I dared not make a mess of it by interfering. It was through the windshield that I first spied the deep blue waters of Muncho Lake, and the glacial flows of the Liard and Toad rivers.

Its cracked and shattered glass was my lens to a summer of adventure. Every nick and chip was a trophy, a campaign medal that boasted of casting to fat bull trout and grayling below Smith River Falls in northern B.C., or coaxing bright coho salmon to the fly in estuarial flows of Southeast Alaska. The spider-web lines across the glass spoke of dark, tannin-stained waters of the Alaskan rainforest and icy, clear rivers along the Denali Highway, the Alaska Range looming in the distance.

So when I got home and made the maintenance appointment for the rig, I hesitated before I told the technician that I needed new glass. It was through that windshield that I viewed the trip of a lifetime. I was oddly sentimental.

When the vehicle came out of the maintenance bay, all clean and polished, with fluid levels replenished and a new set of front brakes—the byproduct of hauling your house around with you—I climbed behind the wheel and stared out at eastern Idaho through an absolutely spotless sheet of glass.

New adventures await.