HIT THE ROAD!
Two old timers slouch in chairs outside the saloon. Hats clamped low on their foreheads, stubbled chins, and dusty boots. “Guess I should head home,” one drawls. “Why do you want to do that?” questions the other as they settle more comfortably in their seats. Nothing happens in a hurry in Chicken, Alaska.
When friends ask us along on a northern driving trip, we jump at the chance. With refrains of “There are strange things done in the midnight sun …” in our heads, we plan a week long circle route from Whitehorse, Yukon to Dawson City, into Alaska over the Top of the World highway, back into Canada through Kluane National Park, to Haines and Skagway, and back up to Whitehorse.
A saunter along the Yukon River in Whitehorse brings us to the SS Klondike. Of the many paddle wheelers plying the upper Yukon from 1929 to 1936, she was the largest. Passengers had staterooms on the upper deck while provisions destined for Dawson City crammed the lower one. On the return run, she carried ore from the mines. The trip from Whitehorse to Dawson took one and half days. We could drive the same distance in seven hours but take our time as summer daylight lasts about nineteen hours.
By Lake Laberge, I recite Robert Service’s epic “The Cremation of Sam McGee”. It is hungry work and at a roadside cafe we indulge in a cinnamon bun the size of my head. We enjoy the quiet solitude at a turquoise lake and browse the rustic artifacts around the grounds of the Lodge at Moose Creek.
Dawson City fascinates us with its Klondike gold rush history. There are no paved streets or concrete sidewalks because the permafrost would cause them to heave. Buildings a century or more old are either decrepit, fixed up just on the front and a ruin otherwise, have sod roofs sprouting grasses and flowers, or are lovingly refurbished.
A side trip from Dawson takes us to Tombstone Territorial Park, part way up the Dempster Highway. The length of this lonely road running through the tundra all the way to Inuvik is akin to driving on a gravel road from Vancouver to Banff.
After leaving Dawson City by ferry across the Yukon River, we explore the paddlewheel graveyard. Here, once stately ships slowly disintegrate into matchsticks and rust on the river bank. Roadside on the Top of the World Highway, we savour the windswept emptiness and the distant view of our highway undulating over dark green mountains. Crossing the border at Poker Creek ushers us into Alaska and it is a downhill run to Old Chicken. We browse the General Store, the hat festooned saloon, and learn that only a few of the fifty plus residents of the town stay for the winter.
At the utilitarian crossroad town of Tok, we head south on the Alaska Highway, cross back into Canada and skirt the edge of Kluane National Park. Pink wildflowers and burgundy barley grass proliferate along the road and the towering St. Elias Mountains hem brilliant blue Kluane Lake. The Kluane Museum of Natural History at Burwash Landing, with its excellent dioramas of local wildlife, is a welcome leg stretch. In the traditional First Nations fish camp of Klukshu, we wander past ramshackle cabins and bear proof fish drying enclosures.
It must be a hive of activity when the salmon are running. Walking through a virtually empty campground brings us to a boardwalk flanking a narrow canyon with the roaring Million Dollar Falls. Some bear sightings cause much excitement and a flurry of photo snapping.
Heading further south, we cross back into Alaska; destination Haines to catch the ferry to Skagway. The cruise along the fiord is a smooth glide past dark, densely forested mountains.
It is late when we arrive in Skagway and its historic main street is deserted. Not so in the morning. Instead of mingling with thousands from the cruise ships in the harbour, we explore the isolated Dyea town site. In Gold Rush times, Dyea’s proximity to the start of the Chilkoot Trail made it a bustling port for Klondike stampeders. Now reclaimed by the forest, there is hardly any evidence of the town.
We leave the coastal rain forest behind and climb up to the alpine tundra of the White Pass. The many glacier blue lakes and steep mountains gift us with eye candy at every turn. Our explorations end when we spot the world’s largest weather vane, an actual DC3 aircraft, at the Whitehorse airport. Like the old codger in Chicken, it’s time we head home.
IF YOU GO:
On the Web:
Whitehorse is a 2.5 hour flight from Vancouver. Our circle route covered approximately 2100 kilometers.
S.S. Klondike, Whitehorse http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/yt/ssklondike/index.aspx
Parks Canada Klondike National Historic Sites of Canada http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/yt/klondike/index.aspx
Dawson City http://www.yukoninfo.com/dawson-city-yukon/
Dempster Highway http://www.env.gov.yk.ca/publications-maps/documents/dempster_travelogue.pdf
Top of the World Highway http://www.yukoninfo.com/region/top-of-the-world-highway/
Kluane National Park http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/yt/kluane/index.aspx
PHOTOS: (as attributed below)
1. The S.S. Klondike in Whitehorse, K. Cullen photo
2. On the Dempster Highway, G. Cullen photo
3. Roadside on the Top of the World Highway, K. Cullen photo
4. Chicken, Alaska, K. Cullen photo
5. Wildflowers and Kluane Lake, K. Cullen photo
6. Traditional fish camp, Klukshu, K. Cullen photo
7. Overlooking a lake in the White Pass, G. Cullen photo
8. DC3 weathervane, Whitehorse
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