Posts Tagged ‘Alaska’
An epic day, but we made it. 440kms doesn’t sound like a great distance, but over the roads we travelled today, it was. We went from Beaver Creek, Yukon to Dawson Creek, Yukon, in and out of Alaska like a boomerang.
The day broke crisp and clear, and stayed almost entirely cloudless the whole day. Things were stowed and we were on our way before long. By 9am (Alaska time) we crossed the border and drove in and our of low-lying fog. To our left was a massive valley, home of the Tetlin Wildlife Sanctuary. We stopped in a visitor’s centre and looked out over the fog-shrouded valley to the Nutzotin Mountains in the St. Elias.
We continued on this road – a vast qualitative improvement over the same route further east – about 80 miles to Tetlin Junction where we turned north and up the Taylor Highway. We climbed up into country made desolate by the spruce beetle; as far as you could see were dead, grey trees, looking like the landscape around Mt. St. Helens after it blew. There was some colour from the deciduous trees, but it felt bleak. The rolling hills and low mountains must have been beautiful just a few years ago.
We stopped at a pull-out next to some hunters scanning the landscape for caribou and moose. An unusual noise high in the sky got our attention, and we looked up to a cloud of sandhill cranes high in the sky, swirling and calling before wheeling to the south and flying away.
In the town of Chicken we had lunch next to an old mining dredge. The road west was heavily hit by flooding and landslides this spring, and by great fortune only just opened (we had confirmed by calling the Highways Department). The road was still in rough enough shape that we had to travel in a convoy with a pilot car. We drove in a small cluster of about six cars for around 25 miles over recently re-assembled roads. The area we passed through got more dramatic. We peered down precipitous slopes with rushing creeks below. The road was entirely gravel, so the group kicked up large clouds of dust.
Our pilot car retired at a junction. North it went to Eagle; we headed south towards Boundary and the Canadian border. The border post was one of the more dramatic I’ve seen. Apparently it is the most northerly land border in the US and Canada. It sits above the treeline among lichen-covered rocks.
The road we drove for the rest of our journey is called the Top of the World Highway, and this name is apt. As soon as we crossed the border, we drove a few hundred meters more to the summit of the pass, got out of the van and walked a short distance to a cairn. It was exhilarating. The mountains weren’t jagged and glaciated like those further south, but they had a grandness and openness; mountains rolled away in all directions, and the highway was draped like a thread off to the east.
We stayed at elevation for the next 90 or so kilometers, gasping at the landscape around us. The low sun (the golden hour for hours this far north) brought out all the relief and the colours. Heading east, the sun to our backs made it all the more dramatic. This area did not seem to suffer damage from the spruce beetle, so as we came among trees, they were healthy and green. The road was almost all gravel, and rough in places, so it was tiring driving, but it was one of the most amazing drives I’ve done.
It was not until we were about 10 or so kilometres from Dawson that we finally began to drop down. Around a bend the wide Yukon River appeared below us, and Dawson in the low sun. At the riverside a small ferry pulled up and lowered a gangway into the dirt and we drove on for a short ride across the swift current.
This are closing down fast for the season here, but we booked into a spot in an RV park across the Klondike River from town. Back in town we treated ourselves to a dinner out and the (Jack) London Grill: char for Kristi, a burger and beer for me. Back at the campground, a fox siting in the driveway just feet from us turned out to the be highlight of the evening.
We touched down in Whitehorse in the early afternoon yesterday under clear blue skies. The air was crisp as we walked into the terminal. After claiming our bags from the single carousel, we were soon at the Canadream RV rental place. A very pleasant and funny woman named Myrtle (who has trouble fathoming why someone would want to come to the Yukon for a holiday instead of sit on a beach with fruity drinks, and who told me 80% of the tourists up here are German) had us fill out all the paperwork and chatted with us about where we planned to drive, then our vehicle was revealed to us. It is a very large (21′ long) golden Ford camper van, fully furnished with a bed/eating area, bathroom, fridge, stove and other mod cons. It’s as nimble as a brick, but I must admit that it’s a lot of fun.
Once we were all familiarized with the van and had unpacked our bags into all the small and large compartments inside and outside the van, we set off of a grocery shopping spree at Superstore to stock our pantry and fridge for much of the next two weeks.
In the late afternoon we rolled about 15kms north of Whitehorse to Takhini Hotsprings. We set up the van in a lovely spot among aspens turning to fall colours and cooked a dinner of curry stirfry. In the long, light evening (still light until 9pm), we soaked in the outdoor hot springs pool, conveniently divided in two: one side a sweaty 48 degrees, and the other about 10 degrees cooler. We bobbed in the pools for a good hour before heading back for a blissful and silent sleep.
We woke naturally at about 7am and stepped outside to breathe in the coldish and fragrant air. The sky was clear blue, and we were very excited for the day. We rolled out soon after and headed into town to run a few errands, like buy a knife that could actually cut carrots, and find Kristi some polarized sunglasses so she could eat up the fall colours.
Our first day on the road has brought us south towards Skagway, AK. It was an absolutely gorgeous drive past enormous lakes, bare and rugged mountains, and forests of trees turning the most vivid shades of amber, mustards and pumpkin orange. We stopped at Carcross, an important junction on during the Klondike gold rush. We walked across its “desert” (glacial dunes), and wandered its few short streets looking at ancient cabins from the town and from others around it that were abandoned.
As we progressed south towards the coast, the clouds thickened and eventually the rain started to fall. The climb up to White Pass held the most spectacular terrain – a high alpine-like environment of stunted trees, jagged rocks and pale green water. We climbed up to meet the clouds, and the last miles to the summit, past Fraser BC and into Alaska were in thick clouds, with the sensation of a precipitous drop next to us. Downhill towards Skagway, we stopped (joined by a sodden cyclist) to peer down into the infamous Dead Horse Canyon on the White Pass trail. At the American customs, the officers politely relieved us of a green pepper, a grapefruit and an orange. We were given an itemized receipt for our produce (each item carefully weighed).
We arrived in dreary and wet Skagway with the intention of catching a ferry to Haines, AK. I hadn’t consulted the schedule, however, and unfortunately we missed the ferry by 20 minutes, so we are temporarily marooned in Skagway.
We were not alone, however. Four massive cruise ships were in port for the day and the streets were inundated with waddling jaywalking shoppers and snapshotters. It was an exercise in prudent driving not to leave several of them flat on the road behind our golden van.
Being stuck in Skagway didn’t thrill us; it’s not the most pleasant place and seems only to exist to serve the hoards of passengers who disembark then embark like the tides. As mentioned, it’s dark and wet and just feels different than the Yukon. Having read Pierre Burton’s Klondike before leaving, however, did make me a bit excited to be here at the start of the White Pass route to the gold fields and in a place with a history as a wretched hive of scum and villainy.
We parked in the dampish Mountain View RV park not far from the narrow gauge railroad tracks (tourist trains run up the history White Pass route multiple times a day). With the help of an internet connection we researched our next few day’s goals and confirmed to folks at home that we were still extant.
Heading away from the water for about 25 minutes on foot took us past the rail yards (spotted the remains of a rusting old steam engine on its side) and to the historic graveyard. Most of the gravestones are recent wooden replacements, meant to mimic the originals, but the place still had an eery feel. Again, it was interesting to see remnants of the history I’d read about.
Back “home” we cooked up a dinner of fish fillets, quinoa and salad, showered, wrote this, and prepared for bed.