Road Report #6
July 24, 2008
From Fairbanks, the road to Dawson City crosses an international border – Alaska, USA to Yukon Territory, Canada. On the US side it is called the Taylor Highway. I don’t know what designates something as a “highway,” but this one is partly paved, partly dirt and partly potholes linked by narrow ribbons of rocks and gravel.
The US end of the road is not that interesting. It climbs into the high country then follows the mountain ridges along a landscape that consists of gnarly black spruce with great swatches of burnt out taiga. The exception to all that desolation is the town of Chicken. This is another gold rush town, except that the original townsite of Chicken is actually some 25 miles away on private land.
The name is a bit odd but when you hear the story it makes sense. The townspeople had wanted to call the town after the area’s most prolific resident, the ptarmigan bird. But no one knew how to spell “ptarmigan” so they settled on Chicken.
The road is closed through the winter months, isolating the 15 people live here year round but some people seem to like that. The cafe owner told me that summers are so busy she really looks forward to the quiet winter months.
It’s a funny little town – a “gold rush style” strip mall consisting of a gift shop, a cafe and a saloon. Down the hill there are a couple RV parks, another cafe and vault toilets surrounded by pansies.
We had the best burgers and pie here then took cinnamon rolls away with us – made by the teenaged boy running the grill for his mom at the cafe. She says she considered not even opening up this year – the price of gasoline was expected to kill traffic, but says she is actually about 20% up in sales. Seems like a lot of people who have been contemplating an Alaska road trip see it as a “now or never” thing.
It will be interesting to see what next summer brings. Perhaps Sarah Palin’s rising star will inspire enough new curiosity about Alaska that a whole new crop of travelers come up for a look.
About a hundred miles in from Fairbainks you reach the US/Canada border station. Sure feels like the loneliest border post in the world, up there on top of the “Top of the World Highway,” which is what they call the road once it crosses into Canada.
I am not just being patriotic, but on the Canadian side of the border the road is just so much more beautiful. You are higher for one thing. There are no trees, just gorgeous windswept velvet green meadows. Wild cranberries peek out from among the lichen covered rocks. Lichen is the mouldy-looking flat-leafed vegetation that sustains the caribou through the long winter. Apparently it is supersaturated with high quality carbs. I’ll remember that if I find myself up here in the winter without food.
Finally came to the Yukon River – a vast, swiftly moving river that well deserves the adjective “mighty”. The free ferry over really struggles against the current of this powerful river. The slow passage gives you a chance to admire the Dawson waterfront and ponder what this town meant to the thousands of miners who came out of the hills to spend their cache in the Paris of the North.
The town’s claim to fame is truly its starring role in the Klondike Gold Rush so the city fathers and mothers are being careful to preserve that ambience. All the roads are dirt surfaced, even the most decrepit old buildings are being propped up and preserved, while new buildings are designed to fit in with their historical designs.
Lunching in a local eatery it was interesting to overhear some Yukoners just in from the bush talking about “down here in the big city.” To us this still looks like a small rural town but they are right. In comparison to most settlements in the north – place names on the map that turn out to be nothing more than a boarded-up roadhouse, Dawson City is, indeed, a city with at least some of the services and amenities we southerners take for granted.
Parks Canada offers escorted walking tours around town. For only $6.30 a knowledgeable young woman dressed in period costume gave us some real insights into what life was like here during the gold rush era and also today.
We also went to see a short play in the Palace Grand Theatre about the women of Dawson. In the evening we took in the Diamond Tooth Gertie show for $6. This was a singing, dancing, hurdy-gurdy show with can can dancers and Gertie herself in full colour All good fun.
The weather is supposed to clear tomorrow so we’ll start on up the Dempster to Inuvik.
July 26, 2008
There is no soft entry onto the Dempster Hwy. It’s gravel from kilometer one and frankly, the first 50 kilometers had us thinking about turning around – extremely rough and dead boring with solid banks of deciduous trees on either side of the road. After that it gets considerably more interesting as the hills turn into mountains that segue into Tombstone National Park with its massive granite faces and sweeping valleys.
But as beautiful as the landscape might be, the downer is the truly brutal road. The potholes alternate between better and worse but always, everywhere, on this wet day the roads were covered in thick black oily mud. It sticks to everything and dries like cement. This could be a long 736 km to Inuvik.
The weather prediction for today was sunny. Alas, skunked again. Not too cold though, 17 degrees C. Arrived in Eagle Plains, the half way point by late afternoon. The architecture is the same style as that in Alaska – long banks of industrial trailers hooked together into bedrooms and dining rooms and so on. We are in the campground - $10.50 for the use of the bathrooms with hot showers. Free WIFI in the lobby and access to cafeteria and bar if we want it.
As soon as we landed a million mosquitoes descended on us to the extent that I put on my headnet and Steve was even spraying himself. But as quickly as they came, they left so don’t know what that was all about.
Eagle Plains is on a high plain, overlooking beautiful sweeping valleys on both sides. Very pretty and when the weather lifts we have a magnificent sunset.
July 27, 2008
Awoke to rain – feeling downhearted and a little worried about the condition of the road out there. These dirt roads turn into slick, greasy skating rinks in the rain. But it was not too bad. Chased the sun all day and by mid afternoon we were in Inuvik and the sun was shining. T-shirt-weather warm too.
Along the way we had planned to stop in Fort McPherson for lunch, but no go. This is the only town between Eagle Plains and Inuvik. We assumed there would be restaurants. It’s not that we need the food, more that we are looking for entertainment, I guess. We find it interesting to sit in these small town cafes, kibitzing with the waitress, chatting up the locals. It’s how we get a sense of what is important to these people and what life up here is like. But no cafes. Not a one. Apparently they had one once. But it’s been closed for a long time.
Further down the road we came to Inuvik, marginally more prosperous looking. The housing all looks like it was built at the same time, row on row. Either free-standing single-family houses, identical, or row housing, also identical, row on row on row. With the row housing some interesting paint jobs have been instituted recently. Or perhaps it is metal siding. The bright colours definitely cheer the place up.
Drove/walked through downtown. Lots of people sitting around on the doorstops of closed shops because it is Sunday.
There are three interesting things here. The first is the iglu church: Our Lady of Victory, completed in 1960. It was built over two summers by Brother Maurice Larocque and a dedicated team of volunteers. Just like you have to take a snap of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you have to take a photo of iglu church in Inuvik, so there you are – look to your left.
The next is the greenhouse, actually the largest shared greenhouse on the planet – 70 plots and a 40,000 sq ft commercial operation. The town had an old ice arena gathering dust – until someone got the bright idea to turn it into a greenhouse. So now people grow their own fresh produce. Very cool.
The third cool thing about Inuvik is the Great Northern Arts Festival in late July. Now in its 20th year, the festival is renowned for attracting the most extraordinary arts, crafts, and music. Apparently there were nearly 2,000 works of art on display this year – we just missed it.
July 28, 2008
Under clear blue sunny skies we head back down the Dempster. On the way back down, as we did coming up, we’ll cross the Peel, the MacKenzie and the Arctic Red Rivers. In the winter we’d cross the rivers over the ice. Being summer we take a ferry. What happens in between? For several weeks in the spring and the fall, during the transition from ferry to ice you simply do not cross.
Weather up here changes in a heartbeat d this morning the bright blue we started with transitioned in minutes to glowering grey with heavy rain melting the dirt roads into slick greasy mud. The van was slipping and sliding all over the place. I was hanging on for dear life – then the fog closed in and we couldn’t see further than a few feet ahead of us – but far enough to see a fellow crawling out of the mud at the side of the road.
His motorcycle had tossed him then tipped end over end, landing 30 feet down the cliff. He was very beat up but keeping his priorities straight. His baby was at the bottom of the cliff and could we help him drag her back up? So we got out our towing equipment and got to work. I would have given up after five minutes but it was a guy thing I guess. He and Steve worked at it for an hour and finally dragged that sucker – a HUGE BMW up the cliff and onto its feet.
So we are now calf deep in mud and the mosquitoes are drilling holes through our jeans and I am so miserable I am using the "f" word in relation to how much I want to be off this damn road – Dempster Hwy to be specific.
Oh well. The fellow started up the motorcycle and damned if the thing didn’t rev to life. In the meantime another fellow with a truck had stopped by and he loaded the guys gear. The “guy” got on his bike and we all drove the 70 km to Eagle Plain, the closest thing to civilization in this part of the world.
So here we are at the roadhouse – hot food, hot showers and the sun is once again blazing bright and blue. The mossies are back in full strength – but I’ve got a screen between me and them.
July 31, 2008
In the morning we set off for Klondike Junction. It was a relatively calm day – no rain. Quite a bit of cloud but it cleared time and again so we could see the scenery. Not as dramatic as the northern half of the road but interesting just the same.
But between Eagle Plains and the Junction there is nothing in terms of towns or cafes or roadhouses or fuel pumps. Nothing. Not even a great lake or a pull-off worthy of a picnic. We stopped at a rest area – just a graded clearing beside the road – set out our chairs, ate our lunch and waited for the “grizzly bear parade”. This is our little joke. We had been told that we would see tons of grizzly bears on this road. We’ve seen not a one. So we figure they are all off at the grizzly bear parade and we’ve not seen them because we are here on the cheapie “camp on your own” tour instead of the deluxe all-inclusive tour that includes the grizzly bear parade.
By early evening we’d arrived without incident at the Klondike River Junction. From here, the road west goes to Dawson City where we started from a few days ago. The road north returns to Inuvik and the road south to Whitehorse. We'll head for Whitehorse in the morning, after we wash a couple hundred pounds of black mud off the van.