It figures! Of all the towns that we’ve visited in Canada so far, the one that I liked the best is our last. Well, Dawson is the kind of town tailor-made for tourist . . . sort of like Tombstone or Jerome in Arizona, but with more than one street. There’s a good mix of new and old. Shops, restaurants, and exhibits are distributed throughout the town. The streets aren’t paved and board walks keep pedestrians boots out of the mud.
Because it’s situated on the Yukon River, it served as a supply and shipping depot for gold rush minors. Stern-wheelers would bring supplies and people up from Whitehorse and the mines would send gold and silver ore in return. It’s one of the last places you can catch a paddle-wheeler for a river cruise.
You get the sense that the merchants play all of their cards. One of the department stores we visited looked like a normal tourist trap, with trinkets and tee shirts up front, but towards the back were household goods and appliances. When the tourists disappear, the locals get you through the winter.
Probably the iconic Kissing Houses is the post card shot with which you are most familiar. I can testify the buildings still stand in 2016, well over a century later. There are several structures like them in town. They lean because the builders placed the heated building’s foundations directly on the permafrost. The buildings warmth melted the ice and then the footings sank. Today’s building codes prevent damage like this.
Tucked way back in the town are the cabins of Robert Service and Jack London. They weren’t neighbors because London’s era was in the 19th century while Service didn’t live here for another 20 years. Actually Jack London’s cabin is a replica discovered 80 miles away. Historians reconstructed it using some of the original logs while a duplicate cabin in California has the rest of the logs.
We had a good day here and we’ll be leaving via the river ferry to the ‘Top of the World Highway’. It got its name because it follows the ridge-lines. We’ll spend tomorrow night in Chicken, Alaska; a three building town that has more chicken puns than the world needs. I wonder if we’ll eat at KFC.
PS: As I publish this post, the time is 10:44pm, and the sun has not gone down.
A couple of days ago, my friend Jeff wrote in a post comment that he had noticed strange snake-like formations along each side of the road near Dawson City, and he wondered if I could find out what they were. As you drive into Dawson, it’s obvious what he was talking about, because they’re everywhere. When he asked, I thought I would just reply with an answer, but since these ‘strange’ formation are an interesting part of the Yukon history, I’ll turn it into a full post.
The formations that he noticed are huge piles of river rock and they make ten foot mounds. The tops of the piles have and undulating pattern and they sweep back and forth. Some of them are newer with no vegetation growing, while others are already covered with trees.
The piles are simply river bottom dredged from the creek bottom and piled along the bank. It was one of these contraptions that made these piles:
This is the No. 4 Dredge on Bonanza Creek and is under going full restoration. During the short placer mining season a crew of four would run one of these babies twenty-four hours a day. The would dredge up the bottom and sides of rivers, process the load on board, then dump the tailing out the other side. When they ran, they could fill up a normal dump truck every three seconds. At the height of the gold rush, there were twenty-seven of these eight story monsters running at the same time.
Crews positioned them at the mouth of a water-way and they would work their way upstream. Before they could start work, all the vegetation was stripped from the land. If you lived in the way, you were out of luck, because mineral rights trumped property rights. Then the permafrost had to me melted, by pumping steam into the ground. Finally the dredge would crawl its way up the creek at a rate of a foot a day.
Strip mining at it’s best, Ah? The units were 95% efficient, so the area is still crawling with miners working active claims. Fred and I visited the original claim today, which is a park called the Discover Claim, and wondered if any gold was left. We both doubted it, but picked up a shiny rock in the creek anyway.
Our drive to Carmacks today was an easy one. It wasn’t too far, the roads were all in good shape and there weren’t any steep passes. As it happens, we were in our camp and setting up in time for lunch.
There isn’t much of a town, a couple of stores and a gas station along with the RV Park we’re in. There is a bit of history about the town and the person it was named after. George Washington Carmack was a miner who explored the Yukon and found a vein of coal near here. His great fame came later when he discovered the gold nugget that set off the Klondike Gold Rush and the Klondike Gold Field between here and Dawson.
The country is beautiful and the Yukon River flows north until it makes a couple of sweeping bends around the town before heading north again. We had time to stop and read the roadside information signs and they explained that the mountains are formed from conglomerate rock. Like concrete it’s made up of smaller rock glued together with mud (instead of cement). Part of the mountains sloughed off creating a formation called the Whitehorse Trough and the highway runs its length.
Downstream from here is a rapids called Five Finger Rapids. There are four large formations of these conglomerate rock in the river and since they’re more resistant to erosion, they’ve created a fall in the river. To get the steamboats through the rapids, engineers had to build a cable and wench system to haul the boats up and down.
Since our back door is on the Yukon, Fred and I got in some fishing before dinner. We finally landed something. I caught an Arctic Grayling and a White Fish, while Fred landed two more Grayling. I feel a lot better about all the new fishing equipment now that we’ve actually caught something.
This was our last full day in Whitehorse. Fred and I tried to fish the Yukon River and got skunked again this morning, but we each had a strike, or at least that’s what we told each other. The rest of the day we stocked up with needed staples then did a little sightseeing.
While we played tourist yesterday, we never got to the town’s biggest museum piece, so we made a point to stop at the paddle-wheeler Klondike in the afternoon. It is the riverboat hauled ore and supplies between Dawson City and Whitehorse on the Yukon River. It’s a huge ship with two 450hp steam engines and it took half of a forest to fuel the boiler.
Going down stream it took more than a day with one stop for wood, but coming back to Whitehorse against the current the trip was over four days with as many refueling stops. As you would expect the ship is in mint condition with era specific supply boxes and simulated bags of silver stacked neatly in the cargo hold. Since we were second class passengers we didn’t get to see the first class cabins or the wheelhouse. That would have interested me.
Back at camp, I had to go look at the WWII era military vehicles lined up beside the entrance. I’m not certain if these were used for the construction of the Alaska/Canada Highway or not, but as with Route 66 kitsch at home, any memorabilia that can tie in with the theme is helpful. There are about five on display and although they’re not restored, they really aren’t in bad shape. I’m sure they could be used in a collection somewhere instead of yard art along the road.
Tomorrow, we’re going to make a side trip off of the Alaska Highway and head north to Dawson City. That’s the other big town in the Yukon and it is highly recommended. It’s also the home of author Jack London, whom I read as a lad. On the same street is the cabin of Robert Service, Yukon’s famous poet.
We’re going to break the trip up by making a stop midway in a town called Carmacks, a small town on the banks of the Yukon River. Then on to Dawson City for a couple of days. After that we will be in . . . (ta-DA!) Alaska after almost a month of traveling.
Finally, we’ve made it to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territories. I know this is hard to believe but, TV was invented before my formative years and one of the shows my family would watch was Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. “On King! On you huskies!” (That’s all kind of weird now because if he had a horse (Rex), so what did he need a dog sled for? And, how do you pick one of eight dogs as a favorite and not piss off the rest?). The show was transported from the radio shows of the 40’s. At the time, it was high adventure and we didn’t question authority.
Today we explored Whitehorse and hard as I tried, I didn’t see anyone dressed in the iconic Red Mounties uniform. Nary a one was in sight; only men and women dressed in blue, driving RCMP vehicles. Disappointed, we returned to camp to drown our sorrows, then Janet and Tim, another Casita couple we’ve met along our journey, showed us a photo of her posing with . . . yes, Sergeant Preston. It was taken at the gay pride festival held in the downtown park . . . and we missed it. I’m devastated.
Compared to our recent stops, Whitehorse is a big city . . . well, a city big enough to support 22,000 residents. They even have a commercial airport. I can verify this because our camp is at the end of the runway. Fortunately only two 737s come in and leave each day, one in the morning and one in the evening. There aren’t many glamour shops, but you can probably get any thing you need here, except a starter relay for a Mercedes-Benz.
It’s located along the Yukon River which is either the third or fourth largest (depends upon your source) drainage system in North America. Even this far from the sea, the water flows with enough volume that all of Arizona could be turned into a golf course with the amount of water flowing by the old riverboat dock each day.
The architecture is a mix of new functional boxes mixed with rustic homes and shops, so there is are historic and new buildings, something that I’ve missed in the last couple of towns we’ve stayed. There is a real art community shown by murals depicting historic scenes on buildings. My second art clue is that the a lot of the historic sites restored to ‘like new’ or better condition. That takes a lot of resources that, I imagine a town this size couldn’t afford without a strong volunteer organization.
For a town this size, there are a lot of good restaurants. Last night, we chose the top pick from TripAdvisor.com called Klondike Rib and Salmon BBQ. I don’t really want to do reviews in this blog, but it’s worth a mention. Good ribs yes, but you can get them anywhere. BBQ salmon . . . let’s put it this way; Queen Anne hates fish and her top hate is salmon. We split the ribs and salmon dish (their special) and I made her try a bite. She didn’t finish her ribs and asked to try more of my salmon. That’s strong testimony. Well recommended, but expect a line out the door if you come.
Fred and I are still tied at zip apiece, so tomorrow we’re going to toss lines at the Yukon River. With that flow, I don’t expect to have much luck, but what the heck; it beats doing laundry.
The town of Watson Lake is a little more than a wide spot in the road and for some reason, we’ve spent three days here. It seems more important on the travel brochures than it really is. Oh well, Fred and I got some fishing, or should I say, ‘Casting Practice’ in today. I’d better step up my game, because Fred actually had a fish strike this morning. Just to make things clear, we’re both tied at zip apiece.
Watson Lake is another town that isn’t in its original place, like Ft. Nelson. When building the Alaska/Canada Highway, it bypassed the Watson Lake by about four miles. The town moved lock, stock and barrel down to the highway. Only the airport remains at the original town site, with a small terminal and a great WWII wooden hangar. The rest of the historic buildings never made the transfer.
Watson Lake and the airport have another historical relic. In the days after the Second World War, the airport was a testing site for cold weather aviation. In 1946 a crew, on a flight from Edmonton, was making the last turn to land, when they lost the starboard engines. To shorten the story, they never recovered and the plane went into the lake. Two crew members died trapped in the frigid waters inside the British Bomber. Rescuers saved the other four. Except for the salvaged parts, the plane’s skeleton still sits in the lake, but you need a boat or plane to view it.
There is another landmark in town and that’s the Sign Post Forest. During the road building, army solder Carl Lindley was so homesick he made up a sign with the mileage to his home town; Danville, Illinois. In the spirit of ‘Kilroy Was Here’, other travelers continued to add to the collection. Today there are more than seventy-five thousand signs in a haphazard maze that takes up a city block. We didn’t bring one from home, but we should have, however we did find one from Congress. In 2003 the Signpost Forest was designated a Yukon Historical Marker. If you come this way, remember to bring your sign.
The other town attraction is the Northern Lights Center, a sort of Cinerama movie about the Aurora Borealis. It’s a neat 20 minute movie but Imax, it’s not. The projection resolution is awful, both because of the projector and the overlapping screen panels. They should get rid of the projection system and replace it with a curved LED screen. Then it would be spectacular. The seats all recline so you can take in all the domed screen and the narrator’s voice was so relaxing, I fell asleep twice.
I hadn’t mentioned it, but I found some waders in Ft Nelson, so last night I made sure they fit. The gang all did the usual cat calls, so I had to model my new outfit. I’m fighting with them about the idea of posting one of their pictures. When Fred and I went out this morning, to a recommended place, I started to cross the road and two tenths of a mile up, a black bear sow with three cubs was doing the same. For a moment I thought about getting back in the car, but fishing was more important than a bunch of Teddy Bears, so I walked down to the creek.
We’ve arrived in the Yukon and <best pirate voice> least ye be warned mates, pirates in these waters be </pirate voice>. More about that later, but first I want to talk about the trip.
For those of you interested in maps, here’s a fun fact for you. The British Columbia/Yukon border is the 60th parallel. We made the 320 mile trip from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake and we are now in the Yukon Territories. That means we’re less than seven degrees from the Arctic Circle; land of the midnight sun.
Today’s drive was long and complicated by several road construction crews along the way. The worst held us up for over forty-five minutes. I know that the roads have to be repaired, but why couldn’t you have done all of this work last year. Didn’t you know that Queen Anne was touring?
The highway led in a northwest direction and the snow capped peaks of the northern Rockies looming on our distant left, became a maze that the road traversed. It rained, the temperature dropped and that was were the worst construction was. Once we made it through the passes all was well again and the temperature on arrival was in the low 80s.
We saw a lot of game along the road. There were two or three small groups of Stone Sheep (a subset of Big Horns), two black bear, a small brown bear and numerous bison. The bison are so numerous that we don’t even count them anymore. We do slow down when they’re on the road like today.
Because the construction put us behind, we got into Watson Lake late, so we haven’t checked the town out yet. We’re going to spend three days here so I’m sure there will be updates.
Oh! The Pirates? That was the news we got at our campgrounds, which I consider the least attractive of our trip so far. It seems that up here, the Internet is considered a novel frill. All RV parks provide free service as part of your stay. In the Yukon, you also get free WiFi . . . for an hour. After that it’s $10.00 (CDN) for each additional half hour. We also get another hour on each day we stay, but have to go to the office to pick up a new user name and password.
I was upset enough that I fruitlessly protested to the inn keeper and for a brief moment thought of moving on. We’re tired however and need the rest. Besides, I have to catch a fish before Fred does.
Summer Solstice; the longest day of the year and we celebrated it here in Fort Nelson, or mile 300 on the Alaskan/Canadian highway. At 58.81 degrees north, we’re only five degrees south of the Arctic Circle and night is a constantly dusk. It’s not getting dark and the queen’s eye masks aren’t enough to let her sleep comfortably. She had to make a set of dark curtains to make it through the night lack of night.
The road yesterday turned westerly again towards the Canadian Rockies. We haven’t gotten to the big craggy mountains yet. The geography is more like the Appalachians, low-lying mountains with an occasional cliff and river canyon. The oil industry is very much present in this area of British Columbia and most of the trades support either that or tourists like us.
Fort Nelson is a smaller community than Dawson Creek. Our official and highly accurate census is taken from whether there’s a Wall-Mart, Safeway or Costco. None of them are here. There are several liquor stores here however, for which we’re grateful.
Since there is so much daylight, I got up early to explore the town and try to find something interesting to shoot. After an hour and a half I gave up and came back to the trailer and crawled back in bed. Most of the architecture is metal buildings that are so practical for a place like this, but so boring when they’re all you can find.
Later in the morning Fred and I went out to a local fishing store that I found, to see about a set of waders for me (No, I am not going to walk the catwalk like Fred did. How could I possibly top that act?). But we also had to pick up a battery for my car remote, a swivel for his trailer sink and a new jar of trailer hitch grease (and while we were at it, we hit one of the liquor stores). The women, wanted to visit a quilt shop at the edge of town but it’s closed on Monday’s.
Fred and I ran into them at the Ft. Nelson Museum, one of the recommendations in the guide books. That changed my view of the town. That’s because, this isn’t the first Ft. Nelson site. I don’t know if fires, floods or some other disaster was the reason to move the town, but all of that interesting stuff is in this museum; even some of the original buildings.
We met the owner/curator, a wonderful codger named Marl Brown in the auto building. At 87 years, he loves to show off his toy’s if you ask the right questions. He keeps about a dozen automobiles of different vintages in the building and none of them were restored, but they all run! One of them is a century old Buick that Marl told us that he drove round trip to Watson Lake and back on its birthday. That is just over 600 miles. He parades them on Canada’s National Day. They’re not mint, but he keeps them running.
I have a friend, Paul Speer, that collects ‘Hit and Miss’ engines (a motor with a flywheel used to pump irrigation water), so I asked Marl if he had one. Yes he did and proceeded to put a thimble of gasoline in it, then started it for us. Marl jury-rigged a Coke and Pepsi can on the exhaust ports and they randomly popped up when the alternating cylinders fired.
We spent a bit of time perusing the treasures that were in Marl’s collection. Surveying equipment, bulldozers used in for building the road, assay scales, rotary airplane motors (and an Alison engine from a Spitfire), and daily stuff that people used during the road construction.
There was even something that was close to home for Fred and I. In the early years of the town, electricity was provided by five generators driven by large diesel engines. They’ve been replaced by gas-powered turbines. The diesel engines are the same that we had at the power plant that we worked at. Marl had one of these two-story monsters sitting in the yard.
A day that started off as a bust turned into a highlight on the trip. Even though, I appreciate looking at historical artifacts, what made this special was that I got a chance to meet Marl Brown and watch the sparkle in his eye as he showed off something in his collection.
We’ve been on the road seventeen days with 2600 miles on the odometer when we arrived at Dawson Creek yesterday (Friday; it’s scotch night). Dawson Creek is an important stop on our trip.
It’s our first stop in British Columbia.
The weather is warmer than we’ve had the last few days.
This completes the first section of Fred’s itinerary.
The most important reason though, is that Dawson Creek is where we pick up the famous Alaska Highway. As Fred said this afternoon, “We’ve come all this way just to get to the start.” If you want to drive to Alaska, this is the road that will get you there. Fairbanks is at the other end of this road, only 1500 miles away.
The Army Corps of Engineers built the road in 1942 in eight months for military purposes during the second world war. The public didn’t have access to the road until 1948 and it wasn’t paved until the Alaska pipeline was built. Now the road’s covered with RVs. There’s a thriving cottage industry shepherding caravans of RVs on the same route that we’re taking.
A couple of days ago, I was afraid that we wouldn’t get into Dawson Creek. Last week they had torrential rains that dumped over four inches of rain in the area. The creek that runs through the middle of town (surprise, it’s also called Dawson Creek) cut the town in half by washing out the main road. Within three days, crews patched the roads enough to get traffic flowing again.
We’ve now cleared the Canadian Rockies and the countryside is flatter, with farms and lots of timber. The towns are further apart, but they have all the franchises you’d expect at home. We even passed a Costco yesterday in Grand Prairie, which is something that we rarely do.
Tomorrow morning we strike out for Fort Nelson. A leg that’s close to three hundred miles or 450km. Although the road is famous, it gets bad reviews for its condition. We’ll batten down the hatches and suffer through it, because now we’ve made a turn and are on our way to Alaska.
At the end of each day, we normally relax around the campfire to unwind, review the day’s adventures and plan tomorrow’s events. So, what happens when the Alberta winds drive you inside? Simple . . . we gather five people into a trailer meant for two and have a happy hour. A candle is the token campfire.