|A WEEK IN THE YUKON!
At The Air North check-in, it’s easy to spot “Cheechakos.” First timers, all decked out in hi-tech Patagonia duds, unscuffed hiking boots, and crisp Tilley hats straight off the shelf. Townies, dressed for adventure!
The “Sourdoughs,” old-timers who know dark Yukon winters and frozen rivers, greet each other with a joyous sense of relief. They are heading home where a battered hat, work boots and a pair of worn-in jeans are the fashion statement!
Northern hospitality begins on the plane. Richly filled wraps and oozing chocolate chip cookies are wheeled around the cabin to soften the 2-hour flight. None of those sad little packets of pretzels requiring a double gin just to sluice the crumbs down your throat!
“Do you take Visa?” I ask the surprised attendant, while scrabbling for cash in an empty pocket. Complimentary? Wow! I must be in a time warp!
The Yukon is bigger than California but with a population of just 34000 - 25000 of whom live in Whitehorse, the capital. That leaves a whole hunk of land for 9000 dreamers to share. Summers are hot with 20 hours of daylight. Winters, well? Better ask a “Sourdough!”
In Whitehorse, an impromptu sidewalk BBQ aims to raise cash, volunteers, and garner entries for next February’s Yukon Quest.
Participants in this Herculean race require a healthy dollop of Northern madness. Who in their right mind would contemplate driving a dog team over a 1000 miles of freezing ice and snow mostly in darkness?
This year’s winning musher beat out a field of 22, (including more than a smattering of ladies!) in 9 days and 26 minutes. Perhaps dogsledding should be an Olympic sport?
An antique streetcar saunters along the refurbished riverfront. The original tracks were laid down for the White Pass and Yukon railway in 1898.
We hop off beside the SS Klondike. Impeccably renovated and re-enacted from stem to stern, (by Parks Canada), right down to the breakfast menu, she sits proudly beside the fast flowing Yukon River A testament to her vital role in The Gold Rush - The reason for the town’s very existence.
Getting people and supplies to Dawson was a tricky endeavour. Boats pushing overloaded barges often ran aground on the shifting riverbed. Barges were winched around tight corners to avoid jackknifing.
Launched in 1937, the 64-meter sternwheeler was masterfully designed to overcome these problems with extra cargo capacity and a shallow draft.
Downstream, the 740 kilometre journey to Dawson City, took a mere 36 hours to deliver necessities such as canned peas, Carnation milk, barrels of beer and deep-pocketed passengers.
Returning against the current to Whitehorse was a different matter! Six wood stops were needed to feed her hungry boilers, which gobbled a cord every hour.
It was 4/5 days before her precious cargo of gold from Dawson City and silver from Mayo could be loaded onto the train, bound for waiting freighters in Skagway harbour.
We head north, up the Klondike Highway which displaced the SS Klondike in 1955. At Lake Laberge we search the beach for a bone, a plank, a nail or any telltale sign of “The cremation of Sam Magee” (Robert Service). Defeated, we stock up on butter tarts at Mom’s Bakery, and get the dirt on the picky new “Cheechako” health inspector!
Up to Braeburn lodge, a stop on The Yukon Quest, where one cinnamon bun would feed a whole dog team AND the musher! Peckish pilots put down on “The Cinnamon Bun Strip” to refuel!
It takes 6 hours to reach the scalloped tailing walls lining the road to downtown Dawson City. We ponder a home on “Tailings Road” in “Dredge Pond Subdivision,” a new housing development!
Dawson City is as slick as a miner’s tin cup But that’s the charm of the place. Dirt roads still connect buildings from the late 1800’s when 40,000 dreamers once fought and scrabbled their way to the gold rush. The city grader keeps potholes under control.
It is still possible to imagine a “lady of easy virtue” strutting along the wooden boardwalk, twirling a lace parasol, with a come-hither look in her mischievous blue eyes!
“Good time girls” became rich, mining the pockets of those who struck pay dirt! Gertie Lovejoy flaunted her success by wedging a diamond between her two front teeth.
Her fame lingers on. At Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, Canada’s oldest casino, Can Can dancers still show a fine leg to today’s gold-miners seeking a break from their sluice boxes and the 60,000 visitors who pass through each year.
There is lots to hold us here. Museums. Cemeteries. Walking tours. Riverboat trips. The #4 Dredge. Just beyond Jack London’s place, a stones throw from Pierre Berton’s childhood home, a costumed actor recites poetry in the garden of Robert Service’s cabin.
At The Downtown Hotel bar, “Cheechakos” go tongue-to-toe with a legend: “The sourtoe cocktail,” then head to “The Dome” for a spectacular midnight sunset!
The population may have shrunk to a meagre 2000, but most who live here are openhearted, eccentric, and addicted to the place.
Francine, the rodeo rider from Quebec, came here for a fresh start when a barn fire killed her two horses. Now she pours drinks on board The Spirit of Klondike. Caveman Bill, from who knows where, uses solar panels to heat his two caves when winter hits. A tiny float home bobbing in the whirlpools was once the failed refuge of a man hiding from marriage. His family now uses it for fishing!
It is time to leave. Our bucket-list is only half satisfied.
We are doing “The tourist loop” over “The Top Of The World” Highway into Alaska. The cable ferry is free until freeze-up when folks just drive across the river. Fishermen are out in droves. Salmon are finally coming up from The Bering Sea. We spot the “steamer graveyard” along the far bank - A sad, tangled mass of planking and rusting funnels.
The dirt road to Chicken is rough, winding and prone to washouts. We cross back into Canada at Beaver Creek. Heading South, The Alaska Highway skirts The Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary. Burwash Landing and Destruction Bay are on magical Kluane Lake, the largest in The Territory.
Our week is fast running out. We have saved the best ‘til last!
We find the unflappable Marcel Leduc, proprietor of Sifton Air, at The Haines Junction Airport. He has two planes. A group is waiting for the harried mechanic to fix the 5-seater.
His cell phone rings constantly. A woman is stuck in Blind Bay. Supplies are needed at a placer operation upriver Seems the boys have run out of smokes and are getting grumpy! A canoe outfitter, in mid expedition, is short a couple of paddles.
Marcel, a dreamer, did a stint in The French Foreign Legion. He has the gold bug. By months end he will barge a load of machinery and 5 men up the river to rework old claims With the price of gold…..! He is already salivating!
We take off into a clear blue sky.
Kluane National Park and Reserve contains Canada’s highest mountain and the world’s largest non-polar ice fields. In 1979 it was designated a world heritage site. With no access road the options are to hike in or fly.
The pilot constantly fiddles with knobs and levers to keep our little Cessna from bouncing out of control in the wind. Dall sheep and grizzly bears are absent today.
Suddenly Mount Logan makes a furtive appearance before shyly disappearing behind a mass of fluffy clouds, occasionally showing her navel. Apparently we were lucky!
Soon we are right over the South Arm of Kaskawulsh Glacier. When we reach the Y, where the “arm” meets the “body” to form a 3-mile wide, one-mile deep “highway” Well no photograph could do it justice.
Our little plane throws off a diminutive shadow on the serrated chunks of ice below. Teal-blue ponds of water form in the melting cavities as we retreat to the edge on our way home.
We head back to Haines Junction population 800. It is our last night. Tomorrow we must return to Whitehorse and fly home. How do we maintain the high? A good restaurant would do it.
“Oh you’re staying at The Raven,” the pretty girl at Parks Canada responds jealously.
“Dinner at The Raven is not just dinner It’s an experience! With chef Victor Bongo from The Congo (I’m not kidding!) manning the stove, your little hotel has the best restaurant in The Yukon!”
She was right!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Every day you will find views qualifying for “the wow” factor. Gold bugs are still out there with their sluice boxes especially around Dawson, but the real joy of The Yukon is the people. Visitors are made to feel like family.
Copyright © 2011 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.