Atlin, BC : Hardship and Hope

You have to really want to go to Atlin.  It is British Columbia’s most northernmost community; but it is an end-of-the-road stop that can only be reached from the Yukon. The road leaves the Alaska Highway and dips south for 94 kilometres – one way in and one way out. Until 1951, there was no road at all – residents travelled to their homes by boat.  It is well worth the drive – this is one of Atlin’s many jaw-dropping views:

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No-one lived here, other than the nomadic Taku River Tlingit people, until discoveries of gold at nearby Pine Creek in 1898.  Ten thousand gold-seekers arrived and set up camp in nearby Discovery. At the height of gold fever there was this little town, but like so many gold rushes in the north, once the gold left, so did the residents.

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What remains today are a few fallen structures and a single intact cabin.

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Photos and a plaque tell the desperate story of the James family trying to survive in an uninsulated cabin during a winter that hit a record-breaking -83 degrees.

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Beth and her little brother Tommy standing on the cabin porch.

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A winter scene that would otherwise be so beautiful, but without adequate housing, clothing and food, caused great suffering and death.

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Atlin’s Pioneer Cemetery tells a fascinating story about those difficult early days. I know it sounds ghoulish, but I love visiting cemeteries – I find it informative and oddly peaceful.  You can often figure out a part of the history of a place by strolling among the tombstones and Pioneer Cemetery has a lot of stories to tell.

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The cemetery was opened in 1899 until 1990. So many buried there died young, under tragic circumstances. Many of the headstones state nationality and the cause of death.

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Sadly, a number of infants and young children did not survive the isolation and hardship.
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Can you imagine dying of starvation? Others died in mining accidents or drowned.

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This one intrigued me – no faded wooden headstone for the “Gentleman Adventurer.”  I’m imagining pith helmets and porters – and a ripe old age as the reward for a gentlemanly life well-lived.

A glimpse into the lives of the hardy souls that paved the way for adventurers yet to come.

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Today’s Atlin has a population of 400 artists, entrepreneurs, and assorted characters. You get the feeling that anything can happen here.

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This was the sight that greeted us as we pulled into the provincial campground. A burned-out truck festooned with police crime scene tape felt all the more menacing due to the recent murderous events in British Columbia. We wouldn’t have stayed but the one other camper there (a relaxed Arizonian) told us it was an accident, not foul play.

A couple from Colorado was just beginning their trip to Alaska, when a jerry can of gas in the back of their truck ignited and exploded into flames. Their trailer was unharmed (as were they), but it was a bit hectic bringing the fire under control. They then had to deal with having their trailer towed and flying back to Colorado to sort out everything else. Handling those logistics from a remote location with no cell service and being highly stressed over a freak accident – I can’t imagine it.

After one night there, we found another campground in town that overlooked the lake and spent the remainder of our visit there very happily enjoying the view.

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Atlin is unincorporated, which means there is no government and it is largely run by volunteers. This is a town of restless souls, tough survivors and resourceful and enterprising residents who are all in it together – firefighting, search and rescue, ambulance service, recreational activities, historic building upkeep, Meals-on-Wheels, campground upkeep, etc. etc. – all unpaid work done by residents who love their community and work hard to keep it running well.

Naturally, there is gossip! Not everything meets with unanimous approval and where there are 400 residents, there are likely 400 opinions. We took a guided walk with Patricia, a 25-year resident with a photographic memory and a sly take on the town’s activities.

This unusual structure, now owned and occupied by a New Zealand man, began as a “healing centre” (Patricia’s quotes). The original owner built in the pyramid style to draw on the earth’s energy that is apparently abundant in Atlin, but after a little controversy, the centre closed.

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As we travelled through the Yukon, we were surprised to see that many uninhabited but historic buildings were left intact; they had not been torn down. We found the same “living museum ” quality in Atlin. This town suffered through two disastrous fires, one in 1914 and again in 1916. Perhaps that is part of the reason for hanging on to their history.

The old morgue.

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The old jail was once in Discovery, but moved to Atlin.

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Otherwise, there are a number of historic buildings that are now private residences or re-purposed for other businesses.

The old hardware store is now a private residence. You can’t beat the view, but would you want people like us peering in your windows  every day?

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A former storefront that is now a colourful little home that uses the heat and sun from the front window to grow tomatoes.

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The old Globe Theatre. It was built in 1917, as part of a great tourist boom that lasted until 1936. The stage was also used for school plays and dances, but when the “talkies” came out, a hand-cranked projector was installed. Today, it serves as an event venue and shows movies twice a week.

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There is a limited amount of alcohol available at the general store, but until 1999, Atlin had their very own handsome Tudor-style liquor store. It opened in 1931 and served for 70 years, but then, in a droll understatement,  “the government decided to close it in 1999, over strong protest from the towns’ people.”

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John Garrett, a prominent cricket player from England, came to Atlin in 1910 to mine gold and in 1917, he opened this dry goods store.
Today it is operated by a young couple; part of a group of young entrepreneurs who are finding ways to make their living in Atlin.

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Stephen was excited to find the Atlin Mountain Coffee Wagon on the lakefront. The owners have created a demand for fresh-roasted coffee – there is always a lineup, and every Thursday they drive two hours to the Whitehorse farmer’s market.
The young woman pouring coffee also works part-time at another business in town. Her partner is here for the summer to work in Atlin’s still-active gold mines; their story is typical.

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The old courthouse is now a combination art gallery and library. The library is only open four hours a week – from 2-4 on Saturdays and Sundays. There is, however, a huge pile of free books on the table in the hall. The art gallery offered a beautiful collection of local art for sale. We chatted with the volunteer, a Brazilian woman who moved here years ago, but admitted that she doesn’t stay for the winter.
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The Blacksmith shop is the original, but the current owner is trained as ferrier, but with an absence of work in that field, he turned his artistic hand to working with metals.

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Most Atlin homes have a healthy woodpile in front.

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A couple of idyllic northern scenes.

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Atlin Lake is the largest freshwater lake in British Columbia, at four miles wide and 85 miles long. Most of the lake and Atlin Provincial Park are only accessible by boat or plane.  The lake is deep and very cold as it is fed from Llewellyn Glacier. This was as close as we could get to the glacier.

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When we asked in town about buying drinking water, we were directed to a natural spring just outside of town. It doesn’t look like much, coming out of a rusty old spout, but oh boy.  If I was younger, I would say Best.Water.Ever.
But since I’m not, I will just say I wish I could drink water like this every day of my life. Sweet. Cold. Pure.

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These are some of the lake views that we were able to access from the road.

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And so our trip to the Yukon is over. As we drove out of Atlin, we saw a yearling grizzly by the side of the road, which I took as a sign.  We need to return again and for longer and farther – west to Alaska, north to Tuk. Now that we’ve seen a grizzly, we want to aim for a polar bear.

The Yukon was everything we had hoped for and more. The people were wonderful, the scenery beyond description and as for the mosquitoes? We’ve had way worse bug attacks in Ontario. We are reluctantly heading south, but I’ll leave you with one final image – something we did not see on our entire trip, as we couldn’t stay up until midnight.

In mid-August in northern British Columbia, the sun sets at 10:30.

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Thanks so much for joining us – it really means a lot. We look forward to meeting up again in the early winter – destination still being discussed!

Kluane National Park: where are the grizzlies?

I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed, but our trip to the Yukon is drawing to a close and we have not yet seen a grizzly bear. Kluane National Park and Reserve is home to a large percentage of the 6000 to 7000 grizzlies in the Yukon, and I figured that at least one of them would cross paths with us – preferably from a safe, photogenic distance. We spoke to a couple who watched from their car for over an hour as a big old bear crossed the road, posed for photos, rolled in the grass, grazed for a while and then lumbered off.

There are plenty of bear warnings, including ominous signs on some trails that read “Bear Frequenting Area”, but in spite of hours spent hiking, camping and driving in prime bear territory, we have seen nothing more threatening than a squirrel.

One of the campgrounds in the middle of Kluane is deep in grizzly territory and they have an electric fence around the tenting area. We gingerly opened the gate and wandered around inside, but did not see a single tenter. Perhaps it felt too much like being an animal in a zoo, or perhaps (like me), they would be overcome by curiosity and want to test out the wires. Common sense would dictate that park officials are not interested in electrocuting their visitors, but seriously, how much voltage is necessary to make an impact on a bear?

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Our campsite at Kathleen Lake Campground was far more civilized. We were told by the park ranger that although bears do wander through this campground, it is prime soapberry season right now and park officials have done a great job of clearing out the female berry bushes. The bears have had to move to more hospitable ground.

Lucky us, we got there early enough to nab one of the very few mountain-view sites – this is where we stayed for four nights.

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Kathleen Lake Campground is about 25 km. south of Haines Junction and on the road to Haines Alaska. Haines Junction was first established during the final construction of the Alaska Highway and today is a central hub in the park; providing groceries, gas, and restaurants.

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The setting is simply breathtaking, but  Haines Junction is not a fancy town. The Lucky Dragon Motel is typical.

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Our Lady of the Way Catholic Church was built in 1954 by Father Morisset and Father Tanguay, who were the first Catholic priests in the area. They converted an old Quonset hut into the church that still has services to this day.

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Our Lady of the Way may be “the most photographed church in the Yukon“, but it is impossible to forget the dark and lasting destruction that Christianity brought to First Nations communities.

Artist Mary Caesar expresses it well in her painting The Cattle Truck.

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It is also impossible to travel throughout the Yukon without being aware of how the Alaska Highway was built.

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This spot, overlooking Kluane Lake, is called Soldier’s Summit. It is marked by a plaque and the American and Canadian flags; commemorating their combined engineering efforts to bring the road to this point.

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The building of the Alaska Highway in just eight short months, under brutal conditions, was an astounding achievement. But the dark side of this story is how First Nations people were betrayed. They helped soldiers with food, water and guiding and in return had the rights to hunt and fish on their own land taken away from them.  It took decades for them to regain access to their land to reclaim their way of life.

First Nations were not the only people negatively impacted. African-American soldiers who were recruited to build the road suffered greatly. We listened to a short clip from an interview with a former soldier who described how they were segregated and denied the same food and privileges as white soldiers.

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And so little changes…
The Da Ku Cultural Centre featured this exhibit from the REDress Project. Artist Jaime Black began this project as a powerful visual reminder of missing and murdered aboriginal women; red dresses hang in public galleries all across Canada.  Red is a sacred colour, and it also symbolizes blood. Twelve hundred women are confirmed as missing or murdered, although many other sources estimate those numbers to be closer to 4000.

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The outstanding Visitor Centre at Haines Junction is an important stop, as it incorporates information about First Nations, Kluane National Park and Reserve and the Yukon all in one building.

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First Nations art is prominently displayed here. This installation, by Tlingit artist Don Smarch Jr.  is called Ice and Flowers. He was inspired by the first drops of water in spring and how they are reflected back at the faces that look at them.

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There were a number of quilts created by The Threadbearers hanging in the halls. This one tells the story of the Kluane area.

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We watched an excellent HD video of the natural history of Kluane, including Mt. Logan, the world’s largest massif. It has 11 peaks and covers over 20 km. of glaciated land. Fascinating stuff, since we will never hike several days back into the glaciers to have that head-back-arms-thrown-out Instagram moment.  Next time we’re here we will take a glacier flight.

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There are several hiking trails in Kluane – everything from a short interpretive 1 km. stroll to multi-day backcountry treks that require significant navigational skills.

The St. Elias Lake hike is a popular 8-km. hike with a bit of elevation, ever-changing scenery and a rest stop at a lake. First we had to hike through deep forest and keeping in mind that “grizzlies don’t like to be surprised“, we whistled, clapped and sang. For some reason I was stuck on show tunes and could not get Old Man River off my playlist.

We hiked through a few kilometres of this trail…

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…to a beautiful open meadow.

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We stopped for lunch at St. Elias Lake and had a chat with a young Swiss couple who were on “our last holiday before we have a baby in November.” She is a teacher and that of course opened up  the chance to share our astonishing coincidence of having a daughter-in-law who is also a teacher and now a new mother! What a small world!

We have met so many Swiss and German tourists – the wilderness beauty of the Yukon and Alaska are a huge draw, and more than a few are here with campers they have shipped over from home.

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Pretty lakes are a mainstay of Kluane National Park. Most of them are very deep and very cold, with good fishing but less appealing swimming. Kathleen Lake was no exception, but it did lure a few hardy souls in for a “refreshing” dip.  I don’t have a photo of Stephen fully submerged, but he did make it in for about one minute.

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I sat back here with the rest of the beach crowd.

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This was a calm day – the very next day the temperature dropped by about 10 degrees and the wind blew up and the lake took on a whole other character.

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You know those gorgeous creeks with gravel islands you find in the north? The water is so clean you can drink it and you want to pull over and have a picnic or at least stop for a photo? The Yukon is full of creeks and rivers like that.

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Kathleen Lake is at the southern end of Kluane so we headed north one day as far as Burwash Landing. This tiny village ( 109 people) was a seasonal fishing camp for the Tutchone First Nations and then grew during the construction of the Alaska Highway. The Jacquot brothers from France arrived here during the Gold Rush in 1904 and some of the businesses they started still stand, although they are no longer operating.  An entire section of Burwash Landing is filled with the structures from a more prosperous time. It is a bit eerie to walk around this part of town – the Closed sign is quite incongruous. The old resort stands as though it is expecting guests any minute.

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Remnants from the Kluane Lake Boats sit on the shore. These boats were used between the ’20s and the ’40s for delivering freight and mail.

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The Kluane Museum of Natural History was built in 1974 and first designed as a Catholic church but it was deemed too large and turned into a museum. The excellent exhibits show Yukon animals in their natural habitat, as well as displays of First Nations’ tools and clothing.

Interpretive panels outside the museum and charred stumps serve as reminder of how a fire in 1999 very nearly wiped out the whole community. Wildfires are a way of life in the Yukon and due to the determined efforts of the local residents and firefighters, the museum and other notable buildings were saved.
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Our visit to Burwash Landing was also a reminder of how most Yukon communities are isolated and tiny. As of 2019, the entire population of the Yukon was 38,000 people, spread out over 482,443 square kilometres. As of 2016, the population of Whitehorse was 25,085, so that leaves a lot of room for very few people to live in other parts of the territory.

What it means for tourists is having to plan between destinations – making sure to stock up on groceries and supplies in larger centres and being aware of distances between gas stations.

What it also means is  the driving experience is sublime. This is a typical day on the road.

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Glaciers lie just behind this mountain range.
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You’re never very far from a lake view

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Or a more pastoral scene.

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Our time in the Yukon is coming to an end. We are currently in Whitehorse and tomorrow will head south to Atlin Lake, B.C. The Alaska Highway dips in and out of British Columbia, and we will dip down to BC for a few days and then dip back up to the Yukon again before we begin our travels south. Still more adventures to report – see you in a few days.

Dawson City: Tall Tales and Showgirls

Dawson City was the epicentre of the Klondike Gold Rush; the stampede for riches that lasted from 1896-1899 and transformed the town forever. During that brief, glorious period, the population rose to over 40,000 and then plummeted once the gold disappeared.  Today the population stands at just over 2,000 people; largely made up of hardy individualists who have helped create Dawson’s distinct character.

One of the most notable residents is Caveman Bill. He arrived in Dawson 23 years ago, and after searching around for a suitable home, settled upon a cave on the opposite side of the Yukon River. Bill is neither a hermit nor a weirdo – he is a skilled woodworker who   has simply found an alternative lifestyle that suits him.  He lives in the cave for most of the year and when the river rises in the spring, he moves his belongings out of the cave and up the hill until the cave is dry again.  Bill’s cave is hidden from view to the left of the canoes, behind the bushes. If you look to the top left of the photo, you’ll notice a bench. This is where Bill lives in the spring, during the thaw.

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We met Phil LeBlond, a bike mechanic who splits his time between Dawson and Whitehorse.  In addition to bike repair, Phil operates The Purple Bike Project out of a refurbished school bus (also his home), which offers extremely reasonable bike rentals. We had an engaging chat with him, during which he extended his views on Trump (unprintable), Whitehorse government ( also unprintable), and on the disturbing state of  boys who would rather play video games than ride bikes, “they have no testicles, I feel sorry for the girls.” 

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It seems to me that anyone who survives relative isolation, -50 degree winters and hordes of mosquitoes is likely to have strong opinions. That is part of the charm of Dawson residents – they are pretty chuffed about being a sourdough (one who has lived in the Yukon for a winter). If you’re just here for the summer, you are a “cheechako” – not fully broken in. If you are not in the Yukon, you are Outside, with a capital O. Still, there is very little attitude – Yukoners are extremely friendly and approachable – if you want to be part of this club, you’ll be welcomed.

We met Jane because we were gawking at her house, and then noticed her standing on her side porch. Jane’s a cheechako – she spends winters in Toronto and rents this house for the summer. She told us the house was built by David Suzuki’s son and invited us in to have a look at the craftsmanship – pointing out the four-inch wooden doors and the clever spacious layout.

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Dawson is an intriguing mix of lavish and modest, old and new, gussied-up and falling-down; all authentic. The roads are hard-packed dirt and the sidewalks are wooden – in part due to the extremes of weather, and in part as an homage to its origins.

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These stylish buildings date back to the few short years of the Gold Rush – examples of the tremendous fortunes of that time.

The Masonic Temple

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The Palace Grand Theatre

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The Post Office

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The Commissioner’s Residence

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Simple log cabins are just as much a feature of Dawson, and the originals are still to be found throughout the town.

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Back alleys beckon…

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Interestingly, businesses that appear to have been closed for some time have not been torn down. They are still standing, like museum relics.

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Front Street runs along the river, with storefronts on one side, and a pretty riverside walkway on the other.

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We took a walking tour with the entertaining Justin, who was in charge of telling us about Dawson’s bizarre tall tales.

In 1955, Quaker Oats started a marketing campaign tied to the popular radio show “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon” that included a deed to Yukon land in the gold rush area – just one square inch. These “deeds” were included in packages of cereal – 21 million in total. Since the deeds were never registered and the land tax never paid, the deeds were worthless, but to this day, Yukon officials receive inquiries about them.

Justin, holding a Klondike Big Inch Land Co. deed
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Further along on our walk, Justin pointed out the oldest bar in town, affectionately known as “The Pit.” “Every character in Dawson winds up in The Pit sooner or later – it’s a great place to meet the locals.”

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The bigger bar story in Dawson is the Sourtoe Cocktail. Legend has it that in the 1920s, rum-runner Louie Linken froze his toe, amputated it himself to avoid gangrene, and popped it in a bottle of alcohol. Fast forward a few years and this dehydrated toe was discovered and became the inspiration for The Sourtoe Cocktail Club. To become a member of the club, you must purchase a shot of whisky with the dehydrated toe popped in (no longer the original toe – there have been a few donations since then) and down your drink, kissing the toe. If any of us were considering trying this Dawson tradition, Justin put us off with this story. “My friend was the bartender at the Downtown Hotel and one day the toe fell apart – it was all soft and moldy inside, so he just glued it together and let it dry again.”J

Dawson City has permafrost that measures 60 metres thick and is thousands of years old. Dawson’s permafrost is vulnerable to thawing, and once the ice melts the ground loses volume, surfaces drop and buildings tilt. Any newer buildings are now set on wooden cribbing.

What is remarkable is the fact that the city has left a few older buildings that have “tilted” as historical examples, rather than tear them down.

The Third Avenue Complex in 1901.  Hotel, photography studio and hardware store

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The Third Avenue Complex in 2019.

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St. Andrew’s Church, another permafrost victim.

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Dawson is set on the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers and in its heyday, there were over 250 paddle wheelers travelling between Dawson and Whitehorse. Today, it is possible to board the Klondike Spirit for an hour and half excursion up the Yukon River. The boat in the background is the small George Black ferry that carries vehicles back and forth to the west side, which has a small off-grid community, a golf course, campground and the road to Alaska.

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We hopped on that ferry one day for the two-hour scenic Top of the World Highway to the Alaska border. The ferry carries just eight vehicles and in summer with the huge population of RV-ers, there can be significant waits.

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Dawson had been experiencing a lot of smoke from the nearby Mayo wildfire, so we began our drive with hazy skies and poor visibility.

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Luck was with us – in about 20 minutes the smoke disappeared and the views were spectacular.

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Well-graded gravel roads, twisty turns and the road to ourselves – a dream drive.

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We had our eyes peeled for animals but did not see a bear, a caribou nor an elk – just one lazy old porcupine waddling across the road. That has been our lot so far in the Yukon – the animals are there, but we’re not seeing them, probably because the land is so vast and there are so few roads. We saw one confused moose dart across the road and then back into the bush, but that’s been it.

Back in Dawson and it’s time for Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. The building that houses this historic casino/dance hall has been around since 1901 – named after an infamous dance hall queen from the 1920s who had a diamond implanted in her front tooth.  Today Diamond Tooth Gertie’s is far less risqué –  catering to the bus tour crowd with dinner specials, slot machines and nightly CanCan shows. We popped by for the show and it was saucy and fun.

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The “madam” entertained the crowd between dance sets with her songs and banter and when the show was over, the girls came out for photo ops. I encouraged my reluctant husband to pose for a photo, but he looked so rumpled and  startled that we both agreed this photo (with its more willing subject) was a better bet.

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There is so much to see and do in Dawson and surrounding area that we should have planned on staying another few days.

Just south of Dawson is the infamous Dempster Highway. This much-hyped road can live up to its fearsome reputation if care is not taken. “No gas for 370 km.” “Bring not one, but two or three spare tires.” “Road turns to clay in the rain.” All of those statements are true, but it is not a reason to stay off this road. “Just go slow,” was the wise advice of a park ranger and that is exactly what we did.

We did not drive up to Inuvik, as we had thought to during our early days of planning this trip. We settled instead for driving through Tombstone  Territorial Park – about 72 km. from the start of the Dempster Highway.  Tombstone is a park of staggering beauty – much of it above the tree line. The mountains and landscape are like nothing we’ve seen – lunar and other-worldly. The dramatic clouds added greatly to the mood.

We stopped first at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre to find out about road conditions (fair) and nearby hiking trails.

Since they are over 100 km. from town, park staff  work eight days on and four off. These are their cabins. They live in a painting.

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A view of Tombstone Mountain – that jagged peak in the middle of the distant range.

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We stopped for a 4-km. hike up to a ridge, with each view more awesome than the last.

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We can say we drove on the Dempster Highway without mishap, but another trip we would plan better and drive straight out to the Arctic Ocean.

Dawson and Tombstone Park have been highlights so far. Next stop – Whitehorse for a few days to clean up, regroup and stock up on supplies before heading to Kluane.

“They don’t know what we do up here”

This statement was the wry response to a comment I made in Hougen’s SportLodge in Whitehorse about northern hunters. We had dropped in to buy campground permits and  started a conversation about the back wall lined with guns and ammo. And no, this is not an anti-gun tirade – this is the land of hunting and trapping and fishing and these are the necessary tools.

I unnecessarily informed the sales staff that, “I’m from down south“, after expressing surprise about a small pink gun for children called “My First Rifle.” I told them I thought all hunters were burly bearded men and that is when 22-year-old Ashley set me straight.

This is what a Yukon hunter looks like.

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This Yukon native first picked up a 22 at the age of three or four and has been hunting with her father and grandfather ever since.  Her family loves the outdoors, loves hunting and fishing, have a trapline and a cabin four hours outside of Whitehorse where they go on hunting trips a few times a year.  Ashley has owned many rifles and has shot “every kind of large animal in the Yukon“. She gave me the following list, with the type of rifle she used for the hunt: Black bear (30-06), bison (338), caribou (7mm-08), sheep (7 mm-08) and moose ( 30-06).

Ashley helped to blow up a stereotype – competency with guns and a comfort level being out in the bush does not just belong to the burly bearded guys. One of the things we are discovering about the Yukon is that the people here cannot be pigeonholed.

We bought shoes from a young man from Barcelona who left his country a few years ago to seek a better future and has been happily living in Whitehorse for the past two years. We bought coffee from a Mississauga man who came for a visit and fell in love with the place.

There are the characters – the ones who won’t be told.

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The legendary Yukoners, such as the late Alex Van Bibber

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We met a young German man at our campground a few nights ago who was a protege of Alex Van Bibber. His parents were visiting from Germany for the summer and his dad told us the story. “Our son knew from when he was a little boy he wanted to live in the north of Canada. He is currently a guide-outfitter, but when he first moved to the Yukon he had a lot to learn. He was canoeing in very fast water, tipped over and would have drowned, except Alex Van Bibber happened to notice him and saved his life. He took him under his wing after that and was his friend until his death five years ago.”  

This incredible story is not uncommon up north. It can be dangerous here, with extreme weather, extreme temperatures, large animals, avalanches, landslides, wildfires, etc.  You have to learn to fend for yourself and keep an eye out for others.

We’ve been in Whitehorse for a few days and we are liking it a lot more than we expected. I had imagined a rather featureless capital city, with squat buildings and big box stores. There are those, of course, but there is also a log “skyscraper”, which is a clever stack of three log cabins; a mini northern apartment building.

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Other old log buildings:

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The White Pass & Yukon Route station is one of the stops for the Whitehorse-Carcross-Skagway narrow gauge railroad. The line was built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush and now operates as a tourist attraction.

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This plaque on the station tells a little of the story of how the building of the Alcan Highway transformed Whitehorse.

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The downtown has a lot of thriving businesses that have been around for years.

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Love the old signs and neon. Murdoch’s is a venerable old store in Whitehorse.

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So is the Edgewater Hotel.  There is lots of competition since its heyday, but the neon has not quite given up.

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We ate very well at the Klondike Rib & Salmon, a restaurant that is housed in one of the two oldest operating buildings in Whitehorse. It was a bakery in 1900 and then became a mail and freight business, a carpentry shop and now a landmark restaurant with non-stop lineups.   We had very fresh halibut & chips and a couple of beers from Yukon Brewing.

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Whitehorse is a young town and so new businesses have popped up.  The creativity is inspiring.

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Lumel Studios offers glass-blowing workshops and demos, as well as a large gallery.  We admired this Chihuly- inspired piece in the garden.

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Even Starbucks has been “Yukon-ed.”

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Driving up the Alaska Highway is a motorcycle magnet. This group travelled all the way from Mexico.

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Murals can be found all over town. The building of the Alaska Highway and the Klondike Gold Rush over the Chilkoot Trail are two main motifs.

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CBC Radio has a mural of its own – take a close look for a certain Peter Gzowski. Can this be the same Mr. Canada we all knew and loved?

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Downtown Whitehorse is set back from the Yukon River, with a beautifully developed waterfront that runs for several kilometres. 
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The S.S. Klondike was the flagship sternwheeler of the BYN fleet, that used to run the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City.  She was built in 1929, sank in 1936 and re-built the spring of 1937, using the original structure and machinery salvaged from the wreck.  She continued to carry passengers and cargo until 1955 – the last Yukon River sternwheeler in service.  She has been restored to her 1937-40 appearance and is designated a National Historic Site.

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We watched an old NFB film about the operations of the sternwheelers; the jerky-jerky motions of excited guests waving to those on shore. It was interesting to walk the decks and imagine how it must have been to be a passenger, all gowned and hatted in 30 degree heat.

It was even more interesting to go below and see where the cargo was stored, as well as the second-class passengers.

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Whitehorse has a number of excellent museums. The McBride Museum of Yukon History is housed in a striking building: modern angles jutting out over a small wooden telegraph office.

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Sam McGee’s original cabin. Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was entirely fictitious, with the exception of the use of his name. Sam McGee was originally from Ontario, came to the Yukon to strike it rich in the Gold Rush, and when that failed, he stayed on to become a foreman and entrepreneur.

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The art of Ted Harrison was also on display. Ted lived in the Yukon for a number of years and his paintings reflect the light he grew to love here.

Whitehorse was named for the Yukon rapids that were said to resemble the flowing manes of white horses. Harrison captured those white horses very effectively.

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Although this was displayed in the same room, it has no credit, so I’m not sure if it is the work of Ted Harrison. What makes it noteworthy is that it is created entirely of coloured pushpins.

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The Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre showcases a variety of cultural activities, programs and art , celebrating the Kwanlin Dun First Nations.

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As we travel through the Yukon and stop in at First Nations Heritage Centres, the emphasis is on the artwork, the beading, the dugout canoes.

By contrast, this is a gorgeous building that does nothing to sugar-coat the brutal history of the residential schools and displacement of the First Nations.

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The Thursday Farmer’s Market is held on the riverfront – the usual happy affair of food, friends and families. It had rained the night before and we watched a few kids having great fun running through the puddles.  This little girl was a bit tentative – it seems that she did not want to get her dress dirty.

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About five kilometres outside of Whitehorse is Miles Canyon, which is the namesake of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation who fished and hunted above the canyon. Before the river was dammed in the ’50s, it was extremely turbulent and provided a serious obstacle to the Gold Rush stampeders. It is now much calmer, although it still possesses a fierce current.  A suspension bridge leads over to trails and views of the river.

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On the drive back into Whitehorse, we passed by a fleet of float planes. I was drawn to the bright red plane, as well as the colourful pots of flowers and bench.

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Next stop: Stewart Crossing, on our way to Dawson City.

Camping with the grizzlies

Well, we had been hoping to see grizzly bears (from a safe distance), but when our park ranger dropped by to let us know a grizzly had been sighted a couple of kilometres away, that distance suddenly felt a little too close to home.  Doesn’t a campground count as a reliable food source?

We’ve now been in the Yukon for a week and have camped and hiked without incident, so we’re going with the ranger’s assurance that “you probably won’t see one while you’re here.”

We are currently in the Southern Lakes region, which is explained better by this interpretive display. These long, narrow finger lakes are ringed by mountains and forest – the whole area is absolutely stunning.

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We spent one night camping near Teslin, a small community of 500 that was a former Hudson’s Bay trading post and is home to the Tlingit (pronounced Klink-it) people. We visited the George Johnston Museum, named after the Tlingit elder, trapper, fur trader, entrepreneur and photographer who helped to define this area during the first half of the 20th century.

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His photographs chronicle the many changes that occurred from the turn of the century up to WWII and the building of the Alaska Highway.

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The Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre was another compelling stop; its impressive building lined with totems of the five Tlingit clans.

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Exhibits featured masks and artifacts that explained two centuries of Tlingit history and culture. I’ve always loved the intricate beadwork of First Nations artists and this display told a fascinating story.

Local resident Mabel Johnson lived across the street from the RCMP detachment, and in 1973, when Constable Warren McDonald was transferred to Teslin, she began to design a beaded vest for him.

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When McDonald discovered this, he was very interested in buying the vest, but the shy Mrs. Johnson was not sure. She wanted to enter it in a contest (for which she won first prize), and after that, McDonald was not only able to buy the vest, but also commissioned her to make the mukluks; both on display at the Heritage Centre.

The RCMP tend to have more amicable relationships with the residents of the towns and villages of the Yukon than perhaps in more populated areas further south. This kind of policing requires a deft hand and a strong sense of community. But… the police can’t be everywhere at once. Sometimes a little decoy action is required.

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Part of the Heritage Centre display included a number of dugout canoes.

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Our next stop: Carcross, formerly  known as Caribou Crossing.

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In the Tagish language, Carcross’ traditional name means ” wind blowing all the time”, which is an apt description. Our campground, about 15 km out of town, was located on Windy Arm of Tagish Lake. It was one of the prettiest campgrounds we’ve stayed at so far and the windiest ( upside – no bugs!). This is the site we would have stayed at, but this woman beat us to it – one of a dozen coveted lakeside sites. The pink flowers in the foreground are fireweed – the Yukon flower that grows everywhere and adds big punches of colour along the highways.

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The Yukon has really figured out the camping situation – their campgrounds are $12 a night, first-come, first-served, and offer free firewood. Most of the sites are well treed and private, which adds so much to the camping experience. We go to town for showers, laundry, wifi, water and sani-dump. By contrast, many private RV parks offer full hook ups, but little else – they are usually just big gravel lots.

This campground had an amazing children’s playground, complete with pint-sized zip line. There were a few kids playing on the zip-line, but they handed it over for us to try. “My grandpa went on it,” was all the encouragement we needed. Here is the video evidence!

The Yukon also offers incredible Visitor’s Centres and the one at Carcross is a hub of the Carcross Commons, a collection of shops, restaurants, an excellent cafe and art gallery.

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The town of Carcross is small and picturesque, with  a number of attractions, including Bennett Beach, described as “one of the best beaches in Canada“.

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We took a walking tour of the town, and it soon became apparent that the Yukon was not built by sissies. They’re kidding…right?

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We spoke to the  rather grumpy owner of Matthew Watson General Store (where the above sign is posted), and he seemed like he might just have a rifle stashed behind the counter. Since we had no intention of grabbing the five-finger discount, we felt safe enough to browse around. The store is a combination museum/general store, with both old jars on display and souvenirs for sale. Hunting, fishing and trapping are very much a way of life up north  and among the coffee mugs, beaded moccasins and T-shirts,there were fur pelts for sale.

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Further down the street, an art gallery had this pelt on display – $3000 for a timber wolf.
We walked around and looked at it from all sides, and I swear this looks like a bear – the head (snout and ears) and paws seem too big for a wolf – I think of wolves as being rangy and lithe, with narrow heads and dog-like paws. Maybe it’s a hybrid.

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Many of the Carcross houses were built at the turn of the 20th century ; most of them are low log cabins and most of them giving the current trend for tiny homes a run for their money.

This one was built by Arne Ormen, a tall Scandinavian woodcutter who, for reasons known only to himself, built a cabin too small to stand up in.

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The Watson cabin , which does not look especially conducive to romance, was rumoured to have once been a brothel.  The 1950s pickup parked beside it belonged to the owner’s grandfather.

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This cute little cabin operates as a seasonal residence.

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We wondered about this one – the tiny log cabin with a front wall buckling with age and topped with five birdhouses modelled after significant local buildings.
No-one could accuse Yukoners of lacking independent spirit and subversive humour.

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We asked about this sign. It is no secret that alcohol plays a tragic role in the lives of many northerners. In Watson Lake, there were signs posted in many establishments in town, with Zero Tolerance above a cartoonish image of an inebriated man.  In Carcross, this sign was posted just outside town, warning individuals that drunkenness would not be tolerated within town limits.

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We had no intention go crossing over into Alaska on this trip, but when we discovered that Skagway was just an hour’s drive from Carcross, we decided to check it out. The scenery alone was well worth the trip.

Just outside Carcross.

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Our friendly border guard settled a disagreement about these posts. They are there for winter driving; the tips help motorist determine where the side of the road is when shoulders and  guardrails are covered in many feet of snow.

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Skagway is an end-of-the-road town whose main purpose is to cater to cruise ship passengers. On a good day (the day we visited), there might be just 5,000 people in town; on a busy day, between 10,000 and 12,000.

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We did not get the feeling we were in the real Alaska. Skagway is a town with some very pretty buildings in a gorgeous natural setting, but we wondered what it would look like without the dozens of jewellery shops and overpriced restaurants. If the tourists all left, what would be the reason to visit?

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Along with the diamonds and tanzanite and intricate design pieces, many of the shops sold jewellery and carvings made from fossilized wooly mammoth. Yes, the same wooly mammoth that no longer roams the earth. How could this be? We made discreet inquiries at a visitor centre – was the use of wooly mammoth akin to bear bladders or elephant ivory or shark fins? Apparently not.

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A wooly mammoth tusk

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We left Skagway with a bit of a sour taste – it was less about the history and more about the shopping.  The Yukon is rough and tumble and wild. You might be hard-pressed to find good coffee. You might be hard-pressed to find food, period. Carcross residents have to drive an hour to Whitehorse to shop for groceries. We like that – the Yukoners want our tourist dollars but on their terms.

On to Whitehorse and surrounding area.

Travelling to the True North

Last summer we drove the Alaska Highway as far north as Liard Hot Springs (just south of the Yukon border) and vowed to return; we were the only people who were not heading further north. We listened to several stories from excited campers who raved about the beauty of the landscape and wonderful people.

However, after spending last winter travelling through the U.S. during such uneasy political times and dropping an extra thirty-seven cents on every dollar, we decided Alaska could wait for a bit.  We’re spending the next several weeks travelling through northern British Columbia and the Yukon instead.

We began to feel we were “north” when we stopped for gas in Pink Mountain. I chatted with the woman behind the counter about bear safety (I am petrified of close encounters), and asked her if she had ever come across a grizzly. She laughed and said, “There was one on my back deck a few weeks ago.”   Well, that got my attention – “What did you do?“, I asked.  With the inimitable common sense of a northerner, she replied, “I stayed inside.

Next northern stop: Tetsa River Lodge. The signs for Cinnamon Buns began appearing a few miles in advance, and since we needed gas anyway and could use a break from the road, naturally we pulled in.

The price of gas up north had been a pleasant surprise until now, but there is a stretch of northern British Columbia where gas prices hover around $1.80 – $1.90. Interestingly, prices drop again in the Yukon to about $1.34, but we couldn’t wait that long.

Obviously we weren’t the first to gasp when we saw the price – $1.79.

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This lodge (motel, campground, gas and fresh baking) is a well-known way station.  We stopped here last year for the cinnamon buns and they were every bit as fabulous this time. A sign on the wall proclaims the Tetsa River Cinnamon Bun as one of the Top 50 Iconic Desserts in North America. When I asked owner Gail Andrews for a photo, she sighed. “I wonder how many ugly photos of me are out there? My daughter keeps bugging me to put on makeup.” Gail’s husband bakes the cinnamon rolls and fresh bread and also makes artisan meat products. Don’t even think about driving past this spot – it’s a culinary highlight.

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We reached Liard Hot Springs Campground by mid-afternoon – time to set up and head to the hot springs for a soak. The campground is just beautiful – well-treed and private, and it’s very popular. Be sure to make reservations or arrive early in the day to nab a first-come, first-served site.

I loved the whimsy of the potted palm and flamingo set out in this northern boreal forest. We chatted with these campers later in the day; they are on the road for an extended period and she needed to bring “a little piece of home with me wherever we go“.

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As we walked along the boardwalk to the hot springs, there was a small crowd and three park rangers watching a cow moose and her calf. The cow had a significant scar on her back rump and she was favouring one leg – possibly she had been hit by a vehicle.  The rangers told us she was staying in the marsh for the safety of herself and her calf, and they were monitoring her behaviour. Since she continued to graze, the rangers assured us we were safe on the boardwalk to quietly watch her.

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The Hot Springs. This end of the hot springs is extremely hot; close to the source and neither Stephen nor I could stand the temperature.
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The water temperature cools off gradually as it makes its way down to this end and around the corner. The water is clear and clean and moving and soaking in these springs is nothing short of heaven.

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The first day we arrived this place was packed.  As we cruised down to the lower level, we encountered a German couple in their fifties who were passionately entwined. It seems the warm water had sprung some blood vessels. They began making growling guttural animal sounds to one another; oblivious to the bathers all around them and the Girl Guides just around the corner.

Or perhaps it is simply the matter-of-fact approach to sex in the north. The birds do it, the bees do it, and for us humans, there are free condoms in the washroom at the laundromat.

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The area between Fort Nelson B.C.  and Watson Lake, Yukon is called “The Serengeti of the North.” Big animal sightings along the highway are almost guaranteed.  We didn’t see any big-horn sheep this year, but we did see nine black bears, including two yearlings. Just when we had given up hope of seeing bison, we turned the corner to this:

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The calves were well protected. We watched them kicking up their heels and being corralled back into position away from the road.

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This big old fellow strolled right by our truck, confident of his place in the world. I could almost have reached out to touch him, except that would have been an entirely bad idea.

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Watson Lake was our first Yukon destination. It is not a picturesque place, but has some very interesting historical landmarks and serves as a hub for fuel, groceries, laundry and showers. We stayed here for three nights, at the Watson Lake Territorial Campground, just outside of town. You cannot reserve campsites at Yukon campgrounds; they are first-come, first-served, charge just $12 a night and provide free firewood.

Here is our huge site, preparing for the last campfire we will be allowed for the duration of our trip, due to wildfires further north.

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The beauty of  a northern lake.

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Although the park operator told me there had been no sightings of bears in our campground so far this year, we had the lucky fleeting sighting of a mama bear and her cubs on the road out.
As we drove slowly by, she watched us carefully.

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Watson Lake was developed during WWII, with the first settlements by the U.S. and Canadian militaries. The airport was built to ferry US airplanes to Alaska. Today, the airport terminal is still in use; as a log-sided building, it is unique in Canada.

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The pictorial display inside is a fascinating glimpse into that era.

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Watson Lake has a number of original buildings, including this old garage. Still in business, it was once the largest garage in the territory.

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We know our chances of seeing aurora borealis during the summer are slim, so the show about the northern lights being held daily at Northern Lights Space and Science Centre was appealing. We settled back into our reclining seats and watched flashing green lights being beamed across the ceiling. A complex explanation about the science and folklore of the aurora borealis ensued, set to Anya-type music. We have never done acid, but this experience had to have come close. Mesmerized by the lights, the music and the narration, we promptly fell asleep.  All the more reason to return to the Yukon in the winter and see the real thing.

The biggest tourist attraction in Watson Lake is the Signpost Forest. It began as a homesick effort by G.I. Carl Lindley during WWII. While working on damaged signposts, he created one for his hometown in Illinois, and it has since grown  into a forest, with the last estimate at over 80,000 signs, contributed by travellers from all over the world.

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Naturally, among the simple place names are personal stories.

The poignant:

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The ambitious:

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The romantic:

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Such a unique collection of travellers and their stories; the Signpost Forest was designated a Yukon Historic Site in 2013.

Retired among the signposts is Gertude, a 1938 International TD 35 tractor that worked for 40 years in the Yukon, including the Alaska Highway. Today she sits quietly, but for the attention from the odd tourist.

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Our next stop is Teslin Lake, and from there we will literally go where the wind blows. As you may have heard, some significant wildfires have broken out in Alaska and northern Yukon. The smoke has created air advisories in Whitehorse and north.

We’ll travel with the most current information we have, so at this point, our trip has become a bit loose-goosey.  See you again in a few days.

The Six-Month Road Trip: the results are in.

We are three days away from being back in Canada. After 191 days, 56 distinct stops, one accident, one flat tire and one possible concussion, we are ready to bring this trip to an end and get off the road for a while. We drove over 22,000 kilometres.

We know that after a few weeks, we will be restless and ready to go again. That is our new reality – the blessing and the curse of being unhoused means that “wherever we lay our hat that’s our home.” Every new home feels exciting.

We chose to stop in Las Vegas for a three-night respite before the long drive north. We had a wonderful time here in November with our friends and we were craving space, comfort and relaxation. The Tuscany Suites are set on several lushly landscaped acres a 15-minute walk from The Strip. Our room is 600 square feet, compared to our 120-square-foot trailer.

It was too cold to use the pool in November, but with temperatures in the low 30s in April, this was a different scene.

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Back in November those fire pits were lit and warming; we met our friends here each morning for coffee.

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After we left Vegas in November, I had no desire to return.  I realize Vegas needs to be accepted and enjoyed for what it is, but the ability to do that escapes me.  I still see the ugliness, excess and wretched souls.  Hustlers, jittery addicts, rock-bottom street prostitutes, aging C-list performers and the endless swath of tourists – it feels jarring to be here.

So back to what we wanted to share with you all – the gritty details.
I’ll begin with what you really want to know – how much did this cost us?

Expenses
Insurance.
 Costs vary tremendously depending upon age and duration of stay, but our insurance for six months  in Mexico and the U.S. (we’re both over 65) = $1700 (with a $5000 deductible)
Mexican car insurance – 2 months – we overpaid (long story)   = $850

The U.S. dollar costs roughly $1.35 – $1.38, which means everything cost at least one-third more. The difference for four months in the U.S.?   = $5000

Food, accommodation & misc.  – this figure is a moving target, as it will be affected by the type of campground you choose, whether you cook or eat out, if you take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, etc.

Since we follow a fairly strict budget, we tend to cook most of our meals and to stay away from the luxury RV parks. With the cost of campgrounds,  groceries, wine and beer,  restaurant meals, firewood, laundry, three oil changes for the truck, museum and entry fees, we averaged $120 a day.  We never felt as though we were skimping or doing without and if we were more adept at boondocking (camping on beaches or public lands for free or very little), that figure would have been much lower. This lovely beach in Baja  was one of our best camping experiences and cost us nothing.

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If you are travelling through the U.S. for any length of time, make sure you pick up an America the Beautiful card.  It costs US$80 for a year and grants admission to all National Parks and National Monuments. With most of the big parks charging $30-$35 entry and the smaller ones charging $10-$20, it pays for itself very quickly.

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Our grand total for travelling for 191 days through the U. S. and Mexico?         $25,000

Campgrounds – reserve or take your chances?

If you want to guarantee a campsite in any of the National Parks and many of the state parks, you will need to book ahead – often six months or more. We were very lucky to snag spots in Zion and Grand Canyon, but they were last-minute cancellations and Steve happened to be online at the right time. A couple of hours later and we might have lost them.

It is a hard call – we changed our travel plans a number of times due to snow, and a few times we extended our stays because we were enjoying ourselves so much.

However, we met a couple who are on the road for a year. She booked up all the parks almost a year ago and they are simply making it work.

Campgrounds – private, public or boondocking?

We tried to stay in national or state parks as much as possible. Usually the setting is attractive, the sites are spacious and the campers are often of a similar mindset – they are there to enjoy nature and tend to be more respectful. Most sites offer dry camping or have electricity – they seldom have full hook-ups. Usually there are restrooms and showers and almost always there is a sani-dump and potable water. Occasionally, but not very often, you get wifi and cell reception. They cost from $15-$30.

The private campgrounds run the gamut from high-end costing $75 – $80 a night to more modest campgrounds that charge $30-$40. Private campgrounds almost always offer full hookups, wifi, and other amenities such as a small store, showers, laundry, firewood, book exchange, etc. We appreciated the private campgrounds when we needed to clean up ourselves and our trailer.  But private campgrounds are often cheek by jowl sites with little privacy and a couple of times we had  bad experiences with inconsiderate campers.

Boondocking is the way to go if you can make it work. BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands in the U.S. and the beaches of Baja are there for the taking (or for a nominal fee). In some cases, there are pit toilets, garbage cans but in the vast majority of cases, you are on your own. Once you figure out how to handle your water and waste issues, you’re all set. Drive in, pick a spot and set up camp. The camping experience is sublime – dark skies, coyotes howling, and utter peace.

We can boondock for four nights. We arrive after having emptied our grey and black water and filled our fresh water tanks. We have a six-gallon jug for our drinking water and are very careful with our fresh water usage. We have discovered we can go up to four days without a shower (never our first choice, but it is possible). After four days we need to hitch up, go to town, use a sani-dump, refill water, have showers and begin again.

Exercise on the road

Although we hiked a lot, our best intentions about maintaining a formal exercise routine quickly fell away. The excuses are easy – no space, no privacy, too cold, too hot, etc. We have a yoga mat, resistance bands, Pilates cards, and even a skipping rope.  I will freely admit that Stephen is more disciplined than I, and hauling out the equipment a few times in six months does not an exercise routine make.

Grooming

I have “accidental long hair”. After wearing my hair short for decades, I let my hair grow out last winter in India. Indian women have long hair and I was stymied as to where I would find a hairdresser who knew how to cut a short style. I have carried that sentiment forward as we continue to be on the road – how to maintain a style that needs tending every few weeks, without having a tragic cut? My solution was to let it grow long enough that I could pin it up. So far, I am feeling less soigné than I had hoped.

When you camp for a long time, you tend to retreat into a bubble. We are keeping good company with other campers who wander the grounds in their jammies, and brush their teeth into the bushes. It’s always a shock to come into town and see women with mascara and a color-coordinated outfit.

Health Issues

Sooner or later, you may require medical attention, or at least wonder if you should find a doctor.

Several weeks ago, I managed to bash my head so hard in our trailer that I literally bounced off the wall. While Stephen tried not to laugh, I sat there, tears streaming and a bit nauseous. After much online consultation, we concluded I probably gave myself a concussion, as I developed a headache, dizziness and mental wooliness that lasted for several days. If we had been in B.C., I would have gone to our doctor, but in the U.S., far from a decent hospital, I decided to wait it out.  It worked out, but it did raise the question of what to do in situations that aren’t emergencies, but could turn out to be serious.

Libraries

We cannot sing the praises of libraries enough.  Every small town has a library that is welcoming with its great wifi and in many cases – a book sale. We have replenished our books, usually for 50 cents or $1.00, and either discovered new authors or grabbed a book we’ve been meaning to read.

The People

Campers tend to develop a quick and easy rapport with each another. We’re all away from home, and everyone has a story. We have met such wonderful, interesting people – this is one of the highlights of this kind of travel.

The Cost of Travelling in the U.S. 

We were expecting gas to be cheaper than in Canada, but it varies from state to state. California prices are almost equivalent to Canadian, while Arizona, with exchange, runs to about $1 a litre.

I was surprised by the cost of groceries. Again, I expected food to be less expensive, but in most cases found prices to be the same as in Canada or even higher. For example,  fresh pesto costs $5.99 (CA $9), a loaf of bread costs $4 (CA$5.50) and Salad-in-a-bag – $4 (CA $5.50).

Cell Phone Plans: AT&T vs. Verizon 

WE bought an AT&T cell plan, which was supposed to give us unlimited phone and texts in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Calls out of Mexico to Canada were problematic, and we also found access to cell towers was limited in much of Arizona.
According to many other people, Verizon has much better service and coverage. 

Final Thoughts:

We had a fantastic trip and would highly recommend almost every place we visited. If you are contemplating a road trip, or contemplating buying an RV, or if you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

We are back in British Columbia for a housesit on Gabriola Island, and we are looking forward to welcoming our grandson in early June. After that, we head up north to the Yukon and NWT for the summer.

Thank you for following along with us – it means a lot. See you again in July.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grand Finale

My very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon was squinting through the lens of my red plastic Viewmaster. I was seven or eight years old and highly impressionable. I have Viewmaster to thank for planting the early seeds of my travel bug.  Each Viewmaster came with themed reels; Wild Animals, Seven Wonders of the World, etc. You popped in a reel, peered in through the lens and with a flick of the wrist, presto – a 3-D image would appear. My memory puts the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Pyramids on the same reel, which I don’t think is correct, but I do remember being enthralled at the image of the Grand Canyon and finding out everything I could about it. My dream was to one day ride a mule down to the bottom of the canyon.  All these years later, we are here and nothing prepares you for seeing The Grand Canyon on the big screen. It is overwhelming.

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Both Stephen and I had imagined the Grand Canyon to be somehow smaller and more contained, I don’t know why. The Colorado River runs through it for 217 miles. The canyon is one mile deep and 10 miles wide, and because so much of it is visible from the 14-mile Rim trail, you get a tremendous sense of its scope. We met one gentleman who has been coming to the Grand Canyon for over 20 years; each year brings him a fresh perspective and a different adventure.

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I appreciated this apt quote printed on one of the interpretive boards: “No language can fully describe, no artist paint the beauty, grandeur, immensity and sublimity of this most wonderful production of nature’s great architect.” C.O. Hall, Grand Canyon visitor, 1895

Once again, Stephen’s perseverance paid off and we managed to grab a three-day cancellation at Mather Campground, right in the Park. It is a gorgeous campground, with loads of space and privacy and our very own resident elk population. We had been told that this is their birthing season, and if we were lucky we would witness a live elk birth.

When I asked where they might go to give birth, I was given a rather incredulous look. While I realize that wild animals do not have midwives, I thought they might seek out a bit of privacy and have favoured spots. However, we were also told we might see one of the magnificent California condors that have been brought back from near-extinction, but that is not likely, either.

Our closest wild animal connection so far (besides the elk) has been hearing coyotes howling a couple of nights ago.

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Back to the famous Grand Canyon mule rides I heard about in my youth. These days, you need to book months, if not a year, in advance and you have a choice – a one day or overnight trip. We passed fresh evidence that a mule train had already passed by on the way down on our hike and then these two cowboys appeared, leading more mules down to the bottom.

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We wondered what the difference was between a mule and a donkey and this sign explained it, as well as giving us a bit of a history of the use of mules in the canyon.

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So why the use of mules and not horses? According to a mule wrangler, “The difference between riding a mule and riding a horse is like the difference between riding a Cadillac and riding in a washing-machine. Mules are a whole lot smoother.” 

There are so many things about the Grand Canyon that will have to wait for another trip. Mule ride, Rim-to-Rim hike, overnight hikes – these are all essential GC experiences that require a bit of planning, different gear, and I’ll be honest,  a higher level of fitness than I currently possess. Stephen is like a mountain goat – he can climb up steep inclines without pause; I’m huffing and puffing, with my heart pounding and legs cramping. I take breaks and work through it and eventually it gets easier, but there’s work to be done.

Still, there are plenty of day-trippers in the Grand Canyon, and if a few hours is all the time you have, you can begin by visiting the Desert View Watchtower on the eastern edge of the park. This was designed by famous architect Mary Colter, as well as a number of other buildings within the park. She chose to build it “in the Indian spirit”, based on many examples of Indian architecture she had admired. It is possible to walk up to the top for a better view of the canyon.

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Our very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. It choked us up.

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There are dozens of hikes within the Park – from easy 2-3 hour hikes to very strenuous multi-day hikes. However the 14-mile Rim hike, which follows right along the top of the canyon, and is quite flat and fully paved, is where every tourist sooner or later ends up. It is a linear hike, but can be done in segments and there is no such thing as a bad view.
We were on the South Rim, by the way, which is by far the busiest part of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim does not open until May.

Although we were there on Easter weekend, it was not nearly as crazy as we had feared. It was busy,  but bearable, although at times we had to wait for a space to clear to snap a photo, as cameras were in overdrive, capturing their loved ones from every imaginable angle.  My favourite.

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My second favourite.

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Every year people fall to their death at the Grand Canyon and sadly sometimes it is because they have taken a foolish risk to capture that Instagram-able moment.

These three young people were much closer to the edge before I snapped this shot. One of them had been sitting with her legs dangling over the side, looking backward for a photo. It took my breath away.

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But these two young women actually drew a horrified crowd. We watched while they posed and stretched backwards, just inches from the edge; clinging to one another like death-defying contortionists.
Are they “influencers” – that strange new breed of media stars who must always seek a better photo, a bigger thrill?

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We took one  three-hour hike down into the canyon, but not before reading the stern warnings about the potential hazards, especially between May and September, when canyon temperatures reach the 100’s.

Many hikers have to be rescued and every year there are fatalities related to heat and/or dehydration. Hikers are either poorly prepared, run out of water or underestimate the power of the intense sun and heat. Each year over 600 assists are required in the Canyon and over 150 helicopter rescues take place.

At a number of strategic locations, there are free water filling stations; a much-appreciated service, even for casual walkers.

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We chose the popular Bright Angel Trailhead; it offers several hikes and we went for one that lasted about  three hours.

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We descended about 1200 feet, which is a whole lot easier going down. However, we met up with a mother and son, who were concluding their 2-day, overnight hike from the south. They had camped in the rustic campground below and rose at 4:00 am to make their final hike back up. They were tired and hungry and looking forward to ice-cream!

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The trail is narrow in spots, but very well-graded and easy to walk. It was still early in the day when we hiked down, so most people we ran into were in quite cheery moods.

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Stephen, still cheery.
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Our little beacon on the trail – called Resthouse 1.5 – restrooms, a bit of shade and time to contemplate the long hike back – uphill.

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A view from another part of the Rim
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And…another view

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It’s not all about the hiking – there is quite a rich history here. The Village of Grand Canyon has about 1500 residents, swelling to 3000 in the summer. They are all park employees, and their work revolves around the various lodges, restaurants, gift shops, services and amenities that the village and the visitor centre and the market offer.

Most of the original buildings are intact and well maintained, such as the Mary Colter-designed El Tovar hotel:

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The Kolb Studio was the photography studio of the quirky and daring Kolb brothers, who began working in 1904 and became famous for their photos of visitors on mule rides.

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They were avid outdoorsmen and went to great (some said foolish) lengths to capture a shot.

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When trains began arriving in the Grand Canyon, they brought the first intrepid tourists and once the depot opened in 1910, a community began to develop.

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Train travel was very popular until the road from Williams was paved and tourists chose to travel by automobile. This depot closed in 1968, and only resumed again in 1989 when a clever marketer devised a package using a vintage train that included singing cowboys a Wild West shootout in Williams and a mock train robbery. Trains run twice daily and take two and a half hours, combining breathtaking scenery and corny, fun entertainment.

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The Grand Canyon was so much more than we had hoped for.  We only scratched the surface of what there is to do and see here, so it has been added to our “Must-return” list.

We waited this long to see it, which is less than a blink in its geological timeframe. This is an example of one of the oldest rocks in this area.

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From the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas – we are letting ourselves down gently! We will be back in British Columbia in about a week.

From Little Hollywood to Hoodoos

We’ve been camped out on BLM lands near Kanab for the past three nights, and have been enjoying every minute there out among the dunes. During the day we explore, at night we build a fire and watch the stars come out.

This small rustic (pit toilets, no hook-ups) campground (10 sites), is first-come, first-served and is simply idyllic. It charges $5 a night ($2.50 for seniors), and the sites are spacious and private.

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We chose Kanab as a base from which to explore southern Utah’s parks and landscapes and our initial plan was to boondock for a few days then come into town and set up in an RV park for the usual water/ sani dump/shower refresh. Today is a rainy day and perfect for catching up on emails, grabbing some groceries and doing some last-minute planning. We thought to reserve a spot at one of the RV parks in town, but our heart sank when we saw how crowded they were, so we’ve moved to Plan B.  We will stay at our lovely campground for another couple of days – just hitch up to use the dump and water facilities at a campground further down the road, then return to our little slice of nature.

Kanab is well-situated within an hour’s drive of two national parks, several state parks, and a number of other attractions and amenities.  Kanab has a rich cinematic history; it has long been called “Little Hollywood”. Since 1924, over 100 movies and TV shows (mainly Westerns) have been shot here and in the surrounding areas.  From 1924’s Tom Mix movie Deadwood Coach to such notables as The Lone Ranger, Stagecoach,The Misfits,  The Rainmaker, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and more recently, The Planet of the Apes.

As westerns have become a less popular genre,  filmmaking in the area has fallen off.

The Little Hollywood museum offers a peek into the backlot and peels the curtain back on the mystique of set design.

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This “adobe” structure used in the critical last scene of “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is actually made of styrofoam blocks.

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The building to the right is simply a facade; last used in a Kenny Loggins video.

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During its heyday, Kanab hosted a huge number of A-list stars, including John Wayne, Glen Ford, Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and this fellow:

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Parry Lodge was in the centre of much of the action in those days. It opened in 1931 to help attract, house and feed the movie industry who had just discovered the area and were arriving in droves. Most of the film companies stayed here, and the lobby is filled with photos of the stars who made this their temporary home.

By today’s movie star standards, Parry Lodge seems homey and quaint, but at the time it offered an oasis in the desert.

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The town of Kanab offers a lot for tourists in terms of lodging and restaurants. We had a terrific lunch at Rocking V Cafe – very cool spot. We did pause for a minute when we realized our US$15 burgers were actually CA$22, but that has been the inescapable equation throughout our trip. Most restaurants in the U.S. have the same (or higher) prices as Canada, but then we have to add another one-third to that price.  We mainly ignore that depressing reality. If we waited for our Canadian dollar to be less dismal before travelling to the U.S., we could be waiting a long time.

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The understated simplicity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

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Even Kanab wrestles with this unknowable question.

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We took a drive up the Johnson Canyon Road, an area where a lot of outdoor shots and action shots were filmed. It was a pretty drive, but you had to really stretch your imagination to see where the old “cowboys and Indians”  scenes might have happened.

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The original set from Gunsmoke. Much like the popularity of the westerns, it has fallen onto hard times.  It ran for 20 years from 1955 to 1975 – how many people have even heard of it?

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I don’t know anything about this little building and windmill, but I thought they added to the atmosphere.

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After we left Zion, we thought our chance to see Bryce National Park was gone, as they had received such a dump of spring snow that several trails had to be closed due to avalanche risk. It was disappointing, but we just added Bryce to our list of “next-times”.

Well, luckily for us, we had a brief window yesterday to make the 1 1/2 hour drive up to Bryce. The roads were clear, weather was good and today they are expecting another big snowfall, so it was now or never. We hopped in the truck and headed north.

Good grief – every day-tripper in southern Utah had the same bright idea – it was madness. As we were about 15 miles from the park’s entrance, the scenery began to change and become the dramatic backdrop we all wanted to capture. Cars pulling off the road, veering onto shoulders and spilling out their various occupants, armed with cameras and tablets and cellphones. It was a race to the finish, with dozens of people crouching, climbing, standing in the road; you would have thought we all had 30 seconds before the images in front of us erased. (We were no better, by the way).

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When did we stop simply looking and admiring what is in front of us? It was a bit embarrassing and disconcerting, and I asked Stephen, “Do we want to do this?”  Well, yes, we did, so we carried on.

We drove through a couple of arches along the way.

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We reached the Visitor Centre, where I had an urgent pit stop; NO available parking, so Stephen just circled and finally found a spot at the entrance.

Bryce has had a few issues lately – high snowfalls, construction in campgrounds, only one campground open, many trails closed due to unsafe conditions and the unstoppable flow of tourists putting great demand on the infrastructure.

We did have a very enjoyable visit, but we don’t feel as though we experienced the park as we might have. We didn’t hike (other than a couple of 1-mile hikes to overlooks), we didn’t stay in or near the park for a couple of days and we didn’t have the chance to get away from the crowds. We were all crammed in together, grabbing the good weather and all wanting the same thing.  It is worrisome to consider how our national parks will cope going forward.

The geology of Bryce Canyon is simply stunning.  The tall bulbous formations, called hoodoos vary. Some are ridged into walls, others  have created holes or windows, and others are spindly stand-alones.  They’re all awesome and it is difficult to take in this landscape and really appreciate what you’re seeing – it looks like nothing else you’ve seen before.  Much of the canyon is viewed from the trails along the rim, which provides tremendous aerial views. The recent snow lent a dramatic contrast.

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It is possible to walk right along the rim; there are few fences or guardrails. There are signs to “Watch your Children”  but I would be a very nervous mother (or grandmother.)

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Stephen wanted to see the contrast between the white birch, the white snow and the white hair.

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On our drive up to Bryce, we drove through a number of towns with great  signs – old neon, or intriguing business concepts. There was one sign in particular…

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Home of the Ho-Made Pie? How could we resist? And of course, our server would look just like this buxom French maid.

Our server was Steven,  a friendly and garrulous fellow who was full of local gossip and history. A history of the restaurant was printed and propped on our table, so we spared ourselves having to ask the obvious question – “Ho-made? Typo or bakers with an interesting sideline?”

The Thunderbird Restaurant is located in Mount Carmel  and was built in 1940, in response to the traffic that developed after the building of the tunnel linking this town to Zion National Park. When the owner Fern was widowed in 1961, she overcame a series of obstacles to not only stay in business but create a small empire – a restaurant, inn and golf course. But always, the pies were the draw – Fern’s skills as a baker were legendary. When they had the sign made, it wasn’t possible to fit “Homemade” neatly into the design, so they shortened it to “Ho-made” – a term that was still innocent in the early ’60s.

It has turned out to be a marketing dream – it is what brought us off the road and through the door.  Are the pies as good as they say? They were excellent, although I’m sure a lot of home bakers could outdo that pastry.  I had apple pie with warm butter rum sauce and Stephen had Thunderberry (4 berry) with ice cream. When was the last time we stopped anywhere for a piece of pie? It was so much fun.

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The other sign we couldn’t resist was this one. We just loved the versatility of a skilled tradesman – caskets or gun cabinets.  According to our new friend at the Thunderbird, this man does a ripping business.

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Next time we talk, we will have peered over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Zion!

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Zion is our favourite National Park so far; so filled with contrast and unimaginable beauty that adjectives are inadequate and our conversation on the trails was often reduced to “Wow”, “Beautiful“, and “Look at That.”

Before we arrived we were warned by fellow travellers in rather ominous tones that, “Zion will be crazy.”  We were a little nervous about having to cope with long line-ups, parking nightmares and conveyor belt trails, but none of that came to pass.

Yes, Zion was busier than other parks we have visited so far, but it is also the beginning of the high season and weather right now is ideal. The real crowds don’t start until the summer.

We were also warned we would not get a campsite in the park; they are reserved months in advance. Also true, except Stephen kept checking online and managed to get us a total of five nights from cancellations, with just one move.

This is the view from one end of our campsite:

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When the first Mormon settlers arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century, they called this area Little Zion or “a place of refuge”. The original Paiute name was Mukuntuweap, meaning “straight-up land.”  It officially became Zion National Park in 1919 and has become one of America’s most-visited parks.

Zion has a number of trails closed this year due to rockfall and road washouts, including a chunk of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway that heads east out of the park. Very luckily for us, we arrived on the last day that portion of road was open before they closed it to begin road repair. The ranger urged us to hop in our car and drive the  nine-mile stretch – we are so happy we had the chance. The masterpiece of this road is the one-mile tunnel that was blasted through the rock; opening the Park from the east side of the state.

Normally we would have entered the Park from the east and come in on this road, but with the washout, they were only allowing vehicles of a certain size and weight through.

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A view from the lower level – that hole is one of a number of portals blasted out for ventilation and views and it will give you an idea of the magnitude of the project.

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We weren’t the only ones enjoying the rush of this switchback mountain road.

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The Checkerboard Mesa was one of the notable landmarks along this road.

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The sandstone mountains in Zion present in a stunning array of colours; from the deepest pink to the palest grey.

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Zion has set up an excellent and efficient people-moving system – they provide free shuttles that lead up and down the canyon and into the nearby town of Springdale, where most of the hotels and inns are located.

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Cars are not allowed in the main part of the canyon; drivers must attempt to snag a free parking spot in the Park (usually gone by 10:00 a.m.) or pay $20 a day in town. This system works like a charm – visitors hop on and off as the shuttles move up and down the canyon road.

There is never more than a couple of minutes wait and zero congestion on the road, making it a joy for the numerous cyclists who travel the route.

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There are dozens of hikes in Zion, from half-hour strolls to multi-day hikes. Due to the extra precipitation and rockfall this winter, many of the longer and more difficult trails are closed. This didn’t impact on us, as our idea of a long hike is five or six hours.

One of the most popular hikes in Zion is The Narrows. We began by hiking The Riverside Walk; a 2.2 mile hike along the Virgin River – The Narrows hike extends at the end of this walk. The Riverside Walk was one of our favourites, and we were in good company that day. Because it is described as “Easy”, there was a bit of crowd on the paths. But somehow it all worked out well and never became annoyingly congested.

This little Virgin River is responsible for the creation of the Zion Canyon. Over the centuries, it cut through the walls  and carved out the formations we see today.

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Slightly different perspectives along this trail

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One of a number of waterfalls in Zion

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And finally – the entrance to The Narrows. This is a hike that is done entirely by wading in the Virgin River and probably best done in summer, as the water is always cold. The hike takes two days, requires overnight camping and at times is done in chest-deep water, with one’s pack hoisted overhead. We laughed just trying to imagine ourselves as two senior voyageurs with our freeze-dried stew and our wicking shirts tumbling into the river and floating away.

Normally this river is running a lot slower; due to rockfall and other obstacles upstream, it is currently closed as the river is not safe. This is where one would normally begin The Narrows hike.

It is also possible jut to hike in as far as you want and then return back. That would have been a lot of fun and we’re regretful we missed out on that experience.

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The other big iconic Zion hike is called Angel’s Landing. We encountered two young women who had just completed it and they were pretty shaken. Going with the adage that one must do what one fears, I was considering it, but for the fact that I’m not good with heights and people have plunged to their death.

This legendary hike goes for 5.4 miles, climbs 1488 feet, and has a series of chain-assisted narrow switchbacks, with 1000 foot drop-offs on either side. You pull yourself up over the ridge to claim victory, and then you have to make your way down again.  I’m sorry to have to admit it, but we took a pass.

Heights aren’t an issue for these big-horned sheep, although we didn’t have the chance to see them in action. They were quite contentedly munching away on the side of a trail.

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Climbing is very popular in Zion, and we saw a number of climbers from our shuttle rides up and down the canyon. This is definitely not an area for beginner climbers – take a look and see if you can pick out the climber on this rock face.

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We might not have been scaling mountains or hanging onto chains, but Zion still left us with lots of hiking and fabulous views.

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A short but lovely hike was to an area called Weeping Rock. It was possible to climb up under the ledge behind a waterfall.  This was one of the views from the ledge.

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Look to the wall on the left of the waterfall – it is a hanging garden of ferns and other plants created by the constant moisture.

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We were going to take a day and drive up to Bryce Canyon. That park is at a much higher elevation and two days ago, a storm front went through. We got high winds and a bit of rain – they got several inches of snow. Sadly we will not have a chance to see Bryce this time – it means a return trip to Utah for sure.

We leave tomorrow to hit a few more spots before we arrive at The Grand Canyon. It’s hard to imagine, our trip is winding down.