Hiding from a hurricane in Rethymno

As we make our way east along the north shore of Crete, we had planned just a three-day stop in the small, pretty city of Rethymno. At first, the weather forecast of rain and thunderstorms for our entire visit was nothing more than a disappointment. “We’ll go out between downpours – how bad can it be?”

When we found out that a rare “medicane”(Mediterranean hurricane) had done significant damage to some of the northern mainland and a couple of the Ionian islands and was headed for Crete, we took notice. However, lucky us, Crete got a pass from the worst of the storm. Our first night in Rethymno was rainy but the rest of our stay has been ideal – big dramatic skies and cooler temperatures. We have had the chance to see everything we wanted to see in the area, although weather closed the local beaches.

Rethymno is a delightful, smaller version of Chania – charming old town, narrow alleyways, Venetian and Ottoman influences and the harbour and lighthouse as a focal point.

We lucked out with our Airbnb – a spacious one-bedroom apartment on the top floor, with a broad balcony that overlooked the rooftops.

The view from our balcony looking down to the street below. We heard muted music and people’s voices, but otherwise, it was very quiet. And so clean: this morning we woke up to the sound of a street cleaner who was slowly moving along the road, vacuuming up cigarette butts and bits of garbage.

It seems the common denominator in every village, town and city in Greece is a large and well-cared-for cat population. They are neither friendly nor skittish – they just exist as part of the landscape; something I find quite endearing.

Laneways are another enchanting feature of Rethymno; you can get turned around, but never totally lost. All roads lead to a central square or the harbour or the main shopping street, so the challenge is just deciding whether to turn left or right.

We had fun watching the little boy trying to figure out his bike and was doing just fine until his older brother came along to help.

A typical small cafe tucked into an alley.

I loved these plant hangers. I know they fall into the “harder-than-it-looks” category, but I would love to try nailing together a number of small, flat boards and construct one of these for our balcony back home.

You know when you have set certain expectations for a recommended tourist site? The Rimondi Fountain was described as being a dramatic stone fountain set in a square. Visitors were urged to drink the fresh spring water from the fountain “to ensure your return to Rethymno”.

Well, I must have had an image of something along the scale of the Trevi Fountain, so we actually walked right past this once before we asked for directions and made our way back.

Other confused tourists were also dutifully snapping photos, but it was an underwhelming site. Even worse, there was no tap for fresh spring water, which I hope does not jinx our chances of returning.

All other sites in Rethymno more than made up for this. Some, like this modest building, just told a simple story.
During the 17th century, this building was one of two public baths (or hamams) in Rethymno, built by the Turks. It was a functioning hamam until 1925, and then became a bakery for many years. It was extensively restored and from 2000 on, was designated a protected site and became a hamam again.

Turkish architecture features prominently in Rethymno. Unique features include upper storeys that project out over the street by perhaps an additional two to three feet and are embellished with heavy wood and latticework.

This is a common site in Reythmno – the juxtaposition of original buildings beside renovated ones. The newer builds are still faithful to the architectural features of the old – just with better windows and more secure railings.

Rethymno is filled with many notable mosques and churches. I apologize for the lack of proper identification of the church – I took so many photos, and now am completely confused. They are all a variation on a theme, though – solid, understated elegance.

Neratzes Mosque

This mosque fronts onto a square that is flanked on one side by a park and on the other side by this mural. We walked out of the square into a neighbourhood that was filled with graffiti – all of it in Greek, with the exception of the obligatory “Fuck the Police“, but the tone had changed. Far less Instagram-worthy, not intended for tourist eyes, it was a lot more reflective perhaps of the struggles many Greeks have lived with for years.

Food has played an important part in our stay in Reythmno. The day we arrived, we hit the streets around 3:30 or 4:00, and before long, it began to rain. We took refuge in this restaurant, and snug as could be, we sat under the awning and watched the world go by (run by?), as we enjoyed snacks and beer.
We enjoyed it so much, we returned again last night for dinner.

Before our arrival, I had read about RakiBaRaki a number of times. It was fabulous – every dish an inventive variation on traditional Greek mezes. I ordered mussels in ouzo, and Stephen had a charcuterie board with pork belly, eggplant salad and a flavoured cream cheese. Heavenly food, and sadly, my photos did not turn out well, but this is the restaurant.

It is common in Greece to have Menus for 2, to allow diners to try a variety of dishes. We ordered the Mixed Mezes, which offered six dishes – tzatziki, green pepper stuffed with rice, eggplant with beef and cheese, chicken with lemon and wine, beef and onions and horta (wild greens). Delicious and impossible to finish. We can’t eat like this every day – all the walking we’re doing will not make a dent. Also it doesn’t stop there. Complimentary fruit, desserts and/or ouzo arrive on the table after every meal.

Coffee shops abound – everything from the tiny Greek coffee stands to the larger coffeehouses. Coffee fredo is big here – iced cappucinos that are a perfect excuse to grab a waterfront table and get out of the sun for a bit.

There are even Starbucks in Greece, but honestly why would you bother when you could check out this coffeehouse?

Remember worry beads? They are very likely making a comeback during these trying times, and there are at least a couple of tiny stores in Rethymno that specialize in them. Gorgeous beads made of polished wood or semi-precious stones or a tiny set of beads to attach to your key chain.

I could go on about the amazing shopping – the gorgeous linens, the colourful prints, the authentic artifacts, the polished olivewood, stunning leather bags, fabulous shoes and inventive jewellery. And that is just what you could pack in a suitcase. Therein lies the rub.

We are both travelling in our usual fashion – with carry-ons that are already filled to the brim. If I start buying things now, I have another month to schlep everything with me, so I am trying to resist and hoping that what we are finding here will also be available in other parts of Greece, closer to our departure time. Next time – I’m bringing a full-size rollie.

Rethymno’s waterfront is quite different from that of Chania, although it is Venetian in style.

The Egyptian lighthouse is part of the harbour, but does not enclose and protect it. The sea is wide open beyond that.

These intriguing concrete sculptures are part of the harbour. I couldn’t find any information about them, but I assume they are intentionally decorative as well as providing a significant barrier in rough weather.

The Fortezza, which holds a place of prominence on the hill overlooking the sea, was built in the 16th century by the Venetians to protect its citizens from Ottoman invasions. After the surrender to the Ottomans in 1646, it retained much of its character and the number of residents increased dramatically.

When the Germans occupied during World War II, it was used as a prison and dormitories. After the war, much of the Fortezza was demolished and since then there has been great effort to restore and maintain the remaining buildings.

We spent over an hour wandering the site, made all the more pleasurable due to the lack of crowds and the cooler temperatures.

We began by walking up one of the bastions to gain an overall view of the Fortezza, the city and the sea.

Once the Fortezza was seized by the Ottomans, they built this mosque. Today it is used for exhibitions and music events.

The incredible mosaic ceiling of the mosque.

The warehouse complex that consisted of three domed covered and two uncovered spaces for food and tanks.

The Twin Building that was used for storage and is now used as an exhibition venue.

St. Theodor Trichinas’ Temple

And so our short, but sweet time in Rethymno has come to an end. Tomorrow we hop on a bus to Heraklion, then grab a rental car for one week as we begin to explore the east side of Crete.

Getting lost in Chania

Well, not really lost – just momentarily misplaced. Chania (pronounced hon-ya) is all about discovering the alleyways and back lanes. Without our cellphone, we would have had a tough time finding our Airbnb, Xenon Apartments. We’re on the second floor, with the balcony.

We’re staying six nights in Chania, which is a beautiful, evocative small city on the north-western end of Crete. The Old Town is a series of laneways and narrow alleys that criss-cross up from the Venetian harbour and show a number of influences – Jewish, Turkish and Venetian – in the architecture.

Just around the corner from us is a building that was built in 1650 by Jews who were brought from Spain by Venetians during their occupation of Crete during the Middle Ages. It was originally a soap factory but is now a restaurant.

We also visited the only surviving synagogue, Etz Hayyim, which was re-built in the mid-90s. After Crete’s Jewish population was wiped out in 1944, the synagogue fell into disuse, but today is full restored and is open to all visitors. We were not allowed to take photos inside the synagogue, but this is a shot of the exterior grounds.

Other religious edifices are prominent, of course. The Mosque of Kioustsouk Hasan, which is now an exhibition hall, is a standout on the harbour.

The Agios Nikolaos cathedral is one of a number of Greek Orthodox churches in Chania.

It flanks the leafy Splantzia Square, where the Greek prerogative seems to have a foothold; men of all ages sit and gossip and drink coffee.

Chania has been a fantastic introduction to Crete – we are re-learning the art of slowing down, sipping our drinks and savouring our food.

While there is no denying the appeal of Greek food, after a while the palate is screaming for something a little lighter, a little cleaner, a little different. We discovered a fabulous vegan restaurant called Pulse, owned by an Irishwoman who has lived in Crete for 27 years and has successfully resisted the urge to eat lamb.

Last night’s dinner, overlooking the water: Stephen had a Superfood Salad

I had ravioli stuffed with polenta and garnished with fennel.

The Venetian harbour – ground zero for people-watching, eating, drinking and endless strolling. It is flanked by the Firka Fortress on one end:

…the Grand Arsenal at the other…

…and the Egyptian lighthouse that protects the harbour.

More harbour scenes – at dawn…

…and at dusk.

Although the marina was full of yachts, catamarans, luxury cruises and glass bottom boat rides, there was still room for the trusty Greek fishing boats.

So now that we’ve walked the promenade, let me take you through some of the alleyways. They are filled with cafes, tavernas, small inns, sweet little shops, and photogenic doorways and balconies.

and finally – this little fellow. He is a friend of our apartment’s proprietor, and his very proud young parents watched as we stopped to talk to him.

We had a bit of a setback in Chania – we had to cancel our plans to hike the Samaria Gorge. It is listed in all guidebooks as a “Must-do” – an all-day event that involves a very early bus ride to the trailhead, followed by a 16-km. hike through an outstanding canyon landscape, dropping from 1230 ft. elevation to the sea on the south shore of Crete. This was one of the things in Greece I was most looking forward to; I even bought new hiking shoes!

Two days ago, my back gave out on me; an episodic event that can be brought on by bending over to tie up my shoes, and results in a paralyzing vice grip on my lower back that is the mother of all muscle spasms. Every two or three years or so, I am in the grips of one of these hellish things; I think this one may have been brought on by the many hours on the plane, followed by my excitement and a failure to pace myself.

Luckily, I have found a therapeutic cream that has really helped, but certainly not enough to tackle a full-day hike. So very disappointing.

Stephen has been a trooper about it all – “in sickness and in health”, I guess. We could still do the beaches and Crete has bragging rights to a couple of beaches that consistently make it on the “World’s Top Beaches” lists. We chose to go to Elafonisi Beach – an exquisite beach on the south shore, about an hour and a half drive through the mountains.

We rented a little white Peugeot, and began the drive with a tiny bit of trepidation. The reputation of Greek drivers as impatient speed hounds aside, we also have a long history of getting tragically lost, so driving in foreign countries carries its very own adventures.

But not this time! Armed with our cellphone, and very comprehensive road signs, we soon found ourselves high up in the mountains.

The road conditions were terrific – mostly like the photo above, although with a bit more twist and turn.

And if you had a sudden irresistible urge to drink and drive, there were a number of raki shacks along the way.

And then, the reward.

Crystal clear water; warm enough but still refreshing, mountains as a backdrop and best of all – no crowds. Absolute swimming bliss. Elafonisi used to have pink sand, but apparently over the years so many people have taken home vials of sand as souvenirs that the true pink tone has changed and softened. An admonishing sign is posted – yet another thing of beauty on this earth we have failed to protect.

Tomorrow we head east for a few days in the small town of Rethymno. We’ll be in Crete for over two weeks, maybe longer. See you again in a few days.

We’re in Greece!

We have been desperate to hit the road again, but it was not an easy decision to travel internationally during Covid. Canada still has non-essential travel advisories in place, which means if things flare up and borders close, we are on our own. Travelling by plane carries an element of risk, as does staying in hotels and Airbnbs. We are decidedly in the higher-risk age group. And yet…

Greece has maintained very low Covid numbers and when cases started to climb recently, officials clamped down immediately with curfews and hefty fines and jail time for egregious offenders. The government has put strict protocols in place in all public spaces, and will cover costs if tourists should become ill. With tourism down by 70%, this is a small window for travelling in Greece without being besieged by hordes of other tourists. Social distancing is actually possible. So is getting a table at a restaurant.

Once we discovered that a company called MediPac offers travel insurance that covers Covid, we were in. We flew quite seamlessly with Air Canada from Nanaimo/Vancouver/Toronto/Athens. If only flying was always this pleasant. No crush of cranky economy passengers waiting to board. No middle seat companions on any of the flights and since the Toronto-Athens flight was just one-third full, we each grabbed a full row to stretch out and sleep.

Upon arrival in Athens, we zipped through customs in minutes and walked through this empty airport to catch the metro to downtown.

Travelling by metro was also easy, although with reduced seating, we stood for the 45-minute ride. Seats are cordoned off for distancing and everyone wears masks. I’ve never thought of Greeks as being particularly compliant people, but boy, there is no fooling around here. Mask-wearing is non-negotiable and is required in all public indoor spaces – period.

We are in Greece for six weeks; beginning our trip with a few days in Athens, then flying to Crete for 18 or 19 days. We’re playing it a little by ear from there – planning to visit Santorini, then back up to the mainland to drive around the mountain villages and seaside towns, with a brief stop in Hydra before heading home again.

It feels wonderfully normal to be travelling again, although we have noticed two distinct differences from past trips. Fellow tourists are almost overwhelmingly a) European and b) young. So far we have not fallen into an easy banter with anyone except for bored waiters. Tourists are keeping to themselves.

Athens is much nicer than we had imagined – cleaner, quieter, less chaotic and very walkable. However, with the exception of a very few parks, there is a noticeable dearth of green space.

We’re staying at an Airbnb in the Plaka neighbourhood, which is a charming older area close to the Acropolis, with twisty narrow lanes, bougainvilleas and tons of cafes and tavernas.

Our first night in town, we were feeling spacey from 24 hours of travel and grabbed the first tourist-y restaurant we saw, lured in with the promise of “drinks on the house.” Most restaurants will give you something complimentary – ouzo, dessert, fresh fruit – which I find touching and remarkable in cash-strapped, tourist-hungry Greece.

We kept it simple with a Greek salad and souvlaki and for a tourist restaurant the food was surprisingly good. It was lovely to sit outside and let it wash over us that we were in Greece.

We were fading fast and when we asked for the check, our waiter appeared instead with two more drinks. “On the house!,” he announced to my rather ungracious, “oh no“. ( We did manage to finish them.)

We discovered that central Athens is compact, made up of several fascinating neighbourhoods and is extremely walkable. This sweet little part of town, called Anafiotika, is just up the road from our place.

It is a cluster of about 40 whitewashed homes that lie right in the shadow of the Acropolis. It is just beautiful and unlike the rest of Athens – more reminiscent of buildings found on the islands. Although it is touted as a tourist attraction, I felt a bit uneasy walking through such a small, intimate neighbourhood. These are people’s homes and we were walking within inches of their open windows.

We spent the day exploring and enjoying the many contrasts of Athens. It is a city steeped in history, but also shaped by modern influences.

Greece is famous for its many stray cats – this little one lives around the corner from us, and is obviously well-fed.

The Monastiraki Flea Market is what I wish I could find back home. Every conceivable treasure, piece of junk or genuine antique can be found here, although many vendors appear to have lost their mojo.

Just around the corner from the dusty old relics of the flea market came high fashion.

A Gaga-worthy gown for the alternative bride.

The neighbourhood of Psirri is known for its lively atmosphere and sense of style. We stopped for lunch at a cafe which had hung laundry across the street as a design feature.

Our lunch was made all the more memorable by Stephen’s gusher of a nosebleed, which is off-putting at the best of times, but particularly troublesome during Covid. Stephen is prone to nosebleeds in altitude and extremely dry air, and we think that all the plane travel with a mask on, combined with a sudden drop into 30+degree heat, may have brought it on.

Our server handled us with great tact and empathy, providing yards of paper towels.

If you look carefully at the photo below you’ll see my friend, clutching an ice pack.

We came upon this crazy sight – a “Mary Poppins” tea party/fantasyland cafe embellished with an eye-watering amount of fringe, flowers, and froth.

Athens has a significant street art scene, and although we did not make it to the more bohemian neighbourhoods, we still stumbled upon some notable examples.

An upscale shop sold curated pieces – tea towels, mugs, T-shirts – with quotes from famous Greek philosophers. I’m not sure that I agree with any of them, especially Socrates. “I know nothing?” What a distressing realization to come to – surely a few things have stuck by now? Still, they bear discussion, and beat the heck out of talking about Trump.

A typical example of the little architectural surprises that lie tucked away down side alleys.

Our friend Joe has a keen appreciation for ancient Greek history, and he advised us to brush us a bit before our trip, as it would be otherwise overwhelming. – very good advice indeed. I am woefully ill-educated about Greek history and mythology, and so will not attempt to give you any background on ancient Greece. There is such depth of info available elsewhere – I’m bringing you our experiences and observations.

Obviously the Acropolis and numerous other sites in Athens are the whole point – they hold a command post from many vantage points in the city and inform the tenor of the town. It is decidedly a cool thing to walk in modern-day Athens with the juxtaposition of the Hadrian’s Arch against a flow of cars and motorbikes.

This morning we sat in a shady cafe with our iced coffees and looked out over the Roman Agora. The metro tracks run right in front.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus, tucked in from a major thoroughfare.

Yesterday we devoted to the Acropolis Museum in the morning and the Acropolis in the afternoon. The museum is sensational – filled with hundreds of statues, many of them almost intact, and thousands of pieces saved from the excavation at the Acropolis. The exterior is all the more remarkable because it had been fully excavated, and then it was decided to situate the new museum on top of the site. Giant round concrete pillars were carefully placed and the excavation site was then filled in with gravel and sand to protect it while the building of the museum took place.

We took our time trekking up to the Acropolis; even at 5:00 p.m., it was still hot and sunny. We passed the Theatre of Dionysus on the way up and had the good fortune to listen to an orchestra warming up. We’re not sure if there was a performance later – it seems unlikely, although there would be lots of room to distance theatre-goers.

On the last leg of our trip up the hill, we followed behind a gregarious and chatty Frenchwoman, who carried on a steady commentary.
As we reached the summit, she announced, “Et voila!”

The Parthenon is the focal point of the Acropolis, and it is in a steady state of restoration, which distracts but does not take away from its grandeur.

Lesser sites include the Temple of Athena Nike:

The 360 degree views from the Acropolis are stunning and the Parthenon is such an iconic image; it would be impossible to come to Athens and miss seeing them.

But both Stephen and I came away feeling a little underwhelmed; we were more taken by the juxtaposition of ancient ruins like the Agora while wandering around the city than by the Acropolis itself.

I have to confess that I have a very short attention span for tramping around ruins in scorching sun, or for admiring ancient exhibits in a museum. I stare and stare at crumbling rock or pottery shards and I just cannot conjure up images of life thousands of years ago.

Tomorrow we fly to Crete for at least a couple of weeks and we are so looking forward to experiencing that side of Greece – the mountain villages, hiking trails through gorges, the olive groves and the amazing beaches.

A Year of Living Precariously

While it would be high drama (and wildly misleading) to suggest our last year was “dangerous”, it was marked by constant change, joy, loss, grief, and now, with Coronavirus dominating the news, “precarious” does not feel like an overstatement. The whole world is precarious.

What the heck is going on? If our original plan three and a half years ago was to “leave ourselves behind”, we’ve done that in spades. But the world is no longer cooperating and the rules have suddenly, totally changed.

So let’s go back to when we last chatted, in August. We had finished our travels in the Yukon and were anxious to get back to Vancouver to see our grandson. (For those of you who already know this story, just scroll down to the coronavirus part.)

When we first started travelling full-time, friends warned us that things would change with a grandchild. “You’ll travel less”, they said. “Hmmm,” we said. (secretly believing otherwise.) Now, we’re not so sure. Our Leo is a pretty compelling draw, and we’re not sure we want to leave him for months at a time. Plus, we really like his parents.

I could show you dozens of photos, but I do know better. Well okay, let me add one more – our creative daughter-in-law’s first Hallowe’en outfit.

So, yes, we are smitten grandparents – the kind who show photos of their grandchildren to complete strangers.

Leo was our first big change of the year.

The second big change was our decision to sell our trailer. We put a lot research into deciding what type of RV would suit us and the Escape trailer seemed to be it. Made in British Columbia, lightweight fibreglass body, well-designed, and virtually problem-free, this was the ideal introduction to RV-ing for newbies.

Our challenge was we never got the hang of backing up. One day we would wheel right in to our campsite like pros and the next day we would wrangle it for what seemed like hours. Our other challenge was we felt like we were taking up major real estate on the road. We didn’t feel free, we felt hindered. We were “dragging ourselves behind.”
At some point, we will look for a smaller unit – a truck camper or a van. We knew our upcoming travel would be overseas, and figured it might be a couple of years before we would hit the road again. So we handed our trailer over to an excited new owner and we have many very happy memories to tide us over until the next time.

The third huge, unthinkable change was the death of my mother in October. At 89, she was a force to be reckoned with, full of life and brimming with health – we all thought she would go on forever. She and my dad came out west from Ontario in September to meet their great-grandchild, and this is the last photo I have of her before she died.

My parents had to cut their trip short because my mother was not feeling well, and two weeks later she was gone.

The months since then have been a blur of shock and grief and sadness, as well as the busyness of helping my dad get settled into his new life. We all continue to cope with a world that does not have my mother in it.

Also, we are facing the unpalatable reality that we’re next up to bat. Not yet old, but no longer young. So how do we make the most of our valuable time remaining?

Our fourth big change was our decision to put down roots and buy a condo. For the past few years we had been balancing our travel time with housesitting and renting Airbnb’s and for a while that worked very well.

Increasingly though we were feeling the need to come “home” between trips. We knew we didn’t want to buy a house, with all the yard work and maintenance that required – we wanted a comfy roost we could lock up and leave without worry. At some point, I think, I want to have a garden and house plants and a bit of a yard, but for now, we want to continue travelling as much as we did before, but come home to our “stuff.”

We decided to buy in Nanaimo – central to our friends on Gabriola and Vancouver Island, family in Vancouver and an easy walk to downtown and the ferries. We bought this condo in September, but spent the next three months in Ontario with my dad. We’ve only been living here and setting up our home since early January. We began with an inflatable mattress and two camp chairs and by now we are getting close to being furnished. The “stuff” collecting has begun once again, but this time, we are choosing everything very carefully and minimally. It has been fun feathering our nest.

This is our condo building in Nanaimo – we are the corner unit on the second floor.

And now…to travel. We had planned a trip to South America this past winter, but of course those plans were shelved. We did get away for two weeks in February to Puerto Morelos, in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Heat, colour, fabulous swimming and snorkelling, and great food. It didn’t feel new, or demanding or even exciting, but it was a tonic and exactly what we needed.

In April, we were going to drive down to Portland to visit friends. This summer we were planning to drive through the northern United States, up into Ontario and visit family and friends in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Next winter we were planning to go to South America – Colombia, Ecuador, Galapagos and Peru. Now all of that is up in the air.

Everything has changed – who knows what the weeks and months ahead will bring? Will we be allowed across the U.S. border in April? What will our road trip look like this summer? As for South America – another big question mark, even so many months away. We are all adjusting our realities on a daily basis.

We have two sets of friends who have had to cut their trips short and come home, and another who is stranded in Peru for the next two weeks. Our son was supposed to have left on Monday for Thailand – he cancelled that trip just last week, as the news became more urgent.

Covid-19 – it’s not unscary. Don’t watch the movie, Contagion, by the way – it’s not going to help your state of mind. It is immensely prescient.

We’ve been madly hand-washing, have become acquainted with the term “social distancing”, and have been postponing get-togethers with friends for at least the next week or so. We ran into an old friend today at the grocery store – someone we hadn’t seen in five years. We began this awkward hug-not-hug dance, until we gave up and took the chance on an embrace. We stopped for coffee at our favourite spot, normally packed, and today with just three other tables. Wherever we go now, we feel “germy.”

Worst of all, at 67 and 70 years of age, we don’t fit into the “frail elderly ” category, but we are considered vulnerable.

So what do we do? We go for walks in the many glorious parks around Nanaimo.

We’re reading, watching Netflix, keeping in touch with friends and family and waiting it out. Waiting for, if not better news, at least something more definitive.

Future travel – unreservedly, yes! As soon as we get the all-clear, we’re booking our trips. Not for one minute to minimize what the entire world is facing, but let’s face it, if one goes down, we’re all going down. It’s a new world order and what we knew to be true two weeks ago is no longer the case.

When we get back on the road, what will have changed? Small businesses gone? Significant health risks attached to travel that can’t be ignored? Environmental damage that can’t be ignored? None of us know.

In the meantime, we are doing as we’re told, being responsible citizens and trying to find the light and look for the humour.

Funny sign on a Nanaimo liquor store: ” Free roll of toilet paper with every six-pack of Corona.”

Stay healthy, dear friends. With any luck, we will be chatting again soon.

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:

img_4341
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.

IMG_0020
What remains today are a few fallen structures and a single intact cabin.

IMG_0016 (1)
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.

IMG_0022
Beth and her little brother Tommy standing on the cabin porch.

IMG_0018 (1)
A winter scene that would otherwise be so beautiful, but without adequate housing, clothing and food, caused great suffering and death.

IMG_0019 (1)
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.

IMG_0042

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.

IMG_0037
Sadly, a number of infants and young children did not survive the isolation and hardship.
IMG_0034
Can you imagine dying of starvation? Others died in mining accidents or drowned.

IMG_0032
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.

IMG_0033 (1)
Today’s Atlin has a population of 400 artists, entrepreneurs, and assorted characters. You get the feeling that anything can happen here.

IMG_0006
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.

IMG_0076
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.

IMG_0039
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.

IMG_0056
The old jail was once in Discovery, but moved to Atlin.

IMG_0026
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?

IMG_0024
A former storefront that is now a colourful little home that uses the heat and sun from the front window to grow tomatoes.

IMG_0070
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.

IMG_0066
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.”

IMG_0052
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.

IMG_0068
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.

IMG_0028
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.
IMG_0044
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.

IMG_0040

Most Atlin homes have a healthy woodpile in front.

IMG_0072 (1)
A couple of idyllic northern scenes.

IMG_0019

IMG_0048
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.

IMG_0045
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.

IMG_0074

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

IMG_0015
IMG_0052 (1)
IMG_0059
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.

IMG_0009
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?

IMG_0124
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.

IMG_0001
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.

IMG_0008
The setting is simply breathtaking, but  Haines Junction is not a fancy town. The Lucky Dragon Motel is typical.

IMG_0003
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.

IMG_0032
IMG_0031
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.

IMG_0136
It is also impossible to travel throughout the Yukon without being aware of how the Alaska Highway was built.

IMG_0128
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.

IMG_0140
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.

IMG_0130
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.

IMG_0021
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.

IMG_0025
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.

IMG_0013
There were a number of quilts created by The Threadbearers hanging in the halls. This one tells the story of the Kluane area.

IMG_0007

IMG_0005
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.

IMG_0016

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…

IMG_0061
…to a beautiful open meadow.

IMG_0063
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.

IMG_0068

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.

IMG_0049
I sat back here with the rest of the beach crowd.

IMG_0044
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.

IMG_0087
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.

IMG_0163

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.

IMG_0109

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.

img_0395
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.
IMG_0099
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.

IMG_0040
Glaciers lie just behind this mountain range.
IMG_0154
You’re never very far from a lake view

IMG_0053
Or a more pastoral scene.

IMG_0035
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.

IMG_0004
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.” 

IMG_0042
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.

IMG_0013
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.

IMG_0018 (1)
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

IMG_0062
The Palace Grand Theatre

IMG_0032
The Post Office

IMG_0034
The Commissioner’s Residence

IMG_0047 (1)
Simple log cabins are just as much a feature of Dawson, and the originals are still to be found throughout the town.

IMG_0021
Back alleys beckon…

IMG_0055
Interestingly, businesses that appear to have been closed for some time have not been torn down. They are still standing, like museum relics.

IMG_0027
Front Street runs along the river, with storefronts on one side, and a pretty riverside walkway on the other.

IMG_0047

IMG_0029

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
IMG_0022

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.”

 IMG_0025
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

IMG_0020
The Third Avenue Complex in 2019.

IMG_0018
St. Andrew’s Church, another permafrost victim.

IMG_0077
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.

IMG_0025 (1)
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.

IMG_0052
Dawson had been experiencing a lot of smoke from the nearby Mayo wildfire, so we began our drive with hazy skies and poor visibility.

IMG_0079
Luck was with us – in about 20 minutes the smoke disappeared and the views were spectacular.

IMG_0075

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

IMG_0097

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.

IMG_0070
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.

img_4293
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.

img_4294
A view of Tombstone Mountain – that jagged peak in the middle of the distant range.

IMG_0093

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

IMG_0081

img_0371

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.

IMG_0007
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.

IMG_0020
The legendary Yukoners, such as the late Alex Van Bibber

IMG_0076
IMG_0077
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.

IMG_0001
Other old log buildings:

IMG_0010

IMG_0016
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.

IMG_0030
This plaque on the station tells a little of the story of how the building of the Alcan Highway transformed Whitehorse.

IMG_0016

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

IMG_0031
Love the old signs and neon. Murdoch’s is a venerable old store in Whitehorse.

IMG_0011
So is the Edgewater Hotel.  There is lots of competition since its heyday, but the neon has not quite given up.

IMG_0017
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.

IMG_0072
Whitehorse is a young town and so new businesses have popped up.  The creativity is inspiring.

IMG_0026
Lumel Studios offers glass-blowing workshops and demos, as well as a large gallery.  We admired this Chihuly- inspired piece in the garden.

IMG_0022
Even Starbucks has been “Yukon-ed.”

IMG_0018
Driving up the Alaska Highway is a motorcycle magnet. This group travelled all the way from Mexico.

IMG_0033
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.

IMG_0043
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?

IMG_0040

Downtown Whitehorse is set back from the Yukon River, with a beautifully developed waterfront that runs for several kilometres. 
IMG_0067
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.

IMG_0062
IMG_0069
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.

IMG_0064
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.

IMG_0013
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.

IMG_0078
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.

IMG_0089
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.

IMG_0087
The Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre showcases a variety of cultural activities, programs and art , celebrating the Kwanlin Dun First Nations.

IMG_0026

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.

IMG_0024

IMG_0025

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.

IMG_0020
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.

IMG_0051

IMG_0054
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.

img_4248
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.

IMG_0043
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.

IMG_0018
His photographs chronicle the many changes that occurred from the turn of the century up to WWII and the building of the Alaska Highway.

IMG_0016
The Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre was another compelling stop; its impressive building lined with totems of the five Tlingit clans.

IMG_0021
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.

IMG_0028
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.

IMG_0013

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

IMG_0031
Our next stop: Carcross, formerly  known as Caribou Crossing.

IMG_0076
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.

IMG_0068
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.

IMG_0054
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“.

IMG_0117
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?

IMG_0101
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.

IMG_0097
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.

IMG_0119
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.

IMG_0113
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.

IMG_0109
This cute little cabin operates as a seasonal residence.

IMG_0110
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.

IMG_0105
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.

IMG_0073
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.

img_4210

IMG_0170
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.

IMG_0160
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.

IMG_0147
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?

IMG_0135
IMG_0156

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.

IMG_0154
A wooly mammoth tusk

IMG_0153
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.

IMG_0002
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.

IMG_0003

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“.

IMG_0039

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.

IMG_0026

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.
IMG_0034
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.

IMG_0035
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.

IMG_0001
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:

IMG_0007
The calves were well protected. We watched them kicking up their heels and being corralled back into position away from the road.

IMG_0006
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.

IMG_0012 (1)
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.

IMG_0005 (1)

The beauty of  a northern lake.

IMG_0002
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.

IMG_0007
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.

IMG_0039
The pictorial display inside is a fascinating glimpse into that era.

IMG_0045

IMG_0046
Watson Lake has a number of original buildings, including this old garage. Still in business, it was once the largest garage in the territory.

IMG_0004
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.

IMG_0026
Naturally, among the simple place names are personal stories.

The poignant:

IMG_0038

The ambitious:

IMG_0022
The romantic:

IMG_0037
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.

IMG_0031

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.