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.

 

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.