Travelling to the True North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The beauty of  a northern lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Naturally, among the simple place names are personal stories.

The poignant:

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The ambitious:

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The romantic:

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

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

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

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

In the Magical Land of the Standing Up Rocks

Twenty-seven million years ago, eruptions from the Turkey Creek Volcano spewed ash over 3100 sq. km. in this area or the Chiricahua Mountains and created layers of grey rock called rhyolite. Weathering by ice and water erosion enlarged cracks and formed spires and balancing rocks.

The Chiricahua Apache called them “standing up rocks” – a perfectly apt description.

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This unique and stunningly beautiful landscape is also the result of four ecosystems meeting – the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains.

What is now called the Chiricahua National Monument was established in 1924 to protect the pinnacles.

We learned about the importance of the CCC in the creation and early preservation of many of the U.S.’s National Parks, including Chiricahua.

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As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was launched in 1933 and enlisted 3.4 million young men who were out of work and hit hard by The Great Depression. The CCC also offered classroom instruction for those who could not read or write. They were taught carpentry, plumbing and other important skills. They were housed, fed and given clothing, and were paid $30 a month, $25 of which was sent to their families. The CCC was disbanded with the outbreak of World War II, which sent the workers into military service.

One young man said, “you cannot express in words how much the Three C’s meant to a bunch of boys out of work and with no jobs. To me, I will always have wonderful thoughts and memories.”

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We had the great fortune of running into a park ranger on one of our hikes. She could have had a pleasant chat with us and continued on her way, but to our delight, she  walked alongside us for a number of miles. We picked up a couple of other hikers along the way who were also very interested in her ongoing interpretation. How lucky for us – we had no idea of what we were seeing; how often do you get your very own Park Ranger along on a hike?

Our new friend Helen, who was out hiking on her day off. How many people do you know who go into the office on their free time – for fun?

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Helen is passionate about her life’s work, but ongoing funding challenges have slashed ranger jobs for years. She and her husband have worked at parks all over the country; moving about as suitable positions became available. 

It made me think about the contrast between the  CCC in the ’30s and the current state of the Parks system in both Canada and the U.S.  For so many years now, funding has been  an issue, and yet attendance and interest in our parks is at an all-time high.

We love our parks and we want them to be available for our grandchildren. We want to continue to book our campsites and go on hikes and attend interpretive talks. It seems only fair that we hire enough rangers and then compensate them with well-paid secure employment.

So…back to our hike with Helen. As we walked, she pointed out so many things. “Listen to that call – I love it – the canyon wren – they sound like they’re laughing.”   Now I know – I’ve heard the canyon wren a couple of times since then.

We began to notice evidence of a forest fire, and Helen told us it happened in 2011 – they believe it was human caused, possibly migrants who had built a fire for warmth and did not put it out properly.

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She told us about the importance of stemming the growth of invasive plants and how they upset the ecosystem – one of the many duties park rangers do in the course of a day.

Some images from our hike:

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A lookout that gave us a glimpse to the snow-capped mountain range just beyond.
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One of the many balancing rocks in the area. Helen assured us these giants were not going anywhere.
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An area of the mountains called “The Grotto”

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Just to back up a bit, the Chiricahua National Monument is in the far southeastern corner of Arizona – almost to the New Mexico border.  As we drove toward our campground, the landscape gave little clue as to what lay ahead.

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Just outside the turnoff to our campground, we got our first clue:

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The Bonita Canyon Campground was beautifully situated, with lots of space between campsites and a number of small trails leading right from the campground. For the first time since we’ve bene camping in Arizona, we were warned about wild animals (bears, mountain lions) and each campsite was equipped with a bear locker.

There are also coatimundi in the area. Nope, we had never heard of them either, but our very chatty little neighbour Olivia had apparently seen a whole family of them while out hiking with her family. They are a member of the raccoon family, or as Helen put it, “what happens when you cross a lemur with an anteater.”

We didn’t see the elusive coatimundi, but this stock photo will give you an idea of what they look like.

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What we did see were these delightful birds – the Mexican jay. Unlike their bossy, squawky cousins, these birds are pretty, graceful and relatively quiet. They welcomed us when we arrived; swooping and soaring around the trees and picnic table as we set up. I suspect they have been fed in the past.

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A short, but very sweet side trip to a beautiful part of Arizona. We would have stayed longer, but once again had to flee a forecast of snow. At an elevation of 6800 feet in the Chiricahuas, we have been reminded that north, south, east and west in Arizona don’t really guarantee weather – it is the elevation that can turn rain into snow. It is making for an interesting hopscotch across the state.