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.

Prescott: Mile-high city with down-to-earth attitude

Prescott is where Arizonians (Arizonans?) head in the summer to escape the sweltering triple-digit heat of the south. We met a gentleman who is a snowbird within his own state. He spends his winters in Phoenix and his summers in Prescott. “I can deal with the high ’80s and even the low ’90s, but once it hits the ‘100s, it stays there for weeks. Prescott has the perfect climate.”

Prescott, which is pronounced “Preskitt”, has racked up a number of admirable accolades, among them: Cleanest Air in the Nation; Number One Place to Live in the Southwest; Top 22 Best Places to Retire; Best Destination for Nature Lovers; Five Must-See Small Towns in Arizona and One of the Coolest Downtowns in North America.

We drove to Prescott from Quartzsite; a three-hour drive that lifted us out of the Sonoran desert into the high-desert landscape. We passed a number of  lush and prosperous ranches along the way:

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Prescott is a city of just 45,000 people that was founded in 1864, and has the distinction of being known as The World’s Oldest Rodeo. It also has more than 800 buildings listed on the National Historic Register and the vast majority of them have been fully restored and carefully maintained.

Prescott is a very walkable city. We spent several hours following our self-guided walking map through the historic downtown.

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Prescott and surrounding area is cowboy country; the horse is king. Statues of horse and rider can be found in a number of spots around the downtown.  This one, Cowboy at Rest  by artist Solon Borglum was right in front of the Courthouse Plaza.

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In front of City Hall

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Just up the street, the Hassayampa Hotel, built in 1927,  was designed to serve those early adopters who chose four wheels over four hooves: travellers arriving by automobile. It is also reputed to be haunted on the 4th floor; the site of a tragic death.

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In its day, it was voted “the most beautiful hotel in the Southwest.” We peeked inside and had to agree – the hand-painted ceilings, the antique light fixtures, the discretion. We sank into plush sofas in the lobby and agreed it wouldn’t take much to pry ourselves out of the trailer for a night or two and enjoy a bit of luxury.

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A major and devastating fire took place in Prescott in July 1900; wiping out many of its downtown wooden structures. The old Palace Hotel and Bar was one of the buildings burned, but incredibly the ornate back-bar was saved. It is a fixture in the current Palace Restaurant and Bar, which is the oldest bar in Arizona.

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The Elks Opera House was built in 1905, and is currently still in use as a theatre/movie house, although we did think a fresh set of eyes might be needed for more up-to-date programming. Pretty Woman was one of the movies showing that week.

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We took a stroll up the street to “Nob Hill”, a line-up of stately homes built in the late 1800’s. Although Senator Barry Goldwater was from Prescott, we don’t know if he was related to Henry Goldwater, the wealthy merchant who had this home built in 1894 for $4000.

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The next-door neighbour:

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Prescott has gorgeous residential neighbourhoods, filled with one heritage home more beautiful than the last.

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This old Motor Lodge has been in business since 1910, when it was first a series of small cabins. In 2008, new owners Joe Livingston and Brian Spear took over and turned the cottages into affordable retro-cool lodgings, right on the edge of the historic district.

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We had lunch one day at the Dinner Bell Cafe, an old diner from 1939, whose menu has not likely changed that much over the decades – pork chops and mashed potatoes are still on the menu. Huge portions, homey service, atmospheric interior – these diners endure and are distinctly American.

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We spoke to a local who has mixed feelings about her town. She is in her 20’s, Prescott born and bred and has watched her hometown change over the past few years. The combination of climate, natural setting, great amenities, health services, etc. and an inventory of charming affordable homes are drawing the crowds in from “California and back east”. With that growth comes increased real estate prices and new ideas of how Prescott might be improved. Naturally neither are welcome to a population who have been doing just fine.

From our perspective as tourists, our first impressions were one of a very conservative city. We noticed one or two Catholic, Anglican or United churches, but dozens and dozens of evangelical churches.

We also noticed many gun shops.  The argument that Guns Are Why America is Still Free was one I had not heard before.  We had no idea America’s freedom was at risk in 2019 and that civilians might be called upon to bear arms. Certainly they’re safe from us Canadians and all the Mexicans want to do is take the jobs Americans don’t want.

It is safe to say we have not had a calm reasoned discussion about guns with a pro-gun advocate; our positions are too far apart.

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Arizona is a Concealed Carry state, which means you do not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon, if you are over the age of 21. We noticed this concealed carry purse in a shop window and went in to have a look. Please excuse the poor quality of this photo, but it will give you an idea. This bag costs $150 and this store sells “not many, about one a week.”  The zippers on either side hide a holster; presumably after a woman has been grabbed from behind and overpowered, she will still be able to unzip and extract her weapon.
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On a lighter note, the young man in this store (which predominantly sold hats) was lots of fun and did us a huge favour. Stephen has been wearing a bucket hat for the past several months, and I, rather unkindly,  have been comparing him to Walter Matthau. As Stephen began to try on different Tilley iterations, our young man told him that his bucket hat was a hip-hop favourite. Jay-Z has done a lot for the bucket hat. Now, Jay-Z  could make a sun visor look cool, but we began to look at Stephen’s hat with fresh appreciation. You be the judge.

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Lucky Prescott-ians – they are spoiled for choice with outdoor activities. There are miles and miles of hiking and biking trails and many lakes in the surrounding areas.

We spent a number of hours wandering around “the Dells” –  huge rock formations surrounding Watson Lake.  Since the trails are mainly a series of rock formations, they   are marked with large painted white dots – a quite ingenious idea to prevent people from getting lost.

The entrance  to the lake – the trailhead is just to the left.

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There has been so much rain in this area in recent weeks that several lakes and creeks are overflowing. You’ll notice the base of this tree is a bit underwater. We had a little extra clambering to do to begin our hike, as the path was submerged, but we were soon on our way.

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Swimming is not permitted in the lake, as it is an important area for birds, but we did see a couple of kayaks.

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We could have stayed another day in Prescott – there was lots more to see and do. As had been the case with some of our other stops, rain prevented us from really exploring the outdoor trails.

The weather looks like it is beginning to turn. The trees have that beautiful green haze and the nights are getting a little less frigid. We are experiencing spring in Arizona!

See you again in a few days.