Kluane National Park: where are the grizzlies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hiked through a few kilometres of this trail…

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…to a beautiful open meadow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Or a more pastoral scene.

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

Dawson City: Tall Tales and Showgirls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Masonic Temple

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The Palace Grand Theatre

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The Post Office

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The Commissioner’s Residence

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

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Back alleys beckon…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Third Avenue Complex in 2019.

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St. Andrew’s Church, another permafrost victim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They don’t know what we do up here”

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

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

This is what a Yukon hunter looks like.

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

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

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

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

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The legendary Yukoners, such as the late Alex Van Bibber

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

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

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

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Other old log buildings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Even Starbucks has been “Yukon-ed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camping with the grizzlies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This cute little cabin operates as a seasonal residence.

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

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

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

Just outside Carcross.

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

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

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

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

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A wooly mammoth tusk

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

On to Whitehorse and surrounding area.

Travelling to the True North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The beauty of  a northern lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Naturally, among the simple place names are personal stories.

The poignant:

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The ambitious:

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The romantic:

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

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

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

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