Yukon Road Trip: The Ultimate Canadian Northern Adventure Part#2
The highway to Dawson City unravels like a spool of ribbon towards the horizon, and the sweeping curves offer one stupefying view after another. It’s only a few hours west then north from Keno to Dawson, but I was tired from the late night visit to signpost, so while Jeane drove I admired the road and the wilderness.
There were times where the sinuous twists of asphalt was itself a view worth stopping for. I hadn’t seen meanders like that in a road before. It was easily one of the most impressive roads I’d seen, but within 24 hours I would see a highway of dirt reaching to the arctic circle and another highway that skipped from mountaintop to mountaintop that made the Klondike Highway look like the 417 through Ottawa.
But first, Dawson City.
As you approach Dawson, houses begin to appear sporadically among the black spruce. I didn’t know what to expect, but I did know some of its history. Dawson was, and is, the beating heart of the Klondike.
In 1896, some hoary prospectors declared “there’s gold in them thar hills” and the gold rush began. Within a year the trickle of men hoping to make it rich became a river as wild as the Yukon. From the West Coast of the United States they sailed. Up through Dyea or Skagway, Alaska and then over the dreaded Chilkoot Trail, a 53 kilometre hike that turned back anyone not a little crazy. Canadian law meant that the miners, known as “stampeders”, had to bring a year’s worth of supplies with them, to prevent starvation, making the trek even more arduous.
Arriving in Whitehorse the stampeders, many of whom were city folk, built rudimentary rafts to drift the 300 kilometres of the Yukon River to Dawson City. Many foundered along the way. The Whitehorse and Five Finger Rapids claimed most, and the first nations have tales of pulling man and beast from the water, often when it was too late.
Eventually the lucky, knowledgeable or crazy arrived in Dawson City: the Paris of the north. A bustling clapboard town of saloons, whorehouses and men with gold-fever. Not an unlawful place by the standards of the time. By 1898 288 members of the Northwest Mounted Police were on site. You can still visit the remnants of their base.
Among those men were those not looking for mineral wealth, but stories. The most famous of those were arguably poet Robert Service and author Jack London. London’s The Call of the Wild formed my childhood image of Dawson, and later, Service’s poems added a haunting texture to this southern kid’s fantasies of the North.
So, for me, finally setting foot in Dawson was going to be like walking into a story.
As we got closer the landscape began to change. Green lawns and black spruce gave way to beige, lifeless bungalow-sized piles of softball-sized rock.
“What is this?”
“Tailings from the mines,” Lassen said.
We stopped at a Yukon Government plaque about five kilometres from Dawson that explained what we were looking at — essentially the refuse from dredges that tore up the Klondike valley in search of gold.
With that, story gave way to reality. Dog sleds and panning for gold to electrified giants that literally chewed the earth.
I would learn later on a tour of dredge #4, the last intact dredge and a must visit, that dredges were marvels of their time. The floating behemoths, eight stories high and two-thirds a football field long, were fed with a long tongue-like conveyor belt that chewed and swallowed the rock in front of them. It was digested in large pools in the machine’s belly before being ejected out a long tail at its back. As the dredge ate and expelled the rock it moved forward on its own pond. This way the dredges travelled kilometres.
Driving past the piles and around the base of “the dome”, a hill just outside of town that we would unexpectedly revisit later that night, we turned west into Dawson and into the past.
Dirt roads and boardwalks. Ramshackle cabins and saloon after saloon. Dawson, despite its school and a few touches of modernity, was what I had expected: authenticity.
Sure Front Street, which boarders the Yukon River, has an air of Disney to it, with its pastel coloured store fronts, but I learned at the museum that’s pretty much what they looked like 100 years ago.
Inhabited by a mix of miners, First Nations, hippies and seasonal workers, seemingly all from Australia, and an abundance of ravens, Dawson seesaws between tourism and mining. It’s an uneasy mix with cafés selling $5 lattes just a stones throw from a 24-hour bar called The Pit that apparently exists through some grandfather clause and is full by 9 a.m.
Dawson is the end of the Klondike highway. The road runs into the Yukon River, and to continue means to hop the free ferry. Somewhere in the swift brown water of the Yukon River the Klondike Highway ends and the Top of the World Highway begins. Just as it was for the miners a century earlier, and is for the people that live there now, Dawson is an ending and beginning.
We had two days in Dawson. We ate, there’s a handful of very good restaurants, but keep in mind nothing is cheap in the Yukon, and then Jeane showed me around. At around 5 p.m. we decided we would drive up the Dempster Highway for the heck of it. Unaccustomed to the idea of the sun not really setting, I was worried about driving back in the dark. Jeane just laughed.
We had passed the start of the Dempster, which runs straight north from the Klondike Highway, about 20 kilometres before Dawson. On a map the Dempster is a 750 kilometres line north into the Northwest Territories ending at Inuvik. We decided to drive as far north as we could. At one point we were going to try for the Arctic Circle, tantalizingly close on a map, but it would’ve meant about eight hours of driving on a road about as rough as the road to Keno. It would’ve been fun, but the poor Matrix probably would’ve lost an axle.
We made it just past Tombstones Territorial Park, about 80 kilometres north on the Dempster. Just past the park, which is spectacular, the road rounds a bend and the trees disappear. We had reached the treeline. In some people’s books, the treeline signifies the artic circle; it was good enough for me.
We stopped and looked around. West, east and south, mountains marched, still covered in a snowy duvet. To the north, mountains gave way to hills and trees gave way to shrubs. Suddenly a strange call, like a fast-forwarded quack or a small two-stoke motor stuttering.
It came from a cloud-white ptarmigan sitting at the tip of a dwarf spruce.
“A ptarmigan!” I said. I knew they were common, but still. I had never seen a real symbol of the north. I was thrilled.
“They’re so dumb,” Jeane said laughing at my excitement. I took about 100 pictures and then it was time to head back to Dawson; we had tickets to the midnight show at Gerties Saloon. On the way, we passed a small grizzly eating flowers, and a few more ptarmigans.
The midnight show at Gertie’s is a modern take on the can-can. Marilyn Manson’s cover of the Eurhythmics Sweet Dream (are made of this) is one of the numbers. It’s fun, campy and great for people watching.
That night we went for a drink at The Pit, and found another driver to take us to the Dome to watch the sun set and rise within the span of what felt like a minute. The sky got darker and darker until suddenly there was the faintest hint of it getting brighter. We went to sleep that morning after sunrise.
I was up early to explore the city I dreamt of as a child. I wandered to Robert Service’s cabin, which happens to be across the street from the house Pierre Berton grew up in. I explore the general store on Front Street, which, like Dawson, is a mix of tourist trap and the real thing—souvenirs and fox pelts.
I had wandered almost the whole town by the time Jeane woke up. Today we would tackle the Top of the World highway. Leaving Dawson and the Klondike highway on the north side of town by ferry you end up in little Dawson and on the top of the world highway when you disembark.
Our original plan had been to drive from Whitehorse to Dawson, then leave Dawson by the top of the world, cross into Alaska and visit it’s remote interior before returning to the Yukon further south at Beaver Creek. From there we would drive south to Haines, Alaska for a beer festival to cap off the trip.
Only, the most remote boarder crossing in North America was closed. We decided to drive the 105 kilometres to the boarder anyway.
Along the way we would pass the lands where Buck finally answered the Call of the Wild. When we told people where we were going in the Toyota Matrix, they shrugged and said you might make it. By now the car, with about 1000 kilometres of Yukon dust covering it, had proven tougher than we expected.
The top of the world, built by the United States military during the cold war, is named both for its latitude and because it winds its way to Alaska on mountain tops and ridges. Like on the Dempster, the trees fall away, but here it’s as much altitude as latitude. Like the road to Keno, it was pitted and only newly opened. One stretch was closed because of snow and wash out, and the detour we took down into a valley was the only time I was truly worried about the Matrix foundering.
The views along the road were staggering. The Klondike highway with its sweeping curves was nothing compared to this road. No wonder, I thought, the road was a must-ride for motorcyclists on round the world tours. It’s bends and twists and devastating drops were fun enough in the Matrix. On a bike they’d be perfect. (I had coffee with Bostjan Skrlj from Slovenia who had his BMW motorcycle stolen in Whitehorse. He had visited 41 countries on his ride around the world.)
After a sweeping turn above a valley that apparently is often full of caribou, we arrived at the closed border, walked nervously to the plinth that marked the border, snapped some pictures and turned around before we got in trouble. That night we had a date at Bombay Peggy’s, a brothel converted to a boutique hotel with a fittingly tasty Old-Fashioned.
We went to sleep early. The next morning was a 500 kilometre drive to Whitehorse before heading west and north to the boarder crossing at Beaver Creek, where we would’ve re-entered the Yukon had the Top of the World been open.