After leaving BC we travelled through the Yukon, soaking up the gold rush history and modern-day first nations revival. Entering from the south we travelled north to the famous Dawson City and then took the seasonal top of the world highway across the border into Alaska. Just a few of our favourite bits of this trip made the cut to this catch-up blog post.
Watson Lake and the Signpost Forest.
Regardless of whether you travel up by the Stewart-Cassiar Highway or the Alaska Highway from BC into the Yukon the first stop on your route will doubtless be this small piece of tradition, started by a homesick soldier in 1942. As Watson Lake is not a large place we came upon its main attraction almost straight away. Stretching out several hundred metres long are row after row of wooden posts, each one affixed with tens of signs from every corner of the world. These days anyone can put up a sign and many people take to making their own signs commemorating their trip along Alaska Highway. One family has been coming back via Watson Lake every few years since 1970s and each time they add a new date to their sign. The diversity of signs is incredible, ranging from real street signs taken from German cities to a sign handmade out of an aluminium BBQ tray.
Watson Lake is also home to a very nice tourist information centre. The centre houses a small exhibition about the construction of the Alaska Highway and a cinema screening a short, documentary movie on the topic. There’s also good coffee, by donation, available at the centre. The ladies working there are great, very friendly and informative and happy to answer all sorts of questions. The centre also offers relatively good, free internet, which we later found out is something of a rarity in Yukon.
At the centre, we picked up a couple of Yukon Passports. Those blue and gold booklets are Yukon’s initiative to get people to visit more of its attractions. The idea is that for each place listed in the passport, which you visit you get a stamp in your booklet. If you visit 10 or more places you can enter a prize draw for a small nugget of gold and if you visit 20 or more sights then you may enter the draw for the big slab. Each place has its own stamp and David and I got really into collecting them. In the end, we visited 21 locations (out of about 30) and entered the draw – fingers crossed!
Dawson City – The midnight dome
Shortly after entering the city limits of Dawson, when the surroundings were still more or less devoid of buildings we took a turn right off the Klondike Highway and put Cherry Tom through her paces climbing a steep 7km hill. The reward at the top was a panorama over what seemed more like the surface of the moon than anywhere on earth. The scars of Dawson’s gold-mining history run deep through the surrounding terrain, although plenty of nature still remains looking out over the Yukon river. Appropriately we summited Midnight Dome just half an hour before the dual occurrence of sunset and the stroke of midnight. When the sun had disappeared from view we cooked food under the eerie beauty of the lingering midnight sunlight. Just 50 metres or so down from the summit some dirt roads and brush was already hosting a couple of campervans, and we gladly joined, taking care to cover our windows from the light that would never quite disappear.
Drinking Sourtoe Cocktails
David and I have an interactive map on which we mark interesting places we read about or have been told about, with a hope that one day we might visit them. One of such places was the saloon in Dawson City famous for serving… brace yourselves, here comes a gross part… a cocktail with a mummified human toe in it. We put it on our map as an odd curiosity, thinking we’re unlikely to venture that far north. Now however, as we found ourselves in Dawson on the porch of the saloon faced with a difficult and disgusting choice to make. To have a cocktail or not? A tip: drinking something strong in the line for the cock-toe-il helps to not think too much about what you’re about to do. I can attest gin and toe-nic is not as nice as gin and tonic.
The historic sites: A tour of Dawson, Dredge number 4, SS Keno
Parks Canada organises walking tours around Dawson in the evenings. When we signed up we didn’t expect much, but the tour turned out to be really good. Our guide was a young guy from Dawson, who during the year studied at a university in Montreal, but came home for the summers. Soon he was joined by a lady from the Gold Rush period. This lady was dressed up in turn of the century clothes (inclusive of a beautiful, big hat) and put on a great performance. Together they took us around Dawson and inside many of its beautiful historic buildings. We visited a bank, a beautiful old post office and a saloon. The couple of guides weaved an interesting narrative and patiently answered the many, many questions people had.
As we found out people in the tourist industry have many jobs. The elegant Gold Rush lady who took us around on our walking tour turned into a rugged sailor barmaid at the sour toe saloon and the young Parks Canada guide became a gentleman who just arrived on SS Keno and was ready to tell you all about his voyage and answer all questions about the working of the steamship. This was especially useful to me, as the lower deck of the old sternwheeler is a paradise for big bits of technical machinery, and I kept our former tour guide busy with plenty of questions about what each tube and valve did. The upper deck by contrast showed the comfortable if pokey cabins passengers inhabited for their days on board, and told by video the story of the Keno’s last voyage down the river.
The machinery on the Keno was impressive, but that had nothing on the scale of dredge number 4, which straddled the gap between tool and vessel. A giant machine which is vast enough to wonder around inside of, dredge 4 and its many numbered companions tore up the ground all around the Klondike region sifting tiny fragments of gold from millions of tons of gravel for half a century after the early place miners had mostly left.
As the dredge chomps on the gravel it creates a pond of water on which it sits. Therefore, as well as a gold finding machine a dredge is also a huge barge. To power the dredge electricity is run from a powerplant through conventional wires to the edge of the operation, where (we kid you not) electric wires are laid on small pontoons across the dredge-created pond and plugged into the dredge itself. A friendly if somewhat haphazard tour was worth taking mainly because it let us see inside the belly of the beast, and the $20 price tag did not apply this year since our 150th anniversary Parks Canada passes let us do one Dawson attraction for free.
Diamond Tooth Gerties
A visit to Dawson would not be complete without going to Gertie’s gambling hall and Cabaret. A one time entry fee lets you visit as many times as you wish while you’re in Dawson. Gambling isn’t our thing, but we saw one of the nightly shows after our brush with the sourtoe, a self-aware mix of can-can dancing girls and musical numbers, ably sung and accompanied impressively by a live pianist and drummer. We even returned the following night – once you’ve paid entry the (fairly basic) food is probably the cheapest in Dawson.
Dempster Highway and Tombstone Mountains
For a short while we contemplated going all the way up North on the Dempster Highway. This gravel road stretches 736km North, crossing the Arctic Circle and ending in a small town of Inuvik, North West Territories. After careful consideration of time and cost of this venture we changed our minds and settled on driving only 70km of this road to the spectacular Tombstone Mountains. At this, the north-most point of our trip, we went on a short interpretative hike and took some stunning photos of the mountains (which don’t look a lot like tombstones to be honest). The drive up Dempster was rough, and it was a mixture of relief and regret that saw us drive back south to Dawson without completing the highway. However, as of next year the road will be extended another 140km to Tuktoyaktuk, so perhaps in the future we shall do the whole extended lot.
Top of the world highway
When we were satisfied with Gold Rush history we crossed the Yukon River by boat and headed North-West towards Alaska on the poetically named ‘Top of the World Highway’. The highway is more a glorified chip-road, and its poor-quality forces you to take your time and appreciate the views. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the views are truly spectacular: beautiful, stretching panoramas of the surrounding mountains and valleys. As we left Dawson in the late afternoon it wasn’t until almost midnight that we approached the Canadian-American border. It was still light, as the sun hasn’t fully set yet, when we saw the first small group of caribou on the road. There was about 7 of them and instead of getting off the road they preferred to walk slowly in front of us, on the road, as we followed. They didn’t seem bothered by the car at all. After about 200 meters and many photos they finally got off the road and we drove onwards.
A short drive up the road and we were once again faced with caribou in the road. Not just seven this time either, we must have encountered over one hundred in the herd which we slowly passed through, snapping shot after shot of the incredible intricate antlers.
The border-point being open only 9am-9pm we settled down for another night under the midnight sun, ready to cross into the USA for real the next day.