Exploring British Columbia & the Yukon Territory (June 21 – July 2, 2018)

On Thursday, June 21st, we drove 82 miles to Dawson Creek, B.C. where we spent two nights at Mile “0” RV Park. Dawson Creek represents mile zero of the Alaska Highway that was constructed in 1942. Our caravan to Alaska was scheduled to begin on the 22nd but we chose to arrive a day early to get some relaxation before the hectic travel schedule commenced.

On the 22nd we drove downtown and got our picture taken at the iconic Alaska Highway sign. We also went to the visitor center and picked up a guide book for the Dawson Creek Historic Walking Tour. We spent the next hour strolling the streets of historic downtown Dawson Creek and enjoyed viewing the many murals and plaques that told the story of life in Dawson Creek in the early 1900s. The Mile “0” Post stands in the middle of downtown as a monument to the beginning of the Alaska Highway. We bought some meat at the Butcher Block, formerly Lawrence’s Meat Packing Co. (established in 1941).

Upon returning to our campsite, we met the two couples who are serving as the Tour Leaders and the Tail Gunners. The tour leaders, in addition to communicating and coordinating each day’s activities, are the first ones to arrive at each new campground and direct the travelers to their respective sites upon arrival. The role of the tail gunners is to be the last ones out of a campground each day and to watch for any members of the caravan who might break down along the route.

Later in the afternoon we met for a group photo at the Alaska Highway sign. Then we went to a local restaurant for a kickoff meeting, followed by a very filling dinner buffet. Although we had met some of our fellow travelers the previous day, this was our first opportunity to meet the entire group with whom we would be traveling for the next 23 days. While almost all of the travelers are retirees, it was interesting to hear the diversity of their backgrounds. Although we believe the vast majority of the group are signed up for a 50-day travel itinerary, we had elected to only travel with the group for 23 days and go as far as Anchorage with them. After we separate from the caravan, we plan to explore more of Alaska on a somewhat slower pace.

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One of the requirements of the caravan is that everyone must depart each day between 6 and 9 a.m. This is considerably earlier than we are accustomed to getting going and will force us to get to sleep earlier. That’s easier said than done, especially when the sun hasn’t even set by 10 p.m.

On Saturday morning we left the campground at 8:30 a.m. and drove 282 miles along the Alaska Highway to Fort Nelson, B.C. The highway was fairly smooth and, although it had lots of ups and downs, neither were extremely steep. We made a short detour on a section of the original Alaska Highway to see the Kistatinaw River Bridge, the only wooden bridge from the original highway that is still in use today. We passed through Fort St. John after about 50 miles but, after that, there was little sign of civilization for the balance of the drive. We were very glad to complete the drive, which is the longest day of driving we have planned for the entire summer.

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Kiskatinaw River Bridge

We spent Sunday exploring Fort Nelson. In the morning we visited the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum. The museum contains a number of collections, but the overall theme is transportation because the collection that started it all was an antique car and truck collection started by Marl Brown, the curator. We spent some time chatting with Mr. Brown who was quite a character. The main building houses numerous smaller collections dealing with Canadian history and wildlife. In addition, the museum contains space for historical buildings and artifacts. We wandered into one of the old buildings and realized that we had walked into the middle of a church service so we sat down and stayed for the remainder of the service.

That afternoon we attended a presentation by the Fort Nelson Visitor Center at the Phoenix Theater. The first part was a slideshow dealing with the construction of the Alaska Highway. Then we watched a 90-minute recording of a 2017 performance celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Alaska Highway. The performance involved individuals who shared how their families lived both before and after the construction of the highway.

On Monday, June 25th, the rains began and stayed with us for two days solid. As we prepared to leave, we discovered that the power reel that has reliably released and retracted our heavy power cord was no longer working. It had worked on Saturday afternoon but now was completely dead. We managed to manually retract the power cord but it wasn’t easy.

We drove 189 miles to Liard Hot Springs where we spent the night at Liard Hot Springs Lodge. It rained heavily most of the way and, although there had been several stops recommended along the route, the rain kept us from doing much more than driving. The fog kept us from seeing much scenery. We did stop at the Toad River Lodge for a fresh baked cinnamon roll. The heavy rain seemed to keep the wildlife largely out of sight but we did see a large herd of wood bison along the road near our campground. The wood bison are a different and larger species than the American bison.

After setting up at the campground at Liard Hot Springs Lodge, we all met to walk over to the Liard Hot Springs despite the fact that it was 50 degrees and raining. As we were waiting, a large wood bison strolled lazily through our campground. The group hiked across the road and down a half-mile boardwalk to the hot springs. Once there, we shed our rain gear and climbed into the warm water. The hot springs are formed when groundwater seeps through the porous limestone of the area and circulates through faults within the earth’s core. There the water warms and accumulates minerals. As pressure builds, the water is forced upwards and eventually resurfaces through cracks in the earth. There was quite a variety of temperatures available to the bathers. At the extreme end, the water was 145 degrees and, at the other end, it was as cool as a swimming pool. It was quite an experience soaking our torsos in the hot water and having cold rain coming down on our heads and shoulders. Of course, getting back out of the hot water and walking back to our rig in the cold rain was not nearly so enjoyable.

That evening the rain continued all night and the leak above our hallway light fixture returned. We thought we had gotten the leak fixed in April and had not had any problems since then.

On Tuesday morning we packed up in the rain and waded through deep puddles to get back on the road. We drove 143 miles to Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory where we spent the night at the Baby Nugget RV Park.  Along the way, we stopped at Allen’s Lookout with its sweeping views of the Liard River.

After getting set up, we did our laundry and took advantage of the wifi in the laundry room. We had gone two days without cell service or wifi and were feeling disconnected from the world. Then we drove into the town of Watson Lake where we watched two shows at the Northern Lights Centre. The Northern Lights Centre is designed like a planetarium, with projections on a domed ceiling and reclining chairs. The first show dealt with the sun and the electromagnetic storms that create the northern lights. The second show provided incredible views of the Aurora Borealis from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

After the show, we drove across the road to the Sign Post Forest. The tradition began in 1942 when a US soldier spent time in Watson Lake recovering from an injury. A commanding officer told him to repair and erect the direction signposts, and while completing the job, he added a sign that indicated the direction and mileage to his hometown. Others followed suit and there are now over 77,000 signs in the Forest. The Town of Watson Lake maintains the site, adding more sign posts as they fill up. Our caravan group, Adventure Treks, posted a sign that we had all signed.

On Wednesday morning we woke up to clear skies and drove 147 miles to Teslin, YT where we spent the night at the Yukon Motel RV Park. Although there were some puffy clouds, we loved seeing the blue skies and the scenery was beautiful along the way. We stopped at the Rancheria Falls for a short hike down to the falls. Shortly before arriving at the campground, we spotted a brown bear by the side of the road. The bear decided to dart in front of our truck but managed to sprint across the road before we reached it. Since we couldn’t get into the campground until noon, we stopped and enjoyed the views at the Nisutlin Bay Viewpoint which was directly across the bay from the campground. Then we crossed the Nisutlin Bay Bridge, the longest water span on the Alaska Highway, and checked into our site.

Wednesday afternoon Phil climbed up on the roof and tightened the bolts on one of the air conditioners to see if that would solve the leak. This had been done in April and had seemingly solved the problem for two months. However we won’t know if the repair worked until next time we have heavy rain.

That evening we had a group wine and cheese party around a campfire. A bald eagle flew directly over us as we sat by the fire.

On Thursday, June 28th, we drove 105 miles to Whitehorse, YT where we spent two nights at Pioneer RV Park. We stopped at Johnson Crossing, on the edge of the Teslin River, for cinnamon buns. We also stopped at M’Clintock Bay, a major bird migratory stop at other times of the year.

The fun really began when we arrived at the campground. The sites were so close together that our slide-outs were only inches away from our neighbors’. We had slightly more room on the other side but still had to duck under our slides to get around our rig. Needless to say, there were many unhappy campers.

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Space between our rig and our neighbors’

That afternoon we went to the Beringia Interpretive Centre for a guided tour and film presentation. During the Ice Age, vast glaciers (1-3 miles deep) covered most of northern North America, locking up most of the world’s water as ice. During these glacial periods, global sea levels dropped as much as 100-150 meters, revealing the floor of the Bering Sea and creating a connection between Alaska and Siberia. This land bridge was part of the area now called Beringia. Unlike the rest of North America, the Beringian landscape in the north remained free of ice due to the climate being too dry. The land developed into vast plains of grasses, herbs and flowering plants and became home to grazers such as wooly mammoths and predators such as scimitar cats.

As part of the tour, volunteers were given the chance to test the spear-throwing skills using an atlatl, a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity. Phil’s two attempts went in a straight line but failed to achieve much lift.

On Friday we toured the SS Klondike II, a stern paddleboat that ran freight between Whitehorse and Dawson City along the Yukon River from 1937 and 1950 with a crew of 23. With the construction of a highway between these two towns, many sternwheelers were decommissioned. In an attempt to save Klondike II, she was converted into a cruise ship that held 75 passengers. The venture shut down in 1955 due to lack of interest.

Our next stop was at the Whitehorse Fish Ladder which was built in 1959 to help chinook salmon move past the dam on their way to their spawning grounds. Adult chinook salmon leave the Bearing Sea in early summer and begin a 2,000 mile journey up the Yukon River to the exact location where they were originally spawned several years earlier. They don’t eat during the three months it takes them to swim from the Pacific Ocean to Whitehorse. Only a small percentage survive the journey. Most become victims of predators, starvation or fishing. The survivors continue on to the Upper Yukon tributaries where they, like their parents, spawn and die, completing their life cycle.

At 1,182 feet, the fishway is considered the longest fish ladder in the world. The ladder is built in a series of steps that span a rise of 60 feet from the Yukon River to Schwatka Lake. Each step has a vertical baffle the fish can jump over or they can swim through a submerged opening. Unfortunately, the chinook salmon had not yet begun arriving yet.  Their numbers at the fish ladder will be at peak levels when we return to Whitehorse in mid-August.

In the afternoon, we drove to the Miles Canyon observation point and then took a two-hour guided hike to the Canyon City archeological site. The hike began with a walk across a long suspension bridge. Our guide, from the Yukon Conservation Society, told us a great deal about the history of the area and about the plants along the trail. The Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids were once the most dangerous obstacles to navigation along the 2,000 miles length of the Yukon River. During the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, crudely built boats and inexperienced navigators caused many accidents and deaths in the canyon’s rapids. Canyon City was a small gold rush settlement that was established in 1897. This was a portage way around the rapids that Stampeders used on their way to Dawson City. Norman Macaulay, a 28-year-old, came up with the idea to build a tramway along the bank of the river. He also bought out a competitor who built a tramway on the opposite bank. In 1899, Macaulay sold both tramways to the railroad for a fortune. The foundations of some of the Canyon City buildings were still visible and well as many of the food cans that the Stampeders left behind. Apparently, few of the Stampeders were hunters so, instead, they had to rely on canned food that they brought with them. Today, due to the construction of a dam, the water in Miles Canyon is 10 meters deeper than it was during the Gold Rush so there is less evidence of the rapids that had made navigation so dangerous.

On Saturday, June 30th, we drove 167 miles to Destruction Bay, YT where we spent the night at Destruction Bay Lodge. We stopped to see the Canyon Creek Bridge which was originally built in 1920 to cross the Aishihik River. It was rebuilt in 1942 for the Alaska Highway. Fortunately a newer bridge had since been built for us to drive across.

The drive around Kluane Lake was quite beautiful and we stopped often for picture taking.

The town of Destruction Bay has a population of 38 residents. Its name originated in 1942 when the encampment of the US soldiers working on the Alaska Highway was blown into Kluane Lake by 100 mph winds.

The campground wasn’t much more than a large parking lot but, by comparison to what we had in Whitehorse, the sites were quite large. There was one other caravan staying at the campground for the night, a large group from Germany who had rented RVs in Canada. The owner of the lodge and RV park was also the chef. He prepared a large meal that included 27-day aged Angus, marinated Baron of Beef. The owner was quite a character, as was the after-dinner entertainer. Both provided us with stories about life in the Yukon.

On Sunday, we had a short drive of only 115 miles to Beaver Creek, YT where we spent the night at Beaver Creek RV Park. Our drive was largely uneventful except for spotting a black bear along the highway.

When we arrived at the RV park, we learned that the owners were hosting a pig roast and entertainment to celebrate Canada Day. They even had a Mountie from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in attendance. The food was very good. The evening entertainment consisted of a 5-member family band, The Lack Family, and they were outstanding. In addition to the husband and wife, they had their three daughters (the youngest was 16). They have been performing fulltime for 10 years and have traveled internationally.

On Monday we said goodbye to Canada for a while as we headed into Alaska.

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