Heading South to the Lower 48 (August 16 – September 3, 2018)

On Thursday we left Haines and backtracked 250 miles to Whitehorse, YT where we spent two nights at Pioneer RV Park. Since we had covered this entire route the previous week, we didn’t make many stops along the way. We had stayed at Pioneer RV Park with our caravan in late June and it had been a bad experience, with our rigs parked so close together that we could barely extend our steps. Fortunately, this time we got a much better site and had an adequate amount of room.

View of Dezadeash Lake on drive to Whitehorse

We had spent a couple of days in late June exploring Whitehorse with the caravan group so there really weren’t too many of the major attractions left for us to see. We returned to the fish ladder that we had visited before. In June, we were told that the peak salmon run would be in mid-August but, unfortunately, we only saw a few salmon on our return visit. We next stopped at the Visitor Center and inquired about walking tours. We were told there was one starting from the MacBride Museum at 12:30 so we hurried down several blocks to the museum. However, when we arrived, we learned that the tour had been at 11:30. So, we returned to the Visitor Center and got a map of downtown Whitehorse and did our own walking tour. We stopped at the Old Log Church, the original Anglican Church in Whitehorse. We also walked by the Log Skyscraper, the Yukon’s first skyscraper dating to the Alaska Highway construction years. We had lunch of halibut fish and chips from one of the many food trucks parked on Main Street. Next we strolled along the waterfront and visited the railroad depot.

We spent much of the rest of the afternoon doing our grocery shopping for the coming weeks since it might be a while before we see another large grocery store. Not only did they charge for plastic bags, they also charged a dollar to get a shopping cart. Phil had to watch some other shoppers to figure out how that worked. You had to insert a loonie (Canadian dollar) into a box on the handle and this would release a chain that held the cart in place. Then, when you returned your cart to the collection point and reconnected the chain, you got your loonie back. It was actually a rather ingenious way to ensure that carts get returned, rather than leaving them in the parking lot.

On Saturday we had a short drive of only 105 miles on the Alaska Highway to Teslin, YT where we spent the night at the Yukon Motel. This was one of the campgrounds we had stayed at with the caravan during our drive to Alaska. We had no cell service but were able to access the campground wifi.

On Sunday we drove another 166 miles on the Alaska Highway to Watson Lake, YT where we stayed at the Baby Nugget RV Park. Again, this was one of the campgrounds we had stayed at during our drive to Alaska. At this campground, we had no cell service and the only wifi was in the laundry room. We drove into town to do some grocery shopping and refuel the truck. While in town, we visited the Sign Post Village and searched for the sign that our Adventure Treks group had nailed up there in June. We had not accompanied the group when they hung the sign and, although we searched for it a long time in June, we had never found it. This time we had a picture that our tail gunner had posted on Facebook. Jan was able to locate the row by analyzing the background in the photo and Phil found the sign itself.

Adventure Treks sign in Sign Post Village

The following morning, as we were preparing to depart, we began to experience electrical problems with the truck. The first message on the dashboard display said that the left turn signal was out. A few minutes later we got a message that the parking light was out. Over the next few hours most of the lights on the rear of the truck failed, including the other turn signal, brake light and the license plate light. The Parking Sensor, which notifies Phil if he is about to back into something, also failed. Fortunately, the turn signals and brake lights on the trailer still worked so we felt OK with driving.

We had heard a lot about the forest fires that were raging throughout British Columbia and could already smell the smoke as we left Watson Lake. Instead of returning the way we came (on the Alaska Highway), we had decided to return via the Cassiar Highway. This highway has the reputation of being extremely beautiful but the smoke hindered our ability to fully enjoy the beauty.

On Monday, August 20th, we drove 200 miles to Iskut, BC where we spent the night at Red Goat Lodge. The road was much rougher than we had anticipated and the smoke was especially bad for about an hour around Dease Lake.

The campground setting was by the edge of the Iskut River and this provided beautiful reflections of the surrounding mountains. However, the campground was extremely rustic and needed a lot of work. When Phil initially went in to register, the man in the office was not very helpful and just told Phil to drive around and pick out whatever site we wanted. We found a good length pull-through site that was easy to get into but, as we discovered the next morning, was not easy to get out of. That evening we strolled along the river and enjoyed the scenery. Phil spoke to the woman in the office and learned that our next destination, Hyder, AK, was smoke-free. However, she also told Phil that the worst of the smoke was still ahead of us. She said that Prince George, BC was the worst area but the smoke had extended all through Washington and Oregon.

The following morning was quite stressful. Phil examined underneath the truck and found that the hose that holds a bundle of electric wires running to the rear of the truck had a large hole in it. Next, after we had hitched up, Jan noticed that one corner to the hitch appeared to have pulled up from the bed of the truck. We decided to unhitch so that Phil could tighten the bolt but the hitch would not disconnect. Finally, after several failed attempts, we tried pulling the rig forward a bit and then the hitch did disconnect. After Phil tightened the bolt on the hitch, we reconnected the rig and then performed our usual testing of the trailer’s lights. Unfortunately, the left turn signal now wasn’t working and only the right brake light would light. Our next adventure came when we attempted to exit our campsite. There was a tree blocking us from making a sharp left out of our site. However, it appeared that we might be able to get out by going forward through another campsite, although this required going through a bit of a ditch. Unfortunately, we found that there was another tree that prevented us from exiting this path. By working the rig back and forth, we were finally able to back out onto the road. However, one of the mud flaps get snagged in the ditch and ripped off. All in all, it was a terrible start to the day. Since the campground had no cell service nor wifi, we had no choice but to head on down the road and hope for the best.

Fortunately, the 200-mile drive to Hyder, AK was much smoother than the previous day’s, even though we had to stop three times for single-lane construction zones. The scenery was beautiful but the winding road made for a tiring drive. We arrived at Camp Run-A-Muck at about 4 pm PDT and managed to fit into our pull-through site without too much challenge.

As predicted, the air was pretty clear and there was only a slight whiff of smoke. We had reserved our spot for three days but, rather than take a leisurely drive through BC over the coming weeks, we immediately decided to extend our stay in Hyder to a full week and then make a quicker drive through BC back to the Lower 48. Although we had no cell service and very poor wifi at the campground, we had picked up a strong cell signal when we drove through Stewart, BC which was just a few miles prior to reaching Hyder. During the first couple of days, we drove into Stewart to access the Internet and this required going through the Canadian border crossing each time. We subsequently learned that we could get a cell signal in Hyder if we drove over a long bridge to the boat launch.

Hyder only has a population of 100 and touts itself as the “friendliest ghost town in Alaska.” Stewart, BC is slightly larger, with a population of 500. Hyder was originally called Portland City but was renamed when the U.S. Postal Authority told residents there were already too many U.S. cities named Portland. Both towns got their starts in 1898 with the Gold Rush. Hyder boomed with the discovery of rich silver veins in the upper Salmon River basin in 1917-1918. At the peak in the 1920s, the area had a population of 10,000. Both communities are located at the head of the 90 mile long Portland Canal, the fourth longest fjord in the world.

On Wednesday we drove to the service station in Stewart to see if they could fix the truck. We learned that they only do tire repairs but they did give us a referral to a local mechanic, Wade Bursey, who has a garage behind his house. Wade took a look at the broken wires and discovered the cause. An iron clamp on the rear suspension had cracked when we hit a large pothole. When the clamp broke, the pressure drove the leaf springs upward and through the wiring bundle. Wade thought he could fix the wiring but couldn’t get to it until Thursday at noon. We attempted to find a rental car but the Hertz franchise, operating out of the ice cream shop, only had one car left at the end of the season and it was unavailable.

Broken clamp from truck’s leaf springs

On Thursday morning we drove to the Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site to see if there were any bears feeding on the spawning salmon. We saw many chub and pink salmon in the creek and lagoon but no bears. We were not terribly surprised since there had been few bears spotted this season. Since salmon die after they return to their spawning grounds, there were a large number of dead fish in the water. The chub salmon were quite large, averaging between 30-40 inches in length.

At about noon we drove into Stewart and Jan attempted unsuccessfully to rent a car while Phil took the truck to Wade’s garage. Phil sat there for a couple of hours while Wade struggled to fix another vehicle. Jan had lunch in Stewart and explored the little bit of downtown. Phil left to drive Jan back to the campground and, when he returned, Wade was ready to work on the truck but said that it wouldn’t be finished until the next morning. Although Phil had been prepared to hike the four miles back to the campground, Wade was nice enough to give him a ride.

Later that afternoon we had our first campfire in almost three years of RVing, in large part due to free firewood.

Phil by campfire

On Friday morning, we walked up to the border crossing to call Wade to see if the truck was ready. After three unanswered calls, Jan spotted Wade’s truck driving by us. He had driven to the campground to get Phil. We were able to flag Wade down as he drove back to Stewart and get Phil a ride back to the garage. Phil learned that the truck was ready and, although Wade was unable to replace the broken clamp on the leaf springs, he did repair the 17 broken wires so we now had lights on the back of the truck. Phil later called the Ram dealer in Smithers, BC to see if they could finish the repair job when we were there the following Wednesday. The dealer was booked out until after Labor Day but said he would see what he could do when we come in on Wednesday.

On Saturday, August 25th, we returned in the morning to the Fish Creek site but, again, saw no bears. We then drove out to the boat launch to access the Internet. The skies were overcast and Jan got some great pictures of the harbor with heavy cloud cover.

On Saturday evening we returned to the Fish Creek site and, this time, we hit pay dirt. About ten minutes after we arrived, an adolescent grizzly (3-5 years old) showed up and stuck around for 75 minutes. He consumed a large number of chum salmon, both dead and alive, and then started playing by tearing apart a number of small trees on the creek bank.

On Sunday we drove up the Salmon Glacier Road. Salmon Glacier is the world’s largest road accessible glacier. We had gotten a self-guided auto tour guidebook from the Visitor Center and it explained various points of interest along the route. The road is unpaved after the Fish Creek viewing area so we had to drive very slowly over the next 11 miles to the Toe of Salmon Glacier viewpoint. Given the damage to the truck’s suspension, we drove very slowly over the washboard roads and attempted to miss as many potholes as possible. It took us about an hour each way as we drove between 6-14 mph. We opted not to drive the last six miles to the Salmon Glacier summit.

On Monday we walked through the town of Hyder. For the most part, the town is quite dilapidated. More than a few of the residences consist of walls built around old RVs or mobile homes. There were a number of signs and displays on the residences that demonstrated that the locals have a sense of humor. We had lunch at “The Bus,” whose owner has been selling seafood caught by her husband and son for 20 years. We had halibut fish and chips and a cup of chowder. Everything was delicious.

Monday evening we returned to the Fish Creek observation site and, again, were rewarded with the site of a large grizzly. It initially swam around in the lagoon and, occasionally, would splash the water with his paws and capture a large chub salmon to eat. When he’d had his fill of salmon, he pulled down tree branches along the bank and feasted on berries. Next, he strolled up the creek right below the boardwalk out to the parking lot. We were able to walk along the boardwalk for about 100 yards while the grizzly was only about 20 feet away. It was an amazing experience.

On Tuesday we had to pack up in the rain and hit the road, leaving Alaska for the final time. We drove 220 miles to Telkwa, BC where we spent two nights at the Fort Telkwa RV Park. When Phil had made the reservation, the owner had told him that the back–in sites were much better than the pull-throughs. She had offered to have her husband help get us backed into our site. When we arrived at the campground, Phil was surprised to learn that the “help” actually consisted of the husband jumping in the truck and parking it himself. We were glad we had taken the back-in site as we had a great view of the Buckley River out our living room window.

View from our living room window

On Wednesday Phil drove to the Ram dealer in Smithers, about 10 miles away. When he took the broken clamp into the parts department, he learned that it was not a Ram part. It seems to have been part of the Kelderman rear suspension upgrade we had installed in Iowa in May. This will mean contacting Kelderman for a solution. The good news was that the two micro fuses Phil was able to buy for $3.50 solved the remaining electrical problems we were having. One fuse brought back our rear camera and parking sensor. The other fuse solved our more critical issue; the trailer’s left turn signal and brake lights are now working.

We then took a nature hike along the Bulkley River. This area is known as Steelhead Paradise and there were many fishermen fly fishing in the river. When we reached town, we decided to have ice cream for lunch. The town of Telkwa, with a population of 1,500, was established in 1906 and many of the original buildings have been retained and restored.

On Thursday, August 30th, we drove 235 miles to Prince George, BC where we spent the night at Northern Experience RV Park. The only sightseeing stop we made along the way was in Houston, BC where we stopped to see the World’s Largest Fly Rod. The rod is constructed entirely of aluminum and is anodized bronze to simulate graphite. The rod is 60 feet tall and weighs 800 lbs. The smoke level along the drive was quite low and a strong breeze that evening kept the air quality very good.

On Friday morning the smoky skies had returned. We drove 145 miles to Williams Lake, BC where we spent two nights at the Stampede Campground. As we drove through Quesnel, we passed the World’s Largest Gold Pan. The campground in Williams Lake was connected to the Stampede stadium where they hold a major rodeo event in early July.

World’s Largest Gold Pan

On Saturday morning the air was smokier than usual but not bad enough to keep us indoors. We went to the Scout Island Nature Centre and hiked the Island Trail. Much of the trail near the end of the island was overgrown so we had to blaze our own trail for much of the way. The air cleared later in the afternoon and we were able to sit outside and enjoy the blue sky.

On Sunday we drove 210 miles to Merritt, BC where we stayed overnight at the community-operated Claybanks RV Park. Our only stop of note was at a rest area overlooking Kamloops Lake. When we arrived at the campground, we were surprised to learn that we had been assigned to a back-in site rather than the pull-through we had requested. However, we managed the back-in fairly well.

Monday was Labor Day and the traffic was rather heavy for our 156 mile drive to Blaine, WA. We drove non-stop until we crossed into the United States just a few miles from Blaine. As much as we enjoyed our summer adventure in Alaska and Western Canada, it felt great to be back in the Lower 48 again.

Haines, Juneau and Skagway, Alaska (August 11 – 16, 2018)

On Saturday, August 11th, we drove 145 miles on the Haines Highway from Haines Junction, YT to Haines, AK. The beginning third of the drive was on the smoothest asphalt we’ve driven on in months. Most of the rest was on chip seal but was still pretty easy driving. However, we hit an eight-mile construction zone when we were almost to Haines that required us to follow a pilot car over some extremely rough sections. We made several stops along the highway to enjoy the scenery which was outstanding.

We stopped at a turnout and hiked a half-mile each way up Rock Glacier Trail. Rock glaciers are the result of mountain permafrost creep. The initial part of the trail was along a boardwalk that was quite steep in places. Then we climbed along a rock trail to the summit.

Another stop was at Million Dollar Falls, a Yukon provisional campground. The turnout to the falls was down a narrow road and we had some initial concerns that we may have gotten ourselves into a jam. Fortunately we found room to park and turn around when we reached the campground. We hiked a short distance to a boardwalk that took us to the waterfalls which were quite impressive.

On Sunday we spent the day visiting Juneau. We took the fast ferry that departed Haines at 8:45 am. We traveled down the Lynn Canal which connects Skagway and Haines to Juneau and the rest of the Inside Passage. It was misnamed by Captain Cook, as it is not really a canal. It is actually an inlet formed by the deepest fjord in North America and one of the deepest in the world. During our trip south to Juneau, we saw about 100 bald eagles.

We arrived at Yankee Cove at 11 am and boarded a motorcoach that took us 23 miles to downtown Juneau. Our driver was a long-time resident of Juneau and shared a number of stories about the city. Juneau has a population of 32,000 and is the only state capitol that cannot be reached by road. The major industries are government, mining, tourism and fishing.

When we arrived downtown, there were three massive cruise ships at the wharf, as well as a mid-sized one. We strolled along Franklin St. and visited many of the shops. We stopped for lunch at the Red Dog Saloon.

In the afternoon we climbed the steep hill to the older section of Juneau and saw some of the historic buildings such as St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church (built in 1894), the Governor’s Mansion and the Alaska State Capitol. Some of the older streets are so steep that there are long staircases that connect houses that are built on the hillsides. The weather was overcast with a light drizzle all day but we were thankful that is was not as bad as forecast.

The motorcoach picked us up at 4 pm and took us to Auke Bay where we re-boarded the ferry for our return trip. On the return, we came across a humpback whale and followed it for about 20 minutes.  We were close enough to see the barnacles attached to its tail.

We also cruised beside an island with a pile of about 100 Steller sea lions. Later we saw sea lions sleeping on one of the channel buoys and saw a number of harbor seals on the shore.

As we neared Haines, we passed Eldred Rock Lighthouse. This lighthouse was the last of 10 built in Alaska between 1902 and 1906. It was manned for two-year terms by teams of two Coast Guard lighthouse keepers until it was automated in 1973. We arrived back in Haines at 7:45 pm.

On Tuesday the rain stopped and we did an enjoyable 2.5 hour hike. We had intended to hike the Battery Point Trail near Haines but lost the trail a couple of times. Instead, we ended up walking down the rocky shoreline of Lynn Canal for much of the hike. It was interesting to see the distinct line in the inlet where the gray silty glacier water meets the teal ocean water. We took a rest in a large hut that someone had constructed from driftwood.

On Wednesday we took the fast ferry for a 45-minute ride from Haines to Skagway. When gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, Skagway became a very important destination almost overnight. Beginning in July 1897, thousands of hopeful miners arrived in Skagway and prepared for the 500-mile journey to the gold fields in Canada. The population of the general area increased to 30,000, making Skagway the largest city in Alaska. Between 1897 and 1898, Skagway was a lawless town. Fights, prostitutes and liquor were ever-present on Skagway’s streets and con man “Soupy” Smith, who had risen to considerable power, did little to stop it. By 1899, the stream of gold-seekers had diminished and Skagway’s economy began to collapse. Fortunately, much of the history of Skagway was saved by the early residents.

Today, Skagway is largely dependent on tourism. The year-round population is about 1,000 but this doubles in the summertime to deal with more than 900,000 visitors (3/4 of which arrive on cruise ships). The White Pass and Yukon Route is a narrow-gauge railroad that was constructed beginning in 1898 during the gold rush but is now in operation purely for the tourist trade. Upon arriving in Skagway, our first stop was at the Skagway Fish Company where we each had halibut fish and chips for lunch. Then we spent a few hours strolling the historic streets of Skagway and visiting the many shops and historic buildings. There were four large cruise ships docked at the wharf.


Return to the Yukon (August 5 – 11, 2018)

Our arrival in Dawson City, YT on Sunday, August 5th, came as a relief after making the challenging drive over the Top of the World highway. We booked a four-night stay at Gold Rush Campground, which is located within a short walk of downtown Dawson City.

Dawson City has a very colorful history. Gold was discovered on Bonanza Creek in August 1896. When word of gold being discovered in the Yukon reached the Lower 48, the Gold Rush began. Many gold seekers initially attempted to carry their goods over the icy Chilkoot Pass, often through blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. Once the Yukon River thawed in May of 1998, hundreds of boatloads of would-be miners arrived day and night. The population grew from 1,500 in spring 1997 to 30,000 two years later. This made Dawson City the biggest city in North America north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg. Unfortunately, by the time most of the stampeders arrived, the profitable claims had already been staked and the population dropped to 9,100 by 1900, and to 975 by 1921.  The current population is about 2,100.

The rapid drop in population at the end of the Gold Rush led to the abandonment of buildings rather than their demolition for redevelopment. In the 1960’s, a serious decline in mining caused the community to welcome tourism and invite investment in Dawson City’s heritage. Many of the original buildings have been restored and rehabilitated. Most of the buildings are built on risers due to frost heaves in the permafrost.  The streets are still dirt but there are boardwalks for pedestrians. We spent the first couple of days exploring the town and visiting the many shops.

On Sunday night, we had dinner at Klondike Kate’s. On Monday night, we attended the can-can show at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall. The ticket for admission to Gertie’s was good for the entire summer so, of course, we had to return on Tuesday night to get our money’s worth.

On Tuesday the rain stopped long enough for us to do some exploring outside of downtown. We stopped to see Jack London’s cabin. Jack London had come to the Klondike in 1897 as a prospector.  Disillusioned with gold mining and afflicted with scurvy, he returned to California in 1898.  He later wrote two successful novels about the north, White Fang and Call of the Wild.  His cabin was originally located on Henderson Creek, in the Klondike goldfields.  We next headed up the mountainside for 15 minutes until we reached the peak, known as Midnight Dome. From Midnight Dome we had spectacular views of the Yukon River and Dawson City.

Next we visited the goldfields that started the Gold Rush. We stopped at Dredge No. 4, the largest wooden dredge in the world. Over 46 years, Dredge No. 4 recovered eight metric tons of gold. At top production, almost 50 pounds of gold were recovered every three or four days.

We continued on to Claim No. 6 which has been set up by the Klondike Visitors Association to allow tourists to experience gold panning in the creek. Since we didn’t have gold pans, we tried our luck with cake pans. We found a few small grains that may have been gold but not enough to keep.

On our return trip, we stopped at the Discovery Claim and saw the spot of the big strike that started the Gold Rush. On August 17, 1986, Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie and George Carmack were traveling to the Klondike River and, short on food, Jim shot a moose. He went to the creek for a drink and found gold. The three men staked claims to the richest spots they found and George went to Forty Miles to record them.

Jan at site of the big strike that began the Gold Rush

On Wednesday we did a guided walking tour of historic Dawson City. The tour was entitled “Strange Things Done in the Midnight Sun.” In addition to visiting a number of historic buildings, our guide told little-known stories about real-life residents from the Gold Rush era.

Later we attended a program at the Palace Grand Theater. The three-story theater, which provided entertainment to the miners during the Gold Rush days, has been recently renovated to its original design.

We end our visit to Dawson City with a poem by Robert Service, heralded as the “bard of the Klondike.” Service was a teller for the Canadian Bank of Commerce and lived in Dawson City from 1909 until 1912.

Robert Service poem on the side of a building

On Thursday, August 9th, we began our 2,500 mile trip southward, back to the Lower 48. We drove 222 miles on the Klondike Highway to Carmarks, YT where we spent the night at the RV park at Hotel Carmacks. With the exception of our Top of the World trek, this was the worst driving experience of our trip. We hit multiple construction zones, several where we had to wait for a pilot car to guide us through unpaved sections. The areas that weren’t under construction needed to be. We had to drive very carefully and slowly through mile after mile of potholes.

As we neared Carmarks, we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking Five Finger Rapid. During the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, thousands of prospectors navigated their handmade and overloaded boats and rafts 800 miles from Bennett Lake to Dawson City. Five Finger Rapid was a major obstacle along the route and more than a few stampeders ended up in the water  after choosing the wrong channel. Whitehorse-bound sternwheelers had to winch themselves over a 1-2 foot drop in the navigable channel until the underwater obstacle was blasted away.


After dinner, we strolled along the Yukon River in Carmacks.

On Friday we drove 189 miles to Haines Junction where we spent the night at the RV park adjoining the Fas Gas service station. The first half of the trip was spent on the Klondike Highway and the balance was on the Alaska Highway. Although the roads were not exactly smooth and still had a lot of potholes and frost heaves, the day’s drive was considerably easier than the previous day. The scenery was beautiful.

We stopped at Braeburn Lodge for a cinnamon roll which was large enough for four people. We saved half of it for Saturday. Braeburn Lodge is an official checkpoint for the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and there was dog race paraphernalia all over the walls.

Cinnamon roll at Braeburn Lodge