Yukon Territory: Yukon in a Day

I had trouble falling asleep last night because I jumped at every scratchy little leaf to tumble across the gravel outside.  We lazily decided to leave the bear canister in my pack in the tent last night, so I was convinced that even the smallest of noises were a ginormous grizzly ready to tear into our tent and consume us and our food.  After quite a while, the tapping of the rain on the tent calmed my jitters and lulled me to sleep.  Bears be damned, I need some beauty sleep!

We were woken this morning at 7:15 by an incessant hammering – construction work on a house right behind our tent.  In the dark last night, we couldn’t even tell that there were buildings back there.  Anyway, I was tired enough to tune out the noise and go back to sleep for a bit.  We finally got up and crawled out of the tent to find that ours was the only one left in the lot, so we packed up, paid and left.  It would have been ridiculously easy to just pack up and hike out without paying or being noticed, but I didn’t want to attract bad karma (and we’re super-awesome), so we did the right thing and paid the $23.

We started walking back into town with the intention of checking out the town in daylight, doing a little window shopping, grabbing a quick breakfast and getting on the road towards the Yukon.  We only walked a few blocks before we were greeted by a sea of HUNDREDS of people littering the streets, shops and sidewalks – every single inch of the tiny town.  There were five cruise ships in port – in a town that is literally 3 blocks by 12 blocks.  It was beyond awful and impossible to even move in some places.

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Which reminds me… Have I mentioned before how anti-cruise ship I am?  I just don’t understand how a person could enjoy being smashed onto a boat with a city’s worth of people for days at a time.  On water.  It makes me hyperventilate a little just thinking about it.  And furthermore, when you descend thousands at a time on these tiny towns and then only spend a few hours on shore, you’re not really experiencing the place.  You’re just checking it off a list.  ::Sigh::  To each their own, I suppose.  [Note:  This is my opinion.  I do not wish to debate with you, dear readers, why cruise shipping is not awesome.  This is my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.]

We wandered around a bit and found a local place, Corner Cafe, off the main street that didn’t seem to be too busy.  We walked in to find that we had escaped the mob and seemed to be the only non-locals in the place.  I was starving and seriously craving some good biscuits and gravy.  As we sat waiting, I was salivating, imagining how frickin’ good these flaky biscuits and creamy gravy were going to be.  And just as I thought I might chew my arm off in hunger, the waitress came out with… ONE plate.  As she placed that one plate in front of K, she dropped the bombshell – they were out of gravy.  I fought back the urge to bellow, “Seriously?!  Out of gravy?!” and disappointedly asked her to just bring me the same thing K had (sausage and cheese muffin with hash browns).  Ten minutes later, as I was contemplating eating the salt shaker, she came back to say that they were out of sausage, too – Would bacon be okay?  Fine.  Bacon it is.  And then, five minutes later, she came back to say they were out of bacon too.  At this point I was pretty much certain that my head was going to explode in anger, and, through clenched teeth, I told her to just forget it.  Strike three, lady.

We peaced out of the cafe – me all pouty and K full and happy – and headed toward the post office to mail some postcards.  As we walked back up toward the main drag, we stumbled on a small bakery – Lemon Rose Bakery – with a line out the door, a delightful cinnamon fragrance spilling out the door, and dozens of people meandering out with ear-to-ear smiles and giant, gooey, sticky, delicious-looking cinnamon rolls.  Having not gotten my biscuits and gravy, I decided that I was not leaving town without one of these heavenly creations.  Five minutes later, I had two in my possession; one for now and one for the road.  They were wonderful – still warm, and just the perfect mixture of cinnamon and icing.  (Take that, lady at Corner Cafe!)

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We dropped our postcards at the busy little small town post office and walked on to the rental car place – an itty bitty cracker box of a room inside a small building.  Thankfully, we’d already reserved a car since there were no less than 23,954,349 people standing in line for cars ahead of us.  After a 20-minute-or-so wait, we had our shiny white Chevy Cobalt, stashed our packs away in the trunk and got the hell out of dodge before either of us strangled anyone!

We started north out of town on the South Klondike Highway (Ironic, huh?), headed ultimately for Anchorage – about an 18 hour drive.  As we drove out of Skagway, the rain started to let up and the sky began to clear.  We started up into the mountains headed for British Columbia.  As we continued, the mountain terrain began to change from green, lush, densely forested mountains to rockier faces with wide, fast-flowing waterfalls tumbling down them.  We drove through some really dense patches of fog – barely able to see – on the way up, but the views between the patches of fog were amazing.

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About 40 minutes outside of Skagway, we reached the border crossing into BC – a small building in the middle of the two-lane highway.  We slowed to a stop, expecting a fairly extensive questioning and search (this is the first border crossing either of us has done by car since 9/11), but nothing.  They never even asked to see in the trunk!  Looked at our passports, asked some innocuous questions:  Where are you headed?  Have more than $10k?  Any firearms?  Explosives?  Um… Anchorage.  No, no and no.  And we were on our way.  Simple as that.

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As we were sitting there talking with the officer, I was really tempted to burst out with, “What’s your business in Canada, man?!” a la Tommy Chong in That ’70s Show (one of my all-time favorite episodes of ’70s Show, by the way), but refrained for K’s sanity.

Yukon Suspension Bridge:

About 10-15 km into BC, we stopped at the Yukon Suspension Bridge – an admitted tourist trap built recently with the intent of being a tourist trap.  It was cool nonetheless and worth the $19 (another 2-for-1 deal with our Alaska Tour Saver) to see it.  Just off the parking lot was a large triangular wood-and-glass structure, peaked but disconnected at the apex.  Each side was its own enclosed room; one side a cafe and the other a gift shop.  Both sides opened onto a large patio with a topographical replica of the Yukon River and the surrounding area, highlighting the route the 49ers had to take to get to gold.

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From there, a deck continued, walking through pictures and paraphernalia telling the story of how the Mounties regulated who could enter the area, how much gear had to be carried, how they traveled, etc.  It was an interesting account of the intense danger and insane amount of work these pioneers face, all in pursuit of the coveted “mother lode.”  Many of them didn’t even make it in time; by the time they arrived all of the claims had been staked and they’d ventured out for nothing.

Beyond the winding decks, the bridge spans the river, 65 feet above the water.

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It was wild being suspended above the water, being able to see through the grated floor aaallllllllll the way down to the rushing current.

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We saw great views, got some wonderful photos, fresh air and a little bit of a history lesson.

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Out on the deck, K got his picture with the Mounties and I had a close encounter with a bear. 🙂

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Carcross, Yukon:

Back in the car.  Next stop – Carcross, Yukon Territory.  As we drove, the sky cleared and opened up and we got our first sunshine of the trip!  I’m not talking a small beam of sunlight peaking through grey clouds like the other days – I’m talking full-on blue skies with beautiful, intense sunshine!  By the time we got to Carcross, the car’s gauge was telling us it was 64oF.  (Thankfully, that didn’t switch to the metric system when we crossed the border!)  The “town” of Carcross had little more than a General Store, a tiny train station, a jewelry store, a sushi shack and some plywood cutouts of a caribou and wooly mammoth to take photos.

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Since it was warm, we stopped in the General Store for some ice cream – highly recommended to us by our shuttle driver in Gustavus – and browsed the store while we ate.  There were tons of cheap, mass-produced souvenirs – no doubt intended for the hundreds of cruise ship patrons who venture up on the train each day.  As we finished eating our ice cream, a train full of cruise shippers was arriving.  We got in the car and got out of there quickly to avoid that mess.

Just outside of Carcross is a small desert.  It was really cool and totally strange.  On the same side of the road where all of the water had been before, there was a big sandy desert a few miles long.  It was the first desert I’ve ever seen, and so, so odd that it was in Canada of all places.  Somehow I managed to not take a single picture of this awesome phenomenon.  (Again, I suck.  I know.  But hey, you’re still here reading, aren’t you?)

From BC and into the Yukon, the scenery continued to change drastically.  The highway changed from winding up through the mountains to straight and flat along the feet of the mountains.  On one side of the road there were very steep, jagged, rocky peaks with fairly barren faces leading down to densely populated forest between the mountain and the road.  On the other side of the road was what the locals call “moonscaping.”  The mountains are smoother, rounded rocks with more trees and waterfalls plunging down the faces – starting as multiple forks at the top and merging into one powerful stream near the foot of the mountain.  Between the road and the feed of the mountains are hundreds of small, blue-green ponds with evergreens growing on the narrow silt beds between them.  The landscape was formed by silt and small sheets of ice left behind by retreating glaciers.  Both sides of the road, and the contrast between the two, were incredibly beautiful.

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Whitehorse, Yukon:

Next stop – Whitehorse, the capital on the Yukon.  The city is nestled smack dab in the middle of some stunning scenery, but is sadly a wasteland of corporate crap in the middle of an otherwise unspoiled area.  We saw our first WalMart, Mickey Dee’s and Starbucks of the trip here.  And my favorite – The Real Canadian Superstore.

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We drove around for a bit and found a mountain store to pick up some fuel for our camp stove, preparing for the possibility of cooking our own dinner tonight.

After driving around Whitehorse for a bit, watching all of the restaurants speed past my window and desperately trying to talk K into being hungry, I had a minor breakdown.  Fueled by hunger, exhaustion, and still being irrationally upset about not getting biscuits and gravy for breakfast, I cried and told K to drive me to the airport because I wanted to go home.  (Not my finest moment.  Maybe it was temporary insanity due to the altitude?)  Instead, he took me to eat at a place called Ricky’s.  It appeared to be a chain place, but we’d never heard of it.  I had chicken souvlaki and K had a club sammich and all was right with the world again.  It’s amazing what a little food and variety of choices can do for a girl!

Back in the car full and happy and we were off – headed toward AK with the intent of camping along the road when we got tired; not realizing how completely remote and desolate the rest of the Yukon would be.  There were literally nothing but road, trees and distant mountains for miles and miles and hours and hours…and hours.  It was both wonderfully refreshing to see such amazing natural beauty untouched and not yet exploited by man, but still sadly empty and lonely to pass the rare dilapidated and abandoned cafe or gas station, surely put under by a lack of travelers to the Yukon and a crappy economy.

I got overly excited at one point to see a sign for a rest area 2 km ahead.  I thought we could pull in, take a look at a map, buy a soda, use the restrooms.  Not exactly.  We pulled into the rest area to find no maps or vending machines; just two outhouses with arguably the most spectacular view ever backing an outhouse.  And impressively, this rest area was cleaner than any other rest area I’ve stopped at in my life.  (You hear that, USA?  Get with the program!)

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Not too far outside of Whitehorse, we were stopped by a construction worker with a stop sign held up in front of their face.  As we pulled to a stop, the worker approached our car and dropped the sign to reveal a very young girl – maybe 15 years old.  She came over to tell us that it would be 10-15 minutes before we could pass.  I was shocked by the fact that this girl was out there by herself with a pickup truck and a dog (sleeping lazily in the truck bed) and seemingly nothing else for self-defense.  We were blown away by the apparent lack of crime around here and the fact that this young girl could stand out there alone on this deserted road directing traffic safely.

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Just a little bit further and we passed a large wooden sign saying, “You are now leaving 9-1-1 coverage area.”  Part of me was overjoyed with being in such a remote place; the other part slightly panicked that we were not carrying a spare tire, gas, extra food…really anything that would be of value if we had an accident or emergency.  Oh well, what’s an adventure without taking risks?!

As we drove, the vegetation changed a lot – from Sitka spruce to white spruce (super tall, skinny evergreens) and Birch and/or Aspen treest (couldn’t tell definitively which).  Along the road were fireweed anda  lot of shrubby brush.  It was impossible to pull off and camp along the road because of the dense, tall shrubbery – nowhere flat to put up the tent.  The scenery changed between dense forest, low marshy land, beautiful blue lakes and steep sand banks along the road – often with one of these landscapes on one side of the road and a completely different one on the other side, but always with big, gorgeous mountains looming in the distance.

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Just outside of Haines Junction we had a pretty cool encounter with a big, big black bear.  We crested a hill to see this giant bear about 5 feet from the edge of the road.  It scared the crap out of K!  He slammed on the brakes and laid on the horn and the bear just sat there – didn’t even budge – and watched us drive past.  I stared the bear in the face from about 5 feet away as we sloooooowly crept past him.  He sat there completely unfazed and patiently waited for us to pass, then just slowly and casually moseyed on across the road as if he hadn’t just survived a near-death experience.  It was so cool and happened so fast I didn’t even have a chance to get any photos.

Also just outside of Haines Junction we entered Kluane National Preserve.  In the far distance, the mountains became huge with steep, rocky, jagged faces all capped with snow.  Some peaks were totally covered while others were just peppered.  One in particular was bare on its peak and along the edges, snow had funneled down to a central point below the peak, giving the illusion of a pair of arms cradling the snow.  Big, billowy, cottonball clouds blanketed the tops of the mountains, likely dumping more snow.

Kluane Lake:

Several miles up the road we came to Kluane Lake – an enormous, amazing, blue-green lake that twisted and curled around the feet of the mountains for miles and miles.  As we first approached, we were driving straight toward the lake and got incredible views of the water with mountains rising up out of its edges.

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As we got to the water’s edge, the road switched back to the left, following the water until a point where the lake turned into marsh.  At this point, a bridge crossed over just mere feet above the water, and the road cut back to the right again and ran along the feet of the mountains on the other side of the lake.

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Abandoned construction equipment sat near the bridge, as if construction were slated, but no one – and I mean noooooo one – was anywhere around.  It was an awesome and long drive around.  We continued to follow the lake for a good hour, at least.  A few people in RVs had pulled off to camp on the gravel bars at the edge of the lake.  It looked like an awesome, peaceful spot to spend a night, but we decided to get some more miles behind us before we stopped for the night.

The Alaska Highway was interesting – a two lane road a lot like the little roads in any Small Town, USA, but with a much more spectacular view.  The speed limit is 90 km/hr, but that’s a joke.  It’s much slower going because of the condition of the road.  The majority of the road is asphalt, but in poorer shape than roads in some third-world countries.  Every couple of miles or so, you experience some sort of surprise – a huge dip that leaves you wondering if you’re on the Alaska Highway or a beautiful amusement park ride, a bump that sends you catapulting all through the car, or maybe a giant chunk out of the road that leaves you feeling like you’ve chunked your pants when you hit it.  In other areas, the road is chipped and sealed – tar and gravel; and in other places it’s just loose gravel.

They’re kind enough to mark each of these “Surprise!” spots with neon orange flags on the shoulder of the road, but don’t repave or fix them – because of permafrost, it’s nearly impossible.  By time time you’re on top of an orange flag, it’s usually too late to avoid the “Surprise!” and you just take what you get.  It definitely keeps you on your toes – especially after dark.  With no streetlights.  At all.  (God bless my wonderful fiance for being a trooper and driving the whole way!)

We continued driving, enjoying our surroundings and looking for either a clear spot to camp or a campground.  It was still way too shrubby along the road, so no luck there.  Eventually the sun started to set and we were captivated by the amazing colors spewed across the sky with the black, shadowed mountains beneath.

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We found signs for a couple of campgrounds, but they all pointed down pitch black, tree-lined roads with no visible evidence that there was in fact an open, functioning campground down there.  As we peered down each of these roads, I had the strange feeling that we were stepping into a scene from a horror movie and just couldn’t bring myself to take that risk.  Perhaps I’m overly cautious, but I’d rather not find myself sliced to pieces or half-digested by a bear in the middle of the Yukon where no one would ever find my remains to send home to my poor, devastated mother.  So…we kept driving to Beaver Creek – the last town in the Yukon.

When we arrived in Beaver Creek at 11:30pm, the sky was still slightly lit up; not totally pitch dark.  It really is the land of the midnight sun!

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Ida’s Motel & Cafe:

Beaver Creek had a couple of gas stations, a couple of cafes, an RV park and a motel.  K decided he’d rather shell out the cash ($104) for a motel than hassle with a wet tent in the dark.  And I wholeheartedly agreed.  So here we are.

We pulled up to a very dark building that tripled as a cafe, gas station and motel.  The man inside sat behind a desk with bars across the window.  The interior lights were very dim and the “lobby” didn’t have much more than some travel guides for Alaska and the Yukon.

The motel is super, super basic, but appears clean and sufficient for our purposes – sleep and showers.  There’s a TV, but no remote for the cable box, so we’re stuck watching endless Canadian volleyball.  Otherwise, good.

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We drove somewhere around 8 hours total today – not quite half way to Anchorage.  We’re about a day ahead of schedule for returning the car in Anchorage, so we debated either driving to Fairbanks and flying to the Arctic Circle or going to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with our extra day.  After some discussion, we decided on Wrangell, so tomorrow morning, we’re off!

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