Yukon: Ice Road Trailers – June 2017

Yukon.  Does a bear shit in the woods? That, and other timeless questions answered in this post. Or not.

You’ve heard of Ice Road Truckers? We’re calling this edition of the blog Ice Road Trailers. Yes, we took Wanda up the Dempster Highway and into the Artic Circle, but we’ll get to all of that.

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OK, so where were we? Oh yeah, we had spent time in the southern Yukon. Pretty fabulous. We left Whitehorse and the comfort and coziness of the Wal-Mart parking lot and headed north and west to Dawson City on the Klondike Highway.

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It took us two days to get to Dawson City – we found a place off the road to camp for the night along the way. We chose this pond setting, horrible I know, but we were able to get in some reading, dinner and a movie. Two of those are true. And we were by ourselves.

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As a side note, the Department of Highways and Public Works here in the Yukon are fundamentally the same as anywhere else. Instead of fix the road, they set up a cone, flag, cautionary signal or sign that indicates, basically, “Hey, we know there is a problem here, and instead of fix it permanently, we are going to patch it and put up a warning flag. We’ll fix it… some time.”

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I must be fair to the Yukon roads department. They do a yeoman’s job on what I am sure is a shoestring budget to patch the problems on the roads as they arise, and they really are doing a great job. Yeah to them! In the Yukon I estimate that for every three families, someone works for the Department of Highways – got to be the biggest employer in the Yukon, hands down.

The old joke in Massachusetts was, “What’s black and orange and sleeps four?” A DPW truck. Budda boom. Of course, that was back when the department of public works trucks were black and orange. Green is the new black and orange.

We made it to Dawson City, spent about 15 minutes in town, got current information on conditions to the north and headed to the Dempster Highway. The Dempster Highway takes you (on a gravel road – yes, I know they call it a highway) towards Fort McPherson and Inuvik, both in the Northwest Territories. If you go to a map, look for the North Pole and then scroll down just a bit.

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Dempster Highway is built on top of the permafrost

It may be interesting to point out that the average ANNUAL temperature in the Yukon is -26’C (in Fahrenheit, that translates to pretty damn cold). In fact, the guide at the information center in Whitehorse told us the only month she has NOT seen snow is July. And that is in Whitehorse, the most southern place in the Yukon. This is June, by the way!

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The Dempster Highway is spectacular in so many ways. Taking twenty years to build and only completed in 1979, it is the only road in Canada that takes you into the Arctic Circle. In a tundra region, built on top of permafrost, this road requires constant maintenance, particularly in light of a warming climate and trying to preserve the permafrost. The road was largely built in winter for just that reason – to preserve the permafrost beneath the road.

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The Dempster Highway runs about 300 miles to the Northwest Territories border, and then another 100 miles or so to Inuvik – other than the first quarter mile, an all gravel road. Keep in mind your speed is solely based on road conditions; our experience getting to the Northwest Territories border was that, towing a trailer, we could maintain speeds anywhere from about 10-15mph to a high of perhaps 45-50 mph. And 100% of the time you are throwing up dirt, dust and small stones. So even with taking precautions, you pretty much know what the inside of the trailer looks like.

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And I kid you not – the Dempster Highway is used as an emergency airfield. As the sign in the restaurant last night said, “The world’s second best thrill is flying. The first best thrill is landing.”

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Airfield/highway

The territory campgrounds here in the Yukon are great! Mind you, no water or electricity, but they are well maintained, offer free firewood, and run $12 Canadian (about $9 US in today’s world). We stayed at several – each one great!

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And Wanda crossed the Arctic Circle! You go girl! We made it to the border of the Northwest Territories and then camped about 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Rock River Campground (in the Yukon). The terrain up here (well, everywhere in the Yukon) can only be experienced – photos do absolutely no justice.

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Throughout our journey after departing Dawson City on the Dempster Highway, there are almost no signs of civilization. You need to go self-prepared, but the experience is wonderful. There are virtually no signs of business, no farm fields, no power lines, no crops growing, no farms – no people! Nada. Just views as far as you can see, unmarred by any human endeavor. Well, almost no civilization… Eagle Plains population: 9.

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There is wildlife, as you might expect. Amongst many other animals and wildlife, there are approximately 200,000 caribou but we did not see this herd as they summer up north. While still in the Artic Circle we did catch sight of a Grizzly bear! As Karen points out, there are about 6,000 grizzlies in the Yukon, and given the size of the Yukon it was pretty cool to see a Grizzly. Upon reflection of Leonardo DiCaprio’s experience, we elected to stay in the truck. And there are Black bears as well along the way – no less unnerving.

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While intending to make it to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, road conditions and timing caused us to halt Wanda’s northward journey at the Northwest Territories border. Still, this is close to 300 miles north of Dawson City.

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The terrain on the ride from Dawson City up to the border of the Northwest Territory is SO interesting, and changes often, from the Tombstone Mountain range, to shrub and tree covered slopes (Alpine Tundra), Boreal forest (spruce, Lodgepole Pines, Aspen, Poplar…) to bald stone mountains. In our transit, we crossed the continental divide three times; to our left the watershed would flow to the Bering Sea (Gulf of Alaska), and to our right the watershed flows to the Artic Ocean (Beaufort Sea).

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Another factor in our journey are the nighttime skies. June 12th is the longest day of the year, and up here that means 24 hours of daylight. So blackout curtains are valuable. It has not been uncommon to go to bed at 10-11pm and still see the full sun above the horizon. This area is known as the area of the midnight skies, where midnight feels like it is about 7pm anywhere else.

On our path back to Dawson City, we decided we had had enough driving for the day, and just pulled off the road into our “campground” for the night. Lovely! And, we are by ourselves. Again. Never tire of that.

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But if you travel this road, expect to get dirty – inside and out.

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Before making our push into Alaska, we will spend two nights in Dawson City.  Dawson City is right on the shores of the Klondike River. The only way to get into Alaska is to take the ferry, which is free and runs 24 hours a day as needed. Keep in mind, though, that because the river freezes, the ferry only runs from about the middle of May until the middle of October. Nonetheless, I am told a good number of people stay in town throughout the winter and enjoy winter activities as the town quiets down. But Dawson City is a really cool town!

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View from the ferry

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Downtown Dawson City

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Let me digress for a moment to a more mundane topic – me. Anyone who has known me more than 13 seconds knows my poor judgment is legendary; chapter and verse. But Karen? My sweet bride? The stable one who keeps me grounded? Who knew what lurked behind that sweet, beautiful, delightful face.

Tonight, my bride convinced me I should have a Sour Toe cocktail here at the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City. What, you ask is a Sour Toe cocktail? It is hard for me to even write these words, but it is a cocktail that contains a, God help me, a human toe. If, let’s say, there is a divine spirit, it apparently missed the Sourdough Saloon and Jack London Grill. Thank you (?) Capt. Dick Stevenson.

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The human toe

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$2,500 fine if you swallow the toe – no worries

If there is any consolation (for me), it is that I was not alone.

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Back to my original thesis. Do bears shit in the woods? Well, from our view of the size of bears so far, they can shit wherever they damn well please. But we don’t know with certainty if they go in the woods. They do, however, go in the road! Smack dab, in the middle of the road. They seem to be eating well, let’s just say. And I didn’t see any toes.

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And where do disco balls come from? That was, after all, the next timeless question on all our minds. Hell if I know.

We will surely miss the Yukon. See you in Alaska!

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