Sunday, May 25 Watson Lake, Yukon
We awoke to a winter wonderland. Several inches of snow covered everything in sight. Fortunately the road wasn't too slippery and as we descended the road became completely clear of snow. The scenery was even prettier with its white blanket, and it was all framed by the icicles hanging down in front of the windshield from the overhead bunk.
The mountains we drove through were the northern-most extent of the Rocky Mountains. From here on, the mountains become part of the Mackenzie Mountain Range. We stopped at Muncho Lake, a large blue-green colored lake that was half frozen. The ice crystals were the same beautiful color.
Just south of the Yukon border, we came to Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park. After a ten minute walk back into the woods you come to two ponds of water that are heated by geo-thermal energy to about 104 degrees (hot tub temperature). The first pond, called Alpha, is fairly shallow and has benches in it so you can sit down in water up to your neck. This is great for relaxing while enjoying the forest scenery that comes right up to the edge of the pond. The second pond, Beta, is a few minutes farther back into the woods and is deep so you have to swim the whole time you are in it.
The weather was chilly and extremely windy. We wore jackets and hats and gloves while walking out to the ponds. The first time out we didn't even bother to bring our suits or towels since we figured there was no bloody way we were going to jump into the water in this kind of weather. But others seemed to be enjoying it so we went back for our swim suits. The Alpha pond was prettier but had about six people in it already. The Beta pond was completely deserted so that's the one we chose.
The water felt great! It took all the chill out of our bodies. But getting out and back into the cold air wasn't fun. The really neat thing about these great hot springs is that because they are located in a provincial park, they are completely free! Enjoy them as often as you want for as long as you want.
Today's "wild life beside the road" was a black bear cub. We stopped to take a picture and got close enough that we could hear him ripping the blades of grass that he was eating. Later on we saw a baby moose, although we didn't get very close before it disappeared back into the woods.
We spent the night in a private campground north of Watson Lake. It was very disappointing, essentially just a grassy field with zero charm. To add insult to injury, after paying for the privilege of parking there, the showers were an additional 25 cents per minute.
Monday, May 26 Skagway, Alaska
As we motored towards Skagway, Alaska, the scenery got better and better. Now this is more like it! In truth, the scenery often reminded us of Norway. We had to stop numerous times for photo opportunities. The final 50 miles before Skagway are especially beautiful as you wind your way down the steep mountains to the sea.
Skagway is a touristy but not unpleasant town of about 1000 people. During the Klondike Gold Rush, tens of thousands of people arrived on ships here, to begin an arduous trip over the mountains and into the Yukon Territory where (they hoped) they would find their fortune in gold. However, to ensure that the prospectors didn't arrive unprepared for the harsh conditions, the Mounties wouldn't let the new arrivals into Canada unless they had a year's supply of provisions. The materials you were required to bring with you weighed about 2000 lb. and if you couldn't afford pack horses or boat fare, you had to carry it all in, over the mountains, on the Chilkoot Trail. This was a formidable task.
The Chilkoot Trail actually starts in the nearby ghost town of Dyea. You get there on 10 miles of a narrow, windy dirt road that goes there and nowhere else. But at the trail head is a state park where camping is free! And what an excellent campground it was, too. Hardly any other people, each camp site is private and surrounded by trees, and the Chilkoot River runs right beside it. What a great change from last night!
Tuesday, May 27 Skagway, Alaska
The White Pass and Yukon Railway is a short and very scenic stretch of tracks that crosses the mountains between Skagway and the Yukon. When the railway was completed, it was no longer necessary to carry your ton of goods on foot over the Chilkoot Trail. This caused Skagway to prosper and the nearby but no longer necessary Dyea to wither and die.
Sandra and I were ambivalent about whether or not to take the train ride. On the one hand, it was supposed to be a wonderful trip through incredibly gorgeous scenery. It seemed kind of silly to come all the way out to Skagway and NOT do something so popular. And the railway is owned by the company that my father used to work at, so I felt a certain amount of curiosity about it. On the other hand, we'd just finished driving through the same countryside in our motorhome. How much different could it be? Nor would the train stop so that we could pause to admire the view and compose our pictures. Also we aren't that fond of doing anything with big groups of tourists.
There was also the matter of cost. The tickets were $75 each. Sandra and I are tightwads. However, we'd vowed that in our retirement we'd be more reckless with our money and if while on vacation there was an activity that looked like fun, but cost money, we'd go ahead and do it anyway. Just imagine. But I must confess that we choked and couldn't spend the $150.
But it all worked out for the best. Sandra and I were anxious to do some hiking on the Chilkoot Trail, while Luke and Helen, who are much more practiced at retirement, were quite anxious to take the train ride. So we drove down to Skagway in the morning and dropped them at the train station and then Sandra and I drove back to Dyea for a day hike.
Hiking the entire length of the Chilkoot Trail, as the gold prospectors did, is a 3-4 day hike. We didn't have the time nor equipment necessary to hike the whole trail. Fortunately, the first 5 or so miles are not too rugged and made for a fairly easy 10 mile round trip. Beavers had turned part of the trail into a shallow pond. Walking through it was slow going, trying to find places to put our feet that, if not dry, at least weren't too deep. We were thankful for our waterproof hiking boots. On the return leg, we almost stepped on a duck. She was sitting on her nest and was camouflaged so well that she was almost invisible. She was a conscientious mother and refused to leave her three eggs until we both came right next to her nest. As soon as she fled, we also hustled off so she could get back to her hatching.
Other than that duck, we really didn't see much wildlife on the trail. There were lots of warnings about grizzly bears being common in the area, but all we saw was their poop.
After the hike, we walked over to the Dyea ghost town but other than a few barely visible old foundations, it was indistinguishable from a forest. It was interesting to see how well Mother Nature had reclaimed the town in less than a hundred years.
Wednesday, May 28 Skagway, Alaska
Today we took the water taxi to Haines. It's about a one hour boat ride and quite scenic, with mountain vistas and fjords to admire on the way. Downtown Skagway was a sea of tourists this morning, since three cruise ships had docked (that's the most that are ever there simultaneously). The three ships contribute about 5,500 tourists. You could hardly walk down the streets for all the people on them. What a zoo!
Once in Haines we hopped on a school bus and took a tour of the city and surroundings. It was only semi-interesting, but there isn't a lot to do or see in Haines and we had a half day to kill before the water taxi made the return trip back to Skagway.
The thing Haines is most famous for is bald eagles. It boasts the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. In the fall, the nearby Chilkat River remains open when all the others in the area are frozen. So lots of salmon swim up this river to spawn. And the eagles love salmon. At the peak of the salmon run, there are up to 5,000 bald eagles hunting on the river. We watched a video of it and it was pretty amazing. Even in the summer, when there are as yet no salmon, we still saw over a dozen bald eagles in town and beside the water on our trip back to Skagway.
Thursday, May 29 Carmacks, Yukon
We drove to Whitehorse with heavy fog during all the scenic parts. Whitehorse is a plain city and is not endowed with any particular charm. Its population is less than 30,000 but about 90% of the population of the entire territory live here. The best thing about it, at least as far as we were concerned, is that it has a Canadian Tire. This is a nation-wide chain of stores that sell a large variety of tools and outdoor equipment. We bought silicon spray there, to quiet the unnerving squeaking of the rear door.
We parked in a city park to eat our lunch and while there had a tour of the S.S. Klondike II. This is the largest of the stern wheel paddle boats that used to travel up and down the Yukon River during the Klondike gold rush days and beyond. They could navigate the river because of their shallow draft. In the days before the Alaska Highway, the steam boats were the main carrier of goods to and from the cities in the Yukon.
Out in the middle of nowhere we saw a large motorhome lying on its side, down a twenty foot embankment. We stopped to investigate, naturally. The interior of the motorhome was a jumbled mess but nobody was in it. The mystery was solved when we stopped at the next gas station to report the accident. They already knew about it. The driver had fallen asleep while driving and launched himself off the road. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.
From Whitehorse we drove on to Carmacks where we stayed at a government campground that must not have been fully operational yet. It looked recently and fully completed but there was no place to pay, nor did anyone stop by to ask for payment. It was a nice enough campground, with a 1.2 mile boardwalk along the river. One nice thing about the Yukon campgrounds--they supply free firewood. I guess that's because the whole territory appears to be one giant forest.
Friday, May 30 Dawson City, Yukon
The drive to Dawson City was not very scenic, unless you call mile after mile of almost unchanging forest scenic. Hey, I like trees too, but how about some variety? The weather wasn't helping as it was cold and rainy all day. We took a long walk around Dawson City and the town is fairly well restored, but I'm afraid it didn't interest me very much. I'm not that interested in the history of the town and it mostly just strikes me as "touristy." It doesn't help that we're spending the night in an RV "campground" that is really just a parking lot with electrical outlets and a bathroom. Yuck! But it's within walking distance of everywhere in town and the price isn't bad. Plus we're stinky and need showers.
Saturday, May 31 Dawson City, Yukon
In the morning we drove out to tour Dredge #4. The gold dredges were large, floating mining operations. They float in their own pond and scoop up the ground in front of them. The earth is carried into the interior of the dredge on a conveyor belt and the gold is sorted out. The rest of the debris is then dumped out the back of the dredge. These behemoths were actually very efficient, but they made a terrible mess of the area. The area around Dawson City is strewn with long piles of gravel that snake everywhere. A legacy of the dredges.
Back in Dawson City, everyone but I took a narrated audio-tape walking tour of the city. I went to the public library instead. They enjoyed the tour and I enjoyed catching up on current events and what's new in the computer biz. It's awfully hard to get any news in the far North. Radio stations are few and far between. While driving we'd often scan both the FM and AM spectrum trying to find even one station to listen to and more often than not we'd be unsuccessful.
In the evening we took the ferry across the Yukon River to the government campground on the opposite shore. What an improvement from the parking lot in Dawson City! Nicely wooded sites, firewood, a river, and no crowds. While Helen made butter tart pie, Sandra and I went exploring. We came across a black dog who looked an awful lot like a fox. It was walking towards us with something in its mouth. Finally, as it got very near us, it veered away into the woods and we realized that it really was a fox after all.
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