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Friday, August 31, 2012

Day 68: Haines, Alaska

We only spent one night in Haines, but it is the kind of place that stays with you long after you and your rig have boarded the ferry, traveled up the Lynn Canal past seals basking on rocks and waterfalls tumbling down the steep cliffs that rise up on either side of this fjord-like ribbon of water, and disembarked at Skagway. It stays with you, perhaps, because you can't quite work out what it wants to be: a wild west frontier town? a fishing village? a busy little port? a military fort? an artsy mecca? a redneck squat? a Rio de Janeiro wannabe celebrating mardi gras in August.

To say that Haines is all of these things probably gets closest to the truth. To say that Haines is eclectic probably says it all. Add a bald eagle or twenty into the mix - the town is a recognized nesting and congregation area for these imperious raptors, and you barely look up or out without spotting one spotting you - and you have yourself one unusual little Alaskan outpost.

Oh, and let's not forget the grizzlies which have right of way across the roads when the salmon are leaping, nor the al fresco waiting lounge that doesn't seem to have got it quite right at the ferry terminal. Haines, in short, is a hoot. It's also a visual delight.

Our RV park was billed as "oceanside" - an accurate description of the thin strip of gravel into which Carmella was expected to slide herself alongside 15 or so other rigs, no doubt, though hardly what we had pictured in our minds prior to arriving in Haines. No matter...We set Carmella up and went off on a self-guided walking tour of the town, passing the intriguing Hammer Museum on our way, climbing up and up to Fort Seward - a former US military settlement that sits on the hill above the rest of the town, and that was established in 1903, following the American purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Today, the buildings that have not been converted into private homes, a hotel, and some artisan workshops are, for the most part, rotting away. If this lends a ghostly feel to the place, 'civilian' Haines does more to reinforce this feeling than to counter it. True, there are a couple of bustling restaurants keeping the place on its toes...Not to mention some fabulous totem poles to stumble upon (and sometimes over)...As well as an enterprising artisanal smoked fish shop. But on the whole, one sees more 'closed' signs than 'come on in!' signs during a casual gander round town.

But still, it manages to have something to recommend it, this town that time seems to have forgotten as it sits there all alone on the tip of a salty Pacific peninsula - accessible only by ferry or by that long and twisting one-way-in-one-way-out mountain road known as the Haines Highway. Just what that something is, is hard to say. But what is clear is that if time has forgotten Haines, you don't. It's there, long after all those other towns with their wild west false fronts and their lonely saloons have blurred into one.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Day 67: Kluane National Park

The photos say it all. Kluane National Park was amazing! About 150 kms west of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway, the village of Haines Junction sits on the edge of the park. If you travel north from the village on the A.H. towards Fairbanks, AK, the park lies to your left. You pass magnificent lakes where pairs of trumpeter swans float ephemerally, and above which snow-capped mountains tower. If you travel south from the village on the Haines Highway, the park lies to your right. You pass glaciers beside which Dall Mountain Sheep graze and roadside berry patches where grizzlies lurk and eventually, you reach Alaska.

Over the course of two days we traveled both routes, and a scenic gorge-fest those two days were. Though most of this vast park is inaccessible by road, we felt that we saw enough of it just traveling along its north-south fringe to make us lifelong fans of the Yukon. We got as far as Destruction Bay heading north, saw that police car and the place it was policing, and decided that the Cottonwood Campground just 20 or so kms back on beautiful Kluane Lake would suit us just fine for the night.

A swim in the lake's polar waters was, well...refreshing. The night sky provided aurora borealis magic. And having learned so much about the history of the Alaska Highway while traveling it, the serendipity of passing a large convoy of the original vehicles involved in the highway's construction as we made the journey up to Kluane Lake was not lost on us.

The convoy had been organized to mark the highway's 70th anniversary, and the 200 or so people making the trip in those vintage vehicles were nearing the end of their marathon trek along the length of the Alaska Highway when we passed them. At the excellent cafe at Haines Junction we had bumped into Donna and Bonnie who were part of the support crew of this ambitious trans-Alaska-Yukon-BC road-trip. We had also stocked up on supplies to support our own road-trip in the same cafe - it being the only place to buy a litre of milk within a 200km radius!

We hit the 10,000 km mark in Kluane National Park. Rona also celebrated her birthday. She began her day on the shores of Kluane Lake, YK. She had lunch on a mountain pass in BC, which the Haines Highway briefly traverses as it travels south from Yukon towards Alaska. And she finished the day at the seaside town of Haines, AK over a pint of locally brewed beer and a platter of locally caught fish at the Lighthouse Restaurant. That's one territory, one province, and one state, all in one day. It seemed a fitting way to see in a new year when you're on the road.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Day 65 and 66: Whitehorse

Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon, lies 1399 kms from Dawson Creek along the Alaska Highway. We made it there in five days, and that felt pretty speedy by our standards. The hot sunny weather that had also been standard fare for us throughout the road trip suddenly broke as we reached this cosmopolitain little city of 25,000, and we had to resign ourselves to cloudy skies and rain showers. As a result, our photos don't really do Whitehorse any favours...And this is a pity, given how appealing this riverside community known as the 'Wilderness City' in fact is.

We arrived in good time on a Tuesday afternoon and set Carmella up in the Hi-Country RV park that sits, true to its name, on an escarpment high above the city centre. The steep six kilometer descent into downtown Whitehorse and the subsequent ascent after doing a quick recky of the place in Ruby on day one was a snap. Not so snappy was that 6 kilometre climb back up to the RV park on our bikes the following day after a full day of 'doing' the sites and sounds of Whitehorse, and in the driving rain no less. But even that wasn't enough to dampen our enthusiasm for this lively city which is a good 1000 kms from any other urban centre of a comparative size, and which somehow manages to be at once worldly, at once a world away from it all.

That cursed hill excepted, bikes proved to be the ideal way to get around Whitehorse. A beautiful 5 km cycling path that loops round the city took us over a suspension bridge straddling the mighty Yukon River and straight to the longest fish ladder in Canada. Our visit happened to coincide with the time of year when countless numbers of adult Chinook Salmon are returning from the Bering Sea to the Yukon River spawning grounds where they began their lives several years before. Traveling 1000s of kilometers against the current of the Yukon to get back to their place of birth, their last act before they die is to lay the eggs that will begin the cycle all over again.

Some of the pregnant fish were being scooped out of the water at the top of the ladder to be taken to a hatchery, where their eggs will help to improve farmed salmon stocks. Others gathered at the foot of the ladder as they mustered the strength to leap it after their epic journey south. Still others floated belly up - their eggs deposited, hence their journey - and their life - now over. It was an astonishing and, in many ways, deeply poignant spectacle that we found ourselves observing - one that certainly put our own journey up the hill into perspective. We watched those Chinook Salmon intently for a good couple of hours.

We were equally entranced by the story of the SS Klondike paddle-steamer, built in 1929, that had once ferried passengers up and down the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City. Now a national heritage site that sits docked at the entrance to the town, our guided tour shed fascinating light on what it was to work on the boat, as well as to travel 1st and 2nd class on it.

Stepping back from the city's important river links and lore to explore some of its other facets, we chatted to a couple of men who were carving a totem pole to commemorate those children and families profoundly scarred by the residential school program. The finished totem pole will be erected in Whitehorse in mid-October in conjunction with a special event organized around the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation talks. Each chip that comes off the wooden pole as they carve is collected and saved, and represents a life that was touched by this shameful episode of Canadian history. All of the chips will be burned together in an upcoming memorial ceremony and the ashes stored in a box carried by one of the figures on the totem pole.

We were struck by the craftsmanship of these two carvers, and by the beauty of the totem they were creating. We were also struck by how many artists seem to have made their home in Whitehorse, and by how good their art is. Galleries were scattered around the city, as were chic little bistros, lively cafes, and good bookstores. Buskers were on many of the street corners, and right there in the middle of it all sat the CBC, decked out in brilliant red. We liked the vibe of Whitehorse. We liked the bustle and buzz. It felt alive and it felt like interesting things were happening. It's the kind of place you can imagine yourself going back to.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Day 63 and 64: Yukon

You don't pass through Watson Lake without stopping in at the Sign Post Forest. Inaugurated back in 1942 by a homesick GI who was part of the team building the Alaska Highway, and stuck a sign up indicating the name of, and number of miles to, his hometown down south, his initial signpost has burgeoned into a veritable 'forest' of signs in the years since then - becoming the primary tourist attraction of this otherwise modest little town. We were quick to whip our 'wine women and philosophy' plate off of the front of Ruby and tack it up there with all the other signs. We then got the lowdown on the Watson Lake-to-Whitehorse stretch of the Alaska Highway from Button at the Tourist Office, before cruising around town a bit in the hopes of getting in on some of the Watson Lake action. A woman was grazing her horse along main street. That was about it, so we struck out for the Yukon government campground just west of town.

At $12 a night, unlimited bonfire wood included, our huge and fabulous lakeside site seemed like a deal and a half - helping to balance out those steep A.H. gas prices. At a bar a few kilometers further west, Rona got to know the locals over Yukon Gold and a couple of games of pool. Back at the campground, the lake was JUST warm enough to go for an evening swim.

The next day we traveled on to Teslin, midway between Watson Lake and Whitehorse. At the Tlingit Heritage Centre we learned about the mask-making tradition of this First Nations people, ate freshly baked bannock and chunks of smoked salmon, and talked travel with Pauline. At the Yukon Motel and RV Park we set up camp for the night beside the lake, headed up to the diner-cum-gas bar for caribou sausage and perogies, and watched people come and go in this surprisingly busy hub along the highway.

Then we were back on the road heading for Whitehorse. A trumpeter swan sanctuary, reached by a seemingly endless gravel side road, turned up nothing by way of an actual swan...Though two strange old birds were spotted lurking about. More of the strange lay ahead at the turnoff onto the Canol Road - yet another US army project dating back to 1942, and which left in its wake a stream of abandoned vehicles which still sit rusting away on the roadside.

Yukon's highlights are strange, yes, but therein lies their fascination. For a territory that bills itself as "larger than life," they are also remarkably discreet about their historic and panoramic wonders, making little of them by way of advertising. We were fast learning that if you see a tiny little sign on the side of the highway with a camera or a pair of binoculars on it, it is definitely worth skidding into the equally tiny parking spot 2 kms after said sign to take a look.