Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: We broke camp after breakfast and headed out of Fort Nelson. This day's scenery was breathtaking. The road headed generally west out of Fort Nelson through the Rockies, then turned north/north west across the plain. Stone Mountain Provincial Park contains wild rivers, craggy peaks, and long endless valleys. We were struck with how few people were on the road. The best place to get a picture of the river is from the middle of the bridge! So - STOP! Get out - lean over the rail and shoot. No worry about traffic - we didn't see any cars for a long long time! The rivers are glacial---which means they are a very unusual color! They also have colorful names - Raspberry Creek, the Toad River, the Trout River - to name a few. There were animals up here. We saw a coyote (or something that looked like a coyote), two caribou, stone sheep and a bear. There are two provincial parks on the route today - Stone Mountain and Muncho Lake. The Muncho Lake Provincial Park is named for its most prominent physical feature (you guessed it - Muncho Lake!). This section of the highway required "considerable rock excavation" by the Army in 1942. The road hugs the cliffs - indeed has been blasted from the cliffs - about a foot above the water line (or so it seems). The lake is 7 miles long, a mile wide, and over 700 feet deep. This place was just too beautiful to fly by - so we had a tail-gate picnic at Strawberry Flat Campground - which today is a bleak little place, sitting in a wide spot on the road (an alluvial fan of some kind). The weather was still overcast and cool. Even without blue sky, Muncho Lake was a deep blue, attributed to copper oxide leaching into the lake. MILEPOST says "watch for bears" - so we watched, but to no avail. We began experiencing a prevailing feeling that we wished we could stay longer here. We had this feeling almost everywhere we went from this point forward - but we did have a specified "end" to this trip, and we wanted to see a lot more before we went home! Onward! After Muncho Lake, the landscape drops down out of the mountains into the Liard River basin. The Liard River follows the highway from here to Watson Lake. We noted a short side-road to Smith River Falls - not recommended for RV's - that's for us! We hiked the short trail through surprisingly tropical foliage - ferns and flowers - to the falls. It was worth the walk! We knew we were in bear country, though - you can't help but wonder with absolutely no one around if there is going to be a bear around the next bend! We took my Romanian cow bell on the trip for just such an eventuality - I carried it down the path - raising hell in the forest - not wanting to sneak up on any bears! By this time, it was late afternoon. We got back on the road and headed for the Yukon Territory. The road crosses back and forth between YT and BC seven times in about 40 miles. I couldn't stand it, and made Dick stop to take my picture next to the "Welcome to the Yukon" sign. I couldn't believe I was actually in the Yukon! At about 6:30 p.m. we pulled into Watson Lake - home of the sign post forest. This was a LONG driving day! The decision was almost instantaneous and definitely unanimous - that Watson Lake Hotel looked pretty inviting! We checked in to a nice, if ordinary, room in The Historic Watson Lake Hotel. Hunger. Restaurant. YES! While we were eating and listening to the same three Credence Clearwater Revival tunes playing over and over, we noticed a World War II-era tent pitched in the parking lot with a sign advertising a 1940s Canteen Show. Since we both love 40s music we hurried up with dinner and got in to the show (a little late). It was very entertaining - a live production slanted to the building of the Alcan during the war. After the show, we walked around the perimeter of the sign-post forest and looked at the displays of old WW-II military aircraft, checked out the little tourist boutiques, and the sign-post forest itself. Watson Lake was one of the stops on the lend-lease air route to Russia. Indeed, servicing these military posts was one of the major reasons the Alaska Highway was built in the first place. Legend has it that in 1942 during the construction of the highway a lonely soldier working on the highway planted a sign at Watson Lake, pointing to his home in Danville, IL. People have been adding their own signs ever since. There are over 20,000 signs in the forest. The city of Watson Lake encourages this by adding posts to which folks can add signs of their own. We wished we had brought a sign with us to add our mark! The sun was setting - it was about 10:30 p.m. - we had a great time wandering around checking everything out and marveling at the very late sunset.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: Early out of bed today - we wanted to get gone! Stopped for gas at the "Signpost Services" Chevron station & market. Some local entrepreneur had devised a do-it-yourself sign kit containing a pre-drilled board (routed edges), a "Sharpie" permanent marker, and a couple of galvanized nails. This very nicely accommodated our desires to have a sign in the forest! We purchased a kit, made up our sign, and added it to the sign post forest:
Dick & Lynette Tibbetts
August 8, 1993
Leaving Watson Lake we continued along the Alaska Highway. At the risk of repeating myself - this is really gorgeous and remote country! We passed the intersection with the Stewart Cassiar Highway (we'll get back to that in a couple of weeks!) followed along the Rancheria River, crossed the continental divide (again!), and dropped down in to the Swift River valley. There we found the Swift River Lodge and decided to stop for breakfast. The restaurant interior was painted a pale mint green, and had a very bad list toward the creek. The booth seats and table were sloping seriously down hill. We wedged ourselves in so we wouldn't end up against the outside wall, and ate with our elbows on the table, and hoped it wouldn't slide into the creek while we were eating our bacon & eggs! I can not imagine that this building is still standing - after a couple more winters of what has to be very heavy snow. Back on the road - adjectives escape me - this country is so beautiful, desolate, rugged, remote, lush, (OK, so the adjectives could go on escaping me for several more pages!) - You just have to have been there! On to Teslin - the next burg on the trail - This town is at the confluence of the Nisutlin River and Teslin Lake and is a predominately Native town. The lake is enormous - but in this part of the world, it is just another in a series. Pressing on toward Whitehorse! We stopped at a campground on the eastern outskirts of town called the Pioneer RV Park. We are finding that these RV parks have really nice tent areas separate from the RVs with their generators. The tent sites in the Pioneer are completely out of sight of the RVs. Just a lovely campsite in the trees in the wilderness. We pitched our tent, set up our camp, and left to check out town. Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon Territory and is located on the Yukon River. This was our first real encounter with the Yukon River - we will see it many more times on the trip (in Dawson City, Eagle and on the Dalton Highway). The Yukon River starts in the coastal mountains south of Whitehorse, flows generally north until it reaches the Alaska border, then bisects the state of Alaska, flowing generally east to west into the Bering Sea. It is a mighty river that carries an enormous silt load through Alaska. However, here in Whitehorse, it is nearly clean and clear because of a hydroelectric generating dam just outside of town. We made our way to the riverside in a national historic area where the government has restored the SS Klondike. It is one of the grand old stern-wheelers that carried cargo and passengers between Whitehorse and Dawson City back in the days when there was no road between these two cities. It has been beautifully restored and Parks Canada conducts free tours. Next stop was the fish ladders at the dam - they have turned this functional fish ladder into a great tourist display with underwater windows into the ladder itself, and great gang-way platforms out over the ladders. It was fascinating to watch the enormous king salmon make their way up river through the fish ladders. On to the transportation museum which boasts the worlds largest weather vane - which is really a Douglas DC-3 mounted on a rotating pedestal pointing its nose into the wind. The museum itself was about to close (alas) - the young ladies who were running the place let us go on a 15 minute tour through old planes, boats, railroad rolling stock, vehicles, dog sleds, stagecoaches, and the sister ship of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Queen of the Yukon. Back to camp to contemplate yet another long, full, interesting day!!!
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: Today we learned to really despise the Holiday Ramblers. This is apparently a nation-wide travel group of people who own Holiday Rambler brand RVs. ICK. They travel in packs - clog up the highways - clog up the restaurants - clog up the gas stations - clog up the air waves (CB) - a general nuisance! I'm sure that by themselves they are upstanding fine citizens, but the gang mentality overtakes them when they get behind the wheels of their RVs. We discovered they had been staying in the very same RV park we had chosen, and that they were headed for Dawson. Just outside of Whitehorse, Yukon Route 2 heads north past Lake Laberge (the ghost of Robert Service is still lurking around here somewhere). This stretch of road is known as the Klondike Loop. We drove past Fox Lake - a real regret - this is a place we could have spent a week camping and just looking - but we don't have an unlimited amount of time (sigh......) MILEPOST says not to miss the Braeburn Lodge Cinnamon Buns, so we decided that sounded like a great place for breakfast. As we were heading out we decided to monitor the CB and see if we could stay one jump ahead of the Holiday Ramblers (HRs) - horror of all horrors - they were planning on stopping for cinnamon buns! The CB crackles: "Mildred? Did you read this here thing in MILEPOST about the cinnamon buns?" (oh god - how bad do we want these?) We decided that if they had already arrived we would just drive past. BUT! They HADN'T! We beat em to breakfast - but they started arriving as we were being served. We hurried up and got out of there before the invasion arrived in full force, taking our cinnamon buns with us! We stopped at an overlook to see the "Five Finger Rapids" a spot on the Yukon River that gave the stern wheelers particular trouble in the old days. The river splits into five separate channels created by rock pillars in the middle of the river. Still feeling those HR's hot breath on the back of our necks, we jumped back in the Jeep and drove until we reached Stewart Crossing where the "Silver Trail" heads north east to Mayo & Keno. We wished we could go up all these little roads and check out whatever might be at the other end! All through the trip we had been debating whether to take the Dempster Highway north from here and cross the Arctic Circle in the Yukon Territory at Eagle Plains, or whether we should wait and go up the Dalton Highway in Alaska. We were determined to get to the Arctic Circle! At last, at the very junction, we decide to wait and "do it" in Alaska. We stopped and stretched our legs at the first sighting of the Klondike River - which we followed into Dawson City where it flows into the Yukon River. The Klondike River is a beautiful, rushing, clear, shallow river. More and more houses appeared along the road as we approached Dawson. The road comes in to Dawson City from the east. It looks like some of the real serious mining took place in this region - there are enormous heaped up piles of mine tailings all through this region. This land must be cheap because all the private campgrounds are just leveled off areas of mine tailings - not particularly scenic! Disappointment gripped us as we drove through these desolate, horrible little RV parks. The town itself looks like a movie set. The houses and buildings are classic western architecture - tall wooden facades, brightly painted exteriors, wooden sidewalks and dirt streets. The town is appealing and looked like a fun place, if we could find a decent campground! We found another RV park right down town, and (god help us) the Holiday Ramblers were starting to converge on that! YIKES! Whip out the MILEPOST - a little further research indicated a government campground on the other side of the river! The only way over the river is by ferry. We drove down to the ferry landing and waited for the next crossing. The Yukon River here is wide and flows at a pretty good clip. Across the river we found a beautiful, wooded campground right on the banks of the river. We found a lovely site and pitched our tent - being very very glad we hadn't settled for a campsite on a slag heap on the east side of town! That cool old town was calling our names - we love old western towns (Jerome, Arizona - Virginia City, Nevada, etc.) and couldn't wait to get back to Dawson! Over the river by ferry again to begin exploring. We poked in and out of all the little shops, and had dinner at Klondike Kate's - a Bohemian little place that served beer and sandwiches. After dinner we decided to hit Diamond Tooth Gertie's Gambling Hall - the only place in Canada where gambling is legal. This establishment is run by the Klondike Visitors Association (a non-profit community organization) - and they do a bang up job. The employees are all dressed in 1890's period costumes and the place is well decorated in period motif. The cover charge admits you for the floor show, which is a great extravaganza of cancan dancers, singing, and a little history of the Gold Rush era of the Klondike. After the show and a couple of beers, Dick hit one of the slot machines for $120 - being the conservatives that we are, we decided to go spend it in town, rather than plow it back into the slots! We found a cool little tourist trap called "Flora Dora" and spent all the money on a coon-skin hat for Dick, a pair of lace-up knee-high moccasin style boots for me, some books and post cards. We're shameless souvenir hunters, and this was a great spot for us! We found another cool bar in an old hotel and had another beer, then found another cool bar and had another beer - party! At about 10:30 p.m. I took a picture of our shadows on the ground as the sun was lowering in the western sky. We went back across the river on a late ferry (still very light twilight!) and called it a day. Somewhere about 3 a.m. we awoke and poked our heads out of the tent to discover that dawn was breaking.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: We left the campground at about 8:30 this morning and drove up up up from the elevation of the river onto the Top of the World. We saw our last pavement for a few days yesterday before we got to Dawson. The Top of the World Highway, which is very aptly named, runs from Dawson City to Jack Wade Junction - where it intersects with the Taylor Highway. It is fairly well graded dirt / gravel / road-base. If we thought some of the other places we had been were isolated and remote - this wins the prize, hands-down, for the most remote place we went. Many places along the Top of the World we stopped and looked north and east to the Ogilvie Mountains and marveled at how the landscape is absolutely unchanged from 5000 years ago. .... miles and miles of miles and miles ... ! At about 10:30 we arrived at the Canadian / US Border Crossing. It was COLD (about 41 degrees Fahrenheit). Neither customs agent seemed anxious to stand out in the cold and quiz us about our intentions! It was the quickest border crossing of the whole trip! We had an excellent lesson in the shortcomings of MILEPOST - the advertisement for Boundary Alaska was enticing - there is supposed to be a bar, restaurant, gas station, camp ground, hotel, etc.--- and as we drove toward the spot we were thinking how nice it would be to have breakfast at this nice rustic little resort on the Top of the World. Well... they did have gas (thank goodness), and coffee, but the only food in sight was some packaged peanuts that had probably been hanging on the rack longer than I care to think. I bought a tee shirt because I couldn't help myself, but there was no sign of the bar or restaurant, and the "hotel" had been condemned. From this point forward, we learned to take the entries in MILEPOST with a grain or two of salt! One still could not discount the absolutely magnificent scenery! At Jack Wade Junction, we turned north on the Taylor Highway and headed for Eagle. Everything we had read indicated that this is a very historic town on the very edge of Alaska. The road gets worse - narrower and more winding - we were surprised to see air planes parked along side of the road here and there. The road is used as an air strip, and the air planes have the right-of-way! The scenery continues to get more rugged as we proceed. From Jack Wade Junction to Eagle is about 60 miles. We found out too late that we were driving much too fast. About 12 miles outside of Eagle the right rear tire ceased to exist. And to add to the festive atmosphere, it started to rain. We hadn't seen another vehicle for hours. With panic rising, we dug down to the level of the spare tire and proceeded to attempt the tire change. While in the throes of this endeavor, two different vehicles approached, stopped, and asked if we needed help. The etiquette of the road is to stop and assist - there is no "law" - the cellular phone had said "no service" for about 10 days - the closest AAA is probably in Anchorage (several hundred miles from here) - we're in the boon docks! By this time, Dick had discovered that the jack was not going to sink into the mud, the spare contains air, and we're not going to die. We thanked our would-be benefactors and waved them on. We drove much slower into Eagle. It is a wonderful little town! It has a population of about 150 people. The end of the road is the Yukon River (again!). We had lunch at the Eagle Trading Post, and inquired about the possibility of procuring a new tire. The selection wasn't great, but they had a very used tire that would hold air and fit on our rim. This suited us - Dick was not happy about the prospect of having to drive the 160 miles from Eagle to Tok on the same road that ate the first tire with no spare! Much relaxed, we attempted to buy a beer. No beer. Eagle is a dry town. They have found that it is easier to keep the peace without alcohol in the equation. Hmmm ... well, we can live for a few days with no beer! We asked directions to the Bureau of Land Management campground on the outskirts of town. It is a primitive, free, lovely campground in the woods at the edge of Fort Egbert - an Army post from the early days. Our intention was to stay here a couple of days - the first time we had stayed two nights in the same place since leaving home. After we settled in, we drove around the area a little. Stopped in at a "shop" way out on one of the local roads - the sign out front said "Yukon Ron's" - not knowing what to expect, we drove up the drive. I suspect this is Ron's home where he and Mrs. Ron are probably subsistence residents who supplement their income by having a show room for tourists. As it turns out, Ron is a jeweler and craftsperson. I bought a little ring - silver with a gold nugget - and a book called Eagle Tales (volume 1) by Cassalona Rhea Richter. The book (really a booklet) is a collection of Short Stories, Published Articles, Essays, Odes & Poems (see recommended reading at the beginning of this volume). I was intrigued by the idea of reading something by a local author, and proceeded back to the camp site and read the book through from cover to cover.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: We awoke early to scuffling sounds outside the tent. It didn't sound like anything real big, so we just blew it off. Later when we awoke again and found the courage to get out of the warmth of our sleeping bags and tent, we discovered that one of our towels, which had been left hanging to dry, had been chewed off in several places near the ground. Hopefully the holes in our towel provided some warm nesting material for some little critter! We had breakfast and drove down to the community well house where the walking tour starts. There is a good well with wonderful water that is operated by the town - most of the available water is not potable. Over half of the Eagle residents haul their drinking water from this central point, either by truck (in summer) or dog sled (in winter). They have running water in their homes primarily as a convenience for flushing toilets, to be boiled for doing dishes, etc. The tour guide du jour was a BLM employee named Steve who we had seen the previous evening driving through our camp ground checking to be sure all was well. We had an insightful visit with him - he and his family live in Eagle year-around, even though the road is not maintained in winter (closed roughly October through May). As soon as they can drive out in the spring, they drive to Anchorage and go to Costco (about 450 miles) and stock up on everything they think they'll need until they go again late in their fall (October) when they make another trip to Costco to stock up for the winter. I tried to relate this to my own experience. I live 50 miles from Costco and only go every other month or so - generously supplementing our expendable rations by trips to the local grocery stores in between Costco trips. Even then, my Jeep is very full coming back from Costco. The Eagle residents view the local "grocery store" as an extravagance, and according to Steve, rarely shop there. That means that they shop only twice a year for absolutely everything they use. Dick enjoyed pointing out that there isn't a truck big enough to haul everything I would need to buy if I only shopped twice a year! There are two things I find particularly intriguing about this concept - the people only leave town twice a year, and the discipline it must take to live this subsistence existence. I am in awe of these individuals! The walking tour of Eagle started at the well, then proceeded to the Wickersham Courthouse, the waterfront customs house, the mule barn, water wagon shed and NCO quarters at Fort Egbert, and past the local library, town hall, community church. Early in the tour, I mentioned to the guide that I had read "Eagle Tales" the previous evening. He said "Oh, I think Cassie is down painting at the Customs House - maybe you can meet her!" Cassie was indeed at the Customs House painting - and was thrilled that I had enjoyed her book. She autographed my copy, and we visited for several minutes. She is quite an amazing woman. She has worked a trap line, worked as a cook for the National Geographic Society when they were doing documentary video of the arctic, and many other fascinating things. At the present time, she is trying to raise funds to create a shelter for battered women in rural Alaska. Eagle is said to be a "total history lesson" - with more square feet of museum space than anywhere else in the state. The walking tour took more than two hours! Eagle is so strategically located near the Canadian border, right on the Yukon River that it has quite a past! It has quite a present, as well. The town doesn't exist for tourists, although it is a put in / pull out spot for Yukon River float trips; is the headquarters for the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve; and is a transition point for Gray Line Tours' combination river boat / motor coach (bus) tours from Dawson City. We visited the headquarters office for Yukon-Charley Rivers NP, and visited with the ranger. She showed us a video of the "break up" - when the ice goes out on the Yukon River. This happens in May every year. Not having ever lived where the rivers freeze, we were fascinated by the concept that the river really turns into a solid mass that can be driven on/over - for several months out of the year. It freezes up in October - break up is in May. It does not just start getting slushy and sort of melt - break-up is a violent experience! In 1992 (the previous spring) when the video was shot, breakup was so wild it ate 15 feet of the river bank away and nearly took the headquarters building with it! The ice goes out all at once. The pieces of ice are as big as trucks and just float out to sea, taking everything in their path along with them. It is no small wonder that there is only one bridge over the Yukon in all of Alaska! Breakup eats bridges! After a burger at the Eagle Trading Company, we did a little laundry, then drove out to the Indian Village which is about 3 miles up river from the town of Eagle. It is called Eagle Village. There, we observed first hand salmon drying in the sun, a fish wheel in action - not stuff set up as tourist attractions - actual working, functioning devices. There are two air strips in Eagle. One at Fort Egbert, which is grass with many small planes parked in the trees along the edge, and other gravel strip between Eagle and Eagle village. We stopped at the latter to watch little tiny planes take off and land (we're transportation junkies!), then went to another "market", bought gas for the Jeep, then went back to the camp site. The days are so long that even under the cloudy conditions, it is hard to get interested in going to bed at the proper time!
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: We broke camp fairly early, then stopped at the Eagle
well and filled up all our water containers with the delicious water. We stopped
frequently to take pictures of the road signs, the foliage, the town, sort of hating to
leave - wishing we could just stay here forever. However, a quick check of the mean
monthly temperature in January (-13F) was enough to quell this nostalgic leaning! We
proceeded much more slowly this time down the Taylor Highway, having been told by the guy
who sold us the replacement tire that the faster you drive on these dirt roads, the
warmer/hotter your tires get, and that the rocks slice through hot tires like butter! A
word to the wise.... We have 161 miles to go before connecting again with the Alaska
Highway (Alcan). Between Eagle and the Alcan lies the town of Chicken. Chicken is the
local name for ptarmigan - a local bird. Legend has it that the founders of the original
town wanted to call it Ptarmigan but didn't know how to spell it so they settled for
calling it Chicken. This is also the place where the book TISHA takes place (see
Recommended Reading). This "town" consists of about 3 buildings - connected to
each other, or should I say leaning into each other (!). There is a gift shop, a
restaurant and a bar - all the necessities of life! We were browsing in the gift shop when
the power went out - there was a real ruckus because a tour bus was pulling up out front -
"Damn it, Harry, get that generator fired back up - there's a tour bus outside!"
Unfortunately for us, the tour bus full of people filled up the restaurant while we were
wrapping up our souvenir purchases, and we didn't feel like waiting it out (or following a
tour bus all the way to Tok) - so we settled for dried fruit and a head start! The Taylor
Highway is rough and winding and tricky. The local economy is wrapped up in gold
prospecting. The MILEPOST warns the casual tourist (us) not to stop the car near a stream,
or even look like you might be remotely looking in the direction of the water. These
residents are very serious about their claims. They shoot first and ask questions later.
Again, we blessed our luck at having purchased the book - how else would you know this???
You can not even see any residences from the road, but after reading this warning, one has
a tendency to see the Hatfields and McCoys peering out from behind every rock & tree!
Winding through this gorgeous country was still a treat, even if we were confined to our
car! The recent rains kept the dust down, but also created some slippery / muddy / scary
driving conditions. At around 2 p.m. we hit the Alcan and drove into the town of Tok. This
is a major hub because of its proximity to the Taylor Highway, the Tok cut-off to the
Glenn Highway (connector to the Richardson and to Anchorage). The name TOK rhymes with
Coke or poke. The population is just under 1000 and the businesses are very definitely
oriented to the location - several large RV parks, service stations, restaurants,
convenience stores, tourist traps, a visitor's center and museum complex, etc. We gassed
up, bought some beer, and checked into the Golden Bear RV Park. Even though we had made it
back down the Taylor from Eagle without incident, Dick was still very uneasy about not
having a reliable spare tire. In fact, he was uneasy about encountering a similar
circumstance of a flat creating a "no spare" situation - this is very real when
one is well over 100 miles from the nearest services! We found a tire place in Tok (see
what I mean about tourist-oriented businesses?). The proprietor agreed to drive in to
Fairbanks the following day and purchase the same brand of tire we had blown, a new rim
and another tire so we would have two spares. This means we lose a day in Tok, but because
our plans call for several hundred more miles on dirt roads, it seemed prudent to wait it
out. This was not an altogether unpleasant experience, either. Tok is surrounded by
forests, and the RV park we chose had lovely tent sites along the perimeter of the
campground backed up against the trees.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: Well, this was sort of an unplanned stop, so we decided to look around and see what Tok has to offer. We visited the visitor center, prowled through the tourist traps, and did a lot of nothing - we didn't mind just kicking back and taking it easy for a while... we've been making forward progress almost daily for two weeks. Other accomplishments included picking up the new tire & new additional spare, repacking the car around the second spare, and generally getting excited about getting back on the ROAD! We needed showers! We had taken showers in Eagle the day we arrived at the public showers behind the trading post, but the BLM campground had only vault toilets and no further facilities. Fortunately the Golden Bear had showers and we were able to start the next leg of the trip as clean people. We made a weak attempt at a campfire, but everything was either too green or too wet to burn. We packed the car at night (everything except the tent) so we could make an early get-away.
On To Week 3 Travelogue
If you'd like to see other travelogues from Jim and his friends...