The gang goes North: Part 3.2 – detour from the AlCan, Klondike edition.

June 30-July 2

“…we were planning on heading south on the Alcan  from Whitehorse. Is the northern way to Dawson worth it?”

“Oh man, it’s a beautiful drive. Lots of construction, sure, but the tundra parts of the drive are incredible, and so is the Top of the World Highway.”

It felt like we’d had a similar conversation with more than a couple folks along the route through BC and the Yukon in prior days. So we pivoted from our plans.

Leaving Whitehorse, YT, the Alaska Highway heads southwest, then northwest to Delta Junction, AK. The Klondike Highway moves northwest to Dawson City, and the Top of the World Highway swings you back down to meet up with the Alaska Highway prior to Tok, AK. That’ still a couple hours east of Delta Junction. A choose your own adventure scenario.

We’d be hitting the skipped-over portion of the AlCan on our way back to catch the ferry in August. Knocking down both seemed appropriate.

Waking up at Twin Lakes CG in the Yukon, the skeeters were lying in wait. We could see them impatiently waiting on the screens of our roof tent windows. We did the “get off me!” dance as we changed clothes and packed up in the morning, deciding to skip breakfast until we could find a pullout en route that offered a bit of relief from the bugs. 

A perk of living out of your car: you have everything you need, at all times, to do anything. Breakfast at a rest stop above the Five Finger Rapids of the Yukon River? Sure thing. Just bust out the stove, fuel and fixin’s.

We planned to make Dawson City that day. We’d cut down the drive a bit, as our prior night’s search for a campsite took us an extra 90 minutes down the highway in the correct direction. 4.5 hours of alternating chip-seal, pavement, dirt, gravel, and construction got us to Dawson. Jamie was at the helm for a portion, managing the heaves and rolls of the road, as I rode shotgun and blogged. Charley slept.

Because the highway absorbs heat, the underlying permafrost is more susceptible to freeze/thaw. The result is the “heaves” and “rolls” I mentioned- unpredictable growths and depressions in the road, going in both directions. “Man, I am so glad we aren’t pulling anything behind us.” We repeated that statement over and over again.

Passing earth-moving monsters, with tires taller than our 4runner, we followed pilot cars for 10-20km stretches at a time. I’ve never seen such mechanical beasts.

As we approached Dawson City from the east, a haze consumed us. “Do you think that’s wildfire smoke?” Jamie questioned.

“No way, I’m thinking it’s just tons of dust from this construction.”

Surely, the dust was bad. But as we drew nearer, there could be no doubt- we’d entered a dense cloud of smoke from wildfires further west in Alaska.

It’d hang out for most of our time in Dawson City, but we got out and made the most of our time.

Laying claim to a spot at the Klondike River CG, we set up camp, but made an impromptu decision to head north on the Dempster. If you remember from our previous post, the Dempster heads north to the Arctic Ocean from just outside Dawson City. No, we weren’t planning to drive the 880km to the end of the highway and the Arctic. Just up to Tombstone Territorial Park, about 50 miles or so.

Clouds joined the haze, making it difficult to discern darkness from smoke or storm clouds. A bolt of lightning answered our question as we were about to descend into the valley that held the park. “Not sure I want to get caught here in a downpour, on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.” We turned around. Discretion is the better part of valor, they say.

Instead, a trip into Dawson City satisfied us. We walked around the frontier town, “the Paris of the North” as it was once dubbed during the Klondike Gold Rush. But boy, it was hot. 82F, and hazy. We ducked out and headed for shade and the coolness of the forest and our campground, and turned in early.

July 1st. Canada Independence Day. It’d be the second time we’d be present in Canada for Canada Day, just by coincidence. Dawson City had a full day of events and activities to celebrate. We opted for the mountains and solitude, trying our luck up the Dempster again. Save for the haze, it was a beautiful day when we arrived at Tombstone Territorial Park.  Storms bared their teeth a couple times in different areas of the park, but none materialized where we were situated.

The Goldensides trail took us a mile or two up into the tundra and hills of the park. Very few people were out. The tundra afforded us unobstructed (save for smoke) views of the surrounding mountains and green-laden hillsides. It’d be the farthest point North we’d get on our entire trip, and ever in our lifetimes.

The thought of taking our shot at the Arctic Ocean crossed my mind a few times. It’d likely be 12 hours of rough, unpaved, rugged driving each way. Just not worth it, to us.

We retraced the route back to Dawson City for dinner and drinks that evening. But first we wanted to walk our dog around the old town.

“Charley? Is that you?”

We turned around and saw a couple sitting on a sidewalk bench. It was Mark and Elizabeth, our neighbors from the Caribou Campground in Whitehorse, several hundred miles away. Mark was the nice fellow that lent me his axe.

We caught up for 10 minutes about who is heading where, and how the drive has been. We wished them a happy Canada Day, and Elizabeth insisted on taking our photo for us. So we three lined up in front of the Keno, an old riverboat used for ferrying passengers and transporting precious metals between trade hubs back in the day.

Our bellies moaned. We obliged and went for dinner at the Downtown Hotel. With a swinging saloon door, peeling red wallpaper, single pane frail windows, and dark wood furniture, it looked the part of a frontier muster-point for all kinds of characters. 

A gentleman sat at the chair next to us at the bar, and we exchanged pleasantries. Eventually, as these things seem to go, we found ourselves in conversation about our travels, where from and where to. Matt was from Prescott AZ, and he, his wife, and dog were road tripping the North for the summer. We could relate.

I had spotted his massive EarthRoamer rig out on the dusty streets in town, and gawked for a moment, before we’d even met him. The thing is a beast- a go-anywhere, do-anything civilian tank, essentially. We talked about it for a bit, and he let us in on his podcast, the Overland Journal Podcast. Matt and his wife have their own business and serve as the only supplier of MaxTrax (overland recovery traction boards) in the US. Pretty neat.

We caught the morning ferry out of Dawson City the next morning. There’s no bridge to cross the Yukon River, so a little, but mighty, ferry shuttles cars, trailers, bikers, pedestrians, you name it, across the river, 24/7. We waited in line, and drove onto the ferry via a literal dirt ramp. The whole thing was wild.

A few minutes later, we’d crossed to West Dawson, and started our climb up the Top of the World Highway. The route pulled us 2500 feet above the surrounding deep cuts in the mountains, and we rode earthen spines for 100 miles, with distant views our company the entire way. The drive is indescribable. Running into very few cars along the way, we held tight to the dirt road as we crested mountains and skirted escarpments and cliffsides.

The tundra up there felt special. Untouched, unwavering, stoic to the happenings of the world. The boundary to the earth. We listened to Jamestown Revival, and a lyric stuck with me. “Young man, why you moving so fast/ The days are long but they never last.” We tried to slow it down, take it in. Be present, and nowhere else.

Arriving at the mountaintop border crossing, we prepped our documents again. It’d be comforting to get back to America, even if we were getting farther from home.

“Agricultural products? Firearms?” Agent Cox was kind, efficient.

“Mind if we take a photo of the sign up here?”
“That’s where I live! But yea I don’t care, go ahead!”

I inquired when they’d have this border crossing open until, being the high tundra and all.

“September 5th is the plan,” she answered. I’d guess that’s weather dependent.

We pushed into Alaska, feeling like we’d finally made it. But the adventure started over 2 weeks ago, and it’s been everything we could’ve hoped for thus far.

Beginning the descent out of the clouds, we took dirt roads in the Alaska wildness, passing streams and fishermen abound. We made a stop in Chicken, Alaska, for photos and some blueberry pie. Jamie snapped pictures of the tourist-magnet gift shop and cafe shacks, and I dropped a few postcards in the mail at the post office.

We carried on, through Tok, where we met back up with the Alaska Highway. Then it was westward to Delta Junction, where we’d settle for the night at a campground in town. A long day of driving, no doubt, but full of awe and wonder, disbelief at our surroundings. 

Denali Highway in the morning, as we begin to sink our teeth into the Last Frontier.

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