“You. In a motor home. I just can’t see it,” exclaimed the sleek PR executive eyeing me speculatively over the rim of her martini glass in a chic West Hollywood rooftop bar. I was answering her question about the most memorable part of a recent trip to Canada and the words “traveling through the Yukon in an RV” just tumbled out taking me quite by surprise.
Yet here we are, sitting in close proximity for the next five days in ‘Bigfoot’, our Canadream motor home, provisioned up and ready to tackle one of the world’s great road trips. Setting out from Whitehorse, a small town that hugs the banks of the mighty Yukon River, we’re heading north on the Klondike Highway and before long, pull off at Five Fingers Rapids, a giant aquatic hand that spans the Yukon and a danger spot for overloaded supply boats during the Klondike gold stampede of 1898. Water roars and churns racing through at 30 kms an hour as cute Arctic brown squirrels scamper through the tundra and slender white Aspen trees.
Part of Canada’s vast North West Territories that stretch to the Arctic Circle, the Yukon’s visual drama quickly unfolds at every turn. Veering away from Tombstone and remote Inuvik which run east on the Dempster Highway we loop around to Dawson City sited at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers to pan for some glittering gold rush history.
Strolling the boardwalks and dusty streets of this immaculately restored late 19th century town with its candy-coloured clapboard buildings, we feel like extras in a Western movie expecting drunken brawlers to crash through the saloon’s swing doors and ‘baddies’ to ride into town. Once known as the Paris of the North, the gold rush’s wealth and isolation created a huge demand for luxuries amongst the 30,000 who stampeded into town to escape a world gripped by economic depression. Nowadays, tourism is up and the dance halls, theatres, saloons and restaurants are doing a brisk trade.
We head to Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s oldest casino, to check out the follies show. A $10 entry fee (valid for a year) provides access to Black Jack, roulette, slots and show. At 10.30, red velvet drapes part and the Gold Rush Girls run on stage for a high-kicking can-can followed by a buxom chanteuse encased in red and gold satin who delivers a rendition of ‘Everything’s coming up Roses’. Next up, Arizona Charlie Meadows, resplendent in buckskin and a six gallon hat, gives Billy Joel’s ‘Billy the Kid’ a workout as he oils his way around the tables.
Next morning, a free ferry ride takes us across the Yukon to Alaska and the aptly named Top of the World Highway. As the quicksilver river slithers far below, cotton wool clouds in a baby blue sky appear almost within our grasp. Voluptuous rolling hills plunge vertiginously into deep chasms either side of a rutted gravel road as we thread along mountain spines clad in autumnal wild flowers of russet, olive, purple and blue. Illuminated by fingers of sunlight then darkened by cloudy shadows, regiments of fir trees stand at attention.
It’s a landscape pumped on natural steroids.
What began as a pack trail out of Dawson City to Poker Creek, we drive to the Alaskan border where US Customs and Border Protection fingerprint and photograph us. Welcome to the USA. Refuelling in Chicken, Alaska, quad bikes are adorned with moose antlers and a posse of camo-clad good ol’ boys, rifles at the ready, speed past in utes looking for fair game. Suddenly, Sarah Palin posing with guns, moose shootin’ and boot scootin’ makes perfect sense. Back at the Canadian border, the customs dude sporting diamond studs in his ears wants to know if we’re leaving anything in Canada. “I could be” mutters Robert through gritted teeth. Obviously, the stress of four days in close proximity is starting to show!
Between the soft brown folds of the Kluane Ranges we glimpse the showy peaks of the Icefield Range, part of the mammoth St Elias Mountains. The Alaska-Yukon border follows the 141st meridian longitude from the Arctic coast, a non-polar icefield that’s the world’s largest protected area extending over most of Kluane National Park. Breathtaking views fill our windscreen of mountains tumbling and rolling into tributaries and streams where wide river plains have sliced deep valleys to unlock Kluane’s ice-bound heart. Pulling in to Pickhandle Lake, a great shimmering waterway with a patent leather veneer, a group of guys are fly fishing for grayling. Back in the day, this is where First Nation people netted Arctic grayling and northern pike, hunted moose and caribou. Beaver and muskrat were trapped for food and trade but to survive, they had to travel through this cold aquatic canvas of icy blue water and silvery peaks.
We must too and just two hours from Whitehorse, Haines Junction presents our last chance to explore the Yukon before handing back the RV. While trekking the Oriel Trail looks tempting, my fingers claw into the dashboard. Robert has just read excerpts from the booklet ‘How you can stay safe in bear country’ and there’s no way I’m going on a hike. But I do. And it’s noisy as the first rule is ‘let the bear know you’re there’. You’d better believe it buddy! For people who enjoy listening to nature, we’ve never talked so much. Warning signs that ‘this is bear country’ don’t exactly ease concerns and I panic when realizing that we’d had porridge for breakfast. Personally, I don’t believe that pepper spray is effective protection against a hungry bear who’s more likely to consider it a condiment.
Driving the loop, we’ve covered almost 1,500km in five days and awakening in this dramatic wild world each morning before the freedom to roam at will, the Yukon seems to temper nature’s enormity with calm serenity. Just don’t forget ‘there’s a bear out there’…..
MacBride Museum of Yukon in Whitehorse.
Take the Whitehorse waterfront trolley and ride the 50-minute loop or hop on, hop off at will.
Pelly Crossing where the Selkirk First Nation have a lovely museum showcasing exquisite beadwork and tanned moose skins.
First Nations museum, Dawson City traces aboriginal history and its cultural revitalization today.
Tour the SS Keno, one of the sternwheelers that plied the Yukon river.
Eat at Le Table at the Eurora Hotel on 5th Avenue, Dawson City. Excellent food and Okanagen wines.
Dawson City’s season closes at the end of September.