Whitehorse in the rain
Unfortunately last days sunshine was no prediction to todays weather. We drop the RV off at Canadian Tire for a change of our front tires (just to be safe as we head northwest), and walk the riverside trail into town as the drizzle starts to take off. Thankfully there is a visitor center to stay dry in, where we get a lot of information about the road ahead, including a coloring and activity book for the boys and a range of small booklets about Yukon’s flora and fauna. At least we will have something to do if this weather continues!
Destination however is the SS Klondike, a steam boat that used to ply the stream of the Yukon river all the way to Dawson city up north. It sure had its limitations as the Yukon river freezes up in the winter, and the current on the river is very strong (one way is 1,5 days, but the return could take as much as 5 days!), but as the river defrosted it was by far the most efficient way to ship goods on this long distance. The ship is being restored, which unfortunately means that we can not go aboard the ship, but he Explorer activities we have to do to earn a tag can mostly be done outside of the ship anyway.
We of course tack on another picture with a red National Park chair, and play the games in the yard, after which we watch the movie that tells us about all the challenges the ships would face on the Yukon river and how those living in Dawson City would yearn for that first boat in spring to provide them with much needed supplies. After our visit we wander back through the streets of Whitehorse and avoid the weather hopping in and out of shops.
With the last shower a while ago and no change in weather we decide to spend a few hours in the swimming pool of Whitehorse, a beautiful facility in the ‘games center’ which basically houses the pool and a few ice rinks where THE national sport is being practiced; Ice hockey. The pool is not only a fun place, it also has a steam room and sauna, so we can really warm up, get clean and ready to go again. We decide on a small stretch of a drive still coming through Carcross and its ‘desert’, and park the RV above a beautiful lake right before the US border. The weather clears, and we wait for the sun to set…. which keeps being later and later as we continue north; something to get used to!
Back in the US – Skagway
While there was a plan for Sven to bike towards Skagway, both his back and the weather are not really cooperating, so we decide to simply drive the White Pass together into the US again. The landscape is really different again with more rocky and swampy outlooks rather then forests as far as the eyes can see. Of course there is a good share of lakes we pass by as well, and we dip in and out of a thick layer of fog as we go along. As this is not our first entry into the US – as opposed to those who started their journey over land in Canada – our border crossing is very easy and we are ready to roll down the 1000m descent into Skagway, Alaska, USA.
Before we go into town however, we make a side stop towards Dyea and the start of the Chilkoot trail, a reminder of the gold rush that happened here in the late 1800’s, and the town of Dyea that sprouted from it. What is left today are only a few ruins on the river beds, while at the boom its population was a solid 10,000 people (after the boom only 3 people remained, not enough to keep it all going). The reason for the town was the starting point of one way to cross the mountains into the Yukon to find that gold everybody was talking about; the Chilkoot pass.
Its most astounding feature being a steep climb across a stairway hacked into the snow and ice to make it over the very top. There are some magnificent stories and pictures of this journey and the hardship people fell upon, but also of the exhilarating adventure and the epic magnitude of it all. Having to haul a years worth of supply up – or the Canadian mounties would not let you cross the border at the top – those venturing here would have to climb up those stairs 30-40 times before they had everything up, provide it did not get stolen in the meantime… For some it took over a month to get this part of the journey done, and the whole of it would easily take 1-2 years, too late for any claims to still find gold up in Dawson city and surroundings.
As we experience a glimpse of the trail, we drive back towards the town of Skagway, another town that only came to exist because of the gold rush, but as opposed to Dyea made it into the modern age as the decision was taken to build a railroad across the pass starting from this point. Not the best pass to take – it was swampy and known as the ‘dead horse trail’ for the hundreds of horses that died there – it was the less steep one making it better suitable for a railroad. Today the railroad is a tourist attraction – and a very expensive one at that – and Skagway a small town overrun in the summer by huge cruise ships dropping their guests ashore. When we see the town from afar we see the same ship we saw in Vancouver a few weeks ago, the ‘Zuiderdam’ of the Holland America Line.
We park our RV outside of town and walk to take in all the sites the town has to offer. The closer we get to the docks the more cruisers we run into which is an interesting experience to say the least! Skagway is filled with renovated historical buildings, and the mix of musea and souvenir shops is enough to keep you occupied for the afternoon. We enjoy a ranger talk about the gold rush and see the same move we saw already in Seattle (the two sites are connected through NPS) and run into a lovely Dutch couple who are also on a trip of several months through north America. We swap experiences and tips and tricks which is always fun before we continue to discover the town.
As the boys snatch up a free train chainlink and we score the badges that come with the Klondike Gold Rush Junior Ranger program, we see the tourist train roll through town (because of Covid there are no border crossing allowed by train, nor as a hiker on the Chilkoot trail this season). All in all a nice afternoon spent, and as the rain seems to be rolling in we make our way back to the RV. The Dutch couple joins us there for some more sharing of stories – they have made some amazing trips around the globe already before venturing out on this one – and ideas before we call it a very short night.
Getting to Haines is quite simple; you buy and outrageously expensive ticket to get you across the bay in a one hour ferry as part of the Alaskan Marine Highway. If you want to make it slightly cheaper, you take the ferry at the god awful hour of 4:30AM, which is of course what we do. Thankfully we were able to already check in during the day and park the RV at the ferry dock before going to sleep. The boys sleep through the whole thing as mom gets the RV on and off the ferry and into a streetside parking lot along the Chilkat river. With a few more hours to sleep, we try to make the most of it, but it certainly has put a strain on the mood for the day. Add to that again a drizzly grey day and we are not off to a great start.
The fun starts early though as we are on a perfect spot to watch the fishermen standing in the river to try and catch some Sockeye Salmon which has started to make its way up the river to hatch. Now we would be lying if we said it is the fishermen we are after, we are of course waiting for grizzlies to come out and give us a live reenactment of the John West add :-). No grizzlies for us though – guess they dislike this weather just as much – so we drive towards Haines and find some wifi to get in touch with Dave and Mollie, friends of Jordan.
They kindly invite us to visit the Chilkoot Distillery Dave is working at, which proves to be a super fun tour with a thorough explanation of all the amazingly tasty goods they produce – we can recommend the cucumber cooler!! – after which we brave the weather and head out on a hike towards Battery Point. It is always so much fun to experience areas with the locals and we get to know them for a little bit as we get our pants wet and our legs stretched. It always feels like too little time, but we are really grateful for the time Dave and Mollie put in to give us a tour of their hometown! We have to get going though, as we want to cross the Canadian border again this evening over the famous Haines road.
And Canada again – Kluane NP
The road up is again breathtaking, and as we get through the border control (quite a thorough questioning this time, but also a very nice stamp added) drive further up to the summit to land in more barren highland-type vegetation. With that we see a moose cross the road right in front of us which we manage to follow a little bit up hill as the big trees have made way to bushes and moss on this side of the border. It is officially Kluane National Park, a park that is connected to the US’ Wrangell St Elias Park and Glacier Bay, making it the biggest stretch of land under conservation in the world. It is also a true wilderness, which means you can visit the sides, and hike in a bit, but the massive icefields on the interior can only be seen from the sky.
The fringes of it all however are already very scenic, and so we park the RV high up for the night, where we coincidentally run into the Dutch couple we met in Skagway again – small world. The next day we roll down towards Haines Junction, where Haines road hits the Alaskan Highway again, and visit its visitor center. Again we are pleasantly surprised by the mix of cultural, natural and historical information provided and the interactive displays for kids to get the information digested in an easy way. There is a scale where you can measure how many of certain animals you are (from hundreds of pika to only a 0,1 moose), and a dozen animal skulls and furs they can handle and match. It is a good addition to the Explorer work and fun for visitors of all ages!
We head out to the Spruce Beetle trail for a small loop, and then out to the other visitor center dedicated to the Dall sheep in the area. On our way there we hit some serious roadworks and thus gravel, which is a bit of a hassle, but the kind lady with the stop sign tells us we should be alright. We barely make it on time before the visitor center closes (why already at 4pm???), but it is enough to score the boys’ tag and get an explanation about the dust winds coming our way along the old glaciers. From there we hike the ‘Soldiers Summit’ trail, which is a short historical trail leading to the point where the Alaskan Highway got connected in 1942. We find a spot along the Kluane Lake for the night and the promise of high bear activity has us on the lookout all night but to no avail. With the sun hardly setting it is easy to forget your need to go to bed, so we call it quits before midnight and try to get the RV as dark as possible for a good night sleep.
The Alaskan Highway towards Fairbanks
To win some time in our itinerary and having checked the highlights along the route, we decide to take a long day of driving and cover 740 kilometers in one go. It is the drive from our lakeside camp all the way to Fairbanks in Alaska, taking the Alaskan Highway all the way. While we start off okayish, the road gets worse and worse as we go along. The predicted 90-100km/h speed is more like a 50km/h as we get thoroughly acquainted with a new concept; FROST HEAVES. Interestingly the road gets pushed up by water freezing in winter and thawing in spring, creating the most horrible bumps, holes, canals, any shape you can think of in the tarmac. Now that might be doable in a car, especially bumps causing movement from side to side are a nightmare for an RV, so we experience the road as somewhat of a computer game avoiding all the hazards.
We make it to the US border in one piece, but our ETA has dramatically shifted backwards even if it is still enthusiastically counting on that 90-100 km/h speed for the remainder of the drive. Our border crossing is easy, no line in front of us and a kind customs officer that gives us a nice stamp and sends us on our way into the ‘true’ Alaska. The road does not get any better, so one hour later we break for lunch and try to figure out our timeline for the rest of the drive. With Sven taking the wheel however the road seems to magically get better, and so is our average speed!
We thus start to make good progress towards the town of Tok (believe it or not, there is a town called Chicken closeby as well) and onwards to Fairbanks. Right as we start to speed up again on a straight stretch of forest highway we get spooked by a big moose shooting out of the bushes right in front of our vehicle! We manage to break as the moose swerves around the front of the car and runs into the bushes again across the street leaving us gasping for air with our heartrates up! We prefer the ‘side of the road relaxing’ kind of animal encounter versus one of these!! Thankfully all ended well, and after a quick visit to the VERY cheezy ‘Santa Clause House’ in the town of North Pole, we roll into Fairbanks at a very decent time of 6pm.
We opted for a Walmart night with some Wi-Fi this evening which also gave us a very loud train conversation and a car coming in several times with the boombox to the max, but every once in a while it is a good option. The next morning we check out the beautifully set up and very informative visitor center of Fairbanks with a great exhibit and movie about Denali which is a good prep for our visit later that day. We make use of Fairbanks’ hospitality by using their dump station and filling up with the cheapest gas in Alaska, and drive down the George Parks highway towards Denali National Park.
We have 1,5 days to see a part of Denali NP, and thankfully a landslide has made some decisions for us already as the park is only open up to ‘mile 43’. Coming into Denali we go straight to the visitor center to check if our plans work out, and get information on the park and its inhabitants. The movie shown in the theater is about the favorite inhabitants of Bo and Luc; the park sled dogs! Since our experience in Chile, they really are crazy about the dogs (and dogs in general) and when we tell them we can actually visit the dogs after the movie they are really excited!
We take the shuttle out to the dog kennel where we have the opportunity to pet and hug the dogs and see the cute 6-week-old pups of the pack. After this there is a demonstration and explanation about the role of the dogs in the park, most importantly as Denali is not only a National Park but also designated ‘wilderness’, the only way to even get into the park beyond the park road is by non-motorized vehicles; your legs (on skis) or sleds with dogs. The tradition even dates back exactly 100 years, and the Denali dogs are renowned for their strength and spirit as true ‘freight dogs’.
Back to the RV we hike the Rock Creek trail, which is a nice windy trail going right over the hillside and through the woods back to the visitor center. A quick stop in the store – always fun to see what is on offer here – and we are on our way to find a parking spot along the road for the night. Traffic is unavoidable, but at least there will not be any trains nor boomboxes tonight :-).
The next day the sun is out and it proves to be a fantastic day for some good ol’ hiking in the National Park. We get up early to drive the RV to the last parking lot available on the park road, at Savage River, and we have breakfast there before setting out to hike. The Savage river trail takes you along the river on one side and back the other after crossing a bridge, but the fun part about Denali is that you are allowed to hike off trail! For the boys a great opportunity to go off the beaten track and be our guides for the morning as we climb over boulders and through bushes to get further along the river.
After a short break where we do the natural things you do at a river – building dams and panning for gold – we walk the other side of the river back towards the RV. It gets a lot busier now as the trail is fairly easy to do, and as we get to the parking lot there is even a ranger’s table set up with all kinds of furs and antlers to try out. We have lunch in the RV, then head back to the ranger to get the Denali badge (a special one as it celebrates the centennial of the sled dogs!), and then take a right up the alpine trail. This is a much more strenuous trail and thus not as busy as the river trail.
We hike all the way up, where along the way we see some Dall sheep on the ridges, and get checked out by some very curious ground squirrels. Next creek we hit on the other side the gold search continues, this time supposedly giving some flakes, but it remains to be seen if it really is worth something or what is known as ‘fools gold’. As we get to the main road, the energy is starting to wear thin, and the appeal of the shuttle buses passing by pulls us in. We take a shuttle for the last 2 mile back, and get out very quickly close to the parking lot as a caribou is roaming the riverbed! Another animal to put on our list :-). As Sven rides the road back on his bike we finalize our Denali visit again at the visitor center, get washed up and ready for the 4h drive ahead to Anchorage…
Next week: Alaska – On our ‘way back’