Doug Grosjean's
Alaska Trip Report

June 1999

 

 
Day 11; Tuesday, June 8th, 1999
Start: Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
End; Dawson City, Yukon Territory
343 Miles



Joe and I wake up and pack up, and then head over to the campground office. I really want to soak in the springs; Joe doesn't want to and says he'll find something else to do while I'm in the pool, so we split for a bit.

The springs feel great!! There's two pools, a big one and a little one, the little one the hotter of the two, and both fed by a hot spring. A local tells me that the pools are cooler and not as full in the morning, according to him the pools are drained each night and refilled in the AM, and gets hotter through the day. Feels perfect to me, as is.

While in the pool, I start talking to a man next to me. He's retired, he's from England, and came over after W.W.II, took a job on a road crew and helped build several of the roads in the far north. I'm reminded in talking with him that it wasn't that long ago that Alaska and the Yukon were still the frontier.

As good as the hot water feels, I eventually have to get going. I mail my postcards that I'd written the night before, Joe is waiting in the parking lot, and after figuring out our gas stops by checking out the Milepost magazine, we're on our way north on Rte. 2 to Dawson City, YT.

The weather is absolutely perfect, I'd guess in the 60's-70's, with a light breeze; the hordes of mosquitoes that all the guidebooks mention are nowhere to be found.

The scenery varies throughout the day, varies quite widely, although the roads do not - mostly long sweeping corners, good to very good pavement, mostly chip-sealed, and very little traffic. What traffic there is tends to be RVs (tourists), or older American cars or trucks (locals), and they're easily gotten around.

We pass Lake Laberge, which the Yukon river feeds at it's southern end and then empties from at it's northern end. Very scenic, and it looks like there are chunks of ice on the bottom of the lake.

We pass through huge areas of pine forest (I think, based on a few remaining survivors) that were gutted by forest fires, recent forest fires. The ground is black, and the trees are just burned out stumps across the valley and up the mountain far away on the other side of the valley. Many telephone poles are brand new, placed next to the burned remnants of the old one - others are simply missing. What a huge fire this must have been!

We gas up at Pelly Crossing, and are the center of attention..... seems all the other travelers and tourists are retired folks in the RV's, and we stand out to both the RV'ers and the locals whenever we stop. We tend to answer the same questions over and over again, such as "Where you from?" , "What in the world are you doing so far from home?", "Where are you going?", "What kinda work do you do back home?" and "Why are you visiting the Yukon?" The last question strikes me as funny, as if the Yukon is just a normal place to those who live there, and they don't see the attraction it would have to someone from Ohio or Iowa.

We also talk with the RV'ers at various stops, but we're worlds apart from the people in the RVs. Over and over again, we hear the same response from the RV drivers as to why they are in the Yukon: "Always wanted to get up here to Alaska and the far north, and the first thing me and the wife did when I retired is buy / rent an RV and head north!". I end up feeling like I'm here 30 years ahead of schedule.

The RV'ers also cover a wide range of attitudes, some are obviously having the time of their lives while others are complaining about everything - but if you listen to the stories they tell, the experiences aren't different between the two groups, their perceptions of the experiences are different. One man goes on and on about the horrible construction they encountered, just awful, a dirt road with rocks and horrible dust, filled the entire RV with dust and now they have to clean the entire inside, next time he's going to be sure the windows are closed and the A/C is on! I innocently ask: "Where was that?", hoping to glean important travel info from the man. "Why, right outside Haines, Alaska!" is his reply. Oh!! I thank him as I recall the place, with Joe on his GS enjoying that very same spot yesterday. Attitude is everything.

After Pelly Crossing, we see a group of sea kayaks putting in on the river below. Looks like a lot of fun, as a sea kayak could carry enough gear to make a river trip very comfortable, and would just cruise down the river with little effort. If rafts are the tour busses of the river world, and whitewater kayaks are the sportbikes of the river world, sea kayaks are the Gold Wings. Meant as a compliment, on that wide smooth river a sea kayak would be the perfect cruiser. I'm just a bit jealous, since all the way up on the ferry I'd had my heart set on renting a sea kayak in Haines, and then didn't.

Further north, we come to Five Fingers Rapid on the Yukon River.

Great stuff! The scenic pullout is up on a bluff above the river, and there's an exhibit explaining the significance of that particular spot on the river. Turns out that during the Gold Rush in the Yukon, there was a huge amount of paddlewheeler traffic on the Yukon River, Klondike River, and other area rivers as well, from Whitehorse to Dawson City and downstream into Fairbanks, Alaska; and points beyond, the network of rivers being the main supply routes. Five Fingers Rapid was a very tough spot to navigate for the old paddlewheelers, and you can see exactly why from the overlook..

Several huge chunks (house-sized and larger) of rock divide the river here into 5 channels, and the paddlewheelers would have to come through (downstream) faster than the current so as to maintain steering control, make a hard turn at the last second and dodge the HUGE boulder at the bottom center of the main chute. Headed upstream, there was a winch anchored to a spit of land directly upstream above the rapid, and the paddlewheelers would be winched up through the rapid. There were several bad wrecks in each direction during the heyday of the paddlewheelers, according to a book on paddlewheelers I picked up later in Dawson City.

I can't resist, I decide to walk down to the river, and see the rapids up close. Joe decides to hang out in the parking lot which is full of RVs. I start down the loooong flight of wooden steps, and when I get to the bottom (they end on the flood plain, not anywhere near the river) there's a (guessing, she looks retired) 65+ year old woman. She explains that she wanted to walk down to the rapids, but her husband didn't, would I mind if she came with me? Sure, Id be glad to have her along, no problem; when out of nowhere comes her husband - apparently, he doesn't like the idea of her hiking to the river with me, and now he wants to go too.

So the three of us go hiking down to the river, she and I enjoying the great weather and scenery, and her husband complaining the whole way down to the river. When we get there, he proceeds to tell us where the winch was (he gets it wrong) and just goes on and on about what a miserable hike it is.

Looking at the rapid up close, it wouldn't be a big deal in a canoe or kayak, and I suspect I could even paddle all the way up it on a good day by sneaking along in the eddies next to the boulders - but to navigate a paddlewheeler through there, well, I end up wishing that I could've seen that trick! I'd bet it was damned exciting for the people involved, although maybe exciting isn't quite the correct word.

We hike back to the start, up the steps to the overlook in the parking lot, and the wife is talking pleasantly to me the whole way up the steps, the husband is complaining again, and it's still a very pretty day when we get back to the top of the steps.

Joe and I leave the Five Fingers Rapids overlook and continue north, through more sweeping corners and northern pine forests, the road rolls up and down with the land, never really in the mountains, yet snow-peaked mountains are always within sight.

Then we get to the outskirts of Dawson City, and the first thing that we are greeted with are mine tailings, mile after mile, from about 5 miles outside the city limits, pile after pile of rounded river rocks. I've been to Colorado, and seen the mine tailings there, but this is a whole 'nother league, and as I look and contemplate all the tailings the thought that keeps going through my mind is "What a huge operation this must have been!!"

And then we're in Dawson City. Joe and I motor around the town a bit, looking at the quaint old Yukon Gold Rush era buildings, looking for a place to camp and a place to eat. The main road that we came in on is paved, but all the side roads in Dawson City are dirt, most of the buildings have old-fashioned boardwalks alongside, and all is very interesting. Dawson is just a little touristy, but it's also a real town; it has things like a hardware store, a pharmacy, grocery store, and a very nice public library. Also legalized gambling, which is probably where the money came from for the nice library.

We eventually end up eating supper at the Triple J hotel; a very, very nice place with a great menu. A bit fancier than the "chili over a campstove" routine, and quite welcome. Joe and I relax, enjoy a great conversation, and savor the fine dining.

We camp that night in Guggievile Campground just outside Dawson City, Yukon; in the gravel. Like everything else outside the city limits, the campground is located on old mine tailings, not soft dirt. I think that we're the only tents in the place, and we're tucked way back in the corner next to the river and the road. All the rest of the people are in RVs, or big trailers pulled behind big-engined full-size pickups.

Joe's a friendly, outgoing guy; and before long he's got a pretty good conversation going with the RVer's camped/parked next to us. Turns out they're originally from the same part of the US as Joe - small world, or maybe Joe's teaching me that all people have things in common if you just look.

Eventually, probably around midnight, I climb into my tent to sleep, it's still very light out. People back home had asked me how I thought I'd sleep with the sun still up at bedtime; turns out that if you're really tired it's no problem at all.


Doug Grosjean
Pemberville, Ohio