At the end of August in 2001, I boarded a flight to Salt Lake City and on to Anchorage, Alaska. Upon arriving in Anchorage, I picked up a rental car, and I was pleasantly surprised when Hertz handed me the keys to a new Mercury Mountaineer SUV. That night I checked into a beautiful corner suite in the Captain Cook Hotel downtown, my favorite place to stay in Anchorage.
The next morning, as skies were clearing, I enjoyed a huge seafood omelet at the Downtown Deli. (shrimp, crab, halibut, salmon) After breakfast, I headed north out of town on the Alaska Highway toward Glennallen. A few hours later, as I approached the town, there was fresh snow on the mountains and gorgeous, brilliant fall colors everywhere – yellow, red, and gold! On the edge of town, there was an historical monument honoring Colonel Allen, who first surveyed an overland route from the Copper River to the Yukon River, and eventually all the way down the river to the Bering Sea, a distance of over 2000 miles! North of Glennallen, I spotted several moose on the edge of a lake near Tok Junction. When I got to the small town, I stopped at “Fast Eddie’s” for a great halibut burger, and then fueled up at the old Tok Lodge for the 250 mile drive to the Yukon border. At Tetlin Junction, I turned off the Alaska Highway and on to the Taylor Highway for the journey to Dawson City.
A couple of hours later I came to the tiny isolated village of Chicken, Alaska, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to take a photo of beautiful, downtown Chicken – all three buildings! (Chicken Mercantile, Chicken Saloon, Chicken Café) Just as I was about to leave town, I spotted two chickens in a cage in front of the café. But the name of the village actually originates from the fact that the word “chicken” is the common name for the Alaskan Ptarmigan!
It wasn’t long before I came to the Yukon border and Canadian Customs Post. Shortly after passing through customs, I began the 100 mile drive on the “Top of the World Highway” that followed the summit of the Ogilvie Mountains, through great expanses of brilliantly colored alpine tundra for as far as the eye could see.
Just west of Dawson City, the highway descended steeply down to the mighty Yukon River. Here I crossed the river on a small ferry operated by the Yukon Territorial Government. By now the weather had changed considerably and a light rain had begun to fall. As I drove into the old gold rush town, I started noticing a lot of “No Vacancy” signs at all the hotels and motels – not a good sign! (especially since the next nearest town to Dawson City was Pelly Crossing, almost 200 miles south!) I stopped at several of the hotels and motels, and the story was always the same – the whole town was fully booked, being the last long weekend of the season, and the finals of the Territorial Softball Tournament! And to make matters worse, no one could recommend anywhere else to stay.
Suddenly I spotted a sign in the window of the Westminster Hotel Bar – “Rooms Available”! But as I walked into the lounge, it was most definitely a very seedy place. So I checked a couple other places in town, in vain, before reluctantly heading back to the Westminster Hotel, resigning myself to being given the last dirty room directly above the noisy bar where a local rock band was setting up for the night. I almost felt “relieved” when I was told there were no more rooms available, contrary to the sign in the bar window! But, before preparing myself to sleep in the SUV, I took another drive south of town and spotted the “Bonanza Gold Rush Motel and RV Park”. But of course, they had no rooms, having given away their last room 15 minutes before! The woman at the front desk felt sorry for me and called two more places in a last, desperate attempt. One was a youth hostel on the far side of the Yukon River that had one bed left in a dormitory – however, by this time, the ferry had already stopped service for the night! The only other option was a “rustic” cabin 30 km south of town, with no electricity or running water! (by this time, I was pretty much out of options and facing a long, cold night in the SUV) When I didn’t “jump” at either of those final options, she went quiet for a moment, and then called “John”. When John stepped into the office, she said “do you think we should put him in the back of the trailer?” (his parents lived in the front of the trailer) I counted my blessings when John said “yes”! As it turned out, the one room was small, but it had a bed and a shower. Cases of empty wine and liquor bottles were piled high outside the trailer, but at that point, I didn’t mind) As we entered the trailer, John handed me a towel, bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper and then said, “good night”. Having finally found accommodation for the night, I headed downtown for dinner and enjoyed a fabulous plate of fresh, pan fried Arctic Char at “Klondike Kate’s”, along with a couple of “Chilkoot Lagers” from the Yukon Brewing Company in Whitehorse. After dinner, as I retired for the night in my small trailer room, the rain was falling softly on the tin roof – very peaceful!
The next morning, I woke up to find steady light rain falling outside and a heavy, cold overcast sky. After taking a shower in the tiny bathroom, I decided to drive south of town to Dempster Junction, the beginning of the Dempster Highway, a gravel road that winds its way north through the arctic tundra to the small native village of Inuvik, on the coast of the Arctic Ocean – a distance of 735km (nearly 500 miles). I decided to drive about 30 km up the road, just to say I had driven the Dempster. By the time I returned to the Klondike Highway junction, the SUV was covered in a thick layer of yellow mud, that would become something of a “badge of honor” when I got back to Dawson City. By this time, the rain had turned the unpaved streets of town into muddy trails. Wooden boardwalks gave pedestrians a chance to avoid slogging their way through the mud, except when having to cross the street. As I walked around downtown Dawson City, in the mud and rain, I speculated that it must have been much the same for the thousands of gold seekers during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.
Around noon, the judging began for the “International Outhouse Race”, followed a short time later with the start of the race. Teams of five people from Canada, USA, and Sweden competed, pulling their outhouses on wheels through the muddy streets. Rules of the race required one person from each team to “ride” in the outhouse during the race. As part of the course, the teams had to stop at designated places along the route to search for specific items to collect in their outhouse – sort of like a scavenger hunt! By the end of the race, no one was recognizable, having been totally covered in thick, gray mud – but they all had a great time!
After the award ceremony, I walked over to the Dawson City Museum, which was the old Territorial Administration Building – Dawson was the capitol of the territory until 1950, when the capitol moved to Whitehorse. The museum had many interesting displays and exhibits, with lots of fascinating history from the gold rush era. There was also a great exhibit of three small steam locomotives that once operated on the old Klondyke Mining Railroad, which ran from Dawson City up Bonanza Creek to the mining community of Grand Forks.
At the height of the gold rush, Grand Forks had a population of more than 10,000 – now it’s a ghost town. The same was true for Sulphur Springs, now just a name on the map today. In the afternoon, the rain tapered off, so I drove up to “Midnight Dome”, a steep mountain rising a thousand feet above town. From the summit I had a spectacular view of the confluence of the Klondyke River and the mighty Yukon River. Far below, Dawson City lay perched on the only small patch of flat land for miles around.
Meanwhile, light showers played tag with the sunshine. To the east and south of Dawson, along the banks of the Klondyke River, lay huge ribbons of mine tailings that resembled giant caterpillars – the remnants of massive gold dredging operations, which continued until the early 1960’s! During the gold rush of ’98, and for many years after, millions of dollars of gold and silver were mined every year. Even today, there are still active mines throughout the region. Later, I drove up the old road along Bonanza Creek to see the site where gold was first discovered in 1897. The massive old gold dredge #4 was still sitting in the creek bed where it had last mined gold in the late 1950’s. It has now become a National Park Historic Site.
On the way back to town, I visited the historic cabins of the famous writers Robert Service (“The Cremation of Sam Magee”) and Jack London (“The Call of the Wild”). Both cabins are now National Park Historic Sites.
Back in Dawson City, I took a long walk atop the huge dike that now protects the town from flooding in the spring. Nearby was the historic old river sternwheeler “Keno”, now in permanent dry dock on the shore of the river. She operated on the Yukon River from 1922 until 1960, carrying both passengers and freight – one of the last sternwheelers on the river.
Downtown I discovered a monument to honor the memory of the 100 people from Dawson City who lost their lives in 1918, when the Canadian steamship “Princess Sophia” sank during a violent storm north of Juneau, Alaska. (no one aboard survived) Not far from the memorial, rather ironically, was the “Lowe’s Mortuary Museum”, in an old log building that served as a funeral parlor during the days of the gold rush, and well into the turn of the century. As I peered through the dusty windows, I saw a room filled with old implements and products used by morticians of the era – rather gory, gruesome and primitive! (an old empty casket sat in the back of the room, perhaps awaiting its next guest) A couple of blocks down the street was the “Downtown Hotel” and the “Jack London Grill”, where I had a superb dinner of fresh pan seared Arctic Char and fresh steamed vegetables – the Arctic Char is essentially a fresh water Salmon and a fabulous fish to eat. The cold glass of Chilkoot Lager went exceptionally well with dinner. My server insisted that I must finish dinner with a slice of fresh homemade pie, made with local bumbleberries and rhubarb, and it was exceptional! But the restaurant was out of ice cream, the main ingredient for over half of the desserts on the menu. After dinner, I walked next door to the “Sourdough Saloon” where a tour group was engaged in the ritual of doing “Sourtoe Cocktails” – some foul tasting liquor in a small glass, in which an old human toe was placed. The instructions from the bartender went like this: “you can drink it fast or you can drink it slow, but the toe must touch your lips”! (he also cautioned not to swallow it) Afterwards, everyone who was successful was awarded membership in the “club”, which certainly must be a prestigious award anywhere in the world! The Sourtoe Cocktails were very popular among the tourists – not so among the locals. Meanwhile, a song on the old jukebox caught my ear, “That wedding ring is as ugly to me as your husband is to you” – surely a top hit on the country charts. Not long after the last Sourtoe Cocktail had been downed, I walked outside, into the dark night and muddy streets of Dawson City, much like the old sourdoughs must have done a hundred years ago. And just before I headed for bed, I looked up to see a patch of clear sky, filled with the stars of the Big Dipper, shining brightly.
But the next morning, heavy low clouds, fog, and drizzle had returned to Dawson City. As I checked out of the Bonanza Gold Rush Motel, the manager couldn’t remember if she had told me a price for the first night in the back of the trailer, so she said “how about $50?”, and I said “that sounds good to me”. (especially being that it was only $35 USD) Then I filled up with gas, bought a large coffee, and headed to the ferry across the Yukon River. On the other side, I began a long, slow, steep climb up the mountainside to the “Top of the World Highway”. For the first half hour, I was driving through dense fog (aka heavy low clouds), but when I reached the summit of the mountains, 3000 feet above the river, I broke free of the fog/clouds and a beautiful vista of mountains lay before me, as far as the eye could see. The deep, narrow valleys below were filled with heavy, dark grey clouds – at that point, I was truly “above the clouds”!
For more than a hundred miles, the highway skipped along the high, rounded peaks of the Ogilvie Mountains, occasionally dipping into the narrow valleys filled with clouds. And all around me were the brilliant yellow, orange, and red fall colors of the alpine tundra, shining beautifully like a massive carpet across the Yukon Territory! About three hours later I came to the Alaskan Border Customs Station and a new time zone, but the landscape barely changed.
Further west the road began a slow, steady descent into the Fortymile River Basin, a land of extensive mining activity. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were many small American mining towns that were actually located in the Yukon but lived by US laws. It remained the case until the 1920’s, which helps explain the close relationship between Alaska and the Yukon today. The highway rapidly deteriorated into a rough gravel road, with lots of hairpin turns as it meandered in and out of numerous deep valleys. The miles continued to pass by as I gazed upon the gorgeous autumn colors that unfolded before me, around every turn in the road.
Eventually I came to the metropolis of Chicken and then the junction with the road to Eagle, before coming to Tetlin Junction and the vast expanse of the Tanana River Basin. A few hours later I reached Tok Junction, a place where everyone driving into or out of Alaska “must” pass on their way, either east, west, north, or south! As I fueled up and grabbed a sandwich at the historic old Tok Lodge, the sun was finally breaking through the clouds in full force, brilliantly highlighting the lovely fall colors of the forest and tundra. On the way to Glennallen, I rarely passed another vehicle for over three hours – it almost felt as if I had the highway entirely to myself! West of Glennallen, on the highway to Anchorage, there were many incredible views of the rugged Chugach Range, the peaks covered in a coat of fresh snow. The massive Tazlina and Nelchina Glaciers were shining brilliantly under the sunshine.
There was a noticeable absence of Moose and Caribou in sight, it being the start of the hunting season! As evening fell upon the Matanuska Valley, I arrived in Anchorage and checked into a nice room at the “Millennium Hotel”, located on the shore of Lake Hood, the world’s busiest float plane base. That evening I sat in the “Fancy Moose Bar”, overlooking Lake Hood, with a cold pint of Alaskan Amber, and watched the float planes taking off and landing.
Later, as the sun was setting across the lake, I enjoyed a fabulous dinner of char-grilled fresh Halibut, topped with Mango chutney. And to finish off dinner, I had a huge piece of “Mary’s Bread Pudding”, filled with generous portions of dried wild cherries and pecans, and topped with Yukon Jack hard sauce! As I relaxed in the bar after dinner, I reflected upon the amazing experience of Dawson City and the Yukon Territory – historical, colorful, and definitely unique! A place I know I will return to someday, hopefully when there’s a vacancy!