Dempster Hwy. to Arctic Circle & back

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Wednesday, 30 August 2006, Rock River Campground, YT
Yesterday dawned clear and sunny - and freezing! It took us some time to get our cold bodies to move, but we were on the road at 10.00. I can't believe that people can camp out in tents in this weather - we at least have a heater in the camper and it is very effective.
Our first stop was only about 3 km from the campground. It is an overlook which affords a great view of the North Fork Klondike River and also a panorama of ragged ridges of which Tombstone Mountain is the tallest and stands out as a sharp peak in the centre of the others. At this point the North Fork veers away from the highway which begins to follow the Blackstone River. And from here on the road takes you through the arctic tundra. This is the most southerly point where one can experience this environment as it is usually found several hundred kilometres north. The terrain is largely treeless and the vegetation is mostly small shrubs and ground hugging plants, since that is all that will grow on the deep layer of permafrost. We had arrived at the right time of the year to see the tundra change into all its autumn glory.
As we travelled north we drove in and out of the tundra as it alternated with the stunted forests that grow here - mostly spruce and birch. The spruce look like they really have to work hard to survive and the birch provided us with such vivid yellow leaves sometimes that the colour almost hurts the eyes! In places they were turning a little toward orange and I believe they turn almost red before they fall. So the changing flora was the most spectacular thing of this long trip.
The road follows river valleys for the first 240 kilometres - the North Fork Klondike, the Blackstone and then the Ogilvie. Then it climbs to the Eagle Plains plateau, which affords a panoramic view over the tundra towards the Ogilvie Mountains. For some 100 km it is also possible to see seismic lines which run in almost straight lines across the mountains. These are a reminder that this was a major area of oil and gas exploration and the road was originally built for this purpose.
As well as stopping for outhouse breaks, a lunch break and photo stops, we also made a short stop for coffee and a snack at the Eagle Plains Hotel. This is the only service point on the highway until the Northwest Territories and provides food, gas, accommodation, a dump station, campground, showers and even auto repairs. We didn't find the staff particularly welcoming, but we did appreciate the stop. It is only 35 km before the Arctic Circle, which we arrived at in rain shortly before 6.00. We had been on the road since 10.00. The weather had been very kind and the rain we drove through from Eagle Plains to the Arctic Circle was the only real rain we had encountered all day, although we had driven on some really muddy roads showing evidence of quite heavy showers before we got there. The rain had almost stopped by the time we parked for photos at the Arctic Circle.
After recording our arrival for posterity, we got back in the truck to drive on with the aim of finding a drier place to camp. The weather ahead looked promising and it didn't rain again after we left the crossing. We also drove slowly looking for wildlife - evenings is feeding time so we figured that we had a good chance of seeing something. Caribou were what we were actually looking for and we encountered a French-speaking couple stopped by the road who were watching some - by the time we stopped and got out of the truck they were over the hill and out of sight. But the couple did tell us they had seen three grizzlies about 5 km up the road. So we drove the distance and looked carefully for the bears. Just when we thought we must have missed them I spotted something crossing the road about 1 km ahead. We approached the spot slowly and were rewarded - bear sightings 9, 10 and 11 - a mother grizzly and her two cubs feeding directly beside the road. They seemed to be eating grass, but it could have been berries - we weren't going to walk down and take a look, although Juergen did get out of the truck to get a better look as they moved away from the road. Once again we saw bears up close that were not bothered by us and just went on with their eating.
By this time we were only a few kilometres from the Government campground of Rock Creek, so we gave up the idea of camping wild and drove here to spend the night. It wasn't quite as cold as Tuesday night, but we woke to about 3 degrees. The sky is cloudy with some blue patches this morning, so hopefully the weather will be about the same as yesterday for our long journey back the way we came. We don't usually like driving the same road twice, and avoid it wherever possible, but to cross the Arctic Circle and to see this surreal terrain has made it worth it.

Thursday, 31 August 2006, 100km up Dempster Highway, YT
What a satisfying day yesterday was - we saw Caribou, we even saw a wolf, we got some really good photos of the tundra that showed the colours as they really are, the sun was often out and it only really rained for a short time. We both have no doubt that the trip to the Arctic Circle was worth the extra mileage, time and even perhaps the cold (although I'm not sure Juergen completely agrees with the last!).
We didn't leave the campground until nearly 11.00, mostly because I wanted to get the previous days impressions down before we had a whole new set. We couldn't decide whether to drive north or south - north would take us to the Northwest Territories and someone had told us there were 100,000+ caribou at the border, although he hadn't seen any! When Juergen noticed that the water pump was leaking green coolant, we had the decision made for us - we'd better head towards the closest service station, just in case the situation worsened. I kept a lookout for wildlife, even though I didn't really expect to see any so late in the morning, and we were rewarded about 20 km from the campground with a herd of caribou. There were at least 50 and I guess they were grazing a couple of hundred metres from the road. They were clearly seen with the naked eye, but binoculars added the details of the huge antlers on some of the males. Now we thought our wildlife experiences were complete for the arctic area. We saw a few more as we continued to drive toward the Arctic Circle again - they stand out quite well, even at a distance as they have such a white rear end.
While we were stopped watching the caribou, Juergen checked the water pump again and it was no longer leaking - we both breathed a sigh of relief because we didn't want to spend several days at Eagle Plains Hotel waiting for a new one and having it fitted. But we did need to stop there again to fill up with water, dump our waste and to put some diesel in the tank. The price of diesel was very high, as expected, so we only added enough to make sure we would get to the next place, which is at Dempster Corner. Once again we were overwhelmed by the lack of warmth and friendliness of the people who live and work here. As we left it began to rain quite heavily and continued to do so for the next 5 km or so. Once again we had missed the worst of the shower, which was evidenced by the wet road we continued to drive on long after the rain was gone. Needless to say, our truck and camper is getting to look like it really has been off-road. Our friend Pete (in Sydney) should be pleased - his comment when he saw the first photos of the truck was something along the lines that it looked too clean... Pete, rest assured: there's not a square inch which isn't covered in thick mud (except maybe the top of the camper)!
The sun was out off and on - the sky still had a lot of cloud moving about. Sometimes we would stop to take a photo and by the time Juergen got out of the truck, a cloud had covered the sun and what looked like a perfect shot just a minute or two before was now completely in the shade. But nevertheless we did manage some very nice shots of both the arctic tundra and the changing birches in the stunted forests which appear in between. We were both sure that the colours had changed since the drive up the day before - maybe it was just the light, but they seemed a lot deeper and more vibrant. It is certainly a feast for the eyes and I never got bored with looking at them. There is one section of the highway which we both got bored with very quickly and that was about 100 km south of Eagle Plains hotel on the Eagle Plains plateau. It is stunted spruce forest and most of it has experienced a fire in recent times, so it was kilometre after kilometre of burned out forest with very little regrowth happening. But once you reach the end of that it is arctic tundra as far as the eye can see and, still up on the plateau, we once again felt like we were driving on top of the world.
After seeing the caribou, Juergen remarked that now I had seen all the wildlife that I could in this part of the world, except maybe a golden eagle. My answer was that there were lots of others, like wolves, that it must be possible to see, but we both agreed it was very unlikely since they're known to be very shy and mostly active at night. At one point Juergen had just got back into the car after taking some photos and a wolf crossed the road maybe 25 metres in front of us (too quickly for a photo shot). Now I felt like we had really seen everything possible - and a bit more!
Our aim for the day was to get to Two Moose Lake, which we managed. But since there were no moose to be seen, and it is rather exposed, and windy and cold as a result, we decided to drive on a bit further and find a more sheltered spot. We were lucky within a few kilometres to find a track off the road toward the river and parked in a rather sheltered spot where there was no wind and a small levee type mound protected us from the cold of the river. We were standing outside in the sun at 8.30 in the evening and could feel it warming us! It didn't stop us having a frost overnight though - the minimum was -1.7° (thanks to Pete for the weather station)!
So today we will leave the Dempster Highway and start to drive south in search of some place warm. But I think this particular trip will stay in both our memories as one of the highlights in a very impressive journey so far.

Saturday, 2 September 2006, Teslin, YT
On Thursday morning we drove back to have another look at Two Moose Lake, and other bodies of water around it, in the hope that some moose had decided to come for a morning drink or feed, but no luck. So we drove the 30 km to the Tombstone Interpretive Centre to ask the interpreter a few questions. Even though it was overcast and cold, we stopped a few times to take photos, because once again the colours seemed to be more vibrant than the day before. I'm not so used to autumn colours, but even Juergen was overwhelmed by the colours here. And it is not my imagination - the woman at Tombstone Park said that they do change dramatically every day. She also helped us identify a flock of birds that we had seen on Tuesday. They must have been snow geese - there were at least 20 of them which took off as we drove past where they had been resting, right by the road. Also, the wolf we saw could also have been a wolverine, but that was a little unclear - we had thought it was a bit small for a wolf and it had some brown colour in its pelt, which is unusual for a wolf.
So, questions answered, we readied ourselves to leave the arctic tundra. We stopped on the veranda while Juergen had a cigarette and chatted to a policeman - the police who come into the Yukon here are supplied with a truck camper from Bigfoot, so that they can stop wherever and whenever they like or need to. According to the ranger at the Park, they are also permitted to bring their families with them, although this one was alone.
As we left Tombstone Park it started to rain and continued to do so for the last 70 km of the Dempster Highway. But we had been so lucky with the weather that we didn't complain too loudly! At Dempster Corner Juergen washed the worst of the mud from the truck and camper, but after spending $4 in a poorly performing high pressure cleaner, he decided to leave the rest there for now. The diesel at the Corner was $1.40 per litre - only 5c less than at Eagle Plains! We decided to drive back towards Dawson City where we knew it was only $1.24! Somehow we felt that paying that much just because it was the intersection to the Dempster Highway was a rip-off and we drove back more on principle than to save the money! And we got some fresh vegetables from a roadside farm - the same woman that had been at Dawson City's farmer's market last Saturday. We had enjoyed her very fresh vegies so much that we were happy to have the opportunity to get some more. There is nothing quite like fresh picked vegetables rather than those that have been sitting in a supermarket for who knows how long - and also how long they have been in transit to the supermarket!
After refuelling and stocking up on vegies, it was time to once again to head south along the Klondike Loop which will eventually bring us to Whitehorse and the Alaskan Highway, about 100 miles east of Haines Junction. This almost completes the great loop we have travelled into Alaska and the Yukon. We keep hoping that as we move southwards we will eventually find some warm weather.
The rain started to ease up about 40 km south of Dempster Corner and it remained mostly clear all the way to Carmacks where we spent the night. Along the way we stopped a few times - in Stewart Crossing where there is information about the Silver Trail which goes 111 km north-east to Mayo, Elsa and Keno, which are old silver mining towns. We decided we had seen enough mining history for a while and continued on the Klondike.
From what we had read, we were interested in a boat trip which is the only way to get to Fort Selkirk, a trading post established in 1848, but destroyed by the Chilkat Indians in 1852. The site was used sporadically by traders, missionaries and the Mounted Police until the 1950s. There are about 40 buildings remaining dating from 1892 to 1940. The 40 km boat trip is only available from Big River Enterprises in Minto. We drove in and found no-one, but the sign clearly announced the trip as costing $125 per person. It was quite warm there and we stood on the river bank in the sun for a while. As we were about to leave a man appeared who must have been the owner of the business. He seemed totally disinterested in us and it seemed we had disturbed his afternoon by being there. He was also unperturbed by the fact that we weren't interested in his boat trip at the price. I guess he gets plenty of tourists here who are prepared to pay the price. We are used to paying higher prices in this rather remote province of Canada, but couldn't quite see the need to spend that amount for such a short trip!
Another 50 km and we stopped at a rest area which overlooks the Five Finger Rapids on the Yukon. The rapids are caused by four rocky outcrops in the river and they caused difficulty in navigation for the early miners who used the river as their main means of transport of goods. It is possible to walk down to the river via wooden steps, but we decided to move on and get as close to Whitehorse as possible before stopping.
Carmacks was just another 25 km and seemed like an ok place to spend the night. We stayed in the Carmacks Hotel RV Park, which is quite a nice park with grass next to each site and the Yukon flowing by. The only drawback was the lack of any real bathroom block. The only one available was quite a walk and had less than satisfying showers for $2 for 3 minutes - it took the first 3 minutes just to get the water the right temperature. I'll be glad when we find somewhere that doesn't charge so much for showers and can make sure that they are properly cleaned!
Yesterday (Friday) we drove into Whitehorse, with the hope that a larger centre would provide us with a lot of grocery items we had been lacking further north. Shortly before Whitehorse we drove off the road toward the Lake Laberge campground to stop at Mom's bakery. She bakes bread and various pastries and pies, and serves coffee. We spent a pleasant half hour or so there chatting with her and trying out some of her goodies.
In Whitehorse we were not overly impressed with the supermarkets, but did manage to replenish our somewhat depleted supplies to keep us going a bit longer (although we forgot the wine - not like us!). We stayed long enough to shop, refuel, and check the internet and then set off for the smallest desert in the world!

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