Saturday, June 04, 2005

Pine Lake Campground, Near Haines Junction, Yukon

12:15 a.m. It's dusk now. I'm itching from numerous assaults on my body. Another travelin' kinda day. Crawled out of my tent about 8:30 this morning. And no surprise; the campground was by now empty. It's oddly situated, right next to the Carcross "airport". (A few trees give the impression of isolation, but it's sandwiched between two highways and the airport.)

It had been cold overnight, and I had developed a slight sore throat and a few new chest aches, besides those normally associated with older "outdoorsmen-wannabes" sleeping on the ground. Clearly, my body was fighting some "bug'.

Broke camp and stopped in town to ask where I might find a shower and laundry. I was directed to "Montana Services", a large gas station and RV campground complex, across the highway from a "First Nations" administration building.

The store manager set me up with laundry facilities and a shower, even loaning me a spare towel. I awkwardly asked her how one properly refers to the native people here. They are "First Nation people," I was told. More specifically, the locals were largely Tagish. I felt completely ignorant. The history I was taught largely overlooks any inhabitants of the Americas prior to the European invasion.

A bit of trivia: the name "Carcross" was derived from "Caribou Crossing", as this was once a place where herds of caribou crossed the narrows between Bennett and Tagish Lakes. But no more.

With a clean body and fresh clothes, I felt almost human again.

Started south toward Skagway, climbing White Pass, a fantastic mountain landscape carved by glaciers. Along the route, informational signs tell of the Klondike gold rush of the 1890's and early 1900's. The Klondike Highway runs from Skagway to Dawson. The "stampeders", as the prospectors were called, came by the thousands, representing all walks of life . Of the stampeders, Tappan Adney wrote: "They come from desks and counters; they have never packed, and are not even accustomed to hard labor." Gee, that sounds familiar.

The high country of White Pass is an other-worldly landscape of craggy peaks, glacial domes, stunted trees and crystaline snowmelt pools. I found myself stopping every few miles to absorb a different perspective.

Atop White Pass is a great glacial basin, with sculpted rock domes, crystal lakes and dwarfed evergreens.

Along the Klondike Highway, through White Pass. Skagway is over the mountains to the far right.

At the border, one comes to the Canadian and American customs stations. Much more hospitable than the harsh outposts the Northwest Canadian Mounted Police established here (and at the nearby Chilkoot Pass) in 1898 to exert Canadian control over the disputed region and the flood of stampeders, while at the same time collecting duties.

From atop White Pass, the Skagway River flows down to the Gulf of Alaska.

Down from the summit, a sign identifies "Deadhorse Trail", so named after the 3,000 pack animal carcasses left along the tortuous White Pass trail. Apparently, Jack London wrote a powerful description of the carnage he witnessed here in 1897.

Over the past week, I've seen few contrails. I always wonder where they are bound.

From frigid heights to almost balmy seaside, the descent into Skagway is dramatic. Almost as dramatic is the sight of huge cruise ships looming over the small harbor. I felt I was driving down Disneyland's "Main Street"; only a few motor vehicles, but hundreds, perhaps thousands of pedestrians.

The little town of Skagway is big enough to handle 5 of these a day. My host at the Skagway Fish Company said that during high season these ships will bring 10.000 tourists a day.

Skagway is more Disneyland than Alaska.

In Skagway, I inquired about a ferry to Haines, a short distance away. This would allow me to take another route inland, up the Chilkoot Pass. But they wanted $60 for the ticket, and I'd have to wait a day for the next ferry. I had to ponder this.

Skagway is devoted to extracting maximum yield from each visitor. Helicopter rides to the glaciers, White Pass train rides, inland bus tours, jeep caravans, buggy rides, gift shops, restaurants; candy, ice cream and espresso shoppes. I went to the Princess Cruise docks to watch the steady flow of bag-laden tourists returning to ship. Another score for Skagway.

I didn't capture it here, but visitors returning to ship are toting large plastic bags filled with loot.

Someone had recommended "The Stowaway" restaurant on the dock, but they opened later in the afternoon. Reluctantly stepped into the "Skagway Fish Company", the first restaurant along the cruise guests' path to town. I was met with indifference by the wait staff. I recognized the weariness that comes of serving an endless stream of distracted tourists. How appropriate to hear Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" playing.

With some reluctance, ordered fish and chips, purportedly made with fresh local halibut, and an Alaskan Ale. The fish was actually quite good, and the longer I remained, the more I recognized the weariness was as much my own. Engaging the staff in conversation helped to soften my impressions. A family from Sacramento turned and asked about my journey. They told of the cruise through the Inside Passage, the one I had hoped to make. It sounded spectacular. They said the glaciers' "calving" sounded as thunder.

On the edge of town, found the "Haven Cafe" adjoining a health food store. Here I hoped to stock up on some groceries, have a coffee and perhaps access the internet. A great little spot, with lots of character. Sad to see the "for sale" sign in the window. They pointed me to the library down the street for internet access.

At the library, I learned I could sign up for a reservation at 8:00 pm, several hours later. I started chatting with the librarian. She moved from Santa Rosa long ago and would NEVER go back! I asked if it were worth waiting for the ferry to Haines. She handed me off to her friend who leads tours "all day long." "Go back the way you came," was his simple advice.

It's funny how traversing a route for the second time, that edge of uncertainty is gone, and it seems so much more comfortable. No less spectacular. But the skies were changing now, a storm coming in from the northeast.

A change in the weather, and in road conditions. Gravel is pretty common. This is going north over White Pass, toward Carcross.

So, I'm cruising the Klondike Highway, singing "Wayfaring Stranger", fidgeting with my electric vest, trying to get it switched on, when I look in my right hand mirror and notice something's absence. "Where is my gas can???"

I tried recalling the last time I'd actually noticed it. At Watson Lake. I left it at the carwash! (I should have paid more attention to the little voice that, when I was re-packing the bike after washing it, said "look around the corner to make sure you're not leaving something behind.")

I was quite attached to that can (at least in some way), having searched at least 10 stores before finding JUST the right can, a Sears Craftsman 2.5-gallon "California emissions-approved" plastic can.

When I posted the question on Adventurerider "how do I increase the range of my bike for the Dalton Highway?", one wise rider said "buy a cheap can in Alaska and give it away after the Dalton Highway ride." I will be following his advice after all.

Guess where I am??? (Give up?) Whitehorse, The Yukon!

Pushed on through the evening, aiming for Haines Junction by ride's end. Finally saw a little more wildlife, including elk (see photo) and the guy with the big paws.

Wildlife sightings have been rare along the highway. In fact, it seems I would see more on a single trip up Sonoma Mountain from Santa Rosa.

I stopped just east of Haines Junction to take this picture of road construction along the Alaska Highway. A swath about 150 yards wide is being cut through the forest. In a bit of a hurry, besieged by mosquitoes, I stumbled off my bike, ripping the electric vest cord from it's plug. My first roadside repair...

So, I'm standing at my bike looking over the damaged cord and swatting at mosquitoes, when I glance to the side and see this guy lumbering across the road about 50 yards away. As I'm fumbling to get the camera unpacked again, I'm questioning, "okay is this a black or brown bear?" Despite the brown fur, I'm pretty sure it's a black bear. If you look closely at the previous photo (the highway construction), you can see "him" (or "her"?) standing up on the embankment, looking to see if the coast is clear. I was oblivious.

For these creatures, we humans are a pain in the arse.

1 comment:

cathie said...

Tim, you write so well. And you take such good pictures. I'm enjoying this armchair journey through the northern wilds!