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Todayville Travel goes on a Yukon road trip Part 2 – Dawson City and the Dempster Highway

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2nd in a 3-part series on a Yukon road trip – Dawson City and the Dempster Highway

Upon our return from six weeks exploring Canada’s north, friends enquired, “So what was your favourite place?” And each time, gazing distantly while recalling the amazing scenery, people and places we encountered, I answered: “Haven’t a clue.”

But Dawson City, Yukon is a good start.

I love Dawson. Unlike cruise-ship destinations on the nearby Alaska coast, Dawson is genuinely quaint. Colorful clapboard buildings line the streets, interspersed with heritage houses leaning drunkenly on a permafrost foundation.

“Drunken” houses float on Dawson’s permafrost

Diamond Tooth Gertie’s is Dawson’s historic casino and dance hall. This landmark saloon was established over a century ago and, while Gertie herself is getting a little long in the tooth, the can-can girls are still high-kicking a vaudeville act each evening at 8:30pm, 10:30pm and midnight. Happy hour at Gertie’s is from midnight to 1am. The manager at our RV park – located a short walk from Gertie’s – winked when she said “the later the show the more the skin.” I suggested to my wife Florence – purely for journalistic purposes – that we take in the evening’s final performance.

“…Their public throes of ecstasy are disconcerting. And should a birder confirm the presence of an olive-sided flycatcher by its loud and clear “quick-three-beers” call – well, just stay out of the way...”

Our June arrival coincided with the midnight sun’s long summer appearance. It may seem frivolous to remark that it doesn’t get dark here in summer, but until you’ve actually experienced this phenomenon, it is hard to appreciate. Darkness never descends; not tonight nor the next nor the night after that. Daylight is a 24/7 thing for six weeks.

Lunch special… at midnight

There is no respite from the light. One’s natural daily rhythm quickly shuts down, confused, as if dragged through perpetual jet lag. Soon you are eating dinner at 11:45pm, hanging out on the dusky streets ‘til all hours and sleeping past noon; 4am is just an overcast day, juxtaposed with the usual night sounds of street-laughter and squealing car tires. Birds sing non-stop. One night, in this altered circadian state, I found myself and my ukulele busking for cash at 3am outside the venerable Westminster Hotel with a couple of young Quebecois. And we didn’t do badly – after two hours I’d donated only thirty bucks.

Late-night busking

Summer here is difficult to digest, but a season of endless darkness would be interminable, unimaginable. Only after a full winter hunkered down in the snow and ice of Yukon can one proclaim himself a genuine “sourdough”. A somewhat easier feat is attaining “sour toe” certification, awarded to all those who slurp up a $5 shot of Yukon Jack whiskey containing a pickled human toe – which your lips must touch. (I am now a proud member of the Sour Toe Club. Fortunately I was nearly as pickled as the toe when the deed was consummated.)

The main ingredient in a sour toe cocktail

Although the Klondike gold rush ended more than a century ago, Dawson retains its frontier spirit. The streets are full of entrepreneurs and oddballs. Young drifters seek adventure, mingling with cagy old-timers. Secretive men and women still comb nearby creeks, moiling for gold. Astute shopkeepers mine tourist’s pockets. Individuals all, Dawson folk march to the beat of no one’s drum but their own.

Florence moiling for Klondike Gold

Every person I’ve met who’s been to Yukon (don’t say the Yukon, that’s a dead giveaway you are a newcomer, a Cheechako, from the “outside”) returns home gushing about the Klondike story, an epic period in Canadian history. I too am now a convert.

On our last night in town, just shy of midnight, we drove to an overlook offering a panoramic view of Dawson far below. We chatted with a lovely young aboriginal woman picking wild herbs from the steep cliff-face. “I make tea with spruce tips, labrador, cranberry bush leaves… and sage,” she said, reaching for a sprig over the precarious edge. “The caribou pass through here in October. They love sage. Come look.”

The caribou may not suffer from vertigo but I wasn’t going near that precipice. Nearby another woman watched, quietly slurping beer – the same precocious gal who had inducted me into the Sour Toe hall of fame the night before. Dawson is not a big place.

Properly schooled in the art of brewing tea from local ingredients, we departed for a late night game of golf. We arrived at the Top of the World golf course after midnight, so I thought it fitting to ask the proprietress for the twilight rate. She looked at me blankly, shielding her gaze from the sun’s glare.

Golf in the midnight sun

I decided not to quibble over the green fees, paid the full fare of $24, and off we teed into the grassy tundra. On the sixth hole sunset and sunrise collided, shared only by our twosome – and competing packs of wolves baying at the spectacle.

In the morning, seeking even more vitamin D, we headed further into the perpetual sunlight, north up the Dempster Highway toward Inuvik and the Arctic Ocean. Our tour up this narrow gravel road began with a stop at Tombstone Territorial Park where we chanced upon a weekend gathering of birders. Have you ever met a birder? At the risk of mixing metaphors I must say these odd ducks are strange cats. They make Trekkies look undedicated. Anyone who gets up early to tromp through muskeg in search of a lesser scaup or hooded merganser needs to have their head examined.

It is uncomfortable watching a birder identify the elusive Ruddy Duck. Their public throes of ecstasy are disconcerting. And should a birder confirm the presence of an olive-sided flycatcher by its loud and clear “quick-three-beers” call – well, just stay out of the way. But this obsession with things winged is surprisingly contagious. We attended an evening lecture at the Tombstone amphitheater where a bright young woman spoke on, “Why Birds Sing.” It’s about sex and war. Male birds make song to attract mates and to fend off territorial rivals; no need for physical confrontation. Have the birdbrains out-evolved man? Could we send our best tenors out to resolve border disputes? Think of the savings on anti-personnel weaponry.

After two days with our feathered friends we elected to fly the coop and continue our slow, muddy journey up the Dempster.

A mud-caked van crosses the Arctic Circle

Our goal was the Arctic Circle but the owner of Eagle Plains Motel (the only accommodation and gas stop for hundreds of kilometers in either direction) told us that we should carry on a little further, over the Yukon border and into the Northwest Territories to see real tundra landscape. So we did. But the weather was miserable, the visibility poor and the shoulderless road hazardous. Our plan to bicycle across the Arctic Circle line was cancelled. Our bikes, hanging off the back of the van, looked like they’d been dipped in chocolate. 

We retraced our path in search of the nearest wand wash. Back in Dawson and $23 in loonies later the RV began to reappear from its dark, molten lacquer.

A wary fox eyes Gerry’s lens

There are different ways to experience our great north. You can read Pierre Berton novels which, while informative, are also useful as a sleep-aid – or you can go explore an abandoned Yukon River dredge yourself. And bring a pan – there’s still plenty of gold in them thar hills.

Next time: Kluane National Park, Yukon

Gerry Feehan QC is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.
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Gerry Feehan

Click below to read Part 1 in Gerry’s 3-part series on the Yukon.

Thanks to these amazing local companies who make Todayville Travel possible.

Click here to visit our Travel section and see more of Gerry’s stories.

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Alberta

Competition Bureau asked by Saskatoon chamber to investigate flights in Saskatchewan

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Saskatoon – The Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce is asking the federal competition regulator to investigate Air Canada’s decision to end its flights between Saskatoon and Calgary and between Regina and Calgary.

In a submission to the Competition Bureau, the business group says the decision by Air Canada leaves WestJet as the only airline offering direct service between Saskatchewan and Calgary.

The chamber alleges WestJet and Air Canada have engaged in anticompetitive behaviour through a strategy to reduce competition intensity on certain regional Canadian routes.

It says the routes from Saskatchewan are critical not just for travel to and from Calgary, but also for connecting flights from the key hub.

Air Canada says it rejects any allegations of anticompetitive conduct, noting that it continues to serve Saskatoon and Regina with daily flights to Vancouver and Toronto, and beginning on June 1 to Montreal.

WestJet also rejected the allegations and says it is committed to serving Saskatchewan.

The Competition Bureau confirmed that it received the chamber’s complaint, but said it is required to work confidentially and was unable to say if it would be investigating.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2023.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

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National

Airlines, airports, transport minister to testify on holiday travel mess at committee

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By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

From long hours waiting on hold to sleepless nights on airport floors and desperate scrambles to rebook flights and find missing bags, it was a holiday travel season that no one had on their wish list — but that thousands of people got.

Now, Canadians have a chance to hear top travel executives and the federal transport minister explain what went wrong, and what might be done to avoid a repeat.

Leaders from the country’s major airports and airlines are among witnesses set to appear today during an emergency meeting of the House of Commons transportation committee being convened well ahead of Parliament’s return later this month.

The meeting is expected to kick off with a panel of representatives from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing Airlines.

Sunwing, a vacation-destination airline, has apologized for leaving hundreds stranded in Mexico after cancelling its flights due to a winter storm that swept across parts of Canada in the lead-up to Christmas Day, and then axing trips out of Saskatchewan until early February due to “extenuating circumstances.”

But it’s not Mother Nature MPs are taking issue with. Rather, it’s the communication — or lack thereof — that companies had with passengers whose plans were upended.

And while Sunwing Airlines president Len Corrado is scheduled to appear, neither Air Canada nor WestJet will be represented by a president or CEO, with the airlines instead sending vice-presidents to testify.

“Canadian travellers who were mistreated by airlines deserve an explanation. The very least that these rich CEOs can do is show up, explain what went wrong and show Canadians how they’re going to do better,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

Bloc Québécois transportation critic Julie Vignola echoed that sentiment, saying in a French statement that their absences demonstrate their limited concern for passengers’ rights.

A spokesperson for WestJet said its CEO was unavailable for comment, as did Air Canada, with the company saying committee members welcomed the decision to send vice-presidents with subject matter expertise instead.

The Opposition Conservatives say that while Canadians deserve answers from airlines, they believe the buck stops with Liberal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, who is scheduled for an hour of testimony Thursday afternoon.

They point to the long lines and delays passengers experienced at airports last summer when the country witnessed a widespread return of travel for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

“Canadians are suffering at the hands of (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau’s broken transportation system, and until the government is held to account to fix it, Canadians will continue to pay the price for their failure,” Mark Strahl, a Conservative MP on the committee, said in a statement.

Alghabra has called what happened over the holidays “unacceptable” and vowed to bring in legislation to strength the country’s existing Air Passenger Protection Regulations — a set of standards that allow travellers to request compensation when their flights are delayed or cancelled for reasons such as scheduling.

“Is this an opportunity for us to take a look at our rules and our system to make them stronger, to make them clearer, to make them more efficient? Absolutely,” he told reporters. “But again it’s not just the rules. We need airlines to make sure they make good decisions to keep passengers’ rights at the centre of their operation.”

Among other changes, Alghabra is eyeing amending the rules so that airlines would have to compensate passengers automatically. It’s a move that passenger rights’ advocates, Conservatives and the NDP support.

“When airlines’ flight schedules get snarled, people miss weddings, funerals and vacations they’ve been saving up for. Some are left stranded,” Taylor Bachrach, an NDP MP on the committee, said in a statement.

“The difficulty of a delayed or cancelled flight shouldn’t be followed by the nightmare of fighting for compensation.”

As for how airlines feel about the move, a WestJet vice-president said in a statement that it would be “foundationally burdensome” as it would require airlines to have “up-to-date passenger information to appropriately process these claims.”

“We are disappointed that airlines continue to be singled out as the only point of ownership and accountability for travel in Canada, as this must be a shared responsibility by the entire aviation ecosystem,” said Andy Gibbons, its vice-president of external affairs, who is set to testify Thursday.

A spokesperson for Air Canada added that while it won’t speculate on the possible changes, “it should be noted that no passenger protection regime in the world requires carriers to compensate customers for severe weather delays.”

The president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, Jeff Morrison, added that the regulations were last amended in the fall, and he believes it would be too soon to open them up again.

“We don’t want to be making policy based on very individual, one-time incidents,” he said.

Morrison said he believes it would be better for Ottawa to spend more on airport infrastructure to ensure travel hubs can handle storms, and introduce service standards for airports and aviation-related agencies such as the one that handles airport security.

“Many disruptions are due to factors outside the airline’s control.”

The presidents of the Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto airports are also scheduled to testify during the five hours of hearings on Thursday, as are officials from Transport Canada and leaders from the Canadian Transportation Agency.

One of the questions the federal regulator is likely to field is how it plans to clear a backlog of more than 33,000 passenger complaints, nearly 3,000 of which the agency said it has received since Dec. 20.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.

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