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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.

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Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells – even the names sound hot

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Death Valley, California. Hotter than Hades.

Sans reservation, we arrived at Furnace Creek Campground, 268 feet below sea level. The park ranger informed us unequivocally that the campground was FULL. ‘You’ll have to turn around.’ Feigning a U-turn, I drove in – and immediately found a vacant, primo spot. I sauntered back to the entrance booth and slapped down my 22 bucks.

The light you are seeing left that galaxy over 2,000,000 years ago.’ At this revelation, one family became visibly agitated – and abruptly left the group. As they departed I heard the matriarch exclaim, ‘2,000,000 years. Hasn’t he read the Bible?’

‘Gee, you were lucky,’ the ranger said. ‘Yup, lucky,’ said I. Coincidentally, precisely the same thing had occurred the night before at Stovepipe Wells campground, 30 miles up the road. And, ironically, it was the same lady whose instructions I had disregarded. Fortunately, I am a rather nondescript fellow and she didn’t thwart my advance. I wandered back to our site and set up the BBQ, although I probably could have fried the chicken directly on the searing pavement.

Late, after dinner, as the desert air began to cool, we heard a chewing noise outside the RV. Thinking it might deter intruding varmints, Florence instructed me to pee around the perimeter of the motorhome. A job I was up for. In the morning all was clear. No chewed hoses, flat tires or leaking parts. Feeling secure, we packed lunch and embarked on a stunning, strenuous hike to the summit of Wildrose Peak, 10,000 feet above the salty Death Valley floor. Late in the afternoon we returned, exhausted, to a camper full of… mouse turds.

Turns out our nocturnal intruder was not an external varmint, but one living amongst us. Before bedding down for the night, I set a trap under the sink. After midnight a loud ‘snap’ sounded. One dead mouse. I stepped out into the moonlight and discarded the stiffening carcass. And, my bladder being full, I gave the exterior one last precautionary piss.

The next night we attended an astronomy program outside the Furnace Creek visitor’s center. The topic was the speed of light. ‘For instance,’ the speaker explained, ‘it takes about 8 minutes for light to reach us from the sun. The nearest star is a couple of light years away. Our galaxy is over 100,000 light years across. And that,’ he said, pointing to a small fuzzy patch in the dark sky, ‘is Andromeda. The light you are seeing left that galaxy over 2,000,000 years ago.’ At this revelation, one family became visibly agitated – and abruptly left the group. As they departed I heard the matriarch exclaim, ‘2,000,000 years. Hasn’t he read the Bible?’

After the talk we stayed behind and shared our binoculars with a curious young couple from India. I pointed out some constellations as we chatted. He was a cardiologist, finishing his internship in Pittsburgh. The Indian government had funded a large portion of his education. I asked him if he intended to return to India after completion of his studies – or whether he might remain in the US to mine the riches of America’s fecund medical system.

‘Ah, this is the difficulty,’ he said. ‘Were I to stay, I shall certainly become rather wealthy. But if I return home, I can help a great many people. But there are also some drawbacks. In India the equipment is quite inferior. Also, oftentimes when a doctor operates and the outcome is poor, or perhaps the patient does not survive, the angry family beats the surgeon mercilessly.’ Then, looking up at the magnificent Milky Way and its billion myriad of stars shining onto a California desert, he said, ‘I shall have to ponder this.’

After my rendition of Peaceful Easy Feeling, Nathaniel stood up, stepped behind an enormous eroding rock, and began to weep. After a few minutes, he re-joined us at the fire and approached me for a thankful hug. ‘Sorry, man, but that was so emotional. I haven’t cried like that in forever.’

Out of the dark, a shaggy middle-aged American couple emerged. They introduced themselves as Chuck and Moonbeam. They had just completed their daily sun salutation. Chuck excitedly regaled us with his notion of the universe. ‘I’m an earth, moon, sun type of guy. But Moonbeam, she’s more outer planetary.’ I thought this description odd, given his wife’s moniker, but decided not to quibble over such minor galactic details.

‘Did you know the earth’s magnetic poles are reversing today?’ Moonbeam asked. I tried to explain that any wobble in the earth’s axis would take thousands of years and it would be difficult to note a reverse in polarity, even in a thousand lifetimes. Undeterred, she revealed excitedly, ‘Just this morning my daughter called to say she too felt the vibe.’

We returned to camp. I took out my ukulele. A 30-something fellow scooted by on his long board in the darkness. When he heard me playing, ‘Andrew’ stopped and asked us to join his group at their fire. We acquiesced. Andrew’s friend Nathaniel sat perched on a cahon, beating a deep primeval rhythm to the desert sky. Their female campmates, clad hippie-style in ponchos, danced and twirled, silhouetted by the flickering mesquite blaze.
I struck up a few tunes. After my rendition of Peaceful Easy Feeling, Nathaniel stood up, stepped behind an enormous eroding rock, and began to weep. After a few minutes, he re-joined us at the fire and approached me for a thankful hug. ‘Sorry, man, but that was so emotional. I haven’t cried like that in forever.’

When the evening ended, they all bid us adieu with hands clasped, a bow and a ‘blessings upon you.’ Andrew added, ‘May you have vivid, happy dreams all the night.’ Then we all enjoyed one last hug.

I stumbled back to the trailer, guzzled a beer, and promptly passed out.

None of this is bullshit.

Gerry
We hope you enjoyed Death Valley, California – Hotter than Hades.

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Todayville Travel: Turks and Caicos – The Road Less Travelled

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Turks and Caicos – The Road Less Travelled

I once had political aspirations. It was the early 1980s. A federal election was brewing. At the same time a tiny chain of British islands in the Caribbean – the Turks and Caicos – had expressed interest in forming an association with Canada.

What a great idea: Canada’s own warm, winter destination. No more currency exchange swindles or fighting with hefty American tourists in a Cancun buffet line-up; just a happy bunch of Canucks soaking up the sun in our own polite corner of tropical paradise.

I would make political hay by running for office on this simple, single platform: promoting a union between Canada and the Turks and Caicos. It seemed a worthwhile diversion from Alberta’s traditional campaign issues: complaining about Quebec and letting the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.

Alas, I didn’t run and my nascent political ambitions, like the election, came and went. The Turks and Caicos dream faded into the blue yonder; our Prime Minister went back to exclaiming “fuddle duddle” in Parliament and the West returned to detesting the East over trivial issues such as who was going to get Alberta’s gazillion petro dollars. And instead of milking the federal treasury I ended up in law school and eventually Red Deer where I practiced law for a quarter century before concluding that life was too short to spend behind a desk – even if it were in the corner office.

Coral reef surrounds Providenciales

But some people follow through on that early opportunity to chart a different course. Bruce Twa, a law school buddy, had lawyered through a few cold Alberta winters when a chance phone call offered him the prospect of practicing warm-winter law – in the Turks and Caicos. Bruce jumped at the offer. He has now been resident in the “TCIs” for over twenty-five years, transacting real estate deals on behalf of wealthy, sophisticated, discreet clients – when he’s not boating in the azure-coloured waters or snorkeling amongst parrotfish and turtles in the coral reef surrounding the islands.

Conch Vendor

I had promised (threatened?) to visit Bruce on numerous occasions over the years. Finally, arrangements were made. We’d see the tropical paradise Canada had snubbed and find out how my naïve 1980s political ambitions may have panned out.

My wife Florence and I learned even before clearing customs at Providenciales airport that the TCIs still maintain a quaint “small-island” feel. Bruce and his wife Darlene had graciously offered to host us during our stay but the border guard wouldn’t allow us entry. We didn’t have Bruce’s home address. The officer shook his head many times, threatening us with expulsion, before calling in his superior.

She looked at our paperwork, “Oh, you staying with Bruce? I just give him a call and get his house number.” She dialled and five minutes later we were standing on the curb, throwing our stuff into Bruce’s pickup.

We had only four days in the TCIs; a wise use of time was paramount. I wanted to evaluate whether Canada had blundered or done right in spurning the wishes of this British Protectorate. A quick but thorough analysis of the culture, economy and history was in order. I’d keep a tally of the positives and negatives. We began our research in a calculated, scientific fashion: so we went for beer and seafood, stuffing ourselves with fresh conch and island brew. The conch fritters were fantastic but the local beer (Turk’s Head) was awful. Score: one/one.

Darlene, nice. Turk’s Head, not so nice.

In the morning Bruce offered us the use of his beater truck so we could explore the island. I was a bit nervous about driving a standard stick shift in a strange country. “Don’t worry,” said Bruce, “Provo (that’s what the locals call Providenciales) is small, you really can’t get lost”. I felt better until I turned out of his driveway onto the main highway and realized everyone was driving on the wrong side of the road. I geared down and careened into the steamy Caribbean chaos.

Our methodical investigation continued… with lunch by the sea at Grace Bay – named by Condé Nast as one of the top beaches in the world. The fish was delectable and the beer (Presidente, imported from the Dominican Republic) palatable. The score was starting to favour the unionists.

That afternoon Bruce abandoned his clients to take us on an insider’s tour of his small island. The TCIs are a string of Cays (“Keys”) located at the eastern end of the Bahamas chain. The capital is Grand Turk, an island 100 kilometers from Providenciales. There are numerous small Cays – mostly uninhabited – between these two major islands. Due largely to the influence of Canadian ex-pats, Provo has evolved to become both the commercial and tourism center of the TCIs.

Bruce drove us through the high-rent district. If you are in the market for a multi-million dollar beachside home, Provo has plenty to offer. And if you change your mind and decide to sell, there is no tax payable on any gain in value. In fact there’s no tax of any kind in the TCIs: no tax on income or capital gains and no annual property tax on your house. But import duties and the cost of living are painfully high. Duty can be as much as 45% of a car’s value. And when you buy your dream home in paradise there is a one-time stamp fee payable equal to 9.75% of the purchase price. On a $1,000,000 property the fee is almost $100,000! Ouch, that’s a lot of postage.

These punishing import duties have led to some clever avoidance strategies. For example, the Turks and Caicos has many, many churches… all exempt from duty. Thus, even the humblest pastor usually drives a shiny new SUV.

We also toured the low-rent district, a stone’s throw from where the millionaire’s reside. The poor area, dubbed Five Cays, is where the immigrant workers – primarily Haitian – live.

The unmaintained road into Five Cays is almost impassable. This explains the abandoned vehicles we encountered – some converted into makeshift shelters; and many of the shanty houses here are a work-in-progress.

Home sweet home

“We build piece-piece,” the locals explain. Bruce often does free legal work for the poor of Five Cays. He should be careful. This kind of attitude could bring an end to lawyer jokes.

There are a number of different, confusing categories of residency in the TCIs. We arrived on a temporary (30 day) permit. Bruce and his wife are permanent residents. The Haitians rely on work permit residency.

Then there are the “Belongers”. Only those persons born on the islands (with island ancestry) are true citizens, entitled to vote and hold office. Bruce and Darlene have been permanent residents of the TCIs for over two decades but can’t vote. They’ll never be Belongers.

This bizarre restriction on citizenship has led indirectly to a major challenge facing the Turks and Caicos: a legacy of nepotism and corruption. One afternoon Bruce took us snorkeling. We boated past the palatial home of ex-premier Michael Misick in the Leeward neighbourhood of Provo.

Michael Misick’s mansion

After building his mansion Mr. Misick leased it to the government. Then he moved in – as tenant – and collected $10,000 a month in rent from government coffers. The same day we cruised by the house, Interpol apprehended Mr. Misick in Rio de Janeiro on an international arrest warrant on charges of corruption and maladministration. Michael Misick apparently lacks neither cash nor gumption.

The tally was thickening. Would it really benefit Canada to get into bed with these types – even if the bed was a hammock swaying in a tropical breeze?

Bonefish put up a helluva fight!

Time was running short. To judge matters objectively I needed more first-hand data… so I went bonefishing with “Bar”, a local guide. Wow! The fight presented by these fish is absurd. If you are a fly-fisherman put this adventure on your bucket-list. One moment I was admiring a juvenile nurse shark hovering in the shallow waters beneath Bar’s flat-bottomed boat and the next the line was spinning uncontrollably outward. It was ten minutes before I had that slippery little devil in my hands.

Motoring back to Provo we trolled past Bruce Willis’ house on Parrot Cay but the place looked deserted. Perhaps he was over at Demi Moore’s place having an ex-spouse, ex-pat spat.

 

I owed Bar $500 for the morning’s fishing (I told you the TCIs are expensive). We agreed to meet at a bank up the road – but as we pulled in it was being robbed. “What happened?” I asked the security guard next door. “Sketchy… it happen piece-piece,” he answered cryptically. Crime is not really an issue in the TCIs but, embarrassingly, the Provo Police Station had also recently been burgled. Thieves made off with guns, ammo and drugs held for pending court cases; adding insult to injury the police force’s new uniforms ended up at a local pawnshop.

Then there’s the “Potcakes” – Provo’s stray dogs. Packs of barking Potcakes roam the streets of this little island at night, stealing sleep from rich and poor alike. Unfortunately, the government funding for a much-needed sterilization program came unleashed amid allegations of… corruption.

Bruce retrieves an AWOL Biana.

Bruce’s dog Biana is a former Potcake, now fully civilized. During our boating afternoon Biana grew seasick but jumped overboard rather than vomit in her master’s vessel. Bruce cut the motor, dove in and brought his AWOL canine back aboard; then she threw up.

The final tally? It’s difficult to say. On our last night any negative karma evaporated when I stepped onto Bruce’s deck, into the sultry Provo darkness, and smelled the air. Have you ever encountered night-blooming jasmine? The fragrance is difficult to describe but should I ever again detect its beauty floating on a tropical evening breeze, the recollection will return like scented déjà vu.

Perhaps it’s best to let the Turks and Caicos dream drift away, unfulfilled. Like most things in life – politics included – things aren’t so simple as may first appear. Still, it sure would be nice to see the Maple Leaf fluttering over a tropical sunset.

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