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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Click below to read Part 1 in Gerry’s 3-part series on the Yukon.
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“The most-beautiful place in the world?” Gerry Feehan finds out at Lake O’Hara Lodge, Yoho National Park
Lake O’Hara, by Gerry Feehan
A Red Deer friend described Lake O’Hara Lodge in Yoho National Park, B.C. as the most beautiful place she’d ever been. I have done a fair share of travel to earth’s exotic and amazing places, so my expectations for our three-day visit to O’Hara were tempered with a grain of salt.
“…At every turn a mind-blowing vista opened before us. But always – far below – lay Lake O’Hara, an artist’s palette in aquamarine, the Lodge a tiny wooden appendage at its shore…”
The Lodge, accessible only by bus up a dusty gravel road, is tucked in the mountains west of Lake Louise. We were fortunate to secure a stay. Demand during the short summer season necessitates booking a year in advance – and priority is given to repeat clients, many of whom travel from around the globe to enjoy the natural beauty of this unique Rocky Mountain destination.
Our trip had an inauspicious beginning.
The O’Hara bus departs daily for the Lodge at 9 a.m. sharp from a parking lot near the TransCanada Highway. Rather than arise at 5 a.m. and drive from Red Deer to the O’Hara pick-up spot, we elected to spend a night at a BnB in Field, B.C. It was record-breaking hot that evening. Dinner was excellent – rainbow trout on a bed of wild rice – but the moment we turned in for the evening the hotel power quit. No lights, no TV, no a.c.; just darkness and heat.
A young woman came ‘round with a flashlight in the pitch-black offering solace: “Wow, this happened last week too. No power for 47 hours. We had to throw out most of our food.” I tossed and turned through the night’s sultry darkness, wondering whether my supper had endured the earlier blackout and was contemplating a fishy re-appearance.
Miraculously the power returned moments before our 8 a.m. checkout, in time for the hotel’s Visa machine to accept payment.
The drive into O’Hara was unimpressive: a bumpy ride on a school bus with six friends, plus a bunch of solemn strangers, all of us overburdened for the short stay with luggage, backpacks, hiking poles and superfluous personal items (in my case ineffective fishing gear). Eleven kilometers later we turned the last dusty corner. The Lodge and lake appeared in timeless beauty. Smiles erupted at the sight of rough-hewn timbers meeting cerulean waters.
While the staff discreetly unloaded our bags we were briefed in the rustic lobby and offered a pack lunch for our first day-hike. Camelbacks filled, our best lederhosen donned, off we went a wandering.
One of our companions, a Red Deer Judge, is not renowned for his hiking prowess – he’s usually meting out justice in a courtroom. But as a veteran of Lake O’Hara – and the one who was able to finagle rooms for four couples during peak season – he was the natural choice to lead our troop up the steep paths and along the precipitous ledges of O’Hara’s vast trail network.
We skirted the lake’s north shore and began the climb up Oesa Lake Trail. After an hour we reached an alpine meadow painted with delicate yellow columbine, fiery-red Indian paintbrush and shaggy green anemones – hippies on a stick.
“…The most-beautiful place she’d ever been…”
As we gained elevation the summer air became cooler. Lake Oesa was still dotted with orphaned chunks of ice sailing randomly in the wind. Spruce pollen weaved intricate patterns along the lake’s frigid shores.
At every turn a mind-blowing vista opened before us.
But always – far below – lay Lake O’Hara, an artist’s palette in aquamarine, the Lodge a tiny wooden appendage at its shore.
Although he performed admirably as pack leader, the Judge was noticeably absent when our damsels fell behind and needed a chivalrous hand fording the hazardous creeks. After tackling 16 kilometers of the toughest O’Hara could throw at us, in late afternoon we descended steeply to her cobalt shores and the luxury of a hot shower, a cold beverage and one of the better meals I’ve had the pleasure of sticking a knife and fork into.
After dinner the sated guests retired to the common room. Giant logs crackled in the open fireplace. Comradery ensued. I uncased my trusty ukulele. My Calgary buddy grabbed his guitar. He isn’t usually shy about sharing his musical talents but on this occasion I had to cajole him into playing. His reticence vanished after our first tune, when the whole Lodge clapped approval and started shouting requests.
Eventually the accolades turned to yawns. It had been a long day.
The Feehans were bunked in the rustic main lodge – with (how quaint) shared bath. Two of our snootier friends were booked into a private cabin on the lake’s edge. The rest of us selflessly included them in the group by appropriating their lakefront deck for cordials each evening.
O’Hara provides plenty of recreational options: one can tackle an oxygen-depriving climb along an alpine ridge, saunter slowly around the lake’s pristine perimeter, or just sit in the lodge and knit – admiring a view that evokes a Group of Seven painting.
But sitting and knitting is not my forté – having dropped a stitch or two in time I’ve now cast off that pursuit. I was here for the great outdoors, to experience the handiwork of Lawrence Grassi, park warden at Lake O’Hara during the 1950’s. He designed, built and for many years singlehandedly maintained the Alpine Circuit Trail. Generations of hikers have enjoyed his skillfully arranged rockwork. An elaborate staircase of stone skirting Victoria Falls is one of his masterful works. A simple plaque on the rock face beneath the falls honours his remarkable achievements.
“…I grabbed my pack and scrambled to safety – behind my wife Florence…”
On our second day we tackled another longish ramble but one involving less altitude. As we descended into a lush valley and neared a narrow bridge a rumble of distant thunder surrounded us. I looked up, puzzled by the sky’s uniform blue. Near the summit above us a torrent of meltwater and ice was erupting into the watershed. The Odaray Glacier was calving. A fresh blue gash scarred its frozen grey mass. We hustled across the flimsy log bridge and safely upward into the forest before the flood arrived.
We stopped for lunch on a rocky ledge overlooking Lake McArthur. The others sat and rested their tired feet. I stood, vigilant, acutely attuned to the surroundings. I was intent on photographing the rare hoary marmot. This elusive mammal lives a solitary life tucked amongst craggy alpine rocks.
As I scanned the distant horizon the Judge shouted, “Gerry, look out for your trail mix.” I turned my binoculars and was confronted with a nostril-hair close-up of a large blond rodent. The critter was within arm’s reach and marching my way. His long marmot claws suggested this was a business meeting. I grabbed my pack and scrambled to safety – behind my wife Florence.
For the balance of the day I remained at the back of the group – to ensure we weren’t attacked from the flank by a malicious herbivore.
A few years ago Florence and I bought all the gear required for serious backcountry camping: lightweight sleeping bags, thinsulate mattresses, gas cooker: the whole outdoor shebang. Then we discovered places like Lake O’Hara Lodge, where mountain air and comfort co-mingle; filet mignon, a glass of quality red goof and a soft bed are the reward for a gruelling day in the alpine.
As for our Red Deer friend’s assessment that Lake O’Hara is the most beautiful place she’s ever been? Let’s just say I still respect her opinion. I had better. She’s organizing our trip to Bhutan this fall. She says it’s the happiest place on earth. I’ll let you know.
Gerry Feehan 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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Dorian becomes a Category 4 monster powering toward Florida
MIAMI — Hurricane Dorian powered toward Florida with increasing fury Friday, becoming an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm but leaving forecasters uncertain whether it would make a direct hit on the state’s east coast or inflict a glancing blow.
The storm’s winds rose to 130 mph (215 kph) and then, hours later, to a howling 140 mph (225 kph) as Dorian gained strength while crossing warm Atlantic waters. The hurricane could wallop the state with even higher winds and torrential rains late Monday or early Tuesday, with millions of people in the crosshairs, along with Walt Disney World and President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
Though Dorian is growing in intensity, some of the more reliable computer models predicted a late turn northward that would have Dorian hug the coast, the National Hurricane Center said.
“There is hope,” Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said.
The faint hope came on a day in which Dorian seemed to get scarier with each forecast update, growing from a dangerous Category 3 hurricane to an even more menacing Category 4 storm. And there were fears it could prove to be the most powerful hurricane to hit Florida’s east coast in nearly 30 years.
Late Friday, the National Hurricane Center’s projected new track showed Dorian hitting near Fort Pierce, some 70 miles (115
Trump declared a state of emergency in Florida and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to
“This is big and is growing, and it still has some time to get worse,” Julio Vasquez said at a Miami fast-food joint next to a gas station that had run out of fuel. “No one knows what can really happen. This is serious.”
As Dorian closed in, it upended people’s Labor Day weekend plans. Major airlines began allowing
Jessica Armesto and her 1-year-old daughter, Mila, had planned to have breakfast with Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy at Disney World. Instead, Armesto decided to take shelter at her mother’s hurricane-resistant house in Miami with its kitchen full of nonperishable foods.
“It felt like it was better to be safe than sorry, so we
Still, with Dorian days away and its track uncertain, Disney and other major resorts held off announcing any closings, and Florida authorities ordered no immediate mass evacuations.
“Sometimes if you evacuate too soon, you may evacuate into the path of the storm if it changes,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
Homeowners and businesses rushed to cover their windows with plywood. Supermarkets ran out of bottled water, and long lines formed at gas stations, with fuel shortages reported in places. The governor said the Florida Highway Patrol would begin escorting fuel trucks to help them get past the lines of waiting motorists and replenish gas stations.
At a Publix supermarket in Cocoa Beach, Ed Ciecirski of the customer service department said the pharmacy was extra busy with people rushing to fill prescriptions. The grocery was rationing bottled water and had run out of dry ice.
“It’s hairy,” he said.
As of 11 p.m. EDT, Dorian was
Coastal areas could get 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30
Also imperiled were the Bahamas , where canned food and bottled water were disappearing quickly and the sound of hammering echoed across the islands as people boarded up their homes. Dorian was expected to hit by Sunday with the potential for life-threatening storm surge that could raise water levels 15 feet above normal.
“Do not be foolish and try to brave out this hurricane,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said. “The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life.”
In Florida, the governor urged nursing homes to take precautions to prevent tragedies like the one during Hurricane Irma two years ago, when the storm knocked out the air conditioning at a facility in Hollywood and 12 patients died in the sweltering heat. Four employees of the home were charged with manslaughter earlier this week.
DeSantis said the timely message from those arrests is: “It’s your responsibility to make sure you have a plan in place to protect those folks.”
At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA moved a 380-foot-high mobile launch platform to the safety of the colossal Vehicle Assembly Building, built to withstand 125 mph (200 kph) wind. The launcher is for the mega rocket that NASA is developing to take astronauts to the moon.
The hurricane season typically peaks between mid-August and late October. One of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S. was on Labor Day 1935. The unnamed Category 5 hurricane crashed ashore along Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sept. 2. It was blamed for over 400 deaths.
Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein and Michael Balsamo in Washington; Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Freida Frisaro and Marcus Lim in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; and Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.
For AP’s complete coverage of the hurricane: https://apnews.com/Hurricanes
Adriana Gomez Licon And Ellis Rua, The Associated Press
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