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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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Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

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The view from atop Gros Morne is spectacular.

The talk of salt cod and moose started before we’d even made landfall on The Rock. On the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland, a wizened fellow regaled us with stories of jigging for fish with his cousin and bagging a bull moose with his wife. It was late September.

He was pleased as punch that the freezer was stocked with sufficient cod and moose meat to see the family through a harsh Newfoundland winter. As

Florence and I drove off the ferry the man motioned us with a gnarly finger. I rolled down the window.

“Safe travels me-son. And don’t drive at night on The Rock,” he warned, “sometimes the moose are so thick you have to get out of the car and push them off the road.”

We were on Newfoundland’s southwest tip. The island is bigger than I had expected. The first road sign we saw proclaimed, ‘St John’s 890km’. But before heading to the distant capital on the Avalon Peninsula we wanted to explore the west of Newfoundland, Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse Aux Meadows, where Leif Erickson established North America’s first European settlement 1000 years ago—500 years before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola in the sunny Caribbean.

The drive north from Port Aux Basques was slow going. Along the highway, workers were installing the new transmission line from Muskrat Falls in neighbouring Labrador on the mainland. This project is an expensive undertaking—and considered by some Newfoundlanders just another dam boondoggle. Many Islanders also still bristle at the mention of Churchill Falls, a hydroelectric legacy from the era of Joey Smallwood, Canada’s last Father of Confederation.

Fall colours were near peak as we drove past lovely Corner Brook and leafy Marble Mountain. We enjoyed a late-season round of golf at Humber Valley Resort, ranked Canada’s 6th best public golf course. The rolling fairways were flanked by yellow, gold and red-hued deciduous trees and stoic evergreens. There were no moose on course, but a solitary black fox did greedily eye my ball on the green at the signature par 4 10th.  A little further down the TransCanada we made a sharp left at Deer Lake onto Hwy 430, bound for Gros Morne and the rugged west coast.

 

Life is hard on The Rock.

Gros Morne National Park is remarkably diverse. The pebbled shoreline of Rocky Harbour gives way to a series of finger lakes, forming magnificent inland fjords. South, across Bonne Bay, lie the Tablelands where Earth’s mantle has squeezed to the surface and only the odd pitcher plant and a few other hardy species can survive the acidic, infertile ancient soil. And lording over all is Gros Morne, Newfoundland’s second highest mountain, which we intended to climb.

The night before our ascent we stopped at Park Headquarters to pick up a trail map.

“Be careful me-loves,” warned the ranger, “specially if you see a tick fag.”

“We most certainly will,” I assured her, glancing over my shoulder. In the morning, low dense clouds roiled out over the sea but the sky above Gros Morne was crystal clear. No tick fag up there.

The hard part about summiting Gros Morne Mountain isn’t the summit itself. The top is flat as a pancake, a broad sparse plain where caribou graze on lichen—and rock ptarmigan nest. The difficult portion of the ascent is ‘the Gully’ a breathless hour of bouldering through frost-shattered rock that precedes the Arctic tundra of the plateau. ‘Big Lone Mountain’ tops out at 806m (2600 ft) and since the hike starts pretty much at sea level, the elevation gain is just that. As we exited the Gully, our calm fall day rapidly deteriorated into wintery conditions atop the windswept barren.

A rock ptarmigan strolls the summit.

We snapped a quick pic at the signpost marking the high point before scurrying toward the descent on the far side of the mesa. There we met two young women who had stopped for a terrifying selfie on the precipice overlooking Ten Mile Pond. I could barely stand upright as we screamed at each other over the wind. The Parks Canada brochure warns trekkers to be prepared for an arduous climb and that “hikers have fallen from the ledge… and died.” Watching the gals pose near the cliff in this gale, I wondered, “Fallen? More likely blown.”

That night, at the Ocean View Hotel in Rocky Harbour, we enjoyed our first Newfoundland kitchen party, where we were screeched in and kissed the cod, courtesy of local celebrity Dave Shears. I joined our host on stage for a couple of songs.

“Stick around and strum a few after the others have left,” he offered, “and we’ll have a cuffer ‘bout dis and dat.”

So, long after the cod had been smooched, the screech ‘inned’ and the bar doors barred, we were still singing, quaffing—and trading yarns with our convivial hosts.

Western Brook Pond is a glacier-carved, masterpiece of nature. A cruise on this fresh-water fjord is mandatory for any visit to Gros Morne. But check the forecast. Chances are that you’ll walk 40 minutes from the parking area to the pier only to find the boat ride has been cancelled due to foul weather.

But even if the outing is kiboshed, the 2km hike through tuckamore forest, with long stretches of boardwalk over peaty bogs and around fragile wetlands, is worth the amble. Luckily we had a good day for it. The boat meandered slowly to the far end of the long, narrow lake, squeezing between sheer, 750m high cliffs. Everywhere waterfalls cascaded to the surface from the dizzying heights. Since Newfoundland is a land of perpetual impromptu music, the boat’s crew couldn’t refrain from scratching their musical itch during the two-hour tour.

When not attending to his maritime duties, the first mate played the spoons. Passengers clapped accompaniment while Celtic jigs blared over the ship’s loudspeakers.

Sheer cliffs define the fresh-water fjord.

The next evening the live entertainment continued at the Gros Morne Music Festival in Cow Head with fiddling, percussion and a sad, a capella ballad recounting the hard life of early Newfoundlanders. After midnight, walking back to our campground, the wind began to freshen. At 3am we were shaken awake by a strong sou’ wester – and slept only in fits and starts for the rest of the night.

Our plan was to hit the road early for the 350km drive to l’Anse aux Meadows on the extreme tip of the Northern Peninsula. But by morning the gusts were blowing in at 100kph – a sad portent for motor home travel. We decided to hunker down and wait out the tempest. But one by one our resolute fellow campers pulled up stakes. Soon we were the sole remainders. Suffering from FOMO, I threw caution to the gale-force wind, pulled out onto the narrow, winding highway and, as they oddly say in Newfoundland, steered north ‘down the coast.’

Next time: L’Anse aux Meadows and more tales from The Rock.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

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

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

Click to read more travel stories.

 

 

 

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Sailing the Nile – Parts 1 and 2

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Sailing the Nile

This is the second in a two-part series “Sailing the Nile”.

There were only 15 guests on board the Malouka: nine polite Americans and our group of six raucous Canadians. We were on a six-day sail up the Nile River. The vessel was a traditional double-masted dahabiya, part of the Nour el Nil fleet https://www.nourelnil.com/

Dahabiyas have been plying the waters of the Nile for millennia. But this was a cleverly-constructed, modern, luxurious craft for us clever, modern, luxuriant folk.

Egypt: Sailing the Nile Part 1 by Gerry Feehan

 

In addition to the crew – who outnumbered the guests – we were graced with the presence of Jean-Pierre, a gentle man with a charming Parisian accent whose only responsibility aboard ship (from what we could glean) was to hop from boat to boat, entertaining the guests with his relaxed septuagenarian spirit – and to act as self-appointed ‘bodyguard’ to Eleanor, one of the fleet’s owners. Eleanor, an elegant French lady, maintained her sumptuous quarters on the Malouka’s sister ship, the Meroe.

Every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, was served in style, on deck, in the open air. The food was amazing. We were waited on like Pharaohs and Queens: fresh-netted Nile perch, crisp fried falafel and baba ghanouj; straight-from–the-oven flatbread to scoop up the tahini, hummus and yogurt sauces. Each afternoon, we were offered the refreshing juice of some exotic fruit. After dinner, often just a simple desert of dates and figs.

After feeding the guests, the crew enjoys lunch on the lower deck

We quickly bonded with the crew. Where English/Arabic language issues arose, the occasional knowing nod, some common courtesy and a mutual admiration for the beauty of the Nile, sufficed. The Egyptian crew was polite and attentive. And even the most hardened of these river seamen displayed a boyish sense of humour.

Each time we neared shore to dock for an excursion, the captain – whom the staff had inexplicably nicknamed Humpty Dumpty – commenced a routine of alarmed shouts directed at the bow crew—while simultaneously engaging in a frantic arm-waving ceremony toward the helmsman. As we neared Edfu, and before he could start this inevitable daily performance, I jumped into his station at the bow and began gesticulating and yelling in my best pidgin Arabic.

Humpty looked at me in astonishment. The crew was momentarily dumfounded. Then one-by-one they burst into hysterical laughter. The cook, abandoning the galley, fell to the floor, pounding his fists on the deck with unrestrained glee.

I looked at the captain apologetically and said, “Asif.” But I wasn’t really sorry—and Humpty was laughing just as hard as the others.

The sun began to redden over the Nile. The barge passed fertile fields of cotton and sugar cane; lush orchards of pomegranates and figs. Galabiya-clad shepherds looked up from their flocks. Women washed clothes in the fading light. Children leapt into the clear warm water. A startled grey heron squawked. A young boy astride a thin donkey waived hello. Everything was fun and games. Then the squall hit.

The sudden gale propelled the dahabiya sideways. We were headed for an inevitable collision with shore. All hands were on deck as the bow slowly crushed into a thick grove of papyrus. I looked at the captain. He was not laughing. Orders were shouted. Two crewmen jumped overboard with tie-lines in hand, frantically swimming through the thick reeds. On shore they pounded grounding stakes into the hard bank. Then the entire team, from first mate to cook, hauled fast the lines.

When you are a ship’s captain you are on duty 24/7 and can never break, even if your name is Humpty.

As quickly as it started the squall ebbed and all was well again.

Humpty at the helm

This motley crew was not much help during the squall

After the calm we resumed our drift. Near the Temple of Horemheb we tied up for the night, went ashore and visited a small village. We popped in for shai (tea) at what can only be described as the neighbourhood pub, although no alcohol was served. The place smelled of desert grime seasoned with stale tobacco smoke. In the dim murky light an animated group of men were huddled around a table, taking turns smashing domino tiles down upon the battered old piece of furniture. They offered us shai and thick, sweet Turkish coffee, then invited us to join the game and share shisha—a water pipe. The local tobacco is flavoured with fruit and the taste is very mild. Even a deep inhale doesn’t burn the lungs. Or so I’m told.

It was evident that the people here were desperately poor. And yet they welcomed us politely, with expressions of sincere gratitude for our visit to their country. Proffered payment for the shai, coffee, shisha—and our domino debts—were all firmly refused.

Young and old, Nile folk were friendly and welcoming

Egypt needs visitors. Tourism has been hard hit by an unfortunate series of events: 9/11, middle-east concerns, terrorist threats – both real and imagined. The 2010 ‘Arab Spring’ democratic uprising was, ironically, particularly devastating. Tourist numbers plummeted to near zero, but are now recovering. Still, only about 150 of the 350 tour boats that formerly plied this section of the Nile are operating.

We left the village and climbed to a high vantage point overlooking the mighty river. It began to rain. Soon we were all soaked to the skin. Sawi, Alberto and Mahmoud (our on-board waiters and off-board protectors) danced gleefully in the desert downpour. This part of Egypt had not seen rain for four years.

In the morning, docked below the high dam at Aswan, we enjoyed a solemn breakfast while watching a last sunrise over the Nile. Our toast was served with marmalade and melancholy. Our time aboard the Melouka was over. Jean-Pierre and Eleanor came to bid us adieu. All of the crew were emotional. Mahmoud’s eyes were glued to the floor. You know I hate to see a grown man cry… so I avoided looking in the mirror.

We walked the gangplank off the dahabiya. A van awaited us dockside. There we were introduced to Sayed Mansour, from Exodus Travel, who would be our guide for the rest of our Egyptian adventure. He hurried us into the van. A plane awaited us. We were bound for the ancient temple of Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser.

Exodus Travel skillfully handled every detail of our Egypt adventure: www.exodustravels.com/‎

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in Kimberley, BC!

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

Click to read more travel stories.

 

8 miles off the coast of Ireland Gerry Feehan’s “Buddy-Hike” discovers the Skellig Islands

 

 

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