Sunday, July 15, 2012

In the footsteps of the ice ages: crossing the Yukon

The Mighty Yukon River at Dawson City
As you cross into the Yukon, it becomes apparent that you are in a land that has regularly felt the bump and grind of moving ice as successive ice ages have scoured the landscapes, leaving behind myriads of lakes and glacial valleys. The spectacular uplifted mountain ranges of the Rockies are off to the east so the main feature of these landscapes are the massive rivers, huge volumes of water rushing to all points of the compass, some ending up in the Pacific, some in the Arctic and yet others flowing to Hudson Bay. Some of the rivers here would put Australia’s mightiest to shame, and yet have names that no one but the few locals would know. And the mightiest of all, of course, is the Yukon - the river of golden dreams in the past and now the destination for canoeists from around the world embarking on epic paddling trips along various portions of its length. We toyed with the idea of spending a few days on it but decided that, whilst it is an impressive body of water, the landscape that it flows through lacks the grandeur of many other rivers and that the attraction is perhaps more the myth than the reality.
...and I'll have a drop of the red with that thanks.
Dropped into Whitehorse to replenish supplies, a relatively large service center for the region (even has some multi-story buildings!) which is a mishmash of older historic buildings and ugly shopping malls. This contrast is also reflected in the people, with the out-of-staters (seems that there are quite a few government workers imported from elsewhere) congregating in the funky coffee shop (real coffee!) while the locals walked the streets with long scruffy beards, backwoods apparel and very large knives on their belts!  
Part of the Stikine Canyon near Telegraph Creek
Salmon fishing shack on the Stikine

So instead of kayaking the Yukon, we poked around some back roads, one of which took us through remote country to Telegraph Creek where the rivers had cut huge gorges for many kilometers through the landscape. The rivers here had taken many lives so we decided these weren’t really suited to us either, so we simply camped on their banks and appreciated them from the sidelines. Got chatting to a fellow who had just bought a property here. He runs an internet-based furniture business so intends to run it from the middle of nowhere with his solar and micro-hydro power sources in a climate that apparently is fine for growing vegies, although I’m not sure how you’d cope through winter. It seems that this was an area that lots of US draft dodgers settled in during the ‘70s and now their kids are moving back to the area. 
Camp guest at Telegraph Creek
Another side trip took us to the quaint little hamlet of Atlin, lots of old rickety houses and a few newer cabins on the stunning Atlin Lake with views across to more snow-capped peaks and glaciers. Chatted with a local First Nations girl who had just moved into town (actually to a tent on the edge of town, living in fear of bears) to be with her boyfriend who works on the fishing fleets several months of the year. There was a funeral and potlatch happening for an elder who had passed away and she would be serving food at the ceremony. She explained that, by being a Crow, she would not be able to eat at the ceremony as the person who had died was a Wolf. This, however, was good for business at the local takeaway as all of the Crows were going across the road to buy food for themselves, as did we, sampling the local fish and chips. 
Dusk over Atlin Lake

The MV Tarahne - retired from service in 1936 - now an occasional restaurant 
A hike up a nearby range in search of mountain goats resulted in another close encounter with bears. As we returned down the track we met a mother black bear with two cubs coming the other way. On seeing us they turned aside and melted off into the bushes on the side of the trail. As there was no other way back to the car, we had to make our way past where they had disappeared. The track was narrow and enclosed and rose steeply above us on one side and dropped equally steeply on the other. With one hand on the bear spray and making enough noise to ensure they knew where we were, we made our way downwards, peering into the shrubs for dark shapes. After about 50 meters, we saw nothing of them until suddenly one of the cubs came trotting down the path behind us. We had obviously passed within meters of the three bears, knowing they were there, and still not seeing them. Makes one wonder how many others we have passed by in the shrubbery?!
Did get to see some mountain goats though.

What happens when you warm up the permafrost!
The summer solstice found us in Dawson City, a bizarre yet quaint town where all of the buildings are preserved and restored relics of the gold rush days or, if new, built to match the style of that era. They seem to have pulled it of pretty well, as it gives the feeling of a living and lived-in town rather than a tourist artifice. What was more weird was the population - a mix of First Nations people, old timer whites, a younger white set of new wave hippies who have built funky cabins in the hills around town, the RVers blowing in an out, a bunch of german punks who looked like they were living on the meagre tips they were getting from busking on the main street and, finally, hundreds of bikers who turn up here each year from all over the americas at the completion of the Dust to Dawson rally.

Yukon Sternwheeler
Tr'ondek Hwech'in celebrating National Aboriginal Day
The solstice also coincided with National Aboriginal Day so we were privileged to be able to listen to the songs and stories of the local Tr'ondek Hwech'in, performed by three generations of singers and dancers dressed in traditional clothing.
Apparently the location of Dawson City was an important seasonal fishing camp for the Tr'ondek Hwech'in but, with the discovery of gold, thousands of prospectors settled the area. The then chief, Chief Isaac, foresaw the risks this posed and through negotiations with the Government of the day, created a new settlement a few miles away. He also anticipated the impact of the newcomers on traditional culture and so entrusted their songs, dances and stories with First Nations Peoples in Alaska. With the signing of a Land Rights agreement in July 1988 and the repatriation of their songs and dances it seems that the really do have something to celebrate at this time of year 

Our journey then took us across the Yukon river on a little ferry that carried a handful of cars, or a single truck, across the river at a time. From the river we climbed steadily to the Top of the World “highway”, a potholed and corrugated dirt road that ultimately took us to the border with Alaska where we waited to be cleared to re-enter the US as they attempted to recover their crashed computer system.

Taking the ferry over the Yukon River

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