26 June –8 July
Our first full day back in Canada had us completing our journey over the fabulous Top of the World Highway, it was not as clear as we would have hoped, but we are really glad we got to drive it, dust and all! We camped the next few days in the Yukon Campground, which is across the Yukon river from Dawson City, Yukon. There is no bridge over the Yukon river here, so you have to take the George Black ferry to get to into town. Like so many of the rivers we’d been seeing recently, the Yukon was roaring, 10 knots is what one of the ferry operators told us it was running at, down from 13 in previous weeks. It was a fascinating experience seeing how the ferry navigated that extreme current to its advantage. The ferry boat is not very big, it can take a couple of rvs/trailers and quite a few cars , the round-trip ran 17-20 minutes. Con had a great time pretending he was driving the ferry on a couple of our journeys across when we were at the front. The wait for the ferry can get really long during peak times. One morning as we crossed over on our bikes, we saw a long line of rvs/trailers waiting on the city side, turns out it took 3 hours before the last one in that line got across the river.
Dawson City is located at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers which was at the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush. Prior to the gold rush, the land where Dawson City is situated was a summer residence for the Tr'ondek Hwech’in, one of Canada’s First Nations who have inhabited the Yukon areas for millennia. In addition to it being their summer fish camp, they utilized the rivers for trading between themselves, other interior tribes and with the coastal Tlingit tribes. Once the gold rush started, the never-ending scenario of the white man pushing out the natives was repeated and the town of Dawson City was formed, the locals moved their camp a little way up the Klondike river.
Dawson City did the classic gold rush boom, growing to 30,000+ people in just one season. But it did not become a lawless frontier outpost thanks to the legendary Mountie, Sam Steele. He successfully imposed order in the town, in part because he allowed no handguns in the city. Imagine that, no guns meant a lack of lawlessness and violence. The boom lasted just two seasons as many unsuccessful stampeders left and large companies brought in heavy equipment (i.e. dredges) to continue the mining. The city has survived due to continued mining (even through today), fur trading (until they were wiped out) and more recently with tourism. It’s a small place, you can cycle from one end of town to the other in just a few minutes, but it is very charming and feels very authentic. The streets are mostly unpaved and they still have wooden boardwalks in some parts of town. The people were super friendly, but like so many other tourist spots we found many places closed or with limited hours because they can’t get the workers. Due to the extreme remoteness of Dawson City, everything is very expensive, from gas to groceries we saw the highest prices of the entire trip.
We left Dawson City a day early due to wildfire smoke and spent the next week or so determining where to stay based on the least amount of smoke. From Dawson City we traveled down the Klondike Highway and stayed in Carmacks for one night, then onto Whitehorse for a couple of nights during the Canada Day long weekend. Canada Day celebrates the anniversary of the forming of the Canadian Confederation on July 1st, 1867, where the three separate colonies of United Canadas, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were united into a single Dominion within the British Empire called Canada. To join in on the celebration, we took a stroll along the Whitehorse river walk, picked up a small Canadian flag to fly in solidarity with our northern neighbors, then grilled up some smokies (smoked cross between a hot dog and a sausage). Unlike their bacon, which in my opinion, is way better than ours, the smokies were not very impressive.
The next day we headed south for a side-trip to Atlin, BC, a small town situated on a huge lake surrounded by beautiful mountains which has been nicknamed the Switzerland of the North. We had traveled relatively close to Atlin on our way north and I had read about its beauty in the Alaska highway Guide, the Milepost, but at that point we had already decided to go to Conrad Campground and Skagway. Two things changed our minds: I had talked to a man who lived in Atlin while we were in camping near Dawson City and he promised we wouldn’t be disappointed if we went there. We could also escape some of the worst of the wildfire smoke by going south for a few days, so although the views were not crystal clear, the man was right, we were not disappointed.
As it turns out, our timing was excellent. Just before we left Whitehorse, we learned that a part of the Alaska Highway was shut down along the route we were going to take. There had been some flooding that had taken out an entire section of the road. The flooding was caused by heavy rains which washed away a beaver’s dam. When the dam broke, the lake behind it flooded into the creek, which flooded over the road and eventually washed it away. What a nightmare for anyone caught on either side of the washout as the only way around was a 320-mile detour using the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (the one we came up on). I suspect a lot of people did what we did, just hole up until the road re-opens. We figured that the major road through to Alaska wouldn’t be closed for very long, no matter how bad the washout was.
Atlin was originally inhabited by the Taku River Tlingit First Nation people, who still reside there today. Its name is based on the Tlingit language word for ‘big body of water’. The white man came along with another gold rush, one of the richest offshoots of the Klondike Gold Rush and like Dawson City, there is still gold being mined there today. After the gold rush boom, Atlin became an exotic tourist destination, as there was no road to it, folks had to travel up the Inside Passage, through the British Columbia coast, across several passes and multiple lakes to get to it. The Great Depression put a dent in that tourism and it wasn’t until 1950 when a road was built that tourism picked up again along with
We stayed at an RV Park that was right on the water with amazing views and Lola got to have a couple of swims each day. We took a couple of drives out to explore the area and to check out the rest of the lake (it is enormous) and a couple of small campgrounds that we had considered moving to. But in the end, we stayed in town as the view was awesome and the breeze from the lake kept most of the mosquitos away. We heard that the Alaska Highway had re-opened on day three, but we decided to stay on another day before heading onto our next destination, Liard Hot Springs.
We had a couple of one-night stops between Atlin and Liard Hot Springs and we finally got to see all that wildlife that we had been promised. The first day after leaving Atlin, we saw two bears, several moose, and a couple of herds of bison. That night we stayed at a little RV park on a lake just east of Teslin, which was really nice until the wind died down and the mosquitos came out. While not quite as bad as the Chena Lake mosquito hell, we did have to stay inside the rest of the night and got out of there in a hurry the next morning.
The next day we did a stock-up at Watson Lake, which is well known on the Alaska Highway as it’s the home of the Sign Post Forest. People have been bringing signposts from their hometowns since 1942 and continue to do so today. It all started when the Alaska Highway was being built and soldier Carl K. Lindly was asked to repair the directional signposts. Once he completed the job, he added a sign indicating the direction and distance to his hometown of Danville, Illinois, others followed suit and the trend caught on. In 1990, a couple from Ohio added the 10,000th sign and today there are over 77,000 with more being added every year. We didn’t walk around the entire Sign Post Forest, but we did go through a few rows. Some folks have stayed traditional with directional and mileage to their hometowns, others have put license plates, just their names and the date and I even saw a toaster which had been added by a newly married couple in 2018. A funky and interesting part of the legend that is the Alaska Highway. That night we stayed at Allan’s Lookout, a road-side viewpoint overlooking the Upper Liard River. It was another nice boondocking stop on the Alaska Highway and with wide open spaces, the mosquitos weren’t too bad.
The following day we expected a short journey of just 77 miles from our roadside boondocking spot to Liard Hot Springs. Located on the western side of the Northern Rockies, it is a place that every fellow traveler that we’ve met told us we MUST go. We felt very lucky to be able to book a couple nights there on short notice and figured someone must have cancelled due to the road closure, because these British Columbia Parks are always booked solid. Not long after we started our drive, we entered the Northern Rockies and although the weather wasn’t looking too good, the scenery was fantastic. Winding through a canyon along the Liard River with gorgeous peaks and sheer walls all around, it was nice to be back in this this very familiar type of mountains.
I had a bad feeling when we pulled up to the campground Kiosk at Liard Hot Springs and the Ranger had a mosquito netting hat on. As he normally does when we enter a campground, Conrad opened the back window for Lola and then opened his window to speak to the Ranger. Within a minute, 30-40 mosquitos had entered the truck, it was both horrifying and surreal. We keep a zapper handy in the truck and started the mosquito slaughter, but not before both of had been bitten a couple of times. I think we both knew at that point we wouldn’t be staying, but we went ahead and checked in, then drove off to our site. Along the way we saw only two other campsites occupied and one couple walking to the hot springs in hazmat suits, it’s a half mile walk from the campground to the hot springs.
Turns out the hot springs are not only adjacent to the Liard River, but they are also adjacent to a swamp, as is the campground. The site was fine, but once I took a quick trip inside Two Sheds to get the other bug zapper, then got back in the truck, we realized this place would just be hell. Even with the mosquito netting, those buggers would have come inside Two Sheds like they did at Chena Lake and it seemed like there were 10 times as many. So, for the second time on this trip, we had to run away from a spot we had hoped to enjoy. At least this time we had all day to continue our drive and seek a more inviting place to camp.
We continued driving east on the Alaska Highway, heading towards Fort Nelson. We had quite a bit of rain along the way, but it didn’t detract from the splendor of the Northern Rockies. Our lunch stop was by Muncho Lake, which at 7.5 miles long and 1 mile at its widest point makes it one of the largest natural lakes in the Rockies. It was a stunning turquoise color and had steep peaks surrounding it, just lovely. We knew we had to drive outside of the Provincial Park where roadside boondocking is not allowed before we could stop for the night, but luckily, we happened upon a first come first served campground at Summit Lake which had plenty of open sites. The wind was howling across Summit Lake, so mosquitos were not a problem and we got a site with the lake on one side and a babbling creek on the other – bliss!