The Yukon, Alaska Highway and Skagway
As we traversed the final 200 miles of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, we had a few interesting experiences. We saw our first Moose grazing in an even more rarely seen phenomena, a non-frozen pond. We also had to cross over a flooded road which fortunately had crew there to tell us it was OK to go through, then we drove by miles and miles and miles of burnt forest. It must have been an enormous wildfire, as we could see nothing but major burn damage out over all horizons. Having just had our experience with the Caldor Fire last summer, we were glad to leave that behind us and pass into the Yukon*.
Shortly after entering the Yukon, we turned onto the Alaska Highway, also known as the AlCan. This is the famous one that most people have heard of, the one that runs from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska. Construction of the highway started in March of 1942, it took 25,000 men using 7000 pieces of equipment just under 10 months to complete the 1422 miles. My favorite story so far is about the building of the Sikanni Chief River bridge at Milestone 162. It spans 300 feet and was built by the African American 95th Regiment who bet their paychecks that they could break all records to build it. They won the bet, finishing the bridge in less than 84 hours, half the normal time. Much of the original Alaska highway has been reconstructed over the years and the total mileage today is 1390. We have driven 755 miles of the western portion; we’ll pick up the remaining 635 when we come back down.
Our first night in the Yukon we stayed at Big Creek, which is Yukon Government campground. It was open, but not being serviced, so it was our first free night of camping of the trip, a welcome change after all those RV parks! There was still a lot of snow around and Lola enjoyed many a snow roll while we enjoyed a nice bit of sunshine and the roaring sounds of what really was a Big Creek.
The next day we headed for Conrad Campground, located about 50 miles south of Whitehorse and a few miles south of Carcross. The road was much quieter than we expected, and we saw quite a bit of wildlife on the first part of our drive including Porcupines, Coyote, and Caribou. Our lunch stop was at the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Center where we saw some beautiful examples of beaded embroidery, ceremonial face masks and totem poles representing their 5 clans.
The campground was just off the Klondike Highway (2) which runs from Skagway, AK to Dawson City, YT and loosely follows the Chilkoot Trail that the stampeders took to get to the Klondike Gold strike. As appropriate, we got the best campsite overlooking the (yes, still frozen) lake. But the sun was shining, it wasn’t too terribly cold and since firewood is provided at the Yukon campgrounds, we got a roaring blaze going while we celebrated the better weather and camping in Conrad’s own personal campground.
The following day we went out to Skagway, which took us into Alaska, a big milestone for us as we had now been to all 50 States. Although I don’t recall us ever making it a ‘goal’ to do so, with all our travels between work and play, it was just a matter of time before it happened and it really was a special feeling.
The drive to Skagway takes you up and over the White Pass before going through US Border Control and Customs before dropping down into town. So you go from Glaciers to sea level and due to the late spring, we went from winter to summer in just a few miles. It was a stunningly beautiful drive, one of the most spectacular we’ve seen and a must do if you ever venture this way or if you take an Alaska cruise, there will, no doubt be a tour offered.
Skagway is the oldest incorporated city in Alaska (1900), its name is derived from the Tlingit word ‘Shgagwei’ which means either ‘roughed up water’ or ‘north wind’ depending upon the resource you read. It owes its existence to the Klondike Gold Rush as the first ships of stampeders arrived there starting in July of 1897 and by October there was a population of almost 20,000. But unlike many gold rush towns, Skagway has managed to survive and to hold onto its gold rush atmosphere. Its economy is based on tourism and along with being a stop on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry system, it is also a port of call for pretty much every cruise ship that comes up the inland passageway. We had the misfortune of showing up on a day when 4 cruise ships were in port. As we drove into the main downtown street it was like being in a zombie movie. Imagine thousands of people all walking really, really, slowly and looking up and all around this quaint little old west street. Con and I immediately had the same thought about zombies and we don’t mean it disrespectfully, as we’ve certainly done our fair share of walking slowly and taking in the scenery, but it was a bit surreal to encounter it on that scale.
To get away from the throngs of people, we took a drive out to Dyea which is located up the Taiya Inlet. Dyea was boomed during the Klondike gold rush and it is where the Chilkoot Trail actually started. But once the rush was over by the summer of 1899 and the White Pass & Yukon railroad was completed in 1900 with its terminus in Skagway, Dyea’s population quickly depleted. Today, it’s a peaceful and beautiful recreation area with a nice campground and lots of areas for boondocking as well. The drive back over the White Pass to Conrad Campground was equally impressive, we had a more typical Canandian Customs experience (lots of questions) and we got a good close look at bear on the side of the road.
*Is it just us, or has everyone else always heard Yukon referred to as ‘The Yukon’? We’ve been joking about it a lot and wondering why we’ve never heard of ‘The British Columbia’ or ‘The Alberta’. Most signs we’ve seen just say Yukon, but once in a while, we’ll see it noted as ‘The Yukon’. We’ve decided we like the ‘The’ so that’s what I’m sticking with.