Since we turned onto the Alaskan Highway, we’ve been running with a pair of Honda Fits. My little Prius is currently having its cracked springs replaced courtesy of Maine’s roads, so I’ve worried about those Fits. I’ve watched them slither over some jarring pavement, or lack of it. By Liard River, we were calling brief greetings to them at stops.
Although Liard River Hot Springs appeared less threatening in the morning light, a visitor told me she’d seen a bear only a few minutes earlier. In fact, the Hanging Gardens and the boardwalk leading to them are currently closed to the public due to “significant bear activity.” These are the hottest hot springs I’ve ever visited. But, alas, nothing lasts forever, and we reluctantly hit the road again.
Our journey took us through Teslin, which has a seemingly-incongruous totem pole in the center of town. Teslin is home to the Tlingit people. A few hundred years ago, these coastal people migrated inland through the Taku River in search of furs. The Alaskan Highway crosses the lake on a long span across Nisutlin Bay, which was kicking up whitecaps as we crossed it.
At 78 miles long, Teslin Lake dwarfs New York’s Finger Lakes. It is stained the same iridescent blue-green of so many glacier lakes in this area. The aspens are definitely showing signs of autumn here—greenish yellow at lower elevations, and golden higher up the mountains. There were almost no signs of human habitation between Teslin and Whitehorse except the occasional service station.
Our first clue that we’re in the storied Klondike came when we turn onto Robert Service Way in Whitehorse. He’s the fellow who wrote this immortal bit of doggerel:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee…
Gold was discovered in the Klondike in August, 1896, by Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie and George Washington Carmack. A hundred thousand prospectors crowded into the region in three years’ time. By the next year, “stampeders” were arriving via steamship at Whitehorse, a dangerous passage on a river full of rapids.
The first copper claims were staked by Jack McIntyre and the aforementioned Sam McGee, who went south, actually, refusing to die in the Gold Rush. In 1930, he returned once more to the Klondike, where he met no success. He did manage to buy an urn reputedly containing his own ashes. Such was the popularity of Service’s poem.
A fair number of Whitehorse’s 30,000 people were turned out in that low-key chic style that is unique to Canada. As the capitol of Yukon Territory, it includes the courts and machinery of government. Its older buildings have a strong whiff of western boom town, but they’re tidy in a way unique to Canada.
It also has good restaurants. We ordered Arctic char, salmon, and reindeer for dinner. Who should be seated next to us but our old friends from the Honda Fits.
But here our paths diverge. He is on his way to Juneau to take up a teaching position at University of Alaska Southeast. We’re on our way to drop off a kid and her car at University of Alaska Anchorage.