I got up at dawn to paint the Alaska Range peeking over the fall foliage. My practice is to set out my wet paintings to dry. The forest was absolutely still. I could hear the susurration of wings as the occasional bird flew overhead.
The first night that we spent sleeping in a lay-by, I was unnerved by the silence. Now, I like it. I could easily become a backwoods prospector. The first thing that would go would be the socially mandated feminine foundation, however. A muddy bra is a terrible thing. So is a muddy nightgown, and I now have both.
I was startled by a ruckus directly behind me. A woodpecker was testing the surfaces of my drying paintings. He was as rattled as me by the encounter, and flew into a nearby spruce to complain.
After Tok, we chose to take the Taylor Highway, instead of the Alaska Highway. There are parts of the Alaska Highway I’d miss seeing, but I went that way just last year.
The only real town, if you can call it that, on this route is Chicken, AK. Prospectors noted the prevalence of rock ptarmigan in the area. However, they couldn’t agree on the spelling of “ptarmigan,” so they chose a similar bird to avoid embarrassment.
With a total land mass of 115 square miles, its population is exactly seven. This is caribou season, however, and every lay-by is filled with hunters’ pickups and makeshift camps. There are still small-scale gold mines in the Chicken area.
At Boundary, we were above the tree line. I’ve driven the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, but this was more terrifying. The SUV slid on the gravel, and there were no guard rails next to sheer drop-offs. Mary stared straight ahead and mumbled about high rollover rates.
This high border crossing is also the most northerly one in the United States. It is manned by three Americans and four Canadians. When the snow flies—which is imminent—it will close and its personnel will return to their winter homes.
In Canada this becomes the Top of World Highway. It has no bridge across the Yukon River, so we were ferried across. This is a fast-moving river, and the ferry pilot needs immense skill to bring the boat around in the current and slam her against the mud banks on either side.
Mary and I both have head colds, so we decided not to camp. Instead, we took rooms in The Dawson City Bunkhouse. A wood frame building, it’s either masquerading as old, or it’s old and completely redone. Open landings surround each story of bunkrooms. You scurry down these to the toilets and showers. But it has heat and hot water, and we reveled in them.