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Destination Alaska Part III: A 66-Day Trek to the Last Frontier

Cinnamon Buns and Yukon Gold

White Pass, Southern Lakes Region, Yukon White Pass, Southern Lakes Region, Yukon

By: Sheryl Gallup

This is Part III of an eleven-part series

Click here for Part I | Part II

White moose

White moose

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
We stayed in camp most of the day so I could put in a good solid day of office work. The Triple G Campground in Ft. Nelson claims to have Wi-Fi, but even still, it fades in and out constantly. This has been my biggest challenge so far throughout Canada. I am growing increasingly more anxious to reach Alaska.

We took a breather from office work in the late afternoon and headed over to the Ft. Nelson Heritage Museum. It was a great little museum and one of those that you could visit over a dozen times and each time see new things. It was packed full of memorabilia, fossils, taxidermy, mining equipment and so much more that it made my head swim. I really enjoyed the movie they had about the building of the Alaska Highway.

According to the movie, the Alaska Highway project began in March of 1942. The initial reasoning behind the development was to give better access to the airfields that were in Canada and Alaska during World War II. When the project began, it took seven different engineering teams and 10,000 men to break through the wilderness to start the highway. They had teams working from points west, east, south and north to meet up to each other.

1938 Packard

1938 Packard

What absolutely astonished me is that they completed the bridges, worked over the permafrost, tore through the vast forests for 1,500 miles from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Fairbanks, Alaska, and they did this in just 17 months, completing the highway in October 1943. Now, relate that to a highway project in your community. How many years does it take them to build a road that is even five miles long?

After the museum, we went back to the trailer and once again, the office was open. I got a lot done, but how I wanted to just play.

The more animals we see in the wild, the more I find myself thinking about how vulnerable I feel in this trailer. I felt safe here until a beast was heard licking bacon grease off the door handle (part two), now I don’t feel quite so safe. This morning I had a phone conversation with my friend Pete who had a theory about the beast at my door. He asked me if I had considered that since my location was the wilds of the Pacific Northwest that it wasn’t inconceivable that it could have been a Sasquatch. Gee thanks, Pete. I really didn’t need to add to my growing list of irrational fears.

1860-1890 Veterly .47 Caliber Rifle
1860-1890 Veterly .47 Caliber Rifle

Muncho Lake, British Columbia

Muncho Lake, British Columbia

Wednesday, June 19, 2013
We finally had a full day of sunshine. There has been so much rain that I was starting to consider British Columbia as a tropical rainforest. Temps are perfect and it was a great day to travel.

We saw lots of animals today as we traveled. I always feel so fortunate to get a glimpse at them when they have millions of acres in which to hide out. Woodzjoe and I joked that the government must put salt licks down by the Alaska Highway to increase the chances that tourists will see the wildlife. Our first animal today was a black bear, and by the time we reached our camp we had spied two black bears, two caribou and two moose, proving that, as the song says, “the animals go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah.”

We had magnificent views today on our journey from Ft. Nelson to Muncho Lake, B.C. There were some spectacular views from some of the pull-outs, but we had to endure some very scary nine-percent grade roads, some very narrow and winding areas of the Alaska Highway, and a sobering sight where a wrecker was trying to pull a pickup truck out of a ravine. Hopefully, no one was hurt.

The Milepost book tempted us with a spot at milepost 375 where they serve the best cinnamon buns you have ever tasted. The last five kilometers there was a sign promoting “homemade buttery cinnamon buns.” By the time we got to Testa River Outfitters, our stomachs were growling and we were ready to try the famous buns.

Testa River Outfitters, Milepost 375
Testa River Outfitters, Milepost 375

We really liked Testa River. The cinnamon buns were everything that they claimed to be. The best part, we got to enjoy them with a real cup of good black coffee. I was in heaven! As it turns out, the buns have been feeding tourists for three generations.

During the three months of tourist season, they make buns from 4:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week. We talked to an older gentleman, nice guy with a very outgoing, fun personality, who worked the counter. He said that the day before they had 300 people come through there. At $5.00 each, well, that is a lot of “dough.”

The place was rustic, but the log building was quaint and it just had a genuine feel about it. We lingered there, drinking our coffee as the smell of cinnamon bread wafted from the kitchen.

We ended our day’s travel at the Rocky Mountain Lodge and campground. It is on Muncho Lake, and this lake, in my opinion, is by far the most beautiful one we have seen so far. It is the deepest shade of turquoise that I have ever seen. The color comes from the copper oxide that feeds into the lake from the mountains. The lake is far less commercial than either Glacier or Lake Louise and due to the extraordinary beauty it was reason enough to take one of the far more expensive lakeside camping spots for the night.

Tonight, we are going to try and stay up longer to enjoy the long hours of daylight. The sky never seems to get dark and at 11:00 p.m., you could still read a book without the need of a flashlight. We thought this would be a problem to sleep, but the road makes us weary and we have been sleeping like hibernating bears. Woodzjoe sounds like one too!

Campsite at Muncho Lake, B.C.
Campsite at Muncho Lake, B.C.

Stone sheep

Stone sheep

Thursday, June 20, 2013
We have arrived in the Yukon! From Muncho Lake, milepost 462, to milepost 627 at Nugget City, was a long day in spite of the short amount of miles. Tremendous delays due to single lane travel, miles of road torn up down to the sloppy, wet gravel, and then many miles of loose gravel on the road all due to road construction projects.

As we travel the highway, I keep looking at the terrain and thinking about the surveyors, and the many thousands of engineers and crews that built the original Alcan Highway. I have so much respect for them and can only imagine what they had to endure.

As hard as travel was today, it was a great day for animal sightings. We were fortunate enough to see nine black bears, a herd of stone sheep and numerous herds of bison. With each one, it was exciting. We saw two bison calves rolling around in a sand wallow, and later a mammoth-size male bison also in a wallow.

Bison

Bison

We stopped at Watson Lake, B.C., for a brief time to check out an RV park. It looked exactly like a gravel parking lot, so we chose not to stay there. Instead, we checked out the Signpost Forest. It was kind of cool to see all the signs that travelers of the Alaska Highway had posted, and we found a number of them representing our home state of Minnesota. Apparently, the success of this particular signpost forest has created similar ones throughout the world.

Tomorrow we head further into the Yukon and it will be a long travel day as we head to Whitehorse.

Signpost Forest, Watson Lake, B.C.
Signpost Forest, Watson Lake, B.C.

Friday, June 21, 2013
When we got up early this morning, our excitement level was high as we prepared for our next destination – Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Both Woodzjoe and I have been eager to hit the Yukon. To us, the Yukon is where the real wilderness begins.

Perhaps it is because of all the Gold Rush episodes we have watched on TV, but the closer we get to the Klondike, the stronger our anticipation. Woodzjoe also is eager to try out that expensive gold pan he bought. He is already scouting out campsites that are near a river so that he can seek his fortune in gold.

From Nugget City, we drove to Testlin to visit the museum of George Johnston. George was a member of the Tlingit people and was known for his trapping and his photography. From 1910 to 1940, he captured the life of the Tlingit people through his photography. In 1928, George purchased a 1928 Chevy and had it transported to Testlin by train, by steamboat and barge.

The people of his tribe were amazed by the car as they had never seen one. Once George had his car, he needed a place to drive it, so he cleared three acres of pines to build a road to Fox Point. That road later became part of the Alcan Highway.

The funny thing about George Johnston’s car is that he used it to hunt moose, caribou and bear. But during the winter months he found that animals could see his car on the frozen Testlin Lake. So, George painted the car white. The car has been restored back to its original condition and is now on display at the museum. This museum was one of our favorites. You must check it out.

George Johnston’s 1928 Chevrolet

George Johnston’s 1928 Chevrolet

From Testlin, we headed to Whitehorse – our final destination for the day. Shortly before we got into Whitehorse, we were tooling along when suddenly a black bear ran right in front of our truck. Woodzjoe had to brake very quickly, but not enough to jackknife the truck and trailer.

Fortunately, the bear put a little giddy-up into his step and we just missed hitting him. But, it was so close that I think that bear’s adrenaline sweat was on our truck grill. I told Woodzjoe that I would have been devastated if we had hurt that bear. He didn’t exactly appreciate my manner of priority since his first concern was the truck.

We found a campsite in Whitehorse right in town and hurried to set up because we had so many errands to run. Tomorrow Skagway, Alaska!

Saturday, June 22, 2013
With every new day, I become more enchanted with what is just around the next curve or hidden in the next mountain pass. I was so excited to arrive in the Yukon and it has delivered just what I thought it would. Today, we drove from Whitehorse about 109 miles to Skagway, Alaska, through White Pass. But to get there, we skirted the shore of a chain of interconnected lakes that took us at least an hour to drive from one point to the other. This was an enormous amount of water – all glacier-fed and spectacular. This area is referred to as the Southern Lakes Region.

Part of the morning we spent in a small community called Carcross in the Yukon. It is an old mining town and in its day it was a hub for trains. Today, Carcross is famous for having the oldest working store in all of the Yukon.

The Matthew Watson General Store in all its ”pinkness” was a very cool store. I could have easily spent $1,000 and walked off with treasures from fur mukluks, fur fingerless gloves, jackets, jewelry, native art and much more. As it was, I settled for some postcards and an adorable pair of earrings that looked like gold pans – complete with nuggets.

Matthew Watson General Store, Carcross, Yukon
Matthew Watson General Store, Carcross, Yukon

As we continued climbing up White Pass towards Skagway, Mother Nature became ornery and we hit fog. And, as if she wasn’t nasty enough, she then delivered rain. We could only see one car length in front of us and I was terrified. Let me clarify; I was in tears, I was so scared. Woodzjoe tried to comfort me by reminding me that it isn’t often that one gets to drive in the clouds. I thought we both had gone over a mountainside and we were now in heaven.

White Pass, Yukon

White Pass, Yukon

Once we got through across the border at Skagway, the fog was behind us and I now could peel my fingers off of the armrests and slide back up into my seat.

From the moment we got into Skagway I was in love! What a charming and quaint little community. I loved the aged buildings, wood plank sidewalks, and the clever shop signs all against a background of the mountains.

The town was crowded with tourists who had literally just stepped off the boat. Cruise ship passengers planted themselves on the sidewalks making it almost impossible to move around them. Then, poof, just like magic, in less than an hour the streets were bare and the cruisers got back on the ships. That is when we really got to appreciate the town. It was so much fun to poke around in all the shops, chat with the locals, have lunch at the Red Onion Saloon and just walk and take in the community.

Matthew Watson General Store, Carcross, Yukon
Matthew Watson General Store, Carcross, Yukon

The anxiety of going back up through White Pass in the fog was almost crippling to me as we talked about leaving Skagway and heading back to Whitehorse. I politely asked Woodzjoe to consider spending the night in Skagway, but he reminded me that it may not be any better in the morning. I had to admit that he was probably correct, so we began the climb up White Pass. Amazingly, the fog had lifted quite a bit, and we only had to drive in fog for about four miles.

On our way back through Carcross, Yukon, we stopped at the Carcross Desert. It isn’t an actual desert and, according to the exhibit they had set up, it is actually a sand dune. More than 10,000 years ago, the sand and silt left behind by the glaciers settled to the bottom of Glacial Lake Watson. Once the lake flowed away, it left behind the dunes. Very cool to be driving in the mountains and among the pine and aspens and suddenly there is a desert.

Carcross Desert, Yukon
Carcross Desert, Yukon

Sunday, June 23, 2013
Today was our third day in Whitehorse. Since we really had not seen much of the city, we set out to explore. Our first stop this morning was the SS Klondike, the 1929 boat was the largest sternwheeler on the Yukon River. She ran aground in 1936 at the Testlin and Yukon Rivers. Salvaged parts allowed them to restore the ship and around 2004 it was donated to the Canada Parks system. We did not board the boat, but it was impressive from land.

SS Klondike, Whitehorse, Yukon
SS Klondike, Whitehorse, Yukon

Our next stop in Whitehorse was the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. It seemed like a cute little log cabin from the outside, but once inside, the exhibit space grew with every step. The museum offered a wild world section with many taxidermy specimens of small game like ermine, to large game such as elk, caribou and moose.

The museum also had a room they called the “Cluttertorium” because it was filled with an assortment of things from the private collection of a local resident, Jim Robb. It included some of his photography, artwork and many antiques. I enjoyed this room the most.

Further on, we saw items representative of the history of the Yukon, including the Northwest Mounted Police, railroad memorabilia, gold mining and much more.

Woodchick at Beringia Interpretative Center

Woodchick at Beringia Interpretative Center

Our last stop for the day was the Yukon Beringia Interpretative Center. This museum was dedicated to the Ice Age of the northern and central Yukon. The Yukon, unlike the rest of Canada was actually free of ice. The exhibits explained the science, and a few myths, about the Ice Age subcontinent of Beringia. Wooly Mammoths roamed the land there, as did giant short-faced bears, giant beavers and lions. It was an interesting education to fit in the last couple hours they were open for the day.

We headed back to camp early, tired and ready for a cocktail. Tomorrow we make the long haul from Whitehorse to Tok, Alaska. At long last, we will be back in the USA for the largest percentage of our trip. That deserves a big Woo-Hoo and another cocktail.

Click here to read "Part IV: Reindeer Sausage, Glaciers and Gut Parkas"

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