We clocked up 6395 km from Calgary airport to Vancouver airport in 30 days so it was time to stop driving and move into our long-term “no-fly” mode of transport, a ship! But first, we had just over 24 hours in Vancouver. As we needed to get COVID tests before embarkation we booked to stay at the Fairmont Vancouver as the clinic was on-site. After months roughing it we were suddenly in a posh hotel, feeling very self-conscious.
An emergency dental appointment was required for a broken tooth, but luckily one was found across the road from the hotel. An hour later, a new wrapped tooth was in place with the great hope it would last until we get home in April 2023, or at least until we reach Australia. Then shopping and a meal with an old friend’s son and his girlfriend. Christopher grew up in Brockenhurst and was a year below Tali at school. He’s been working in Canada since 2019. We went to Chewies, a seafood restaurant, and had great Caesars, good food and lovely company.
After 2 days in Vancouver, we slowly joined our ship via the huge queues through US customs, this on the day that the queue in London to see the Queen’s coffin was starting to hit the news. This will be our home for the next 2 and a bit months, the Seabourn Odyssey. This is a small ship with perhaps no more than 300 passengers, especially when compared with some of the monsters also boarding in Vancouver which can hold several thousand people.
Seabourne had come to our rescue after our planned trip via Japan had been cancelled as Japan refused to accept cruise ships. This was a great alternative to getting to Australia visiting places we hadn’t thought of going to. The only drawbacks were that Japan was off the schedule after so much planning and a total of 60+ days on the ship.
The port was very busy, with 3 other ships in, including the Viking (our original ship to Japan). All shops were largely focused on tourists, selling precious stones and tourist. But the weather was uncharacteristically fantastic. Spending some time in the glorious sunshine avoiding the crowds we waked up the river looking for bears but only saw salmon jumping, spawning, dying and dead! The smell all along the river was very unpleasant and enough to make anyone think twice about eating salmon any time soon! Ketchikan was originally famous for fishing, mining and lumber but, as we have discovered in all these remote towns across Canada and Alaska, there was also a significant sex trade as a number of ex-brothels had been preserved. These were illegal on land but avoided sanction by being built on stilts in the river.
Sitka, our next stop, was completely different. It was originally the capital of Alaska and was very pretty, with a much calmer atmosphere than Ketchikan, possibly due to there being no other ships in port but we were unsure as it got busier later on. On another glorious sunny day our first stop was the Sitka Sound Science Centre where they explained how they are dealing with declining salmon stocks. Here they harvest the eggs from spawning salmon, grow them in big tanks and then release them into the wild from 8 months onwards, depending on the species of salmon. Although immensely proud of their conservation work, hearing about salmon being knocked out with carbon dioxide, then hit hit over the head to kill them after the eggs are harvested, didn’t feel ok even if they’d die anyway. We then walked along the shoreline looking for sea otters (none), whales (none) but lots of sea birds. The walk took us through a forest with the usual “beware of bears” notices, and history boards about Russians teaming up with the native tribe who were at war with the local tribe. Interestingly the first nations and Russian orthodox have a similar understanding of various things which made it easier for Russians to settle in the area. It was also the home of the national totem pole collection.
Our next stop was the Raptor Centre which looks after and rehabilitates injured birds of prey, most notably bald eagles. They have a flight training area which has one-way glass for tourist viewing but is open to the elements for the birds so they can be observed and assessed for their suitability for release. Wandering further we just missed visiting the orthodox church and returned to the ship. Next stop, glacier country..
Our trip to Canada was always going to end on Vancouver Island, with the promise of Orcas and time on the wild west coast of the island. Driving from Prince Rupert is a feasible, if incredibly long winded way of doing the journey, and would mean retracing some of our steps. Luckily there is an alternative and that is the ferry which runs every 2nd day between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy via what is known as the Inside Passage.
It’s a long trip, over 500 km, departing at 0730 am and not arriving until just before midnight but the ship passes through some stunning coastal scenery and allows the opportunity to view some wildlife on the way. As we left the terminal at Prince Rupert note the huge goods train setting off across Canada from the container port.
The early morning was very misty
But the sun came out and we were treated to a whole day of scenery
Staffing is clearly a problem for the ferry company as the restaurant was closed and the gift shop and cafe had to run shifts in order to provide any sort of service.
Wildlife watching was challenging, even in ideal conditions, as sightings were few and far between. As the afternoon progressed things improved, with a number of dolphin and whale sightings with a couple of orcas and some other unidentified whales. The ferry stops at the town of Bella Bella where the harbour was full of Sockeye salmon waiting to continue upstream to spawn. Another interesting sighting was of a Marbled Murrelet, a seabird which nests in old-growth forests and so which is vulnerable to the extensive logging occurring in BC. A quick overnight stop in an unremarkable motel was only improved by a catch up with Tali, so it was 2am before bed called.
The following morning we drove to Telegraph Cove, a delightful hamlet where one of the many whale-watching companies are based. The whole place is a historical site with interesting information boards, explaining why the houses were on stilts. More interesting though was the young black bear that was rummaging under the houses, unperturbed by the humans clicking away on their cameras. The sea between the mainland and Vancouver Island is a prime whale-watching site, with an emphasis on orcas and humpbacks
The scenery, combined with the shifting fog banks, was stunning
Our first sighting was a colony of sea lions
Then a large pod of white-sided dolphins
And then some quite distant views of Humpback Whales
Sadly, no orcas were to be found.
The next day we took the winding road through the mountains to the trendy pacific resort of Ucluelet on the west coast of the island. Our destination, the Black Rock resort, initially booked 3 years ago and famed for having rooms looking directly onto the Pacific Rim, lived up to expectations.
Ucluelet is located at one end of the Pacific Rim National Park reserve, an area of old-growth temperate rain forest and rich oceans. To access these there are a number of trails leading along the stunning coastline
It was time for yet another whale-watching tour, one which started off very badly as we were enveloped by a bank of fog which persisted on and off for a couple of hours. The route was through an area of islands called the Broken Group Islands. We passed through a small flock of interesting birds with the best name of any Canadian bird so far, the Rhinoceros Auklet
Finally, our luck changed and a humpback put on a bit of a show
The highlight of the trip was actually seeing a sea otter on the way back to base. These were extinct until the 1970s following over-hunting and were reintroduced in order to try and reduce spiny starfish populations which were decimating the kelp beds so important to the biodiversity of the area.
Good food and fabulous scenery made the journey to catch the ferry to Vancouver not so daunting. Our trip across Canada was almost at an end.
Yet more bad weather encouraged us to make good progress from Stewart up Bear River to Meziadin Junction where another salmon ladder was advertised as a good place to see bears and eagles. This is part of a native salmon fishing operation and the ladder gave us the opportunity to see salmon leaping but no bears or eagles.
The area has small hamlets offering coffee and has many examples of the local 1st nation totem poles. They tell a story of the particular clan in the area and are carved from single ancient cedar trees.
Staying overnight in the unremarkable town of Terrace we continued along the Skeena River, taking in the scale of the river. The photos illustrate precisely why it was so-named
A stop at Port Edward and the North Pacific Cannery proved to be unexpectedly interesting, especially since most of the canned salmon was shipped to the UK with production only stopping in the late 1960s. Rivers such as the Skeena experience huge volumes of salmon returning to spawn and so were netted, chopped up, stuffed into cans (sealed with lead..), cooked and labelled, with the help of local labour. When the cannery was established, working practices weren’t as equitable as today and tended to vary with ethnic origin. As a result local peoples were treated very badly, with terrible working conditions and discriminatory pay. There was no schooling for 1st Nation children until the appalling era when they were sent to residential schools, given western names and were taught only in English (this is another story too complex to talk about here), so the mothers had to either carry them around or set them to work. The next level in this scenario were Chinese and Japanese workers who were treated marginally better until WW2 broke out and then the Japanese (irrelevant of their legal status) were given 2 days on average to pack 1 suitcase and either be interred in camps or sent back to Japan. Some chose never to return. European women were given the office jobs as being the only race that could be trusted.
Our hotel, the Crest, overlooked Prince Rupert Harbour and the view from the elevated rooms was spectacular
There are a few walks around town, one of which, the Rushbrook Trail, passes along the temperate rain forest round the bay to where the sea planes take-off. The intermittent showers provided extra guidance for Helen in her quest for gold..
Finally the weather started to improve and it was possible to do the Butze Rapids Trail, a trek through the rain forest to viewpoints over the sea
Our stay in Prince Rupert was over. We had intended to use the 3 days to go on some wildlife trips, perhaps some fishing or even sail over to Haida Gwaii but Prince Rupert had effectively closed down for the winter and there were no trips available. Our next step was to move to Vancouver Island, by ferry from Prince Rupert, a 16 hour trip down the Inside Passage, a route which weaves its way between the islands which adorn the coastline. Before we left, the sun put in an appearance.
Leaving Dawson City it was time to start heading south towards Vancouver Island. Breaking the journey into reasonable distances meant staying at places well off the beaten track. Firstly, Mayo is situated on the Stewart River and has a motel but no restaurant. We had come prepared with another delightful microwave meal but this time, no plates and limited cutlery, so we ate in sittings. The town grew through silver mining and the view over the river from the viewpoint in town is stunning. On our way out the next day we encountered the Vancouver Mini Club, participating in the Alcan 5000.
The weather over the mountains surrounding Fox Lake was ominous and dramatic.
Our next stop was at Spirit Lake Motel just north of Carcross. Like many establishments across Canada this was run by a Chinese family. Spirit Lake exists on the map but cannot be accessed from the motel as someone bought the land between the lakeshore and motel, blocking access. Looking out from our room we could see the mountains between us and Alaska.
Carcross is famous for it’s desert, although it’s not really a desert but an area of sand dunes created by a geographical anomaly. Carcross is also one station on the railway which links Whitehorse to Skagway in Alaska. This follows one of the prospectors routes over the mountains into British Columbia and was one of the trips we wanted to do. Access from the Canadian side is closed until 2023 but we may be able to travel on the train when we visit Skagway later this month.
Continuing through Tagish we rejoined the Alaska Highway, bracing ourselves for our second, and last ever stay in Watson Lake. Thinking we were clever we’d secured a reservation at the “A Nicer Motel”. It wasn’t, it really wasn’t.
We wouldn’t recommend ever staying in Watson Lake. Not only are the hotels dire, there are no places to eat except a run down chinese. Luckily there was a microwave in our room and it gave us a delicious (surprisingly) meal, or were we just very hungry?
Just north of Watson Lake the famous Stewart-Cassiar Highway heads south towards Prince George and Prince Rupert. The road is narrower and slower than the Alaska Highway but cuts through fantastic scenery, including areas of forest fires and regeneration and pristine lakes.
At Jade City, named after the jade mines in the area, is one of 3 recommended supplementary routes worth exploring. This goes to Cassiar, a ghost town which was dominated by asbestos quarrying. The town is inaccessible to visitors but the guidebook claims it is still worth the diversion. However, we couldn’t find the turn-off and headed straight into Jade City in search of a hot drink. The township is effectively run by the mining family who have a few cabins to let and a jade shop containing every variation on the jade theme you could ever imagine. They even have their own reality tv show, albeit on DVD but available, apparently, on the Discovery Channel and a new series might be available next year. There was no coffee so we bought nothing and headed on..
The nicest stop-off was located next to the river and we spent some time looking for bears and fish
An interestingly named stop-off although the rabies might be the least of our problems..
And a final stop-off before reaching our overnight destination, Dease Lake.
It’s only claim to fame is being the site of the 2nd side-trip off the main highway, a 112 km dirt road to Telegraph Creek, a community named after a failed attempt to build a telegraph line across to Alaska. Telegraph Creek also had a mini goldrush, was on one of the main routes taken by prospectors heading for the Klondike and, in the Stikine Valley, one of the most difficult and dangerous river sections in Canada.
The weather had turned very wet and the road to Telegraph Creek was a toxic mix of sticky mud and potholes, combined with steep inclines and treacherous corners. We turned round at the bridge over the Tuya River. On our return, however, we encountered some fantastic wildlife, starting with a most unexpected bird, a Ruffed Grouse.
But quickly outshone by this most incredible Lynx
Food was an issue at Dease Lake as there was no restaurant. Instead we dined out the first night on take-away chili from a nearby takeaway and on the second night splashed out on a frozen dinner sold by the motel manager, an English ex-nurse. The next day we set-off in heavy rain and misty conditions for the long haul to Stewart, the 3rd recommended diversion off the highway. Turning off at Meziadin Junction the road passes through the most incredible mountain scenery, followed by a viewpoint for the Bear Glacier.
Approaching Stewart alongside the Bear River, the sun came out at last, creating a stunning effect.
Stewart is an interesting place, located on the estuary of the Bear River, adjacent to the village of Hyder, located in Alaska. It’s claim to fame is that it has the most snowfall per year in BC maybe Canada and averages 15-20 foot per year. The history of the town is very well documented in the local museum. Although tourism contributes to the economy, it is mining (gold, copper) and lumber which have created the community and the associated booms and busts over the past century or so. There is a boardwalk out into the saltmarsh of the estuary from where the incredible mountains can be better viewed
Many of the buildings have been looked after, preserving their historical appearance
Our hotel, the Ripley Creek Inn, is housed in a number of old buildings. These are bought up by the inn as they become available and used to create quirky but very nice rooms
The main reason for visiting Stewart was to cross the US border into Hyder and visit Fish Creek bear viewing platform, the only such viewing area accessible by road. Crossing into Alaska was problem-free as there is no border post. The only road into Alaska from Stewart crosses back into Canada further north so Hyder is effectively sealed off from the rest of the US. Returning, however, we needed to be prepared with passports and updated “ArriveCan” apps containing information on our vaccination status.
Reviews of the viewing platform had indicated that bear sightings were few and far between so we were prepared for a long wait. However, this was to be one of those days where everything went right, the sun came out and the young male grizzly performed to perfection.
Continuing upriver, on yet another potholed and tortuous gravel road, we finally reached Salmon Glacier, a huge area of ice dominating the local scenery.
We popped into Fish Creek on the way back to Stewart and were rewarded with another grizzly, slightly older, 3-4 yrs old and we were able to notice the different behaviours. The morning bear had been jumping and running and seemed to be playing more with the salmon whereas the afternoon bear was slower and got frustrated when he missed a salmon and sat down in the water. The literature said best viewing times were 6-10 am and 6-10 pm. We saw them at 11 am and 3 pm, sometimes you have to ignore the tourist advice and you shall be rewarded!
Seeing 100’s of pink salmon and chinook salmon in the creek was amazing but also a little sad on 2 counts. Firstly, they were effectively waiting to get eaten by a grizzly and, secondly, they were already decomposing from the inside, as they die after spawning, having just swam for 1,000 miles or more to get back to the river/ creek they had been born in.
One morning we visited the local bakery which has been decorated by the thousands of tourists who’ve dropped in over the years. Every bare space has a message. And we left ours
The end of our stay in Stewart effectively ended our adventure on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway.
Just outside Watson Lake is the Watson Lake Signpost Forest, a tourist attraction started in 1942 by U.S. soldier Carl K. Lindley who spent time in Watson Lake recovering from an injury. A commanding officer asked him to repair and erect the directional signposts, and while completing the job, he added a sign that indicated the direction and mileage to his hometown of Danville, Illinois. This has been supplemented by thousands of sign-posts (77,000 +) from around the world, putting Watson Lake on the tourist map.
…then crossed the “Continental Divide”, the point at which various rivers go in different directions and empty into the Arctic Ocean and Pacific Ocean .
Mainly the route was a fast road through rolling countryside with few stops and even fewer places to get a coffee or something to eat.
We stayed at Teslin, notable for the huge bridge which crosses Teslin Lake and the absolutely superb George Johnson museum which told the story, through the camera lens of George Johnson, a Tlingit trapper and entrepreneur, of how Teslin changed. He was the first person to own a car in the area in 1920’s despite the fact there were no roads! He’d drive on the ice in winter and use the car as a hide when hunting game. It was his pride and joy and was renovated after he ended up going through the ice on Teslin Lake. It now stands proudly in his museum. Teslin was also important for US troops with the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942.
Johnson’s Crossing is at the other end of Teslin Lake and has a bridge 100 foot high designed to accommodate the steamers which started to sail up the lake on their way to Klondike in the 1940’s and to transport materials for the Alaskan Highway.
Our final stop prior to reaching Whitehorse was Swan Haven, a migratory paradise for both species of northern swan (Tundra & Trumpeter) which use Marsh Lake in their thousands in spring and autumn.
Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon, barely existed prior to the Klondike Gold Rush, but became a vital staging post in the movement of prospectors and supplies to and from the gold fields. Critical to this was the Yukon River and the steamers which were the only means of transport. One of these, the SS Klondike is on display in Whitehorse. Being a national park’s site, it also featured a couple of red chairs…
The best book on the Klondike is a book of the same name written by Pierre Berton and we found this plaque commemorating his life, opposite the cannabis store and Subway.
Whitehorse has invested a lot of money in developing a tourist infrastructure, including walks, talks and other events around the city. One of these is the Millenium Trail which starts by the SS Klondike and is a loop around the river upstream towards the hydroelectric dam. Just below the dam is an explanation of how the dam works and, mostly importantly, how the Chinook Salmon migrate upstream past the dam, using a salmon ladder. By the ladder is an information centre, staffed by volunteers who proved to be very well-informed. Their role is to count every single Salmon passing up the ladder and identify their sex and whether or not they are truly wild stock or part of the restocking programme which is also on-site. They had records going back to 1959 showing a large annual variation in the number of Salmon passing through but the past 2 years have been very low. These fish migrate a huge distance, 1875 miles from the mouth of the Yukon river in Alaska, a distance that takes them 3 months. The current numbers can be seen on their facebook page. Fishing is currently banned on the Yukon but factors such as fishing in the USA and at sea cannot be controlled.
Before the salmon swim up the ladder they congregate at the bottom and this area is covered by a webcam.
This was a fascinating insight into the science and research on-going into conserving what is both financially, and culturally, a very important fish species.
Whitehorse is surrounded by countryside rich in biodiversity including Fish Lake, just out of town and a whole sequence of wetlands which support a huge range of animal, bird and insect species.
Checking in at the Salmon ladder the next day (only 5 more reported) we drove upstream from the hydroelectric dam to Schwatka Lake, which was hidden from view but we did find the Hidden Lakes upon which a Surf Scoter and a Red-necked grebe were seen. Our last night in Whitehouse was, as is our habit, at the cutting edge of culinary refinement…the Dirty Northern pub. Verdict, noisy but fun.
We weren’t taken with Whitehorse: it has great history and has spent a lot trying to revitalise itself, as presumably COVID took a significant toll. However there are a lot of homeless people wandering around and evident drug and alcohol taking which took the shine off the place.
The road through to Dawson City takes the North Klondike Highway which joins the Alaska Highway just past the Beringia Interpretation Centre, a superb exhibit which explains how the changing climate impacts on sea levels and glacier formation and how this led to the temporary formation of a landmass (Beringia) joining present day Alaska and Siberia across the Bering Strait. Well worth a visit
In contrast the Yukon Wildlife Preserve was less impressive. In trying to display native species such as Moose, Caribou, Elk, Mountain goat, Red fox and Lynx in a realistic setting they’ve simply made them difficult to see! Visitors can walk round or take a bus tour with a guide. Having walked round in the heat and seen a sleeping Lynx, some horned sheep and a couple of Moose at a distance the bus tour might have been the best option.
The viewpoints along the stretch of highway leading to Carmacks are impressive
The stop-off of Braeburn is famous for one thing and that is the huge cinnamon bun
Staying overnight in a delightful cabin behind the hotel in Carmacks we met a couple of women who’d taken a night off from kayaking from Whitehorse to Dawson City. This trip, which is downstream as the Yukon runs north at this point, takes approximately 10 days, with Carmacks being approximately halfway. They said the biggest problem kayaking is being able to stop at the campsites on the river as it flows so fast and often you just end up whizzing past! The Yukon is an impressive river:
Leaving Carmacks we followed the Yukon until we reached Five Finger Rapids which was the most difficult obstacle for steamboats travelling downstream to Dawson City and there is a display board and walk down to the river side.
The North Klondike Highway stretches 500 km in total, starting in Whitehorse and finishing in Dawson City . From Braeburn to Dawson City there have been 6 major forest fires over the past 50 years, some caused by man, others by act of nature such as lightning. A leaflet and signs along the route indicate where these fires took place and describe how fire plays an essential role in renewing and maintaining the forests. The highway was closed only weeks before we arrived as a section of forest along the road was ablaze.
This section of the highway crosses the Yukon and Stewart River at 2 major crossings, Pelly Crossing and Stewart Crossing, both being substantial road bridges now but which would have created opportunities for trade in the early days of river traffic.
The highway passes by a viewpoint over the Tintina Trench, a massive fault across North America which also functions as a natural highway for the millions, if not billions of birds that migrate to the north to breed each spring. It is also where the gold is found on either side of where the tectonic plates are, gold on the northern side and silver and copper on the southern side.
As the road aligns with the Klondike River and approaches Dawson City the landscape becomes increasingly dominated by huge piles of stones spread across the valley floor, these being a legacy of the town’s history (see below). The town itself has a frontier air, with old-fashioned fronted buildings and dirt roads which are either muddy or dusty
Our hotel is best known as being the only place in town where one could access the famed Sourtoe cocktail and after having finally found something to eat (restaurants are struggling to attract sufficient staff across Canada) we found the bar…and a volunteer willing to undergo this grueling ordeal..
But gold was the reason we were in Dawson City and we signed up for a tour of one of the active gold mines in the area. Whilst waiting there were a few exhibits to see downtown. Permafrost is a big feature of life in the north. It partially melts in summer and distorts road and affects buildings, on melting it releases carbon-rich gases and it occasionally contains well-preserved specimens of animals which roamed the north between the ice ages, such as Woolly mammoths. It is the layer under the permafrost where gold is found.
Goldbottom mine operates daily tours, possibly as a means of diversifying their income, but these are fascinating for an insight into the history of gold mining in the area. Goldbottom mine is up Hunker Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. The gold mined in the area is all “alluvial gold”, so gold originally located in rocks up on the hills which has been released by erosion and washed down into the creeks. Being a lot heavier than water the gold settles and accumulates in the gravel and soil deposits at the lowest point, generally the river bed. The first finds were nuggets in the river and riverbanks and panning of those areas proved very lucrative, hence the gold rush, the history of which is well worth reading about. Early prospectors established “claims” along the Klondike and its associated tributaries and some made large amounts of money but many more made nothing at all. It’s a fact that the businesses set-up to service the miners (food, materials, transport) were financially a better bet than actual mining. The 3 pictures below show Hunker Creek now, with one remaining original house from the 1890s. Below that is a photo of the same valley in the 1890s when over 5000 people lived in the valley, with a shop, school, brothel and other vital services..all of which required wood for buildings and heat, hence the total lack of trees.
The original claims quickly became unviable and many were consolidated into larger areas which were exploited by huge dredgers (see below) until the 1960s after which many sites were taken over by family concerns such as at Goldbottom. This is a husband and wife team who make a good living with the help of a lot of serious machinery, effectively sifting vast amounts of sediment and gravel in order to extract the small amounts of gold. They showed us how to pan for gold, a good way of verifying that a site might be worth further exploration and the Broadhurst-Haynes Gold Conglomerate was born….
Watch “Gold Rush” on the Discovery Channel for an entertaining view of it all starring the mine next door to Goldbottom.
The easiest way to extract small amounts of gold from large amounts of river sediment is by using mercury, a process commonly used in many parts of the world where river and employee health is less of a concern. In Canada this is strictly forbidden and the controls in place are designed to ensure that the Yukon River, for example, remains pristine, even to the extent that all water used to wash the sediments has to be extensively cleaned before being released back into the river.
Along the Klondike itself there are a couple of visitor attractions well worth a visit. Firstly the Number 4 Dredger. Once claims were consolidated into much larger areas it was cost-effective to order a huge dredger such as this from Ohio, have it shipped to Dawson City and assembled on-site. These allowed the processing of huge amounts of material every hour, resulting in a consistently profitable operation through to the 1960s. On average it moved 1/2 a mile a season! At one stage there were at least 20 of these machines chewing through the sediments of the Klondike Valley, hence all the piles of material seen on arrival in Dawson City. Unlike the activities of the modern miners, who have to restore the land they exploit, these “tails” will be left as they are. The interesting thing is that all mining efforts focus on small pieces of gold, any nugget larger than 3 or 4 cm across would be filtered out and expelled onto the tail so there is still potential for the patient prospector…
Also along the river is an information board and walkway located at the original “discovery” claim on the Klondike at Bonanza Creek, including an old picture of the prospectors streaming over the mountains from Alaska desperate to stake their claim before winter. Upstream there is also a panning area (Free Claim 6), so, equipped with pans by the tourist information office, anyone can try their luck using the “paydirt” provided. Being a national parks site, there were a couple of red chairs…For obvious reasons the results of our panning must remain confidential.
In a day of unparalleled touristic endeavour we returned to Dawson City and took the ferry over the Yukon to the start of the “Top of the World” highway, walked through the campsite, along the banks of the Yukon to the “Paddlewheel Graveyard”. Once the primary means of transport, paddlewheel boats were quickly superseded and became uneconomic once the road to Dawson City was opened.
Our final act in the cause of tourism was to ascend to the “Midnight Dome” lookout. Originally, if optimistically, deemed as the place to go at mid-summer to see the midnight sun. The first visitors were disappointed when the sun set at 1130 pm…. However, the viewpoint is a superb place to see the majesty of the surrounding area.
No stay in Dawson City is complete without a visit to Diamond Gerties, a fabulous throwback to the old days when Dawson City was a true gold rush town..Sadly, our gold went missing that night, never to be seen again.
Our time in Dawson City was over, our only regret being that we didn’t plan to return south via the Top of the World Highway. Instead we were doomed to return via our nemesis, Watson Lake…
Leaving uninteresting Hinton behind we set off on the long haul to Yukon. Driving along straight fairly empty roads there is little to do except appreciate the scenery, read out bits of interest on the road signs and look forward to a place to stop for a few minutes.
Our first stop was a small town called Grand Cache which had a fantastic visitor’s centre and small museum with a variety of stuffed birds, displays on the local industries (coal, lumber) and local fossils inside and a selection of lookout cabins outside used previously by rangers on fire watch during the summer months. They lived in 10 x 10 foot rooms alone for 5 months of the year. Grand Cache was a deceptive place, on first impression being nothing more than a refueling stop but the reality was much more. The cafe, hidden off a side-road, was something to behold, with a superb selection and the best breakfast sandwich yet encountered.
There was also the usual warnings about wildlife but with a new addition, mountain lions. Every morning we test each other on how to respond if we encounter a wild animals. Failing that we always have our bear spray handy (if we could just get the plastic wrap off..). This is a pepper spray and effective use depends on knowing how to operate it instinctively and point it in the right direction. Our guide in Jasper told us that bears won’t eat a corpse if it has been sprayed with pepper, not because they are laughing so much but because of the taste..
On to Dawson Creek which is the start of the Alaska Highway. The highway was only constructed during WW2 as a response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and was a huge engineering challenge, a road of 2237 km, completed in less than 9 months across an extremely challenging landscape.
On the evening we arrived, there was a roar of old cars and the tourist information car park filled with vintage cars. Talking to the owners of a beautifully renovated red Cadillac it turned out in a small town, pastimes have to be found and there were over 200 members of the local vintage car club and they come to show off their pride and joy on a Thursday evening.
In addition, we were told that the following morning there would be a parade through town in honour of 100 years of the Dawson Creek rodeo.
Our next destination, Fort Nelson, is best known for its shale gas deposits, and all along the 465 km of road between the 2 towns there was evidence of on-going extraction and shipment of gas. Despite this the scenery is magnificent, ranging from forests to mountains and rivers. As we approached Fort Nelson a Black bear ambled across the road and into the trees at the side of the road.
After a day of constant rain we ventured out to the Demonstration Forest…..an empty car park, perfect conditions to see some wildlife and then, as we set out, a Black bear walked across the trail in front of us…….despite all the advice on walking in bear habitat, our daily rehearsal and our trusty can of bear spray, we (Helen) decided we’d move on and watch the Mud Bogs instead….
There was nothing subtle about this, trucks compete to finish the course in record time, winning a cash prize.
The museum had a stuffed moose and a huge collection of random articles from a hanger full of old cars to ancient agricultural equipment.
Leaving Fort Nelson and heading to our next stop, Muncho Lake, we crossed the huge local river, spotting yet another Black bear on the riverbank. The next stretch of road includes a number of provincial parks and an area supposedly as biodiverse as the Serengeti, being the only region in Canada with a complete set of predators and prey.
The highest point of the Alaska Highway is at Summit Lake from where a 6 hour hike leads to the top of the highest peak in the area. Sadly we’d arrived too late to scale the mountain and get back in daylight so we made a sandwich and sat by the lake.
From here on the scenery was stunning
We were booked into the Northern Rockies Lodge on Muncho Lake. Built by a Swiss couple before the road was even paved, they built up a business flying anglers out to remote lakes in the area to fish. The lodge was a delightful place to stay with rooms in the main building or in smaller outbuildings along the lakefront. Being one of the few stop-offs on the highway there was a constant flow of people dropping in to fuel up, get a take-out or spend the night in the lodge or the next door RV park.
The setting was just perfect
The Loons were still in evidence, singing to each other
They had kayaks for rent
Moving on towards the border with Yukon we dropped in at the Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park, where payment of a small fee allows anyone to bathe in the hot waters. Entering the park from the car park we had to pass through a huge electric fence surrounding the RV park, accompanied by numerous warning signs about the Black bears in the area. This seemed a little over-the-top given that Back bears are found everywhere in this part of Canada. However, digging a little deeper, it appears a particularly gory event in the past may be responsible for this excessive caution. It’s a beautiful spot, one which remains ice-free in winter and so attracts a lot of moose.
Back on the road we came across this Black bear, presumably on it’s way to the springs..
Along this stretch of the highway are several herds of Wood buffalo. Eradicated from British Columbia by hunting, this species has been reintroduced and a 100 or so roam this particular area of BC. The biggest threat to the viability of this herd is being hit by road traffic, although buffalo burgers were commonly served at places along the route.
Crossing into Yukon requires passing over the 60th parallel, this line of latitude marks the southern border of the province. For reference this is approximately the same latitude as the Shetland Isles. We stayed overnight at quite possibly the worst hotel yet during our stay in Canada, one which Helen described as quite likely renting rooms by the hour, whatever that means. If you find yourself in Watson Lake do not stay at Andreas Hotel, and certainly don’t eat there. Instead, try the Nicer Motel, the clue being in the name….
Our final train journey in Canada took us, over a distance of 1,670 km, 2 more provinces (Saskatchewan and Alberta), one more timezone and 2 nights to our first sight of real mountains. Located in the Jasper National Park the eponymous town is quite possibly one of the most attractive towns in Canada, many of the properties designed in an alpine style and the town is home to the Rocky Mountaineer, a specially designed train which conveys tourists in style through some of the best parts of the area. There are a number of national parks in the area, all part of the huge Rocky Mountains.
On exploring the town we discovered 2 laundrettes combined with other shops, a printers and a cafe..genius!
Then we found a red chair…
Our first excursion was to Lac Beauvert, location of Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, famed for having hosted luminaries such as Marilyn Monroe back in the day.
After receiving the obligatory warnings about elk (very dangerous when they have young) and grizzlies (shout and make lots of noise and they’ll leave you alone) we walked round the lake totally unharrassed by any wildlife other than a few bugs. As we walked the skies slowly cleared to reveal the majesty of the mountains.
The next day Paula from Walks n’ Talks took us to Mount Edith Cavell, named after the famous English nurse shot by the Germans in World War 1. Edith never went to Canada but the English asked the Canadians if they’d rename one of their mountains in her honour. This replaced the original name “ghost mountain” used by the local tribes as the 3 glaciers on the mountain meant, in contrast to all the other surrounding mountains, it remained white throughout the summer.
To convey the scale of this place is impossible but the videos gives some perspective..
If anyone doubts the globe is warming them this mountain showcases glacial retreat in action. There were 3 glaciers on the mountain, now there are 2 as the ghost glacier fell off the mountain into the lake back in 2012, causing a tsunami which destroyed all the tourist facilities downstream. The other glaciers, the aptly named angel glacier and cavell glacier adjacent to the lake (which has only been in existence since the 1960s), used to be joined up and filled the valley below our vantage point.
Activities in Jasper were limited by the absence of rental cars, so organised tours were the only way to see stuff, or not, as it happened. That evening we embarked on a “wildlife tour” of the area in a small bus driven by our guide. He took us to a lake to see Bald eagle and Osprey, a supposed Coyote den, miles of back roads and finally, a campsite which hosted 3 elk. Two of which we’d seen wandering around the town the previous day.
Three stories are worth retelling from that trip, however, as despite not seeing anything, our guide could talk! Constantly for over 3 hours, with just one bathroom break. Firstly, elk give birth in the spring and choose inaccessible places to do this as the baby elks are very vulnerable to bears and wolves. In the past the safest places have been near human habitations but latterly, the grizzlies in particular, have worked this out and June recorded the highest ever number of grizzly sightings in and around Jasper. In the summer bears are putting on fat as preparation for hibernation and 1 baby elk represents a major time-saving in this respect when compared with weeks of eating berries and grass.
Secondly, if you want to trap a Black bear, use a dead beaver. Finally, as we entered a car park at the start of the many walks in the area, we were met by 2 police squad cars following up on an “incident” involving a bear. Diligent google searching found a piece in the local newspaper describing a man who entered the park with a 20 bore shotgun, met a bear and the inevitable happened. He now faces charges relating to illegal possession of a shotgun in a national park. The interesting thing is that in such a circumstance the presumption will always be that the bear was not at fault as routine measures to avoid such confrontations were not followed (so claiming self-defence is not valid).
Moving on we caught a bus from Jasper to Banff, conveniently down the Icefields Parkway, 232 km of what must be one of the most dramatic roads in North America (see below). On 3 occasions the bus slowed so we could see Black bears feeding by the side of the road, capitalising on the ripening fruit.
Banff was hot and very busy. To escape the former we took the gondola to the top of Sulfur Mountain.
From Banff another bus was required to get to Calgary airport, the nearest place we could reserve a hire car. We then set off to tick a few tourist bucket list entries starting with Lake Louise, arguably the most famous and definitely the busiest place in the Rockies. The lake itself is stunning with the mountain backdrop, complete with glacier. On the opposite bank is the famous Fairmont Chateau Louise, rooms not available even at the bargain price of CAN$1000 upwards per night (approx £650). Parking at the lake wasn’t cheap but to fully complete the triple whammy of experiencing the full beauty of the lake and being fleeced what better than hiring a boat to potter round for an hour or so? Tick. We moved on..
Accommodation is scarce along the Icefields Parkway but we found a room at the evocatively-named Saskatchewan Crossing, our imaginations filled with visions of heroic attempts to cross the raging torrents in the face of ferocious storms and hostile indians. In reality it is a bridge. With a modern motel set in the most incredible circle of mountains. Our problems had only just started as internet was only available in the on-site pub..
The Icefields Parkway is truly a route of amazing beauty and the best way to experience the scale and mostly unspoiled grandeur of the Rockies. It would be much improved without the constant procession of tour buses and tourists …
The most famous site has to be the Columbia Icefield, an immense conglomeration of glaciers which drain into the Bering sea and the Arctic & Pacific oceans. It is close to the road and has spawned a tourist operation of epic scale..a hotel, a walkway and the opportunity to walk on the glacier itself are all offered as options to those visiting the site. We stopped, took photos and moved on. Tick
There are numerous stopping places, an infinite number of beautiful vistas to admire.
Our time in the Rockies had come to a close. Next stop, Yukon..
The rail journey from Winnipeg to Churchill is 1697 km in length, takes 45 hours and requires 2 nights on the train. The only other option is to fly from Winnipeg, a 2.5 hour flight. There are no roads after Thompson. Churchill is located at 58.7679° N (approximately the same latitude as Orkney) on the southern-most tip of Hudson Bay, a bay large enough to accommodate the whole of Germany as an island.
The history of Churchill includes the usual Englishvs French argey-bargey and there is a fort which was originally designed to protect the lucrative trade in furs. Less well-known is the long history of the different tribes which lived in the area prior to westerners arriving on the scene and who continue to do so today (the majority of Churchillians are of First Nation origin). As one might imagine this is a continued source of friction even to this day (see below).
Churchill and the isolated lands to the south lie on permafrost, a potentially tricky material upon which to build a railway. Although most people are aware of Churchill in the context of tourism, this wasn’t the reason to build a hazardous and expensive train line back in the 1920s, so why was it built at all?
As the journey progresses the scenery changes from crops and herds of cattle to a much wilder mixture of trees, water and marsh land, with beaver lodges seen in virtually every lake and the occasional moose sighting to spice up the journey.
Rarely, the train stops and passengers can disembark for a few minutes and some of these places are of interest for their history, wildlife or industry
As we approached Churchill the track became much less stable as the train rocks widely from side-to-side and crawls over some of the more dodgy sections. And the weather deteriorated so that by the time we arrived it was 8C, windy and wet
Churchill is situated on a peninsula next to the estuary of the Churchill river which flows into Hudson bay, so on one side is fresh water and on the other, the sea.
We booked on 2 tours; firstly a boat tour which took us out to the fort situated at the mouth of the river on Eskimo Point and then went up river to find some of the thousands of Beluga Whales which congregate in the outflow of the river to give birth in the relatively warm and rich waters. Having crossed the river we disembarked and walked up to the fort accompanied by a guide and monitored at distance by a number of bear monitors whose job is to track the polar bears in the area and ensure tourists are kept a safe distance away. This was our introduction to the impact polar bears have on the life of everyone who lives in the area. Unlike the other bear species in Canada, polar bears actively hunt human beings and although many of the bears in the area stick to the coastal areas occasionally a young bear may wander into town, causing havoc before it is either encouraged to leave or is captured and placed in bear jail (more later). It is deliberate policy in Churchill that no-one locks their car or house, in case someone needs refuge from a marauding bear. All round the town the bear alert phone number is advertised and on the outskirts of the town there are signs discouraging people from proceeding any further.
For many of the people on our boat the fort was simply a good viewpoint over Eskimo Point where bears had been reported over the past week.
Our luck was in, despite the freezing cold wind and occasional squalls, a bear was seen to stand up and walk across a grassy area in the middle of the point. Others were seen nearer the rocks along the coast but blended in well to the background making a positive id difficult. Leaving the fort the skipper was persuaded to head out round Eskimo point where a mother bear and young were found.
Bird-wise the trip was also eventful as a Parasitic Jaeger, otherwise known as an arctic skua in the UK (the American name far better reflects the lifestyle of this species), was seen over Eskimo Point. Jaegers don’t bother finding their own food, they simply steal it from other birds, primarily Arctic terns, pursuing them remorselessly until they drop it, to the advantage of the skua. To do this they need to be incredibly fast and resourceful flyers and this, plus their dark and sinister plumage, makes them look the part of a piratical bird.
Heading to the river, Beluga Whales were everywhere, the adults are white and when they come up for air it looks like a white rock appearing from the ocean before gracefully curving back under water. Some were accompanied by grey immature whales. The water was very silty so it was impossible to see where the whales were until they actually surfaced so getting a good head shot proved to be a matter of luck rather than judgement and, combined with the choppy conditions it made photography challenging at best.
Returning to land we raced back to the Tundra Inn restaurant to warm up, celebrate our first bear and whale sightings and enjoy the local cuisine. The place was crammed, with both locals and tour groups, as it was “music” night and a local guitar maestro was giving it his all throughout the evening. It was a good way to end our 2 days of travelling.
Day 2 was worse, weather-wise, freezing cold and very wet but luckily we were booked on a tour led by a legend of Churchill tourism, the redoubtable Rhonda and her prehistoric bus.
We were to be shown many of the local sites and, hopefully, some wildlife along the way. Rhonda lives in Churchill and has strong views on, well, everything but particularly on how the indigenous peoples have been and are treated. Our 3 hour trip lasted 4.5 hours, primarily because she enjoys taking about all things local. En route to Cape Merry, where we could see but weren’t allowed (for bear reasons) to access two more red chairs, we stopped to learn more about the shipping of grain from Churchill, see below.
She told us about lichens, ice ages, local politics, the Caribou Fly season, the horror of which alone would be enough to never consider moving to Churchill!
Art is big thing in Churchill, partially through the influence of indigenous peoples..
…and a more recent explosion of murals, linked to beliefs of the local tribes but stimulated by recent events, described below.
Then we saw a crashed plane, called Miss Piggy because of the size of cargoes she flew, a remarkably lucky escape for the crew who all survived. Since then the plane has also been subjected to the local artists.
Stopping at the airport and the disused US military base where the Polar Bear Jail is now located. This is a disused hangar in which Polar Bears are housed during the summer when pack ice isn’t present in the bay. During this period young bears can’t access seals and so effectively starve until the ice returns and seal hunting can recommence. Young bears often roam the town and if they can’t be persuaded to leave then they are imprisoned until the ice returns. Polar bears weren’t common around Churchill until the US Air Force closed their facility in the town. That may have something to do with many ex-servicemen having polar bear pelts on their walls….
Within the town there is widespread mistrust of the government. Poverty is high, incomes are low and 80% of the population live in housing provided by the province of Manitoba. Despite promises to the contrary the establishment of research labs doesn’t benefit the town, tourism doesn’t really make much of a difference except to a handful of local families and the loss of the military base was a big blow to the local economy but it was the events of 2017 which really caused a huge international uproar primarily due to the hardship caused over the ensuing years.
In 2017 the railway was washed out south of Churchill. This meant the shipping of grain stopped, the jobs at the processing plant went, the plant was mothballed and declared unsustainable by the US owners. Food prices went through the roof and the town was in crisis. The government did nothing to help and in response the art community reacted by creating huge murals on buildings across the town to advertise their plight. The cry from the people was “know I’m here”, they felt neglected and discarded by government.
In the end 2 Canadian companies bought up the grain plant and invested in fixing the railway and grain shipments are due to recommence next year. The town is on the mend and, hopefully lessons have been learnt by the Canadian politicians as when the Prime Minister came to open the renovated grain plant he started his speech with the words: “I knew you were here”. Time will tell.
Churchill is also well-known for hosting a wide range of bird species most often associated with the arctic in contrast to the rest of Manitoba. That afternoon I went out birding with 2 people from the bus trip, Kathryn & David from Brandon. For bear reasons we were only allowed to walk round the ponds at the grain facility but found some nice birds.
The Tundra Inn restaurant was closed so we ended up at the Lazy Bear Cafe, a teetotal establishment located in the Lazy Bear Lodge, a recently built hotel / shop / restaurant complex built specifically to host organised groups coming up by air from Winnipeg. Flights, a few days accommodation and a few trips thrown in for good measure can leave each participant short by CAN$ 5,000 or more. Nothing is cheap in Churchill except liquor.
On our way to the Lazy Bear we got talking to a local who was originally from Newfoundland. His cousin was the blacksmith in the Viking Village referred to in a previous blog.
Our final day in Churchill. Sunny, calm and hot. We walked to the beach where the capelin were out and the gulls and terns were frenziedly diving in and taking advantage of this huge food source. As we were leaving the Belugas started arriving on the scene, powering across the bay to join in the party.
Back on the train for the 2 day marathon to Winnipeg.
At one of the scheduled stops Helen was asked if she wanted to call “All aboard!” when the train was ready to depart. This consisted of standing on a step, twirling an arm around your head and shouting as loud as possible. I don’t think we left anyone behind!
Arriving in Winnipeg only 3 1/2 hours late, we caught a taxi to Louise and Gary’s who kindly lent us their home (they were at the lake for the long weekend) for a couple of days on solid ground.
We also got the chance to see the family again and to say our goodbyes before heading West.
Following our adventures at the lake and in Winnipeg we had a few days to regroup, organise, get haircuts, visit Rene and replace dwindling supplies before heading up north to Churchill on Hudson Bay.
Louise took us to Winnipeg Zoo which is well-known for its Polar Bear enclosure which also doubles up as an exhibition for the unique natural features of Churchill. The bears were incredible, the display allowed for unique views of them in the water, their grace belying their huge bulk. Some of the bears were transported from Churchill as they were in need of veterinary assistance and, upon recovery, became part of the exhibit.
And, of course, another pair of red chairs…
That evening we were invited to dinner by Jon, Alycia and their 4 charming and engaging children Alexa, Dawson, Avery and Brooklyn. A 5 minute visit to Dawson’s room to see his lego structures turned into ½ hour grilling over the differences between pants/panties, bathroom/loo and the various different names they have for seasonal hats/hats by Alexa..
A tasty meal of wild salmon and roasted vegetables was rounded off with chocolate puffed rice cake. Another lovely evening spent with the Marshes.
The next day we had been invited to Jules (Louise’s dad) house on the outskirts of Winnipeg along with his wife Gladys. When we were told we would park on the road, we envisaged a residential street but were wowed with a wooden house, hidden in 2 acres of grounds.
We were treated to a traditional Ukrainian pie made by his daughter Pauline (a baker) with savoury minced beef and pork and various herbs and spices. Delicious!
We learned a lot about her fathers life and he was kind enough to sign and give us a copy of his autobiography “A Bowl of Cherries”.
The house he built himself and the garden is Gladys’s domain and she grows a selection of fruit and vegetables. We walked around the 2 acres and saw a deer and a fawn and the river but no turtles. Then after a quick trip to his workshop and a view of his latest invention as a work in progress we left.
There is only 1 Swift species in eastern North America, the Chimney Swift. This is closely related to our Swift in the UK and the two species share many characteristics. The obvious difference between the birds is that Chimney Swifts evolved to breed within the tree trunks of massive trees of which there were many across the continent. When man started “remodelling” the landscape the large trees were felled and the Swifts learnt to use chimneys in factories and private homes. These are now disappearing as heating systems change and factories close and Chimney Swift numbers have declined fast with a reduction of 90% in breeding numbers since 1970 and an estimated population in Canada of 20,000 to 70,000 birds. As in the UK there are people obsessed with watching, counting and conserving this fantastic species. In the hope we could see these birds we’d been in touch with a lady called Amanda who works for the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative, run by Nature Manitoba which is based in Winnipeg. She sent the address of a large Swift roost and also a 12 page spreadsheet listing nest sites locations across the province.
On the 19th we had invited Louise, Gary, his two sisters Dawn & Bev and Bev’s husband Pat, himself born in England, to the Peasant Cookery restaurant to thank them for their incredible hospitality. Unbeknown to us Tali had been in touch with Louise and had put a sum behind the bar as a birthday present for Helen & myself.
We had a fabulous meal and then Gary took us to the Swift roost site across town, arriving as a few small groups of birds were flying past the large chimney of an apartment block. At the car park we met a lady who’d been captivated by the Swifts throughout the season and she sent the video below, taken earlier in the season when numbers were higher. A more professional video (but not filmed in Winnipeg) can be found here. A fabulous end to a lovely day.