Days 82 – 90 (Aug 18th – 26th Aug) Continuing Up the Alaska Highway: Watson Lake, Whitehorse & Dawson City

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.

En route we stopped at Rancheria falls, a rest stop in the sunshine.

…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.

The long and winding road

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.

With thanks to Jon Marsh for providing us with a copy of Klondike

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.

Chinook Salmon migration

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.

Sheep

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:

Cabin 310 aka “The Ritz”

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.

Regenerating forest

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.

Stewart River

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.

The ferry from Dawson City to access the Top of the World Highway

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…