(6th – 21st August, 2015)
Yukon was one of our biggest travel destinations and we have wanted to visit for a long time. Gary, since he was a small boy; and I’ve been excited to visit since we first started planning our trip. And now as we cross the border, much later than we had originally planed, into the Yukon greeted by glorious summer weather we are especially happy to finally be here. We are also excited about the experiences that await us…
Unexpected Time-Out in Watson Lake
Almost simultaneous with our arrival in Watson Lake I felt under the weather so our excitement about travelling in the Yukon had to be put on the back burner. I felt pretty weak and a bit nauseous; it looked like I’d managed to get some kind of stomach flu or something. So we set up our camp on the somewhat out of the way campground and hoped that with a bit of sleep and herbal tee things would get better – they didn’t however. The next day I felt really miserable; and as it seemed not to be getting any better even after an additional night camping so we decided to break camp and head to a hotel for a night, which turned out later to have been a good decision. A lot of sleep and a long hot shower turned out to be the right medicine and we were able to head back to the campground. With another day of rest I felt quite a bit better and ready to travel.
The whole thing did have a positive side though: We would actually have been long gone but as it was we ended up, to our surprise, meeting our friends Betty and Beat (www.reisefriedli.ch) again, whom we first met at the beginning of our trip. We also met another Swiss couple Ruth and Peter (www.traveljoy.ch) and spent an enjoyable evening around a campfire with BBQ and wine. Not yet feeling 100% I wasn’t really the best company and had to keep to my chamomile tee instead of enjoying a glass of wine with the others…
The following day as we prepared to leave Watson Lake we ran into Simone and Stefan (www.panchosway.de) – we met them on the ferry to Labrador. It began to seem to us that Watson Lake was some kind of magical crossroads for long-term travelers or something.
Since we ended up spending more time here than we had initially planned we used the time for some practical things: We got a couple of chips in our windshield on the way up and found that just about every town has a “guy” that repairs windshields. In our case that was Mr. Kalles, a 78-year-old kindly grandfather with a very interesting history. He not only fixed our windshield but also imparted some very sage Yukon wisdoms, which ended up being very helpful for us in coming weeks and months.
The attraction and also the landmark of Watson Lake is the Signpost Forest. During the construction of the Alaska Highway an American soldier got a bit homesick so he put up a sign showing the direction and distance to his hometown in Illinois, soon after other soldiers started doing the same and when the highway was opened it became somewhat of a tradition for people to put up signs from their hometowns and it now numbers over 100,000 signs from all over the world. It’s quite fascinating, you can walk through the forest for hours looking at all the names and messages that people have posted. Of course we came totally unprepared and didn’t have a sign to put up…we didn’t really want to buy one, but who knows maybe something will come along and we will put up a sign on our way back.
The Robert Campbell Highway
We bid farewell to the Alaska Highway at Watson Lake to head out and explore the eastern part of the Yukon. The Robert Campbell is a rather lonely gravel road that meanders through a mostly uninhabited wilderness. With the temperatures hovering around the 20-degree mark we puttered along the highway enjoying the sights of mountains, rivers and lakes after our forced stop. We picnicked at a crystal clear lake and camped at river along the road. Firewood is easy to find along the rivers and it’s so quiet, even being next to the road, that we felt like we were really in the wild. We didn’t see or hear a single car until the next day.
Our 1st Wedding Anniversary – Faro and Little Salmon Lake
We reached the quaint little town of Faro the next day. The 11th of August was our 1st wedding anniversary! Actually we wanted to be in Dawson City, treat ourselves with a night on the town and a hotel stay and all that but as it so happens planning and the reality of traveling are quite different things, and besides we didn’t want to rush through the lovely landscape, so we were in Faro instead. We slept late that morning and went for a stroll through the little town and drove a bit farther to the Little Salmon Lake campground, set up our camp there on the lake shore and popped the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine. It rained pretty much the entire day, just like on our wedding day, but we didn’t mind at all (It’s supposed to bring luck after all J). Little Salmon Lake is really idyllic and we dined under the protection of our Foxwing on home made buns, eggs, bacon and cheese with chocolate and sparkling wine for desert. It’s probably the most expensive sparkling wine I’ve ever had – $17 is rather normal here in Canada I hate to think what real champagne would cost! – But it’s tastes divine and definitely did its job.
At the end of Silver Trail, and at the very end of the road we reached Keno City – a place definitely worth a visit! Nestled in the mountains lies this small mining town that consists pretty much only out of historic buildings. In summer the population peaks at about 36 and in winter it drops to 12! It’s no wonder really; we aren’t all that far from Mayo, which is apparently the coldest (and also the hottest) place in all of the Yukon. It’s the middle of August and we can definitely feel why; the summer like 20 degrees we had on the way here are long gone and the temperatures had fallen into the single digits. After a somewhat breezy picnic we decided to drive up Signpost Hill, a small mountain directly behind the town, where they have a signpost showing distances to faraway places. Unlike in the Alps you are allowed to drive just about every gravel road including the ones going up mountains. You can also go hiking where and how you like – although there are very few real developed trails, and from our lookout the mountains that stretch into the endless distance look all very wild, lonely and remote reachable only through days or weeks of expedition hiking. Comprehensive hiking trails like in the Alps simply don’t exist in this incredibly remote and sparsely populated area and there are mostly no loop trails only a way in and then you turn around and take the same trail back. We strolled along the trails at the top of Signpost Hill until the end of a steep mountain saddle before taking a pretty adventurous gravel road down the “back-way” back to Keno. It was evening by the time we arrived and were surprised to see Manfred and Dagmar (www.world-explorer.de) again so soon. We met the two of them on one of the territory campgrounds on the Robert Campbell. Now that we’ve bumped into them again we decided to have dinner together in one of the local restaurants. We chatted the evening away at the Keno City Snack bar.
If you want to eat out in Keno city you have the choice between the Keno City Hotel, the Sourdough Café or the Snack Bar, which has a very quaint and unique atmosphere and very yummy pizza. It’s really worth visiting all three of them really, which we did, as they each have their own individual special charm.
Dawson City – a Little taste
After our free shower at the Mayo city swimming pool we headed back on the Klondike Highway toward the gold mining town of Dawson City. As soon as we left the Silver Trail behind we noticed immediately that the temperature began to rise to a more summer like weather and were quite happy that summer wasn’t quite yet over. Actually we wanted to head directly to the Tombstone Mountains, but Dawson is only 40km from the turn off and they were having their Discovery Days festival as well as the Yukon Riverside Arts Festival so we didn’t want to miss the opportunity for a little music and sociability. We arrived to the hustle and bustle and wonderful sunshine and noticed right away that Dawson City is a very special little town with real charm. With an ice cream in hand we made ourselves comfortable on the grass along the Yukon River listening to the local musicians and simply enjoyed the beautiful weather. After a quick stroll through the town it was clear to us that we definitely have to come back and spend a bit of time here in Dawson. It wasn’t quite clear to us at this point that our wish would be granted, and in spades…
The Dempster Highway – Adventure in the far North
The Dempster Highway, a 750 km gravel and dirt road, stretches all the way from the Yukon over the Arctic Circle to Inuvik in the North West Territories through an unending wilderness. The road is legendary and infamous, long before we were anywhere near the road we had hear all manner of horror stories about it from “Tire eating Monster” (where you were crazy to even think about driving it without at least 2 spare tires strapped to your car), to all manner of windshield damage, breakdowns etc. to “Best travel experience ever.” As we turn onto this one-of-a-kind road after our short visit to Dawson we didn’t really intend to drive too much of the road. We didn’t really like the idea of it all that much really we aren’t too keen on driving such a long route only to turn around and drive the same road back, we like loops, and so our original plan was to drive the first 70km to the Tombstone Territorial Park and hike the surrounding mountains. But as luck would have it we arrived at the campground only to find it, to our utter amazement, completely full, not a single spot was available. That basically put a crimp in our plan to make camp for a few days. So we decided we would dive a bit farther along the Dempster and random camp, which is incredibly easy in the Yukon and even more so on the Dempster Highway.
Yukon Camping – Simply Fantastic!
At this point we really need to mention that camping in the Yukon is fantastic! The whole territory is dotted, at very humane intervals, with campgrounds all of which are self-registration. They all cost $12, which even includes firewood; and of course they are really well maintained, very nicely laid-out and a picnic shelter with wood stove! Ok it’s not for comfort campers, no real amenities and only out-houses and manual water pumps, but they are perfect for us. We actually think that they are the best in all of Canada. We even decided to write that on the comment cards every time we camped that they please not change a thing we think they are perfect. But that’s not all either – In the Yukon we also found, for the first time, what we’ve been searching for the entire trip: Just about every river and lake has an access road that leads to a wonderful spot to camp! Almost all of them don’t have a no camping sign and all of them already have at least one established campfire ring indicating to us that we aren’t the first people to have camped there. It’s awesome to finally have easily accessible nice random camping possibilities. We take it as it comes: we either stumble upon a spot along the way or drive until we come to one of the territorial campgrounds either way we end up with a wonderful camping spot!
By the way we also now have, along with the usual squirrels, Gray Jays as camp guests. The pretty birds, which belong to the crow family, have a very appropriate nickname of “Camp Robber”. Most of the time they flitter from branch to branch around our camp waiting for the most opportune moment, where we aren’t paying attention, before swooping in and stealing something from our table.
Captivated by the Dempster
We found one of the aforementioned random camping places next to a river that evening and were completely captivated by this one-of-a-kind road! The first 100km were simply amazing we simply couldn’t stop staring at the natural beauty around us. We drove through high wild mountains and were amazed by how the late afternoon sun made the mountains almost glow with color. Around every curve in the road we were presented with different and wonderful views making our progress somewhat slower, since we had to stop every few kilometers to get out and take a few photos. We figured that we would just drive to the end of the Tombstone park area but then as we approached the end we decided to drive a little bit further, and then a little more and at some point we thought we would drive until we had enough…
Mud Bath Adventure
Winter arrives pretty early this far north and even though it’s only the middle of August the fall colors are in full swing on the Dempter Highway. It’s noticeably cooler and is a bit rainy but the color is that more intense. On a sunny break we stopped along the way north at the foot of a nameless, pathless mountain and began to pick our way up the flank for a bit of exercise and to enjoy the view, which was absolutely fantastic. Almost endless wilderness in every direction we looked with only the Dempster to be seen winding through like a thin thread to disappear over the horizon or into a mountain pass.
After spending the night at the engineer creek campground, with a wonderful campfire, we once again woke to a rainy morning. As we climbed down from the tent we noticed that the ground here had turned into a mud with the consistency of chocolate pudding. The roads, as it turned out, were also now made of chocolate pudding, and it hadn’t rained all that much really. It felt almost more like swimming than driving actually and in not time we were in a real mud bath. After a while driving the black mush was covering almost the entire vehicle so much so that we couldn’t see out of the back windows anymore. At about midday we reached Eagle Plains, a kind of midway refueling point, and we couldn’t believe our eyes when we got out of the Landy. Our logo was no longer recognizable, our bikes were under a centimeter thick coating of muck, and our license plate had vanished! We really had to laugh – we had certainly never experienced something like this before. With the rain and the wind howling we headed into the only restaurant here and ordered a hot lunch. After about an hour or so, warm and with full bellies, we headed back out into the mud bath that was the Dempster toward the Arctic Circle.
This would be the second time for both of us to cross. We made camp that evening at the Rock River Campground and although we never really thought it would be possible we noticed that the landy was covered in an even thicker layer of muck than it was at Eagle Plains. It’s now completely black from head to toe with the exception of the windscreen all of the other windows the covered in mud. We had to perform an emergency car wash so that we didn’t get completely muddy every time we opened a door, and of course also for safety measures we cleaned the indicator and brake lights with ice-cold water from the river – something you can imagine we really enjoyed, at least we were able to get a fire going so we could warm our hands!
It had stopped raining over night and as we headed onto the highway we couldn’t believe that we were driving on the same road as the day before. It was completely dry, without a trace of the muck and mud, it was actually pretty good to drive on, almost a though it had never rained.
The terrain changes often along the Dempster, from high mountain ranges to rolling hills, tundra, crag and barren grey mountains that practically look like giant mounds of gravel. We passed the border to the North West Territories and drove about another 50km just past Midway Lake before we finally decided to turn around and head back. Inuvik may only be another 200km from where we were but it’s flat now and the road has degraded into a giant washboard, besides we still wanted to drive the Top of the World highway to Alaska and winter is approaching. So at kilometer 550 we turned around and headed back toward Tombstone without a single feeling of regret. The entire trip was awesome and well worth every km driven.
We even managed to find a free camping spot at the Tombstone Park on our return trip so made camp and went on a couple of mountain hikes. It has started to get pretty darn cold during the nights now and so after almost 6 days on the Dempster we were looking forward to a bit of “city” life in Dawson.
And Then it Happened…
Around about km 20 near the end of the Dempster highway, without any of the promised flat tires or breakdowns it happened. Interestingly enough just when we were pulling over by a broken down car to ask if they needed any help the clutch stopped working on the Landy. We didn’t really know what happened but we know one thing was clear: something was definitely not right. Thankfully Gary knows how to shift gears without using the clutch so we were able to limp our way to Dawson but that was about all. We heard some ugly whirring noises after trying to start the car in 2nd gear and we knew that the clutch had completely given up the ghost. Nothing helped, shifting did nothing, and we weren’t going to be going anywhere anytime soon…