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Walking with bears in Yukon

 

I have toured many places on my own. I like to fly in, rent a car and drive wherever the mood takes me. Along the way I hike, horse-back ride, swim, boat or take part in local events. I research my “must see’s,” but I never plan the days and make no room reservations in advance.  I have rules, especially away from towns:  I must have booked a room by 4pm each day—even if I don’t use it until later in the evening; When my gas tank is half-full, nothing else happens until I have refuelled; And I never pick up adult male hitch-hikers. The Yukon would blow all these rules right out of the water.

I’ve always been the outdoorsy, camping type, so when I was asked by my employer to attend a conference in Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital, I jumped at the chance and immediately booked vacation time for the three weeks after the conference. I was a woman in my mid-sixties. 
 
Armed with a fancy new camera, my goal was to photograph the Yukon and maybe reach the Arctic Circle. On the advice of our host in Whitehorse, I reserved a car three months in advance—with some difficulty—and also booked a room at the Eagle Plains Hotel, about ten miles from the Arctic Circle, and the only accommodation north of Dawson. Had I not taken this advice, my trip would probably not have happened.

“So I flipped a coin: tails, I would go north towards the Arctic Circle; heads, east.”

At the end of the conference I headed out. Our generous hosts had already bussed us down to Scagway, just across the border in Alaska. The trip there and back was wonderful, with the “Emerald Lake” and “The Tormented Valley” giving us a sneak preview of what the Yukon has to offer.  But I could have skipped Scagway. It’s a town stuffed with jewelry stores waiting to empty the wallets of passengers disembarking from the huge cruise ships anchored in the deep port. It has little to do with Alaska nor the north; it felt like a transplanted, generic cruise port.

Glaciers in the mountains of Kluane 1
Glaciers in the mountains of Kluane 1
Glaciers in the mountains of Kluane 2
Glaciers in the mountains of Kluane 2

So I flipped a coin: tails, I would go north towards the Arctic Circle; heads, east. The southwestern part of the territory, home of the famous Kluane National Park, I would leave to my last few days.  It was near enough to Whitehorse that, should I be delayed for any reason, those extra few days would give me a buffer for making my flight home. The coin landed heads so I set out along the Alaska Highway towards Watson Lake, home of the “Signpost Forest,” so named because it hosts hundreds of signs which have been ripped off roads from around the world.  (I bitterly regretted I hadn’t gone out one night in my home town of Toronto and torn off some road sign that I could add to this crazy collection.) 

The next morning I saw a couple of black bears and a grizzly, the latter foraging about a hundred feet away. I have a healthy respect for bears but I know it’s rare for them to attack unless surprised, with cubs, or starving.  I wanted to get close enough for some good pictures so when I spotted the grizzly, I started speaking in a calm voice and slowly moved my arms around until he saw me.  He stood up on his hind legs, got a good whiff of me, decided I was no threat and went back to clawing the ground in search of roots and grubs.  It was the first of many bears I spotted on my trip.

Bears are about the only threat in the Yukon and do limit hiking alone. I always wore bells when hiking—again to let bears know I was around and not surprise them.  I also carried bear spray but hoped I would never have to use it, and thankfully never did.  It’s highly caustic and the last thing I wanted to do was harm one of these magnificent creatures. While in Whitehorse, I heard a story of a busload of tourists visiting Alaska who, when provided bear spray, proceeded to spray it on themselves—like bug spray—sending them all to the hospital!

“I was also beginning to get very low on gas and was out of range for texting.”

From Watson Lake I decided to head north toward Dawson and the Arctic Circle.  The sensible way to do this would have been to go back to Whitehorse and go up the Klondike Highway, but I was reluctant to waste a day retracing steps I had already taken—and the roads you can take are very limited in the Yukon—so, against all advice, I set out on the Robert Campbell Highway, 400 miles of gravel. I cannot think of any other trip I have made where I felt so alone. For more than 6 hours from Watson Lake to Ross River there was nothing but trees: no gas station, no dwellings, not one person—not even a road sign. The landscape was monotonous and the road difficult to drive. It reminded me of the Canadian prairies—except that the roads there are paved—but with black spruce replacing the wheat. I was beginning to wonder what the point of this road was and whether it actually went anywhere.

I was also beginning to get very low on gas and was out of range for texting. Food wasn’t a problem. I’d stuffed the car with bottled water, trail mix and power bars before leaving Whitehorse. (I also took with me toilet paper and plastic re-sealable freezer bags so no litter was left behind in this pristine wilderness.  I always dropped off used bags in a garbage receptacle in the next town.) I could survive for weeks if I neeFded to and I was beginning to think it might come to that if I ran out of gas or the car broke down, given that I seemed to be the only person using this road.  By evening I was exhausted. I wanted to nap but the road was narrow with ditches on either side and there was no place to pull over. Then it occurred to me I didn’t need to pull over. I was the only one on the road. I put the seat back and slept, waking up around midnight.

Midnight
Midnight

It was July and the Yukon is far enough north that there is light at night in the summer so I decided to push on, slowing down to conserve gas which was now dangerously low. Around 3am, cruising on fumes, I reached Faro. Driving further than necessary to find a place to stay was not an option. When I thankfully saw a gas station, I pulled up to the pump, put the seat back again and finished the sleep I had begun a hundred miles before. Around 7am I noticed people stirring in the gas station and I was soon back on the road, heading for Klondike gold rush country.

Dawson
Dawson

Dawson is a fun city and well worth visiting.  The subject of novels by famous Canadian writers such as Jack London, Pierre Burton and Robert Service, it showcases its colourful gold rush history in old general stores and night entertainment.  The accommodation is good, if not luxurious, and the people friendly and informal.  I stayed a few days in Dawson and enjoyed every minute of it. 

“Those adventurous enough to take this road and back are rewarded with a T Shirt in Dawson that says, “I did the Dempster."”

Dawson is also the foot of the Dempster Highway, a well maintained gravel and crushed stone road and the only route going north to the Arctic Circle. (It then goes on to Inuvik, near the Arctic Sea). Once you’ve left Dawson, the closet gas station, hotel or food stop is over 360 km away at Eagle Plains, (which is neither a plain nor frequented by eagles.) It’s a risky venture. Again, If you get a flat tire or your car breaks down, you’re on your own; fellow travellers on the road are few and far between.  Those adventurous enough to take this road and back are rewarded with a T Shirt in Dawson that says, “I did the Dempster.” After my long and worrisome drive up the Robert Campbell Highway, I wasn’t sure I now wanted to “do the Dempster,” but my reservation at the Eagle Plains Hotel awaited and I knew that, once back in Toronto, I would regret a decision not to make it to the Arctic Circle when I was so close—relatively speaking.

Dempster highway 1
Dempster highway 1
Dempster highway 2
Dempster highway 2

As it turned out, the drive up the Dempster Highway and back was the highlight of my trip and I strongly urge anyone visiting the Yukon to drive at least part of it—or fly in.  The landscape is breath-taking, unlike anything I’ve ever seen on my many travels: smooth, rounded mountains; rushing rivers and streams; canyons; wildlife everywhere; and ponds and lakes oddly circular as a result of the permafrost and rotation of the earth’s rotation.  But what stunned me most was the proliferation of brilliant wildflowers.  They were everywhere. They lined the roads and creeks and carpeted acres of land replacing the black spruce burned by the latest fire.  I wanted to stop and take pictures at every turn in the road.  I’ve never seen anything like it. Only my one-night reservation at the Eagle Plains Hotel kept me moving forward but I vowed to take the time on the return trip and I did.

Yukon
Yukon
Yukon
Yukon
Yukon
Yukon
Yukon
Yukon
Yukon
Yukon
Moose in the water
Moose in the water
Fireweed replaces a forest of Black Spruce after a fire
Fireweed replaces a forest of Black Spruce after a fire

The Yukon is a photographer’s dream. Capturing clear vistas from high vantage points can be challenging, however, because of an ever-present smoky haze from distant forest fires. Yukon is remote enough that most fires are allowed to run their course. While listening to the radio in Dawson, I heard an announcer calmly warn campers in a certain region that a forest fire was coming their way and they should “get in their canoes and stick to the middle of the river” until it passed.

“My room had two double beds; that night I slept in one and they shared the other.”

I was thankful to have a bed to sleep in when I reached Eagle Plains, even though I was too late for dinner and was getting sick of eating nuts and dried fruit.  A couple of young women in their teens or early twenties were not as lucky. They’d made no reservation, the hotel was fully booked—largely with road crews—the gas station was closed for the night, and the nearest accommodation was almost 400 kilometres away in Dawson. My room had two double beds; that night I slept in one and they shared the other.

Margot at the Artic
Margot at the Artic

When I went to bed that night the temperature was in the twenties, Celsius—mid-seventies, Farenheit). The next morning it had dropped to freezing and the locals were predicting light snow.  After filling up both me and the car, I headed for the Arctic Circle, less than a half hour away. By the time I got there, the snow was coming down.  I set up my tripod and the timer on the camera, took a quick shot of me at the signpost documenting my arrival, and hurried back to the warmth of the car.  The adventurer in me wanted to continue north as far as the road would take me, but I had heard that the landscape further north was mostly flat tundra, the snow was getting heavy, I wasn’t dressed for it, and there were still parts of Yukon I wanted to see.

On my way back to Dawson, I hiked the trails and snapped the images I had passed by the day before. It meant a one-day delay and more naps in the car but it was well worth it.  Once when I awoke from one of these naps, I did the usual check in the side-view mirror before pulling out, only to see a large moose had wandered up behind me.  My camera ever at the ready, I quietly snapped a picture.

Kluane National Park showcases everything Canada’s north has to offer—the country’s highest mountain, white water, glaciers, infinite hiking trails, a huge variety of wildlife and the largest number of grizzly species on the planet.  I spent the last week of my trip there and barely saw a corner of it. I drove, I hiked, and even had time to go up on a small plane (whose door didn’t close properly). Finally, high above the smoky haze, I was rewarded with stunning pictures of rocky ridges, sharp mountain peaks, sloping shoulders and winding glaciers, browned with the soil they carried.  It was thrilling, and I wished I’d had more time.

“I loved the Yukon and seriously considered moving there for a few years.”

I loved the Yukon and seriously considered moving there for a few years.  But I reminded myself that I had been there in July, and that a cold, dark winter consumed most of the year. The Yukon has a lot to offer the winter adventurer—skiing, dog sledding—but that’s another trip.
 
If you love nature, you want to see something different, and you don’t mind compromising on accommodation, the Yukon awaits you. The call it “Bigger Than Life” and that’s what if feels like. If you can afford it, you can get someone to fly you in to almost any part of it. If you’re driving and you have the time, liberate a road sign from your home town, fly into Dawson Creek, British Columbia, rent a car and drive up the Alaska highway to Watson Lake and then on to Whitehorse.  From there take the Klondike Highway to Dawson, west to Tok Alaska, then south to Kluane and Haines.  And for heaven’s sake, “Do the Dempster!”