North of 60 Klondike Highway and the Silver Trail

May 31, 2015

Along the Klondike Highway to Dawson City

The North Klondike Highway connects Whitehorse to Dawson City, and is the northern half of the highway that runs between Skagway and Dawson City. The road parallels the route used by prospectors during the 1898 Gold Rush.

We wake up to that complete stillness and quiet. I had actually awoken a few times during the “night” just to listen to the silence and to marvel that it was never really dark outside. We had placed two flashlights in close reach just in case we had to get up during the night, if we heard sounds of animals in the night, for example. And in the morning we laughed at ourselves for all the effort in bringing just the right size flashlights with us. In late May “nighttime” is actually a few hours of twilight with a light reddish golden light.

It is a cool morning 9C with a light rain falling. By 7:15 we are back on the road.

The first wildlife siting of the day is an Arctic Hare, with huge back paws and a round white tail,  that dashes into the shrubs by the road.

The road construction ends and the road is paved again. But now the road is not “raised”.  It is flat with the shrubs that line the road and with no road shoulder the forest is very close to us. Bright pink and purple flowers are literally growing out of the pavement making this long colorful border on both sides of the road.

We learn to look out for black patches on the road. These were potholes that had been covered over but to no avail. The holes caused by the constant heaving of the permafrost are still there. At first we slow down to drive carefully through them. Then we start to realize, that in the last 45 minutes we have only encountered three other vehicles and it is much easier on the RV to just avoid them all together by driving on the other side of the road.   We are also on constant watch for small neon orange flags on the sides of the road. These mean fairly significant potholes and often they extend over both lanes of the highway. A lot of times we have to come to a complete stop, driving slowly into and out of the holes.

We start to get used to the percussion concert in the background – the rattling of pots and pans, dinnerware, cutlery and groceries shifting in the cupboards. Every morning I tried a different approach of what to wrap in dish towels to try to reduce the movement but it only created a whole different set of pitches of rattling. It gave new meaning to that flight attendant’s required announcement of “Be careful when opening overhead bins. Contents may have shifted during the flight”!

We stop a number of times to take pictures of the of the views even though we know our cameras cannot capture the sense of how immense this wilderness is.

The sun has come out now. The leaves of the aspen trees wave back and forth in the slight breeze making the light bounce off the rain droplets and turning the trees into this shiny and glistening, green ribbon alongside the road.   We are all alone on the road. There is no one on the road in front of us and no one behind us.

It is 8:45 and we are enjoying the view of the bright blue bridge over the Pelly River.   The air is crisp and cool, the smell of wild roses wafts in the air and long wispy white clouds hover in the perfect blue sky.   We are at Pelly Crossing, the half-way point between Whitehorse and Dawson City. The small community of about 300 people is home to the Selkirk First Nation and was established during the construction of the North Klondike Highway as a site for a ferry crossing and as a construction camp. There is an interesting plaque at the look-out that commemorates the arrival of the North West Mounted Police in the Yukon bringing law and order to the Klondike. The NWMP marched 500 miles from their post in British Columbia enduring many hardships during and at their arrival in the Yukon. As important for the Canadian government was the message being sent to the Americans that this was Canadian  territory and not to be claimed by the USA.

We stop at Stewart Crossing to buy gas. It is still early in the day (10:25) and so we decide to head at least part way up the Silver Trail to Mayo as the guide book said that there was a moose calving area in the wetlands along the road.  The road parallels the wide and calm Stewart River,  a tributary of the Yukon, which flows more than 500 kilometers before emptying into the Yukon.   We see views of broad valleys, rounded mountains and meandering rivers, all on a grand scale.

When prospectors arrived to Dawson only to find that all the prime land had been staked, explorers moved back down south, eventually finding gold in Duncan Creek, near Keno. In 1919, continuing exploration revealed rich deposits of silver and lead ore near Keno Hill.  Hence the name – Silver Trail.

We stop at the Devil’s Elbow a Habitat Protection Area and Nacho Nyak Dun traditional territory.   A short trail leads up to a lookout over the wetlands where every spring, cow moose come to give birth and raise their young. To protect this special place and the wildlife who depend on it, area Nacho Nyak Dun citizens volunteered to stop harvesting cow moose in the region. Unfortunately we were not able to spot any moose in the dense willows.

It is a really good road in better condition than the Klondike Highway so there is lots of time to enjoy the scenery. All of a sudden a pick-up truck passes me and at the same time I see a camper parked by the side of the road. The pick-up slows down and then passes the camper. I slow down too and then see why they are stopped – there is a black bear along side the road. I stop but a bit further down the road by the time I realize that the bear is there.

The capogita gets out of the RV – and walks towards the camper.   I stay inside because the pamphlets all say DO NOT  get out of your car when you see wildlife and the Canadian in me will not let me get out of the RV!  Along side of the road is a mother black bear with a small brown cub grazing on the plants. She seems to know that she is being watched and growls a bit but also seems to know that her cub is not in danger. All of a sudden that cub jumps and in a flash has climbed a tree, legs wrapped neatly around the trunk. We stay and watch until the mother and cub decide to head into the bush.

We stop at the next pull-out and so does the other camper. They are three men from Surrey England. They tell us they have already seen ten bears. They drove the Dempster Highway up past the Arctic Circle and suggested we should at least drive a few kilometers up to say we had been on the Dempster.

We have lunch by the river just outside Mayo and then head back the 50 km to the Klondike Highway.

There were a number of signs along the road about past forest fires. One read 1995 Forest Fire and we could see ribs of soil maybe firewalls with blackened trunks of trees. The reforestation had started with skinny conifers and stunted looking aspens. Then another sign that read 1969 Forest Fire. Here the forest was much lusher and predominately aspen trees.   A third sign read 1953 Forest Fire.

Jamais deux sans trois – and a small black bear ambles across the road in front of us, turns to look and then slowly disappears into the bush.

We now start to see the Tombstone mountain range in the distance set in the stunning wilderness and of course we stop to take some pictures.

We reach the junction for the Dempster Highway. There is a gas station at the junction and some interpretive panels about the Dempster and about grizzly bears. A bridge crosses the Yukon River and we walk across the bridge to take a look at the road. It is fine gravel and at this point, at least, it is a raised gravel road. So we say, let’s drive up for a few kilometers. There is a sign that reads “Next Services 370km” – this means no human contact for the next 370 km. We did drive up a piece but it was very dusty and not as wide as we thought. So we backed our way down to the bridge, but we can say, “We drove the Dempster”!

Forty km now to Dawson City where we stop for the day.

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