Top of the World Highway
June 1st, 2015
It is 7:50 in the morning and a brisk 4C as we board the ferry to cross the Yukon River. It is a splendid sunny morning but unlike last night where the rays of the setting sun lit up the multicolored buildings of Dawson, this morning the town is shaded by the surrounding dark green hills. We wait in excited anticipation because today we will be driving the Top of the World Highway.
The Top of the World Highway will take us from Dawson City, Yukon to the American-Canadian border . Then we will continue on the Taylor Highway to Tok, Alaska about a 300 Km trip from Dawson. It is one of the highest roads in North America and, to avoid muskeg and permafrost, was built on ridge lines and avoided valleys.
The road is only open in the summer months and was still closed when we were planning our trip to the Yukon. But luckily for us it opened last week and we are looking forward to driving a road with such an evocative name.
We are directed onto the ferry with an SUV beside us. The little ferry does a wide turn towards the opposite shore. We see a few pick-ups and a yellow pay loader waiting on the gravelly shore across. We enjoy the sight of the powerful river waters rushing by us. A short five minutes later and we are directed off the ferry right onto the sandy shore. There is no dock or ramp. The water levels on the Yukon River can change rapidly and quite dramatically, so the loading ramps are gravel and are constantly being bulldozed to match them to the ferry height.
It only takes a few km climbing out of Dawson City to realize where the name of this road comes from. We stop almost right away (about 5 Km later ). We see Dawson sitting along the Yukon river and we have a great a view of a stretch of the Klondike Highway that brought us to Dawson. We can also see where the clear waters of the Klondike River meet the muddy waters of the Yukon River.
Then again a stop at a pull-out where there are the Welcome to Dawson City signs. They are imaginative signs that replicate the architectural style of the buildings in Dawson.
The road is surprisingly good. It is a hard packed gravel and while dusty there are very few potholes. We are probably driving about 60 km per hour. Right away we start to see mountain ranges off to the left. And how many times have I said this – as far as the eye can see there is this immense wilderness with nothing but valleys and hills and dark green forests. We are alone on the road. No cars coming towards us and none behind us. You also know that you are in the wilderness when you do not see any power lines. From the Dawson Westside to Chicken, Alaska all the area is off the power grid.
It is 9:30 now and at the km 60 mark we stop at a side road to the abandoned Clinton Creek Mine. There is a wide gravelly area where we can park and have our mid-morning coffee. The sign on the mine road says “No Trespassing” but there is a small dirt path up the hill and we decide to stretch our legs and walk about a bit. It is very quiet, the air is crisp and fresh with the smell of the wildflowers all along the path.
All of a sudden the silence is broken and we hear the sound of a car and coming fast down the hill followed by a huge cloud of dust is a Mack type truck. And then two more pick-ups and we are no longer alone on the road!
We are climbing higher now and start to see patches of snow in the shaded areas along side the road. We stop of course to take some pictures with the snow.
Just before the Canadian-USA border we are at the highest point of the highway at about 1400 metres. We are also above the tree line. There is a pull-out on the other side of the road and we get out to walk around and to take-in the view. We have a 360 degree vista of mountain ranges in the distance stacked one behind the other.
The ground is spongy peat moss and I sink in right to my ankles. The ground is covered with small low cranberry and bayberry plants with their shiny green leaves and pink and white berries. And everywhere the round white balls atop a thin green stem that is Arctic Cotton Grass are blowing back and forth in the breeze (a sedge – Eriophorum). I am thinking to myself, this is like tundra, and then I shake my ahead. This is tundra. It is still hard to believe that we are actually in the Yukon at 64 degrees latitude north! We really did feel that we are at the top of the world!
The Little Gold/Poker Creek border crossing from the Yukon to Alaska is the most northern international border crossing in all of North America. The two customs offices are together, an effort to save some money. There is nothing there but these blue customs buildings with a view of wilderness that is nothing less than spectacular.
The American border officer asks the usual where are you from and where are you going questions as we hand over our passports. Then he asks if we have any firearms – No; Firewood – No; Alcohol- Yes some beer; fruits or vegetables , apples or oranges for example – Yes I have apples and oranges. Then he says – ‘Well I will have to take a look at those” and shows me to move over and park the RV. He then adds “Your friend will have to come in with me”. The capogita goes in side because as an Italian citizen he has to get his fingerprints taken, answer some questions and pay $6 for a visa. The border officer then comes back out to take a look at the apples and oranges. I tell him the oranges are from California but he says “I am sorry, I will have to take those”. I cannot understand what harm these American oranges will do to the non- existent citrus fruit industry in Alaska but I hand over the oranges. He says I can keep the apples. Luckily he did not ask if I had any other vegetables or we may have lost our entire supply of greens that we had bought for the trip! I had the American dollars so I went in to where the capogita was being finger printed – all good – we paid the money and we were off again.
Then the capogita shows me his passport – there was the usual visa stamp with dates and one special one of a caribou. The Canadian border people give a special stamp too, a Klondike Gold Panner.
There is a pull-over as you leave the border crossing with a huge Welcome to Alaska sign where we stop to take the requisite pictures but also to take a last look at that 360 view.
The next ten miles of road – miles because we are now in the USA and we also had a time change of one hour – is brand new shiny black asphalt. And lucky for us because now we are headed straight down hill, with windy turns and grades of 7 and 9 degrees.
Then the paved road just ends and we are what I can only describe as a narrow, steep, mountain road. It is loose and slippery gravel. It hugs a mountain side with unfenced curves giving way to steep gullies and canyons below. I slowed right down and probably never drove faster than about 30 km per hour. Luckily driving the roads in the Dolomites last summer prepared me for the sight of steep precipices. But the loose gravel is a whole other challenge. The RV was a bit top-heavy and the front wanted to go one way while the back wanted to go in the opposite direction. Staying on the road while navigating the curves was another challenge posed by the loose gravel. Luckily we were alone on the road and I could take the curves wider than what would be possible had there been traffic coming towards us. I felt the stress but still managed to drive a good hour before the capogita asked if I wanted to take the passenger seat again. I said yes to the passenger seat right away!
A pick-up passed us with two huge huskies in the open back-end of the truck. The truck kicked up so much dust that we could barely see it as it passed by.
We followed a river where we actually saw people with camps set up and panning for gold. The scene was right out of a poster for the Klondike – crystal clear waters jumping over the stones and people stooped down along the banks of the stream looking at their metal pans.
I laughed when I saw the sign – “Chicken Next Left”. First, because it was the first and only “town” along this road and second because of the name of the town. Apparently the original settlers had wanted to call it Ptarmigan because there were many of these birds in the area but disagreed on how that was spelled so called it Chicken instead!
We stopped to have lunch along the bank of the river but by now the weather had changed dramatically and it was starting to rain. The rest of the drive to Tok was under a heavy rainfall but it did nothing to diminish the heady feeling of having seen the Yukon from the Top of the World Highway.