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Monday, May 30, 2016

"Steppe"ing Back Into Beringia

The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre is a research and exhibition facility located on the Alaska Highway in Whitehorse, Yukon.  The focus of the Center, which opened in 1997, is the story of "Beringia."

Due to glaciation during the Ice Age, sea levels fell between 125 and 150 meters, causing the "land bridge" between Siberia and Alaska to be exposed and dry.  But it did more than this:  it left uncovered the huge land mass now called Beringia, a term coined by the Swedish botanist Eric Hultén in 1937.  This Ice Age land region was a huge steppe, or cold, dry grassland, stretching from the Kolyma River in Siberia to the MacKenzie River in Canada, and is notable because it remained non-glaciated during the Ice Age due to light snowfall from an arid climate. Beringia is of special interest to archeologists and paleontologists as it played a crucial role in the migrations of many animals and humans between Asia and the Americas.

It is believed that a small human population of at most a few thousand arrived in Beringia from eastern Siberia before expanding into the settlement of the Americas sometime after 16,500 years ago as the American glaciers blocking the way southward melted.  This migration is assumed to have ended when the bridge was covered by the sea as glaciers melted about 11,000 years ago.  Before European colonization, Beringia was inhabited by the Yupik peoples on both sides of the straits. These peoples and their culture remain in the region today.

We decided to visit the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre today.  Little did we know how completely we would be transported back into the age of Beringia!  As we got out of our truck, we were amazed to see a small family group of wooly mammoths striking through the picnic area and into the nearby woods:

We were curious where they were going, and followed the lumbering beasts.  At one point, David got a little too close to the calf and was chastised by the angry cow:

No sooner did we escape that hair-raising encounter, then Kathy stumbled on a giant beaver who, being carniverous, decided to see what humans taste like:

Imagine rodents the size of bears! The giant beaver was a true ice age giant. Stretching up to two metres long and weighing up to 100 kilograms, the giant beaver is the largest rodent of all time. The giant beaver is known from fossil sites all across North America. In northern Yukon, fossil incisors the size of bananas and molar teeth of giant beavers are well known from the banks and bluffs along the Old Crow and Porcupine Rivers. Tales of the giant beaver feature prominently in the Vuntut Gwich'in of Old Crow's traditional stories of times long ago.

After wrestling her arm out of the giant beaver's incisors, Kathy caught up to me and we finally found our way to the Center:

We were first greeted by a giant globe showing the location of Beringia:

The Center is filled with fossils and models of animals that lived in Beringia during the Ice Age.  Just a few of them are the wooly mammoth, the giant beaver, the giant short-faced bear, the Jefferson's ground sloth, the Yukon camel and the American scimitar cat.  One of our favorite skeletons, however, was that of the steppe bison:

The Center shows two different videos, one on Beringia itself and one on the animals that inhabited it.  Other exhibits in the Center describe what we know about humans that migrated into the region.

The visit was so inspiring that Kathy couldn't help visiting some of those lovable animals in a special corner of the Center set up especially for Junior Rangers:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Biking the Yukon River

Hi Blog!

On Sunday, May 29, 2016, we decided to get an up close and personal look at the mighty Yukon River. After getting bike trail maps at the Visitor's Center, we learned we could bike from our campground on the Alaska Highway all the way to downtown Whitehorse.  The trails would take us right along the Yukon River.

The Yukon River is very impressive.  It is over 1,980 miles long and, while no one has determined where it originates, it empties into the Bering Sea. The total drainage area is 321,500 square miles of which only 126,300 square miles are in Canada, the rest is in Alaska. By comparison, the total area of the Yukon's drainage is more than 25% larger than Texas. This is big country.

Here is our first look at the Yukon River. The lovely color is from the glacier silt which reflects sunlight.

As we worked our way down to the river, we crossed over the bed of the old White Pass and Yukon Railroad, a narrow gauge railroad that linked the port of Skagway, Alaska, with Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory. It was an isolated rail line, as it had no direct connection to any other railroad. The railroad began construction in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush as a means of reaching the goldfields. With its completion in 1900, it became the primary route to the interior of the Yukon, supplanting the Chilkoot Trail. The route continued operation until 1982, and in 1988 was partially revived as a heritage railway, but the trains only go as far as Carcross. The rest of the track to Whitehorse has been abandoned.

The first stop along our Yukon River tour was Miles Canyon. Originally referred to as Grand Canyon, noted explorer Fredrick Schwatka renamed it in July 1883 in honor of General Nelson Miles.

After our ride along the Alaska Highway and down part of Miles Canyon Road, we joined the Miles Canyon trail, which was the first of the multi-use trails we rode.  We crossed the Miles Canyon Suspension Bridge to access the bike trails on the east side of the river.

The Yukon River is the longest river in Alaska and Yukon, and it was one of the principal means of transportation during the 1896–1903 Klondike Gold Rush. At Lakes Bennett and Lindeman, the prospectors camped to build rafts or boats that would take them the final 500 miles down the Yukon to Dawson City. The river posed a problem. There were several rapids along the Miles Canyon through to the White Horse Rapids. After many boats were wrecked and several hundred people died, the North-West Mounted Police introduced safety rules, vetting the boats carefully and forbidding women and children to travel through the rapids.

The rapids formed where the Yukon River flowed across and cut down through lava flows of the Miles Canyon basalt. These rapids presented a major navigational obstacle on the Yukon River during the Klondike Gold Rush, and lent their name to the nearby town of Whitehorse. The Whitehorse dam, constructed in 1957-1958, submerged the rapids beneath the newly created Schwatka Lake.  As we biked along the canyon rim, we spied a group of kayakers enjoying the river in their own special way:

The Schwatka Lake Trail took us right around the edge of the lake - sometimes too close to the edge!

Rather than go out to each point, the trail cuts corners through some lovely wooded single track. At certain points along the trail, it was just wide enough for us to squeeze through the trees.

When we popped out from the woods, we were able to watch this float plane take off from the lake.

We got a really good look at Golden Horn Mountain to the south of Whitehorse. Just the other day, it was covered with snow.

Golden Horn Mountain
As we got closer to Whitehorse, we came to the Whitehorse Dam. The rapids which gave Whitehorse its name have all but disappeared. You can just see a few of the white manes.

In order to help the salmon return to their spawning ground, a fish ladder was installed. At the interpretation centre in the fishway, you can view fish through the underwater window. Since no salmon were spawning at this time, the fishway and underwater viewing stations were closed.

Whitehorse Fishway
We left the Schwatka Lake Trail behind and picked up the Millennium Trail. The Rotary Centennial Bridge is located at the south end of the Millennium Trail Loop.

Further along, we got our first look at the SS Klondike II. The "SS Klondike" was the name of two sternwheelers, the second now a national historic site. Both ran freight between Whitehorse and Dawson City along the Yukon River from 1921-1936 and 1937-1950, respectively.

After crossing over the Robert Campbell bridge, we arrived at the Rotary Peace Park. In the Peace Park is a monument dedicated to Angela Sidney (Ch'oonete Ma Stoow). She lived from 1902 to 1991 in the Yukon Territory. She was a First Nation woman who dedicated her life to preserving her people's dances, cultures and traditions. She received the Order of Canada in 1984. She was quoted as saying, "I have no money to leave my grandchildren. My stories are my wealth." We thought the totem was a lovely tribute.

For the first half of the twentieth century, the sternwheelers of the British Yukon Navigation Company plied the upper Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City. The S.S. Klondike II was the largest of the fleet. As we rode by, we happened to noticed a couple of red chairs. According to Parks Canada, "Whether it’s a place to rest after a leisurely stroll or to cheer your successful completion of a strenuous hike, our red chairs offer a place to slow down, to relax and to truly discover the best that Parks Canada has to offer." We are looking forward to finding more red chairs. If you would like to join in this quest, here is the location of more red chairs.

We completed our loop by following Miles Canyon Road south along the west bank of the river and around the west side of the lake. There were a number of docks dedicated to float planes.

We couldn't help but stop to admire this lovely little cabin tucked in the woods right next to the lake.

There were a number of steep hills to climb.

But the views made it all worth while,

What started out as a five mile (10 miles out and back) easy ride turned into a 19 mile adventure. We have more adventure ahead. Stay tuned!

Wonder Why We Love Whitehorse?

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

- from "The Cremation of Sam McGee," by Robert Service

There is no doubt that the city of Whitehorse, the Provincial capital of the Yukon Territory, has seen queer things in its time.  Not least is the colorful history of Yukon characters and scoundrels, and the Mounties and other heroes that have brought them to justice:

The city was named after the White Horse Rapids of the Yukon River, located in Miles Canyon just upriver from the city before the river was dammed for hydroelectric power, in turn gaining their name for their resemblance to the manes of white horses.  A painting depicting this historical point is located in the city's MacBride Museum of Yukon History:

Whitehorse has a long and colorful past.  Archeological research south of the downtown area in the "Canyon City" area near our campground revealed evidence of use by First Nations for several thousand years. The surrounding area had seasonal fish camps and Frederick Schwatka, in 1883, observed the presence of a portage trail used to bypass Miles Canyon. Before the Gold Rush, several different tribes passed through the area seasonally and their territories overlapped.

The discovery of gold in the Klondike in August, 1896, by Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie and George Washington Carmack set off a major change in the historical patterns of the region. Early prospectors used the Chilkoot Pass, but by July 1897, crowds of neophyte stampeders had arrived via steamship and were camping at "White Horse". By June 1898, there was a bottleneck of stampeders at Canyon City.  On their way to find gold, stampeders also found copper in the "copper belt" in the hills west of Whitehorse.

The famous White Pass & Yukon Railway linking Skagway, Alaska, on the Pacific Coast, to Whitehorse had began construction in May 1898 and complete two years later.  A portion of the White Pass & Yukon rail line is preserved for tourists to ride from Skagway to Carcross, accessible by bus from Whitehorse.

In 1920 the first planes landed in Whitehorse and the first air mail was sent in November 1927. Until 1942, river and air were the only ways to get to Whitehorse, but in 1942 the United States and Canada began construction of the Alaska Highway. The entire 1,553 miles of the Alcan was accomplished in 7 months, between March and November 1942. The Canadian portion of the highway was returned to Canadian sovereignty after the war.  Whitehorse, being located on the Alcan Highway, with its history of river traffic in support of mining, became an economic center.  In 1950 the city was formally incorporated and in 1953 was designated the capital of the Yukon Territory when the seat was moved from Dawson City after the construction of the Klondike Highway.

On our first full day in the area, we decided to drive into town and get to know it a bit.  After the tourist information center, our first stop was the Waterfront Totem Pole:

The totem pole, 33 feet high, was sculpted by master carver Wayne Price from Haines, Alaska and erected in 2012.  The totem pole was carved in remembrance of all of the First Nations children who were sent to residential school and suffered the many evils that have been documented about such schools in Canada and the United States.  The artist stated that each wood chip from the totem’s carving represented a life affected by residential school. The wood chips were signed by former students, family and friends of those former residential students that had died, then were burned and the ashes placed in a bentwood box that was installed as part of the totem pole.  Mr. Price explained that, "We put the ashes inside the box and seal it into the totem and by that act what we’re doing is we’re sending all those children back to their mom."

We walked from there to the MacBride Museum, where Kathy encountered the world's largest copper nugget, discovered in the hills near Whitehorse:

The musum is also the permanent home of the cabin of the real Sam McGee, who was fictionalized and memorialized in the eponymous poem by Robert Service quoted above:

Interestingly, poet Service used McGee as the model for his poem before McGee died.  The poem attained immediate fame, to the point that, when Mr. McGee returned to visit Whitehorse, he encountered a local con artist who attempted to sell him an urn containing his own cremated ashes!

Robert Service himself lived in a cabin in Dawson City, Yukon, located about a 6 hour drive north of Whitehorse (Service's home has been preserved and can be toured), but because of Sam McGee, Whitehorse also claims the poet as its own.  (We had a chance to visit Robert Service's summer cottage in Stewart, British Columbia, when we visited that town.  See our blog entry about Stewart, B.C.)

The MacBride Museum houses innumerable mementos of its colorful past.  In fact, a visitor can even walk into a turn-of-the-Century bar and lift a glass in memory of all those sourdoughs who rushed to find gold in the Yukon, only to discover that all the claims had been staked by people already living in the area:

Being hikers ourselves, we identify with these poor souls, who, having found their way to Skagway, Alaska, had to endure a freezing, deadly climb up the Chilkoot Pass or the White Pass to make their way to Lake Bennett, and then onto the Yukon River to sail their way downriver to Dawson City in their vain attempt to stake a claim for that elusive yellow metal.  David felt it was only fitting to re-enact their pilgrimage of privation:

Whitehorse also boasts an Old Log Church Museum, built as a church in 1900:

The city even boasts a log skyscraper!

Many of the buildings have been rehabbed or decorated to call to mind the city's early history:

As a city of about 30,000 people, Whitehorse is a prosperous, pleasant, very liveable city.  It has endless numbers of hiking and biking trails, the beauty and history of the Yukon River on which it sits, many lakes nearby for fishing or gazing, and all the services a resident could want.  We encountered two local residents who, like us, have family members living in New Zealand.  Their daughter lives in Christchurch with her partner; the two of them and their two young children survived the Christchurch earthquake.  Like us, the Whitehorse couple are avid hikers.  We first encountered them on our bike ride down the Yukon River (see our next blog entry on that), where they offered to give us a ride in their skiff as they took it out on Lake Schwatka for its first spring tryout.  We ran into them again downtown as they were shopping for some supplies for their boat. This caused us to pause and chat a while. We compared experiences on the Milford Track and Routeburn Track near Queenstown, New Zealand, and asked about their life in Whitehorse.  They were our kind of people.

After all this, and with all that we have seen here, David declared that Whitehorse is one of his favorite towns in the Far North.

Having satisfied our curiosity about this beautiful town, we picked an absolutely yummy restaurant for lunch - Klondike Rib & Salmon:

The restaurant is housed in the two oldest buildings still in use in Whitehorse. The dining room was originally opened as a tent frame bakery called, "MacMillan's Bakery," around 1900.  In 1929 the building was purchased by T.C. Richards and Willard Phelps. They called it “Klondike Airways” (as seen on the North side of the building) and it became a mail and freight business. Although the partners hoped some day to buy a plane as a means of transporting freight and mail, they never did. Using snowmobiles and caterpillars, the company carried about 110,000 pounds of mail to Dawson City each year. Before 1921, only first class mail was delivered in the winter. The rest of the mail waited in Whitehorse for the ice to break up and the steamers to sail. This usually happened sometime in May.  In the 1930's, the building was used by Jack French as a carpentry shop; and coffins were constructed for a mortuary in downtown Whitehorse.

Klondike Rib & Salmon specializes in Northern Foods, such as Fresh Northern Ocean Fish, smoked meats, wild game meats, home-made breads and desserts. They smoke their meats in their own smokehouse to achieve the delicious unique flavours their menu provides. The Halibut Chowder is to die for, as are the bannock scones served with the meals.  We loved the food so much, we returned twice for lunch and plan to return again for dinner.  David loved his Kick-Ass Klondiker Burger of bison, elk and wild boar.  Kathy rhapsodized over her salmon wrap and her pulled-meat boar sandwich.

Need we say more?

Friday, May 27, 2016

Along the Alaska Highway from Rancheria to Whitehorse!

Today is Friday, May 27, 2016, and we drove from Rancheria, near Swift River, in the Yukon Territory, to Whitehorse.  The drive was graced with majestic mountains, beautiful lakes and grand rivers.  Along this stretch, we also encountered our first stretches of gravel road:  one continuous gravel stretch for 10 kilometers, followed by a 15 kilometer stretch with periodic gravel sections, all west of Teslin as we drove north along the eastern shore of Teslin lake.

Here was our view as we descended toward Teslin:

As we crossed the Nisutlin Bay, an arm of Teslin Lake:

Near Jake's Crossing, we caught these dramatic views of the surrounding mountains:

Approaching Whitehorse, we drove along the shore of Marsh Lake and spotted some snow-capped mountains in the distance:

Soon, nearing Whitehorse, we crossed the Yukon River, which flows north past Dawson City and into the Beaufort Sea above the Arctic Circle:

We arrived in Whitehorse, our truck and trailer layered in dirt from a dusty drive.  We wanted to wash the rig at the self-service spray wash at the campground before we set up camp, but we ran into a problem with a compartment latch this morning and needed to focus our attention on getting the latch fixed in order to avoid complications in using that compartment.  Ah, well.  The rig may be dirty, but it functions well.

Tomorrow we start exploration of Whitehorse and the nearby areas!

There be gold in them there hills....

Hi Blog!

On Thursday, May 26, 2016, we had a chance to hike around Rancheria Lodge and RV Park. The property is huge. In addition to the lodge, motel and campground, part of the property is being mined. They also have their own water turbine power plant. As big fans of Gold Rush, Bering Straight Gold and Alaska Gold Diggers, it was fun to poke around all the gold mining equipment. Unfortunately, we couldn't visit the active site for safety reasons. However, there are a number of abandoned sites just waiting exploration.

We started our hike along the Alcan until we found this rather inviting woods road. We followed it all the way back to the Rancheria River. We saw lots of hoof prints and scat, but weren't able to spot any cariboo, moose or bear.

We came back to Alcan and worked our way further down until we found this dry creek bed. It was just asking to be hiked, so we followed it down to a rock beach where we ate our picnic lunch.

With all the recent rain, the river was running fast and furious.

We noticed the cliffs across the highway have a basalt cap. As the cliff erodes, the basalt tumbles down making a very dramatic cliff face.

Here is Dave next to the sign fore Canyon Creek.

The creek passes right under the highway in huge culverts.

They are so large that Dave actually walked through it.

Here is the electric turbine. Water is diverted from the creek, passes through the turbine and comes out back to the creek.

We followed an old road back until into the canyon. We soon reached the site of an old gold mine operation. Here the creek was dammed so water could be diverted down this old sluice.

As much as we would have liked to continue hiking up the canyon, the pond and recent rains made it impossible to continue.

We followed the tumbling creek back down toward the Alcan.

The walk back was just a pleasant stroll along the edge of the forest. Every once in a while, we would wave at the passing RVs as they made their way toward Alaska.

As with many of our outings, we are never sure what we will find, but we always manage to find something.