Dawson City, Yukon

I could not find the camera’s battery charger—six weeks without a camera, and this was just before Apple was in the hands of common man. We’d drive up the infamous, lonely Dempster Highway…a twelve hour trek to the Arctic Circle and beyond, without photographic potential.

Still, the tiny gold rush town, Dawson City is emblazoned in my memory. It was nothing like anything I’ve seen. Back in the day, it was Klondike central for the Canadian Yukon Territory.  Grand museums, the entire town decked out in Hollywood-worthy accoutrements. Like a real stage setting for an old cowboy movie, but still in function. No ghost town here. Diamond Gerties Saloon with evening shows and gambling…we didn’t partake with four kids in the room, but we had fun pretending.

During the day, we went to the Peabody Photo Parlour, got all gussied up in 1890s attire—my handsome doctor turned Mountie by my side, three ‘dahling’ daughters and sailour-outfitted one year old son. It was an afternoon of dress-up for the entire family. Mommy, you look so beautiful. The girls were pleased as punch to play dress-up with their mom and dad for the first time!

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We enjoyed bannock sampling at the T’ron Dek Cultural Center, watching the ladies cooking over an open fire thick swatches of the floury patties in heavy oil. We understood a little more why the outsiders overwhelmed the natives here, changing their way of life. We appreciated the authentic artwork and the ladies outfitted in leather beaded moccasins and dresses.

A trip on the Klondike River Sternwheeler, the transportation piece for the Gold Rush…truth be told, a tiring trip amusing a cranky toddler, who when faced with fatigue, zoomed manically from one side of the boat to the other, squeaking or grunting till his larynx went hoarse.

We weren’t the only passengers who wish we hadn’t come…but the vistas we would have missed if we hadn’t! The muddy brown waters churning and sputtering through those paddlewheels perhaps muddy from all that gold foraging. Currents in the river churning against each other—flowing from one direction—the Klondike River and the other direction, the Yukon River. Savouring arctic char for the first time—a palatable white fish caught not too far upstream. Had we not gone, I would have missed the delight on my children’s little faces as they walked aboard the sternwheeler for the first time. A toddler’s nap-desperate tears were worth it.

After a visit to Robert Service’s Dawson City cabin, the author of Sam McGee, we prepared for bed. Removing my contacts, I searched for my new pair of spectacles—a whopping expense as my prescription had increased and became more complicated. I quietly searched the room as my family slept– through five pieces of luggage, grooming bags, activity-filled backpacks, under beds, behind furniture, through the bathroom, back to the garbages—yikes!

Then to the van outside…under seats, behind seats, under carseats, on and on and on…till nearly midnight when I gently enlisted my then sleeping husband’s assistance. No glasses—anywhere.

When I finally relaxed to sleep, my one and half year old son woke up—the non-air conditioned room—also known as a cabin-sized warming drawer—he had dehydrated and overheated—so I satiated and unclothed him, then we weakly attempted to sleep once again.

I awoke with a cabin-quaking thud. I jumped out of bed, as did another daughter…everyone else wriggled in their beds. My husband barely rolled over until I whacked him roughly on the knee. He cautiously walked around the cabin—no obvious evidence of damage. In the morning we discovered a cracked window and a long thick branch beside an outside wall. I felt certain that a vehicle had rammed the wall. The fear kept me awake for at least another hour—naturally arousing the toddler. Still, eight a.m. rolled around and he was awake on cue. A general rule for children: no matter the time they go to sleep, they wake as your alarm every morning. A big achy groan from me.

A twenty minute jaunt east from Dawson City, and road straight north for twelve hours. With a few preparations, we were off before lunch to the infamous Dempster Highway.

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to Whitehorse, Yukon with the four kiddos

We got back into that seven seat mini-van, and were off to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Did you know there is even more boreal forest, zigs and zags, and ups and downs, and around and around with trees, trees and more trees and road that wouldn’t end?

Whitehorse is a bustling tourist town in the summer.

It was Whitehorse, the treasure at the end of the road rainbow, because it had enough restaurants to amuse any ethnic craving. Are you looking for burritos? There’s a Mexican restaurant. Craving hummus and pitas? Try the Mediterranean spot. Need to quell the kiddo’s penchant for Italian? They’ve got that too.

A jaunt around downtown provided interesting places to dine: Giorgio’s Cantina. Not intended to be child friendly, but surprised us as a child friendly, fine dining Italian ristorante. When did we get comfortable bringing four kids, one a babe, into a nice restaurant? I remember the days when we first went for dinner in a small town. A typical north American Chinese family joint with our six month old. I don’t know who was breathing quicker, my husband or I. I would have lost my marbles if she’d opened her mouth to sigh. Now here we are with four.

Delicious bowls of child-sized creamy fettucine alfredo. Could not have been more perfect, yet our oldest declares: “It’s too creamy”.  Try as I might to be patient with their food preferences, my default setting at dinner is, “I made it, you eat it”. How did these Italians go wrong with creamy Alfredo sauce?

The seafood manicotti is glorious. And captivated company—watching a different table, my girls were quiet. On the level above us a bride-to-be and her guests were celebrating, so a discussion of weddings ensued. I was dining with three pre-adolescent, starry-eyed daughters.

Where was my toddler son? He was wandering the quiet streets with his daddy, because our little guy was ready for bed, past the point of wanting to dine. When my husband’s food arrived, I flagged him down and he gulped a few bites of spinach manicotti. Kind and quick service—apparently we were supposed to have reservations—but they prepared two small round tables for the six of us beside the kitchen. Thank you Giorgio!

A large two bedroom suite awaited us—a small apartment on the second floor really. Modern duvets and floor plan like an apartment. An ideal temporary shelter for two, except for the carpentry work banging at my toddler’s naptime—a foot away from our first floor room. Blackout curtains were helpful, but early morning 6 am wakeup call by the delivery truck not appreciated.

All this way north, I can still find a Starbucks. Starbucks quality customer care is not the same though. Cleverly situated on Main Street, it provided me with mid-morning ‘tall decaf non-fat lattes’—really, flavoured water.

The baristas were not your ‘ordinary’ Starbucks metrosexual vendors—they might have been summer students, those without the ability to follow my order—“no, not grande, tall. Decaf, yes decaf…no not 2%, non-fat“. Anyway, no matter where I go, they maintain the identically smooth and captivating coffee flavor. They have me at: “Can I prepare something for you?”

The next evening we found the Mediterranean fare—a falafel meal for my husband, lamb souvlaki meal for me and a shared chicken souvlaki for the kids. Delicious food at this cleverly named spot—“The Kebab-ery: the Best Middle East Food in the North”. Taste—ee. You don’t need to head to Turkey for this fare; instead, have you thought of Whitehorse?

We continued our quest to fill our summer Yukon passports, ten museums in ten days. If we could fill those pages with museum stamps, we could win 10 oz. of gold. For this, the girls were motivated. The 15 minute film on the Alaska Highway, clearly a theme for these museums, had our full attention. The theatre could have seated at least a hundred, newly built and ready for the onslaught of summer tourism.

We saw black and whites of Chief so and so at the such and such tribe move his family to Moose Lake—running away from Klondiktis and all that it entailed. We’ve watched the Alaska Highway be built, again. We watched the Klondikers congest Skagway.

We were about to begin our trek north to Dawson City. A town built for the sole purpose of gold-diggers, the onslaught of Klondikitis, at the heart of the gold rush.

to the land of the midnight sun

Why would you want to spend two days packing four kids under eight with study books and violins and autumn clothes for a six week summer vacation to the Arctic? I was asked.

I’ll just have to agree with the Tao of Travel that “travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention; that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home”.

Maybe we’ll return home at the end of summer, but you’ll leave a little bit of yourself wherever you’ve visited…this summer we’ll have left a part of ourselves with the midnight sun.

I’d surveyed the house…scanned every item for weeks: should I bring this candle holder? Do I need extra toothbrushes…you know how the kiddos burn through them like candy? When our Terraza was loaded  from the Thule to the knee space in front of everyone’s feet, we were ready to leave the night before our ten day driving adventure.

We made traction by driving an hour away to stay at a hotel. It might sound a little wasteful, especially with four kiddos to bed in one room only an hour from home, but not leaving by the break of dawn also seemed an unreasonable start to a very long 3500 km car trip north.

We spent that next day in the van.

We would normally exit the van on the hour: someone would need the toilet, or was too fidgety, or needed to find a snack to quell the boredom of watching ever-thickening evergreens whiz past.

Try putting a kid to bed after they’ve spent eight hours sitting from morning till bedtime.

That following morning we would have time to jump around the hotel pool. This became the preferred hotel reservation—any place with a pool.

When we thought we’d travelled far enough north the second day, when we’d not seen car lights more than once an hour, and when we’d thought we might have reached the end of the world, we would always see yet another stretch of mile-high evergreens.

Near the northern border of our province of British Columbia, we would see the sign: Liard Hotsprings. The kiddos were excitedly tumbling down the wooden boardwalk, floating above swamp, heading toward hot, hot sulfur-fragrant waters. The naturally-occurring stone floor, roughly hewn back supports of tree roots cemented in meter deep earth claimed the most authentic hotspring to which I’d ever been, and heaven to our flattening bottoms.

We visited the Fort Nelson museum, and climbed the original Alaskan highway building-machinery. Mom, look at this grader! The girls would take turns propping the crutches under their shoulders and pretend to have visited the infirmary building. It would be one of many museums we would visit this summer.

From Fort Nelson, which I always understood to be the northernmost town of British Columbia, we drove to Muncho Lake. The boreal forest went on and on and on. Here is a place anyone could get lost in this sea of trees.  I can see Alexander Mackenzie raising his hand-hewn oar with a bellow of “Onward! Follow that lake!”– no wonder he would find himself at the Arctic and not the Pacific… Jigs and jags up that highway would generally follow the lakes, the rivers, the endless emerald rivers, and even more trees.

Giant cinnamon buns greeted us at Tetsla, just over the Yukon border. A simple café with ten foot long picnic tables extended across the length of the room in five neat rows. Clearly, a tour bus would stop once or twice a day and each would succumb to purchasing that five dollar giant. Another stop at an Alaskan Highway museum would ease our sore bottoms from the endless passage of time.

I’d try to photograph the passing wildlife: mountain sheep and their babies, bison, caribou and a wapiti that would invite us farther into this Yukon neverland. My camera battery wouldn’t withstand my constant clicking on this Highway 97 corridor. I didn’t expect spectacular or oil-colour idyllic. I did not expect to be one of few vehicles travelling north.

When the kids thought we must have arrived, when are we there yet? had been asked a hundred times, we found ourselves in Watson Lake. Home to Big Horn Inn, I felt like I had rented my mother’s 1980s bedroom—walnut-coloured, trunk-thick bed posts, blue floral borders and wallpaper, and foamy mattresses too!

The front doorman had a cot in the corner of the hotel reception foyer with a television blaring Days of our Lives. Deeper in the corner was his unkempt bed. Beside it was a burnt orange couch with the long corridor where we’d sleep…hotel room doors flanking each side.

We went out in search of our final meal of the day. Down the road was the only restaurant available: Kathy’s Kitchen. The cheese pizza was prepared last minute, just as the doors were closing. No other food options were available until morning. No grocer. No gas stations. We brought the pizza back to our cramped room.

The hotel front door was propped open, probably because of the twenty hour sun sweltering. The fan above didn’t suffice to vent the sauna of our room. I couldn’t sleep knowing there was one lock between my family and the outdoor world.

Before lights went out, we read from “Jason’s Gold”: a story of a boy chasing his brothers to the Gold Rush in Dawson City.

We breakfasted in our room–my husband stopped at the grocer after his morning run: Yops, juice boxes, coffee, raisin scones, strawberries and granola bars. Nothing fancy, but forty dollars, wow. We’d quickly come to expect underwhelming, but expensive in the north.

We spent an hour at the Sign Post Forest—passersthrough would leave their vehicle license plates from around the world, attached to solid wood posts. A veritable world atlas in the middle of nowhere. There were plates from near our hometown: Didsbury, Alberta, Cache Creek, BC, the Oprah Winfrey Studio, Austria, United Kingdom, Sudan and Papua New Guinea.

We’d spent three days driving north, though we would see signs pointing east and south and west, and had yet to see the igloos and polar bears and beluga whales that the north had promised.

We were headed to Inuvik, at the end of North America’s second largest river delta, the Mackenzie Delta. We would drive nearer to the land of the midnight sun.