up the Dempster Highway

Up, up, and up away we go…from the turnoff twenty minutes east of Dawson City, we headed into the boreal forest of the Ogilvie mountain range, tundra heights of the Blackstone Uplands, into loads of fireweed—there’s a reason the Yukon has it as its territorial flower. One lone arctic hare, a bear cub, and a few mallards were the only wildlife we could see. Later we heard about two moose being spotted at the Two Moose Lake—a coincidence? I think not. This is the Arctic as I had imagined it. Tundra, precisely as anticipated. The mountains though? Unexpected. Three series of mountain ranges? Definitely surprising.

We see an abundance of arrowhead rocks on the roads, even filling the Tombstone Territorial Park parking lot. It’s pretty obvious why aboriginals chose arrowheads as weapons. They are ubiquitous. And sharp. It’s also understandable why the aboriginals didn’t create rubber tires.

Despite the numerous warnings we had to bring a spare tire, we left ours under the carport tucked beside the four regular summer tires. The cross terrain spare tire seemed like a good idea in the tire shop, but not so clever when we tried to pack it. Where to put it with a packed storage case on top, five pieces of luggage in back, a travel bed, violins, food and water, activity bags in front. So we didn’t. We left our two hundred dollar friend at home—home alone. Halfway up the Dempster, we weren’t free of the infamous blown-tire syndrome on this stretch of our arctic journey.

Only seven kilometers away from our evening destination on the Dempster—the only motel available on a twelve hour drive, the Eagle Plains Motel—my husband reported that the road was like a washboard. It was advertised as particularly rough-going, and a quick look in the rearview mirror revealed a flattened tire. Yikes! Here we are, nearly 3000 km from our lonely friend—oh how we wish we’d have brought you. Four passers-by offered assistance with the teeny spare wheel that accompanied the purchase of our minivan. Standing by the side of the road with our four wee ones, mama decided we’d do a nature walk. Not too far, as there is next to no one in these parts. Getting lost, not an option.

Now we’ve thought of having him sent here – can we do that? Will Canada Post send a spare tire courier to nowhere? How much would that cost anyway?

And here I sit, at the Eagle Plains Motel—four children snug as a bug in a tiny two double bed room. Now for the second half of the Dempster journey—at daybreak. May the Arctic Circle and the Smartie-coloured houses on stilts yield a less eventful education of the north.

 

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.