There was not a cloud in the sky on the crystal clear afternoon when our cruise ship departed from Vancouver harbor. This was the beginning of our land-sea journey of discovery to the Yukon, the Land of the Midnight Sun, and the Alaska, the Last Frontier. Over the next 10 days or so, we would visit Juneau, Alaska’s landlocked State capital, Skagway, Alaska, Whitehorse and Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory before flying to Fairbanks, Alaska. From there we would travel to Denali National Park and Preserve. Our journey would end in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and home to fifty percent of the State’s population.
There’s a lot to see and do in Alaska. The state was shaped by fire and ice. Even today these two elements continue to change the landscape. It is America’s largest state, a land of glaciers and gold. It’s more than double the size of Texas and about 12 times the size of New York State. The population is sparse. It was the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s that lured many people “north to Alaska”. Some left but some stayed and established homes and families here. Others from out-of-state have sought and found peace in this northern clime.
We experienced any number of modern-day golden moments during our overland journey … a train trip along the famed White Pass and Yukon Route … a couple of nights in Dawson City, centre of the Klondike Gold Rush … a tour of a former Gold Dredge site … a covered wagon excursion and a visit to a musk-ox farm.
Our overland journey started in Skagway, Alaska. Early one crisp September morning, we boarded the narrow-gauge railway at the town’s train depot. This leisurely mode of travel was not available to early goldseekers. They, poor souls, had to carry incredible loads several thousand feet up the steep, snowy, narrow “Golden Stairs” which crested at the Chilkoot Pass. This exercise had to be repeated up to 40 times until the required ton of supplies was carried to the summit. Such a daunting challenge was not for us. As we did, later stampeders took advantage of the “railroad built of gold” which was blasted through the mountains in just over two years. When operations commenced in 1901 steam engines were the order of the day. Nowadays diesel locomotives haul the vintage parlor cars, some original and some restored, up the steep grades, around multiple curves, through tunnels and over bridges and trestles. As well as being an incredible feat of engineering, the ride to Fraser in the Yukon is truly scenic. We passed snow-capped mountains, sheer cliff walls, deep gorges, gushing waterfalls and subalpine lakes. Despite the fall chill in the air, many people stood on the viewing decks between the cars. Some simply drank in the scenery; my husband and other passengers captured their memories digitally. As the train chugged ever northward, the forest changed, the variety of trees diminished and the number of animal species lessened. The landscape was a patchwork quilt of earthy tones. The dark greens of the coniferous white and black spruce. The lighter greens and yellows of the deciduous alder and birch. The rusty brown of the dying ferns and bracken. And the fading pink of the fireweed.
After an overnight stop in Whitehorse, we travelled many miles through sparsely populated wilderness terrain. It was a sparkling fall day. As we ate up the miles along the North Klondike Highway en route to Dawson City, it was obvious that winter was fast approaching. Here again, the colours of the leaves were spectacular ranging from pale yellows to rich golds and tawny ambers.
And then we were in Dawson City. Once capital of the Yukon, it is now a Canadian heritage site. In 1898 it was the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush and absolutely “the place to be”. At that time the air was electric after the discovery of a dime-sized gold nugget in nearby Bonanza Creek. This triggered an onslaught of prospectors and the population swelled. Today the town has been preserved to reflect its gold rush history. The roads are unpaved. There are wooden boardwalks. There are no traffic lights, no parking meters and certainly no traffic jams. Historic clapboard buildings abound. Some have settled in the permafrost. Some such as the “kissing buildings” stand slightly askew. At Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s first gambling hall, the can-can girls perform three times nightly. Gertie’s powerful songs and the enthusiasm of the high-kicking dancers were truly evocative of a former era. We had tremendous fun that evening. There is the fast-flowing Yukon River which was once the transportation route downriver to Whitehorse before road access came to Dawson City. In the 1890s, this was the only way to transport mail, general supplies and passengers between the two cities. It would take wood-fired sternwheelers 36 hours to reach Whitehorse. The 500-mile return journey upriver could take four to five days. Our morning’s excursion along the mighty Yukon River on the majestic paddlewheeler, Klondike Spirit, could hardly replicate such an expedition. As the boat chugged past the sternwheeler graveyard, we glimpsed the remains of seven of the river’s former workhorses which were laid to rest in 1955. Since then, the boats have disintegrated practically beyond recognition. We could only identify a couple of gigantic paddle wheels raised up amongst a haphazard pile of rubble. We passed several other places of historic significance. The traditional village of Moosehide was abandoned in the 1950s when the schoolteacher left. On the shore we could make out several buildings as well as the white-painted First Nations Church. Then there was Sisters Island which in 1898 was the home of the Sisters of St. Ann. In those days, the sisters grew vegetables on the rich soil and raised life stock on the island. The meat and produce was then sent to a hospital and an orphanage in Dawson City. Later the island was homesteaded. Currently it is heavily treed and is home to a rich variety of wild life.
Just outside Fairbanks, we toured a former Gold Dredge Operation and learned of Alaska’s gold mining history. What a laborious way to extract the precious metal! Even so, during its 30 years of operation, the dredge produced about 7.5 million ounces of gold. Later we tried our hand at panning for gold. Would a valuable gold nugget be ours? Not a hope … there was barely $21 in our two poke sacks combined! Our guide’s presentation about the building and construction of the 800-mile long Aleyska oil pipeline was most informative. Half was constructed above the permafrost and half is below ground. It zigzags continually to reduce stress during volcanic eruptions. “Scrapper pigs” clean the pipeline once a week and then “smart pigs” follow looking for signs of wear and tear. No wonder this oil revenue is the lifeblood of Alaska.
At Denali National Park, we got a real feeling for old-time Alaska. A group of us time-travelled along a rutted track behind two percheron draft horses in a turn-of-the-century covered wagon. We proceeded at a leisurely pace accompanied by the soothing clip, clop of hooves and the soft tinkle of harnesses. Even though the sun shone, the day was cool and we were thankful for the cozy warm blankets. Bordering the roadway and displaying their fall colours were aspen, willow and cottonwood trees as well as the coniferous black and white spruce. Close to our lunch stop there was a huge gravel ridge formed by debris left from two receding glaciers. I’m sure that the amazing spread at lunch-time in no way resembled that of the early settlers. At the ranch house, we were served chili with corn bread, short ribs, chicken, barbecued salmon with local vegetables and salads followed by a delectable fruit crisp. Our guides were full of information … one had climbed 20,320 ft. Denali (also called “The Great One” or Mt. McKinley), another raised and raced “musher” dogs. They related interesting items of local history, geography, flora and fauna. Permafrost, our tour guide explained, covers 85% of Alaska and is any ground that has been frozen for two years or more.
Lastly we visited the Musk-ox Project just north of Anchorage. These animals were almost extinct in Alaska 60 years ago but an anthropologist imported several from Canada. They are now thriving. Musk-ox are unusual looking animals with dark-brown shaggy coats, cloven hooves, strong neck muscles and short legs. They stand about four feet tall. The solitary white patch on their shaggy coat works as a sunscreen. At present about 86 musk-ox are resident on the farm … males, females and their young. This year’s newborns were all named after gems, the youngest of which was called “Pearl”. The wool from the musk-ox is called “qiviut” and is used to make local handknits. It felt really soft and was light in weight.
As we bid farewell to Alaska, we reflected on the innumerable golden moments we had experienced. No doubt there are many, many others to be enjoyed. My only regret was missing the spectacular displays of dancing lights in the night sky. Perhaps next time we’ll be lucky enough to see the Aurora Borealis in all its glory. But we must be thankful that we were able to experience this journey of discovery to some of the north’s most noteworthy destinations.