Throughout our journey, we’ve been privileged to spend time in First Nations territory, including here in the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. In Dawson City, we visited the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre. Their story of cultural survival and how visionary Chief Isaac led his people through the gold rush invasion is impressive. Karen and I watched a film about their struggles and achievements, enjoyed bannock and saw a display on the 1977 Berger Commission on the Mackenzie Delta Pipeline. The people stood up and spoke out on Indigenous rights and the pipeline, including many youth. The exhibit brought past and current photos of those speakers–one of whom we recognized from meeting him at Turtle Lodge: Stephen Kakfwi. This link is to Canadians for a New Partnership — check them out and consider signing the Declaration. Mashi Cho!
We then dropped into the NWT Visitor’s Centre to ask about the Dempster Highway –conditions posted on door– and Inuvik (pronounced InYOUvik). We talked with Evelyn who is Inuvialuit. To her, the North is the western Arctic. Having read about mountains growing up, she didn’t see them until adulthood and that became her demarcation line between north and south. A delightful and wonderful resource, Evelyn coached us on the Dempster, Inuvik and Tutoyuktuk then showed us her Inuvaliut Amaghook (sunburst parka) with fur trim of wolf and wolverine.
When Karen asked about the speed limit on the Dempster Highway, Evelyn replied: “In some sections, you can go up to 90 kilometres an hour– but why would you?” Her comment resonated with us the entire drive.
In Dawson City we took a tour and heard about the gold rush. Listening to the guide, I felt the same excitement that would have befallen the tens of thousands that made their way North in 1896. The town is a living heritage site and throughout the route to gold, there remain ghost towns that went bust soon after the last claims were staked.
(Above: historical buildings, road work, and lots of bird feeders on many colourful homes)
People tried, balloons and bicycles to get to Dawson City in 1898. Who knows how many died enroute? And for those who made it, violence didn’t kill people, winter did. Prostitution was legal and the workers had to provide a monthly certificate of health to practice their trade.
Dawson City is vibrant, living history — the town still sifts and trills with gold claims and Northern frontier spirit. The buildings are fascinating including these from 1901 which are a result of building on permafrost.
We share a Monday night dance floor with pungent prospectors– one of whom has long grey hair beneath a hunter’s cap; cockeyed glasses and her cut –off brown fatigues are frayed. Scrawny men with huge beards stagger in and out between smoke breaks, the door breaking bright night into the dark bar. A young woman dances with a fishing knife on her belt and the large paintings behind the band cover cracking walls. One is a young Queen Elizabeth swooning as a Northerner kisses her neck, the Yukon River and autumn leaves the background. Her face and crown remind me her image on a 1960’s penny. Beside it, a caribou on a frozen, snowy river. It’s legs bloodied by two wolves as it fights. We can’t tell who or what will win out.
Hard trips can make for beautiful flowers. Arctic cotton, half the size of small dandelions, their usually puffy tops wind-straightened, their short slender stalks bent yet holding ground. Countless colourful wildflowers, spectacularly small in this harsh, wild place and vibrant in the northern light, offer us medicine of hope and beauty.
The northern sun’s trajectory makes long shadows of black spruce atop a ridge. The shadows run like children down the steep stone walls to dip into the rushing water. Just ahead, a bald eagle lands in the river, pauses in float, then ascends to enjoy its catch on the hoodoos.
We sang to keep up against the wind and to focus — Blue Boat Home and Safe & Sound. We had one good night out there on the river and took wild rose photos while pretending to translate the rambunctious raven community meeting.
Hard trips expand time — moments, minutes, hours distilled and layered in memory. The days taut with every rapid bounce and wind twist of the canoe. The senses at full open so that when we are given pause, we quaff this large magnificence — in the confluence where both nothing and everything happens.
The long sun has given us options we’ve never before experienced. I knew that by the time I returned to Karen it would still be light, making my solo mountain drive manageable. We ate our stew while watching a beaver transport branches to an island, wondering how they work that current and if their sleeping schedule changes in the all-night light.
We slept in, enjoyed fixing a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and coffee before breaking camp, thanking Margaret, and continuing our journey toward Dawson. We talked some about fear and decision, relief and regret but it felt that until we unburdened the boat, the river wasn’t yet finished.
On the Klondike Highway, we stopped to more closely admire the wildflowers bordering the mountain road like a wedding aisle. Same Love came on the playlist through the car window. My heart swelled with gratitude and tears of release gathered in my eyes.
When we arrived at Dawson City, we dropped the canoe with a man who said, “Yep, we lose a couple a year…” and told us about the hypothermic soloist who was rescued by two women as he held onto sweepers, his canoe found a year later in Alaska.
Our outfitter in Whitehorse had said, “The river is deceiving. It’s not the surface that carries you, it’s the current underneath.”
Stephanie had left her dentistry practice behind for a month as she and Marcus toured north from Grand Canyon to Alaska via the Yukon and a canoe trip. Mountain motorcyclists and hikers, they too had felt in peril in the winds and freezing waters. I drove them, gear and canoe and we stopped at a look-out above the Five Finger rapids. Karen stayed north to set camp and re-hydrate some stew.
We were all a little frayed when we parted, each of us not yet grounded and needing supper and a safe, deep sleep. Stephanie’s English was better than Marcus’ and my German is non-existent. She said, “I don’t want this to sound wrong but I am happy that you found trouble also, so that you could help us. It was a happy accident to meet you and Karen.” We embraced and I left them to their camper to drive back north.
Three nights and 300 km later, Karen and I drove up to the Dome of Dawson City. It was past midnight and we wanted to see the strange little city subdued and mostly sleeping beneath the midnight sun. We found Stephanie and Marcus atop the mountain. What a happy reunion.
Having hauled our 90-pound canoe up the hill, we were preparing for the highway when suddenly in front of us were Germans Stephanie and Marcus. They too had been dreadfully convinced to get off the mighty Yukon River. Their camper van was south with ours. After some strategizing, Karen and I hiked to the Klondike highway.
A few hours later, Karen was telling me not to feel so dejected. Twenty vehicles had whizzed past our pleading thumbs. We were getting worried when Kelly stopped. She lives in Nanaimo but has travelled the world with a mining company, working 3-weeks on, 3-weeks off. At the mine, situated between Whitehorse and Dawson City, she lives in a retrofitted shipping container. Having already wondered about such containers we’d seen on our trip, she hosted our curiosity. We traded stories for the journey as I did later with Marcus and Stephanie.
We broke camp and planned our route to get to an opening in the shoreline where we could hike up to the highway. It was our last chance to get off the river before Dawson City which was still about 250 river km away. Rain and black storm clouds had tailed us earlier and we had no proof the wind would stop. Against wind and current we worked to sideline it to the eastern shore, our hearts lurching and bodies at full tense, fighting back each time the wind spun us about. A moment’s pause from either of us, gave the wind full command.
On the map, Minto was marked as a ghost town with potential to camp. That was our hopeful destination. We worked together to stay in the thin-between of shoreline sweepers which could toss us into water, and the current that would take us against our plan. We saw a few cabins and made our approach. At the shore we both grasped onto a series of branches and brush to slow then stop the canoe. Bracing land, we held firm the ropes –the current still able to easily take our canoe and gear away — and carefully climbed onto steady ground.
Climbing up the hill we eventually found Margaret of the Selkirk First Nation. There is no more Minto camp nor cell tower that our research had advised. A bus load of tourists were about to descend for bannock and soup and enormous moose antlers photos. She offered the satellite phone and said we could stay and get our bearings. Her quiet generosity and calm hospitality was comfort.
The campground that housed our vehicle could not get our car to us and we owed the outfitter their canoe in Dawson. The tour bus heading south was full. Margaret offered us lunch after the tourists left and we filled up before storing our gear and hitting the road to hitchhike the Klondike Highway, bear spray on hip.
Next: the German canoeists who found us and asked for our help. Note: we’ll be offline for a few more days. Leaving Inuvik today–Sunday June 21 as I schedule this post.
Below: camping on Selkirk FN, photo 1 is taken at 2am “sunset;” photo 2 Karen setting camp with tourists in background; 3 & 4 eagle feather and moose antlers
Having canoe tripped in near-North Ontario wilderness every summer, we were looking forward to a river trip–no portages and the current running our way north from our put-in at Carmacks to Dawson City. A 400+ km trip by water with great intentions of purposeful drifting much of the time. We’d read up on the river, talked with outfitters and took river training before going in. With our dehydrated dinners and water pump, we prepared to take photos and watch the wild world go by, sterning efficiently and following the Klondyke gold rush trail.
We made it through the Five Finger Rapids then Rinks Rapids then hit the relentless wind.
By Saturday we’d only reached a third of the way and decided to leave the river. Wind was twisting and turning our canoe around and we were increasingly terrified of tipping into the freezing water. The longer the wind battled us, the more this became a real possibility. We wore wet suits and had about 10 minutes to get to shore and light an emergency fire to stave off hypothermia. But it’s a big river with high walls of cliffs, hoodoos, and overgrown banks thick with bush.
Karen realized much sooner than I that our emergency plan was not executable. She knew that, although our gear was tied off to float, if we tipped, we’d lose our canoe and gear to the strong current and fierce wind. And with the high water levels, there were few offerings of a safe and unimpeded landing. Bald eagles kept passing over us which I took as a sign to push on and Karen read as a protective warning. She was afraid and I was afraid of her fear. At one point, we found a calm eddy to rest in and eat and think out our options. A single eagle feather floated by me and I lifted it with awe and gratitude into the canoe.
We couldn’t find a place to camp and paddled against the wind and in the long light until 10 pm Friday. We found a small sand-gravel island not much larger than our canoe and tent. Geese and ducks talked through the night entering my dreams like voices of all kinds of people I know and have known. Karen couldn’t sleep. When I woke she told me that her heart was pounding and rested her head on my chest. The wind was shaking the tent walls. As I held her, the eagle feather came into my mind and I realized she was right — we needed to get to safety.
Karen and I visited Whitehorse last December –our Northern Lights photo on the masthead of this site.We loved Whitehorse and since leaving, Karen has been craving Antoinette’s guava ribs. We were happy to reunite with our new Whitehorse friends and talked about the North and the Yukon River. When our canoe outfitter sent us Being Bear Wise in the Yukon there was Tanya (p. 15, 17 with grizzlies) — real live Bear Bait. Tanya is a graphic designer and created the backdrop produce in the photo below. This pic is taken at 10 PM in natural light, no flash, outside on Antoinette’s patio!
Meanwhile, back at the Robert Service campground, we set site right next to a couple who live in BC but are from Australia and are taking maternity leave with their 4-month old daughter Georgia to travel across Canada. Going all the way to NFLD! They said, “We’re from down under so anywhere north of the equator is north to us.”
Before leaving the BC Liard River camp, I asked Ranger Jeanette if this was North. An Acadian, she studied in Ottawa where she met her partner and they’ve travelled west to find their North and settle. “Geographically, we are at the half way point to North,” she told me. “But every American who passes through here considers all of Canada to be North.”
On mountain highway: I asked Karen for her driving comments and she said “We are just alone. I like it. That is something about the north — like the woman from Liard River who made a deal with her neighbour not to sell gas if he doesn’t sell full food service. Her neighbour is 75 km away… You have to have time to experience the north, time to drive these roads. That Cold Creek gas station is the whole of the town.”