Yukon-Alaska September 2017

A random encounter, an invitation, a whim, a ticket. Excepting great circle flights I’d never been north of Prince Rupert, which seemed to be the waterlogged, depressing and depressed end of the road. I was on a flight to a place that makes that feel decidedly southern; to a town where a couple tens of thousands of souls, for months in the winter, brave almost around-the-clock darkness and cold, and appear to spend at least some of the rest of their year desperately girding themselves for it.

The Yukon in September is a beautiful calming salt and pepper mix of yellow deciduous and green coniferous. In the south, these two tend to exist separately, the fall colours confined to stream beds. Breaking through the clouds and coming in over Grey Mountain, I didn’t know yet that the scattered coexistent pattern appears to be the norm for a large expanse of the northern landscape.

I spent the first couple of days mountain biking on Grey Mountain in Whitehorse and Montana Mountain near Carcross. I’m a dedicated road cyclist, and had never been on a trail, never mind fat tires and suspension. It was odd to feel like a beginner on two wheels, a combination of exhilaration, frustration, and some fear.

This was my first experience of the Yukon outdoors. Around Vancouver there is almost always the sense, if not the sounds, of nearby human activity. But here, more than 70% of the population lives in Whitehorse and there’s the suspicion, and probably the reality, that there’s not much beyond the town but wilderness. So it’s quiet and seems even quieter. I heard one jet fly over in the four days I was in the north.

I got up a couple of times after midnight and despite clear skies, there was no aurora.

The third day my new friend drove me and her 12-year-old Greenland dog west along the Alaska Highway to Haines Junction and then south towards Haines, Alaska. Having left behind the treed area of the Yukon, we stopped at one point along a stretch reminiscent of the Scottish moors, although part of the reason for this assessment was that the high mountain peaks were obscured by fog and cloud. We walked for an hour or so into Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, which is actually in the upper northwest notch of British Columbia. This is a landscape barren with low-lying life not apparent until the mosses and lichens and heather are underfoot and you start scrambling through stunted brush. It’s almost ghostly: there are no birds, and no sounds other than the wind—and my guide occasionally calling out “hey-oh” to warn any nearby bears. We never saw one, or any evidence.

In Haines we stayed at the Hotel Halsingland, an historic building with a charming little bar, one of those that seem to encourage camaraderie among strangers. Northerners in both countries are quick to say hello, or at least give a nod, and open to conversation. One of the things that repeatedly surprised me is that by September, much has closed down for the winter. Like the hotel owner, many are off to places like Israel or Florida for the off-season. Many or most seem to be from elsewhere, whether long-time residents, passing through, or running a seasonal business. Maybe there’s a recognition that along with the light, human presence itself is fleeting, and people are not only few but literally far between. Bulletin boards, rather than the web, are the primary means of advertising events and services. There appears to be a community of small communities reminiscent of that of the Pacific islands I saw when in Kauai, gathered together over distance by common remoteness.

The next day was clearer than when we’d arrived, and the coastal mountains were sharp and stunning. We drove up Lutak Inlet towards Chilkoot Lake. This was going to be a good place to see grizzlies, but there were none. The scene of salmon spawn and seagulls in the fall sunlight was beautiful.

We took the ferry to Skagway, and drove up through yet another distinct geographical and botanical landscape, almost a moonscape but again packed with low growth. We tried scrambling down a cliff to, I believe, the Taiya River. It was too steep for the dog, and probably for me; although I mostly managed to keep up with this experienced hiker, we never went very far or very hard. We went back over the highway and had a short walk in a haunting landscape with numerous pools and rocks and stunted trees whose roots were completely out of proportion to their height. I thought about how the whole area would soon be completely snowed in; the highway was bordered on both sides by thousands of white-out markers.

We got back to Whitehorse a bit too late to see the movie we’d planned on, Dawson City: Frozen Time. Instead, we went to a house concert—no, not house music, but an actual performance in someone’s living room. A duo from Winnipeg, whose names I don’t recall, played some beautiful guitar with enjoyable but slightly clichéd country-ish singing and lyrics. Beforehand, I spoke with a couple of people who had given up city life, and had definitely compromised to do so. After four days, I was only just beginning to understand why.

That was my last night.

My host, a long-time resident of the northern Territories, was one of the more fascinating people I’ve met. Senior in government, volunteering much of her time, and spending the rest almost obsessively hiking, camping, and biking, squeezing in every possible outdoor activity before the winter—though she has a fat tire bike ready for that, too—I wondered how much of this lifestyle is common to the area. She has a quiet confidence and expertise in being in the remote wilderness, and on our long drives pointed out numerous places she’s hiked. Yet she’s still considered, or considers herself, a cheechako after some years in Whitehorse. Her friends seem equally occupied with outdoor and other social activities. Counterintuitively, my city friends seem to have more downtime.

I vaguely expected northern lights and bears; instead I think I got a tentative sense of the north and the people who choose to live there. Home in my Gastown apartment, with only rain, barely cooler temperatures, and slightly darker months on the way, I look north now with an awareness and appreciation and a bit of longing. It’s great to be back on my road bike, on pavement. But I hope to go north again.

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