Saturday, June 6, 2009

Live from Dawson City, it's Saturday afternoon!

6-6-09 - Congratulations, Samantha!
Today is my cousin Sam’s high school graduation party. I hope to be on Skype with Pat, Matt and the rest of the crew around 2 PM this afternoon. I’m in Dawson City for my long awaited steak dinner. There’s a small casino here and a handful of crusty gold miners walking around. Real gold miners. I asked Pat in the Goldrush RV Park office if anyone pans for gold besides the many tourists that pass through. He described a dozen or so real life prospectors living in the hills. They come into town every month or so for groceries and then head for the hills again. A different breed for sure.
Thanks again to all of you for following the blog and sharing your wit and kinds words with me. I miss you all, but this has truly been the adventure of a lifetime. Hope you enjoy the picture of Smiley, the lovable, smiling grizzly bear. Zoom in. The picture is not photoshopped!
5-31-09 - Provisions in Whitehorse then on to the Klondike Highway…
I spent a leisurely morning and early afternoon at Dawson Peaks Resort knowing that the symbolic goal of Whitehorse was only about 100 miles away. It’s symbolic because I’ve been using it as a reference and jumping off point to the last two legs before reaching the Arctic Circle and Inuvik prizes. Progress has been good.
After stocking up at Wal-Mart in Whitehorse, I loaded my cache of smoked baby clams and sardines into the Westy. Wal-Mart Kevin gave me clean directions to the turnoff from the Alaska Highway to the Klondike Highway. Since I left Dawson Peaks so late, Kevin also pointed me toward the first two or three campgrounds on the Klondike. Even though it stays light out until almost midnight I knew I’d be crashing hard soon.
6-1-09 - Loons at Fox Lake…
The first campground I came to, LaBerge, was like camping on Fiesta Island in San Diego. Too close to Whitehorse. Since it hardly ever gets dark around here I figured I would try Fox Lake about 50 miles up the Klondike. It turned out to be a most excellent choice. I pulled into a choice spot on the lake. I emphasize “on” because this phenomenon is near impossible to come by in California. Here they encourage you to get as close to the lake as possible. “And please use as much of our free firewood as you can burn.” So, for $12 Canadian, I pulled into the best spot on Fox Lake, burned a cord of wood before bed, and slept a solid seven hours. Then the loons came a calling. So I did what I’ve done every morning since I left San Diego; I plugged in the coffee grinder, ground some French roast and got out the maps.
6-2-09 - The Drive down Sponge Cake Road…
During breakfast back at Fox Lake I picked Ethel Lake as my next destination. This was one of Greg’s (Dawson Peaks) Yukon Favorites. I zeroed the odometer and set out on the 166 mile drive to the Ethel Lake Road turnoff. Watching the miles click by I finally approached the 166 mile mark. No sign of Ethel. I blew past a small dirt road on the right and figured that had to be it. I turned around and began the 24 mile drive to what I hoped would be the lake of my dreams. You see, I had just purchased my official Yukon fishing license at the Mountie (RCMP) Station back at Pellings Crossing. The officer wished me luck after informing me that the lake had an abundance of Arctic Grayling. Now I was excited. I’ve caught a lot of fish with my fly rod over the years, but never an Arctic Grayling! This was huge.
As I started down Ethel Lake Road I thought it would be cool to pose for this picture with Stella and a sign that said “Proceed at own risk.” Notice the cocky look on my face? Well, that look changed to the perfect blend of frustration and “I sure am glad I didn’t drive into that mud pit” about 3 miles down the very rough road. Just ahead I saw a patch that looked really shaky, like someone had been stuck there before me. I got out and did a little recon. The well worn tire tracks appeared solid, but when I walked on them it was like walking across a mattress. Very strange. If my body weight could deflect the road surface almost 2 inches, what would Her Portliness, Stella, do to it? I grabbed a stick to poke through what seemed to be a dirt road floating on air and dug down a few inches. I got nothing but a mixture of clay and gravel. Perfectly normal. What the hell was under there? I paced back and forth between the sponge cake portion of the road and Stella, and finally decided to turn around. I was already a few miles from the main road with two wheel drive and no cell phone reception. As I proceeded back to the highway I flagged down a Highway Services guy coming in the other direction. I asked him about the spot he was heading toward. “We’re really shorthanded and we’ve been focusing all our efforts fixing the potholes on the Klondike Highway. The spot you’re talking about is basically a swamp running under the road. We have to deal with it every year as spring goes into summer.” Had I not turned around I would have very likely been sitting in that Yukonian bog. Imagine that, the warning sign was there for a reason.
6-2-09 - Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
Now plan B became plan A. Fresh off of my Ethel Lake Arctic Grayling slaughter, my next stop was The Silver Trail, and in particular the Keno City loop. By the way, here’s a great picture of the Arctic Grayling I didn’t catch at Ethel Lake. Yeah, it’s the first one I’ve ever seen, too. So on to the Keno City Loop to put my Yukon fishing license to good use. I gassed up at Mayo Village and brought my map in with me to pay. I asked the owner for Arctic Grayling recommendations on the Keno loop. He pointed me toward the dam at Mayo Lake and Minto Lake. Maybe tonight would be the night. The map I got from Lenora’s “Here’s everything you’ll ever need to know about the Yukon” kiosk at Stewart’s Crossing was not the most detailed I’ve ever seen. I mean it had the squiggly lines we’re all used to seeing. But her map, which came with a small box of crayons, also had large icons of coffee cups, hamburgers and gas pumps to denote where one can get these things. I did not see one icon of an Arctic Grayling. So with the equivalent of a child’s road map I set off to catch my fish.
I came to the turnoff for Minto Lake first. Fifty feet on to the road a very informative road sign let me know the road was closed. “You gotta be kidding me,” I screamed at the sign. Maybe they just haven’t taken it down yet. Lenora’s map did say Minto Lake Road was a seasonal road. Few people understand how a fisherman’s judgment can go out the window when there’s a real opportunity to catch a fish he’s never caught before. Hell, I don’t understand it myself, but you probably know where this is going.
I proceeded down the narrow road and kept telling myself, “You can just back out if it gets too hairy.” Of course, I forgot to mention that after a reprieve from bear sightings all the way from Whitehorse to Mayo Village, they were coming out again in force. Great. I white knuckled it down the road and watched the tenths of miles click by. How far could it be? Well, according to Lenora’s map, it was either pretty far or really close.
I was on the lookout for the same sponge cake roadbed I saw on Ethel Lake Road. Like I could recognize it. I came upon several sections that made me stop, peer through the windshield, question my sanity, and then go flying through in first gear at about 5ooo rpm. One by one the successful stream crossings started to add up. I was feeling as good as one can when he’s scared shitless that he’ll be sleeping in the woods for three weeks while waiting for someone to happen down the road.
Finally, after 11.3 miles I was magically transported back to the late 1800’s. I arrived at the most rustic campsite I have ever seen, complete with a dilapidated cabin (circa a really long time ago) and a “slightly used” outhouse. I parked in what I thought looked like a campsite and walked down to the water’s edge. The dead calm of the lake was unsettling. I strained to hear even the smallest sound, anything. Nothing. I walked back to the Westy, loaded the shotgun, made dinner and prepared for what would turn out to be the quietest night of my life.
This "road closed" picture was taken the morning after the ordeal. The cockiness has been replaced with a look of, "Man, it's good to be alive!"
6-2-09 - Laundry Day at Tombstone…
With my spirits flying high after catching zero grayling at Minto Lake, and risking my life to do it, I drove the short distance to the Dempster Highway turnoff. Here we go. The last leg before hitting the Arctic Circle and Inuvik! My first stop on the Dempster came up pretty quick. I wanted to get just a few miles of the Dempster under my belt before camping, and pulled into Tombstone in less than an hour. As usual I had my pick of spots. I found the perfect site right on the North Fork of the Klondike River. There was one, maybe two, other campers in the whole place. Never in California.
I put my river access to good use and dragged out the overly ripe laundry bag that the Sumas Border Agent had rifled through. It would have killed her today. Using Stella as one end of a clothesline I strung a few bungee cords together, attached the other end to a tree and headed for the river. My transition to full hippiehood is progressing nicely. Today I washed my laundry in a river and sharpened my hatchet by hand. Tomorrow I plan to crunch granola while simultaneously hugging a tree.
With my laundry drying in the mid-afternoon sun (I think it was about 9 PM), I checked on the water temp in the solar shower. Nice and warm after days of crystal clear weather. The fact that the sun hasn’t set in I don't know how long helps a little, too. I set off on a short run, looking forward to a very warm shower.
6-3-09 - A new level of desolation and solitude…
During the last few weeks before leaving San Diego, the map of Northern Canada was open on the dining room table. Cat and I became quite familiar with the tentative route and even started logging distances between key points. But every time I passed by the map my eyes were always drawn directly to the Dempster Highway. What would a 455 mile dirt and gravel road be like? Would it be nothing more than featureless tundra? Would Stella be able to hang?
Over a couple of days all those questioned were answered. I was awed by the vastness and pure desolation. As I drove on, each vista topped the last. There were grizzlies and black bears casually strolling along the road, as if man had no business being there. With the support of family, friends and an amazing girlfriend, I came here seeking raw nature and real solitude. No phones, no stock market, no news. I got exactly what I bargained for, and couldn’t be happier.
6-3-09 - I’m on top of the world (almost)…
We’ve all been there. You wake up one morning and say, “Hey, let’s drive to the Arctic Circle!” Well, I had one of those days a few weeks ago and here I am. Actually, the primary reason for this trip was to verify that they put the sign in the right place. As you can see from the readout on my trusty Garmin, they’re dead on.
OK, kidding aside. I lingered here for over an hour. I don’t really know why, but it was hard to leave. Reaching the Arctic Circle with Stella was a key milestone on this journey, and it just felt good. I took one last look at the marker and hopped in the Westy for the short drive to Rock River. I was now past the halfway point on the Dempster Highway and right on target to arrive at Inuvik Village on or before Saturday, June 6th.
6-4-09 - Drove the entire Dempster without breaking down (almost)…
I pulled into Fort McPherson to top off the gas tank. I had just driven off the free, on-demand ferry over the MacKenzie River about ten miles back. Driving off was easy. Driving on was a little more challenging. It looked like the steel ramp wasn’t lowered completely as I approached the ferry. I felt like I was starting to sink in the loose soil and had to keep moving or risk getting stuck. I assumed the ramp was spring loaded and would just lower the last several inches once my front tires touched it. Wrong. The steel ramp rattled Stella to the core. I think I swallowed a tooth. Once on the ferry I did a walk around checking for visible damage. Everything seemed OK.
After gassing up I pulled back on to the Dempster. I was headed to Deep Water Lake to have lunch, and fish, based on info from the Fort McPherson welcoming committee. Two guys walked up to the Westy while I was at the gas pump. They were bent over in front studying my license plate. “California? Wow, that’s a long drive,” they said in unison. We chatted for a bit and I asked for grayling assistance. Charlie recommended Deep Water Lake about ten miles north. Perfect. Maybe today would be the day. As I took the nondescript road exactly where Charlie said it would be, Stella could barely make the turn without me strong arming the steering wheel. Now what? Could I have shuddered Stella so hard getting on the ferry that I damaged the power steering pump? Is that even possible?
I did a very strenuous three point turn and drove back to the stop sign leading to the Dempster. I slowly walked back to the engine compartment repeating my favorite power steering mantra over and over. “Please be a belt. Please be a belt.” I had visions of a seized, smoking power steering pump bleeding fluid all over the ground. “Please be a belt.” It was! But the belt wasn’t severed or missing. It was sitting there in one piece. Well worn, but in one piece. I figured the only explanation was that a piece of gravel flew up into the engine compartment and spun the belt off the pulleys. It’s possible. But here’s the best part. I actually had a belt with me to replace the well worn one. Installed it in 15 minutes and got back on the road in search of the elusive grayling.
6-4-09 - Camping in downtown Inuvik…
I took advantage of a long awaited cell phone signal and called Cat to let her know I was alive, happy and driving into the Inuvik town center, clearly months ahead of schedule. In true Cat fashion she suggested I savor the moment and call her once I got settled. I did. Driving down the main drag I saw a sign with the familiar tent symbol on it. Cool. After spending the last few nights in virtual isolation, I was happy to camp across the street from a small subdivision and a central power plant a short distance away.
As I was making dinner and settling in for the Lakers/Magic game on XM, my campsite was overrun by a local biker gang. I guess the road has mellowed me a bit. I had them doing jumps one after another while I snapped photos. Maybe I was just happy to see people. Honestly, they were very cool kids. I even made a small repair on one of their bikes. Wow. Changing times for me.
While it’s true that Inuvik was a definite northern prize on this journey, the town left a little to be desired. Did I want to celebrate my 49th birthday here? Probably not. So, with the sun not setting on a long day, I crawled into my bunk to try to get some sleep. I looked at the clock. One A.M. and the sun was still above the horizon. I tossed and turned in the sunlight until about 5 A.M. The poor, confused birds never shut up. Finally I said, “That’s it. I’m hitting the road.” If I timed it right I would hit the first ferry crossing at the MacKenzie River just as they started their day. I was on a mission to reach Dawson City by dinner time. Southwest to Alaska, Lokedog!
6-5-09 - Stella takes one for the team…
Well, I reached Dawson City in time for dinner. Full hook ups for Stella and free Wi-Fi. But not before an unforgettable southward drive down the full length of the Dempster Highway. All 455 miles. In one day. And it was no less spectacular than the first time. The bears were out in force, along with fox, beaver, rabbits (snowshoe, I think) and a half dozen birds of prey. I was driving along thinking of ways to adequately describe this place. Tough job.
I drove on in solitude counting every mile to Dempster corner. I hadn't seen another car or truck in the last 150 miles. That was about to change big time. With only 100 miles to go, Stella took one for the team. An 18-wheeler came flying around the corner like a runaway locomotive, billowing dust and spraying gravel and rocks in every direction. Stella sustained a direct hit to the windshield. The rock hit the windshield so hard there was powdered glass and glass fragments flying into the front seat. I was grateful the strike was on the empty passenger side. But dammit, I just bought the windshield three months ago. I field dressed Stella's wound and continued southward. I will never forget the 455 mile dirt and gravel road they call the Dempster Highway, but I'm about ready for some pavement.


  1. Great pictures! Great stories! Happy Birthday!

  2. Pete,
    This has got to be the most unique of all of your 49 bithdays for sure. What an incredible journey. You, and Stella, have met the challenges head on - survived and thrived. I look forward to reading your vivid accounts, and the pictures are wonderful. Take care and Happy, Happy Birthday. Jan

  3. Well, you made it back to Dawson City in time for a steak dinner and the Laker game on your birthday. Sounds perfect for you, Pete. If I remember Dawson City correctly from my gold mining days, there's a pretty rough couple of hang-outs up there where you could find some trouble if you get bored. Remind me to tell you the story of the time me and old One Legged Lokedog passed through that town to do a little pan handlin' all started at run down dive called The Drunkin Goat, and from there, it's all a blur. Maybe Lokedog can fill you in from there...Cheers on your 49th. Looking forward to many more together.

  4. Talk about a flurry of blogs!!! I think those light-filled arctic nights are giving you way too much time to compose "odes to the road." I truly did enjoy the pics, especially of the bears which I have only seen one of in the wild. I am not counting the dozens of panda bears that Linda and I saw in China shortly before the earthquake a year ago. As for Cat's remembrances of our gold mining days in Dawson City I think she has it confused with our guest stint on the tv show Dawson Creek where we sashayed into the Pink Puddytat bar and ordered drinks for all the men in the bar, and that is all there were---men. She's right though, it is all a blur, and I prefer it that way. Will you be visiting any areas on Alaska's coast or is the plan to head back down/across Canada to the East Coast? True story---as opposed to the one's I usually tell---Linda's dad was in a military plane flying out of Fort Churchill on Hudson Bay when it went down in the swampy marshland of Canada north of the Great Lakes. They were down and out for almost 2 weeks before they were rescued, basically by accident. So, if you are in the area, give a salute to Jerome Scalise who, by all accounts, was the guy who kept the others alive. Looking forward to the next blog from God only knows where. Lokedog