On the top of the world

On the third morning of a week-long RV trip, we left the tranquil setting of Kluane National Park, the day’s itinerary in hand. “Meet up at Beaver Creek, then on to Chicken, Alaska”. The route was laid out, and seemed simple enough. There are few major arteries in this part of the world, and even fewer highway signs; you keep going until you get there.

I’d been told that Chicken, Alaska was unique. Even the customs guard at the Alaska border told me to make sure to get my sons T-shirts at the famous Chicken outpost. I nodded kindly, still not understanding you should obtain proof that you’d actually made it to Chicken.

As the Alaska Highway snaked around Kluane Park, new mountains sprung into our view at each turn of the road.

“Which one is that?” asked my driving partner Melissa, blindly indicating to her camera so I could get some shots as she drove.
“I dunno. The book doesn’t tell you,” I responded. I had 4 different maps open on my lap, each taking various tumbles as the road broke for construction. There are official road maps; there are itinerary maps; there are tourist guide maps, and maps from placemats wherever we’d had lunch. The maps that supplied the most detail were usually the furthest from scale.
“I think we’re only an inch away from Beaver Creek,” I told her.
“Where’s Mount Logan? Is that Mount Logan?” she asked. I peered through the windshield at a towering, snow covered beauty.
“Oh yeah, that must be,” I said firmly. I scrambled through my maps and guide books. It wasn’t. Mount Logan is over 6000 metres high. You’d think I’d be able to see it from my house, sort of like Sarah Palin can see Russia from hers.

During an earlier river raft trip in Haines Junction, we’d asked the guide some of the mountain names. He’d explained that while the entire range is called the St. Elias Mountains, the region has a long history of Native Canadian appellations, often changed by later settlers. The Yukon government has sought to restore the earlier christenings, and the results are what you might expect: everyone has their own names. It reminds me of the hundreds of smaller lakes in Ontario as you head north; what the locals call something rarely has any correspondence with an official designation.

As we headed north to the Alaska border, roadwork grew increasingly crazier. We’d been warned of large dips in the road, where the Alaska government is searching for ways to counter frost upheaval. Dipping a 24’ motorhome is kind of like riding a fishing boat over the wake of a huge outboard – there’s no perfect speed or technique, short of crawling to a stop and gingerly stepping through it. With other traffic behind, that’s not much of an option, so Melissa and I worked out a system: I would scream ‘dip’, and she would prepare to race to battle stations for whatever broke next.

Little did we know what lay ahead. Upon entering Alaska Highway 5, we could finally stop worrying about broken pavement. There was no pavement. I thought we’d taken a wrong turn, but our Yukon Tourism guide was bolting ahead of us in his Jeep, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were driving our living room.

But it was on this road to Chicken that we finally saw the true devastation that had only been hinted at in the Yukon. The Spruce Beetle, the most destructive force among mature forests in western North America, has left this part of Alaska eerily desolate. Stand after stand of darkened tree trunks, stripped of vegetation. This shell of a landscape looks like it leaked from the pen of Dr. Seuss, trees bending over curiously like questions marks. At some points, not even the trunks remain, and small signs declare the year a forest fire ripped through the area. With record high temperatures being set during our visit, it was hard not to consider the vast implications of fire in this tinderbox.

“How far to Chicken?” I asked Melissa, now bobbling maps on her lap.
“An inch. Home stretch,” she replied confidently.

With that, we crested a peak, and beheld the narrow, stuttered dirt road before us. We could see it twisting far up the next mountain. That hundred kilometers took us over 4 hours. In the best of circumstances, you drive a motorhome like any big truck; if you don’t, it will drive you.

On a washboard road in dusty conditions in unfamiliar territory, you wrestle the wheel to keep it straight, and you don’t take your eyes off the road for a second. When we finally pulled into Chicken, my forearms looked like Popeye’s. Chicken has a population of 37. I think they were all there to greet us on the porch of the gift store/saloon/café which is all connected. Washrooms are a set of outhouses at the side called the Chicken Poop. Handed a 2cm tiny plastic chicken by the owner, Susan, as a present for making it through, this talisman of extreme travel accomplishment rapidly became my most treasured souvenir.

The Canadian border has a closing time of 8pm, which meant the washboard race was on. The road out of Chicken was much like the road in, though low lying streams revealed men still panning for gold, some living out of what looked like original prospector’s shacks.

By now I’d re-christened this road the Darwin Highway. There are few guardrails, fewer curve signs, and the occasional speed sign that is totally incongruent with current conditions. Higher and higher we climbed, the roadbed dropping away on first one side, then the other. Washouts on the shoulders encouraged me to stick to the middle; bullet holes in road signs encouraged me to keep moving.

It was after 7pm, the sun just starting to go down, when we saw the border. Officially now on the Top of the World Highway, photos reveal the joy at realizing you really are at one of Canada’s most glorious places. The fact that glory extends to Canadians paving the road is no small bonus, either.

Spiralling down from the top of the world, alone except for the dust we were kicking up, I watched the sun redden and glow still surreally high in the evening sky. I could smell forest fires burning, and see the haze they sent out; it wasn’t the first time I’d considered the immense power of nature on this trip, and the tiny niche that humans can only pretend to carve into it.

A relatively smooth road can make you a little giddy after hours of jolting; the absence of the fridge flying open every twenty minutes lulled Melissa and me into a mellow complacency as we headed for Dawson City, hopefully in time for some dinner. She cranked up the iPod, we kept meeting up with the setting sun around every bend, and we looked forward to catching up with everyone else when we got to town.

A Yukon summer evening plays tricks. It was 11pm when we pulled into the hotel (yes, a hotel –it’s a welcome break from an RV sometimes, if only to regroup and sort out your laundry), though it was still light. After quick showers, we were headed out the door, turning into the tourists we usually make fun of under our breath.

Dancehall girls, gambling, gold nuggets and buildings straight from a Western set. Dawson City wakes you up just when you think you’re ready for bed. The plan was to stay the following night in an RV camp in town, which gave our bodies a day to catch up from the intense driving. I love driving; I can drive for hours, but factoring in fractured roads has taught me to slot in recovery time. We’d be heading down to Whitehorse on the last leg of the trip, and while the road was decent, we wanted to do the whole 535 km in one go.

Dawson City features some lovely restaurants, attractions and bars. So of course, we ended up two nights at the proudest dive in town. It does have a name – The Westminster – but everyone calls it The Pit. Entering the door, it’s easy to see why. Great band, bad drinks, suspect upholstery; it’s everything you want in a bar. A town with a population of 1823, and every one of them a character.

Our final travel day dawned as sunny as the previous 5. Melissa and I decided it would be smart to load in breakfast and lunch to avoid stopping – in this part of the world, there are no McDonalds, no drive-throughs, no Tim Horton’s. Towns string themselves out with little warning, and while the roadside rest areas are immaculate, they consist of nothing more than two clapboard outhouses. And a view.

The road from Dawson City to Whitehorse is simple: really, look at a map. You’d have to be stupid to get lost.

Making excellent time, we passed by a rather new bridge spanning a wide river.

“Wow. That looks new,” said Melissa. “Should we be on it?”
“Nope. No signs, must be connecting another part of the Yukon,” I said confidently. Yeah. It was connecting Whitehorse.

After another half hour, we came to a crossroads. We had become accustomed to little signage, but this was literally a right or left decision, and the word ‘Whitehorse’ was nowhere. We pulled into a small tourist information booth. A lady came to greet us.

“Where you girls headed?” she asked.
“Whitehorse,” I said.
“Oh, you need to go back to the bridge. You’re the 4th group this week. Guess I better call the ministry again….darned foliage keeps growing over the sign,” she sighed. “Where you coming from?” she asked.
“Dawson City….” I started.
“Oh! Well, I hope you went to The Pit,” she said.

So yes, you can get lost with very few road choices. You can miss signs, even when there are only two. And you can meet the most amazing people who put you right, wish you well, and send you on your way.

We added an hour to our driving time, met up with more construction that delayed us further, and still pulled back into Whitehorse only 15 minutes behind the last of our entourage.

They hadn’t missed the bridge, but we hadn’t stopped for lunch. And after a week on the road? I’m going to call that a draw.