Category Archives: Yukon

White Pass


I’m back in Alaska and on the MV Le Conte—six and a half hours from home. We are waiting for last southbound vehicles to drive onto the car deck so we can depart. Onshore, the tourist town of Skagway awakens from its winter hibernation. Outside, gulls wheel over balls of herring. The Edgar Oldenhdroff waits for a load of Yukon ore.


Surviving the drive to here from Whitehorse always seems a bit of a miracle this avalanche-prone time of the year. During our last March visit to the Yukon, we had to drive through a small avalanche. It bent our front license plate but otherwise did no damage. Today we pass over pavement recently cleared from snow slides but had no close calls.


Before the drop down White Pass and into Alaska, we skied at the northern terminus of the Chilkoot Trail. Pushing our boards through newly drifted snow, we waddled to the snow-walled aid station that volunteered had crated for last Saturday’s Buckwheat ski race. Three days ago, the place was noisy with skiers. Today, we had the place to ourselves. I wanted to push on even though sticky snow slowed our progress. Just over a low set of hills lay the way to Lake Bennett, where more than 100 years ago stampeders built rafts and DIY boats for the Yukon River float to the Dawson City gold fields. Then, axes and saws would have shattered the late-winter silence. Today, it is only diminished by our creaky skis.


Grouse, Lynx, and a River


The grouse is a surprise, as was the pair of lynx that crossed languidly across the Klondike Highway in front of us a few says ago. The bird appears to nest in snow on the forest floor near a Chadburn Lake ski trail. I test the extent of its privacy zone by skiing closer and closer until it flies into a nearby pine tree.


We ski on through the mixed aspen/pine forest to a Yukon River overlook. Not too many years ago, I paddled a canoe under this bluff with a Swedish friend. The Yukon was a source of fear then as it is today. In the canoe, I entertained a little fear of the river’s power that moved us forward as the glacier silt it carried scraped against the canoe’s submerged skin. Today, I fear that the ice beneath the river’s snow covering would be too weak to hold my weight. It is a silly fear. I only touch the river with my eyes.


Later in the day we ski do on the river near the Moss Lake dam, reassured by the presence of newly laid ski tracks. The tracks keep us close to the shore. Across the river, dark clouds block out the sun, bringing drama before the next snow squall.


Mt. Mac


Mt. MacIntyre is Whitehorse is a world class cross country ski area. On a sunny day like today, when the temperature is near freezing, it provides a ski experience that justifies the effort to get here from Juneau.



Stopping to enjoy the sunlight bouncing off the heavy layer of trailside snow, I spot a large squirrel drop down from a white spruce tree and pose on an upturned tree root wad. Unlike the red squirrels in Juneau who can’t tolerate Aki or I, this guy seems to enjoy my attention. He doesn’t chit a challenge or toss down an empty spruce cone. He just strikes a series of ten second poses, like a life drawing model.



Aki wouldn’t be allowed on this ski trail near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. No dogs may trot loose along side us through this poplar forest. The trail has lay dormant since last week’s storms but a classic track set by a snow machine still dimples the snow.


We are only 270 kilometers from our usual ski trails around Juneau but it feels far away from home. Even the snow, dry and fly away, would be out of place on the lake in front of Mendenhall Glacier. But we travel to experience new country and enjoy interactions with the people that live in it. Fortunately for us, the Yukon is only a short drive and ferry ride away.



MV LeConte


Leaving Aki at home with friends this morning, her other human and I board an Alaska ferry for Skagway, Alaska. Many tourists, international and otherwise, ride the ferries up and down the inside passage. But this time of year, the boat carries only locals. Some are heading home to Whitehorse. Most, from Juneau, will ski tomorrow on the Buckwheat cross-country ski race.


During the six hour boat ride from Juneau to Skagway I spot few people looking out the window even through winter sun sparkles off the waters of Lynn Canal and makes the beautiful Chilkat Mountains even more lovely. In summer, on days when low clouds hide the mountains and flat light turn the canal waters leaden, the ferry windows will still be lined with gawking visitors. The locals could take a lesson.


Haines Highway


Fog covered the Alsek River this morning at Haines Junction. But even before sunrise we could see the St. Elias Mountains. They stood like an eroded wall between the Yukon Territory and the Pacific. Their lower flanks were exposed yesterday evening when thick shafts of sunlight powered through to illuminate the thinning cloud cover. I almost expected saints to descend from Heaven.


By the time we started the drive to Haines, Alaska the sun had already reduced the fog to wisps on the water.


I don’t want this post to be a weather report about sunshine and the cloud cover we drove under before the approach to Three Guardsmen Pass. But just out of Haines Junction we did enjoy sunlight sparking on masses of yellow poplar leaves and later on a swan pair that seemed to enjoy its warmth while resting on the waters of a pocket lake. We could see the beauty under clouds but the sun enhanced it.

Raven’s Solstice Song

P1120865With the tidal door slowly swinging closed, Aki the poodle-mix, my daughter and I round the little point that forms its door stop on the lower Mendenhall River. Six to eight feet of sloping beach still separate ocean water from rocky barrier. We walk quickly down beach on pebbles glued in place by ice. Full sun blankets the glacier and its mountain consorts but we are in shade. So is a mid-river sandbar covered by noisy ducks and Canada geese. Some float away on cold water, lifted off the bar by the rising sea. P1120867

It’s only 1140 but the sun appears to have already set for us behind a ridge of Douglass Island mountains. Then it slides into a notch from where its rays can reach our beach. “What a beautiful place we live,” says the daughter to the dog. She reminds me about the tide. We turn back, finding the beach around the point underwater but not a gap in the rocks through which we make good our escape. P1120858

Back on Chicken Ridge, a raven stands atop the utility pole outside our kitchen window, sun lighting a slice of beak and feathers, leaving the rest in shadow.  He chants, sending out little puffs of clouds from his beak. Water filling the tea kettle prevents me from hearing the actual song so I make up my own words:

Raven brought the first light

Raven brings this light

be grateful

be generous

be sharing on the solstice

or Raven will fly the light awayL1210946

Riding with Pedro

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy biking partner and I are being taken to the alpine in one of the older White Pass Yukon rail carriages—the one set aside for hikers and German tourists. We could be riding the section of the Klondike Highway that climbs 12 miles from Skagway, Alaska to White Pass, sometimes at a 12 percent grade. Instead we relax, listening to a Yukon gold rush lesson from a disembodied voice generated several cars back as the train clunks over narrow gauge track. In its bowels rest Pedro and Side Meat, the weighed down touring bicycles we will ride 328 miles of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory to Haines, Alaska.  I should be reflecting on the challenges ahead — steep grades, old legs, bears, bad weather, trouble finding drinking water or even beer. Instead I gawk at beauty as we climb from coastal rainforest to a place of glacier scraped granite and alpine lakes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter claiming our touring bikes from the baggage car at Fraiser B.C. we roll up to Canadian customs where the agent asks the usual questions about money, guns, liquor, and tobacco. (He doesn’t care about fruit.) Since both bikes sport a set of large panniers affixed to front and back wheel racks, these are fair questions. When we answer in the negative, the agent wants to know how we are going to deal with bears or that wolf that recently chased a cyclist on our route. I want to tell him, “good luck and common sense,” but only smile to avoid a pannier search for bear spray.

With a waive of the custom agent’s hand we are released onto the Klondike Highway to pilot the heavily laden bikes into Carcross, YT.  Pedro, my 30 old Trek 520 soon settles down. We milk a tail wind for much needed help while climbing endless steep bumps that make hard work out of the descent from White Pass into Carcross. It’s hot for the mountains and sunny. We are always thirsty. The sun and deep blue sky bring out the beauty of the landscape—at first a broad flat valley of granite and shallow lakes boxed in by steep peaks, then walls of trembling poplar leaves until we reach the long blue waters of Tutshi Lake. For the rest of the day its all light brown scree slopes plunging into lake waters.

We camp night one at Carcross, hauling water from the gas station/cafe/store which also provides us beer and an excellent meatloaf dinner. We eat while watching the Toronto Bluejays game on TV. Outside the sun sparkles on Nares and Bennett Lake and the railroad trestle separating the two.  We we are too tired and thirsty to mind missing the show. Not normally a big beer drinker, the day’s dry heat, the sun, the exertion make me mad for brew.

Day two we break camp and ride into Whitehorse, receiving an unexpected blessing at the Emerald Lake overlook.  An Anglican priest, stopping on his way to his mission church in Carcross to admire the product of shafts of morning sunlight striking the milky green lake waters, offers a prayer after watching me slide through loose gravel in the parking area. It’ a fine blessing that washes away some of the concerns about aging bodies and bad drivers that had been bubbling up on the morning’s ride.

Our good weather continues in Whitehorse, where we stay two days, sharing the Robert Service Campground with Germans and other world travelers. I have a flat tire on the bike path running along the Yukon River. A nice rider stops and helps me patch it. After finding several deep cuts in it, he advises that I replace the failing tire with one I purchased that day at a local shop. I think of the blessing and recognize today’s minor miracles: that I thought to buy the tire, that the shop had a quality touring one that fits Pedro’s outdated 27 inch wheels, that the helpful rider stopped by, that the homeless guy emerging from a riverbank nap didn’t manage to take my bike for a ride. Another miracle was the discovery of a rich patch of wild raspberries which yielded enough fruit to make memorable the next morning’s breakfast.

It’s 100 miles on the Alaska Highway from Whitehorse to Haines Junction, YT. We hope to cover 50 of it on day three of riding. Lack of good camping opportunities force us to pedal 70 miles to Cracker Creek where we cook Indian food on the center line of a redundant section of the highway before collapsing into sleep. We wouldn’t have made it that far if not for Irene, who served us hamburgers, french fries and a Canadian Beer at her restaurant along the the way.

On the short ride from Cracker Creek into Haines Junction. YT we run into a solo biker from Ottawa who wants to make sure we know the Village Bakery is still open. This is good news indeed for which we thank him before he proceeds to announce all the good bakeries he had exploited on his two week ride through the Northland.  After visiting a local farmer’s market in Haines Junction we suck down steamed but ungarnished Swiss Chard in our motel room and prepare for the 148 miles of mountain road we must ride to the ferry terminal in Haines, Alaska.

Facing a headwind and rain, we climb out of Haines Junction for 3.5 miles to where the road takes on a rolling personality, dropping only to rise a little higher as low clouds appear to chew on the surrounding mountain tops. This is our hometown weather so we push more on than 50 miles to the Million Dollar Falls Campground where, we were told earlier by another group of Juneau bikers, cold beer would be on offer. Those 18 were riding naked bikes behind support vehicles that haul their clothing, camping gear, and food. They delivered. The beer refreshed and the company’s kindness reaffirmed the power of our Emerald Lake blessing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe leave Million Dollar Falls with the group of 18, who soon disappear into  fog covering the long incline of road leading toward Alaska. This becomes a special day as fog gives way to broken cloud conditions, sunshine illuminates retreating glaciers and broad flat river valleys full of clucking ptarmigan, nervous ground squirrels, golden eagles, swan pairs, and at least one grizzly bear sow and cub. We see the later fairly near the road on a treeless river plain. We stop. You have to, through if she thought we endangered her child, the mother bear could easily run us to ground. We are nothing but slow moving caribou to her. She is simply lovely with still wet golden brown fur glistening in the mountain sun, watching over a miniature version of her self in a darker brown coat.  We leave when she and her charge start moving towards our spot on the road.

My affection for Pedro always grows on days like this when it takes me to a top of the world place then lets me ride it down from it on steep descents to the familiar tidewater forests of home.


The First Dogs on the Trail


This morning we heard the frantic sound of 10 or 12 dog teams being readied for a race.  It has been many years since we last hitched up dogs to a sled but the sights and sounds then and now are much the same—crazy canine eyes offering no recognition of anyone but their musher, high pitched yelps—some in silo—others in harmony, the springing leap ending in a lunge of frustration.

The first and perhaps strongest team approaches the starting line, here a path between aspens; musher crushing the sled brake into snow while handlers spaced evenly among the team struggle to control the dogs.  While the next team approaches the staging area, a race official releases the dogs with a nod of head.  The second team must watch, constrained by men for two minutes, haunted by memories of the just released disappearing around a bend.  When we ran dogs this was the magic moment— the released dogs powering forward, almost snapping the sled from your hands. So intent are you in controlling the sled you don’t notice for a second silent replacing pandemonium.

Winter Lingers Here


Winter hangs here on the Yukon River but, if the weatherman can be believed, it will soon be pushed upriver by spring. Perhaps that is why we have this beautiful cross country ski complex to ourselves.  The sun breaks through filmy overcast but brings wind rather than warmth.  It’s a rolling trail and we look forward to hill climbs in hope that heat generated by effort will thaw our faces and fingers. It works but wind chill built up during the following descent removes returns us back to zero.

We return to the car on a sheltered forest trail lined with scrubby spruce and  stately aspen, the beauty of both brought out by dappling sun. An enormous train of dogs, adults and children begins to pass us, lead by two large jowled hounds. A tired father dragging along a trailer sled loaded with twins brings up the rear.