Home / Destinations / North to the Yukon: White Nights in Whitehorse, Dawson & Skagway

North to the Yukon: White Nights in Whitehorse, Dawson & Skagway

The inspiration for this trip was a PR blurb about a music festival scheduled in Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada, scheduled for right about… today. Well, combining two of my favorite things- music and travel- in one sentence, one idea, one plan, naturally got my little brain synapses firing. Add to that the fact that at some sixty-four degrees north latitude, Dawson is one of the continent’s most northerly towns, and there’s a strong attraction there, I having something of an obsession with the Great North. The realities are not so easy, though. For one thing, Dawson is tiny and a long way from anywhere. The capital Whitehorse is not much better, and it’s over three hundred miles away to the south. Air Canada is the only major airline going there. I looked through my frequent flyer statements and decided that my BofA credit card miles might be my only hope. Fortunately I saw a connection there to Aeroplan, which is Air Canada’s frequent flyer program, and bingo, they’ve got a flight to Whitehorse from LAX for only 25,000 miles! But the dates don’t match, bummer, no free seats available during the festival period.

I then realized that Calgary has a much bigger festival only a week after and all flights to Whitehorse connect in either Calgary or Vancouver, so… I try for a multi-destination flight- stranger things have happened- and BAM! I got it again, still only 25, 000 miles, this the equivalent of $250 (almost any credit card will rebate you 1% for your loyalty), for a flight that would normally cost $1000! There’s only one problem. I can’t get the points to transfer correctly online. So I call BofA card services. They say I’m not eligible for Aeroplan. Then why is it on the site? I call Aeroplan. They say, “Mais, oui, monsieur, we will open an account for you and then you can transfer the points yourself, easy, non? I cross my fingers, try again, then BAM! I got it. I even lost sleep knowing that flight would disappear while I deliberated. But how can I be deliberate if I don’t deliberate?

Going to Canada for me is hardly adventure travel. It feels more like going home, as in Oregon or the Pacific northwest, which I certainly consider a spiritual home, if not necessarily the. That’s my peeps up there, brothers in arms, raised in hippie insurrection and left with a lot of time in the wilderness to contemplate it. Still, it’s enough of an adventure to keep the rust from forming on my travel-burnished exterior. Travel is a discipline that requires constant re-training. I still get a bath of fear before every trip, something like baptism by fire, a renewal of primal energies within. I’ve had an obsession with the Arctic Circle for years, too, not too different from an earlier obsession with tropics Cancer and Capricorn. I know it’s just a line on the map, but that’s like saying sex is just fill-in-the-blank. It means something, corresponding exactly to the tilt of the earth and the passing of seasons, not to mention the earth’s plunging tree line, which gives out right about there.

The Arctic is another world, or so I imagine, since I’ve never really gotten there, it now more like elaborate foreplay that will be sadly missed if I ever actually succeed. Though I’ve been at or above sixty degrees north latitude many times, I’ve never made it up all the way to sixty-six and a half, which is where the fun begins. The closest I’ve gotten is sixty-five at Fairbanks, AK. That was several years ago. These new flight plans are now several months ago, and as the date actually approaches, I’m less and less certain that I even want to do go through with it, not a huge a deal since I’m only out for taxes on the flight. For one thing, Canada is more expensive than the US, and it only gets worse ‘up there’. For another thing, I’ve got work to do ‘down here’, and getting up a head of steam to write can suffer a serious disruption on a two-week trip. Also the Calgary Folk Festival never came through with the media pass I was hoping for, and the four-day passes are long sold out. It falls short of the stellar lineup I’d experienced a few years ago in Edmonton anyway.

So on the day of lift-off I’m somewhat half-assed about the whole affair, especially given the free entertainment on tap in LA during the summer, something of a music festival in itself, so when the first flight delay (‘trying to re-boot the computer’) is announced, I’m half-way expecting it. When the second one is announced, I’m losing patience. When the third announcement is made that my noontime flight will be awaiting a replacement part due in at 7pm from Vancouver, I’m ready to cancel the whole thing, so call my wife and tell her not to be shocked if there’s another body in bed tonight. Nevertheless I go through the motions of re-booking, just to get the free meal voucher, hardly expecting a free flight to remote Whitehorse to go very far in negotiations. When the nice man finally tells me that I can go through Calgary instead of Vancouver and arrive within an hour of my original time, I can hardly believe it. And I get a meal voucher, too! Things are looking up.

So I go eat a pesto provolone and dried tomato ciabatta (or something like that) and get another brilliant idea. I decide to press my luck and see if I can get my flight from Whitehorse to Calgary postponed a day to maybe give me a day of the Dawson music festival. I explain that the schedule change has shortened my time in Whitehorse (though only one hour, mind you), blah blah yata yata >sniff sniff whine whine< and they buy it. I’ve got an extra day up north at no extra charge. I should be an actor, or a businessman, or… hey, wait a minute. It should be noted that the re-booking line was like a Sunday church sing-along, no shouting or shoving or anything Hong Kong-ish or New York-ish, people becoming friends and exchanging Facebook addresses.

But that only gives me an hour or so to clear Customs and change planes in Calgary, not helped by the fact that the new plane, too, is slightly delayed to reshuffle baggage, not helped by the fact that signs there warn of migra delays, this being Stampede season, you know, Kate and William and all that bull, uh… roping. But hopefully this should be the eye of the storm by now, like Christmas day, empty and vacuous. It is. So I make my flight to Whitehorse with no further delay (thank God!). My original flight from Vancouver wasn’t so lucky. They were still waiting on it as I booked my rental car. How’s that for the flight from Hell? I guess all’s well that ends well, but I’m still not sure about Air Canada.

And Whitehorse seems nice, too, at first glance, reminding me a bit of Flagstaff. Doesn’t everything? I decide to press on to Dawson City the next day, though, leaving my intimate encounter with Whitehorse for the back end, since I’ve already rented the car, and feel somewhat pressed to justify the expense. If I actually DO stay for the festival, that will leave little or no time for Whitehorse itself, but that’s the breaks. I may get inspired to take the Dempster Highway on up to Inuvik, remember, since that’s where the Arctic Circle is. I’m having the feeling that I won’t stay till then, so play that hunch. So I stock up on food, since Dawson’s so small, less than two thousand souls in the winter season, less than the small town I grew up in. We’re going car camping, one section of the back seat becoming fridge, another trash, etc. If I find nothing better, I’ll even sleep in it. That’s the advantage of having a car. So that’s what I did, though it got a bit c-c-c-cold with only a towel for cover.

That hunch was correct, too, since Dawson City itself is a bit of a disappointment, though the drive up was very very nice, not spectacular, mind you, let alone mind-blowing, but very very nice. Dawson City’s selling point is authenticity (‘dirt roads, plank sidewalks’), and that’s a tough thing to sell. The minute you advertise it, it ain’t so authentic any more. Did they leave the streets unpaved just so they could pretend to be “ol’ timey”? That doesn’t count. Or does it? Obviously it can become something of a circular argument, authenticity becoming that je ne sais qua, the search for it subject to scrutiny itself, i.e. is it authentic to seek out authenticity, or is that the phoniest bologna of all? You get the idea. Nevertheless Dawson is very nice, if not spectacular, splayed out in that Great North frontier style, not jammed in a nook up a cranny like Cripple Creek, CO or Jerome, AZ. It’s more akin to its cousin Talkeetna across the border in Alaska. What makes Dawson genuine, though, is the fact that what made it famous is still there, gold, and people still pan for it.

Dawson flourishes more on tourism these days, though, but that’s still pretty low-key by modern standards. There are more motorcyclists there than anything else, going places where RV’s find it difficult. You can head across to Chicken and Tok in Alaska from there, in addition to Inuvik. So Dawson is NOT the end of the world… but it’s damn close, something like the northern equivalent of Timbuktu. A half day’s enough for me, though, since accommodation is dear, and there’s yet no buzz from the coming festival. I decide to use the time saved to go the other direction from Whitehorse down to Skagway, only a few hours away.

It’s still a long way back to Whitehorse first, though, but Sirius XM helps, it only cutting out in the northernmost reaches. So I cruise through the northern boreal forests listening to the 90’s channel, aka ‘lithium’, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, etc., Cobain crooning “with the lights down, it’s less dangerous” while Vedder one-ups him with “I’m still alive”, the Lennon and Jagger of a another era each trying to claim his turf. It doesn’t get much better than that cruising over the moonscape, the towns unfolding in reverse order from the way up, a little cluster of people wherever a river crosses or a road divides, anywhere a need might arise, Stewart’s Crossing, Pelly’s Crossing, Carmacks and Moose Creek, going places where until 1955 only a sternwheeler could go, that’s 1955, mind you, NOT 1855.

I learned before in Alaska that the northern reaches were less spectacular than the southern, and the same holds true here. The drive from Whitehorse to Skagway starts off splendid and becomes spectacular approaching the US-Canadian border. The lakes there are a color that I’ve only seen previously in the Caribbean, due to the rocky bottom no doubt. The border crossing itself is about as exotic as anything I’ve seen this side of Kosovo, too, and I’m sure that in the wintertime it’d be only more so. I’ve delayed buying gas for a while in hopes of better than the $5.50-$6/gal. prices extant in Yukon, and I’m rewarded with $4.50/gal on the US side, a price that would send normal state-siders in search of a new President, as if gas prices were his private domain.

Skagway is more of a typical tourist trap, if that’s where the line of ‘authenticity’ gets drawn. Ferries and cruise ships daily disgorge passengers here like floods fertilizing the banks of the Nile, leaving dollars in coffers and lives enriched along this little strip of America connected to itself only by water. To go from Skagway to the nearby town of Haines, an hour maybe by boat, you’d have to drive through Whitehorse and back down another route to Haines, a good day’s drive. Still Skagway is nice, bucolic and serene, notwithstanding the store dedicated to Sarah Palin, and other such curiosities of existence. If any thing, it’s almost just a bit TOO serene, though I’m sure you can find what you’re looking for if you look hard enough. After all this WAS one of THE places to be in the world not much more than a hundred years ago as gold was discovered up around Dawson City and this was smack on the route there.

So I find a nice hostel in Skagway- everything but the WiFi- and spend the night there. Again, a half day is about enough, especially since I don’t drink any more. It’s not like I’m going to get too chatty with anyone anywhere except a bar stool, and I just don’t go there any more, boo hoo. So I get up early next day hoping to find a bear up and at ‘em looking for breakfast, and sure enough, I find one, walking down the road as if it’s his. The borders are no hassle, either, out here in the long lost lonesome. Carcross is the only town between here and there, and it’d probably take the award for authenticity if they’re handing them out, people still living in the log houses they once built. But who spends more than a half hour in Carcross (‘caribou crossing’)? So much for authenticity.

So I resolve to spend another couple days peacefully in Whitehorse, keeping the car for good measure. It’s not so many blocks from my hostel to downtown, but the blocks are BIG up here, just like Fairbanks, in some reversal of island dwarfism. I won’t have a car in Banff, anyway, since changing my dates doubled the rental charge, *&^%$! Cherries are less then $2/lb and I’ve got brown rice cooking in the kitchen. I’m good. C U in Banff.

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