Travel article about Alaska and Yukon on Beststory.ca

I┬árecently found out about a new journalism site, www.beststory.ca, being set up by Montreal-based┬áreporter and editor Warren Perley. After checking out this new delivery model – readers pay only for the stories they want to read, and there’s no advertising – I was intrigued. Enough so to get in touch and offer to write something on spec, which I’ve never done before!

There are some great articles (with photos) by Canadian journalists and writers available, including:

  • Duane Radford’s “Yukon Discovery Day in Dawson: singing, dancing and a barrel of fun”
  • Warren Perley’s “Little Albert’s whacky world of bullets, beatings and bad guys”
  • Margaret Somerville’s “Ethics and law governing abortion must catch up with current science”

And, of course, mine: “Quirky, colourful characters emerge in winter tour of Yukon and Alaska.” A little teaser…

A September snowstorm blew in the day we arrived in Whitehorse. Other tourists were fleeing as we arrived. Were we foolhardy ‘outsiders’ tempting Mother Nature’s mood swings with a three-month car tour of the frigid North? The road sign as you enter the Yukon reads, ‘Larger than Life’. We discovered that it refers to more than the scenery!

Berton House Top Ten

It’s that time of year. The time of year when magazines, tv shows, internet sites, and everyone else make top ten lists. So I will too. About my time up north (although it’s very hard to pick just ten!).

Here they are in no particular order:
1. Working, reading, watching tv, chatting, and napping at Berton House on the sectional snuggled up in the HBC blanket.
2. Experiencing ice fog in minus 40-degree weather in Dawson. Yep, I’m a little strange.
3. Doing the sourtoe cocktail with friends at the Dowtown bar in Dawson.
4. Going curling in Inuvik and hanging out in the curling club post-game. Best place in town on a Friday night!

5. Hiking up Dome Mountain in Dawson in December – and then sliding down on my backside!

6. Finding out I had family in Whitehorse and getting to spend great times with them. Thanks so much, Judy, Bruce, Ben, and Charlie!
7. Hanging out at Bombay Peggy’s and being there for close-down on November 10th!
8. Doing old-timey portraits with the gals in Dawson: Easy-laine, Diamond Tooth Sandy, and Jailbait Jenny. Oh yeah, and I’m Dawson Dani (the one with the gun).

9. Visiting Old Crow and getting to attend a community feast. Such a friendly town and glad I got the chance to go twice!
10. Skagway, AK in September: delicious food, good hiking, and seeing that the Sarah Palin store actually exists!

Travels in the Borderlands

I left Whitehorse for Watson Lake on Sunday, October 3rd – a perfect fall day by any standard. Driving down the Alaska Highway with the sun on my face, rocking out to my mixed CDs (not many radio stations along this stretch of road), life was good.

I was headed to WL for a few days of northern aviation research. I had a list of names, a B&B; booked, and a vague idea of visiting the airport. Beyond that, this usually over-prepared author was playing it fast and loose. Oh god, I’m starting to go northern!

I wasn’t prepared for how lovely the Laffing Loon Bed and Breakfast would be: right on the lake with lots of room to spread out and make myself at home. Deb, the owner, and her little Bichon Frise were so welcoming, and I feasted each morning on her magnificent creations (and even one evening when she shared her batch of clam chowder with me!).

After the 4 1/2 hour drive from Whitehorse it was nice to walk around the property and stretch my legs. Then I went further afield, heading up the road where I just happend to spot a sign for a floatplane base. I would soon discover that WL is just like that: you trip over the aviation history there constantly!

The next day was beautiful as well and I crammed in as many interviews and visits as I could, finally finishing at sunset. Then I folded myself onto a lazy boy in the B&B;’s media room and watched a thriller about a writer who goes to a retreat and ends up being terrorized by ghosts… hmmm…. maybe not the best choice of movie for a writer headed up to a lonely retreat?

The time flew by in WL and before I knew it I was driving back northwest through wet snow with a notebook full of scratched-down interviews, leads for the rest of my time in the Yukon, and a couple of muffins from Deb’s oven. After a rainy-snowy drive to Teslin and a long coffee stop in the Yukon Motel with a local aviation enthusiast, I dropped on my cousin’s couch in Whitehorse.

Mud Season at Muktuks

The air was nippy when we arrived at Muktuk Adventures north of Whitehorse, but the sun was warm enough to melt the weekend’s snow and turn the road and yard into a mud pit. The 100+ huskies didn’t seem to mind, and those that weren’t fast asleep on top of their huts barked in greeting.

On the porch were half a dozen “old-timers” who get free rein after years of dedicated racing. Some hobble over for a sniff and a pat, others raise their heads slowly to look at you, and then go back to sleep. One – a spry little girl named Glacier – bounces around in all her ADHD glory. She’s got a bum leg so doesn’t race, but is still a valued part of this little community. (They are looking for ‘retirement homes’ for the older dogs, though, in case you’re interested!)

Muktuk’s sits on the edge of the Takhini River and during their off-season the dogs get daily walks and swims. In the winter when it freezes over, it’s a perfect spot to train. During this shoulder-season time, they start training with wheeled carts and it’s something to see: a pack of huskies bounding joyfully ahead of a cart with two trainers egging them on. There are no shocks on these babies, folks!

We got upgraded to Riley’s Roost, which was a very spacious wood cabin on the corner of the property. There’s no electricity or running water but the little wood stove did a fantastic job of keeping it toasty through the night.

While it had a camp stove, we decided to join the Muktuk’s crew and some other guests for Sunday night dinner in the big house. Frank gave me a musical education with his vast CD collection (Northern Tutchone artist Jerry Alfred is incredible) and gave me a Yukon education: regaling me with stories about his 30+ years in the north, his 24 Yukon Quest experiences (it is 1000-miles from Whitehorse to Fairbanks in February!), and insights into Yukon politics.

I think I liked Joe best because he reminded me of my dog, Riker…

Monday morning after eggs, bacon and thick slabs of bread from Alpine Bakery in Whitehorse, we packed up our stuff, bid adieu to Frank and the dogs, and headed north for my first glimpse of my new Dawson home.

Skagway at Season’s End

When we woke up in Whitehorse (Yukon) the morning of September 24th, we were greeted by snow – and lots of it. We were due in Skagway (Alaska) that afternoon and saw the forecast there was rain. We told ourselves the things foolish travellers always do: “It’s only a couple of hours away!” “We’ll go slow!” “How bad could it be? “


In a rental car with semi-bald four-season tires, the mountain passes between the northern outposts of our two great nations were treacherous. And now that I’ve talked to some Yukoners it sounds like when it’s bad in Whitehorse, you just don’t go to Skagway, ’cause if a weather system is big and strong enough to push inland over them thar hills, it’s going to be rough going.

After slipping and skidding our way over the mountains, the weather did in fact turn first to wet snow and then to rain. After cresting we came upon this group of cyclists – even dumber than us? – who had just been dropped off at the top of the hill and were zooming down the wet, twisty highway. I did not hear any reports of them dying, but the newspaper is bi-weekly (and is for sale, if you’re thinking of relocating)…

At least we were greeted by a friendly face in Skagway: good ol’ Sarah Palin, who apparently spent part of her childhood in the town. They now have a Sarah Palin Store, where you can get everything from pins, magnets, to full-size cardboard cutouts. As Doug said, can you imagine Shawinagan having a Jean Chretien store? Or Toronto having a Stephen Harper one? Strange…

We were also greeted by much-needed food and beer at the Skagway Brewing Co. Nothing calms jangling nerves like spicy chili, fresh-baked pretzel, and a pint of Boom Town Brown ale.

By the time our bellies were full the rain had tapered off a bit, so we thought we’d spend a couple of hours walking around town enjoying the end-of-season sales. Skagway is a very seasonal town, we discovered, that relies on cruise ship traffic.

When these floating cities dock, people flood the streets looking for everything from local handicraft and art to the cheap tchotchkes that will gather dust until they eventually end up at garage sales. Oh, and fudge: it seems that fudge is a universal in tourist towns all over North America. Must have been a traditional food to indigenous peoples or introduced through trade. (I wonder what the word is for fudge in the Chinook trade jargon…)
In addition to the fudge (which was delicious, by the way), we ate a real meal at The Skagway Fish Co. A word to the wise: only tourists eat salmon here. The locals all eat halibut, and for good reason. My fish tacos were incredible (although the chicken tortilla soup was amazing too)!

The weekend brought more rain, but we didn’t hole up too much at the Mile Zero B&B;. On Saturday when the ships had left and the streets were empty, we headed to the old townsite of Dyea. We also visited the nearby Slide Cemetery where victims of the April 3, 1898 avalanche are buried.

Here Doug stands by the wood pilings of the old Dyea dock. A Klondike gold rush town, it boomed at the turn of the 20th century but by 1903 only had six or so inhabitants. Now the sea and forest are reclaiming the flats, and apparently it’s a great place to spot bald eagles and bears.
After our chilly and drizzly hike, we went to Glacial Smoothies and Espresso. Don’t let the name fool you: it is warm, welcoming, and my piping hot capuccino (and half of a giant apple streusel-cream cheese bar) was great. I can see why the locals favour it during the winter months, playing one of the board games or grabbing a book from the shelf.
Our last night in town also coincided with the season closing for Olivia’s Bistro and Denis, our barkeep/server, was in a celebratory mood. After a summer of work he’d saved up enough to spend three months hiking, camping, and doing yoga retreats in New Zealand. On went the Buena Vista Social Club cd, down went the mojitos, and everyone in the tiny place became fast friends. And they gave away thick slices of their three-carrot cake in celebration.

It sounds like it was a good season in Skagway, and season’s end was pretty fun too!

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.