Category: Visiting Canada

Excursions from Dawson City

As the heart of the Klondike, Dawson City has numerous attractions which relate to its history as an Indigenous centre and as the site of the l898-1899 gold rush. The town itself is a national park and well worth a visit. I have discussed these in two earlier posts: Life in Dawson City, and Greetings From Dawson City, Yukon.

Apart from its history, Dawson City is the jumping-off spot for at least two excursions which can be most memorable day trips. Both trips take the visitor to some of the most fabulous vistas in the Yukon and suggest the need for more time to explore further.

The first trip we did was over the “top of the world” highway to the Alaska border, 105 kilometres west of Dawson. After crossing the Yukon River on the free ferry (which runs 24/7 during the summer months), the road mounts to the tops of the mountains south and west of Dawson. In 2004, when we visited Dawson during a major forest fire, we saw nothing on the highway but smoke. This time, we had dramatic views of the Yukon River, lush valleys, and what seem like endless mountains beyond. As we mounted above the tree line, the vistas became even more breath-taking. To say we were “on top of the world” is no exaggeration.

After the border crossing, we continued to the tiny hamlet of Chicken, famous for its “public gold panning areas” and as the locale where 19-year-old schoolteacher Anne Hobbs, in 1927, came to find adventure in a one-room schoolhouse. Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness (published originally in l976 and still available) recounts her classic memoir of love, rejection, and ultimate acceptance in the wilderness. It is a marvellous story which sticks with you. Like so many such stories, it is hard to imagine the life she must have led. Beyond Chicken, the visitor can drive another 78 kilometres to Tok, Alaska, the first major Alaskan community on the well-travelled Alaska Highway, and, from there, south to Haines Junction, Yukon or west to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Another excursion we did was up the Dempster Highway to Tombstone Park, which, in l972, was named a UNESCO heritage site of “exceptional biological importance.” The Dempster Highway stretches 735 kilometres from near Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik in the Mackenzie River Delta of the Northwest Territories. It is the only Canadian road that crosses the Arctic Circle. Completed in 1979, It passes through six distinct geographic regions, each very different, all equally interesting and breathtakingly beautiful.

Much of the Dempster lies within Beringia, a broad stretch of land from Siberia to the Northwest Territories which was unglaciated during the last North American glacial period and was the home of many exotic animals which have since become extinct. It has also been the home of Indigenous peoples who have hunted and traded in the area ever since. Although the Canadian government built the highway expecting it to be a “road to resources,” it is used now primarily for transportation to the Northwest Territories, for Indigenous hunting, and for tourism.

Tombstone Territorial Park is called Ddhäl Ch’él Cha Nän (or “ragged mountain land”) by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in who agreed in their land claims to this part of their traditional territory becoming a park. The rugged mountain tops looming above the forest and tundra of the valleys below are spectacularly dramatic. Hikers and climbers must be experienced and well-equipped to climb into these mountains successfully.

The Tombstone Interpretive Centre, located at kilometre 71.5 of the highway, provides information and activities about the cultural and natural history of the park and the highway, mid-May to mid-September. Nearby, the Tombstone Mountain Campground offers car camping with fire pits, picnic tables, outhouses, water, and a picnic shelter. Several back-country campgrounds on lakes are also available. Visitors have a choice of six hiking trails from 0.5 kilometre to up to 19 kilometres in length, and ranging in difficulty.

Driving the Dempster is an exhilarating experience, especially in good weather when the mountains and tundra stand stark against the horizon and the vistas go on forever. The diversity of habitats along the highway encourages a tremendous variety of plants so that wildflowers are rich and vibrant throughout the growing season. When we were there, the fireweed was rampant as was the Arctic cotton, which my friend harvests for her art projects. My bucket list now includes a trip up the Dempster in late August-early September when the flowers are in greatest profusion.

Seeing animals in the wild is a matter of luck, which is a rare and exciting experience. In the spring and fall, one of the world’s largest herds of barren-ground caribou (197,000 as of 2013) travels through the Ogilvie and the Richardson Mountains (at the north of the Dempster) on their annual migration to and from their calving grounds on the Arctic coastal plain. The caribou of the smaller Fortymile herd and the mountain caribou of the Hart River Herd (some 2,600 animals) sometimes winter further south. Bears may be seen, and moose, Dall’s sheep, wolves, and numerous smaller mammals. To spot the animals takes time, knowledge of where they might be, and luck to be in the right place at the right time.

For a comprehensive, beautifully-illustrated description of the Dempster Highway, its geography, history, flora, fauna, and climate, see The Dempster, published in 2017 for the Friends of the Dempster Country Society, email: friendsofdempster@gmail.com.

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The Dawson City Music Festival

Are music festivals on the wane? That the 50th anniversary concert celebrating the Woodstock Music Festival may not happen has led some commentators to conclude that summer music festivals may be no more. Music festivals epitomized the energy and buoyancy of the ’60s and have long returned across the country each summer, drawing enthusiasts for musical experiences in the open air. Some have come and gone. Others continue with no apparent loss of enthusiasm.

One such festival is the Dawson City Music Festival, this year in its 41st annual incarnation. Over the years, almost all the young members of my family have attended the Dawson City Music Festival, using it as an excuse to visit the Yukon and perhaps to canoe the Yukon River. My sister volunteers her beautiful log house on Eighth Avenue as the venue for the Music Festival after-party where the artists, techies, and volunteers gather for an all-night celebration. The Dawson City Music Festival was on my bucket list. This year, we decided to take it in.

The Main Stage of the Music Festival was in Minto Park where a massive tent shared space with a beer garden and Emerging Artists stage, a children’s playground and numerous food carts offering a surprising array of ethnic food. Other venues were the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre (Long Time Ago House) the home of the local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, St. Paul’s Anglican Church constructed originally in 1902, and the Palace Grand Theatre which has been providing entertainments since 1899.

Old and as uninformed about modern music as we are, we knew none of the musicians. At the Main Stage concerts and at a couple of workshops, we heard only some of them. We particularly liked The Jerry Cans from Iqaluit who use Inuit throat singing and the Indigenous language of Inuktitut in their folk-rock repertoire, Ryan McNally and The MessaRounders (from Whitehorse) who are known for their blues, jazz and old-time music, and Major Funk and the Employment who use their horns and big vocals to play very danceable music.

I also particularly liked the Orkestar Kriminal, a group of five women and five men, who come from Montreal. They play unique instruments (among others, the sousaphone, trombone, saxophone, bouzouki, baglama, piccolo, accordion, and flute) and sing in Yiddish, Russian, Greek, Spanish, and Pashto. Their songs focus on international experiences of crime and prison. In addition to their Main Stage show, they played a concert at the historic Commissioner’s Mansion as part of the very popular Music Crawl which started at the Robert Service cabin, moved to the Commissioner’s Residence, then to the banks of the river, and then to the S.S. Keno.

We could not attend more than a little of the entire festival. What impressed us was the extent to which the best of the musicians got the audience involved. Both on Saturday and Sunday nights, we were amazed to see the floor of the Main Stage tent fill with hundreds of dancers of all ages; children, young people, old people, singletons, apparent drifters. It seemed that everyone there was dancing. And they went on and on. It was a great party.

On Sunday night, the after-party continued in my sister’s house and backyard. There, it was great fun to meet the musicians and the volunteers and to listen to Ryan McNally sing and play in her greenhouse. Altogether a most memorable event.

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A Rental House From Hell

My husband and I spent two weeks in Halifax this past August. When in April I put my mind to our accommodation, I discovered that Halifax was already booked out for the time we needed. So I looked at Vacation Rental By Owner and Airbnb.

I discovered a house which I thought would be suitable. It was in Dartmouth, across the harbour from downtown Halifax. The promo for the house spoke of the quiet street on which the house was located and touted the wonderful view of the harbour. Since we love our “cottage” overlooking the harbour in Vancouver, we thought we would compare Canada’s two major ports. The rental price was steep, but we assumed that, if the proprietor was charging the rent he did, the house would be up to the standard we expected.

It was a modern house, pleasant enough. There was a cozy living room with a fireplace, many interesting artifacts, and a wall-mounted television. Across the hall was an open dining room and kitchen. French doors led to a patio which, indeed, had a splendid view of the Halifax harbour. Furnished with a table and chairs, the patio was a very pleasant place where we could eat dinner, watch the boats go by, and check out the success of the fisher-folk with their lines out in search of catch on the shore beneath us. The house had laundry, three bathrooms, and parking in the back. The location was close to the Alderney Centre, where I could catch the ferry that transports commuters from Dartmouth to downtown Halifax every fifteen minutes. So far, so good.

I have had little experience in using computer rental services, and, when I spoke with the owner over the telephone, I did not think to ask him about the bed. The blurb for the house had a picture of the bed which looked okay. Elsewhere in the promo, it said that it “slept two.” As we discovered on our arrival, that is code for “double bed.” Maybe Maritimers take doubles for granted, but we haven’t slept in a double bed since we left our Paris apartment 46 years ago. And this was a soft double. Since my husband is six foot four and had medical issues at the time, sleeping on a soft double was highly problematic. It took us at least three or four nights to get used to the constraints of the space. Had I realized that the bed was a double, I would not have rented the house.

But that’s not the worst part. The owner definitely did not tell me about the train directly across the street beside the water. Even if he had, I probably would not have picked up on the significance of it. We are used to trains on the CN track below our Vancouver apartment in Ambleside. There, several trains pass by daily. We sometimes hear them if our sleep is fitful, but generally we forget that they are there. They pass by and are gone. When I arrived at the Dartmouth house, I noticed what I thought was a single track across the street, and asked the owner if we would hear the trains. “Yes,” he said, “you will hear them.”

And indeed we did. During the daytime, I was at my writing course. When I returned for the evening, the tracks were quiet. Only later, the activity began. We discovered that what we thought was a single track was instead at least three sets of tracks and that the purpose of the tracks was to marshal the railroad cars parked between us and the ferry terminal. Beginning shortly after midnight, the bumping and the clanging began, as an engine backed into the closest car and began to assemble the cars that would make up a new train. Have you ever heard train cars crashing together when they are being marshalled into a train? It is horrific, a constant clatter of loud banging, squealing and clashing, repeated as many times as there are cars in the ever-growing train, a persistent staccato, over and over. I heard the train from the moment the marshalling started, shortly after midnight, until the first train was assembled and pulled away an hour or so later. It would then be quiet for a while, until about 3:00 a.m. Just when I was finally back to sleep, I awoke to hear the chugging of the engine in the distance as it got closer and closer. Before long, the clatter and banging and shrieking started yet again and continued for another hour or so until train number two was assembled. Sometimes that happened three times a night.

My husband, who takes sleeping pills every night, generally slept through the racket. I had a few pills left on my high-power sleeping pill prescription, to be used only in times of great stress. When I discovered the trains, I decided to hoard the pills for those nights before I needed to present something orally in my course. Very shortly, I finished my supply of pills, Nytol didn’t work, and I was dragging myself around exhausted. I never even thought to close the window or go out and buy ear plugs. My lack of practical problem-solving skills in this situation may indicate early onset dementia. More likely, I was just too tired.

There were other issues with the place. On our arrival, the owner advised that the dishwasher didn’t work. Okay, we could wash our own dishes. Then his wife told me that they did not have a coffee pot. Her daughter apparently borrowed the coffee pot and not yet returned it. A tea drinker, she suggested that we could make coffee using paper filters over a cup, one cup at a time. We also discovered that the kitchen sink fixtures were in poor repair. What does it say about owners who charge big bucks for rental that covers their own vacation, who have more than three months’ notice to make the repairs before their unsuspecting tenants arrive, and who do not fix the dishwasher, pay $79.00 for a new coffee pot, and have a kitchen sink in proper repair? And then there is that antiquated double bed, an anomaly by modern standards. All of these would be deductible expenses.

When I told a friend about the rental house, she advised me to write a review on the VRBO website to warn future prospective tenants. I decided that I would write a post about the house instead, and then email the owner with the link. Mr. and Mrs. owner of 72 Shore Road, Dartmouth… be warned. As for me, I will know what to ask in the future.

 

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Renaissance from a Forest Fire

In August 2003, my cousins Doug and Cheryl Fraser were on a fishing trip to Tofino on Vancouver Island when they received an emergency call to return home to Kelowna right away. Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, a tinderbox of old timber and dried duff which had accumulated for decades, was on fire. The Park sits to the west of their property which was in an area subject to an evacuation alert. Officials watched the progress of the fire which was dependent on the speed and direction of the wind.

Doug and Cheryl, attracted to the Rimrock area by the thick forest on their five-acre property and the view over Okanagan Lake, completed construction of their dream house two years before. Now they faced a desperate scramble to save their home. Doug consulted local fire officials who advised him to move anything flammable away from the house. The woodpile had to go. Doug called in professional woodsmen who felled fifteen trees which were close to the house, cut off all their branches, got rid of the leaves and the pine needles, mulched them, and hauled them away. The tree trunks were left lying on the ground, denuded of all readily flammable vegetation. They put three sprinklers on the roof, and used hoses to water down the cedar soffits.

Their neighbours thought they were crazy, but the plan paid off. One week after the evacuation notice was posted, the fire swept through Rimrock. When Cheryl and Doug returned to their house after the fire, they found the house below in rubble, and the house above razed to the ground. Of thirty houses in the area, fifteen were totally destroyed. Some the fire burned; others blew up when air in the modern-insulated, air-tight homes heated so rapidly that the houses exploded. The forest of trees on their property was charred, black and standing stark. The tallest of the trees, with a thick cambium layer, survived the fire although their trunks were singed close to the ground. Travelling fast through the property, the fire apparently jumped the structure with its soaking roof and no dry plants around to fuel the flames. Their house remained intact, with only a couple of window seals broken, a few spark burns on the roof, and some shingles that had become brittle and needed to be replaced.

After the fire, professional foresters removed five logging truckloads of marketable fir trees from the property. In all: 125 dead trees taken to the local mill where the wood was made into lumber. Within months, Doug and Cheryl started replanting. A local nursery gave everyone in the area a pallet of ponderosa pine seedlings, a total of 100 baby trees each. Doug and his brother Don dug up another 250 two- to three-foot fir, pine and larch trees which were growing under power lines up and down the valley. The brothers planted the young trees in sites across the five acres, strategically placed with open spaces nearby. To the east, is a standing stump from a tree that did not survive. Doug pulled it upright and keeps it for the birds.

It has been another season of forest fires in British Columbia. The worst ever, with hundreds of people evacuated, and fire fighters brought in from across the continent. The sky remains smoky, apparently from forest fires burning in Washington State. British Columbia is an economy based on the forest industry. Fires occur naturally and can be useful to clean out the forests and renew the resource. Out of control, they can bring devastation and disaster. My cousin’s experience in Kelowna is proof, however, that, from all the horror of that 2003 cataclysm, a renaissance has come.

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***** With great thanks to Doug and Cheryl Fraser for sharing their story. *****

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