North to Alaska: Destination Denali – Part 3

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A sled dog leans into Jill for some special attention.

A sled dog leans into Jill for some special attention.

It’s July 8th, and here we are in Watson Lake, Yukon, waiting for a new seal for our truck’s transmission; unhappy about the fact that we are looking at about a three day wait to get it.  Not the best outlook for a holiday limited to four weeks, that started from Louis Creek, B.C., on July 2.  But, when you have no other options, it’s just “grin and bear it”, and of course hope for the best.  And that’s exactly what happened, the ‘best’ came along in the form of “Norm”, the Watson Lake mechanic who was trying to repair our vehicle.

Norm knocked on the door of our RV at 8:30 a.m. in the morning while we were eating breakfast and bemoaning our situation.  What Norm had to say however quickly put smiles back on our faces and started a whirlwind of activity to get “packed up and back on the road”.

It seems that when Norm had eventually exhausted all options to find a new seal, and have it arrive in Watson Lake within a reasonable time, he took the initiative to hunt out an extremely good local welder instead.   The welder worked after hours to repair the leaky seal, and then Norm put in a few extra hours to get it back in our truck so it was ready to go!

He’d come to pick up Bob so he could get our truck, and get back travelling north on the Alaska Highway.  It was so nice to deal with a business who truly cares about its customers, and especially those who are just passing through. Thanks Norm Leclerc, of Rugged Terrain Repairs, you went the extra distance for us, and we appreciate it.

While Bob collected the truck, fueled it, and then hooked up the fifth wheel, I buzzed around and battened down anything that we didn’t want flying around inside while travelling down the road.  Of course our two dogs have this routine well memorized, so they buzzed around behind me (and under my feet), with big eyes and panting tongues in anticipation of the truck ride ahead.

By 9:40 a.m. we were fueled up, hooked up, packed up, all loaded up and back on the Alaska Highway with much brighter dispositions as Denali started getting that much closer.

Our destination today was Whitehorse, Yukon; and on the way travellers pass through the small community of Teslin.  Teslin is situated on the shores of beautiful Teslin Lake, 86 miles long, and averaging 190 feet in depth.  Teslin is also on the north side of the Nisultin Bay Bridge which is the Alaska Highway’s longest bridge.

Here we found the Yukon Motel and Wildlife Viewing Gallery and Gift Shop.  After a pit stop for the dogs we checked out the gallery, and found an amazing display of top quality taxidermy with every northern creature you can imagine frozen in lifelike time.  There was also numerous preserved fish and birds that can be found in the north.  Of a note is that all of the animals, except the fish, were not hunted as trophies for the museum, most of them met an untimely end as the result of automobile accidents or natural causes.

While admiring the exhibits that are so well done, we truly expected to see the wolves blink, or the moose have steaming breath coming from his nostrils.  The moose weighed in at 1800 pounds with 76 inch antlers, and is depicted warding off a pack of wolves; the whole scene is so realistic it is just too realistic for words.  All the work of is done by master taxidermist and Yukon resident Chuck Buchannon.

Also in Teslin is a wonderful little museum called the George Johnson Museum – a tourist’s gem.  George was an aboriginal man of vision and an entrepreneur.  In 1928 this trapper realized his dream of owning a car, and bought a new four-cylinder model AB Chevrolet from Whitehorse; thus becoming the first First Nation’s automobile owner in the area.  He had one driving lesson from the seller, and shipped the car home to Teslin by paddle wheeler.  Many of George’s neighbours had never seen a car before it arrived on the boat; and 10 surprised young men carried the car ashore for him into roadless Teslin.

But George had a vision, and soon had trails cut around the lake, and a five mile road constructed to Fox Creek. In 1942 this section became a part of the Alcan Highway.  Area legend says the road crews on the Alcan were pretty dumbfounded when they found five miles of road in the middle of nowhere ready for their highway.

George also gave rides in his car for $2, and used the car as a taxi to drive folks across the lake in the winter when it was frozen.

Being a trapper and hunter, George figured his car would be of great use in hunting wolves on the lake’s ice, but soon discovered that the wolves could see the shining black car coming from many miles away.  So George rectified the problem by painting the car snow white each winter, and then painted it black for the summer.

Due to the extremely cold winters George had to drain the radiator water and keep it in a pot warming on the stove ( no antifreeze back then).  When he saw wolf, caribou or other game crossing the frozen lake he would quickly fill the radiator with the warm water, crank the car to start, and away he would go.

George was also a photographer, and his history of Teslin, the area’s First Nations people, and the changes that came over the years make for a very interesting look back at days gone by in the Yukon.  Most interesting of all though is you can see George’s car, fully restored down to its original paint job, and just as shinny as the day he bought it.

Through all the years George owned his precious car he cared for and repaired it;  if a tire blew he sewed up the hole and patched it with moose hide, if gasoline was scarce he used naphtha or aircraft fuel.   Thirty-four years later, in 1962 he returned the car to Chevrolet in Whitehorse, “without a dent”, and traded it in for a pickup truck.  Chevrolet restored the car to mint condition (and to its original paint job) and it now sits in the museum with a thousand stories to tell for those who know how to listen.

Back on the highway to Whitehorse again, we enjoyed numerous wildlife sightings along the way; black bear, moose, and huge shaggy bison.  Every time one of these locals came into view I would grab my camera, Bob would slow down (or pull over where possible), and I could snap away out the window to my hearts content.  Of course our two dogs are pretty tuned to the camera, and when I start taking pictures they seem to think I am taking part in some kind of hunting ritual when they hear the camera start snapping away.  This gets them all worked up, especially if I am pointing the camera at something bigger than a squirrel. The result is a lot of deafening noise as they bark up a storm at each new beast that I get in my sights. Amazingly they are really quite helpful, as all that noise invariably draws the attention of the subject in question, who will usually look right at us and give me a great photo.  I do think though that our dogs think I am a pretty crummy shot as none of the animals I shoot at ever fall down!

As we arrived in the capital of Yukon, Whitehorse, the rain returned once again with a vengeance, and we were treated to a true north thunder and lightening storm.  Let me say that it was a truly memorable event, and once again our dogs found the bomb shelter under the table in our RV the safest spot to be.  I really thought about joining them a few times as lightening cracked, and the thunder rolled right over our trailer for most of the night.

Whitehorse has around 26,000 people, about 75 per cent of Yukon’s entire population!  It is right on the historical and picturesque Yukon River, and the city is really quite nice, with lots of shopping, restaurants, and tourist attractions.  This is where the Berengia Interpretive Centre is and numerous other little museums and historical buildings and markers.  There is also the SS Klondike permanently dry docked at a National Historic Site and on display.  The stern wheeler travelled to and from Dawson City during 30’s and 40’s before highways were constructed.  It is quite an experience to stand beside the stern wheel of the SS Klondike and realize it alone is as big as a house.  As we stood on the decks, we could hear the ghosts of times gone by; the laughter, hustle and bustle, and the excited eagerness of those who came to the great north to find their fortunes so many years ago.

The Yukon, and especially Whitehorse, is dog country.   Not that pampered pooch stuff, but canines that legends are made of.  Dogs like old Buck, in the famous tale ‘Call of The Wild’.  Dogs that think the word “mush” is the best thing that has ever happened to them;  and they live to pull and pit themselves against the frozen north.

Whitehorse is the start of the world famous annual Yukon Quest sled dog race that travels 1,500 km to Fairbanks, Alaska, every February; with winning race times such as 10 days, 16 hours, and 22 minutes.  There are a number of musher kennels in the area where folks can visit and get to know the canine athletes who wait expectantly for the first snowfall, and the opening of the musher trails.

Wow – do I love dog country!

That evening Bob told me stories of driving dog teams when he was a kid in Northern Alberta.  This just made me jealous though, as dog sledding is one of the items I have on my own ‘bucket list’.

When we finally settled down for the night I snuggled up to my hubby and fell asleep with visions of sled dogs dancing in my head, while our own two canines snored under the table!

Watch for the next installment of North To Alaska: Destination Denali in an upcoming issue of the Star/Journal.