North to Alaska: Destination Denali – Part 4

Four weeks of vacation in BC, Yukon, and Alaska

The largest lake in Yukon is Kluane Lake

The largest lake in Yukon is Kluane Lake

Something I find amazing when traveling in the far north is that once you get to Whitehorse and beyond its daylight almost all the time!  This is July 9th, and where we are in Whitehorse the sun rises at around 3:40 a.m, and sets at about 12:50 a.m.  Just think about that!. Definitely not the place to go to bed at sundown and get up at sun rise!

Adjusting to trying to sleep when the sun is shining high in the sky takes a bit of getting used to, but in desperation you can always put a towel over your head to block out the light, or just stay up and read books in the peace and quiet of the last frontier.

I did find it interesting however, that our dogs still packed it in for the day at their usual 9:30 p.m., and never missed their 6:30 a.m. wake-up call for this unlucky dog walker – no matter how many hours of daylight ‘old Sol’ was throwing at us.

On this day we started early to get back on the Alaska Highway; leaving Whitehorse, Yukon, for a fairly long day on the road to Beaver Creek, which is just before the Alaska border.  We try to keep the number of hours we travel each day to an average of six.  This gives us plenty of time to see the sights at each destination, and to make tourist and photography stops along the way.  Having travelled this route two years before we knew we wanted to arrive at comfortable and friendly little Beaver Creek by late afternoon.

The highway from Whitehorse to Haines Junction is in good repair, and as we travelled west the land and vistas open up to magnificent mountains, with endless thick spruce/pine forests in the valleys.  The trees here are not tall like ours in the North Thompson Valley, but they are quite beautiful in their own way, and most amazing is how they grow in permafrost, muskeg, and unbelievably long and cold winters.  The tops of almost every spruce tree was absolutely loaded with cones for well over 200 kilometers;  as far as the eye could see the trees looked like they had wigs of dark auburn curls, some so heavy the tree was unable to hold up its head for the weight of its own reproduction!

The small village of Haines Junction, at milepost 1016 on the Alaska Highway, is nestled below the most spectacular snow topped mountains, and just drips with the natural beauty of the Yukon.  The community lies on the edge of a vast and impressive wilderness.

Kluane National Park and Reserve, as well as the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in B.C., Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Glacier Bay National Parks in Alaska, form the largest internationally protected area on earth.  In 1980 Kluane National Park and Reserve was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a globally significant mountain wilderness.  This area also includes Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan (5,959m/19,545ft); and one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world. What really impressed both Bob and myself here was the incredibly radiant blues of the lake waters, such as Kathleen Lake, and the gigantic Kluane Lake.

Anyone who loves the outdoors can not help but fall in love with this area; its made for hiking, rafting, canoeing, photography, or just finding your own inner peace away from the cities and fast paced lifestyles.

From Haines Junction we followed the highway as it changes to a more northerly direction.  Unfortunately the highway also changes in quality, and for most of the way to Fairbanks we felt like we were back on the original Kluane Wagon Road that was constructed in 1904.    You’ve never seen a real pothole until you’ve travelled this stretch of road that suffers continuously from the permafrost beneath.  There is constant repair work to do, and many stretches of dusty and washboard gravel contend with.  It seems that when the highway blacktop heats up under the summer sun it tends to melt the permafrost underneath, and when this happens the road loses its support from the ground it has been constructed over.  Instant pothole – some as big as a bath tub.

This made for interesting and very slow driving; and all I heard from Bob over the next few hours were unmentionable expletives as he drove a very challenging obstacle course while trying to preserve the tires and axles on our truck and fifth wheel.  It proved especially interesting if I was trying to photograph scenery or wildlife as we travelled along, as invariably just as I pushed the shutter we’d hit a humongous bump and end up with a great shot of the roof of the truck, or one very interesting picture of the trucks cigarette lighter.  This of course only encouraged Bob to find a few more choice words, and the dogs to leap to the windows to find out what all the commotion was about.

As we travelled through the Kluane National Park and Wildlife Reserve we were graced with numerous wildlife sightings; grizzly, black bear, moose, and trumpeter swans.  The game here is abundant, but unfortunately it does frequently travel and cross over the highway.  We had a couple of ‘heart stoppers’ along the way when a moose would decide to try to beat us across the road; and once again thanked the little deer whistles that we have on the front of our truck, which have saved us from a few nasty collisions with game over the years.

Along this route the highway follows along beside the Yukon’s largest lake,  Kluane Lake.  This is one of our most favourite drives; the lake is azure blue, with the surrounding area made up of bright green forests, auburn soil and rocks, and stunning views.

At one point you cross Slim’s River Bridge that carries you over an ancient glacier moraine at the head of Kluane Lake.  Here the lake sits across from Sheep Mountain  and we are always stunned by the beauty of this area and the almost surreal scenic photographs that can be taken of the reflections in the lake.

Sheep Mountain is a popular recreation destination in the Kluane National Park and Reserve.  The mountain offers a number of long backpacking adventures and day hikes located in the park. It is also prime area for Dall sheep sightings at the right time of year, and offers an Interpretive Centre and viewing platforms with telescopes to help find the wildlife (if you’re lucky!).

We stopped at Sheep Mountain for a picnic lunch, but quickly found that the only ones enjoying a picnic were the thousands of mosquitoes that were very much enjoying their picnic.   Even though there was a pretty strong breeze blowing here, it had no effect on what some refer to as Yukon’s ‘national bird’; the pesky little things just dived bombed us faster, and bit deeper so they wouldn’t get blown away.  I just about got knocked down as we all tried to get into the RV at the same time and the two dogs won the race.  No wonder the wild sheep here head for the highest country they can find at this time of year to avoid these clouds of mosquitoes.

The bugs made me think about the incredible discomfort men experienced as they were constructing the Alaska Highway during a time when modern day mosquito repellent was still to be discovered; back then the only defense men had against the voracious insects was clothing, and a good slathering of mud on their exposed skin.  We passed a lot of road repair crews as we travelled along, and a large number of them wore mesh covers over their hats and heads to keep from going bonkers from bug attacks.

After a mad dash to get back in the truck, and then a lot of flailing around to dispose of those mosquitoes that knew how to fly faster than we could slam the door, we were able to continue of our way to Beaver Creek.

As the highway travels along the lake we passed Destruction Bay, Burwash Landing, and a secluded little gem called Pick Handle Lake.

Beaver Creek isn’t very big but the folks are friendly, the RV Park is spacious, and right next to Buckshot Betty’s bakery and restaurant.  Buckshot Betty’s is a destination for many motorcycle riders who travel the highway to destinations both north and south, and we spent a friendly hour chatting with a number of these folks sharing highway adventure stories.

The community also has a very informative visitor’s centre, and an impressive little Yukon Wildlife Gallery in the  very nice Westmark Inn that is open to the public at no charge.  The Westmark is a restored traditional roadhouse that also holds a nightly dinner show.

We had not been here long before a heavy rain storm found us again, as it had in so many areas of our trip.  But this time it soon departed, the sun came out, and we enjoyed a brilliant rainbow at 10 p.m. that evening.


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