Living on Yukon time

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2003

Get up and go" describes too many road trips. Instead we planned this one to be more "stop, look and touch."

Gail Findley and I chose a nearly local road trip between the fall and winter transition. The six-day trip in October included 169 water miles and 370 road miles, and took us on a circle route from Juneau to Skagway, Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Haines and back to Juneau.

On brochures and banners in Whitehorse we saw the slogan, "On Yukon Time." We asked a tourism official what it meant.

"Yukoners live at a different pace," he said. " 'On Yukon Time' means taking things a little more slowly. Enjoying life a little more."

A jet trip to Seattle begins at a 350-mph pace. A ferry trip to Skagway, at 17 mph, allows a more relaxing transition from Juneau routines to vacation surprises.

The first transition occurred along Lynn Canal just north of Berners Bay. Lounging on the ferry we noticed the increasing abundance of brightly colored fall leaves along the steep hillsides.

The next transition came during the drive out of Skagway. In 11 miles and just 20 minutes, we moved from damp forest to dry alpine. The gray of rocks replaced the green of trees as the all-consuming color.

Whitehorse has 10,000 fewer residents than Juneau but has a bigger feeling because of expansive, flat open space. We spent the first morning walking and ended up at the restored sternwheeler. Because of the lateness of the season, tours were no longer conducted.

"Want to look inside?" a man behind us asked as we looked at the boat through the fence.

"Sure."

What followed was a personal tour by a parks employee. He apparently could fit this generosity into his fall work schedule, which obviously was on Yukon time.

One of the treats while walking through downtown Whitehorse was looking at the large murals painted on the sides of three- and four-story buildings. It was like walking through a larger-than-life art gallery. Different aspects of Yukon life and history were depicted: a wrangler with pack horses and dog, an eagle and bear in the wilderness, prospectors pushing a sled in steep snow.

Gail gathered brochures.

"What about Lake Leberge?" Gail said looking up from one publication.

"Absolutely!"

It was an easy drive to the lake most of us know from Robert Service's famous poem, which spells the lake's name a little differently:

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

Conditions were better for us than for Sam McGee. We sat in the sun on rocks near the beach, ate lunch, and wondered at the "strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold."

We also experienced a strange quality to being Yukon visitors in October. We seemed to be the only ones. Many summer tourist attractions were closed.

We saw so few cars, I started waving to oncoming drivers in the friendly way people still do in Gustavus and other small communities. It felt like we drivers were on a lonely adventure and should at least acknowledge each other's participation.

The Alaska Highway between Whitehorse and Haines Junction is straight, wide and smooth. More like a runway than a highway.

We stopped at each roadside plaque we saw, and in the process learned about Yukon plants, geology, fires, early roads, first residents and "How it all began."

That plaque described how traditional stories told about Crow and Beaverman creating the world. Land, for example, was established when Crow threw sand on the water and told it not to sink. Bark from trees was carved into the forms of people, and Crow breathed life into them. When their work as completed, Crow and Beaverman set out in different directions. Crow went to the coast and Beaverman stayed in the Yukon.

So did we, at least for a few more days. Haines Junction is well named, although residents shorten it to "The Junction." They also call Whitehorse, "town," as in, "I'm going to town for groceries."

The Junction is a 90-degree curve on a road with long straight stretches and occasional wide sweeping turns. At the junction, one road goes 160 miles to Haines and the other 500 miles to Fairbanks. Our first Junction stop was the Kluane National Park Visitor Center. We were, of course, the only visitors.

This must be what it's like to be rich and famous. No lines. No waits. No herd lectures. We received one-on-one attention at the sternwheeler, at the Whitehorse visitor center, and now at Kluane.

We learned that the territorial and national parks closed at the end of September. But we could camp in the day-use area at Kathleen Lake.

The next morning we drove about 40 miles north of The Junction to hike at Sheep Mountain. What early Juneau residents got wrong, early Yukoners got right. Their Sheep Mountain actually has sheep. Juneau's Sheep Mountain has goats!

As we gained elevation, views expanded along with dreams of longer hikes in Kluane. A little later, Gail, who was leading, stopped and pointed.

"Look," she whispered. "Sheep."

Three casually ate grass just ahead. They were considerably less excited than we were about the encounter. We slowly walked a little closer. That allowed us to look down the steep slope next to the trail. Two dozen other sheep were right beneath us!

The last leg of the trip from Haines Junction to Haines is mostly in the barren, but beautiful, alpine area above timberline. The Chilkat Pass is 3,493 feet in elevation.

The ribbon of highway, visible miles ahead in some places, seemed like a tiny thread on a large quilt. We stopped for short hikes at Rock Glacier and Million Dollar Falls. Just like the drive up from Skagway, the drive down to Haines passed through alpine, timberline and shoreline.

The trip isn't far as road trips go. It's 112 miles from Skagway to Whitehorse, 98 from Whitehorse to Haines Junction, and 160 from Haines Junction to Haines.

We left Juneau on a Sunday morning ferry and returned the next Friday afternoon.

It would be easy to spend more time, and it's possible to make the trip in less. We found the best way to determine the length of stay in any place was to live on Yukon time.



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