– At a gas station in Tok I chat it up with a Harley rider. Ron is 65-years old, a self-described “bush baby,” born and raised just outside of Tok and now living in Eagle. I’m playing with the idea of visiting the town, which sits well north of Tok on the Yukon River at the end of a 65-mile dead-end dirt road. Ron has other destinations on his mind: “My wife passed away two years ago. We’d been married for 40 years,” and since he’s retired he’s spending much of his time down south. “Last year was the first time I’ve ever been in the Deep South. It felt like home! Everyone owns guns. Hunting is a way of life.” He particularly liked Southerners’ friendly disposition. “It’s like the people get cooler the further north you go.”
Anyway, Alaska is a big state for sure, but it doesn’t feel that way this morning. From Tok I could head southwest and hit Anchorage by mid-afternoon, or I could head northwest and be in Fairbanks even earlier. Instead, I decide to backtrack a short ways on the Alaska Highway and head north, on the Taylor Highway.
The Taylor runs 160 miles from outside Tok, up to the mining-town cum tourist-mecca of Chicken, and then on to Eagle. As far as Chicken the road is paved, and past there it is well-graded gravel as far as Jack Wade Junction, where it meets up with the Top-of-the-World Highway. Early on, the Taylor runs north through rolling, forested hills, the heart of the ranging grounds of the Fortymile Caribou Herd
. I keep my eyes peeled for a sighting on the way up to Chicken, but no dice.
Past Chicken, the Taylor jogs east and winds up into higher hills. I pause at Jack Wade Junction (there's no town, just a gravel road intersection). North to Eagle? East to Dawson? I could go either way. I decide it’s nice to leave things to newly explore the next time, and head east.
A few miles after crossing back into the Yukon I see an inuksuk
on a nearby hilltop and pull off the road. The fall colors have become vivid at this higher elevation with bright red, yellow, rust and pale green, punctuated with small, pale purple flowers and fluffy, white seed-heads. Brightly colored mosaics of lichen cover much of the exposed stone. A ¼ mile walk to the inuksuk takes ½ an hour as I pause to take in the colors underfoot.
A nice surprise when I walk back down to the bike: four caribou come over a rise less than a hundred yards away across the gravel highway. They see me, back down the hill and work their way up the road, again about a hundred yards away, where they cross over and move on down the slope. They seem relaxed and in no hurry, just wanting to give me enough space, with the biggest occasionally looking my way. I ride a bit further down the road, waiting at a stretch where they’re grading fresh gravel, the flag waver tells me that earlier she had seen forty or so caribou in the distance, silhouetted on a ridgetop.
The Top-of-the-World Highway winds its way around high hilltops with every curve revealing a new panorama stretching far into the distance. I stop frequently, and the 80-mile ride takes almost three hours. Finally, the road drops down to the Yukon River, where a ferry takes me across to Dawson.
I’m seeing a handful of ADV rider types in Dawson, and in the evening share beers with two of them in the Downtown Hotel bar. Sean, RJ and I are all of an age, and we swapped stories of mid-life, divorce, love, career and motorcycle adventures. Sean told stories of growing up in remote, northern BC, in and around Dease Lake. Monthly, two-day grocery shopping commutes to Prince Rupert; days of wide open, outdoor freedom as a young boy; and a morning of bone-shaking cold with windchill of -73 degrees Celsius (-100 F). “My dad left the truck both idling and plugged into the block heater all night. In the morning he drove it across town, and the radiator froze by the time he reached work.”
I settle into a small room in the annex of the Triple J. Hotel rooms are pricey here, and you don’t get much for your money, but I’m planning to ride the Dempster and I’m willing to pay for a good rest.
A southern section of the Taylor Highway
Alpine fall colors
Caribou keeping a wary eye on me
I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy – I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it –
Came out with a fortune last fall, -
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.
No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth – and I’m one.
- Robert Service, opening stanzas from “The Spell of the Yukon”
I decide to take a rest day in Dawson. There’s an arts school, a healthy cast of local characters, and a perfect, walkable size. Best of all, it’s in the middle of nowhere. People come here by intent, not accident.
In the last three years of the 19th Century tens of thousands of men flooded into the lower reaches of the Klondike River and its tributary streams with the intent of digging up a fortune in gold. More through sheer mass than ill-will, they forced the native Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people to move a few miles downstream from this traditional fishing camp site. Klondike is a bastardization of Tr’ondëk, which means ‘hammerstone,’ a rock used to pound stakes. Dawson was born.
Robert Service came, first to Whitehorse and later to Dawson, well after the rush had died down and he never dug for gold (he was a bank clerk), but he found inspiration in the stories he heard first hand from the miners. The poems he wrote captured something in the spirit of the times, and he became the late-Victorian equivalent of a rock star.
Service lived in a comfortable two-room cabin in Dawson off-and-on over the course of just three years before leaving the town for good in 1912. (Lacking central utilities, who would really want to have to heat something larger through the Yukon winter?) Almost immediately it became a shrine of sorts and remains a well-preserved historic site today. Set in a grassy yard on the east side of town, it feels cozy and tight. It’s easy to visualize Service scribbling away on the front porch on a day like today, or crawling under heavy blankets in the narrow bed with a fire stoked in the cast iron stove as winter closed in outside.
21st Century Dawson is still a mining town. Dozens of families continue small-scale placer mines
up and down water-ways, some of them direct descendants of original Klondike migrants. It’s also a town of tourists, with big Holland America buses rolling into town on a daily basis in the summer, disgorging passengers into the ticky-tacky Westmark hotel. Dawson is a town of many others as well – trappers, merchants, Rainbow Family members, artists, and more. It’s a great place to kick back and sample the local flavors.
Robert Service Cabin
A popular sign in Dawson
Downtown Hotel and Dawson with Moosehide Slide dominating the background
Looking south from Midnight Dome over Dawson
Padded backrest courtesy of Yarn Bomb Yukon
Tok to Dawson