Day 3. Mezadin Lake Provincial Park – Tagish, Yukon. 924 km
The night was cold in the really windy. But I have used a little trick that I’ve learned from more experienced travelers. If you put a car between the wind and your tent, it will create a wind shadow for your tent, and the wind will not bother you as much. And it really saved my night. I slept like a baby!
We kept driving north following the Stewart-Cassair Highway. The traffic was almost non-existent. Most of the vehicles on the road were fellow travelers. I was really pleased to see how Canada and America lives on wheels – people travel on anything, from bicycles to big Harley-Davidsons, from small Mazda 2 loaded up to the roof to big huge motor homes. It proves that when there is a will, there is a way.
And on that day I started to realize why this particular highway attracts people form all over the world. The previous day the drive was not really special, just the road going through remote areas and thick forests. But that has changed – form now on, the road was coming closer and closer to mountains, and becoming more spectacular. It has literally changed after each turn. I was driving through forest, after 20 minutes I have seen snow-covered peaks over my head, another 30 minutes and I see a deep valley stretching up to horizon.
But I had to keep my eyes on the road as well! This is a wild animal territory. You can often see a deer or a fox, or a bear just sitting on a side of a road watching cars go by. After another road curve we there was a really huge bear walking on a side of the road. I slowed down to take a closer look, I just wanted to observe a wild creature in his habitat, from the safety of my car. Mr. Bear crossed the road and a deep ditch on its side and stopped, looking at us. And I was looking at him. But I should have looked at my dad! The next second he grabbed a DSLR, jumped out of a car, and I saw him on a road shoulder, taking pictures of a bear, that is barely 5m away from him! I grabbed a bear spray and ran after him. I was somewhat shocked, and my dad did not convince me it was OK, insisting that the ditch between them was really deep and the bear was not able to cross it fast enough. From that moment, I started giving it a second thought before stopping for a wild animal.
It has been a long drive through wilderness, we were getting hungry and the fuel was running low. You have to watch you fuel closely on this road, as service is next to non-existent. We reached a town of Dease Lake, that has Petro Canada station, great convenience store and a diner. It felt like oasis in a middle of a desert. Or endless northern forests and mountains, in our case.
We pushed forward, landscapes were just as spectacular and just as variable, every half an hour there is something new and totally cool.
Finally, we reached Yukon border. It felt amazing. I have always thought of Yukon as of something really remote and hard to get to. Some remote mystical land from Jack London stories, somewhere where people went pursuing a dream. Some got it, some did not, others died trying. And here I was in Yukon myself, drove there myself. I could not believe it. I was super curious to see what it looks like, this magic ad distant land of Klondike.
But instead of enjoying the scenery we were getting anxious. We did not have any network connection for almost 2 days now. The time to report home that we were OK and bears did not eat us was long overdue. We pushed forward, realizing that we’ve just turned on another world-famous road, the Alaska Highway. After Stewart-Cassair, it felt like a German autobahn after a dirt road in forest. Flat and wide, with scenery totally different again. I am still fascinated by the way provinces and territories in Canada differ in landscape. We were in British Columbia, surrounded by mountains and forests, a few clicks later we are in Yukon, with mountains only on horizon.
But we were getting there. Another mountain range appeared on the horizon and we were steadily driving towards it. But again, somehow these mountains looked different from BC’s. Taller, more rugged, covered with snow.
We still had no cell coverage and it was getting late. We have seen a small outpost with restaurant. We stooped and went inside to ask for a phone, because I started to suspect that both our phones went crazy. But the lady told me that there was no phone or cell coverage in the area, and never was. At that moment I felt being really so far away from civilized world and all things we are so used to.
We were told that in 2 hours of driving there will be a town where I can call. We pushed forward, getting so anxious to get there. But miles we running slowly. I check GPS – 120 km to go. Eternity later I check again – 110! What?! When we finally got there, the phone came alive, and I started getting all those messages from family who were really worried.
Also, it felt really cold outside and I felt dirty after 2 nights in tent, and decided to look for hotel in Whitehorse that was just a few hours away. To my surprise, all reasonably-priced hotels were sold out. But we were lucky to find an amazing place and hour before Whitehorse, a tiny town of Tagish, and a place was amazing! Nice private territory with wooden cabins next to a river.
Day 4. Tagish – Dawson, 634 km.
In the morning, we took our time to drink coffee and start the day slowly. I went to explore the place a little bit.
I really liked this nice quiet place somewhere in Yukon. It felt so calm and quiet and peaceful. But so remote. I was thinking about people who made a choice to call that land home.
We hit the road again and this was the first morning when we have seen clear skies and sunshine. But not for long! Before we reached Whitehorse an hour later, the sky was covered with low dark clouds and it started to rain.
I made a conscious decision to skip Whitehorse this time. It looked like a nice city with lots of things to explore. But the time was limited, I had to set priorities. And the priority was Dawson City, just some 500 km away up the Klondike Highway!
After a few hours of pouring rain, it was finally time to get some sunshine! And how timely that was! After a town of Carmacks the road follows the Yukon river for some time, offering beautiful views of the valley below.
The further we moved north, the more scenery changed. Back in Whitehorse what we have seen more or less resembled some areas in British Columbia. But now it was different. The vegetation was getting more sparse, trees were getting lower and lower, it started to look like real tundra.
About 40 km before Dawson was my most anticipated place of all the journey. The idea behind the trip was to see how far north we could go. We were as far north as you can get on pavement. But if that is not far north enough, the only choice is the famous Dempster Highway. It is a gravel road that stretches for over 700 km to Inuvik, NWT, crossing the arctic circle. The design of the road is unique, it sits on top of gravel berm about about 1.5-2 meters thick. It is needed to prevent permafrost from thawing and swallowing the road. It is known for its harsh conditions, and remoteness. There is only one place where you can get help or fuel along the whole distance.
This is one the three roads in North America I dream to travel the most, and I was very excited to see what it looks like in real life. The plan for the day was to test road conditions, see how fast we could go and get a general feeling of it, before attempting to conquer it the next day. There was a repair crew on the bridge at the road’s very beginning, their first question was how many spare tires did we have, and they told me that the further we go, the worse the road gets. Not really inspiring…
So we started driving it… And here came the biggest disappointment I had in years. I have seen lots of pictures, I read many stories of people traveling this road, there were even guys doing it in a sports car. But reality was much different from internet stories. The road is brutal. I mean it. What it wants is to torture your car and blow to pieces. I grew up in Ukraine, and believe me, I have seen really bad roads in my life. But this one is different, it incredibly harsh for the car. There are no potholes, mud or any off-road. It is even worse in my opinion. The road surface consists of a thick layer of very fine gravel. When you drive on it, wheels send gravel flying, acting almost like a sand blaster. Every second countless rocks hit the bottom of the car, destroying paint, coating, and whatever you have there. The more or less comfortable speed where I did not feel like torturing my car was about 25 km/h. But we had over 700 km to drive like that, one way! It would take forever. And then, the road is actively used by locals and especially by trucks, who deliver cargoes to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. They have no time to think about gravel or other stuff, they have a job to do. As a result, each oncoming truck sends a shower of rocks on your car.
We turned back to the asphalt to assess the situation. 20 km of Dempster driven, comfortable speed was 25 km/h, car bottom was constantly bombarded with rocks, and as a gift from oncoming traffic I got a chip on windscreen and two on front bumper. And it was only 20 kilometers. The car is only 2 months old with only 4,000 km on it. What would it look like after over 1,400 km of round trip on a Dempster? No, I am not a Rockefeller guy, I cannot buy a new car after this trip. So Dempster was postponed. Not cancelled. I will drive this road. But now I know what it looks like and I will come prepared. Maybe next year. This is north, harsh and unwelcoming. It does not tolerate underestimation or carelessness.
So our only choice was Dawson City. This is as far as we would go on this trip. As you can imagine, my mood was down and I was not really excited to go anywhere.
To be continued…