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Catching Gold Fever in the Yukon

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Canada’s Yukon Territory is bigger than we ever imagined. We were struck again and again by the beauty of this magnificent region that covers nearly 187,000 square miles, just south of the Arctic Circle. It has high mountain ranges, and deep, clear lakes, thick spruce and poplar forests, and sweeping tundra plains. It also boasts a rich history, communities of warm and friendly people, and miles of traffic-free road and RV parks and campgrounds with all the amenities we needed for a long trip.

We began our Yukon adventure in Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital, where nearly two-thirds of the area’s 34,000 residents live. Rather than make the drive (about 1,800 miles) between Portland, Ore., and the Yukon, we flew in and rented a motorhome. Because the area is popular with RVers – many who fly in from Europe – RV rentals are plentiful (see below: “RV Rental Agencies in Whitehorse”).

After a quick orientation to our 22-foot Class C motorhome, we purchased  groceries at Fireweed Community Farmer’s Market, including local specialties such as fireweed honey and Arctic char, a fish that tastes like a trout that married a salmon.

Then it was on to Dawson City and Discovery Days, the town’s annual celebration of the Klondike Gold Rush. Though it was the height of tourist season, traffic was light and the Klondike Highway’s mostly well-maintained pavement allowed us to sail along at a good clip. We kept a sharp eye out for occasional frost heaves that turned the road into hills and valleys, and the two bears that lumbered into our path reminded us not to break speed records.

Step Back into History

Six hours later, just before 6 p.m., we rolled into Dawson City. Since this is the land of the midnight sun and the sun does not set until after 11 p.m., it looked like early afternoon. We arrived just in time to hop aboard the Klondike Spirit, a paddleboat that tours the glacial Yukon River. After our long drive, the peaceful riverboat ride was a great way to relax.

The entire town of Dawson City is a National Historic Site. This community of 1,900 looks much like it did in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-99. False-front wooden buildings, dirt streets, wooden sidewalks, and resident placer miners and dog mushers make for a Wild West feel. Some of the old buildings have been restored; others are quietly turning to dust.

We began exploring the town’s gritty, golden history at the visitor center on Front Street, where we found mining and natural history displays, historic videos, and visitor literature and maps, including self-guided walking tours. Across the street, the Dänojà Zho Cultural Center gave us a glimpse of the history and culture of the First Nations people. We also drove by the pioneer cabins of legendary writers Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton, though tours were closed when we arrived. And, like miners a hundred years ago, we stopped at Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall (Canada’s oldest operating casino) for a quick game of blackjack and a peek at the scantily clad cancan dancers.

We also caught the “fever,” gold fever that is, and tried our luck at gold panning. We drove nine miles up a dusty gravel road to Claim 33, where Jenny, who’s been panning since she was a girl, gave us pointers in troughs “salted” with gold flecks. We panned a tiny vial of gold that inflamed our fever. We rented a shovel and gold pan ($2 each) and, with visions of our pockets bulging with nuggets, headed to the free Klondike Visitors Association gold claim on Bonanza Creek. Alas, like many Klondike miners, we came up empty-handed. Heading back, we toured Dredge No. 4 National Historic Site, the largest wooden-hulled, bucket line dredge in North America – an impressive monster that chewed up the landscape for 60 years in search of gold.

Back in town, we watched the fun and funky Discovery Days parade that included local firetrucks, homemade floats and lots of candy thrown to kids. Someone tossed me a pingpong ball with a message to return it to the Fortymile Gold Workshop and Studio for a $20 gold-filled glass bead. At last, I’d struck it rich!

We had decided we’d alternate between staying at RV parks and at hotels and lodges. It enabled us to relax after long miles on the road and experience the hospitality of both. Our first night in Dawson City, we stayed in the motorhome at Bonanza Gold Motel and RV Park a few miles outside of town because it offered more space. We also cooked up the deliciously mild and sweet Arctic char for dinner.

Most Yukon RV parks have gravel parking areas with smallish trees, and Bonanza is no different. This Good Sam park has all the amenities – 15 to 50 amps, free Wi-Fi, cable TV, and full service and pull-throughs. For us, the best part was Bonanza’s customer service. When our black-water tank failed to empty, manager Sarah came to our rescue, first with a referral to an RV shop (they were booked), then with telephone advice from her mechanic friend, and finally (and successfully) with hands-on help from her employee, Rae, who’d full-timed for two years.

Early the next morning, we took the free ferry over the roiling, silty Yukon River to the Top of the World Highway, one of the planet’s great roadways. As soon as we rolled off the ferry, the road climbed up and up and up until the dizzying views of sweeping tundra-covered hills convinced us we were, indeed, on top of the world.

At the Alaska border, the road went from well-maintained gravel to dirt. Then the road turned really bad. Rains had washed out portions of Taylor Highway. After being closed for weeks, the highway had reopened with two daily, pilot-led convoys. We arrived in plenty of time and promptly at 9 a.m., a long, dusty line of vehicles took off, making us glad we were one of the first in line. It took two hours to travel 13 miles on this twisting dirt road. At Chicken, Alaska, a tiny community that consists of a café, gift store and RV park, the convoy ended and we pulled off to reward ourselves with one of its legendary cinnamon rolls – and a Chicken, Alaska,  refrigerator magnet.

We looped back into Canada, reaching the community of Beaver Creek around 6 p.m. We pulled into Westmark RV Park and the lighthearted, Canadian-themed Rendezvous Dinner Theatre next door with its comical Royal Canadian Mounted Police master of ceremonies proved just the thing to unkink our funny bones after a long day.

Glaciers and Grizzlies

The scenery along the Alaska Highway between Beaver Creek and Kluane National Park is spectacular, with soaring peaks and miles of lakes filled with nesting swans and goslings. The land here is so big, it’s difficult to get a sense of perspective. But thawing tundra also made the road a frost heave roller coaster. Just outside of Burwash Landing, we took a road break at the Kluane Museum of Natural History. This surprisingly sophisticated museum features displays and dioramas of the area’s wildlife – caribou, moose, black and grizzly bear, lynx, wolves, coyote – and gave us an appreciation for the natural cycles of this special region.

We also stopped at Cottonwood RV Park, arguably one of the prettiest in the Yukon. Nestled between Kluane Lake and the St. Elias Mountains, Cottonwood offers hookups (limited to 15 amps), pull-throughs, a shower house, hot tub and grassy areas. You can also fish for grayling and lake trout right from your door.

In Haines Junction, we hopped a six-seater plane with Sifton Air for a breathtaking glacier flight-see. Minutes after takeoff, we were engulfed by giant snow-capped peaks and endless rivers of ice.

Despite the razor-close proximity of ice fields, jagged cliffs and pools of crystalline turquoise water, we were never afraid. We were captivated by the unearthly beauty and busily snapped photo after photo.

After our exhilarating flight, we spent the night at Dalton Trail Lodge, one of the oldest fishing camps in the area. While this lodge doesn’t offer RV camping, its parking lot can accommodate lodge guests with motorhomes. Its European-style lakeside rooms are comfortable and its meals are delicious. You can fish, hike, canoe, motorboat, play tennis or simply relax. We opted for a two-hour hike to St. Elias Lake for a paddle in one of the lodge’s canoes.

The lodge’s owner, Trix, made sure we had water, sandwiches and the all-important bear spray (tear gas for bears). The St. Elias Trail angled up and then up some more, making us pant and sweat, despite the overcast weather and cool temperatures. The bear spray bumping from my waist reminded me that a bear could be anywhere and we kept up a loud stream of conversation to alert them (bears hate surprises!). By the time we arrived at the lake, clouds threatened rain, but we’d come too far to turn back.

We slipped the aluminum canoe into the dark water and fell into the familiar rhythm of paddling with an old friend. Halfway across the lake, we heard the haunting call of a lone loon and watched as he dove only to re-emerge 20 yards away. When we turned our canoe homeward, rain spattered us, making us glad we’d packed some light rain gear.

The following morning, we met Ron Chambers, a First Nations elder who operates boat tours in Kathleen Lake, named after his pioneering grandmother. While the weather was blustery and the lake choppy, Chambers’ wide, flat-bottomed boat stayed stable and its cover kept us snug. We landed on a distant shore and took a short hike to see the remains of his grandmother’s trapping cabin. As we stared at the tumbledown log remains of the 10 x 10 shelter, it was difficult to imagine the rigors Kathleen endured raising eight children here.

Before leaving Haines Junction, we stopped at Raven Hotel Restaurant, renowned for its gourmet food, to enjoy an amazing meal of musk ox and venison, a wonderful final Yukon meal. Then we hit the road for Whitehorse and an early morning flight home feeling both exhilarated by our Yukon RV adventure and sad to be leaving this truly magnificent country.

For More Information:

Bonanza Gold Motel and RV Park
888-993-6789, www.bonanzagold.ca

Cottonwood RV Park
613-968-9884, www.yukonweb.com/tourism/cottonwood

Westmark RV park
800-544-0970, www.westmarkhotels.com/beaver-creek.php

RV Rental Agencies in Whitehorse:
CanaDream RV Rentals

RV Travel Destinations

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