2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   JOURNEY THROUGH THE YUKON TERRITORY
FROM WATSON LAKE TO WHITEHORSE

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 13

 
"The Yukon -- still featuring unclimbed mountains and unseen views. Close to 80% of the
Yukon remains pristine wilderness  with 5,000-metre peaks, forested valleys, unspoiled
waters, and untamed wildlife. Parks the size of small countries stretch from Canada's
highest mountain in southwest Yukon to its northern extreme at the Arctic Ocean."
 
~ 2012 Yukon Visitor Guide
 
 
In the last two entries I talked about the delay we experienced in Watson Lake a few miles after entering the Yukon Territory on the Alaska Highway.

Yesterday morning (Tuesday) we were able to resume our journey through the southwestern part of this Canadian province. We spent the night in a peaceful provincial campground along Lake Kluane. Today we reached Tok, the first major town in Alaska on this route, and are spending the night along the Glenn Hwy. a few miles south of there. Tomorrow we'll arrive in the little port town of Valdez, AK for a few days.


Early morning a little west of Watson Lake; one of many Yukon Territory ponds is on the left.

This and the next entry focus on our 581-mile trek through the Yukon from the British Columbia border to the border with Alaska. We're back in the USA but it still looks like northern Canada! <grin>

Read on or browse the photos for more details.

WHERE IS EVERYBODY? 

When we left Watson Lake yesterday at 6:15 AM we were pleasantly surprised to have the road mostly to ourselves for about 275 miles. We didn't run into much traffic until we reached the small city of Whitehorse, population ~ 24,000 people.

The highway department's controlled release of vehicles from Watson Lake apparently worked well.

Our fear was that we'd get into a long caravan of RVs and other vehicles all leaving Watson Lake at the same time on Tuesday morning after being holed up there for up to five days while road crews made temporary repairs to the Alaska Hwy. about 75 miles to the west.

That's where the worst flood damage occurred; excess snowmelt and rain in Canyon Creek took out at least 600 feet of the road and seriously compromised more than that. It was one of many sections of Yukon roads suffering their worst water damage in 24 years.


Interesting clouds over a gravel break in the Alaska Hwy. west of Watson Lake

Semi trucks and travelers who absolutely had to get out of town were allowed to leave Watson Lake on Monday night. Those of us who weren't in dire straits were asked to wait until Tuesday morning -- if the "pioneer road" held up overnight.

We got up early and checked online to make sure we could go -- yes. So we high-tailed it out of town before most other RVers were even awake.

That tactic worked very well for us. We stayed ahead of the crowd all day.

The funny thing was our disappointment to find absolutely no one at the spot near our campground where the roadblock had been. After all the hoopla in that location for the past four days we wished we could honk our horn like the truck drivers did the previous night as townspeople and stranded travelers wished them well on their journey west!

Jim honked the horn anyway in a farewell salute to Watson Lake. We were in high spirits, very happy to be on the move again and looking forward to new but less stressful adventures up the road.

We saw very few commercial trucks in either direction on the road yesterday. I think most of them took advantage of the opportunity to drive overnight when the road reopened so they could deliver their goods ASAP and avoid dealing with all the RVs and other vehicles that were released Tuesday morning. 

We saw only a few RVs heading north from Watson Lake to Whitehorse, and even fewer after that until we reached the Alaskan border. I was surprised to see so many campers headed south yesterday and today. I would think most would be heading north this time of year.

WATSON LAKE TO CANYON CREEK

This is a beautiful stretch of highway through thick spruce and pine forests, with numerous streams,  lakes, and wetlands most of the way to the Alaskan border (and beyond). It's perfect habitat for wildlife and reminds me of areas where we've traveled and run/hiked in both northern New England and the Colorado Rockies.

The weather was good on this section of the highway yesterday morning and we had great views of some of the snow-clad peaks in the Cassiar Range to the south of us. The highest peaks we could see from the road were about 7,000 feet high.

Above and below:  the scenic Cassiar Mountain Range

I thought the Alaska Highway would have steeper grades and sharper turns through the northern part of the Cassiar Mountains, like the section through the Rockies prior to Watson Lake. This part was easier in regards to terrain but more difficult in terms of rough patches.

The Alaska Highway mostly undulates between about 2,000 to 2,400 feet through river valleys in this part of the Yukon. We crossed the Continental Divide between Rancheria and the Swift River at about 2,400 feet, which is much lower than crossing the Divide in most places in the U.S.

The highest point we crossed the last two days was about 3,300 feet at Bear Summit north of Haines Junction. More about that in the next entry.

The two times I've visited Maine and New Hampshire I was surprised that the tree line is so low compared to the Rockies in Colorado and Wyoming. It's even lower in the southern Yukon because it's so far north. Aspens and paper park birch trees grow at 2,000 feet. The tree line is about 3,000 feet.

Snow in the Cassiar and Kluane Ranges is down to about the 3,000-foot level and we're starting to see glaciers at low altitudes, too. Cool!

THE PIONEER ROAD FIX

Because of all the different roads that were seriously damaged by the rain/snowmelt last week the highway workers were diverted to the emergency areas instead of doing routine maintenance on the numerous gravel areas we encountered. Crews were working in only three or four places between Watson Lake and Kluane Lake yesterday and a couple places between the lake and the Alaska border today.

The biggest road project we saw in the Yukon this week was the multiple mudslide/washout area (Km 1103) that shut the road down for five days at Canyon Creek near the Swift River/Rancheria area about 75 miles west of Watson Lake.

We could also see where two mudslides had been cleared closer to Watson Lake at ~ Km 1098 and 1099. The first one snuck up on me but I got a picture of where the second slide was cleared:

That was minor compared to the damage at Canyon Creek. We were eager to get to that point so we could see for ourselves why there was such a long delay in reopening the highway. It's pretty clear to us now.

After the water receded enough at this location for road crews to work safely they built a primitive “pioneer” road of rock and dirt to fill in the section where the road washed out.

This series of photos is sequential as we were driving west.

In the next photo we're still on pavement. This is the beginning of the construction area where we stopped briefly for one-lane traffic coming from the other direction:

Now we've begun driving on the dirt ramp that connects with the old paved highway (which you can't see yet):

We had to go slow for several hundred feet but it wasn’t real bumpy. Guess all those big trucks packed it down well last evening!

I took the next two photos as Jim was still driving on the dirt pioneer road:


It's a wonder this little building didn't wash away.

There is still a lot of fast-moving water in that creek! Note the end of a large metal culvert in the photo just above. Crews diverted the water through a new culvert because the old one was washed downstream.

Now we're coming to what remains of the pavement on the other side of the new dirt ramp:

 

When we reached the original pavement we could see that the southbound side of the road was seriously washed out.

The next picture is a closer view of what I could get from the passenger side of the truck:

Jim was driving and couldn't stop to take a picture because we were in front of several vehicles going through this one-way section.

Here's the photo I showed in the last entry that the highway department took looking at this section of the road from the other direction:


Yukon Highway Dept. photo

Here's one last photo on the other side of this damaged section showing some of the debris left by the  creek as it poured over the roadway:


Dirt and tree limbs remain along the road from the rushing water that flowed over it.

This was just one of several areas we saw yesterday that had to be cleared by road crews. All the flooded streams brought down rocks, dirt, trees, and branches with them. 

After the glut of backed-up north and southbound traffic clears this work area crews plan to build a better two-lane detour around this mess so they can more easily reconstruct the highway without having to deal with traffic on it.

It’ll be interesting to see this spot in the fall. Even if we go down the Cassiar Hwy. we have to return over Canyon Creek. I think the whole Alaska Hwy. will be in better shape in the fall than it is now, after all the summer work is done.


Bright, robust dandelions brighten the Yukon in late spring.

These washed out areas have certainly taken time, manpower, and $$$ away from routine maintenance, though. I hope the highway department will have time to go back an fix all the places they were working on when this disaster occurred. We went through numerous gravel breaks yesterday where no crews were working. Most were 1/4 to 1/2 mile long, although some were several miles in length. We had to slow down to 15-25 MPH for several of the gravel breaks and even more for potholes we couldn't avoid.

On the other hand, there were enough smooth, recently repaved areas that Jim remarked once, "This is better than those freeways in Louisiana!"

CANYON CREEK TO WHITEHORSE

All the streams we saw today were at max or higher. They still looked flooded near Watson Lake and Rancheria. As we proceeded west they were increasingly less flooded but still running fast and high.

We followed the Rancheria and Swift Rivers for about 20 miles each and could see two long lakes (Teslin and Marsh) next to the road, also for several miles each. Later we passed even-larger Kluane Lake and smaller Swan Lake, named for the trumpeter swans that nest there in the summer. We could see the large white birds sitting on their nests.

Unfortunately, most of the water was on Jim’s side of the road and I couldn’t get very many good photos. We did stop a few times for photos of various things, like the awesome bridge over the Nisutlin Bay at Teslin. At 1917 feet it is the longest water span on the Alaska Highway:

Above and below:  views of the Nisutlin Bay Bridge from an overlook south of town

 


This is a very long (and narrow) bridge with metal grated decking.

We also crossed the Teslin River on the third-longest Alaska Hwy. bridge not long after that.

The bridge across the Yukon River is baby blue. The Marsh Lake dam is visible in the distance from that bridge:

Interesting place names included George’s Gorge and Brooks Brook. Some of the creeks, new towns, etc. were named by the American and Canadian troops when the Alaska Highway was built in 1942.

WHERE'S THE MILK?

Traffic increased noticeably as we approached Whitehorse about noon. After miles and miles of very few other vehicles and beautiful, remote landscapes . . . we were suddenly in an urban setting. It was almost a shock to our systems.

Unfortunately, we didn't see the scenic parts of town along the Yukon River but instead headed to the more industrial north end of the city where we could shop at WalMart. That's the address we programmed into "Maggie," our Garmin GPS. (We used to have a Magellan GPS. We called the female voice "Maggie." It was easier to continue calling The Voice "Maggie" when we got the new unit than it was to re-name it "Gabby" or something else.)

Anyway, being delayed in Watson Lake so long changed our plans re: spending a couple days enjoying Whitehorse on the way to Alaska. Now the plan is to spend some time there on the way back in the fall.

There were two reasons we didn't even stay over last night in Whitehorse. We didn't know if we could find a campsite because lots of those other RVers who had been stuck in Watson Lake may have made reservations to stay there and, if we could find a site, we figured we'd be in a caravan with all those folks from Whitehorse to Tok today.

We liked having the road more to ourselves so we got some fuel and food and continued on our merry, almost solitary, way for several more hours.


View of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse

While we were sitting in Watson Lake during the road crisis and reading about food and fuel getting low in Whitehorse due to some panic buying, we were concerned that we'd have problems finding what we needed when we got there.

We worried less when the big trucks were released from Watson Lake Monday night. We assumed the gas stations and grocery stores would be re-stocked when we got to Whitehorse the next day.

Getting diesel fuel was no problem and it was a little cheaper than it was in Watson Lake. We looked at prices a couple places on our way to WalMart. The station next door was comparable, so Jim fueled up there.


Northern sweet-vetch AKA wild sweet pea

Finding milk, fresh produce, and skinless, boneless chicken breasts was another matter.

The WalMart in Whitehorse is not a super store with lots of groceries like the WalMarts in Calgary or Edmonton. It doesn't carry fresh produce or meat, period. It does carry milk, but there was none in the dairy case. In fact, there wasn't much of anything in the dairy case but several employees were busy unloading boxes of yogurt, margarine, cheese, and other dairy products (not milk) onto the bare shelves.

I asked a nice young man about milk. He told me that employees in the back were still counting the cartons before he could bring them out. He asked me what I wanted. I told him one gallon of skim milk. Bless his heart, he came back out with one gallon for me in about ten minutes. It was doggone expensive ($5.97 for four liters, which is a little more than a gallon) but I gladly paid it. I knew it would cost even more at a regular grocery store.

All the grocery aisles at WalMart were full of pallets of unopened boxes that had just been unloaded from one or more trucks. The aisles were too crowded to maneuver a cart through them. We found a few items on our list, but not most of the things we needed.


Another view of the Cassiar Range southeast of Whitehorse

So we searched for a real grocery store.

The amiable cashier and another fella stocking shelves at WalMart told me that I could find the chicken and fresh produce I wanted several blocks away at the large Super Store. It turned out to be a warehouse-type grocery store that was similarly overwhelmed with boxes of food just delivered -- by a cargo plane, no less!! Once again, I couldn't run my cart through the aisles. It took some agility to even walk through them, they were so full of food items to be shelved. The place was a beehive of activity.

It's a good thing I waited for milk at WalMart. This store not only had absolutely no fresh produce or chicken breasts, it had no milk and wasn't expecting any for a while.

I got some ground turkey breast meat and frozen vegetables. We'll just have to live without bananas, spinach, broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, oranges, and some other fresh produce until we can stock up in Valdez.


Larger than life, but now quite dependent on the Alaska Highway!

That experience was an eye-opener.

It's a good thing we had plenty of frozen, canned, and dried foods to eat since we will go for more than a week between major restocking. This is rarely a problem in a real house but when you're living in an RV with limited space, particularly in the refrigerator and freezer, it's a whole different ball game. During this trip more than any other we'll have to make sure we have plenty of "emergency" supplies.

By the way, it's also a good thing we hadn't planned on staying overnight in the WalMart parking lot.

Oh, it's fine to do that. But it was already fairly crowded at noon with RVs. There is a designated area for them.

These weren't travelers just spending the night, however. We were surprised by all the old, small trailers with no vehicles but evidence that the occupants had been there a while. Usually it's A Bad Thing to unhook your vehicle from a travel trailer or 5th-wheel in a WalMart parking lot but here it's obviously condoned. We assume these people have summer jobs in the area and live in the WalMart parking area at night.

We found a much nicer alternative for overnight a few hours and miles farther north and it wasn't all that expensive. More about that and the rest of our journey through the Yukon in the next entries.

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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