Friday, August 14, 2009

North to Alaska . . . Above the 49th

On August 31st around five o'clock in the morning, we crossed from British Columbia into the fabled Yukon Territory. Streams and rivers ran fresh and clear. Flashes of fall colors exploded in the golden sunlight of early morning. Grandeur seems an inadequate word to describe being visually overwhelmed by the shades of red, bright yellow and hues of brown scattered through varying shades of green among the juniper, spruce and pine. Random bursts of fall blossoms rippled in the cool breeze flowing over the slopes.

We viewed herds of wild horses or mustangs that still ran free in this rugged country. A bunch of bighorn sheep cascaded off a steep slope as we rounded a bend in the crusted road. We ground to a stop as they did, briefly, and stared in surprise and wonder at each other. The leader slowly turned and huffed. Their hooves thundered and they were gone. A young bull elk regarded us calmly as we paused again, then moved on.

We had just completed the most difficult stretch of our journey. It traversed some 320 miles spanning the distance between Fort Nelson in British Columbia and Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory. The road was full of curves and layered in gravel rather than paved for the most part. We slowly pressed forward through the darkness along the treacherous route. A chilled, persistent mist settled over us as our headlights punched ahead and jerked from side to side. Numerous beaver were seen along the road throughout the night passage.

It grew quite cold. The rear window of the Wagoneer shattered when one of the rear tires slung a rock into the front of the trailer, which ricocheted forward through the glass. Stopping to clear shattered glass from the rear of the vehicle, we noted ice was forming on the tarp covering our possessions in the trailer. Freezing slush and dirt formed into blocks of ice in the wheel wells and had to be broken and cleared away periodically.

The clouds burned away as the day progressed, then flowed back in late in the afternoon. We approached the end of our journey through the Yukon Territories. How to describe it? Sheer, towering mountains layered and colored by varying strata of tundra or grass. Kluane Lake was huge, to the point of seeming to be a bay, complete with whitecaps, with a surface area encompassing more than 150 square miles. The mountains dwarfed the Rockies that Bonnie and I have known and loved so long in Colorado. We passed through the city of White Horse, capitol of The Yukon with a population of 18,000--almost two-thirds of the people living in the entire province. We pushed on.

Twilight settled in at 10:20 p.m. as we rolled into the entrance to a lodge and inquired about supper. The owner was a polite man with an expansive, ruddy face and a beaming smile. However, he refused to serve us as he had committed to an early-morning grouse hunt the following day. We thanked him, changed drivers, grabbed a couple of candy bars and pulled back onto the road, threading west and a little north. It seemed that the fading sunlight had to be streaming from the mythical land we pursued with such determination--a boyhood dream called 'Alaska.'

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