Our cousin from New Brunswick, Rachel, and her friend Jenna, landed in the Yukon with a list of goals. These goals consisted of seeing the northern lights, places around the Yukon (such as Dawson City), Alaska, the Arctic Circle, and the Northwest Territories, along with several species of wildlife including Caribou, Mountain Goats, Moose, and Arctic Fox. When we read on Facebook that the 40-Mile Caribou herd was crossing the Dempster Highway in Tombstone Park (central-northern Yukon), we knew that we had to make a road trip. The 40-Mile Caribou Herd was very large in numbers back during the Klondike Gold Rush, but heavy over-hunting during that time caused their numbers to drop drastically. Today the herd numbers at about 7500 individuals, and this fall is the first time they have been seen migrating through this area in decades. It was an event that drew many people north with hopes of witnessing this event.
Mom, my younger brother, our two cousins, and myself all packed our bags and took off the morning of October 21st. We drove up to Dawson and spent our first night there at the El Dorado hotel, in one of their big rooms. That night, the aurora forecast had a 3/9 rating and was centered right over Dawson, so we were in exactly the right location. We went outside to look for them and did see them, but they were very pale and faint, hidden mostly behind clouds and lighted buildings. My cousins were ecstatic; it was their first time seeing northern lights of any kind, and their responses were very heartfelt. It was really nice to see their enthusiasm and to look at the lights with a new appreciation.
The next morning we jumped back in the van and headed up the Dempster Highway to Eagle Plains. We stopped in several locations along the way taking photos of the gorgeous, sun-lit mountainous scenery.
I was constantly on the watch for any interesting birds, specifically Rock Ptarmigan (which I have never seen before), but didn’t see very much. One Willow Ptarmigan in Tombstone Park ducked over the bank as we approached in the van, giving me a momentary tail-end look. At one point when we got out of the van, I heard a pair of very late American Pipits calling nearby and spotted them flitting overhead.
It was on a long straight stretch in Tombstone Park where we saw the 40-Mile Caribou herd. Two bulls standing near the road gave us our first warning, and Rachel and Jenna’s first view.
After some photos of them, we drove ahead a little ways to see a few small herds of caribou on each side of the road. The binoculars revealed more: hundreds of caribou were scattered across the entire valley, most of them speckling the sunny mountain slopes. The herd seemed to consist mainly of females, though most were so far away that we could only just tell that they were caribou. It was a breath-taking sight: the alpine tundra was still autumn red and rolled up into gentle mountains that gave way to the migrating caribou herd.
We saw several individual caribou along the road after that on our way to Eagle Plains, along with some small groups. A magnificent bull stood in a gravelly ditch; another bull attempted running along the icy road which our van could not stop on, and found himself nearly helpless as his hooves could gain no traction; two more bulls stood silhouetted against the sky on a hill-top; a trio consisting of a bull, a cow, and a calf ran ahead of us on the road. In between caribou and naps I spotted a Great Horned Owl perched in a spruce tree top near the beginning of Eagle Plains. It was a very eventful drive.
The Eagle Plains hotel is very nice, and the people there are friendly and personable. They have cozy lounge that is filled with old northern artifacts and stuffed wildlife displays that make for a relaxing atmosphere for weary travellers. By the time we finished having lunch there, checked into our rooms, and hit the road, it was late afternoon. We were on our way to the Arctic Circle, and the closer we got the more the tension and excitement thickened in the van. Rachel and Jenna seemed pretty giddy by the time the border came into sight. Screams of excitement and wonder were carried away on the surprisingly warm arctic breeze as the girls had their photos taken at the Arctic Circle sign and ran around gathering arctic rocks to take back home.
I think that this is the third time I have found myself standing there on the Arctic Circle border, and it felt perfect. It has always been my goal to visit the Arctic and Antarctic regions, a goal I will be achieving in two months. The scenery here is so amazing – the alpine tundra was speckled with snow, and the vast Richardson Mountain Range gently rolled along the nearby horizon.
After that, we had to make a decision: go back to Eagle Plains to make it in time for supper hours, or try to beat the setting sun to the Yukon/NWT border. The choice was quickly made. We all jumped in the van and quickly took off deeper into the Arctic Circle, further north and slightly east, to where the border waited for us. It was a race against the setting sun, which was slowly turning the mountains pink and the clouds gold. The land became much more snowy, more desolate-looking, yet at the same time so eerily beautiful it felt dangerously captivating.
We drove right into the Richardson Mountain Pass, up to the top where you could look back down and see the Yukon, and look down the other side and see the Northwest Territories. The signs and the pullout came into sight, and everyone bailed out. The first thing that struck us was the freezing arctic wind; it ripped across the mountaintop from the NWT with a chill at about -26C. It was a drastic temperature change from what we had felt not even an hour back at the ‘warm’ Arctic Circle (which was at about -2 or -5C). With shivers and chatters, we all ran to take our positions for photos. We were strong enough to last about 5 minutes before we all scrambled back into the warm shelter our dutiful van provided for us.
As we drove back down the Yukon side of the mountain, the sun turned a blood-orange and set behind a mountain. The rest of our drive back out of the Arctic Circle and to Eagle Plains was in dusk. It was dark when we got back to the hotel, and the skies were mostly clear. The Aurora Forecast had predicted another 3/9 rating with Dawson being at the focus, which meant that Eagle Plains was in good range. We didn’t see any abnormal lights in the sky, so we ventured in. It turned out that even though we missed dinner hours, they were still serving soup and sandwiches, so the ones who were hungry in our party did not starve.
Before heading up to our rooms, Rachel and Jenna asked the front desk lady to call if she saw any northern lights that night, and she promised. A couple of hours later after still seeing nothing, I got out of the bathtub in time to hear our phone ring. Sure enough, it was the front desk lady reporting aurora borealis above. We couldn’t get out of the building fast enough, but when we did, they were definitely there. This time they were bright enough that they turned green. It was better than the girls had been hoping for, and they were the best northern lights I had seen so far this fall.
We all played around with our cameras trying to capture a sharp photo of the lights, and though some turned out well, none of them were really sharp. We went back in to warm up and decided to snooze as they faded away. We set our alarms for 1:30am so we could check on them again, but we were so exhausted that our phones all received an unintentionally deaf ear when 1:30am arrived.
On our way back to Dawson, we didn’t see as many caribou. The hundreds of caribou that we had seen across the valley the day before were gone; only one small herd remained. We did get to see five white Snowshoe hares and a Cross Fox though.
Our last night in Dawson was very interesting. After a bit of shopping during which I found some cheap (compared to Whitehorse), warm clothing for Antarctica, we all went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. There, Rachel and Jenna met a girl that they had been told to look for by friends in New Brunswick. This girl was working as a server in this restaurant – it was her very first night on the job. Things just fell into place; it was fate! After she got off work for the night we all met her at the bar in the Downtown Hotel so she and Rachel could do the famous Dawson City Sourtoe Cocktail. The sourtoe cocktail is a shot that consists of 40% alcohol, and a blackened, shrivelled old human toe. This toe was donated to the bar specifically for this historical northern shot, and was preserved in a box of salt. This toe was actually a spare; the toe that they were using was twice the size and had recently been deliberately swallowed by a customer and was all over the Yukon News. Rachel chugged down the shot and kissed the blackened toe like a pro, earning herself a certificate and a Sourtoe membership.
After a long, fun night of pool playing before we retired to our hotel, morning came at about 8am. It had snowed during the night, so the roads were icy and slick in some places. We all bade Dawson City goodbye, with Rachel and Jenna resolving to come back as soon as they could to live there for a couple of years. On the way back home we saw two moose in a field just outside of Dawson city limits, a couple more cross fox, and closer to Whitehorse Rachel spotted a Northern Hawk Owl perched in a tree-top. Our road trip was a complete success – the girls met their goals and we had a ball showing them around! It was very special to see the arctic and breathe the northern air again, and it was especially touching to experience right before my big expedition.
Heart O’ the North
When I come to the dim trail end,
I who have been life’s rover
This is all I would ask my friend,
over and over and over.
For a little place on a stony hill
With never another near me;
Sky o’ the north that’s vast and still
With a single star to cheer me.
Star that shines on moss-gray stone,
Graven by those who love me;
There I would lie, alone, alone,
With a single pine above me.
Pine that the north wind whinny’s through,
Oh I have been life’s lover;
And there I would lie and listen to
Eternity passing over.
~ Robert Service