How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dawson City and the Top of the World - Thawing Rivers and Wildfires

19th and 20th July 2016

Dawson City feels like the most remote city on Earth. To get there by road, one can travel 532 kilometers northwest from Whitehorse on YT2 or 298 miles northeast from Tok, Alaska on the Taylor Highway and then YT9 (a.k.a. "the Top of the World Highway"). Neither one of these options offers easy open highway. Both involve narrow, two-lane roads, with long areas of no pavement, some areas of pavement that have been dramatically altered by "frost heaves," no guardrails, soft shoulders, precipitous drops from the soft shoulders and many areas where roadworks are being undertaken. I drive to Dawson City from Whitehorse and from Dawson City to Tok, thus being able to take in the full perspective of access, for better and worse.

A Section of Yukon Highway 2
One of my recurrent dreams (or nightmares) is driving along a deserted, narrow road, with no guardrails and precipitous drops. As I drive through the wilderness of Yukon and Alaska, I am hoping those dreams are just manifestations of sub-conscious fears of constraint, changes in life, loss of control, etc., rather than prophecy. I pass two accidents, which are statistically alarming, since I only pass about 20 other cars along the entire route. Police are on the scene (where did they come from?) The cars are mutilated beyond recovery. I hate to think about what happened to the people inside. I think this is what happens when you hit a moose at high speed. Arctic ground squirrels dart about and play Russian roulette on the road in front of my vehicle. Ravens clean up the losers. I drive slowly.

Baby Arctic Ground Squirrel - Too cute to squash
The trip up YK2 takes much longer than anticipated for the above reasons, and I get in to Dawson City around 11:00 pm. It seems much earlier because the sun is still up. Given its proximity to the Arctic Circle, Dawson City enjoys about three hours of semi-darkness in the summer, with a similar amount of semi-lightness in the winter. I am glad to be here in the summer. The office to the roadside motel is closed, but this isn't a problem because they have left keys in all the doors for late arrivals. A helpful board on the door lets me know which rooms are available. "Help yourself and pay in the morning," it says. Isolation seems to have some benefits, trusting your neighbors being one of them.

Modern Dawson City on the Yukon River
I spend the following morning taking a tour around Dawson City. The town experienced its boom era more than a century ago, during the Klondike gold rush of the late 19th Century. The boom was brief, starting in 1896 and ending only a few years later in the early 1900's, as prospectors moved on to the next boom town. At its peak, Dawson City had a population of about 30,000 people. Today it has about 1,500. While some people made their fortunes during the Klondike gold rush. Most did not.

Main Street Dawson City
"All Yukon belong to my papas. All Klondike belong my people. Long time all mine. Hills all mine, caribou all mine, moose all mine, rabbits all mine, gold all mine. White man come and take all my gold. Take millions, take more hundreds fifty millions, and blow ‘em in Seattle. Now Moosehide Injun want Christmas. Game is gone. White man kills all moose and caribou near Dawson... Moosehides hunt up Klondike, up Sixtymile, up Twentymile, but game is all gone. White man kill all" (Chief Isaac of the Tr'ochek Han, quoted in Dawson Daily News, 16th December 1911). Today, only two people speak the Han language fluently, and they are both in their 80's. The cost of gold is high.

A casino and ravens in Dawson City
No bridge has been constructed across the Yukon, and the government of Canada provides a ferry service to take vehicles across the river from Dawson City to West Dawson during the summer months. During the fall, winter and spring, people can just drive their cars across the frozen river. The only time when it is not possible to cross the river is during the spring "break up" and the fall "freeze up." During these times, the  approximately 200 people living in West Dawson, who even under normal conditions are "off the grid," are completely isolated. During break-up and freeze-up it is traditional for people in Dawson City to open their homes to the people of West Dawson. The process usually takes between three and six weeks. Spring break-up typically takes place during the first or second week of May. 2016 set a record, when the began to break up at 11:15 am on April 23rd. Someday soon a bridge may be required.

A view of the Yukon River from my car window, as I cross from Dawson City to West Dawson
The Top of the World Highway snakes along mountaintops across the distance between West Dawson and Tok, Alaska, crossing over the U.S. border along the way. Except for one small town (Chicken, Alaska), in approximately the middle of the distance, the area is practically devoid of human settlement, with the exception of a few small-scale gold mining operations along the way. From what I can tell, the population of Chicken is approximately 10, and the town consists of a gas station, gift shop and restaurant (where they serve excellent food, by the way).

Like most small towns in these parts, Chicken started as a small gold mining outpost. Apparently, the original settlers wanted to name the town "Ptarmigan," but they couldn't spell the name of that particular species of fowl and so decided upon "Chicken" instead.

Not a Chicken, in Chicken Alaska
If one manages to survive the pitfalls, the views from the Top of the World are spectacular. Dense forest cover at lower elevations gives way to herbaceous meadows above the tree line. The seemingly endless landscape of mountains and rivers is interrupted only by wildfire scars, which when functioning according to nature's laws, cleanse the earth of dead and diseased things and bring forth healthy new life.
View from the Top of the World
Fireweed is the official plant of Yukon. It is often the first plant to emerge from the ashes of forest fires and therefore symbolizes rebirth and renewal after adversity. I can think of no better symbol for this place.

Fireweed at the Top of the World
The next morning, I leave my campground at Tok and head for Fairbanks. After a short distance, I cross over the Robertson River Bridge, noticing as I cross a mother moose, leading her calf across the shallow river below. I stop on the bridge to watch (I can do this because there really is no traffic at all, and it's 6:00 am in the morning). While I am watching, a pickup truck pulls up next to me, heading in the opposite direction. An elderly Native American gentleman is inside the truck, motioning me to roll down my window. I do. He tells me with tears welling up in his eyes that the mother moose is teaching the calf how to swim and to cross the river. We both agree it is a beautiful sight it is to see.

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