August 29 2022 – Today marked the end of the rugged-north-west-and-wildlife section of our time in North America, as we left Whitehorse for Vancouver. It’s been a full-on three weeks (except for the boring waiting around for things to happen bits, of course) and it will be rather nice to have three days in Vancouver with nothing on the agenda! We can please ourselves as to where we go and what we do. Bet we end up walking a lot, though.
Anyways, we woke to a morning of slightly uncertain-looking weather, with showers forecast. Nonetheless, Jane suggested we go for a walk, so off we went. We headed for the pioneers’ graveyard
at which point it looked like it might come on to rain. I wimped out at this point, not least because I had a blog to write, and Jane carried on with her original plan, to climb the Black Street Steps,
all 250-odd of ’em. The view from the top was recommended, but, frankly, had too many things in the way to make it very rewarding.
The steps feature a side section which allows for pushing e.g. a bike up the steps,
which looks rather like hard work; Jane reports that this chap was suffering somewhat as he laboured up the steps.
The route back to the hotel led past some interesting houses,
some unsuspected lanes running parallel to the surfaced roads,
and some colourful touches.
(Above is a mural outside the Yukon Chamber of Mining.)
Jane joined me in the hotel restaurant, which we discovered sold Empress Gin,
and we had a lunch which featured enormous portions in the hope that it would keep us going for the rest of the day (which it largely did, actually).
Then it was time to get the shuttle to the airport, which sounds straightforward but wasn’t. We thought we’d booked a shuttle at 2.45, which was about right for a 4.45 flight. But the hotel reception told us that there was no shuttle at 2.45, only at 1.15 or 5pm, so we put ourselves down for the 1.15, of course. Came 1.15, but no shuttle. We spoke to the receptionist, who disappeared backstage and the next thing, the driver appeared and said, “I’ll go get the bus”. On the way, he asked us which flight we were on, and when we told him it was at 4.45, he seemed surprised that we weren’t on the 2.45 shuttle – which he was going to drive!
Whitehorse airport is, like Port Hardy, too small to support a café in the departure area, but sophisticated enough to have mains and USB charging by the seating. We had a longish wait, since we’d got there early, so the charging points and the free WiFi were very welcome.
The flight back to Vancouver passed pleasantly enough. We were right at the back, which I don’t normally care for, but there was adequate legroom and it was perfectly comfortable. Conversation with the chap next to us passed the time very nicely – he was a resident of Whitehorse going (with wife and four kids!) to visit family in Vancouver – and Jane took some photos out of the window, as conditions were clear.
Shortly after take off, we passed the hydro dam (bottom left)
and you can see the dam itself (we visited it two days ago, remember?) and the waterfall to the left of it – the barrier forcing returning salmon into the ladder which runs back and then forth past the dam. I think this photo gives a good idea of how long that salmon ladder really is (nearly a quarter of a mile).
Here are some of the other photos Jane took.
the Yukon River;
an interesting cloudbow;
some lumpy bits;
some lumpy bits with snow on them;
and finally downtown Vancouver, with the cruise terminal and Stanley Park to the left of the picture, the colourful port in the centre and Grouse Mountain to the top right.
When we arrived in the baggage hall, I noticed with some bemusement that the baggage carousel numbering started from 0. I really don’t know why, but there it is.
Our bags turned up eventually, as did a driver to take us the 30-minute journey into town and we found ourselves once again at the Fairmont Waterfront, just three floors higher than last time.
I expect that the next three days will take a toll on our shoe leather, but the weather outlook is very good, so I’m looking forward to exploring the place further. Assuming that happens, I may well take some photos, in which case they may well find their way on to these pages, should you wish to come back and check them out. See you soon, I hope.
Sunday 28 August 2022 – Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t stay asleep much beyond 8am, and soon it became clear that the same was true for Jane. Since the weather forecast was for a morning with some sunny intervals and an afternoon with cloud, we decided to go for a walk around Whitehorse to explore it beyond the rather superficial introduction we’d had from Bernie’s city tour.
One can tell, by the way, that it’s summer here from the amount of road construction work that is under way. Bernie explained that Whitehorse has four seasons: nearly winter; winter; still winter; and road construction. So it was nice to be able to stroll stroll around on a summer’s day.
Obviously, Whitehorse has a significant historical, erm, significance, from the part it had to play in the good ol’ days of the gold rush. It is, however, a fairly low-key town; not large, and possible to drive through and dismiss as dull. If you walk around on a quiet, sunny Sunday morning, however, the place has considerable charm. There’s plenty to enjoy and some things to learn, also.
There are plenty of log buildings, some historical, some more modern. One of the tourist attractions which I mentioned yesterday is the Log Skyscraper, built in 1947 by one Martin Berrigan. A massive influx of military personnel and labourers arrived to work on three major construction projects – the Alaska Highway, the North West Staging Route airports, and the Canol Pipeline – during the post-war boom; housing was at a premium (as it still is today). So Berrigan, having started by building one-storey log cabins, decided it would be more effective to build up; and the log skyscraper was born.
There are, as I say, other log buildings: a church and rectory;
a cluster of three relatively modern log buildings now used for businesses;
and many historical ones. One, the original telegraph office, is the oldest building still in its original location, and has been subsumed into the James McBride museum;
and others can be found at Shipyards Park.
There are plenty of historical timber buildings, too, such as the old fire station
and, of course, the railway station marking the end of the White Pass and Yukon route, which linked Whitehorse and Skagway from late in the 19th century. The railway only runs these days to White Pass (you will remember that we rode this route from Skagway, because you have been paying attention, haven’t you?), but the original rails are still largely in place in Whitehorse as a historical and cultural landmark.
There’s a healthy selection of murals
and statues, some quirky
and some more serious, like this memorial to workers who have been killed;
and many First Nation references and installations.
There’s evidence of a burden of guilt about the original treatment by the settlers of the indigenous peoples (which was at times appalling), along with what seems to be a genuine desire to balance this through recognition and inclusion.
In keeping with many places we’ve been to in what counts to us as the far north (Alaska, Iceland), there are many colourful and quirky touches
alongside some attractive buildings
and some evidence of housebuilding to attempt to catch up with demand for housing.
On the southern edge of the downtown area is the S.S. Klondike, the second of two sternwheelers carrying the name and now a National Historic Site. They ran freight between Whitehorse and Dawson City, along the Yukon River, the first from 1929 to 1936 and the second, an almost exact replica of the first, from 1937 to 1950.
Nearby that is a park which has a delightful kids’ splash park.
There are several fountains which operate in a cycle once a button is pressed. I was particularly taken with a bucket fill-and-tip installation
and a “ring of water”.
Whitehorse is a small town, but, alongside its significant role in governing the territory, it has some very charming corners.
In the evening, we went for a repeat visit to yesterday’s aurora viewing site. It was interesting that the lights had already started by the time we got there at about 11pm, in contrast to the day before, when we had to wait 90 minutes for the show to start. This show was better for spectators – it covered large parts of the sky and was brighter than the previous one – but in a way less good for photography, because there was less variety in the colours on display. Nonetheless, we got a few images which we think are pretty pleasing.
This one is Jane’s favourite – a whiskery troll’s howling face in the sky.
Thus ended the second aurora session and, once again, we got our heads down at about 3.30am with a hope for some semblance of sleep before we had to get up and check out. It was our last full day in Whitehorse; we head back to Vancouver tomorrow afternoon for the chance to draw breath before embarking on the next section of this trip. We look forward to exploring Vancouver in some more detail, so please keep checking in to see what we got up to there.
Saturday 27 August 2022 – Despite a late night, we couldn’t indulge ourselves with a late rising because we were booked on a City Tour starting at 10am. We took breakfast in the hotel; it was a substantial rather than a luxury offering, but tasty – and they have Earl Grey tea. The dining room (in fact much of the hotel) is set up with vibes from the good ol’ days when people came out here to die whilst failing to find gold.
After breakfast, whilst Jane was discussing the strange antics of the telephone in our room with reception, I popped outside to see what the temperature was. Looking through the hotel window, I’d been disconcerted to see ice in the gutter outside.
It turned out to be foamy detergent runoff, presumably from cleaning the car. The temperature outside was mild – about 10°C.
For the City Tour our guide was Bernie, originally from Germany but a long-time resident here. He first took us to the Hydro Dam, which uses the Yukon River for electricity generation.
Impressive as the mighty flow of the river is, it’s not as impressive as the facility that runs beside it – the longest wooden salmon ladder in the world.
These pictures tell only half the story, but, as a digression, if you look at the picture above you can see a beaver in the water. He obligingly popped out for his close-up (yes, I know I’m making an assumption here; deal with it)
and then rather satisfyingly buggered off before anyone else in our little tour group could get a photo. The salmon ladder extends out the other way as well before turning back on itself for a total distance of 1182 feet to help the salmon rise 60 feet vertically and bypass the dam, which would otherwise be an impassable barrier.
The dam constructors specifically put in an impassable waterfall to ensure that the salmon made their way up the ladder.
There is a hatchery there, which deals in the Chinook breed of salmon that inhabit the river. Inside, there are windows into the ladder
alongside much other information about this particular salmon run, which, at 2,000 miles, is the longest in the world (the red line in this map).
The shape of that red line is used in a rather nice, if slightly dog-eared, artwork outside
and there’s much other artwork on the salmonid theme there
along with a rather depressingly low number of returning salmon counted there this year – 128 so far, when in previous years the total was in the thousands. It all underlines the increasing challenges the salmon have to overcome in the face of climate change.
Bernie then took us to the Whitehorse visitor centre (via the log skyscraper, of which I hope to write tomorrow). He explained a lot about the geography of the whole vast area – Alaska, Yukon and the North Western Territory
in which mining is a major industry – all sorts of minerals come from this part of the world, celebrated in a display case in the centre.
The other major industries of the area are government – Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon territory – and tourism. He also explained that it was an expanding town. There were lots of well-paid job vacancies, but the trouble is that house-building hasn’t kept pace, meaning that accommodation is (a) hard to come by and (b) expensive.
That was the end of the City Tour (it’s a small place, and Jane and I have a plan to walk round it to explore it further tomorrow, weather permitting); but Jane had spotted another tour which looked interesting, to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. As it happened, Bernie led that tour as well. The preserve is about half an hour’s drive from Whitehorse and is home to around a dozen Yukon species, each in their own natural areas, spread over 350 acres. One can walk round the 3-mile trails, but Bernie took us in his minibus. Here’s a selection of pictures of what we saw; each species is in wire-fenced enclosures, some of which are very large and so we couldn’t get close, but we certainly got a flavour of the wildlife and spotted several species we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see.
red fox (actually, this one was wild, nothing to do with the preserve);
thinhorn sheep, female and male;
a cute little arctic fox, which Jane captured very nicely;
reindeer, or caribou as they’re known in these here parts;
a scene which should have featured a moose but it was hiding somewhere;
and – my favourite – a lynx. I wouldn’t have spotted it, but Jane did and between us we managed to get a very satisfactory image even though it was quite distant. My mobile phone did a great job, here.
There are other photos – no, really – but these are the pick of the bunch in my view.
As I’ve hinted before and elsewhere, we had an activity booked to start at 10.30pm, so we went out for dinner to store up the necessary energy. Jane’s first choice, a joint called Klondike Rib and Salmon, was taking walk-in customers only and the line of them stretched down the street. So we headed for another place, one Bernie had recommended as we drove around on his tour. It is called Antoinette’s and has, I think, been recently opened, because they had all sorts of signs around the outside insisting that they were, indeed, open. They also had a table free, so we had their unusual twist of Yukon and Caribbean cuisine, and very good it was, too. I’ve not eaten bison or elk before, and this meal enabled me to try both.
Then it was time for our evening activity, which was an attempt to see the Northern Lights; this is actually the principal reason we visited Whitehorse, and was as part of a special Aurora package put together by Northern Tales, a local agency (who also provided our City Tour and Wildlife Preserve tour earlier). We were whisked away to a site north of Whitehorse (and not too far away from the wildlife preserve, as it happens), where there were a couple of heated cabins, drinks, snacks, a bonfire and an open area where we could set up to view and photograph the Aurora Borealis. As anyone who has tried this will know, success is entirely a matter of chance, and the initial omens weren’t too good, as we drove there through what sounded like heavy rain. The rain, at least, had largely ceased by the time we got there, and so I busied myself with the relatively drawn-out process of setting up to get photos should the clouds decide to clear and the aurora to turn up. This excursion was basically the reason I had toted a tripod and an extra wide-angle lens with me, though it turns out that I could have left the tripod at home, as they provided some. Never mind, I am familiar with mine which helps, I think.
After a few minutes, it seemed that the rain was going to hold off, so I set my tripod up with the camera and a remote trigger on it and checked, as far as I could, that I had a working setup. jane helpfully made tea and eventually (because the cabin was too warm and the weather was not cold) we settled down on a seat near my and others’ tripods and stared into the far distance to see if we could see anything happening. It was really quite dark by that stage, although we could just make out lighter and darker patches; after a while of getting dark adapted, my eyes started playing tricks on me and I could have sworn I saw flickering patterns in the sky and the odd occasional dancing light. We waited for about an hour, between 1130 and half-past midnight, taking occasional photos of dark sky and clouds. I got to the stage where I thought I could entitle this blog post “I came for the Northern Lights and all I got was this bloody wildlife” when we thought that maybe we saw a little extra light out to the north. So I took another photo, and, sure enough there was a tiny flash of green in the far distance.
Was it real?
The next 90 minutes was an orgy of photo taking and checking the results as best one can in near-total darkness. I thanked God for a Nikon product called Snapbridge, which transferred photos from camera to phone, so we could check results on a phone screen rather than on the small one on the back of the camera.
It was great. We didn’t see the gorgeous dancing hanging curtains of light so beloved of marketing departments; but we did see enough to make staying up until 3am worthwhile.
A fundamental truth of the northern lights is that they are rarely bright enough for the human eye to see the colours; camera sensors, however, have greater colour sensitivity. Often, humans see just a greyish light when the camera shows green. But sometimes the lights are bright enough so that the cones in the human eye can make out colours; and so it proved now – we could just about make out the colours, although they were much clearer on digital images.
I took a lot of photos. No, really. But to save you the agony of looking through them, here’s a video constructed from two sequences of photos from two slightly different viewpoints.
Obvs, I’m pretty pleased with that little selection, but that may just be because I’ve only had four hours’ sleep and I’m getting hysterical.
You’ll be glad to know (yes, you will) that we repeat the whole process tonight, so I may take a few more snaps and share them with you. Come back tomorrow and see whether the clouds got in the way or not.