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Klondike or Bust! By Bus!

Klondike or Bust! By Bus!

Each summer, thousands of tourists witness the Yukon through the windows of air-conditioned tour buses. What’s the territory like from their side of the tinted glass? We jumped on board for a surprisingly wild ride.
By Eva Holland
Jul 03
2013
From the July 2015 Issue

Ellie was our narrator. She introduced herself over the loudspeaker as the White Pass & Yukon Route train lurched and rocked and squeaked its way out of Skagway, Alaska, bound for the international border at the top of the mountain pass. She was chipper and confident, pointing out landmarks and dropping well-practiced jokes as we shed the small port town and began our climb up to Canada. 

As we rolled past the White Pass maintenance yard, Ellie directed our attention to an ancient engine, the old No. 52, which – she told us – dated to 1881. “We like to call it the little engine that could but no longer can,” she said. The passengers around me chuckled.

“Get a picture of that, hurry!”

In the middle of a brief safety talk, she reminded children under 16: “Please have a responsible adult with you at all times.” Then, mischievous, she added: “And that goes for all the husbands, too.” The passengers around me chuckled more. 

Ellie was our narrator. She introduced herself over the loudspeaker as the White Pass & Yukon Route train lurched and rocked and squeaked its way out of Skagway, Alaska, bound for the international border at the top of the mountain pass. She was chipper and confident, pointing out landmarks and dropping well-practiced jokes as we shed the small port town and began our climb up to Canada. 

As we rolled past the White Pass maintenance yard, Ellie directed our attention to an ancient engine, the old No. 52, which – she told us – dated to 1881. “We like to call it the little engine that could but no longer can,” she said. The passengers around me chuckled.

In the middle of a brief safety talk, she reminded children under 16: “Please have a responsible adult with you at all times.” Then, mischievous, she added: “And that goes for all the husbands, too.” The passengers around me chuckled more. 

As we trundled our way up to the height of the pass, our horizon expanded: We could see all the way back to the Chilkat Mountains that surround Haines, Alaska, more than 30 kilometres away. Ahead of us, the sheer cliffs and dark green forests of the climb gave way to an alpine moonscape, all snow and rock and scrappy, stunted evergreens. 

“Oh, isn’t that beautiful!” 

“Get a picture of that, hurry!”

I wasn’t sure exactly what I had expected from this ride. During my time in the Yukon I’d heard plenty of snide remarks about the ignorance and apathy of the bus-bound tourists who rolled through our home. But so far I was surrounded by pure enthusiasm. In an age of irony and attitude, there was something endearing about the unabashedness of the passengers on the train. As we rolled into the station at Fraser, ready to board our bus for the Yukon, I wondered whether their joy could possibly last through more than 1,000 kilometres of potholed highway and scenic-viewpoint pullouts. I wondered how I would feel by the end of the odyssey, too.

Andy, our driver and guide, wore clip-on shades on his glasses, a light-blue long-sleeved shirt and a navy blue tie. He was tall and lean, a surfer from Seattle who’d lived most recently in California, and he’d been driving for Holland America for seven summers before this one; even before he got the driving gig, he’d been coming north to work in a cannery. “I just keep coming back like the salmon,” he said. He was joined at the front of the bus (or “motorcoach,” as we were reminded, which I supposed was a branding effort meant to keep us from thinking too hard about rattletrap school buses) by David, our tour director, a sort of onboard concierge who would handle the logistics of our arrivals and departures, our hotels and tour bookings in town. 

The coach itself was roomy, with leather seats and personal reading lights above our heads, like on a plane. Outside, it was painted a brilliant blue, with what must have been a life-sized image of a killer whale flinging itself past a bold Holland America logo. Checked bags rode in the storage bays below us; carry-ons sat in the overhead racks above.

We made a brief stop at customs before leaving Fraser behind us. The straight-faced agent who boarded asked Andy and David if they planned to leave or sell anything in Canada. She glanced down the aisle at the busload of tourists, and – unexpectedly – cracked a smile. “Don’t sell them,” she said, gesturing our way. Then she stepped down onto the asphalt and we were off.

“There’s a number of ways you can become a true sourdough, a true Northerner,” he said. “If you’ve shot a moose, you’ve jumped in the Yukon River, you’ve taken the Sourtoe Cocktail…”

As we headed north towards the Yukon border and the village of Carcross, our first stop, Andy introduced us to Canada in a mellow, hypnotic voice. We would hear temperatures cited in Celsius, he reminded us – we shouldn’t be alarmed by the low numbers. Road signs were in kilometres now, and the Canadian dollar was about on par with the American dollar. He sketched the differences between territories and provinces, touched on the geology and geography of the area, and, of course, addressed the weather.

“You can see snowdrifts up to 30 feet in winter,” he said, as we gazed out at the late-May tundra still choked with snow. Shocked murmurs rose from the rows of seats.

“And temperatures can get down to minus-30, minus-40.” Guffaws.

 “They’re a different breed up here,” he said. “If you meet them at the bar, don’t try to keep up with them. Do I speak from experience? I’ll let you decide.”

In Carcross, a dusty village on the sandy shore of Lake Bennett, he gave us a whirlwind driving tour before letting us off the bus for 30 minutes of free time. “If the library’s closed, it means the one book’s checked out,” he quipped. The passengers spilled off the bus and into the Matthew Watson General Store (“the Yukon’s oldest operating general store”) in search of ice cream and postcards and photo ops. “His wife’s not too keen on a pelt,” I heard someone say as we browsed the store’s cramped shelves.

Just north of Carcross, we had a five-minute photo stop at surreal Emerald Lake, its waters shot through with a fluorescent turquoise. From there, Andy introduced us to our first “Yukon traffic jam” – a stoppage brought on by construction on the highway – and pointed out the unusual percentage of women working on the Yukon’s road crews. “They’re a different breed up here,” he said. “If you meet them at the bar, don’t try to keep up with them. Do I speak from experience? I’ll let you decide.”

We pulled into the parking lot of the Westmark Hotel in Whitehorse just before 7 p.m. The passengers shook themselves awake and disembarked, ready for a meal and a night’s sleep. Tomorrow would be another long, full day.

In the morning, as we motored out of Whitehorse just after 8 a.m., Andy promised us that today we would truly enter the Yukon wilderness. “We’ll escape the rat race of Whitehorse, the big city, and head to idyllic Dawson,” he said as we passed by the last stoplight on our way out of town. It was still early in the tour season – the river banks were crusted with thick slabs of ice and snow – and there were just 19 passengers on the bus. Eileen and Irene and their husbands were here, and a mother traveling with her father, her young son, and her nephew. There were three other older couples, too, and an old man traveling with his daughter and son-in-law, and a stylish pair of 30-something Italians who seemed distinctly out of place.

As we drove, Andy told us about the building of the Alaska Highway, mentioned the Yukon Quest and the Yukon River Quest, explained the discoloration caused by glacial silt as we crossed the bridge over the Takhini River. He was well-informed and thorough. But we were a quiet group before our first coffee stop: The only competition for Andy’s patter was the soft snoring of a large man two rows back and across the aisle from me. 

We watched elk roam in pale brown clusters on the steep hills above the highway. We stared out the window at the charred remnants of a massive forest fire, all pipe-cleaner tree skeletons and bare land. We tumbled out of the bus at Braeburn Lodge to fortify ourselves with coffee and dinner-plate-sized cinnamon buns, and as my fellow passengers stood in the dirt parking lot outside the old wooden roadhouse, staring up at the sky, I guessed that many of them had never been anywhere that felt so remote, so devoid of brand-name signage and the shiny plastic-and-metal trappings of a modern highway rest stop. I’d never found the North Klondike Highway, the road from Whitehorse to Dawson, all that impressive – especially when stacked against the mountainous, ice-crusted drama of the South Klondike or the Alaska Highway. But as my bus-mates stared out the windows of the coach at the endless, empty land around us, I got the sense that the drive was bringing home the scale of the country for them. I was being reminded of it myself.

“Anyone know the dimensions of a moose?” Andy asked us. “Big!” One woman called out.

Later, David popped up to tell us about the Sourtoe, Dawson City’s infamous cocktail laced with a frostbitten human toe. Andy chimed in. “There’s a number of ways you can become a true sourdough, a true Northerner,” he said. “If you’ve shot a moose, you’ve jumped in the Yukon River, you’ve taken the Sourtoe Cocktail…” It was the only mistake I ever caught him making – as any newcomer knows, the only way to get any cred around here is to spend a full winter, from freeze-up to break-up. But I let it pass.

We stopped at the Minto resort, the first place we’d visited that I’d never been before, for lunch. It was a tidy collection of cabins and campsites, tucked away from the sight of highway drivers right on the eroding banks of the Yukon River. We ate chili and coleslaw and bannock, and I watched the others line up to photograph the handwritten chalkboard sign welcoming us to the land of the Selkirk First Nation. In the afternoon, Andy’s banter carried us through Pelly Crossing and Stewart Crossing, and the quiet of the morning began to lift. 

Wildlife was a favourite topic. “Anyone know the dimensions of a moose?” Andy asked us. “Big!” One woman called out.

And as we neared the point where the highway split, with a left turn taking us to Dawson City and a right turn taking us to Mayo, Andy and David launched into a corny routine. “If we could just sandwich Mayo into our tour, I would relish the opportunity.” 

“I don’t know if we have the time, though. It could get us in a pickle.” 

“We’d be playing ketchup all day.”

I laughed and groaned with the rest. This was the sort of stuff that sets local eyes rolling, I suppose – the cheesy jokes and banter; the rote, obligatory photo ops. Our stops were measured in minutes – five minutes at Emerald Lake, five minutes at Five Finger Rapids, 10 minutes at Miles Canyon, 15 minutes at Braeburn Lodge. I found myself scoffing at the perfunctory, parsimonious nature of these stops: a kind of checklist tourism. But then again, I realized, how often in my own travels around the Yukon had I ever spent more than five minutes at the Emerald Lake pullout? When was the last time I’d even bothered to stop?

Every discarded blown tire and gaping pothole had become a bear in the distance.

I thought back to the train ride the day before. From the tracks across the valley, I’d been able to see the mountain looming above the Klondike Highway, a whole huge mass of treeless stone. I’d never glimpsed it before, in 30 or 40 trips up and down that road: It wasn’t visible from the highway. And, I realized, as we drove I was paying closer attention to the landscape than I ever had before, straining my eyes for wildlife in a way that I can’t when I’m at the wheel. Every discarded blown tire and gaping pothole had become a bear in the distance.

As we drove into Dawson City and Andy piloted us towards the hotel, I saw the town with fresh eyes, helped along by the fascinated murmurs of my seatmates. The peeling, colourful wooden buildings, the dusty boardwalked streets. Surrounded by so much rookie enthusiasm, it was impossible not to get caught up in a newfound enjoyment of my home, a place that these people had paid hundreds of dollars and travelled thousands of miles to see.

From Dawson, David’s group would cross back into Alaska and go on to Tok, Fairbanks and Denali National Park, ending their tour in Anchorage. In the morning, I left them there and rode back to Whitehorse with another group, doing the same route in reverse. My new tour director, Emily, was a cheery, curly-haired brunette with a Southern twang; Andy was behind the wheel of the coach once again.

This busload, 28 in all, was made up uniformly of older couples, and they were chattier than my last bunch had been. As we rolled out of Dawson they responded to Emily’s greetings with a loud chorus of “Good morning!” They reassured each other that the “toe” in the shots they’d downed last night had surely been some sort of fake. When we spotted a gawky young black bear by the side of the highway, and Andy declared that “the market’s a bit bearish today,” they rewarded him with loud groans. 

I settled back in my seat and stared out the window, appreciating every minute.