Go North Episode 18
It had been nearly 5 months on the road in our Lance 1172 truck camper when we exited mainland Alaska and crossed back into Canada in mid-September to start our long trek back south to the contiguous United States.
Mid-September brought cooler temperatures and wet weather which was great for helping stop the wildfires that had been burning throughout Alaska and northern Canada all summer and upon crossing the border into Canada we witnessed the last of one of these fires smoldering away.
This section of the Alaska Highway is quite remote but traverses some beautiful lands. Our first stop back in Canada was along Kluane Lake because it has some amazing shoreline boondocking and incredible views! We spent a few days here soaking in this majestic place, hiking the shoreline and watching our wildlife neighbors that would come and go.
With the help of our LivinLite.net MobileMustHaves Connectivity equipment and cell plans, we were able to boost our signal and get some work done for a couple of days.
Once we got back on the road our next stop was Haines Junction. As the name implies, it’s the junction of the Alaska Highway and Highway 3 that connects to Haines, Alaska. We stayed the night in a campground here to refresh our supplies, and visited the Da Ku Cultural and Visitors Center. Here we learned about the native tribes of the area and about Kluane National Park that borders the highway to the west.
Kluane National Park & Mount Logan
This park is enormous; it covers almost 9000 square miles of rugged terrain and includes the second highest peak in North America called Mount Logan. This mountain is only 600 feet shorter than the famous Denali and holds the record for the largest non-volcanic mountain by base area on Earth! While we didn’t get to see this amazing mountain (as it is located closer to the shoreline and not viewable from the road), it was fascinating to learn about.
After learning about Kluane National Park and some more about Haines, Alaska, we decided to make the trek south instead of continuing on the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse.
This drive turned out to be spectacular, as it was accented by the intense yellow of the fall foliage. Kluane National Park stretches west of the highway here all the way to the Canadian-Alaskan border that it shares with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park that we had visited earlier in the trip in Alaska. It is a part of a larger Kluane / Wrangell–St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses 4 national & provincial parks and protects over 24 million acres of American and Canadian lands and the world’s largest non-polar ice fields.
We made our first stop at Kathleen Lake that is inside Kluane National Park. We learned that this lake houses a special type of fish called the kokanee salmon. This is a unique species of salmon found only here that does not migrate to the ocean and lives solely within the waters of this lake. These salmon are sockeye salmon that were trapped in the lake when a massive ice dam formed in the 1700s by the Lowell Glacier, trapping the fish in the lake and forcing them to adapt to life in freshwater. When the dam finally broke the fish were so used to this new way of life that they continue to stay here year round.
Further down the road we hiked up into Kluane National Park to Rock Glacier. We followed this beautiful trail up to the nose of a glacier-like structure consisting solely of rocks. At one time a glacier flowed down this mountain slope and got covered in falling rock debris. The ice continued to flow extremely slow, and carried the rocks down hill with it. Over the years the ice melted away but left this amazing pile of rocks that is so distinct on this hillside.
We continued our drive south and found an amazing boondocking site right along a river shortly before crossing back into Alaska.
The final section of drive before getting to Alaska was high elevation tundra, but quickly started to descend into a vastly different terrain of dense forest, and at the lower elevations the fall colors all but disappeared as we got closer to the coastline.
Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
The road runs down into the Chilkat River Valley and follows the river out to the ocean and the town of Haines. This valley was incredibly beautiful and the road had many pull offs to take in the views. These river flats are also part of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve that protects this river for the birds that use this area for both nesting and during their fall migration. We were here a bit too early to see the spectacle of thousands of eagles that stop here on their way south in November to feed on salmon in the river, but we did see a few of the locals and learned tons about these spectacular birds from the educational signs along the road.
Haines is a small town straddling the peninsula between the Chilkat and Chilkoot Inlets. While it is ocean water that laps at the shore, this town is part of the fjords and islands that make up most of southern Alaska’s panhandle and it still 150 miles to the open ocean by water.
We first explored this peninsula and visited two sites of the Chilkat State Park which makes up a good chunk of the land. We took a hike here along the Battery Point Trail to enjoy this lush northern rainforest and to soak up the humidity that we had not seen all
summer. These parks were popular with the locals and offered views of the town from the water.
summer. These parks were popular with the locals and offered views of the town from the water.
The Hammer Museum
While exploring Downtown Haines, we saw a giant hammer on the main street. Intrigued, we investigated to find The Hammer Museum!
This museum has thousands of hammers on display and was started in 2002 by Dave Pahl, a blacksmith and avid collector.
The hammer museum had, flexible hammers, curved hammers, gold hammers, soft hammers, big hammers, small hammers and every other kind of hammer you can think of. Being a mechanical nerd and wannabe blacksmith this museum was right up Tom’s alley.
Alaska Marine Highway
Haines is typically accessed by the highway that we had come in on, by cruise ship, or the Alaska Marine Highway, which we were opting for as our way out. As so many of the communities in southern Alaska are so far spread and roads are difficult or impossible to build, Alaska’s transportation is frequently by air or water.
Affectionately called the “Blue Canoes,” the Marine Highway ships sail between the islands and mainland communities with passengers, cargo, and their vehicles. We were loading the truck camper onto this ferry to make the short crossing from Haines to Skagway, Alaska, preventing us from backtracking, and saving us upwards of 5 hours of drive time.
Our day for sailing had taken a turn for the worse with clouds rolling in, spitting rain and very high winds, but that is not too unusual for this time of year. We drove on to the boat and with inches to spare were nestled into the vehicle deck.
After getting parked we went topside to watch our departure. These boats make some long treks, up and down the Alaska Coast and way out into the Aleutian Islands. One thing that some passengers do is setup tents on the deck, sleep under the heat lamps, or make one of the indoor lounges home for the journey. While they may not be cruise ships they are an economical way to get around the coast.
As we neared Skagway the first thing we noticed were the cruise ships. We were told that this port can handle 5 ships at once as this is a popular cruise destination. After a rough docking we headed back to our vehicle to disembark.
This town has a rich history as it was where many of the miners sailed to during the Klondike Gold Rush to start their journey north. This town boomed during the gold rush years and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park preserves this history. Unfortunately, it was closed for the season and the weather was too poor to hike the famous Chilkoot Trail, but we did a little shopping, as gold rush-era advertisements still called to us from the hillsides and the stores were still there.
After our short visit to the town we hit the road driving the Klondike Highway that climbs up into white pass. The weather was poor but we could see the train tracks ascending the pass on the other side of the valley, and stopped briefly to learn about the reservoir and pipe that provide hydroelectric power to the town of Skagway. Upon reaching the top of the pass we settled in for the night at a pull-off, hoping the weather would improve by morning.
As we had hoped, we awoke to a much nicer day and continued our drive and made our 7th border crossing of the trip back into Canada. We had been down so many beautiful roads on this trip, but this one was definitely top of our list winding along breathtaking remote lakes.
About an hour and a half north of the border we came to the small town of Carcross, the name being shortened from its original designation as Caribou Crossing. The town is famous for mountain biking, and being home to the World’s Smallest Desert!
…Okay, it’s not really a desert, but it looks like one, and stands out because these tan-colored dunes seem to be completely out of place here in the north. When massive glacial lakes of the past dried, this sand was left behind and blown into this one square mile patch of sand that we had a blast hiking and playing on.
Our final leg of this drive took us up to the city of Whitehorse where we were mainly going to reprovision, however we did explore the town a bit and visit Miles Canyon that the Yukon River flows through, just upstream of town.
We learned that the river is dammed near the town to submerge the treacherous rapids and make these waters more navigable. The rapids that are no longer were said to resemble the mane of a white horse and are how the town got its name.
From here we would once again turn south as the weather was getting colder by the day, and while we thought we had seen the last of Alaska, one final adventure in the Last Frontier awaited.