Travel blog – Vancouver to Yukon part 2 – Watson Lake to Whitehorse, & in Whitehorse

Saturday morning I left Watson Lake after (finally) finding a service station that carried winter windshield washer fluid (there’s a chance it will go below zero in Dawson this week), but still didn’t find anywhere I could check tire pressure – the second day in a row I had this problem.  Regardless, I got on the road to Whitehorse – which involved crossing the BC-Yukon border a couple more times first.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about the drive – the scenery was still amazing (Mountains! Lakes! Rivers! Buffalo!) and I crossed paths with virtually no one.  My GPS (and GoogleMaps) vastly overestimated the amount of time it would take to get to Whitehorse, so after a brief stop at Rancheria Falls for a 10-minute scenic walk and Teslin for lunch in the roadside food stop there, I got to Whitehorse hours earlier than expected.  Despite the rapidly-approaching equinox, the days are significantly longer here than in Vancouver so this left me many hours of daylight to explore.

I should pause here for a moment to comment on the time of year.  I chose to come this week because it best fit my work schedule – my peak work time goes roughly from March to October, with peaks in April and late August, and a three-week break starting in mid-September.  Being self-employed, if I don’t do the work, nobody does.  So vacationing for more than a week during the Northern summer is difficult – this really made living (and travelling) in Australia last year quite convenient.

When I started to plan things, I discovered very rapidly that much of the Yukon shuts down in September (likewise with NWT and Nunavut, which I hope to visit next year and may need to sacrifice some work to do).  I did my best to plan around this, and to accept that some things (like all of the historic sites in Dawson, for example) would simply be closed when I arrived.  Based on the often-wrong AAA guide and the more-often-right Moon Guide I had, a number of attractions closed down after Labour Day, while others wait a couple more weeks.  I even planned to arrive some places immediately before they closed for the season – like the S.S. Klondike, a national historic site adjacent to the Yukon River in downtown Whitehorse.

I understood, from a tweet I exchanged with Parks Canada Yukon that S.S. Klondike would close for the season on September 21, a week from my arrival date in Whitehorse.  For some reason (I’m assuming based on one of my guides, or checking their website when I drafted it) I have a note in my itinerary saying it was to close after September 16, one day after my arrival date in Whitehorse.  Upon arrival, I found the S.S. Klondike closed and the visitor centre (where one is supposed to buy tickets for it) boarded up, with no signs explaining anything.  I found the Parks Canada site for it which said it closed after Labour Day – which matches another tweet they sent out about a month ago that I missed.  Disappointing – not the end of the world, as I’m sure an old steamboat can only be so entertaining – but disappointing nonetheless.

I also fortunately arrived early enough in the day to see one of the Waterfront Trolley’s last trips of the season; Saturday (the day I arrived) was its last day.  Other things that closed before I got here: Frantic Follies shows, Gray Line city tours, Old Log Church Museum, and the Yukon Transportation Museum.  And virtually everything else (except for a few local businesses) is already on “winter hours” – which in some cases means only open two days a week.  The flightseeing I had hoped to do in Kluane National Park fell through as they only go with groups of two or more and literally no one else had booked a flight in the time that I’m here.

I knew all of this before, of course, but I would be doing an injustice to future travelers if I didn’t point out: there’s no reason these things should all be closed.  When I booked my accommodation, four months ago, I got one of the last rooms in town.  No one has been able to explain to me what’s in town to cause that, but everyone I talk to has suggested this week has been an exceptionally busy time for everything in town – there are lots of visitors here.  I visited a museum Sunday that said it was a “really busy” day for them.  But what’s more: Whitehorse, and the Yukon in general (as well as Northern BC), is beautiful this time of year.  Yes, it’s cold – overnight lows are headed rapidly towards zero and when the wind starts blowing it’s quite chilly even though the daytime temperatures are nominally in the teens.  But it’s autumn in Canada, and it’s not snowing.  The river is still flowing (rapidly but not flooding), the mountains have beautiful glaciers on them, the leaves are changing, and the roads and skies are clear.  The scene is simply magnificent.  I couldn’t think of a better time to be here.

But anyway, back to my travels.  So I got into town, checked into my hotel, called and learned that the flightseeing I had hoped to do was not going to happen, and went for a walk to the S.S. Klondike since, as far as I still knew at that point, it was only going to be open until the next day.  The waterfront Millennium Trail has been very recently redone and is a beautiful walk along the Yukon River, stretching from one end of the central part of the city to the other.  I arrived at the S.S. Klondike, saw it was closed as I mentioned, and decided to take a wander through the city.

Whitehorse is really quite a wonderful city. Despite all the things one would expect to hinder its “urban” character (being Northern, and having only about 20,000 residents, to name a couple), Whitehorse is decidedly a city.  The first thing that really startled me was the bike infrastructure – there are bike lanes everywhere! Not only that, but there are bike racks everywhere – nice ones, too! And the best part is that even in the somewhat-cold weather, people are cycling everywhere.  Based on what I was seeing, there was probably a 1:1:1 driver/cyclist/pedestrian ratio in the downtown area – and somehow, it all works.

The other very urban thing I love about the city is all the public art – it’s everywhere! In addition to bike racks in all sorts of interesting shapes (like these ones in front of the CBC building that actually form its logo), there are statues and sculptures and murals everywhere!  Every block seems to have something new and interesting to look at.  There’s also a bit of political subtext in the air – some of which manifests itself in political messages posted in random places.  There were lots of “Save The Peel” (River / watershed) stickers everywhere, and a sign on the way into town read: “blindly following bad leaders=war.”

I ended up at Lil’s Diner for dinner (onion rings are a vegetable right?) and a delicious root beer float.  I followed it up with a quiet night in watching part of Saturday Night Live and planning the next couple of days.  I encountered a brochure in my hotel for a bicycle rental company which seemed like a great idea.  I started to piece together whether I would have time to visit Miles Canyon on the day I’d planned the Kluane flightseeing – and whether I could do that by bicycle.  Fortunately, nature does not close, so I knew Miles Canyon would be open, and it came highly recommended by someone in Watson Lake.

Sunday I got up earlier than I needed to, and headed straight for the Tourist Information Centre to get an update on what there actually is to do, and to ask how long it would actually take me to get to Dawson City later in the week (Google suggests over 8 hours, my GPS suggests 9, but in reality it will be about 6).  I confirmed that Miles Canyon is accessible by bicycle, and along with a random couple who happened to walk in at the same time as me watched a 15 minute video about how great the Yukon is.  I got a list of things that are not closed yet (they had one prepared) which gave me a couple of additional ideas for things to do.

I then walked the other half of the Millennium Trail (my hotel is on the waterfront, about half way along the trail and I’d only walked South the night before), which follows the Waterfront Trolley’s path all the way to… Wal-Mart.  Needless to say, I skipped visiting Wal-Mart, and walked back into town along 2nd Avenue, and stopped into Baked café, having a delicious quiche with an almond milk latte for lunch.

From there – back to the hotel to grab the car and drive out to the Beringia Interpretive Centre, which in winter is only open Sunday and Mondays (the MacBride Museum is, alternately, open on Tuesdays through Saturdays- which means I’ll be visiting as soon as it opens Tuesday before I drive to Dawson).  This was an interesting centre explaining the history of the Beringia area, connected at one point in history by the Bering land bridge over what is now the Bering Strait.  I spent a couple hours there, and before heading back into the city stopped outside the (closed) Transportation Museum.  The parking lot features the world’s largest weather vane – a DC-3 plane that pivots on a base depending on the wind’s direction.

I drove back to the hotel, making a stop to finally check the air in my tires and top up the washer fluid – it was nice to find a fully equipped petrol station.  Having time to kill, I posted yesterday’s blog and then went for a walk to explore, with the side purpose of finding a highly-recommended vegetarian restaurant.  Upon finding it, I immediately saw it was closed. Whether for the season, or for good, it was not clear.  I opted for the Japanese-Korean fusion restaurant in my hotel and the local Starbucks down the street for dessert.

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