Travel blog – Vancouver to Yukon part 5 – misadventures on the return to Whitehorse

Well, today was weird.  (And by “today,” I mean Thursday.  For those wondering about the timing of these posts, I’m generally writing them in the evenings and setting them to post at a time of day when people might actually see them).

Wednesday night, my last night in Dawson, the power cut out around 11PM.  It stayed out for a while. Since I was about to go to sleep anyway, I figured it would all work out in the morning and since I was leaving anyway it really didn’t matter.  It came back on at some point later in the evening (I woke up at one point to discover the exterior light outside my window was back on).

I woke up in the morning, to my iPhone’s alarm clock (I had already turned off the clock radio knowing it wouldn’t be the right time).  Since the act of turning off the alarm also unlocks the phone, I figured I’d browse Twitter or my email to help wake myself up… there is no 3G service in Dawson but the inn I was staying at had Wifi that had been pretty reliable.  I found myself unable to connect to anything. I tried restarting iPhone and playing with a couple settings, but nothing.

So I turned on the radio, which had already been tuned to CBC 1.  I figured out from their morning show hosts, after a couple of minutes, what was happening.  The entire Yukon territory had lost all of its telecommunications and, other than through the use of satellite phones, had been completely cut off from the outside world.  No, really.  No land lines, no mobile phones, and no internet across the entire territory.  I sat listening to the radio, sort of stunned, for a little while before getting up.  It was rather surreal hearing the hosts in Whitehorse, who couldn’t even give a weather update that was less than 12 hours old as they didn’t have a thermometer in their studios anymore, talking about how they had no way of communicating with anyone in Dawson.  I was thinking “we’re still here!” but of course had no way of telling them.

The reports implied chaos, though in reality it was likely just a really big nuisance.  The biggest problem, though, was that all 9-1-1 service was completely gone.  Police and EMS were advising people who needed ambulances to simply drive themselves to the hospital, and the fire departments were telling people that if there is a fire they should go to the local fire marshal’s home and knock on his door.  It was all so… antiquated.

Apparently CBC was the first to contact the “outside” to let them know what was going on – they used a satellite phone in the RCMP offices near their studio to contact the network in Toronto.  That didn’t stop the national network from interrupting the special broadcasts by starting to air The Current at 8:30 – they had to get station manager override to keep broadcasting emergency information.  When mobile phone service slowly started coming back up, they were telling people to avoid calling unless they needed to… but they also wanted people to start talking to them, so they suggested stopping by the studios in Whitehorse to provide them with updates.  The whole thing was just so bizarre; I couldn’t help but laugh when they suggested it.

But on a serious note, I can’t imagine how this information would have been disseminated without the CBC.  Service is already a bit patchy even on the ‘main’ roads through the Yukon, I can only imagine what further cuts will do.  There is currently no real ‘local’ news or information service as all CBC feeds come out of Whitehorse and get repeated on various bands throughout the territory.  The CBC was responsible for telling people outside the Yukon what was going on, and for telling people in the Yukon how to respond to emergencies.  The morning show hosts put in extra time and stayed on the air at least until 9-1-1 service was restored across the territory.  Those of us in Dawson at the time would have known nothing beyond “I can’t contact anyone” without them.

Anyway, I filled up with gas at the nearest gas station & grabbed a sandwich for the road.  Strangely, despite debit and credit machines across the territory having gone down with the telecommunications network, I had no trouble paying by credit card at the station – they must have a backup or a satellite feed.  I then headed out on the road, keeping my radio tuned to CBC as long as I could.  I lost the signal shortly after mobile phone connections were re-established, not that it would have mattered to me anyway since I still had no 3G (Telus’ 3G coverage in the Yukon is limited to the Whitehorse area).  The weather had improved, despite the CBC’s inability to report on it, but it was still about 1 degree Celsius when I left Dawson.

My first and only ‘stop’ for the day was the Dempster Highway.  This is the road that leads all the way to Inuvik, North of the Arctic Circle, and in the winter leads all the way to Tuktoyaktuk via an ice road.  Neither of these places were on my itinerary though – I had heard that driving a little ways past the interpretative centre gave a great feel for Tombstone Territorial Park, and thankfully that advice was sound.

Most of the road is unpaved but the permafrost made it a pretty smooth ride. The interpretative centre was, of course, closed but the campground a kilometre later which was officially closed had an open gate and a short hiking trail I was headed for. I took a brief walk and headed back to the car – the trail meanders through some tundra shrubbery and along the Klondike River, with some great views of the mountains and valleys.

But the road goes from beautiful to spectacular a few kilometres later.  There is a scenic viewpoint about 3 kilometres past the campground that, on a clear day (which it was) gives you a view of the full mountain range and valley, some 27 kilometres into the distance.  It was simply stunning.  I had initially planned to turn back from there but it was so gorgeous and the next pullout was only about 15 km down the road, so I went a bit further and got even more breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys.  The colours this time of year make it even more special.

After having lunch in the car (it was a bit windy to sit outside, but I sat and enjoyed the view anyway), I hit the road again, headed pretty well straight for Whitehorse, stopping only once for coffee at Selkirk Centre in Pelly Crossing – the first service that was open in a couple hundred kilometres of driving.  I went in with my travel mug and got 16 oz of (not bad) coffee for $1.  I commented it was the best deal on this highway and the guy behind the counter said if I bought $20 of gas they’d give it to me for free.  I didn’t take him up on the offer.

There’s a reason I didn’t – gas is cheaper in Whitehorse.  The other reason: when I drove Whitehorse to Dawson, I used a little over ¾ of a tank of gas.  I figured the return trip, even adding the brief detour along the Dempster, would be about the same, and I left Dawson with a full tank.  I continued on down the road, enjoying the beautiful 26 degree Celsius weather that had emerged – in the course of the day I went from wearing a winter coat to being much too warm in a t-shirt.

Well, I learned the hard way that gas consumption doesn’t always work that way.  My “low fuel” light came on about 75 km before I got to Whitehorse. It also had a little countdown thingie that I haven’t quite deciphered – I think it was kilometres until the tank runs out, but it was counting down at a different rate than the kilometres were passing, so I’m really not sure.  When it got down to 30, the countdown thing just turned to dashes (signifying, I assume, zero).  I had been hoping desperately that I would pass a gas station, or somewhere I could arrange for gas, but decided when this happened I would pull over at the nearest place it was safe to do so. I passed a sign for Yukon Horsepacking Adventures and pulled onto the side road that led to it, pulled over as far as I could and put my hazard lights on.

The next 15 minutes were like something out of a horror film – fortunately, the sun was still out so it was somewhat less creepy.  I walked the completely deserted road to Yukon Horsepacking Adventures, following the sign pointing the way.  The road goes through a fairly densely wooded area.  I crossed a bridge over a stream, and passed plenty of equipment, still having no idea whether there would be anyone there (since many businesses in the Yukon are seasonal).  I got hopeful when I passed sleds (suggesting humans would be nearby even in the winter), and lost a bit of hope when I passed a broken down van with one of its wheels missing.  The axe left on the wood-chopping block and saw which I assume was used for felling trees added to the effect – the panic of running out of gas on a road with few services was setting in.  I finally, 15 minutes after leaving the car at the side of the road, came into a clearing and was greeted by a handful of barking dogs.  Equally panicked and relieved, I approached cautiously and as long as I didn’t walk too quickly they seemed content just to bark and not approach me.  I went to the first cabin I saw (there were about half a dozen on the property) that had an “open” sign in the window.  As I approached it, I heard a “hello” from across the lawn.  A young woman approached from another building and, as I got closer, I explained the situation.  My nerves relaxed at this point as she gladly handed over her portable phone so I could call for help.

I called CAA who insisted that my membership didn’t exist, and when they looked into it further they decided it had existed, but had been cancelled. I’m on my parents’ plan and I didn’t think they’d cancelled it but it’s possible – the strange thing is I used it two weeks ago to get maps in Vancouver, so I’m not sure what the story was.  I asked if they could at least arrange for a tow truck that I could pay for, they said no, but gave me the number of the company they use – Capital Towing.

I called Capital and explained clearly that I was at kilometre marker 237 on the Klondike Highway, Highway 2.  I’d made a point of noting this, since there are not many landmarks along the otherwise empty road, and for some strange reason this particularly kilometre marker had a hand-made sign with pictures on it so it was quite distinguishable.  It took some time for them to understand where this was and they eventually figured it out when the person who’d loaned me the phone (I wish I’d gotten her name, I’d like to thank her again) mentioned we were 45 km from the junction of the Klondike and Alaska highways.  They quoted a price of $200 plus $40 for the fuel, which I had no choice but to agree to, and said it would be an hour to an hour and a half.

I thanked the young woman, who was kind enough to also let me use her washroom, and set back for the car.  And then I waited. And waited.  Eventually, about an hour and a quarter later, the tow truck showed up, and the driver told me it would be $250 plus the cost of the fuel.  I disputed it, but had absolutely no bargaining power (I would otherwise have no way to keep driving), and had no choice but to agree to the price.  (The driver legitimately believed this was the price I was quoted – he even had an SMS message with it).  After he filled my tank, I offered my credit card which he informed me he had no way of processing, and that cash was my only option.  Being stuck on the side of the road, and having only $80 on me, I had nothing to give him.

Since he was based out of Whitehorse, and I was headed there, he agreed to follow me to the nearest ATM – 50 kilometres down the road at what was also the nearest gas station.  As I drove along I realised how incredibly fortunate I was, given the circumstances, that I stopped where I did.  If I’d tried to continue driving, I would not have had anywhere to stop that was near a human for about 35 or 40 kilometres, and this gas station was 50 kilometres away.  If I’d stopped any later down the road I would likely still be standing there.

Anyways, after I paid him $290 for my half-tank of personally-delivered gas, I finally got into Whitehorse, checked into my hotel, and went in search of food – at 9:05 PM.  The time is important, as virtually everything in Whitehorse closes at 9 PM, even most restaurants.  After wandering for a while in search of anything that might be open, I spotted a neon sign out of the corner of my eye that read “all-day pasta” and I figured it was worth a shot.  I ended up at Giorgio’s Cucina, and had one of the most delicious salmon salads I’ve had in my life, along with a much-needed drink.

I’m exhausted, but looking forward to continuing the trip!  Tomorrow (that is, today, by the time this gets posted) I’m moving on to Alaska! I may lose various forms of connectivity there (depending on AT&T’s ability to give me 3G data that is in any way useful, and access to Wifi in various locations) – but the plan is a drive to Skagway, followed by a ferry to Juneau, two nights in Juneau, then a ferry to Prince Rupert!

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