Video Blog: Arctic Circle

Andy and I are big fans of recording things; this would include both analog forms of record as well as digital. For example, we shot 59 mini-digital-videos on the trip in addition to the 2,031 digital photos. We, also, each shot roughly sixty-five 35mm photos. I cut together a bit of video with a few photos from around when the truck broke down to when we reached the Arctic Circle.

As a side note, this was such a hell-of-a-trip, that I likely have enough material in my brain for a whole string of posts, but I will refrain for now; later in the summer, I may weave a bit more of this tale. There is always the woman who looked like Nathan Lane, the crass and foul-mouthed Yukon highway workers, and of course, the ramblings of our tow truck driver – Doug Ukrainetz – the “Doug” in “Doug’s Towing”. But, for now, here is a video. (If you do not see the video, head here)

Arctic Circle

I have been sitting on this post, in draft form, for a couple weeks.  I finally polished it a bit, and have kicked it out there.

We made it to the arctic circle.  This was Andy’s first time to the arctic circle.  I have been to and crossed it before — just on the other side of the planet — in Finland.  Arctic Finland versus arctic Canada: a huge difference.  For one, Finland is almost entirely devoid of permafrost with the exception of the far northern fells and mires.  When I was in Finland – near Kemijärvi – the landscape looked nearly identical to that of northern Minnesota. Arctic Canada – not so much.

But, just saying we made it to the arctic circle is leaving out a piece of the story.  The time from when I last wrote about and when we reached the arctic circle is leaving out about eight hours of the story.

Around 11:00 pm, we stopped for a break.  We fired up the camp stove, brewed a bit of coffee, and made a delightful meal of pasta.  Sitting on camp chairs, we ate and just marveled at how much driving we had done and how, with the engine off and there being a lack of wind, it was quiet, incredibly quiet.  This was listen-and-you-could-hear-your-heart-beating quiet.  The only times the silence was broken was when a curious animal – a hare, a fox, an arctic ground squirrel – would make leaves or grass rustle.

The clock in the truck was telling us it was night, but the ever-present sun was trying to trick us into thinking otherwise.  I will likely post – later – a set of photos we took of the longer-than two hour sunset we watched as we pushed onward.

At 1:15 AM, the sun ducked ever-so-slightly behind the horizon; the northward horizon.  Things never really went dark, and the sun’s light never fully vanished.

We took some photos, shot a video, and then got back into the truck.  The Dempster turned and began to work its way up a ridge; higher, and higher.  The river valley below spread out – lit dimly by the sun from the north.

We could make out an enormous oil derrick/rig off in the distance – 20 or 30 kilometers.  I fell a sleep.

The next thing I remember was the road getting a bit rougher – it woke me up. Andy turned to me; “Hey, you’re up; we passed that oil rig – about 5 kilometers back.”

I was still partially asleep – around 2:30 AM.

The truck suddenly lurked toward the left; a very loud sound – like that of a chicken bone or knuckle cracking and popping – coming from the left front wheel.  The truck slid to a stop; the front-end left and forward.

I turned to Andy; he let fly several expletives.  I asked him if we had blown a tire; “[Expletive], something more substancial, I think.”

We assessed the situation; it appeared that a ball-joint had been sheered.  The front, left axle was pretty mangled from the weight and torque.  The truck would not be moving on its own.

Andy mentioned the derrick/rig we passed about five kilometers back; I decided to hike north – up the road a bit – we were on the side of a very long, but tall hill – I wanted to see if there was anything on the other side of the hill and if so, how far away was it.   Around this time, Andy tried the CB radio; nothing.  We would later learn that truckers use HAM radios or land-based relay radios.  CBs just do not have the range.

Andy went back to the truck to sleep a bit while I hiked up the road.

About three kilometers up the road, and finally over the hill, I could see another derrick/rig – relatively close – another three kilometers out – lit up brightly with flood lights.  A bit further out in the distance, I could see a microwave tower.  Hungry and a bit cold, I hiked back to the truck.

A bit of cheese, some crackers and then a quick nap; something caused me to wake up.  Coming south was a large-sized pickup truck.  This was around 5:00 AM.

Flagging down the truck, the driver told us that there would be – in an hour – a couple semi-trucks coming up from the south.

The rest of travel toward the arctic circle went something like this:  hitchhiking and riding with Inuit truckers, meeting a cadre of colorful characters at Eagle Plains, borrowing a pickup truck from a worker at Eagle Plains, and finally, driving the short remaining distance to the arctic circle.

The drive back to Dawson in a tow truck is yet another story for another day.

Chicken Coop Redux

It was toward the end of April, last year.  I received an email from my-now-boss; the email contained an offer for the  position I now have at the Minnesota Population Center.  It was one of the first things that hit me – our flock of twelve chickens would have to go.

Within twelve hours of posting to local chicken forum, our flock took up residence on forty acres outside of Carlton.  The flock leaving was just a series of anticlimactic events that took place prior to our move south.

I was somewhat disheartened that we had taken the time to research chicken coop designs, taken the time to source materials for the structure (we purchased used palettes from Loll Designs in Duluth), built the coop (pictured above), only to move and the leave the thing behind.

Now, in the Saint Paul, we have settled in to our new [to us] place.  We fenced in about two-thirds of an acre last fall – for the hounds; we have a nice vegetable garden in the backyard; we have also planted nearly a dozen different fruit trees – this is in addition to the existing apple and pear trees.

The chickens – day old chicks actually – arrived in late April.  They are now sassy adolescent chickens that have been living in a make-shift brooder in the basement.  But, later this week, they will be moving out to their own place albeit still on our property.  It will likely be similar to the episode of Growing Pains when Mike Seaver moves out of the house only to live above the garage. The chickens will be out of the house, but close enough to feel like they are family.

What did we do?  We leveraged an existing structure on our property – it appears to have been a dog kennel in a former life – and we jazzed it up a bit.  Jacked it up, put a course of blocks to get the lumber off the concrete; redid the windows and added more support to the structure in general.  Check here to see the transformation from just an eyesore to something more palatable.

This isn’t Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone

Andy sporting his Lester River Bushcraft Boreal Wool Shirt

Tombstone Territorial Park is located just a short way up the Dempster Highway.  If you find yourself in Dawson and want a fantastic day-excursion, Tombstone Territorial Park would be a fantastic place to visit.

I would go as far as making Tombstone the destination if I ever find myself in the north-central part of the Yukon.  Once again, latitude and elevation have the interesting interplay that produces a convergence of the boreal, alpine and arctic biomes – all within the 850 square miles of the park.

We saw red fox, grizzly bears, parliaments of owls and multiple moose.  But, if there is one creature that could sum up the fauna-equation, it would have to be ptarmigan.

Ptarmigan seemed to be nearly everywhere.  We stopped at one point, and the intention was not to photograph or watch ptarmigan, but it turned into that.  We watched and listened to males attempting to court females.  Males make an absolutely bizarre sound; it is akin to wobbling a steel handsaw.  The males were also incredibly easy to spot.  Their white bodies, with brown necks/heads topped with a bright red cap.  The females, on the other hand, were quite difficult to spot.  You had to listen for a return call to a male, and then look for movement in that general direction.

Can you spot the female ptarmigan in the photo to the left?

Along with the quantities of wildlife, the other utterly amazing aspect of the park was how it was somewhat barren.  There were dwarf willow, and dwarf spruce, and clumps of taller-than-ground-level vegetation, but the entire park had the feeling that, if it was winter, it would have been a vast, white blanket of snow with the Dempster cutting through it like an offwhite ribbon.

Dempster Diving

Dawson City, Yukon

Just the number of RCMP that we saw in Whitehorse, a city of 23,276 people made me feel slightly on edge.  I am not saying it was an inherently dangerous place – there was just a definite edge to the city.  The First Nations vagrants -there was one that kept popping up, each time asking us for something else – trying to hustle you for cigarettes or cash as well as the many individuals we saw stumbling out of or in front of taverns; yet, at the same time, there were trendier restaurants, cafés, bookstores, and clothing shops.  It was like a slice of the Pacific Northwest had cleaved off and somehow drifted to the Mesabi Iron Range – and specifically, Gilbert – of Minnesota.

We had breakfast at a hipster-esque breakfast place called Burnt Toast Café; we rolled out of town heading north toward the Dempster Highway.  The entrance to the Dempster sits at around 64° N. latitude.

Our original intent, based on the distance our map, from the Dempster to Dawson City, was to skip Dawson entirely.  The map had mislabeled the distance as 64 miles.  We thought why should we travel a total of an extra two+ hours to get diesel.  But, as we got closer to the Dempster and distances between places were shown on roadside signs – we realized that Dawson was much closer than the map had led us to believe.  We could fill up with that precious distillate-fluid: diesel.  We would definitely have enough fuel to get to Eagle Plains.

We stopped for fish and chips at Sour Dough Joes.  I do have say that Sour Dough’s had fantastic fresh salmon fish and chips.

With full stomachs and a full tank & jerrycans of diesel, we rolled out of Dawson City.

Shortly down the Dempster Highway, there is a sign that is the equivalent of Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.  The sign basically warned of the total lack of modern services as well as the lack of prompt emergency medical services.  We continued on; The sun was still high in the sky at 7:00 PM.  Tombstone Territorial Park, with its snowcapped mountains, loomed in the distance.


60° North to Whitehorse

Where I last left off, Andy and I had hustled our way up Highway 37 (Dease Lake Highway / Stewart-Cassiar Highway) to just a few hundredths of a degree north of 60° latitude.  The Stewart-Cassiar comes to a junction with the famed Alaska Highway (Highway 1).  The Alaska Highway would take us into Whitehorse.  The thought of the highway being a thin ribbon that just cut – not in a destructive way – through the mountains, forests, and tundras of the north kept popping into my head.  Most of the roads in this region are like that; long, thin stretches that appear to unravel out into wilderness.

We fill up with diesel at a station at the junction; this is was our first taste of being out there.  The shelves of this store consisted mostly of some odd, off-brand candy, beef jerky and some mosquito netting for around your head.  There were actually two stations at this corner.  The first had a note taped to the diesel pump: “Go to the other station.”  We had this feeling that Whitehorse was going to even more remote.

I am not even sure what time we rolled out of the odd-feeling fill station at the junction with the Alaska Highway.  We pushed on toward Whitehorse.

The Alaska Highway crosses back into British Columbia west of Watson Lake, but it quickly snakes back north into the Yukon.

The map we had for Whitehorse was a standard tourist-issue map that we had picked up from the strange fill station at the Dease Lake Highway/Alaska Highway junction.  There was little feature that we did not notice: north on the map was pointing to the right instead of the traditional straight-up.  This small detail caused our sleep deprived brains to get incredibly confused.  Not to mention that, at 11:00 PM, when we rolled into Whitehorse, the sun was still high in the sky.  After circling the city a couple times, we got our bearing and settled in on finding a hotel.  We would stay in Whitehorse a couple of nights as we had just burned through 2,100 miles of road in a bit over 50 hours since Bozeman, MT.

While performing our orientation-circle of Whitehorse, we passed the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre.  Given that it was approaching midnight, visiting the centre would have to wait.

We traveled back around to the downtown and settled on the Best Western Gold Rush Inn.

The next day, we did touristy things.  We hit up the downtown for coffee at Baked Café; then headed over to the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site.

The S.S. Klondike is a sternwheeler paddle boat.  It was the primary means of getting between Dawson City and Whitehorse from 1929 to 1952.  It has since been put on the shore of the Yukon River.  Staged for tourists, the boat now just sits.

It was fascinating to walk around the boat; the huge steam-driven pistons that turned the paddle; the cargo area; and the pretentious viewing room with its wicker chairs and tables.

After the S.S. Klondike, we headed to the Beringia museum.  Andy, for the most part, talked for a couple with a researcher there.  I am a wannabe scientist who happens to be a software engineer; the talking was not my domain, so I kept things to a minimum with a few quips here and there.  I think the neatest artifact in the museum was a toss up between North America’s largest mammoth skeleton or the giant sloth.

The next day, we would head out of Whitehorse to Dawson City, and then north – up the Dempster Highway.  Our goal was to get to the Arctic Circle or the Peel River crossing.