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.

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.


South of 60

We rolled out of Stewart heading north onto highway 37A to Meziadin Junction where highway 37A ends and highway 37 begins. Highway 37 is one leg of the Northern British Columbia Circle Tour.  Looking at a map, you will have highway 37 on the west/left side, while highway 97 is on the east/right side; Yellowhead Trans-Canada 16 forms the south/bottom of the loop.  Both highways 16 and 97 roughly meet at Prince George, B.C., in the east.

Along the way, traveling on highway 37, we saw black bears, moose, red fox, and in the higher elevations, caribou.  Plenty of fauna; the flora were starting to bud and leaf out.

Coming across British Columbia, from Jasper all the way to Stewart, I noticed something that struck me as somewhat interesting.  Back in Minnesota, as many know, I keep honeybees (hence the reason there is the word bees in the title of the blog).  An important spring-to-summer flower for bees in Minnesota and elsewhere is the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale); those oft considered obnoxious weeds, which seem to grow everywhere.   It was fascinating to be traveling up the mountains and down the mountains; and it would appear that at this time of year, dandelions are in full swing under an elevation of around 3,200 feet (975 meters).   As spring gets underway, dandelions will undoubtedly begin appearing at higher elevations.

In addition to just elevation, I find the relationship between elevation and latitude to be a bit enchanting.   As we drove through northern British Columbia, just south of Dease Lake, we crossed the Great Continental Divide.  This is the divide that runs from the Chuckchi Sea in northwestern Alaska all the way through North American, through Central America and through South America.  This divide area was where we first ran into caribou.

Think about this: Denver, Colorado, sits at around 5,200 feet (1,585 meters).  There is no tundra or caribou in Denver.  At the divide in northern B.C., we crossed a stretch of permafrost and tundra and this is where the caribou came out poking around the road.  This area, at the divide, is also lower in elevation than Denver – around 4,600 feet (1,400 meters).

We pushed on through Dease Lake – after a bizarre conversation with a local shop owner about how Canada does not piss on things in the world like the United States.  Through Jade City, and more of northern B.C.; we ended that round of travel in Whitehorse, Yukon.

As I write this, we are in Dawson City, Yukon – we have been here for a number of days; there is a delicious story surrounding our travels through Dawson City, and up the Dempster Highway; teaser: we broke an axle in the arctic.  Stay tuned.