Arm Chair Travel – A Desert in the Yukon

In May 2006 Laurent and I met up in Vancouver – he was posted to Beijing at that point – to celebrate his 50th birthday. His birthday is in March but it wasn’t the first time we had been apart for birthdays; it just meant we had to go “BIG” to celebrate the anniversary of his 18,262 days* on this spinning globe. After a few days in Vancouver we boarded the Holland America Zuiderdam for a cruise of the Inside Passage to Alaska.

The itinerary took us to Juneau, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, and Skagway. The stop in Skagway had us going back to Canada and the furthest north (60ºN) I have ever been** in our homeland: Carcross, Yukon Territory.

The bus ride took us up the Klondike Highway through the White Pass (alt. 1,372 m/4,500 feet) in the Boundary Ranges that form the border between Alaska and British Columbia. The 23 km/14 mile drive took us from the beginnings of an Alaskan spring to the winter of the Great White North.

There is a good reason that border formalities for both countries are located 7 miles on either side of the actual border: weather. The actual boundary is located at the summit of the range and conditions in the winter can be extremely harsh. During October to April that seven miles makes a big difference for the border agents isolated at the stations. Fraser, BC (alt. 875m / 2871 feet) serves as both the Canadian border post and terminus for the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway which would take us back to Skagway. There are no permanent residents in the post only Border Services, Highway Maintenance and Hydro employees on temporary assignments. It’s a lonely and brutally cold spot during the winter months.

The British Columbia – Yukon border is another 55 km drive along the Klondike.

So what about this “desert” you mention in your title – I mean you’re in the Great White North?

Well it turns out that a further 40 minute drive would take us to the town of Carcross and what is reputedly the world’s smallest desert. The Carcross Desert is approximately 2.6 km2 (1.0 sq mi), or 259 ha (640 acres) and with an average rainfall of 50 cm (21 inches) is considered too humid to be truly defined as a desert. However it is strongly suggested not to share that fact with the locals or the tourists. It is still considerably drier than the surrounding area and the dunes are in a constant state of movement but are stabilized by much of the rare vegetation that has taken root in the arid soil.

Carcross Desert and Nares Lake – Yukon, Canada
Jakub Fryš, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Carcross (pop. 512) was originally called Caribou Crossing – the land bridge between Lake Bennett and Nares Lake was a traditional crossing place for the herds during seasonal migration. The town was found in 1896 as a postal and telegraph communications point on the Yukon River system. The name was changed to Carcross in 1904 due to constant mail mix-ups with near by Cariboo in British Columbia.

Traditionally a hunting and fishing camp for the Tigish it is still home to members of that First Nation. A village sprung up in 1896 and was a popular stopping point on the road to Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s main economy today is based on tourism. During our visit we were entertained by the townspeople to a bang up barbecue lunch, given a demonstration of husky training and, of course, a hike across the desert. Cruise ship tourism in the area was still in it’s infancy and there was a knockabout charm to what was available at the time. A look at a recent visitor site revealed a gourmet coffee shop, a restaurant, several arts and crafts shops and a catalogue of activities including world class mountain biking on the near-by Montana Mountain – and of course the Desert!

The White Pass and Yukon Route began construction in 1898 as a transportation link between Skagway and Dawson City during the heady days of the Gold Rush. “Big” Mike Heney, one of the driving forces behind it’s constructions boasted, “Give me enough dynamite, and snooze, and I’ll build you a railroad to hell!” It’s said that the fires of hell had nothing on the winter cold that the crews encountered over the next two years. The narrow gauge (914mm/3 ft) was completed to Dawson City in 1900 and the story of those turbulent two years makes a great read here. It continued in operation until 1982 when the fall in the price of metal closed the mines that the railway served. Six years later it was to reopen as a “heritage railway” taking cruise ship and tourist passengers on a 44 km/27 mile trip through the White Pass from Skagway to Fraser. In 2007 – a year after our visit – it was extended to Carcross.

First train to White Pass on the first stage of the White Pass and Yukon Route railway, February 1899.
Eric A. Hegg, 1867-1948 – University Library Washington

The journey from Fraser back to the dock at Skagway took us across steel and wooden trestle bridges, past waterfalls, along mountain ridges and through a tunnel. It was two and a half hours of an ever changing landscape we ascended from the snows of the frozen Pass to Alasken spring at Skagway.

You may have noticed the sign that trumpeted: On to Alaska With Buchanan. My first thought was that it was some sort of political campaign however it turns out it involved an incredible act of philanthropy on the part of George Buchanan, a Detroit businessman. You can read about it here. How about that black and red machine – that’s some snowblower.

* Wouldn’t you just know that there is a nifty little site that does that sort of calculation.
** Laurent has been much as far north as Alert (82ºN) on Baffin Island.

The word for November 14th is:
Desert /ˈdezərt/: [noun]
A dry, barren area of land, especially one covered with sand, that is characteristically desolate, waterless, and without vegetation.
Middle English: via Old French from late Latin desertum ‘something left waste’, neuter past participle of deserere ‘leave, forsake’.
Of course the word can also be used as a verb with an entirely different meaning that has no connection with the noun or adjective. The restaurant in the desert where we had our dessert was deserted.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

9 thoughts on “Arm Chair Travel – A Desert in the Yukon”

  1. What a great trip! Edmonton is as far north as I’ve ever been, LOL!

    1. No, wait . . . I lie. I have been up to Glendon, Alberta to see the giant perogy statue.

    1. Back in the day new foreign service officers were taken on a trip across Canada so they could become familiar with the country they were representing abroad. That included northern Canada during the winter.

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