Pulling into Dawson Creek we realized however far we'd come, it still wasn't as far as we needed to go. A little town who’s claim to fame is ‘mile zero’ of the Alaska highway. We could've snuck around on a different road and gotten where we were going but Kai figured the extra speed wasn't worth missing the beginning. Even if it wasn't our beginning, starting always seemed a little arbitrary. The sign was cool.
It felt like the gateway to something other than a road. Walking around town, Dawson Creek felt different, the worries different, type of people different, focus and values different. Sporting goods stores littered the main drag, fish and tackle, guns, outdoor gear, all-day breakfast. Much to the chagrin of my American friends, Canada does have guns, we do hunt. Dawson Creek was a lot like small town Montana, our regulations didn't stop the killing of anything but people. It was salt of the earth here, a mixture of born and raised, come by choice or looking for work. It felt a lot further from home than it was, it worried less, seemed to enjoy itself more.
The road dragged out north, through two towns and not much else. Small compounds of portables dotted the landscape near the highway. A couple hundred men working to save for a new life or to pay for vices to numb the one they had. Eventually the mountains came back, followed by even less people. When we reached Summit Lake, the highest point on the Alaska highway, the campground was empty but for a guy riding his motorcycle south as far as the Americas could take him. The wind blew hard and it was cold, just September, this might be the lowest the mercury gets for him.
Morning came, and we were off again. Only one stop before Whitehorse- Liard River Hot Springs is a perfect distance from the rest of the world to remain a gem- we hung out for an hour or so, alone but for a gaggle of elderly Germans. A country that seems to value the incredible desolation and diversity of the North that so many Canadians take for granted. On our way out we watched a young couple cooking lunch and feeding their baby boy, it made me long for a woman I could share this with. Someday.
After finally breaking into the Yukon we found a gas station tucked off the road. Not a Shell or Esso or Chevron but a place called Contact Creek. It smelled like cigarette smoke inside, was dark but for the fireplace and had the feel of a place tucked just next to nowhere. An elderly woman pumped our gas, not because I asked, just because she felt like it. Kai and I bet what it would cost, she laughed, we weren’t close. Gas here was twenty-five cents cheaper than anywhere we’d seen since Prince George, a fact that went over our heads. Contact Creek has a customer for life, if I ever make it back.
The sun set slow on the drive into Whitehorse, like a pastel painting above an ever darkening landscape. Layers of textured clouds became more vividly violet and mauve until the sun finally sunk into the seemingly unending valleys. It was dark as we pulled into the surprisingly gentrified capital of the Yukon, not much different than the regional cities further south. We found a lake a few miles out of the way and camped on the shore, because well, up here nobody seemed to care enough to tell you any different.
About seven, barking from a husky ranch acted as an alarm, we woke up- grabbed some essentials, not knowing what to expect up in Dawson- and set off. North again, five hundred more miles to the promised land, the place with the gold, carved from turn of the century folklore. A place we had heard about, but didn't appreciate yet. Headed up the Klondike with Jack London running through my mind and a nostalgia I couldn't quite put my finger on.
A sign told us there would be no emergency vehicles for the entirety of the highway. Welcome to the Dempster, one of the most remote roads in Canada, the world really. I'd been around, seen some pretty incredible places, but nothing compared to the vast expanse we found here. Driving to some classics and burning time, we were silent, wasn't much to say, for an hour or so we didn't see another car. None.
We set up camp late, the sun was setting as Kai chopped wood. I cooked some typical road fare, we both ate greedily, sitting by the fire and watching twilight take over the landscape. Trading rust hues of fall for dark silhouettes and a cloudless hazy blue sky. The fire crackled and sparked, smelling distinctly like the pine it was burning, the river rushed past more quickly than you’d expect in late fall. It was everything we might've imagined about the Yukon, everything and more, pulled over at a random spot on the highway, no interruptions save the odd trucker. Headed up 750 kilometers of poorly maintained dirt to the Arctic ocean. It was peaceful. That night I dreamed more than I had in years, maybe it was the road, maybe sleeping outside, more likely it was the endless world I found myself in, a place good for perspective.
Rolled into Dawson early the next morning, a place linked to opportunity, former glory and the turn of the next to last century. Colorful heritage homes dotted the tiny ten road town, buildings erected with gold money and still standing as a mirage into the past. The sidewalks are wood and the roads dirt, the bars stay open till two and by this time of year you'll only find locals around. Prospectors washing out thoughts of another season without gold, hunters celebrating the first moose of fall, shopkeeps turning the page on another summer, brave seasonal workers readying for a first winter, geologists wondering what they got themselves into and tramps who hitchhiked and got stuck- stuck or had nowhere to go- playing music for beer money and talking loosely about past lives made up or long gone. It's a ragtag bunch brought together by a common desire to stay as far away from society, with all its strings attached, as possible.
Started drinking at a tavern with a showroom and casino, it was Wednesday and for Dawson it was busy. Thought better of sitting in on blackjack and stuck to a few pints too many, at least one vice got me drunk as it stole my money. We watched the people, talked to a few, asked the same old questions and wished we hadn't. Trouble for someone in Dawson is that just about everyone passing through wonders why you stayed up five hundred miles from nothing. The show came on, hilarious and awesome, some shockingly beautiful dancers, and a short balding male lead- leveraging a damn good singing voice to bag the most impressionable of the young ladies working the stage. Some shady characters stumbled drunk near the back wasting money on slots, a couple native fellas leveraged a supply run from Inuvik to make some money playing hold'em. We talked to about all of them, because why not, they all had a story and most were happy to tell it. In general people enjoy when someone else is interested in their life, a little vanity escapes no one.
The next morning we grabbed a bite at triple J, a little hotel diner with good pub food, our spot for the next week. Another addition to the club sandwich world tour, it was good, if not memorable. Was a laugh seeing all the folks from the night before, working and living. Dawson seemed about as small as it was right then, you feel for the poor kid who has too much to drink early on, tough place to escape and embarrassing night. We wandered through the best of town, saloons, museums, farmers market and finally the outfitters. Tomorrow we'd head out into the Yukon backcountry for the better part of a week and needed matches at least. It was everything, the exact nostalgia I tried so hard to replicate. Rare books and handmade knives, old military gear on for cheap, totems, fishing gear, rustic climbing essentials, pelts, racks, neat stack of guns, antiques. Run by an old trapper and his son, passed down from an older trapper, it had a story like everything else. We bought some mess we didn't need and headed off to the mountains, it was late afternoon but that evening was a harvest moon, so the dark wasn't so dark, and now seemed better than later.