We left Tok in cold and foggy weather. This didn’t look good for one of the ‘highlight days’ of our trip – our drve across ‘The Top of The World Highway’. This road extends 258 km from Tetlin Junction, about 17 km south of Tok on the Alaska Highway, to the Canadian Border and then across to Dawson City in the Canadian Yukon Territory..Fortunately, the weather cleared and we found some extensive views from this road that travels high across the ridge tops.
The first 97 km of the highway are paved although some areas are broken up. The rest of the way to the Canadian border is gravel, apart one from the last 15 kms which is a beautiful smooth road. The first part of out trip was through an extensive area that had been burned by a wildfire some years ago. I think over 5,000 square kilometres were affected. The view of dead trees went on for many miles. The grasses and shrubs are growing back but it will take years for the trees to grow again. Nearly all of the fires here are caused by lightning strikes.
There was only one place to stop for lunch and that is the little community of Chicken. This area was settled by gold miners in the late 1800s and in 1902 the local post office was established requiring a community name. The Alaskan state bird, which is very prevalent in this area, is the Ptarmigan (about as big as a pheasant) and that name was suggested as the official name for the new community. However, none of the miners could decide how to spell it, so the name Chicken was adopted to avoid embarrassment. Today it is a ghost town with a few shops and a massive abandoned alluvial gold dredge.
Chicken does however, have one thing going for it. Every year, it holds a two day musical festival and this had finished the day we arrived. We couldn’t believe how many people must have attended, but it did explain the many vehicles that we passed going back along the road. There are two RV parks at Chicken and both were completely full with RVs, or campers, (some as big as busses) parked door to door. People were camped in tents on every available piece of flat ground – even behind their parked cars on the edge of the road. There were even tents under the wings of the dozen, or so, light aircraft parked by the airstrip. The sandwich we found at the cafe was actually very good and a lot nicer than some of the food we have found along the way.
From Chicken, the road travels along a creek where active gold mines still operate. Rather than panning with a pick and shovel, these alluvial mining operations are now performed with bulldozers and excavators. Almost every creek that we could see showed some evidence of gold mining.
Eventually, the road climbed up to a plateau from where we could get very good views of the surrounding wilderness. There is nothing at all there – just bush. Along here, was the migratory route of the Forty Mile Caribou Herd. During the early 1900s, the herd was the largest in Alaska and one of the largest in the world – over 500,000 animals. Due to periodic cold winters, over-hunting, and high predation rates, the herd dwindled to so few animals that, after 1974, the herd was rarely sighted in the Yukon. Through a program of controlled hunting, non-lethal predator control and habitat protection, the herd has recovered to an estimated 40,000 animals now..
Way out in the middle of nowhere is the US / Canadian order station. We passed though without any problems although we did make the Canadian Immigration Officer Smile. He asked us if we had any alcohol and the couple of bottles of wine we had in the car were OK. Then he asked us if we had any guns. I answered by saying “We’re Australians, we don’t have guns!”. He smiled and told us that he didn’t expect we did but it was a compulsory question for people crossing into Canada from America.
After crossing the border, the road was unpaved but very smooth and easy to drive. It was as smooth as a highway. Because Canada uses the metric system of measurement, the kilometre posts went by much faster than the Alaskan mile posts.
Along the way (on both sides of the border) are some relics of early travel along this very northerly highways. We saw the remains of several old roadhouses where people in bygone days would have been fed and perhaps housed along this stretch of road. One of these was Boundary Lodge, just by the Alaskan border.
A ferry carries traffic across the Yukon River to Dawson in summer. In winter months, local people drove over the ice on the frozen river. The little ferry that carries about ten cars at a time travels crab-like across the very fast flowing 300 metre wide river. It seems to do more off a u-turn than a straight trip across as it is pushed down stream by the current in the middle of the river, However, I am sure the the ferry master knows what he is doing and has made the river crossing hundreds of times. Bulldozers are used to reform the landing place on each side as the current washes it away periodically.