Chapter Nineteen: Top of the World

We arrived in Denali National Park on a seasonally cool afternoon. We found a camp spot which was right above a small river, which you could hear through the night. Denali is fairly centrally located in the state of Alaska and you really get the feeling here of being out in the wilderness, with nothing around you but mountains and plains for days. No electricity or running water. We explored a bit on our first afternoon, getting ice cream and a few beers for the fire. We did two more full days of hiking, where we hardly ran into another soul. At points, you could see for miles ahead with not another person in sight. It was beautiful. Cold, but beautiful. We spent our final day in the park on a bus trip which takes you as far into the interior as the roads will allow. On the bus, we spotted grizzlies, black bears, lynx and elk, among others. If you go anywhere in Alaska other than the southeast peninsula, I would say that Denali Park is the place to go. Being August, we learned that summer had already come and gone, and we were well into fall. Although it was cool, the colourful foliage made it well worthwhile. As a park guide told us, here there are four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter and construction. I guess we made it for the former!
We treated ourselves to one more salmon bake on the way out and headed on. Blasting the heat in the car, we headed further north to the Northern Lights Capital of the world; Fairbanks, Alaska. Sadly, as in Iceland, we were not in the height of the lights season and it was cloudy to boot, so we did not happen upon the lights. Fairbanks is a unique and slightly run-down city, best known as an army base, and sitting just south of the arctic circle. we toured the town and got a motel room and had a cozy night in.
The next day we headed eastward again, through the perma-Christmas town of North Pole (aptly named to attract toy manufacturers, though it didn’t have much success) and along the Top of the World Highway. The TOTWH is closed in the winter, so any towns (and I use that word loosely) situated on the road are left to stay home through the winter or snowmobile several hours to the nearest watering hole for supplies. A perfect example of this is Chicken Alaska, annual population: four. An old gold dredge and now a kitschy RV park in the summer, the one family that lives there year round relies on canned and frozen foods, and boiling snow for water over the harsh Alaskan winter. The town was originally named Ptarmigan, a sort of bird that resembles a chicken. When the name proved too hard to spell, let alone pronounce, it defaulted to Chicken, which has likely been a big factor in improving tourism.
We drove on to the US-Canadian border, which, being 9:00 p.m., was closed for the night. We pulled the car into an overlook point and slept until it opened up again. Funny thing about the TOTWH is that the whole of it is exceptionally pothole-ridden and dilapidated, save the 2 kilometer stretch on either side of the border, to create a false euphoric first impression upon entering either country.
We arrived in Dawson City, which we were happy to see was the Klondike town we had been hoping for since crossing into the territories. Dawson is not so much a city as a museum town, preserving the look and feel of the gold rush days (with some modern comforts, of course). The streets were unpaved and the houses were tavern-esque and just run down enough that it felt like the real deal. We went to visit the cabin of the poet Robert Service, a family favourite. It felt a bit like a pilgrimage to me, having grown up listening to my dad reciting his best works.
We went to Diamond Tooth Gerties to catch a show that evening and, between sets, we went to the Dawson City Hotel for a sour toe cocktail.
A sour toe cocktail is just as it sounds. Created in the fifties and likely inspired by The Ice Worm Cocktail poem, tradition has it that you order a shot and place in it a preserved human toe. You then take the shot and the toe has to touch your lips in order to receive a certificate.. and street cred, of course. Every night at Toe Time (9:00 p.m.) the professional toe administrator will sit down with you and say the rhyme, “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the gnarly toe.” And gnarly it was; long and purple. But – when in Rome… so we did it!
After sleeping off our toe-hangover, we drove up further north, to what really felt like the top of the world, Tombstone Territorial Park in northern Yukon. Stunning as it was remote, we really fell in love with this spot. Fall was in full swing, and there were far more bears than people in a square mile. We found a camping spot and hiked up a trail to get a better view of the scenery. We had overheard a few people discussing how active the northern lights were the night before, but, alas, we did not see any. No matter as the sprawling, vast scenery more than made up for it.
Heading on south, we stopped just outside of Dawson at a local dredge to try our hand at gold panning. We spent about half an hour in the rain sifting and shaking our dirt, but in the end, all we got was wet. And, I suppose, the memories.
Until we came to the marge of Lake Lebarge… or rather the inspiration for the icy setting in the Robert Service poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee, which is actually called Lake Laberge. Azure waters framed in vibrant green trees, this was a lovely little camping spot. By way of context, I had been wanting to come to this spot since I was a little girl, to see how the place compared with my imagination of it. My dad would recite this poem when we went camping, with the lights out and the fire crackling, and conjure up such vivid imagery of Sam, sitting in a blazing oven. For me, coming to Lake Lebarge was definitely a bucket list item.
We stopped back briefly just outside of Whitehorse where my friend Agatha and her (new!) fiancé were wrapping up their own northern adventure. We spent an afternoon in the local hot springs, and an evening playing cards and games by the fire.
When they headed to the airport the next morning, we, too, headed on, starting the long drive back home. ❤

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