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ON THE YUKON TRAIL\It's a trip of washboard roads, eccentric towns stuck in time.

Byline: Mike Shoup Knight-Ridder Tribune News Wire

Dawson wasn't the end of the line, but it was close enough for us.

The only road north from here was the Dempster Highway - 165 miles up to the Arctic Circle, ending eventually at the settlement of Inuvik, in the southwest corner of the Yukon's Reindeer Grazing Reserve.

It was tempting. The Dempster is the only public highway on the continent that crosses the Arctic Circle. We'd never seen reindeer. And Inuvik, the largest Canadian community north of the Arctic Circle, with a population of 3,400, really is the end of the line - the tundra version of Key West.

But we'd had it with the roads, and with more than 500 miles to go in our journey - basically a 1,200-mile loop from Juneau north to Dawson City and back again - we weren't looking for more.

If the dust and construction on the Alaska Highway hadn't been enough, the 176 miles of dust and flying stones we endured getting over the Top of the World Highway was. By some miracle, all the window glass was intact in our rented Ford Explorer but we'd seen more than a few RVs and cars and trucks that hadn't been quite as lucky dodging rocks thrown up from the highway by churning wheels.

We would spend a day here in the old gold-rush town of Dawson City before heading south to Whitehorse, and then southwest to Haines, Alaska, where we would catch the car ferry back to Juneau to complete the circuit.

The books recommended two weeks for this trip; my friend, Jim, and I were doing it in six days - admittedly scratching the surface of a land still largely wild and unpopulated.

But if that diminished the experience, as first-timers we didn't feel it. We were too busy craning our necks at the scenery, or pulling off the road to explore outposts such as Chicken, Alaska. Or walking the streets of Dawson City and trying to picture the town as it was during the Klondike gold rush of 1898, or a few years later when poet Robert W. Service took up residence.

The Yukon is a very big place, with a very small population. It's larger than Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands combined, but has a population of only 31,395 - even fewer people than at the height of the gold rush, when Dawson City alone had almost that many residents.

On a four-hour car-ferry ride up the Inside Passage from Juneau to Haines, when we weren't locked in fog, we were looking at waterfalls cascading over sheer cliffs; high, bright-green meadows bordered by dark spruce forests; or tongues of blue-green ice protruding from between snow-capped mountains.

Approaching Haines, we passed a rookery of sea lions, sunning themselves on boulders at the water's edge. Then Haines itself appeared, a settlement almost surrounded by the Coast Range Mountains, with a road north through the Chilkat River Valley, connecting to the Alaska Highway at Haines Junction.

Bald eagles are so commonplace here that they regularly roost downtown in evergreen trees, without drawing a second look.

Haines itself is worth a pause, and is a destination not just for eagle watchers, but also for fishermen. Five species of salmon - king, coho, sockeye, humpback (pink) and chum - support both commercial and sport fisheries. Nearby lakes and streams also hold steelhead, rainbow and Dolly Varden trout.

Founded in 1881 by Presbyterian missionaries who arrived to minister to the native Tlingits (pronounced "klinkit"), Haines was the site of the U.S. Army's first "permanent" post in Alaska, Fort William H. Seward, which closed after World War II. Its historic buildings are now one of Haines' tourist attractions.

At Haines Junction, we picked up the Alaska Highway, which angles northwest along the border of Kluane, in the Yukon, before re-entering Alaska at Beaver Creek.

The Kluane wilderness supports one of Canada's largest and most diverse wildlife populations, including grizzlies, moose and caribou; predators such as wolves, coyotes and lynx, and even Dall sheep and mountain goats.

The road here wound along the shore of Kluane Lake, the largest in the Yukon Territory. What was startling about this lake was not its size, but its pale blue color, caused by fine particles of glacial silt, suspended in the water, that reflect light.

At Soldiers' Summit, we pulled over to examine a plaque that recalled the ribbon-cutting ceremony of Nov. 20, 1942, officially opening the Alcan Highway between Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and Fairbanks, Alaska. Thanks to wartime exigencies and a lot of U.S. and Canadian troops, the road was built in just 10 months.

Burwash Landing, founded in 1904 as a trading post, was nothing to write home about. And the roads? They were all two-lane, with good asphalt paving.

The next morning, we stuck around to explore a small but excellent wildlife museum, where all those creatures that might be found in Kluane National Park were perched and stuffed in appropriate poses: lynx, pine marten and wolf; beaver and snowshoe hare; deer and caribou; grizzly and black bear, falcon, horned owl and eagle, and on and on.

Twenty miles up the road, we paused at a place called Kluane Wilderness Village to gas up and check out the mountains to our west from a viewing platform. Again, the scenery had us shaking our heads. This region was so wild and vast that it made Texas seem like a little backyard patch of semi-arid land. But soon we were shaking our heads involuntarily. We'd hit the Shakwak Project - about 100 miles of very, very bad road, almost all of it under construction and peppered with delays.

And rough. Very rough.

We counted our blessings for having rented a 4-by-4 sport utility vehicle.

We passed through Beaver Creek, whose signs boast that it's "the most westerly community in Canada," and then into Alaska, where we soon stopped at the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. Its most famous residents - both nesting and migrating - are trumpeter swans, magnificent birds with wingspans up to 8 feet. No swans this day.

By midafternoon, we were pulling into Tok, the first major settlement in Alaska for those heading north on the Alaska Highway. Tok wasn't much: a strip of stores, restaurants, filling stations and shops catering mainly to tourists.

At the town's big visitors' headquarters, the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, we perused a comment book and chuckled at what drivers had written about the road we'd just traversed.

"Horrible road; like riding in a blender," said one.

For us, Tok's highlight was the Gateway Salmon Bake, where we found the best grilled salmon we'd ever eaten: king salmon steaks cooked on an outdoor fire of spruce wood and liberally basted with a mystery sauce.

Next morning, we doubled back on the Alaska Highway to Tetlin Junction, and headed north on the dusty gravel of the Taylor Highway, which would connect with the equally dusty Top of the World Highway back into the Yukon to Dawson City - a total of 177 miles.

Unlike the Alaska Highway, the Taylor was built after World War II, and dead-ends at the town of Eagle, on the Yukon River, once a supply and transportation center for gold miners. The Taylor and Top of the World Highways are closed October through April, meaning that the good folks of Eagle (pop. 150) and Chicken (pop. 11) are locked in for the winter.

Chicken, like Eagle and so many other surviving settlements in this corner of Alaska and the Yukon, was settled as a gold-mining camp. It's named for the ptarmigan, a kind of grouse that's commonly called a "chicken" in these parts. (The story is that the original miners wanted to name the outpost Ptarmigan, but nobody could spell the word, so they settled for Chicken.)

Back on the road again, we emerge from the low, scrub forest onto a rolling, treeless plateau, with low-lying mountains undulating both north and south, as far as the eye can see. A sign soon heralds a return to the Yukon - "Welcome to the Land of the Midnight Sun" - and we pass from Poker Creek, Alaska, to Little Gold Creek, Yukon Territory.

An hour more and we are on a small car ferry with a strong motor - the only ferry remaining of dozens that once plied the Yukon River - crossing the swiftly flowing, silt-gray water in less than five minutes and entering Dawson City in early afternoon.

Gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek near here in 1896. Dawson City became the Yukon capital - the Paris of the North, some called it - and remained the seat of government until 1953, when it was moved south 330 miles to Whitehorse. Today, Dawson City has just under 2,000 year-round residents, while Whitehorse has 22,249 - about two-thirds of the population of the entire Yukon Territory.

But, unlike Whitehorse, where fire or ill-guided urban renewal has virtually wiped out the city's history, Dawson City has managed to preserve and even restore some of its early buildings. A stroll around the board sidewalks and gravel streets will turn up places like the old brothel on Second Avenue, which, says a plaque on the outside, was run by a Paris native named Ruby Scott from 1935 to 1961, "with the tacit approval of local officials."

Nearby is Lowe's Mortuary, where the bodies of those who died in winter were stacked until they could be buried after the spring thaw. At Third Avenue and King Street, the Palace Grand Theater, built in 1899, has been restored and is open for tours.

Most visitors eventually head out of town and along Bonanza Creek, the heart of the Klondike gold rush, which was staked out with claims every 500 feet for a distance of 17 miles. Today, the valley is a ripped-up wasteland whose main attraction is Dredge No. 4, the last of two dozen huge dredges that worked petered-out claims bought from individual miners.

On Location

The easiest way to begin a Yukon trip is to fly to Anchorage or Juneau and rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

(Take the insurance so you don't end up paying for superficial dents or windows that might get broken by thrown stones.)

Expect dust and delays on some roads, particularly sections of the Alaska Highway.

Even if you're not planning to camp, if you like to fish, pack a rod and reel, and buy a license at any sporting goods store. There's a stream, creek, river or lake at every bend in the road.

For general information on travel in the Yukon, contact the Alaska Division of Tourism at (907) 563-2167 or Canada's Tourism Yukon at (403) 667-5340.

CAPTION(S):

PHOTO[ordinal indicator, masculine]MAP[ordinal indicator, masculine]CHART

Photo (1--color) The Alaskan Highway, at right, winds past Kluane Lake, a placid spot on one of the world's last frontiers. (2--color) Signpost Forest at Watson Lake was started in 1942 by an Alaskan Highway worker who posted a sign pointing toward his hometown. (3) Dawson's Front Street retains a frontier quality Tourism Yukon Box On Location (see text) Map YUKON
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 3, 1996
Words:1850
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