Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Venturing into the Arctic Circle

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Venturing into the Arctic Circle

We had just traveled the Top of the World Highway from the town of Chicken, Alaska (population in summer, 32; in winter, 7) to historic Dawson City, the former capital of the Yukon during the Gold Rush. It was a magnificent journey; all that you see during the trip are endless mountains that are golden with alpine tundra in the fall, red, orange, gold, and yellow and the great big, blue sky. The US-Canada border at the Top of the World was unlike any other border town, with nary a soul, just Bill and me and the immigration officer.

To reach Dawson City, all of us, including Star and Vino, rode the ferry. Once there we were surprised to find that the log cabins of 2 famous authors, Jack London and Robert Service, were almost side by side on one street. The city’s ‘golden’ past is kept alive by colorful saloons, thriving general stores, and old theaters in the architecture of the time. We even found the largest gold steam shovel in the world, testament to the town’s importance in gold mining history.

But the day we were to leave for Whitehorse to resume our trip back to the lower 48 through the Alaskan Highway, on impulse we decided to go up the Dempster Highway and drive to the Arctic Circle. When we were at Fairbanks we passed up the opportunity, though the road there was shorter and better. We just told ourselves, we will probably regret it if we did not do it, as only about 3 days and 2 nights separated us from the bragging rights. Besides the forecast of the probability of seeing the Aurora Borealis was good for the next few days where we were.

So we braced ourselves for the rough journey, comforting ourselves that if it looks like Star would not be able to handle the roads, then the option of going back was always open. But we didn’t. Dempster Highway was really what they technically call a dirt-gravel road where rocks are put together and sealed/packed by mud. Some parts were so rough you had to slow down to 5 miles per hour. The fastest Star went was 40; average was probably 25. At the end of the trip Star had to go to the doctor. All her shocks had to be replaced. But it was well worth it.

Going up to the Arctic Circle was a gradual succession of one beautiful scene after another, as the trees of the valley changed into shrubs of the subalpine hills and into the moss, lichens and fungi of the alpine tundra, all in blazing fall colors. We had not seen anything like it before. Some semblance of it was at Denali National Park; more at the Top of the World Highway. But here it was in full regalia. Only a day after, going down from the Circle, the colors seemed even more vibrant, more of everything had simply turned bright yellow.

On the way up we stayed at Eagles’ Nest. A storm had developed, the winds were strong, and the cold was biting.But we survived the night, we kept each other warm, and the sun was up and shining again in the morning. On the way down we chose to stay at a spot we found near where I saw a dall sheep grazing near the river bank the day before. On the other side of the road was a hill ablaze with red, yellow, orange, and gold. Before nightfall we spent the time looking at the different plants up close, to discover how such magnificent tapestry was woven.

The beautiful vastness held our voices silent many times those 2 days. We even saw an elephant rock on top of a hill, fluted mountains, and little blue lakes. Everything seemed to gather, collect, and distill at the Tombstone National Park. Imagine that this is the land first seen by those who migrated from Asia to North America. I thought Canada is simply one beautiful country, this is what pristine is, and there is really One Master Gardener.

Especially when we reached the Arctic Circle at lat 66 degrees 33 north.  There was no one in sight for miles around. We were alone at the arch proclaiming that special spot on earth. You just know that it is a special place; there were practically no plants for miles before. It was so cold and the winds were biting that we could not stay long.
Shivering, we hurriedly put our camera on its timer, placed it on the lone picnic table and had the photo of our life ‘taken’.