Great Alaska Adventure: Whitehorse History
Scheduled non-riding days on the Great Alaska Adventure mean an opportunity to take in local sights, take care of the bikes and housekeeping chores and just relax. That pretty much describes our day in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, as we slept in about an hour, went through e-mails from home and spent about six hours downtown exploring some of Whitehorse’s and Yukon’s past. I also took time to talk with one of the folks who run the river rafting expedition I mentioned yesterday. Laundry is getting done now and so is the blog. It’s been a good day.
Although Whitehorse isn’t very big and the Ramada-Klondike is close enough that we could have walked the 10 blocks to town center, we opted for a short ride on a restored 1926 trolley that chugs and bumps along a three-mile, back-and-forth route. We rode from one end of the line to the other, ending up at the S.S. Klondike National Historical Site run by Parks Canada.
The S.S. Klondike is a 1929 stern-wheel paddle steamer that plied the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City taking supplies to miners and returning loaded with bags of ore and many dejected miners. We talked with a parks staffer, watched a short movie about steam boats on the Yukon and then spent an hour touring the old ship. At one point in the early 20th century, as many as 250 steam boats sailed the Yukon River and other nearby rivers. The S.S. Klondike is the last of all those vessels.
My hat’s off to Parks Canada for doing an excellent job preserving this leviathan of the northern rivers and for using it to tell the story of Yukon’s past, beginning with the gold rush of 1898 in Dawson City that saw tens of thousands of klondike prospectors strike out in dangerous and forbidding conditions to make their fortune. A few struck it rich, but many of the lucky few went bust nearly as quickly. Their presence and the presence of thousands of others who followed them to provide the services they needed ultimately built what few towns there are in the Yukon.
The S.S. Klondike was one of the largest of the fleet of sailing ships built and launched in Whitehorse, which was the railhead for the narrow-guage line that ran north out of Skagway. The stern-wheeler carried a crew of 23 and up to 75 first- and second-class passengers and up to 300 tons of cargo during the four to five months a year the river wasn’t frozen over. Looking at the cargo holds, the passenger and crews quarters and the engineering spaces offered a glimpse almost 100 years into the past. It was a good way to spend part of day.
I dropped by the office of the outfitters who operate the rafting expedition to learn more about what excited me yesterday. “Office” may be a little grandiose. It was actually a one-room cabin in downtown Whitehorse, but it suits their needs since they’re out on the rivers most of the time. I picked up some literature, saw some pictures of previous trips and learned about the 11-day trip, which may not be quite as demanding as I first thought (as long as I’m willing to get wet when it’s in the 30s, sleep on the ground for two weeks, and tread carefully in grizzly country). Nothing I learned today dissuaded me from seriously considering this adventure in 2014 or 2015 as part of another trip to Alaska. If two weeks in the most beautiful, most rugged and most isolated country in North America sounds appealing, talk to me. Seriously.
We also stopped by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History for a couple hours. It’s clearly the best private museum focused
on the Yukon. From an impressive taxidermy collection (every local museum in Canada, it seems, has an abundance of dead animals) to Sam McGee’s original cabin, to First Nation’s artifacts, to a very thorough exhibition of mining and mining equipment and a well-done narrative of the history of the Gold Rush and other mining booms, this museum and its expansive indoor and outdoor spaces presented a detailed look at the Yukon Territory. We only spent two hours there but could easily have spent a full day meandering through their still-growing collection. They even had a special exhibit on dog sled races that certainly enlightened a mushing neophyte like myself. It’s hard not to go through this kind of museum and gain an appreciation for the people who chose to face incredible hardships as they sought their fortunes or just tried to carve a living in the wilderness.
A short stroll took us through city center to peruse the mercantile emporiums and eclectic eateries, then we hopped back aboard the still-chugging trolley for the short ride to our edge of town.
Tomorrow we’re on the road again to Watson Lake. It will be our final backtracking route before heading south through British Columbia on the Cassiar Highway.