Day 30: Dusty Ride to Cultural Jewel
Having ridden north on the Alaska Highway two weeks ago, I knew we could expect a long stretch of road construction shortly after we entered Yukon Territory, so I wasn’t surprised. But that didn’t make the one-hour ride over 30 miles of dust, mud, bumps, gravel, ruts, and rocks any easier to take. I survived the construction gauntlet, having lost only two teeth, a kidney and an artificial aortic valve. Just kidding. About the teeth.
I didn’t think my bike could get dirtier. I was wrong.
I think I’ll have some service, any service, done at a Harley dealer so they can offer me a free bike wash. Suckers.
Other than the extended stretch of road (dis)repair and a couple of short stretches, today’s ride wasn’t bad because no rain fell. And the road that wasn’t torn up was in pretty good shape.
We had heard from several folks in Alaska that they saw signs of an early winter, and today we may have seen a couple more. Two weeks ago when we went north along Kulane Lake, all the leaves were green along the way. Today, most of the aspen had broken out in a serious case of fall yellow, and all the fireweed had lost its signature bright purple blooms. I think Mark and I are headed south at a propitious time.
We stopped for a short visit at the Kluane Lake Visitor Center where the lone ranger (no, not The Lone Ranger) pointed out some of the 98 Dahl Sheep she spotted so far today on Sheep Mountain using a high-power scope, which she kindly let us use to see numerous ewes and lambs precariously balanced on the upper reaches of the rocky red mountain. She also told us about a potentially significant change to Kluane Lake, which up until this year had been fed by meltwater from a glacier. That glacier has now retreated to the point where its meltwater drains to another river that in turn drains into the Gulf of Alaska on the other side of the St. Elias mountain range. The lake level has apparently dropped five or six feet this year and geologists are not sure how low it may drop before finding non-glacial stasis. The upper reaches of the lake bed have dried out and today winds blowing up to 25 or 30 mph caused a mini dust storm we had to ride our already filthy bikes through while holding our breaths. Dust seemed to be the word of the day.
We pulled into Haines Junction early, about 2 p.m. Alaska Time and 3 p.m. local time, so we had plenty of time to visit the one place on today’s agenda: The Da Kų Cultural Centre.
Three years ago when Marilyn and I were riding back from Alaska we stopped for a couple hours at the Da Kų Cultural Centre but I didn’t see everything there was to see. Today I remedied that oversight. The Centre houses the Yukon Visitors Bureau, the Kluane National Park Visitors Centre and the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Cultural Facility. I had toured the first two but not the last one, which is the raison d’être for the Da Kų Centre.
When possible, I try to learn something about the people who live or lived where I travel, whether it’s the decedents of Irish fishermen in Newfoundland, the pre-historic Cliff Dwellers of southern Colorado, the Nez Perce of Idaho, or, in this case, the native people of the Yukon.
As I walked through the Centre, reading and learning from the professionally-produced exhibits, I met one of the Centre workers, a young woman named Näntsäna, whose Northern Tutchone name means “Smell of the Earth After It Rains,” a lovely name, a lovely smell and a lovely young woman. Näntsäna helped me understand the importance of elders in their culture, the reasons they have two clans (Wolf and Crow) which each person inherits matrilineally, the importance of family and the familial structure that raises young people, the spread of the Athapaskan-speaking peoples (including the Navaho of the southwest United States), the important efforts to save traditional language as fluent-speaking elders pass on, the use of trails as communication links long before Europeans arrived, and the cultural intermingling of the Athapaskan and Tlingit First Nations people. In short, Näntsäna was a wealth of knowledge and an enthusiastic ambassador for her culture. Once again, a chance meeting with a kind stranger has enriched my motorcycle adventure more than she knows.
As I continued my stroll through the Da Kų (trans: Our House) Cultural Centre, I thought about what Näntsäna had said, and the artifacts and artwork housed there took on greater meaning. It was a short visit, but the lessons learned there will stay indelibly etched in the recesses of my elderly brain and for that I’m grateful. I love these Adventure vignettes.
Tomorrow it looks like rain will return, but I’m determined to hunt eagles and bears as we head back to Alaska, back to dollars not loonies, back to gallons not liters. Wish me luck.