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From Tombstone Park to Whitehorse: The Yukon/Klondike Gold Rush Trail on the Looney Front, Part 3

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Some 70 miles from Dawson City, shortly after the junction where the Dempster Highway branches off from the Klondike Highway to begin its rough 458-mile thrust across the Arctic Circle to Inuvik in Canada's Northwestern Territories, Tombstone Territorial Park spreads out its mystic mosaic of saw-toothed peaks, forests, meadows, lakes, lichen, moss and rushing streams.

Dempster Highway marker

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It is a gorgeous land of snow-streaked crags and sage green hills, of enchanted groves and spongey tundra, of dales and multi-coloured flowers, that conjures up a vision more befitting Lord of the Rings than the drunken brawls and unforgiving terrain of Robert Service's Sam McGee and Dangerous Dan McGrew or Jack London's heroic wolf-dogs Buck and White Fang of gold rush days.

Tombstone Territorial Park

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There are wolves here, too, and grizzlies and moose, though we see none on this sunny mid-June day, but the detour to the park, which is partly managed by the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation who have lived here for millennia, is well worth the effort.

More Tombstone views

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If you continue on down the Klondike Highway, which I now do on the Husky Shuttle van, you reach Whitehorse, the Yukon territorial capital. You follow the Klondike River eastwards then turn south, crossing two other Yukon tributaries, the Stewart and the Pelly, before reaching the great river itself and following it upstream along its western bank.

The scenery is again superb, jagged mountains on the distant horizon, vast plains of spruce forests, streams, rivers and lakes, ravines and valleys, and endless bands of brilliant ground-hugging flowers bordering the road along much of the 332-mile stretch - iridescent purple, fluorescent blue, blushing pink and golden yellow.

The Yukon at Whitehorse

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There are only two others on board, and it is before a paradisiacal vision such as this that they both have their eyes shut fast, the older lady asleep, a Dutch girl in a pose of transcendental meditation. The Philistines, how could they! When they finally come to, the lady reads a book and the gal fiddles with her cellphone.

It transpires that the girl has already paddled by canoe from Teslin, upriver from Whitehorse, to Carmacks, half way to Dawson City, a trip that took her six days, while the lady is on her way to join her husband to canoe back to Dawson on a trip that will take seven days. Oops, Philistines retracted! I think they've well earned their sleep, meditation, and whatever else.

Whitehorse terminal of gold rush railway

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At Pelly Crossing a whole caravan of ugly RVs takes to the road, apparently on some sort of rally to the Top of the World Highway beyond Dawson City. Quelle horreur! But generally, thanks to the earliness of the season, vehicles are few and far between.

We pass a sea of charred spindles, all that's left of the trees after forest fires, and come to Lake Laberge with its backdrop of craggy peaks, site of Robert Service's Cremation of Sam McGee, though he changed the name to Lebarge.

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Klondike stern-wheeler in Whitehorse

From here it's only a short drive to Whitehorse, which regales itself with the title of 'Wilderness City.' Here my welcoming committee consists of more than a few staggering or prostrate drunks, including two gents lying across the former tracks of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad (WP&YR) at its final destination from Skagway, Alaska, a segment now used by a little in-town tram car.

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Sleeping it off on the tracks

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Bedding down as well

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Whitehorse tram

The city got its name from nearby White Horse Rapids, which locals said looked like a white horse's mane. A dam has given a short back and sides to the white horse but the town retains its name. It has 28,000 inhabitants, mixed between First Nation and other Canadians, an appreciable number of them drunk.

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The dam

Yukon Territory, at 186,272 square miles 23,000 square miles larger than California, the most populous U.S. state, has some 34,000 inhabitants, compared with 38 million for the latter.

The town is not particularly beautiful, with a grid pattern and wide streets and an ugly outdoor mall at one end, but there are some picturesque parts, including the little yellow tram that goes up and down the Yukon River front, some parks and pleasant riverside cliff views. It, too, tries to live off its gold rush past.

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View over Whitehorse

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Butting heads

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Statue to gold rush past

But after Diamond Tooth Gerties in Dawson City, I shall most seriously avoid the 'World Famous Frantic Follies Vaudeville Revue' at the Westmark Hotel, which lays claim to over 1.2 million satisfied customers. Likewise with Lady Lidia whose can-canning multi-coloured skirt adorns the outside wall of the Caribou Club at the Town and Mountain Hotel.

[Upcoming blog on Thursday: The real Sam McGee behind Robert Service's Cremation of Sam McGee]

Nightlife

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.