Visiting The Arctic Circle

uring June in 1995, we loaded our pickup-camper with supplies that would be our temporary home for a few weeks, and headed North. Our plan was to meet up with friends Fay and Lin in British Columbia for a little fun, and then go to Hyder Alaska where we'd made reservations to embark on the MV Taku ferry that would take us part way up the inside passage.

Our Ferry the M.V. Taku about to dock in Hyder, Alaska. This would be a weary, all night ride in a lounge with many other passengers. We couldn't stay in our camper, and there are no sleeping quarters on this vessel. Eventually we transferred to a larger ship where we had a room. How wonderful, even though you could hear the engine. I mentioned it to one of the women who worked on the ship, and she laughingly replied, "You ought to sleep where the crew the engine room. It takes some getting used to."

This ship would take us to Skagway, where where the highway begins. Along the way we were delighted by the sight of many eagles lining  beaches. Until 1995, the bald eagle had been listed as endangered. About half of the world's 70000 bald eagles live in Alaska.

The inside passage provides scenery and wild life you wouldn't see on the outside where the bigger ships go. We were about to embark on an adventure through some beautiful country, interesting towns, experience colorful history, and eventually we'd reach the northern city of Inuvik, located at the end of the "top of the world" highway in the arctic circle. All this was before my first computer and digital camera that we acquired later in December, so I didn't take that many photos. We left the Ferry and traveled to Carcross, Whitehorse, and on to Dawson City (the heart of the Klondike) where the gold rush started in 1896. The town site was founded by Joseph Francis Ladue and named in January 1897 after noted Canadian geologist George M. Dawson, who had explored and mapped the region in 1887.  It changed the First Nation's (original Indians) camp into a thriving city of 40,000 by 1898.  It served as the Yukon's capital from the territory's founding in 1898 until 1952, when the seat was moved to Whitehorse.

Mel looking down on Dawson City and the Yukon River

We were fascinated with how advanced Dawson was during the gold rush. We noticed that they produced electricity, and manufactured just about any machinery they needed. There were piles of scattered light weight, white rocks with sparkling crystal-like particles in them where huge dredges had worked. It's a place we'd like to revisit sometime. Lot's of history and colorful characters lived and died here. At one place by the Yukon river, writer Jack London was waiting with many others to hop a Ferry to leave. Many of the men were bankrupt miners gambling what little they had hoping to get enough money for passage. In the photo above you can see Dawson alongside the Yukon. that we will be crossing on a Ferry where we'll continue on the Demster highway dubbed the "Top of the world highway" to the Canadian arctic circle and Inuvik. It weaves in and out of the tree line, the tundra beginning where the trees end.

The Dempster dirt road meets the Arctic Circle at a scenic overlook amid the Richardson Mountains (Mile 252). An interpretive display there claims that the Arctic gets as much solar energy in one 24-hour period in the summer as the equator does. No wonder summer growth's so rapid. About an hour and a half beyond the Arctic Circle, the Dempster enters the Northwest Territories, a vast boreal region even more sparsely populated than the Yukon. The road crosses two mighty rivers, the Peel and the Mackenzie, that flow into the Arctic Ocean. Both have toll-free ferries that run from early morning until late at night. Inuvik sits two hours beyond the Mackenzie ferry.

The Arctic Circle  sign reads "Lat 66 degrees 33' N."

Before we started up the "highway" someone in Dawson mentioned that we might want to take a shotgun to protect us from the big mosquitoes we'd encounter along the way. Looking through my notes and photos I was lucky to find a note I'd written as we left Dawson. "June 21, 1995. We will be in the Arctic Circle tonight about 250 miles from here. This is the longest day of the year. The sun rises at  4:35 a.m. and sets at 11:18 p.m., giving us 18 hours, 42 minutes of sunlight. There's enough daylight at midnight to take photographs. We looked forward to seeing the sun make his circle in the midnight arctic sky. However, the king of the north had other ideas. Instead, he pulled a blanket of clouds over his head as if to say, 'I think I'll catch 40 winks...The heck with those sun worshippers below."  One thing we discovered early on was how big and smart the mosquitoes were. Smart because when we stopped, they'd show up and hover around the door so's to sneak in. Then they'd hide and not show up until you turned the lights off. Then you could hear them buzzing around like a convention of vampires. We discovered that it would be wise to camp on the mountain top where they didn't seem to hang out.

This is Inuvik at the end of the road...Lots of water and mosquitoes. We noticed that there are many two or three story buildings, and were surprised that many upstairs windows were open. Maybe it was the same  higher altitude that prevented mosquitoes from entering the upper windows. The next morning we enjoyed breakfast at the Peppermill Restaurant. Inuvik sits two hours beyond the Mackenzie ferry. A practical far-north working town, it's the life support for the entire Western Arctic, with year-round airport, banks, hotels, and auto and aircraft mechanics.

We looked around and took a few photos like the Igloo Church (right). It's one of Inuvik's oldest and most prominent landmarks. Our Lady of Victory Church is home to Inuvik's Catholic congregation, but locals and visitors of every denomination have come to love it's place in the community. The church was built between the summers of 1958 (same as Inuvik) and 1960 to the design of a French-Canadian member of the church in Aklavik, Brother Laroque. Edmonton draftsmen created the design meant to fuse the Inuvialuit  and Christian cultures. Besides being the most photographed site in town, the Igloo Church is a well used community meeting place. This adventure was wonderful, and full of interesting things we saw and learned first hand.  You read about these places in books, or movies produced by imaginative people, but being there puts everything in perspective.

One very interesting place we visited on the return trip was Eagle, Alaska (below). This place offers a very rare glimpse into Alaska's past. Gold was discovered on the Fortymile River at Circle in 1886, and on the Klondike near Dawson in 1893. The Secretary of War set aside a military reservation that included Eagle City "until such time as some form of civil government may be established." The military camp that was constructed was named for Brigadier Gerneral Harry C. Egbert, who had been killed in Manila. Soon the infant city had three trading companies, a post office, a newspaper and a federal court, presided over by Judge James Wickersham.  Eagle seemed destined to become the mining center for the upper Yukon river in Alaska, but by 1904 mining activity shifted westward to Nome.

Eagle (above) is located on the Yukon River four air miles from the Canadian Border. Nestled in the river valley with a close view of the Ogilvie mountains, it is often called the 'Jewel on the Yukon.'  The history preserved in this little settlement was awesome. We were delighted that the community  provided us with the nostalgic atmosphere of the early days when Eagle was the judicial, commercial, mining and military center for the Upper Yukon.

At left is the old courthouse-historical museum that was just one of the many preserved history lessons available to visitors. As we were about to exit, a woman (below) was staring at our license plate and quickly waved for us to stop. She turned out to be Evelyn Beiderman O'Connell from Colfax, California. She had returned to Eagle with her fathers ashes to be interned and honored during a special celebration for prominent natives. Talk about it being a small world. This was proof. Later we stopped at Chicken, Alaska where we took her photo. I think Mel got a fancy gold belt buckle here.

Chicken was settled by gold miners in the late 1800s and in 1902 the local post office was established requiring a community name. Due to the prevalence of ptarmigan in the area that name was suggested as the official name for the new community. However, the spelling could not be agreed on and Chicken was used to avoid embarrassment. Chicken is the outpost for the 40 Mile mining district. There are still active gold mines in this area. Enough gold was mined here to make it worthwhile to haul huge gold dredges to this remote location. There are still several inactive gold dredges in the Chicken area.

More recent news involving Eagle. Evidently, during May 3-6, 2009 an ice jam on the Yukon River broke near Eagle, and caused the worst flood in the community's recorded history. The 55-foot floodwaters and tremendous ice blocks scoured Eagle, destroying 25 structures and devastating the town of 125 people

When the water started to recede, the broken ice was moving for the first time in two days. Bergs the size of small boats drifted  in the current. At left Yukon River ice is packed around a house in Eagle. Missing are trees on the once-densely wooded Belle Island, denuded by raging water and ice. The historic customs-museum house, cafe, store and clinic were gone.  On May 6th Gov. Sarah Palin issued a disaster declaration for areas of Interior Alaska affected by flooding, including the drainages of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Kobus and Susitna rivers. The declaration allowed greater coordination between state agencies, and provided easier access to state disaster relief funds and receipt of federal funds if there is a federal disaster declaration. President Obama declared the Yukon River flooding part of a national disaster on June 11, making residents eligible for financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Due to the cost and difficulty of bringing in building supplies, FEMA gave residents the option of receiving their assistance directly, in the form of materials, rather than cash. At the same time, the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) offered to provide free labor to build the new homes. MDS agreed to build 13 new log homes, six in Eagle and seven in Eagle Village. The homes in Eagle are being rebuilt on their original sites, but are being elevated several feet. The homes in Eagle Village are being built in the new village, which is at a higher elevation. Teams of volunteers from Samaritan's Purse also joined the Mennonites to work on the houses. The outpouring of help from Alaska Volunteers Active in Disasters, Adventist Community Services, the Fairbanks Civil Air Patrol, Fairbanks Food Bank, and a Vacation Bible School from Anchorage all helped to rebuild Eagle.

Cleaning off the mud.

We saw and did many more things on this wonderful adventure that included the northern Arctic Circle city at the end of the road. Some day soon we're thinking about returning to the area to do more exploring.