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Orcas

It is the 16th of September and our 20th wedding anniversary. It seems that the guides have been given some pre-warning and after dinner everyone gathers around as the desert surprise gets brought out including candles. A huge fruit platter and chocolate fondue-yummy!

Just as we enjoy this standing on the edge of the cliff a pod of orcas including a young one swim right by. Steve the guide just grins as if this was all planned to make the night special for us.

Through the night the wind picks up and by the morning it is very wild on the water. The decision is made not to paddle as it is too dangerous. We get introduced to the dice game of “Farkle”. All of us can play and we laugh so hard our core muscles are very sore the next day.

I enquire as to the origin of Steve’s nick-name. Everyone looks strangely at me as it is Stevo, so?

I actually had been hearing “Sea-wall”, so guess what Steve’s nick-name is now?

Through the night the wind and rain are massive we are the protected tent and it seems like the roof is being blown off. The other tents are exposed to the full brunt of the wind and we hear next day that their platforms were being lifted with the gusts with them inside.

As we open the flap of our tent in the morning right in front of us on the pebble beach is a fully grown black bear. This is about 10-15 m away. It is low tide and the bears come onto the beach to roll over the boulders and check for any tidal crabs to eat. He looks up at us gives us a good sniff and carries on lifting boulders. It is a total thrill to just watch him for the next 20min. It is our last day and the weather is even worse, one of our guides never made it to camp as the float plane could not land.

The day we leave wind gusts are up to 35 knots. The water taxi gives us an incredible roller coaster ride with runs of big waves that throw us into the air off our seats up to 50cm air-borne, I think of a very good friend of mine and how much she would enjoy this ride. No-one gets sea-sick and we even manage to eat lunch on the way watching another larger pod of Orcas.

Sea-kayaking Johnson Strait

We move into our new home and get a briefing on the bear safety at camp. Make lots of noise as you go to the loo and at night go in pairs.

We head out for an afternoon paddle. André and I get a double. My back is not 100% happy with getting into the kayak but continues to behave.

As we paddle out to the next island in a northerly direction the wind starts picking up and the waves start changing into short runs of white caps. Paddling feels easy but we are going with the wind. When we get to the next island our guide decides that it is getting too rough and we need to paddle back. By now the wind is blowing some 25 knots and water rushes over the front of the kayak we try to keep some momentum and a full frontal bearing on the waves. We are paddling hard but I notice we are making no progress. One of the single kayaks is having trouble keeping up so we are asked to wait for them to catch up. This is not a good idea as we very quickly start being pushed back with the wind away from home. The slower person needs to be towed by the guide and everyone else paddles as hard as they can to get back.

All is well, we get back to camp and a black bear is spotted over on the next beach, by the time I get there he is gone but later he pops up on the beach where the kayaks are and I can get a little bear fix.

Next morning is a beautiful day, we pack snacks and lunch and head out in search of creatures. A sea lion follows our course popping up checking on our root. There amazing star fish here with quite bright colours. The camera casing for the G10 comes in handy and we get some nice pictures of the sunflower star fish. On the way back the wind is picking up again but this time it is with us on the way back so progress is easy.

Vancouver Island

We get a very good connection from Whitehorse via Vancouver to Victoria which is the capital of British Columbia. It is referred to as the little England. A lot of people retire here and real estate is very expensive.

We are staying the night at a small hotel in Sidney a beach-side suburb of Victoria. The reason for selecting this particular hotel is because of Dave. Dave is the black Labrador failed guide dog trainee that works as the hotel’s welcoming committee. He had his own bed in the lobby and wears a jacket with the hotel’s logo. He is obviously very popular as his bed is surrounded by all kinds of toys. Deserving guests can take him for a walk. We have to squeeze one of those in before we leave the next morning. We are missing the girls so getting a Labby fix as been great.

After a compulsory visit to Mountain Equipment Co-op to get some gear and exchange our old Nalgene bottles we drive north to Campbell River and the ferry across to Quadra Island. This is a beautiful place and the B&B we stay in is perched on the edge of the island with great views across the strait. In the evening we meet the rest of the kayaking group a total of 10 with a group of 5 friends in their early 30’s, another “older couple” and a 25 year old young woman from England.

Next morning an early start with the water taxi for the 2.5 hour ride to our base camp. The channel we go up is quite narrow so on the change of tide they get these massive currents as the water rushes in and out. It is not uncommon to get sudden 5-6m drops on the surface of the water. We do not experience this but as the tide starts coming in we encounter massive whirlpools arising from nowhere which look like they can suck a small boat under. We see lots of dolphins and porpoises on the way and they take a fancy to our boat surfing the wake for a long time.

Camp is great, we each get a tent after drawing a name out of a hat. We get orca tent, I take this as a good sign. All the tents are on wooden platforms and every one is private with an ocean view. “Orca” is facing a small and narrow rocky beach and is protected from the prevailing wind side by spruce trees. This proves to be a blessing as the days unfold.

Muktuk kennels

After finding the great coffee house in Whitehorse that also serves a great hot chocolate and treats we catch up on the mundane ( shower, washing and cleaning the van).

We go out to the kennels, it was about time for a dog fix for us. Frank kennels and keeps all the dogs he races with and then after their racing life. He is up to 125 dogs. They are all out when we arrive each has a name on its kennel and there is a new brood of 10 week old puppies. All the dogs are raised to be human friendly, so we go up and pat and pat and pat…..

The Yukon Quest is this amazing 1000 miles race from Fairbanks Alaska to Whitehorse taking turns as start and finish each year. It is held in February and it is not uncommon to have -40C temperatures.

The reason for this race which has been going since 1984 was that the initial dog-sledding race the Iditarod had become very commercialised and highly technical, the Yukon people wanted to get to the roots of the race.

In 2004 the conditions were so bad that four teams with their dogs got stuck on a mountain pass and had to be flown out by the national guard. One of Frank’s dogs was remembered by the pilot because he spent the whole flight sitting behind him making sure he was taking the right route looking over his shoulder. The race is an incredible feat of endurance and amazing spirit of team between the musher and his dogs. We had a great time including taking 8 of the currently training dogs for a walk, we found Frank a real inspiration and if there is any active adventure left in me a dog-mushing trip here we come!!

Back to Canada

We only stay long enough in Alaska to spend $220USD to buy a new tyre, but it is changed with great gusto by the Chevron mechanic in Tok and we are mobile again.

We get to stay in some great peaceful lake-side camp-grounds, more bear warnings, this time we have our own bear spray bought in Dawson city. Andre gets some beautiful still sunsets and we keep passing great moosing ponds but no moose. I have my own theory!!

We make our way to Kluane National Park. This is a huge park that includes the largest non-polar ice-cap in North America due to existing glaciers. We see mountain dahl (sheep) and this is where there is the highest concentration of Grizzly bears in North America. Colours here again are incredible, we go on some gorgeous walks and stay around lakes at night. The salmon are beginning to spawn, we go up one creek where the bears are meant to be feeding on the salmon. We see the salmon jumping the current at their spawning grounds but no bears.

There has been a real dramatic drop in salmon numbers over the last few years. There are grave concerns about the cause of this and the whole flow on effect on the eco-system is a threat. The bears require the salmon to top their feeding before winter, they get the salmon largely after they spawn so do not affect the numbers, they also eat them a specific way enriching a whole biosphere below them. This lack of salmon could have drastic consequences, so suddenly a large amount of research is being thrown into this to work out the cause.

Time to make our way back to Whitehorse. I have found out about Frank Turner who is one of the founders and participants in the Yukon Quest dog -sledding race and his kennel is based in Whitehorse. We make arrangements to visit and spend time with Frank.

A bit of adventure

We get a very friendly team on the border with Alaska and get a nice cariboo stamp on our visa. We are now on another segment of dirt highway to get down from the “top of the world”. Its the beginning of a long week-end in North America and we come across an enormous number of ATV’s ( all terrain vehicles). These are the hunters they drive on their noisy vehicles spotting out the wildlife with bino’s from the road and then can charge up the hills to get the unsuspecting beast. This includes bears and moose the hunting season has begun. You might be reading between the lines that we have a less then generous opinion of this approach to hunting and I get more and more frustrated as we go and see lots of them.

André suddenly starts noticing a spongy feeling to the van and we stop to see that the back tyre is badly blown. We are in the middle of no-where and there is no manual how to change a tyre on the van or even how to access the spare. The road is very muddy as its been raining, after awhile a young Alaskan pulls up and asks if we need help. This is Alaska so everybody drives a pick-up at least, so he knows how to get to te secret lever that lowers the spare wheel. I choke the front tyre ( having learnt this on our Biosphere trip). Our hero helps to change the tyre and gets quite muddy in the process. He was on his way to Chicken the next town to get some apple pie for dinner. He is camping with friends who are hunting- of course I can’t help myself and share a comment about the hunting process. To our surprise he agrees and says he’s not much into hunting ” I figure if your hungry just go to the supermarket”.

We thank him again and he leaves us with a parting comment: ” Well I would hope someone would do the same for my parents” -he is about mid 30’s. We grin this trip is obviously taking its toll on our youthful looks!

Dawson City

We spend a few amazing days in Tombstone where we also see a Mum moose with two teenagers and an early herd of cariboo coming in for a graze on the permafrost lichen. We also get to see an arctic fox and hare both beginning to change from feet up into their winter white coats. It looks quite cute. We continue on to Dawson City. It has been kept quite historic with a number of the old buildings now serving as stores but still carrying a plaque describing the previous ancestry.

We get a nice RV park with power, hot showers and Wi-Fi so we can catch up a little bit with news and e-mails. They are in the process of paving the first road ever in town, which actually is the main street through town, all the other roads are dirt with wooden side walks.

At night we catch a show at Diamond Tooth Gerdies, which is the gambling hall. As the well choreographed dancers kick out their can-can and other revealing routines we watch as patrons are encouraged to drink and play poker not noticing too much their losses.

We leave a couple of days later having witnessed the annual out-house races. This entails a rickshaw like contraption dressed with inventive ideas to do with poohing. The course is a 2km circuit through town. One team is actually from Australia with every Australian icon attached to their dunnee. Not sure about the fair play rules in the race as the Australian team just before the gun lets down the air in the hospital team’s vehicle!

We are on our way to Alaska across the Top of the World Highway. We pick another gorgeous day and get spoilt by the most amazing colours traversing the sub-alpine hills that the road goes through. Although not a long distance probably 160km it takes us ages because of all the photo stops.

  

The colours of Autumn

We were not sure whether our timing would be O.K for the amazing change in colours in Tombstone Park. We hit the jackpot, the summer has been one of the mildest in a long time and the colour change has waited for our arrival. It is breathtaking, there is a mixture of spruce trees, aspen minature beech and willow all of which turn a different colour at this time of year. The hills are blanketed in vivid reds with streaming yellows following the course of little creeks down the slopes and different shades of green. We are warned about the large population of bears in the park including black and grizzly bears. The warden asks if we have bear spray? Didn’t think of that. She loans us a canister as we set off on our first hike. The spray is a concentrated amount of capsicum spray under pressure with all kinds of serious warnings on the side.

The current method of staying safe in bear country is make lots of noise to warn the bear of your approach, nothing worse than a surprised grizzly and then once encountered speak calmly but firmly to the teddy to convince them you mean no harm and will just back off out of their way. Should this not work you than need to decide whether the charging bear is just curious or means business, in the first instance stand your ground an he will veer off at the last minute if he has his ears pinned back and is drooling at the mouth it means he intends to make a snack of you. At this point wait till he is within 1-1.5m then use the spray to deter him. Should all this not work decide whether you need to play dead (bear just saw you as a threat and is happy that you are not moving) or fight for your life being as mean and aggressive as possible. Since a bear runs at about 40km/hour there is a lot to think about while he approaches!!!

We manage to enjoy our walk and only encounter a large bear pooh on the track, all is well.

Up the Klondike Hwy

We gradually make our way up north driving through the boreal forests. We come across a place selling honey made of the bush fireweed. We decide to sample this and while chatting to the owner we find out that having hives in the Yukon has its own challenges and not only due to the extreme winter conditions of keeping the hive alive and warm through winter. The local bear population is quite interested in the tasty snack and just the previous day she had to chase off a big grizzly bear from the hives when he stumbled across them while chasing a moose. She thought that if he comes back he will risk turning into a rug!! We also got some freshly smoked arctic char which is a fish that populates this neck of the woods , it was scrumptious.

We get to see how devastating fires can be around here, things are very dry and due to the long months of winter it takes many years for the forests to start regrowing, often with a different composition of trees than originally. We drive through a massive area that covers 45000 hectares where a fire was started by a camp fire incompletely extinguished in 1998. Now 11 years later there are a few small shrubs starting to cover the area. The trees will take much longer to reappear.

We camp as the only ones in a secluded park camp ground next to Taucun Lake. We hear loons as they cruise across the lake and the trees are starting to change colour. It is berry season and so the bears are out trying to get their fill before the start of winter. We see lots of signs warning about the bears but so far no encounters. as we drive north following the Yukon River we read about the history of the gold rush and how 20 000-30 000 people made their way up to this extreme wilderness in search of gold.

We arrive at the north end of te Klondike Hwy and turn off east on the gravel Dempster Hwy. This goes all the way to Inuvik and past the arctic circle. There is not much between here and the arctic circle apart from Tombstone National Park. Our little van gets us to the campground without a hitch it is simply magical!!!

Arriving in the Yukon

After a 44 hour trip from Livingstone to Whitehorse via Joburg, Frankfurt and Vancouver we arrive in Whitehorse at the end of a Sunday. All we can think of is a long, long, long shower and a comfy sleep. “The Gold Rush inn” obliges with both and we basically do not wake up from 9pm to 8am the following morning. We are not sure whether it is the extreme length of the journey or our amazing constitution ( ha, ha !), but we end up suffering no jet lag even though there is a significant time change.

First thing we have to do is a “Timmy” fix. This is a Canadian tradition with “Tim Horton” a donut place specific to Canada started up by a famous hockey player years ago. They make donuts and Tim Bits which is a mini donuts made out of the centre of the regular donut. Its yummy and doesn’t quite feel as bad as eating the whole thing. Whitehorse is a very neat town, It is positioned on the Yukon river which runs the length of the province north and empties into the Bering Sea.

The information office is massive , we stock up on lots of information and pick up our van from Canadream which will be home for the next 13 days. Its a great set up , I fit with some head room, lots of storage space ,a toilet and shower , and nice spot to change the couch into the bed at night. We buy supplies including a huge punet of blueberries (500g) for $4.98 and some strawberries. The local supermarket is well stocked so we even get to buy nice organic raspberry jam and peanut butter for those moments of sweet craving. Of course we stock up with a nice pancake mix and maple syrup. After some browsing through town we head off north along te Klondike highway. Our first stop Takhini Hot Springs. We get a wooded site for our van, start seeing the cheeky squirrels stashing their loot for winter. A bonus is the natural hot springs that we soak in before dinner. There are two pools one with a temp of 35C and next to it 42C. It does wonders for my sore back. First breakfast blueberry pancakes, maple syrup and yummy coffee made by André the barrista!