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LAUGHING DOWN THE ROAD
Caution: Funny Signs Ahead


Two Thousand Miles of Wonderful: A Road Trip through Scenic Western Canada by George Bruzenak and Jaimie Hall-Bruzenak

For landscape lovers, western Canada can't be beat. It has a bit of everything - soaring mountains, glaciers, wide river valleys, miles of seacoast, vast fields of crops, boreal forest, even the world's smallest desert - and nearly every vista is breathtaking. It makes a wonderful road trip, for every corner brings something new into view, leaving you to wonder what lies ahead.

Oak Lake

George just off the Icefields Parkway which runs between Banff and Jasper National Parks in the Canadian Rockies

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Photo by Jaimie Hall Bruzenak

We went to western Canada this summer looking for some beautiful northern scenery to carry us through to our Arizona winter, and we were not disappointed. This portion of the North American continent is simply breathtaking, and we'll be captioning photos for the next several months.

Our route took us from the Canadian border north through the Canadian Rockies to Dawson Creek, then northwest along the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse, south on the Klondike Highway to Skagway, Alaska, then north again to Dawson City, Yukon - retracing the path of the Gold Rush stampeders. From there, we drove the magnificent Top of the World Highway into Alaska.

Canadian Rockies
As we crossed the border at Sweetgrass, Mont., the wheat fields of the great American breadbasket continued north unbroken, stretching as far as we could see. The Canadian Rockies came into view west of Calgary, and we followed the Icefields Parkway through Banff and Jasper National Parks. The mountains appear younger and wilder than the southern Rockies, and the crags and cliffs were still snow-covered in June, leaving gleaming patches of unmelted winter to crown scenes of barren rock and green trees.

The two parks have generous wooded campsites with hotels, food and shopping in the small towns of Banff and Jasper. Hiking, biking, fishing and boating attract many visitors and sightseers. At beautiful Lake Louise, for example, you can take an easy walk along the lake, hike to the teahouse or rent a canoe. We are hot springs aficionados, so we made it a point to stop at both Upper Banff Hot Springs and Miette Hot Springs, at opposite ends of the parkway. You can rent bathing suits if you forgot yours. Jaimie rented an old-fashioned suit at Miette Hot Springs for the fun of it!

Spotting wildlife is a thrill in these parks. In the fall, elk wander right through the campgrounds. As we drove the Yellowhead Highway east from Jasper to Miette Hot Springs, we saw elk, woodland caribou and a black bear grazing. A mineral lick along the road attracted mountain goats with long white leggings and bighorn sheep with their spring lambs.


Alaska Highway
The next major stretch was the first half of the Alaska Highway, from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Whitehorse, Yukon. Driving the Alaska Highway is driving a piece of history. Construction began after Pearl Harbor was bombed in World War II. Starting in Dawson Creek at Mile Zero, the U.S. Army and contractors cut a road 1,422 miles long, to Delta Junction, Alaska, where none had been before.

Photos, artifacts and a video at the visitor center at Dawson Creek show the building of the highway. Other museums, like Fort Nelson Heritage Museum, have additional photos and equipment. In Teslin, the film at the George Johnston Museum shows another perspective of the road construction - that of the First Nation tribes.

As you drive north, road damage from harsh winters becomes a factor, but the scenery and wildlife more than make up for the frost heaves and occasional repair operations. Between Stone Mountain Provincial Park and Watson Lake we photographed woodland caribou, stone sheep, wood buffalo, moose and black bear. Buffalo especially like the wide verges along the highway. Oh, and keep your eyes open for a sign that reads "Cinnamon Bun Center of the Galactic Cluster," found at Tetsa River Services and Campground, one of the roadhouses along the highway. Several roadhouses offer cinnamon buns so you can do a comparison test and choose the best!

Liard Hot Springs, in the middle of this same stretch, is a must-stop. Liard is a provincial park with a campground. Here the water comes into the larger natural pool at more than 107 degrees, gradually cooling to pleasant temperatures farther away from the source. You might see a moose browsing in the warm-water ponds below the springs.

Once we reached Watson Lake, in Yukon, we picked up a Yukon Gold Explorer's Passport book at the visitor center. The booklet lists 31 attractions. Getting 10 or more of the attractions stamped during the summer of 2009 makes you eligible for a drawing for gold! We stopped at some delightful cultural centers and museums we otherwise might not have visited.

Whitehorse
Whitehorse is the capital of Yukon, formerly called the Yukon Territory, and the largest city along the Alaska Highway. It is a good place to stock up on food, and it offers several worthwhile attractions, including the MacBride Museum and the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre. The MacBride's new exhibit, "Gold to Government," presents Yukon development from 1880 to 1953. The Beringia Centre brings alive the time when the Bering land bridge rose between Asia and North America as ocean levels dropped during the ice ages. Woolly mammoths, bears, bison and other large creatures thrived in the unglaciated, grassy tundra called Beringia. Humans migrated from Asia into North America during this period, too.

We also enjoyed hiking to the remains of Canyon City and soaking in Takhini Hot Springs.


View A road trip through western Canada in a larger map

Klondike Highway
After a side trip to Skagway, Alaska, we drove the Klondike Highway to Dawson City. During the 1897-1898 Klondike Gold Rush, the majority of stampeders climbed the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea or the White Pass Trail out of Skagway, then built boats and floated down the Yukon River to Dawson. The highway follows this trail. The southern portion is exceptionally scenic. Two unusual features to look for are the smallest desert in the world, near Carcross, and beautiful Emerald Lake beyond that.

Our Yukon passport book included several stops along the highway. At Carmacks, we visited the Tage Cho Hudan Interpretive Centre, which houses displays of traditional tools and native crafts. The First Nation docent told us an amazing piece of local lore about the grandmother of an older woman in the village who saw the last living woolly mammoth - though the last mammoths are thought to have become extinct around 1700 B.C.

Klondike Gold Rush history is preserved in historic Dawson City by Parks Canada. Walking tours and restored buildings (including a few buildings that are leaning because the permafrost under them melted soon after construction) give a flavor of the time, at the turn of the 20th century, when Dawson City boasted 40,000 people. After the Gold Rush, the poet Robert Service worked in Dawson City; his cabin is open to visitors, as is Jack London's cabin, just down the street.

Top of the World Highway
From Dawson City, we crossed the Yukon River on the free ferry and drove the Top of the World Highway to Alaska. Though mostly gravel, the road affords 360-degree views and takes you through boreal forest and tundra above the tree line. Photographs do not do justice to the almost endless views.

We are looking forward to returning through western Canada at summer's end via a different route. Our route will include the portion of the Alaska Highway we missed as well as the Cassier Highway. We know we will be treated to spectacular views, wildlife sightings and friendly Canadians wherever we travel.

George Bruzenak and Jaimie Hall Bruzenak
8/7/09

If You Go: Some Useful Information

Crossing the border. For information on preparing for the trip and border crossings see "Ready for Alaska."

Shopping. There are restrictions on the kinds of food items you can bring across the border into Canada, so you will need to do some shopping during your first couple of days in the country. Lethbridge, Alberta, is a good place to stock up for the trip through the Rockies. The next large city for shopping on this route is Prince George, though we found most of what we needed along the way, including some health food items. Whitehorse, the largest city in Yukon, has a Real Canadian Superstore and a Wal-Mart. Many "towns" along the Alaska Highway are actually just small roadhouses with fuel, café items and sodas for sale and perhaps some rooms for rent.

Internet and cell phones. More RV parks and hotels have Wi-Fi every year, and the larger cities have Internet cafés. Check advertisements in the local tourist papers or ask at the visitor center if you cannot find access. We signed up for Verizon's Canada plan for both our cell phones and Internet service, and it was a waste of money. The Verizon AirCard worked only to Fort Nelson; after that, neither cell phone nor AirCard worked until we reached Alaska. Plus, the cost was high. Skype is a much better deal. For $2.95 a month, you can call a telephone in the U.S. or Canada using your computer. If your family also has Skype, you don't need a subscription; with a webcam, you can also see each other on your computer screens.

Wildlife. Wildlife sightings are often a matter of timing and luck. However, animals tend to be out in the cooler parts of the day and during spring and fall, when they are moving from one area to another. Remember, we are visitors in their habitat. If you approach an animal and it gets nervous, you are too close. Close encounters are stressful to the animals, who may come to associate roads with danger and eventually avoid them.

Always be on the alert for wildlife - both to avoid collisions and to have the camera ready. Warning signs indicate areas to be careful.

Parks Canada passes. If you plan to stop at several national parks, you should consider purchasing an annual pass. You will need a separate pass for national historic sites, or you can buy a Discover Package, which allows entrance to both types of parks. You can purchase a pass at any park or historic site.

Hot springs. A list of British Columbia hot springs can be found at BritishColumbia.com.



 


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