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A Walk in the Park | Searching for our Yukon estate

Written by by LeMoyne Mercer. Posted in August

Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story and millions of other 1950s kids, I was a sucker for the prizes that came from collecting box tops or Ovaltine labels. Some prizes, as with Cracker Jacks, were right in the box for your instant gratification. Maybe it was just a little plastic gimcrack, but it was greeted as eagerly as the “major award” won by Ralphie’s Old Man.

In 1955, Quaker Oats sponsored Sergeant Preston of the Yukon set during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99. The program starred Richard Simmons (No, most definitely not the Richard Simmons you are thinking of!) as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and his dog, Yukon King, and horse Rex. Since King and Rex mean the same thing, the sergeant may have been brave and resourceful but a little deficient in imagination. Anyway, the sponsors included actual deeds for land in the Yukon in boxes of Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice. Quaker claimed the cereals were “shot from guns.” My, oh my! Can you conceive of any corporation today associating its product with guns? Puffed Rice would have to come with a warning label: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

Each deed was good for only one square inch of land, but I ate enough cereal to acquire a sprawling Yukon estate. In retrospect, the Quaker folks were simply brilliant both with their promotion and their cereal. A small amount of raw wheat or rice “shot from guns” swelled to a prodigious volume that was 96.35% air. Even the cardboard box the cereal came in weighed more than the cereal itself. Come to think of it, there was an uncanny resemblance between the taste of the cereal and the taste of the box.

But back to that land in the Yukon. Quaker purchased about 20 acres and divided it into 21 million little squares. (The surveyors must have loved that project.) Even if you collected numerous plots, there was little probability that even two of them would be contiguous. So Quaker stipulated that all owners must allow all other owners to cross their land. The stipulation didn’t really matter because none of the owners ever convinced their parents to go to the Yukon. Decades later, though, many of us have undertaken the quest for our Yukon land. OK, “many” might be a stretch, but I can think of two. And, OK again, “quest” might also be a stretch, but if you are headed to Alaska anyway, you might as well poke around a little in the Yukon.

The process begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia at Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway. This is where the railroad ended in 1942 and the construction of the highway began. It was a joint Canadian-American effort to defend against possible Japanese invasion. The original highway ran 1,700 miles to Delta Junction, AK where it joined the existing Richardson Hwy. The road is now somewhat shorter because portions have been rerouted. The highway is also paved and much easier to drive than when the Army Corps of Engineers struggled with -70°F in the winter and mud up to their noses when the ice thawed.

People we talk to who have never driven the Alaska Highway tend to have outdated notions of the condition of the road and the perceived challenges posed by sheer distance. When you reach Dawson Creek from Toledo you have already driven several thousand miles and should have nice protective calluses on your derriere and the travel rhythm well in hand. But let’s put the drive in perspective.

A neighbor saw our RV in the driveway as we were getting it ready for the trip.

“Where you going this time?

“Alaska,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “You going to be gone about a month?”

“Maybe a little longer,” I said.

It can take about two weeks to get to Fairbanks. So, if you scheduled a month, the first thing you’d have to do is turn around and come home. No time in Denali National Park to see the mountain, bears, wolves, coyotes, foxes, moose, or caribou. No visits to Anchorage, Homer, Skagway, or Valdez. No time to take selfies with Santa at North Pole. (Not the north pole—North Pole, AK.) No time for boat tours to see whales breaching, seals and sea lions doing a water ballet, sea otters using rocks to break open oysters on their bellies, or glaciers calving into the sea.

We logged 12,267 miles to Alaska and back. Sounds like a lot, but I used to drive more than 20,000 miles a year to work. Guess which kind of driving I prefer to do. Still, even an intrepid adventurer like Shirley will not tolerate that much uninterrupted road time, so we always break up our longer trips with interim destinations.

This year, for example, we went via Grand Teton National Park and then met our daughter Sarah and her kids for a week in Yellowstone. (They flew to Salt Lake and took a rental car up to the park.) Sarah had professional obligations, so she and the kids returned to Toledo. Shirley and I continued through Montana to the Canadian National Parks in the Rockies—Kootenay, Yoho, Banff, Jasper, and the amazing Icefields Parkway. In the Yukon, we visited Kluane National Park, camping at Congdon Creek on Lake Kluane. This year Canada is celebrating the Centennial of Confederation, so entry fees to all their national parks are waived. From Jasper it is only a one-day hop to Dawson Creek and the start of the Alaska Highway. Then it’s an easy 1,485 miles to Fairbanks and the rest of Alaska.

If you are driving I-75 to Detroit or Cincinnati, you are probably focused on just getting there. You don’t say, “Woohoo! We get to drive I-75!” If you are driving to Alaska, on the other hand, you should look forward to the drive itself because of what is along the way: snow-capped mountains reflected in emerald lakes, glaciers, spectacular waterfalls, rivers churning through narrow chasms or meandering through open meadows, wildflowers, eagles, bears both black and grizzly, moose, wood bison, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, Stone sheep, Dall sheep. As Yogi says, “It’s pretty far, but it doesn’t seem like it.”

Shirley was even more enthusiastic this year than about our first trip to Alaska because there were fewer unknowns. For one thing, we were less concerned about the availability and cost of gasoline. In 2014, we were told that it is a long, long way between stations. If you see gas, you buy gas. Gas then cost about $3.50/gal. in the US. In Canada, it was $1.40 to 1.70 per liter. Making an accurate conversion from Canadian dollars and liters to $US and gallons is far beyond my mathematical capabilities. I just put my credit card in the pump and let the bank figure it out. Still, it is comforting to know that this year the US dollar has an extra 30 cents or so in Canadian purchasing power.

This year we were also far less concerned about where we would spend each night. Our 2014 journal records not only where we stayed but also what to avoid, what to repeat, and what looked like reasonable alternatives for our next trip. Back then, we had planned to stay the first night out of Dawson Creek at the Tetsa Regional Campground. Upon arrival, it didn’t seem to offer much for the price. Up the road a few miles, though, is Tetsa River Services, a lodge, campground, store, and restaurant operated by Ben and Gail Andrews for 39 years. For $23.63 Canadian, they provided RV hookups for water and electricity as well as rustic but clean, hot showers. Ben rises at 5 a.m. each day to bake wonderful cinnibuns and fresh bread. We shared a cinnibun for breakfast the next morning.

“It’s even better than Wall Drugs,” said Shirley.

Also bought a loaf of still-warm sourdough bread for the road. It made really tasty sandwiches and French toast. Shirley said we should stop at Tetsa River again. So we did.

Another journal entry cautions against a campground that was down a deeply rutted dirt road and featured pit toilets desperately in need of Rothschild’s Sewage and Septic Sucking Services.

The most popular place to stay in all of the Yukon, though, is at what I call the Whitehorse Walmart Astoria. The back half of the parking lot was occupied by a couple hundred RVs. Walmart “campers” typically show their appreciation for the hospitality by restocking their pantries. Unless local ordinances forbid it, RVers are welcome to overnight at virtually every Walmart. Many are open 24 hours, and the parking lots have security cameras for your peace of mind. A growing number of other businesses are also becoming RV friendly this way. We stopped at a Canadian Tire store for service and were actually invited to spend the night and use their electric hookups at no charge.

In Alaska you can stay for the night just about anywhere you can get safely off the road. There are long, double-ended parking areas and rest stops where this is permitted. It is a legitimate way to save the cost of a campground which, admittedly, isn’t much to begin with. More importantly, it provides much more travel flexibility for RVers. If it has been a long day and you don’t feel up to driving another 100 miles, there’s always a convenient pullout.

In Seward, Hope, Kenai, Wasilla, Valdez, and Skagway we had it both ways—established campgrounds as well as free parking at Walmarts and along the highways. In Seward, for example, we paid for a site in Waterfront Park right on Resurrection Bay. “Waterfront” should be taken quite literally. A solid row of RVs line up with noses just a few feet from the water. There are grand views of snow-capped mountains across the bay and fishing boats racing to be first back to port with their fresh catch of halibut or salmon. We admired the way cruise ships gracefully backed out, pivoted, and steamed away to their next destination. Watched seals and sea otters frolicking just off shore. Walked around Historic Seward, named for Secretary of State William Seward who signed the treaty with Russia to purchase Alaska for $7 million in 1867. This is Alaska’s Sesquicentennial even though it didn’t become a state until 1959. Were impressed that the number of fishing boats and pleasure craft in the marina seemed to exceed the local population. Walked a little way up the Iditarod Trail where they hold the annual dogsled competition. Checked out the route for the annual July 4 Marathon race in which the course is not 26 miles but to the top of Mt. Marathon and back.

Then we moved a few miles out of town to visit Kenai Fjords National Park and hike out to Exit Glacier. The only campground in the park is 12 tents-only sites. There is no fee but also no food storage or cooking allowed at individual sites. A central secure area is provided to keep the bears out. And no pets allowed—or hors d’oeuvres as the bears think of them.

We stayed at the park boundary in a wide pullout less than 10 feet from the river yet well off the road. There is nothing quite like the lullaby of a mountain stream, especially on summer nights when it never gets what you would call really dark.

In Canada, though, they frown on Americans’ wild-west desire to camp outside of regularly established campgrounds, so it is important to know where you can stay legally. The annually updated Milepost publication lists campgrounds and other facilities on all of the highways in and to Alaska. Our Canadian experience has also given Shirley a better appreciation for their sense of humor. The national and provincial parks in Alberta and British Columbia typically provide all the free firewood you want. If you choose to actually burn that free wood, however, you pay a fee of $8.80. But that’s in Canadian dollars and “fee” is, for the literal minded, already three quarters of the way to “free.” The good news in the Yukon is that there is no fee for burning the free wood. But you still aren’t allowed to stay just any old place you choose.

Not even if you would like to stay on your very own Yukon estate. After a diligent search of the official records, I found that my property in the Yukon had been confiscated by the Territorial government back in the early ’60s. Seems I failed to pay the real estate taxes. They could at least have sent a warning letter. Even in Canada, the taxes per square inch could not have been much more than a nickel. For about a buck ($US) I might have saved my entire estate. You are probably too young to have acquired your own Yukon property from Quaker Oats. Even so, you should fully expect every mile there to be just a walk in the park.❦