|We got a leisurely start this morning, catching the ferry across the Yukon River at around 11:00 A.M. It was cloudy, and this somewhat diminished the thrill of driving the Top of the World Highway into Alaska. It really is a remarkable road, with immense vistas on both sides of the highway, as you follow along high ridge-tops. But we took few photos because of the overcast conditions.
Once we passed through U.S. Customs, we continued on about 15 miles, then branched north on the 64-mile gravel road to the little Alaskan town of Eagle, on the Yukon River.
From the time we got to Yellowknife NT, where the 2000-mile Mackenzie River begins, we’ve been fascinated by the role that rivers have played in northern history. In the case of the Yukon River, it begins in the mountains that line the “Inside Passage” on the Pacific Coast, flows north to Whitehorse and from there to Dawson City (making it a major route to the Dawson gold fields). Then, from Dawson, it flows north and west into Alaska (near Eagle) and continues west across the entire width of Alaska, out to the Pacific Ocean. Amazingly, during the gold rush, a steam-powered stern-wheeler could take you the whole way between Whitehorse and the Pacific Ocean!
At any rate, the weather cleared as we approached Eagle, and the road (called the Taylor Highway) was incredible - as narrow and winding a dirt road as we’ve driven the whole trip. Eagle itself was once a boomtown, like many of these river communities, and it boasted a U.S. army fort (guarding American access to the Yukon River). The fort is now a national historic site, and the town of Eagle itself retains a few buildings from the old days. But its deserted feel is a bit unsettling.
We bought ice cream from a tiny ice cream stand, then stopped in at the National Parks headquarters and talked with a ranger named Amanda. When she expressed surprise that we planned to be in Alaska for only a day or two before heading back into the Yukon, we asked her if she had any recommendations for us. “I’d take the Dalton Highway,” she said, giving us a Parks Service booklet on the road that services the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. We thanked her, but privately thought, “Oh, sure. After driving the Dempster Highway, why would we want to drive the OTHER road in North America that crosses the Arctic Circle?”
We ate supper in the cafe down by the Yukon River, then went out for a drive along the river. On the way back, we spotted Amanda, the ranger, out with her sled dogs (pulling an ATV behind them, for training). We stopped to talk with her and met two other rangers who were with her. One of them, Scott Semple, turned out to be from Montrose PA (20 miles from Binghamton); the other, Robert Heston, is from the Boundary Waters area of northern MN, where his parents run a lodge.
Like Amanda, these young men reacted with incredulity when they found that we didn’t plan to explore Alaska on this trip. “As long as you’re here, and you’ve got the time, you’d be crazy not to!”
Their excitement was extremely contagious. Nadine got out an Alaska map, and Robert and Scott showed us countless places we just HAD to see. (“The plane puts you down right in the middle of the mountains - you get out of the plane and you just cry!”) By the time they were done, we had our map marked up with more destinations than we could get to in a year!
We’re pretty flexible, by nature, and we thanked the boys for their help and went home to our campsite in the nearby campground to consider our options.