Majestic Kluane National Park in the Yukon, and quiet Haines Junction
HAINES JUNCTION, YUKON TERRITORY – There’s not a lot to this town, which is really just a crossroads on the Alaska Highway about two hours west of Whitehorse, reached by a very pretty highway (see photo).
Haines Junction is pretty much a collection of a few small hotels and motels and a couple gas stations. n The Frosty Freeze appeared to be the centre of action on a 13 degree Saturday night, when it didn’t get dark until after midnight, and even then I don’t think ever turned REALLY dark.
Then again, one doesn’t venture up here for the night life but to tour around the magical mountains and lakes and to check out Kluane National Park.
The Park Centre is just off the main highway, where there’s also a Yukon Tourism office. There’s a small display about local wildlife and history and native Canadians, and it’s a bright, sunny spot with great views of the mountains. They’ll probably offer to show you a new, 20 minute video they’re quite proud of – and justifiably so. It’s well done, and the scenery is jaw-droppingly beautiful. It talks about how natives were denied hunting and fishing rights when the national was created, something that has thankfully been put aside from what I could tell. There are fabulous shots of glaciers and hiking trails and grizzly bears and moose and all that, and the video along was enough to convince me to come back in mid-summer some time.
The Village Bakery is right next door and offers a decent array of sandwiches, quiche, pizza and tolerable shepherd’s pie for lunch, along with good French roast coffee. I drove from there about 20 minutes south to Kathleen Lake (see photo at left), which is a beautiful, crisp and clear lake in the shadow of what’s called King’s Throne Mountain. The ice was just breaking up and it made kind of a whooshing sound that threw me until I realized what it was. A lovely spot, but I didn’t go too far as I wasn’t equipped for 12 degree weather with strong winds, and didn’t have anything to ward off any bears that might get curious about the guy from Toronto.
It was partly cloudy so I couldn’t see all the mountain tops, and didn't get up for a plane ride to see the glaciers, but it’s a beautiful corner of Canada. I drove a few minutes further south, then pulled over to watch the clouds dip and swirl over a jagged mountain peak. The road feels similar to the parkway between Jasper and Banff, one of the differences being that when I was pulled over for 10 minutes I spotted just one vehicle; a motorcycle. A few minutes later, I look down the road and lumbering up the hill is a very large moose. It got within 15 or 20 metres of the car (I had pulled over) before dropping down off the easy path and migrating into the bush.
Still, always nice to see a moose on your first day in the north.
As I pulled into a gas station for a snack (seven bucks for a Sprite and a large bag of chips), I spotted a small, rounded metal hut that has been turned into a church. The story goes that a priest came in 1954 and found an old Quonset hut that had been used by the American army during the building of the Alaska Highway.
He added some lights at the top and it’s now said to be the most-photographed church in the Yukon. The sign says for anyone to go in anytime for a little peace, which is a nice idea. I did and disturbed a poor guy in the back row (I think there are three rows in all; maybe four) reading a bible. He was happy to chat for a minute and told me I could go into the church hall behind the altar. There’s a small room with a couple tables and chairs, and it’s flooded with light and absolutely delightful, as is the entire structure. A definite surprise, and a great little spot in tiny little Haines Junction.
Dinner options are very limited on a Sunday night, and the only fine dining spot was closed. So I ended up on the patio at the Frosty Freeze for a tolerable burger and decent fries.
A teenager was sitting at a nearby table with friends, complaining about not being able to get a ride.
“I called home,” she said, “but they’re all passed out.”
After dinner I drove out and around the area, admiring the mountains as I waited for a midnight sunset. I pulled over near a bridge just south of Haines Junction just as a huge band of swallows - perhaps three or four hundred - rose up from below the bridge and started swooping and swirling in giant packs in the sky above the Dezadeash River. They came within a few feet of me a couple times, banking sharply in waves and fluttering about above the river for about three minutes before finally dissapating. I don't like birds in the least, but it was VERY COOL and magical, almost.
I stayed the night at the Raven Hotel, a small but very comfortable place with nice people, plus free WiFi, flat-screen TV’s and the whole bit. Gwen serves a nice breakfast, too, with awesome coffee they have roasted in Whitehorse, plus granola with cranberries, plenty of fruit and juice and pastries/toast. Definitely one of the better spots in Haines Junction, from what I’ve read and what I could see.
The plane ride from Vancouver to Whitehorse is magical on its own, really. I think folks on the right side got the better view of Whistler, but I saw plenty of snow-capped peaks and long, glimmering inlets of ocean along the Sunshine Coast and further north.
My seatmate and I both were dying to see where we were, but the Air Canada map was pitiful and didn’t give us a clue and there were no seatback TV maps on the plane, a smaller Jazz plane that seated perhaps 80 or 90 people.
If I had my way, there would be detailed maps on EVERY plane; luxurious ones with all the highlights pointed out. I also have thought on occasion that folks down below ought to take the trouble to write the words “This is Williams Lake” with giant rocks on a hillside or something so that people in the air know where they are.
Yeah, I know. Time for a vacation.
TUESDAY: The charms of Whitehorse