From Wrangell St. Elias I headed north to intersect the Alaska Highway back in Tok. Heading north or heading south to and from Alaska you pretty much have to pass through the small town of Tok. This time I took the opportunity to eat at the famous “Fast Eddies” restaurant and it did not disappoint. Everyone raves about the deep fried mushrooms but as I don’t eat fungus (yuck) I instead had the fish and chips and the obligatory Alaskan Amber. Not much else in Tok so one night layover and then south on the Alaska Highway.
The settlement at Destruction Bay does not date back to the Klondike Gold Rush, but rather from 1942 when it was established by the US Army as a highway construction camp. These camps were located at intervals of about 100 miles and were intended both to house construction workers and to serve as rest, fuel and repair stops for trucks and drivers using the Alaska Highway. The name, Destruction Bay, refers to an incident that befell the camp. Shortly after its construction a storm with high winds nearly destroyed the camp and all of its buildings.
I was traveling over a portion of the highway that I had skipped on the way north as I had detoured over Top of the World Highway through Dawson City and Chicken. I am not sure what the road between Tok and Destruction Bay was like earlier in the Summer but this time it was probably the very worst road conditions of the entire summer. Lots of frost heaves (large unexpected speed bumps) and lots of muddy gravel sections. Arriving in the Destruction Bay area (Canada) was a relief and the Cottonwood RV campground was a beautiful place to spend the night. There were campsites directly on Klune Lake so the views were amazing.
A night with just a few clouds was the perfect opportunity to try some night photography. The lights from the infrequent cars on the Alaska Highway provided a great contrast to the lake and the stars.
“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” – Stephen Hawking
Teslin, a small village located in the Yukon Territory at Mile 804 on the Alaska Highway, was a planned stopover on the route south. It was such an interesting community I decided to stay an extra night to take in some of the sights and history.
The community is bordered by the waters of Nisutlin Bay and Teslin Lake. Until the turn of the century this was the summer camp or meeting place of the Tlingit tribe from southern Alaska. During the Gold Rush of 1898 the Teslin campsite boomed briefly as a stopover on the Canadian route to the Klondike. The Hudson Bay Co. established a trading post for the villagers and those traveling the Klondike trail.
Interestingly enough, there were two museums and a cultural center in the area as well as opportunity for hiking and enjoying the beautiful scenery. The wildlife museum was located at the Yukon Motel & RV park where I stayed while in the area. It was a small facility but had some interesting displays about local wildlife.
The Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre contains interpretive displays featuring masks and artifacts that explain two centuries of Tlingit history and the culture of the Inland Tlingit people. I was there on a Sunday and even though the center is open 7 days a week there seemed to be much less going on with the demonstrations and native artisans there only during the weekdays.
The building itself was beautiful, with a commanding view of the lake, and fronted by a row of five clan posts (totem poles) created by a local Tlingit carver.
Down by the water there were two large traditional styled Tlingit canoes. The colors and carving of these boats were in sharp contrast to the muted overcast skies.
“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” – Mahatma Gandhi
The most interesting museum in my opinion was the George Johnston Museum. I spent several hours viewing the exhibits, watching the video and talking with the museum director. George Johnston, a Teslin Tlingit, and a friend established the museum to preserve the history of the area shortly before his death. In life he had been quite a colorful character.
The Tlingit were swift to incorporate the technology of European settlers. George Johnston was a leading light in this regard, being the first to bring an automobile into the area, even though there were no roads to accommodate it.
In 1928, flush with fur trapping funds, George Johnston purchased a new car, had it shipped by small paddle wheeler several hundred miles upstream in the Yukon River watershed to the then remote and roadless village of Teslin. There he had readied four miles of crude road, road that 13 years later was to become part of the Alaska Highway north. The car became an icon of enterprise serving as local taxi, pulling his hunting sled, transporting locals up and down 80 miles of frozen lakeway and the vehicle for his renowned photography. You can see the original car, in excellent working order, on exhibit in the museum.
George Johnston, was an avid photographer whose images recorded the seasonal activities of people hunting, fishing, preparing hides, building pelt stretchers, and participating in community gatherings. He also documented the 1928 Chevrolet’s incorporation into community life. For example, he would drive it onto the frozen Teslin Lake to find choice ice fishing spots; the car would then double as an ice hut.
“Traditionally, photography is supposed to capture an event that has passed; but that is not what I’m looking for. Photography brings the past into the present when you look at it.” – Julian Schnabel
Much of Tlingit life changed with the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942, but community memory still remains strong through artifacts, recollections, and photographic images located in the museum.
The museum director also gave me a great tip on an unmarked local hike up to a cell tower with an awesome view, so the next day Cory and I took off for the trail. There were no signs but once I found the starting point the trail was fairly easy to follow. It appeared that at one point this may have been a developed and maintained trail as there were a number of deteriorating bridges along the route. It was very steep in some areas but the loop hike led to a great viewpoint overlooking the town, lake and river. The only other people I saw on the trail were the museum director and his wife out on a hike for his day off!
“Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
After two nights in Teslin, it was time to head out and it was time to leave the Alaska Highway just before Watson Lake (remember the signpost forest?) to head south on the Cassier Highway. One thing about Canada is there are huge numbers of lakes and waterways all over British Columbia. The BC Provincial Parks are often located along these lakes and are well managed and a joy to visit. The Cassier Highway was a beautiful drive but slow as much of the “highway” is narrow with no middle line and no shoulders. There was some construction but not bad and still much better driving that the road between Tok and Destruction Bay.
A stopover at Boya Lake Provincial Park for the night was relaxing with a pull through campsite right along the lake. Weather seemed to be the only downfall as most days since leaving Wrangell were overcast and rainy and so impacted some of the views, which I am sure, would have been spectacular!
“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” – John Ruskin
One other thing that the weather impacted was viewing the eclipse. From my location along the Cassier Highway in Canada had the weather cooperated the eclipse was about 50%. I was able to capture some less than perfect photos through the sometimes-breaking cloud cover and got to test out my eclipse glasses that I had acquired at the observatory in Tucson.
Overall much of my Alaska trip (excepting the last few weeks) the weather has been remarkably good which made for a remarkable summer.