Total Pageviews

Monday, September 10, 2012

Driving with my Dog from New York to Alaska: Whitehorse

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted September 10, 2012

Five years ago my dog, Beau, and I drove from our home in upstate New York to Alaska and back. The first nine  installments can be found by clicking the "Traveling with Beau" link on the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page. In the last blog, Beau and I traveled through the Yukon on our way to Whitehorse.  

Though Whitehorse was built on the quest for gold, it was made memorable by the poetry of Robert Service, the Scottish bank worker who came to British Columbia and then was transferred to the Yukon during the 1900 gold rush. Every Canadian school child of my generation has some familiarity with the poem, 'The Cremation of Sam McGee' that tells the story of a hapless man from Tennessee whose hunger for gold took him to the frigid Arctic where he froze to death, but not before making his buddy promise that his remains would be cremated.  The poem starts ominously,

"There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;"

As Service told the story, Sam  was cremated  by his prospecting friend on the banks of Lake LeBarge in a furnace in the hulk of a grounded river boat. As the inferno crackled and burned hotter, the prospector beat back the heat to open the furnace door. Peering out from the center of the fire was a smiling Sam, urging his comrade to shut the door and keep out the cold and storm because, "Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm".

Beau and I took the short drive to the shore of Lake LeBarge where we sat together on the bank of the lake as I recited from memory the cremation story, all 15 stanzas. It brought back wonderful memories of my childhood when I would rehearse my school-assigned poetry to the calves as I would feed them their milk, or to the cows as I would sit under them one by one, adjusting the milkers.

The SS Klondike replicates stern-wheelers of the gold rush era.

Whitehorse was built on the backs of working and sled dogs that were more reliable and better able to withstand the frigid winters than horses. The name of the city that was founded in 1897 refers to the white, frothy rapids which were an image of a horse's mane. 

Despite its equestrian name, dogs defined Whitehorse
as much as the gold that built it. 

For two nights we stayed at the Gold Rush Inn, enjoying accommodations more luxurious than anything we had experienced along the route to this point. Beau was as kindly received as any weary traveler and his presence provided a welcome memory of pets back home for many stopover guests. "Oh, I wish we had our dog with us, too," became a common refrain. Beau loved the attention, though in his inimitable way he would only comport to a stranger's attention for a few seconds before returning to my side.

The reception desk in the pet-friendly Gold Rush Inn was complemented 
with taxidermy: a wolf and several foxes.

Though Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon, a walk along the streets gives you the impression that all the working-aged men have left town. Here in the subarctic, men spend most of their summers in a place called simply, up north, where they harvest energy for use in southern Canada and the lower 48 states. As one sage told me when he stopped to chat with us, "The men are gone all summer, returning when they have a long weekend just long enough to impregnate their girlfriends or wives, then they head back to the gas or oil fields." 

A retired DC-3 is the World's Largest Working Airport Weathervane.

During the afternoon, I was drawn to a man dressed in khaki jeans and a white T-shirt on which were clustered an array of colorful pins. Today's cluster represented obscure sites and out-of-the-way places in Canada but the one that intrigued me was a pin from Nunavut. "Have you been there?" I asked. "Oh yes," he said, "I just flew in from Iqaluit last night." [Formerly Frobisher Bay, Iqaluit is the capital of the territory of Nunavut which was formed by separation in 1999 from the parent Northwest Territories. Whitehorse remained the capital of the remaining part of the Northwest Territories.]

So I asked him, "What do you do?"  "I'm a traveler," he said. Not a travel agent, a traveler, a professional traveler. Someone who spends the majority of his time visiting obscure and hard-to-reach places around the world to attain the distinction of being one of the world's 'most traveled people'.  
The 50-year-old New Yorker was ranked in the top ten on that rare club list of most-traveled people. He described some of the interesting people whom he had met on his travels:
  • The man from Madrid living in the Congo, who travels the "Voodoo Trail" to learn about medicinal plants and herbs; 
  • The two Cowboys from Amarillo who were on a Posse to rope in souls for Jesus;
  • A South African woman, schooled in London and Los Angeles, whom he met in Djibouti, and is a publisher and concerned member of a club that supports national parks throughout Africa.

Considering we had just traveled over 3,500 miles on our oblique route across the continent, I wondered if Beau and I could ever make his list.

Dr. Smith invites comments at