Wednesday, July 20, 2011

#6: 5 of 6--Bear!
Blake's photo!
BEAR!" someone yelped as we--Bethany, Stanley, Wayne, me--headed north along the Klondike. "Bear!"

Wayne hit the brakes, swung a u-eey, and nosed us south, creeping, bear ahead. Aware of we were approaching, Mr. Bear seemed unconcerned, no doubt figuring we were of no threat to his dandelions and other grub prevalent along the highway. I grabbed my camera, put it on video,  and leaned out the window.

We have a couple kinds of bears up here. The black bear comes in various colors: blue, blonde, white, brown, black, cinnamon. The brown bear--better known as the grizzly--also comes in colors of your choice: cinnamon, black, brown. 

And we of course we have the gummy bears. They come in every color: red, blue, green, yellow, orange...

The black bears max out at about 600 pounds. The browns, 800. It's important to know the difference.

The black bear, when encountered, is more afraid of you than you of him. So act all brave and brawny, growl and scratch the air with pretend claws, make yourself look big, imposing. Off he scampers. Usually. But if you come between mama and cubs? Better shinny up the closest tree, the skinnier the better, since skinny is hard for a 600-pound enraged mama to scamper up.

The brown bear, however, is not afraid of you. When you encounter a grizzly, don't try to scare him, or you're dead meat. The MO upon stumbling across a grizzly is to play dead. Yup. Try to remember this in your panic. He might come up and sniff you, maul you a little, try to flip you over. Stay calm. Generally, they say, he'll loose interest and trot off. Then you can start breathing again and tell your heart to simmer down. However, and this is a huge however, a government brochure, and I kid you not, say that if the grizzly starts to eat you, it means the attack has turned predatory and that you have to fight back. Really? Who are these people?

Meet our brown bear, our grizzly!
Suddenly a car roared by and off scampered our bear. But, hey, BEAR! Always a thrill.

Monday, July 18, 2011

#6: 4 of 6--Swan Haven, Yukon

Stanley, Wayne, Me, Bethany
Did anyone know there’s a haven for swans? Trumpeter and Tundra? Also wigeons, Canada Geese, Northern Pintails, eagles, shorebirds, and “other predators” that abound in McClintock Bay on Marsh Lake in the Canadian Yukon? Well, there is.

Swan Haven is on Marsh Lake, a huge lake that runs west to east and south, coming out of Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. The four of us—us being Wayne, Stanley, Bethany, and me—discovered this lovely little place during our exploration of whatever. Lucky us.
We were there, however, at the wrong time of year. April is when the Trumpeter and Tundra swans first make their appearance, filling the sky with their clarion call, fluttering their weary wings, and setting down with a splash and a honk, dropping onto the water’s still icy surface. They, and other waterfowl, are attracted to the first open water in the region: its shallow water, plentiful food, good visibility, and minimal disturbance. A kind of Maui of the North, I guess, for the feathered folk. Definitely a critical stopover in the long migration to northern nesting grounds.

The swans come from the B.C.’s Lower Mainland, as well as Alberta, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and they spend about ten days at Swan Haven “fattening up” before moving on. Like marathon runners before a big race they’re carbo-run, and they gorge on the starchy roots of the surrounding sedge roots, floating  bottoms up, legs aflutter, as they uproot the pond weed. Handy enough for the smaller shorebirds who can’t rip up the weeds for themselves but need them for nourishment.

Last year 2,432 Trumpeter Swans were spotted by April 7. There are about 46,000 in North America now, an exciting improvement over their near extinction at the end of the 18th century, their skin unfortunately valued by Europeans for the making women’s powder puffs, their feathers part of any fashionable hat. So valued, in fact, that the world’s largest waterfowl nearly went way of the dinosaurs. But things are better and we enjoyed their vacated haven, a little heaven for our own souls.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

#6: 3 of 6--Robinson's Roadhouse, Cool.

Let’s go see Robinson Roadhouse!” I kept badgering my friends. I’d been there last year. 

They were not excited. “What’s there?” they wanted to know.

“An old supply station for the White Pass and Yukon Rail!”
So what.
Are you kidding me? 
White Pass and Yukon Rail
So let me fill you in. The White Pass and Yukon Rail was/is the Gold Rush train between Skagway, AK, on the coast and Whitehorse, Yukon, in the interior—and the Yukon River where miners boated 500 miles downriver to the gold fields. The train took two years, two months, and two days to build—by then the gold was gone. Pretty much. Yet both the train and Skagway survived as transport and port for other minerals prevalent in the Yukon. But to build it in the first place? It wasn’t just the ridiculously steep slope, tight turns, and brutal weather conditions that made this one bear of a job. It was the international hoopla.
Bureaucracy can strangle the most beneficial of projects, but surmounting two governments? Which is why the WP and YR had to think outside the box to get the job done. And why the Red Line Transportation Company--and Robinson's Roadhouse--Canadian persona for the WP and YR.
Before I dive into this any deeper, forget the international hoopla for just a minute. The gold rush train of 1898 was immediately daunting on a local level. Everyone in Skagway was anxious for the train to go in. You bet. It would bring miners by the thousands to their fair city, whisk the Klondikers easily up the pass to the gold fields. Goodbye to the wretched three-month journey, so severe it allowed only one out of every ten people trying to actually make it through. So Skagway wanted the tracks well enough, there was money to be made, but no one wanted the tracks running right down Broadway, the main thoroughfare. Put the track over a block, they said. Run it along the mountain foot to the east.
A heated city council meeting on May 28 resulted in a tabled discussion, to be resumed in the morning. Mike Heney, the train’s chief engineer, however, simply waited for everyone to go to bed and then ordered the tracks be laid while they slept. By morning it was a done deal. The tracks were running right up Broadway and ascending the valley floor. You snooze, you loose.
He did it again when he hit the summit and the Canadians refused for some reason to let him cross. Stifling a yawn, he waited for the Mounties to go to bed. By morning the tracks were well into Canada and under jurisdiction of Heney’s Red Line Transportation CompanyCanadian persona of the WP and YR

In charge was William Robinson, a “take no nonsense” kind of guy, well over 300 pounds and six feet tall. General Manager of the Red Line, he was responsible for transporting all supplies from the track’s end as it came south out of Whitehorse. According to the WP and YR’s president, Samuel Graves, Robinson had “...a considerable reputation as a taskmaster whose bulk and mastery of profanity could provoke the indolent toiler into spirited action.” His headquarters? 
Robinson’s Roadhouse. 

 Initially it included a log cabin lodge, saloon, and three tents.
Very quickly it grew. More buildings went up, people moved in. On July 28, 1900, the golden spike was hammered down with great fanfare by Canadians and Americans alike, in Carcross on the northern end of Lake Bennett.
Eric Hegg Photograph, Carcross, Yukon: July 28, 1900
Robinson was the dude who handed that last celebrated spike to Mike Heney--who had the privilege of hammering it in place, now on display in Skagway’s Train Depot Gift Shop. The Gold Rush Train was complete and the Red Line was dissolved. 

But Robinson’s Roadhouse continued to grow because of a mini gold rush just west of the roadhouse in 1906. People talked about a town site. The surrounding 320 hectares were surveyed. A Mountie detachment arrived, “a man with a saddle horse.” But the gold fizzled. The expected population explosion fizzled. The roadhouse became a base camp for miners still looking for gold—lead, sliver, iron as well. When all that fizzled too, everyone drifted away and today all that exists are log structures that could have been anything.
“Cool!” my friends declared when I pried them out of the car. 

Wayne and Me
He'd just smacked me, trying
to ward off the mosquitoes
and I was laughing.
He was cooing.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"
We slapped ourselves silly, mosquitoes tremendous. We went hopping over the tracks, backed up, took pictures, then rollicked down the trail to the meadow and falling-down log houses, lodges, whatever. It was like being a kid again, adventure before us, the clearing ahead opening, ahead, surprise rising to greet us.

We snooped around, still slapping ourselves and then each other. The size of nickels, the mosquitoes were so furious and vicious that they were actually drawing blood through  shirt sleeves. Finally, “I can’t stand it!”

Stanley. She’s squealing like something tormented. We’re all are. Tormented, squealing. But it’s she who does something about it and races like a deer before the wolf pack, back through the high grass, over the tracks, to the car—hoping to find some kind of mosquito spray. Our luck, she did.
Stanley coming back with the Off.
I hopped around, trying to ward off the mosquitoes long enough to get my hair dumped upside down and sprayed. Stanley sprayed Wayne’s open palms and he rubbed himself down, everywhere. We sprayed our clothes.  Bethany stood still while we sprayed her face. 
Bethany, freshly sprayed and smiling--Mona Lisa?
Even then, we couldn’t stay. The whining beasts were no longer landing, true, biting right through blue jeans, but were now hovering just inches away, all over, a cloud of constant advance and retreat. We dived back into the car, exhilarated, winded, smelly, thrilled.

“Why didn’t you tell us it was so cool?” they all asked.

I did!”

“Yeah, but…”

I'll say it again: "Robinson’s Roadhouse is cool."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

#6: 2 of 6--Conrad City, Yukon. A Ghost Town

Whose house is this? One of my sources tells me only one house still exists in the ghost town of Conrad City in the Canadian Yukon; a rather tippy affair and reminder of post gold rush days up here. 

However, we--we being Wayne, Stanley, Bethany, and me--found two! Whose is this?

The two homes sit in Conrad City, a once-upon-a-time mining town that came about through the efforts of one John Howard Conrad just after the turn of the last century. Jane Gaffin of the Yukon News writes that he "crashes boldly and brashly" into history "as somewhat of a jewel and jerk." She goes on to say that he was an "ambitious and optimistic capitalist" who had a "cathedral-sized ego and liked publicity ladled out in big scoops." He was, she said, "a high-rolling scoundrel who lived fast, made decisions faster, imbibed generously in booze, and could be mean-spirited. It probably was not wise to get in his way."

An American financier at the turn of the last century, Conrad left the Lower 48 to consolidate a string of gold, silver, and lead claims on steep rock face of Montana Mountain, about 50 miles north of Skagway, AK. This mineral rich mountain, formed 60 million years ago in the ongoing collision of tectonic plates, sits just a few miles south of Carcross, where lived, just so you know, the discoverer of the Yukon gold. A Tagish and Tlingit man, a man by the name of Skookum Jim. Back to John Howard Conrad.

An imposing, gregarious Southerner, born on a Virginia plantation five years before civil war, Conrad was eventually dubbed Colonel  His namesake city sprang up fifty years later, in 1905,  on the banks of Windy Arm, an extension of the Yukon's Tagish Lake. "With great hoopla," writes great-great grandson Murray Lundberg in Fractured Veins and Broken Dreams: Montana Mountain and the Windy Arm Stampede, "he predicted that what is now a ghost town would grow and replace Dawson City as the Yukon's capital."

Ha ha, yea right, good one, I think, sitting on the threshold of a tumbling-down log cabin all but buried in second growth forest, holding a wild flower in my hand.
Crank back the clock, though, this was a busy  place, a happy place, productive. Families roused themselves in the morning just as we do today, going off to work, children playing, going to school.  

Colonel Conrad was lauded by some for saving the territory from economic collapse after the gold rush, a credit he fully embraced and others went along for the ride. By January, 1905, he'd created two companies--Conrad Consolidated Mines and J.H. Conrad Bonanza Mines--consolidating"an intricate web," great-great grandson writes, "of nearly a dozen companies and more than 100 claims." He employed more than 200 miners and his  little city  included stores, churches, hotels, restaurants, baths, laundry, post office,  hospital, recorder's office, a regular steamboat service to Carcross.
Conrad City looking south. Montana Mtn rises straight up on the right.
Conrad's most ambitious and costly endeavor, however, was the tram line, the longest in the world at the time, rising up 3,700 feet and extending for more than four and a half miles to the tune of $75,000 at a time when a miner's wages ran just around $3.50 a day.
The work was hard, everything done the old-fashioned way, digging out the mountainside with candle for light, pickaxes to break the rock.
Still, it was work, and profitable at that.

Though it didn't  last... Boom went to bust in short order, as it often does. The world price for silver plummeted in 1914. Colonel John Howard Conrad filed bankruptcy. The mine was closed, the town abandoned. Not even ten years and it was over. Conrad City's buildings were hauled up to Carcross or left to rot or be washed away by the lake. Or found a century later by my friends and me.
The second home we found was nestled in the whispering cottonwood. No Sleeping Beauty here, lying serenely in peace, awaiting the kiss of resurrection a hundred years beyond forgotten tragedy. No one here but the ravens, a squirrel or two, maybe a bear waiting for us to go all away. I found it oddly harmonic, this cycle of life with its ups and down, risk and adventure, and sometimes devastation. Everything coming to an end. Time running along with disregard, obscuring our lives. I briefly asked, Is life for naught? even as eternity stepped in and introduced itself, as real and palpable as the breeze against my cheek. I could each out. I could touch it, this breath of God. Breathe it in as my own.

When did I spot the shelf?

Who once used this? I wondered. And what hung from the nails? Wooden spoons? A mug?  Perhaps a child's sweater? No...I thought not. I found myself wanting to sit  and visit with the woman who'd lived here. Perhaps she'd hung from these old and rusty nails a set of highly prized china cups. Yes, I decided, china teacups. The china too new for patina. Bright, polished, the porcelain smooth, cool to the touch. With a lovely teapot, yes indeed, to match. Up on the impossibly high shelf.

Matthew Watson's General Store is the only business to survive Conrad City, and is now the oldest operating store in the Yukon. It sits in Carcross, across the tracks. Tourists stop in to buy ice cream cones before boarding the old gold rush train.
Cycling, recycling, a new generation, and another. Still...who was the woman in Conrad City? I don't know. She, and those who pined her absence, have stepped into eternity. As I too, and you, will someday do.
Still, whose house is this?

Friday, July 8, 2011

#6: 1 of 6--Exploring the S. Klondike Highway

The unexpected! When the four of us (that being Wayne, Stanley, me, Bethany) set out to explore the South Klondike Highway out of Skagway, not even sure where we'd pitch our tent that night, we came across the most unexpected find of all. Almost immediately we deemed it the best. I say almost because I had to jolly my reluctant friends along, at first, their reluctance to embrace the trailer a little less than enthusiastic.

It came about this way. The purpose of our getaway from Skagway, where we 're all bus driver guides (though Bethany this year is working at Jewell Gardens), was to simply wander. No agenda. No destination. Just follow our noses and see where it would take us. We'd been nosing into all the little dirt roads that branch off the only highway into town and just now had come across a narrow, sorta windy dirt road that ran alongside Nares Lake just before getting to Carcross in the Canadian Yukon. The road immediately intrigued us because of the plastic flowers--hanging in baskets from the trees, crowding the road, set on stumps, planted in planters. For about a quarter mile these plastic flowers bloomed amidst the forest, showcasing the trail into nowhere. "What the--?" we'd all ask from time to time, marveling at the complete and total bizarre. And then, suddenly, the trailer.
Now, my companions have all been properly brought up. I, however, have not. My folks have never been able to teach me to mind my own business and I snoop into anything old. Already the four of us had been climbing into abandoned log homes of the 1908 ghost town once called Conrad City. My friends were okay with that. No one lived there anymore. But the trailer?

Stop the car!" I hollered.

Wayne hit the brakes. The trailer called my name, and I heard the echo in the wind.

My friends were freaking out. "You can't go up there!"

Up I went and looked through an end window. Oh, my, it was like being Snow White. I half expected to find seven dwarfs. 
A wee table, little stove, frig, cupboards, bed, pots, pans, a shelf of murder mysteries. Any Sue Grafton? I had to get in there. A notebook, open on the table. Waiting for me? I climbed up two tire steps and looked through the front/side window. 

"What the fuck are you doing?" Stanley.
Truth be told, I was playing with the bungee cord holding the door shut. Pandemonium from the car. "You can't go in there! It's breaking and entering! BRENDA!"

Next thing I knew, I was inside and, for the record, it wasn't breaking and entering. It was just entering. No breaking involved. My my my. What an adorable little place. And then, before you could count to five, my pals were crowded inside with me, my winning example paving the way and I was happily introducing them to the thrill of stepping into someone else's life.

"Dear Bee--" That's my name. Granny Bee. It didn't take long to figure out that Bee was a grandma and that her cute little place was open to friends and family. Dutifully all emptied the "mouse bucket" and then reported on their stay. "Here a week, reading." "So peaceful, thank you, Bee." "Dear Grandma...."

"Should we write something?" Bethany asked. The last entry was June 6, 2011. It was  now June the 11th. The journal, I noticed, started way back in 1998. I was forthwith elected to say a little something and so picked up pen and confessed that this magical little place had just called my name, truly. We all thanked Bee, signed our names, and sat on the porch outside, to just "be." 
Bliss, harmony, engagement. Beauty. Serenity. In my head I tallied my friends scattered all over the Lower 48 and determined I'd beg them all to come up and enjoy this gift of wonder, magic, and utter enchantment.
Bethany and me with Bobby Burns, the Scottish poet,
on the end of an andiron. Who would have thunk?
There is something about generosity, open spaces, cozy trailers, and companionship that encourages, inspires, and sets the soul to sing. Reluctantly we said goodbye, but not before lovingly reattaching the bungee cord and blessing Bee. 

The unexpected is the best.

Goodbye, cute little trailer in the woods...