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Call of the wild

Trip to Rockies, the Yukon uncovers host of characters, including wildlife

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In two short days, we counted 15 bears -- solo and in pairs, in ditches, frolicking, chowing down on wild greens and pretty much ignoring us -- unheard of numbers, even in the Rockies where a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation protects every orchid, stone, beak and claw.

Our guide put the abundance down to the mating season. It was salad days in the Rockies for bears this June. Hardly a one of them wasn't pulling up tender grass and budding leaves.

Our first sighting through Jasper National Park was a cub bracing a stick with one paw and leaning forward, mouth agape. The gesture looked almost like a wave, except for the tongue hanging down past its chin.

A mating pair ignored the traffic jam that erupted on the highway. Our Sundog Tour driver, Sue Podmerow, explained the pair was doing, well, you know...

Single bears munched in ditches wherever pavement took tourists.

In the Rockies, bears -- and any other animal -- can be a road hazard, but not because they ride the roads. We do. Tourists lose their heads and many stop dead on the highway to grab a camera for that special shot.

Others get out of cars and walk toward wildlife, lenses up and caution to the wind.

I've camped in the Rockies, seen my fair share of moose, deer, wolves, coyotes, eagles and hawks and foraged from the Maritimes to Alberta.

But never have I seen this many bears, or big horned sheep, or mountain goats. Lush meadows draw wildlife down to the highways like open larders; later in the summer, upland alpine meadows green up and the animals retreat deeper in the Rockies.

The trip was a junket, meaning sponsors paid the fare for four writers, from New York, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg, to sing the praises of the Canadian wilderness.

VIA Rail lined up the Fairmont Hotel chain, Yukon Tourism, Air North and businesses from Jasper to Dawson City to host the week-long tour as part of a tourism package.

Canada's Rockies and the Yukon draw mostly American, Australian, German and Japanese tourists. It should come as no surprise that visitors sometimes stay: Of the two guides on a whitewater rafting trip down the Athabasca River, Jordan was from Australia and Andre from Jasper. Andre was one of the rare locals from Jasper we met.

The luxurious Canadian took us overnight through the Rockies to Vancouver, aboard a 19-carriage VIA Rail train past peaks and a panorama of lakes, waterfalls, gorges and canyons.

Our sponsors hoped the natural wonders would bowl us over, but nobody can order up animals like display items.

(Spoiler alert: Some tourists do ask park officials and tour operators where they put the animals at night.)

We were spoiled. And lucky.

But we were also warned there was a flip side to our blessings. These animals are wild. We saw so much wildlife that my colleagues hung up their sneakers for the trip; the risk of running into a bear not worth a morning jog.

Our trip took us deep into Maligne Canyon, with its temperate rainforest oasis and the hidden treasure that is its Tea House with its Norval Morrisseau originals.

We toured the magical Medicine Lake and passed the craggy fiord gate on Maligne Lake that opens up to Spirit Island. The island is one of the most photographed scenes in the Canadian Rockies, iconic for fridge magnets and coffee table books.

A sky tram to Whistler Mountain and trek up its summit put us eye to eye with mountain peaks like Robson. On a clear day you can almost see the Yukon.

From Vancouver we flew Air North, the Yukon airline to Whitehorse. Jointly owned by a Yukon First Nation and an intrepid bush pilot and his family, the regional carrier has carved out a niche with old-fashioned courtesy, oven-toasty chocolate chip cookies and roomy economy seats.

This spring, the airline got the federal transport nod to add regular flights between Whitehorse and Ottawa.

We landed in Whitehorse at midnight, just as the sun was setting. Our first stop was The Dirty Northern Bastard, a rustic pub with a unique, ghoulish cast. At the entrance, a mummified cat in a glass case greets every visitor. The creature was found in the basement walls, after a fatal fire gave the place its other reputation: haunted. The place was packed and rowdy and if there were ghosts, the people probably drowned them out.

At about 1 a.m., an elder out for a smoke proudly showed off the Whitehorse's log cabin skyscraper: four storeys high, no running water, and no vacancies. They bred 'em tough up north.

Then on to Dawson, the heart of the 19th century Klondike gold rush.

It was on the approach to Dawson when we had our first aerial glimpse of the landscape in daylight and it was a shock.

Many people think the Yukon is like northern Manitoba-- kind of flat and wet with tundra, sand, muskeg and lakes. Not even.

The Klondike River sends a black tongue licking into the sandy silt of the Yukon and the Highway to Alaska frames the forks from the Dome of the Midnight Sun, above Dawson.

In other words, the Yukon is not flat. It's dramatic.

Yukon's mountains rival the Rockies. Its valleys so broad, they trick the eye and dwarf the soaring peaks in the ultimate sleight of eye.

Besides gold, the land is rich in bones, a graveyard for extinct mammoths and mastodons and sabre-toothed cats. Little wonder the region's thriving jewelry business is in gold and mammoth tusk.

German tourists flock here every summer, hire RVs and take the highway at the top of the world to Alaska.

The other surprise about the Klondike was the gold rush. It never ended. It just got quieter and far more intense.

These days, miners call themselves equipment operators: It takes heavy earth excavators to mine placer gold in modern Yukon.

At a private birthday party for a Dawsonite, we met artists, carvers, an opera singer and a lot of characters with stories about playing word games with ravens out on the gold fields.

The Yukon is part of Beringia, a part of the North American continent that was ice free 10,000 years ago.

As a result, some old-timers say, the gold-rich ore of the Precambrian Shield never bore the weight of crushing ice. They say the virginity of the land explains how gold was free to wash down creeks and be discovered. I suspect it may explain the exuberance of the people, too. This is land that feels free from geographic and conventional burdens.

Make no mistake, mining here is hard, dirty work.

One "equipment operator" I'll call "John" showed slide after slide of the mining operation he owned for two years. The year he sold out in 2012, he'd pulled half a million dollars in gold and mammoth tusks but it took $350,000 worth of equipment to do it.

The strangest story I mined in my 48-hour visit was an account of a pair of century-old blue jeans.

Found frozen stiff and hanging straight up in a forgotten mine shaft, the jeans reportedly fetched $30,000 from manufacturer Levis. As the tale turns, Levis made the pair back in 1908 and the ribbon-tie fly was a historical curiosity.

These days, you can't visit Dawson without hearing about Caveman Bill, a carpenter who's lived in a cave above the Yukon River for nearly 20 years, living off odd jobs across the river in town. Pity it rained the day we were there; we didn't meet him.

It was here, too, where Robert Service rhymed his Songs of the Sourdough, "sour on the country, no dough to go."

Jack London dug no gold in the winter of 1898, panning creeks in the Klondike gold fields.

But he left with a gold mine in his mind, the first American writer to earn a million dollars off stories bred in the menace and beauty of the Klondike.

"It was in the Klondike that I found myself. There you get your perspective. I got mine," London once wrote.

This century, the Klondike is grist for writers such as Charlotte Gray, whose 2010 book Gold Diggers came from a writer-in-residence sojourn in the cabin where Pierre Berton grew up in Dawson. She wove a timeline of the gold rush through the eyes of six different lives in 1890s Dawson, as much of a tribute as Berton's famous book Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush.

These days, it's tourists that Dawson mines best. Former Dawson mayor and ex-deputy Yukon premier Peter Jenkins and his wife Karen were our hosts at the Eldorado Hotel. Tony the Greek (seriously) at the Drunken Goat made the best-ever Greek dinner and Parks Canada and Yukon Tourism ignored driving rain for a tour of the gold fields, including the famous Bonanza Creek and a chance to pan for gold ourselves.

Dawson's an artisan colony, its buildings restored to period perfection. Most of the town is a Parks Canada historical complex to the Gold Rush. Ask jeweller Leslie Chapman where she gets her gold and she'll tell you about the gold mine she owns.

There are wooden boardwalks, dirt streets graded daily, a commissioner's mansion with formal afternoon tea, false fronts on saloons and restaurants and a daily walkabout for tourists with re-enactors in period costume. The only pavement is on Front Street and even there the asphalt was deliberately distressed at a cost of $700,000 to look like paved dirt.

Every night in the land of the midnight sun, a chorus of dancing girls takes to the stage at Dawson's Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada's oldest gambling hall.

At the Downtown Hotel, tourists line up by the dozen for a gross but engrossing ritual with a severed human toe.

The Sour Toe Cocktail is a big deal. With great ceremony, drinkers swig back a shot of hard liquor just to touch the toe to the lips. Apparently it feels spongy. Swallow the toe and the fine is $2,500.

We spent the last night on Marsh Lake, which doesn't figure in Service's Songs of a Sourdough but should for its sheer size.

These days it's also the heart of Whitehorse's cottage country.

The Inn on the Lake where we stayed was a retreat and a home at the same time. Our host, Carson Schiffkorn, hosted a gourmet meal, and proudly declared the Inn's drinking water was straight out of the lake. Filtered, of course. I drank lots of it.

On that last night, I also had a final animal encounter. Drawn by the surf, I made my way alone over the rocky beach to the water's edge, when my eye caught a shadow overhead.

Maybe three metres over my head, a giant bird with wings a metre wide swooped down. Low down. I saw a bright, golden eye.

"Ah ha," I thought. "A vulture, come to size me up."

Not so, I was later told. It was probably an eagle, too young for the distinct white head and too free to fear me. No, I didn't have my camera.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 E1

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