Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Stop #1 in the Yukon

A glimpse of the hard side of living and working in Rancheria, Yukon, came from our waitress, Lois. She had black shoulder length hair with bangs. 
“It takes me six hours to get hair dye,” she said, referring to the drive between Rancheria and the next closest store, three hours west.  We all laughed, “we” being the four tired and hungry female RVers from Washington state. A ball of fire, Lois tried to keep us focused through our dinner orders, switching between dodging our touristy questions, running up to the cash register, showing new arrivals their motel rooms, bringing out food from the kitchen and answering our bear questions. 
“I am not afraid of bears,” she said.  “At my age, they know I’m not going to hurt them and they can just sense it.”  Her age, in my mind, was a question.  She had the energy of a younger woman, like when she mentioned being bucked off a horse and breaking her ankle last year. She also had the war stories of someone who had wrangled tourists for many years.
“If you want to see bears, just go down to the bridge,” she said, nodding in the direction from which we had just driven. “You could come with me after I get off work.  The old bridge washed out and it is full of berries. Time and place,” she said, looking directly at us, “if you want to see bears.” 
Jerri, Lynn, Lynne and Sky with Torrie and Winnie in Yukon

I pictured the end of her work day. It would still be daylight. On this day, the end of July, the sun set at 10:30 pm. We had driven four hours today, day six of our trip north.  This afternoon we had emerged from the northern end of the Cassiar Highway, after bouncing along gravelly roads through British Columbia’s coastal mountains for 450 miles.  Under clear blue skies and temperatures in the 60’s, we were now heading on the Al-Can (Alaska highway) towards Whitehorse. This conversation with our waitress was our first chance to talk with someone who lived here, not counting the friendly African man with the British accent who attended the first gas station that we stopped at in Yukon. I didn’t sense that he was local, and I wondered how he had ended up in this makeshift business, a single pump and a simple one room wooden building with the cash box resting on a table.
The restaurant, 100 km (an hour) up the road, was the next sign of human habitation we encountered. It was part of a roadside lodge whose earlier glory (touted in the Milepost guidebook) had faded.  The broad dusty gravel lot edged a sprawling restaurant and motel building, fuel pumps, a tangle of trucks and rusted equipment, and a small unmanned visitor center which I later found to have a dirt floor.  At the far end of the parking lot, a log gateway with yellow flags heralded the entrance to the campground.  We followed the signs and drove down a dirt road into a camp setting in a peaceful lodge pole pine forest back from the road.

Only one other site of the many available was occupied. We settled in adjacent sites. When three more RVs rolled in, they clustered near us, as if they also shared a bit of unease about the junkyard that edged one side of the campground, the unlabeled sites, and the isolation of it all. Each site had electricity--$20 a night for that and the use of the restroom. The TripAdvisor review had promised a nice walk along Rancheria River, but where was the river? In front of the small restroom building, four re-cycled toilets had been planted with cheerful purple petunias. The front door had been clawed by a bear. The recently swabbed down interior was a mirage of orderliness.  The door dividing the women’s side from the men’s didn’t close. Neither warped stall door latched, leaving me with a sense of imminent exposure, had there been more people around. Each of the two dark shower stalls was equipped with a peeling chair resting on a wooden pallet. Still, we were looking for respite for the night, and this was it.
Wild Barley and Fireweed
The promises of eating out after camping for three days had lured us back to the restaurant, a simple room with five tables and an open door to the kitchen.  At first, Lois didn’t take time to answer our questions with much flourish.  I asked her where she was from and she pointed out the window and said, “The bush.” I presumed that she meant a home down a track somewhere in the thousands of acres that extended around us in all directions, yet I hadn’t seen any sign of human habitation for hours along the highway that we drove. The tannin colored Rancheria River stood out from the boreal forests, stretching on endlessly. No turnoffs, no homesteads, no telephone poles, no power lines. 
According to the guidebook, Yukon’s total population: around 35,000. Two thirds of them live in the capital,Whitehorse. I guessed that ten of the residents of Yukon lived and made their living at Rancheria, perhaps fewer in the winter. The flannel shirted young guy who pumped the propane was helpful and friendly, jiggling an electrical circuit mounted to a telephone pole to get the pump working and carrying the filled propane tank back to our campsite.  Our friends had liked the skinny blond man who ran the campground, although he seemed to disappear after we arrived. 
I finally found the creek, after first heading down a likely looking path and encountering a big sign nailed to a tree: “Danger. Keep Out.” I made a second attempt in the company of two other travelers, Alaskans who had sold all their possessions and were heading to the lower 48 states to find their Shangri La, possibly in South Carolina. Just a few minutes walk past purple fireweed, blue monkshood and pink flowering wild barley, the path opened to a bend in Swift Creek with a broad flat rocky shore. My companions' dog raced to fetch a ball while Winnie (our dog) waded into the creek and lapped up its cold water.  I reveled in the quiet, the sound of rippling water, wind stirring the trees, and the undisturbed emptiness of the forest across the creek from us.

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  Many more miles have passed since we spent the night at Rancheria.  We had a glimpse of life in the north, where average January low temperatures are -20 degrees Fahrenheit.  I left with more questions than answers, but at least I now had an image of Yukon.

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