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Arctic Part 1
37 Above 60, Part I
You’re Going Where?

Story and photographs by Adam Sholder

Meet Our Guest Writer

Adam Sholder (a.k.a. The Counselor) has no discernable talents and glides through life on luck and good fortune. With a "What's the worst that could happen?" attitude, he prefers to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. When he's not traversing the Arctic tundra, canoeing through the jungles of Panama, or wandering the streets of Havana, he can be found in Los Angeles, where he lives with his Emmy Award-winning wife, Vanessa Lapato. Together, they wrote, produced, and directed the television pilot, "Starland P.C." Adam is also a co-host on the popular "Cutting Room Movie Review" Podcast, and is currently adapting a movie version of the Tony Award-winning play, "Fortune's Fool" with co-writer Benedick Bates, producer Richard Reid, and director Gary Oldman.

Starland P.C.
Starland P.C. on You Tube

The Cutting Room Movie Podcast

hen I told people about my plans for a summer camping trip a few years back, the response was almost invariably, "Why?" It wasn’t an unfair question to ask, as my camping trip was a solo journey that took me deep into the Arctic. Beginning in Canada’s Yukon Territory, or “Above 60” as it’s known to the locals (the Territory begins as 60 degrees latitude), I traveled about 800 miles further north on the globe, to the very shores of the Arctic Ocean, by way of seven plane rides, and just over 1000 miles by car – 450 of those miles on a gravel road known as The Dempster Highway.

I’m afraid I fall short in supplying a satisfactory rationale to anyone posing the question of why I would choose to spend precious vacation days alone in the Arctic. I can speak more clearly to the inspiration, which came from an article in the Travel section of the Los Angeles Times four summers prior to my trip. The article chronicled the reporter’s trip to the Arctic Circle, and his drive on The Dempster Highway. I was gripped by the thought of the vast expanse of pure, unspoiled nature the reporter described. The majority of his trip was in the Yukon, a Canadian province as large as California and Oregon combined, yet home to only 30,000 people. What’s more, a full two-thirds of them live in the capitol, Whitehorse. The other 10,000 are mostly indigenous people from the Gwich’in and the Inuit tribes of Northern Canada.

Eskimos (if you’ll pardon the slang).

10,000 or so Native North Americans and other sturdy Canadians spread out over a vast expanse of sub-arctic tundra and permafrost. Many still travel by dog sled during their nine-month winters where the Aurora Borealis swirls and twirls, electrifying the permanent night. During their brief two-month summers, when the sun barely dips below the horizon, they gather berries and fill their smokehouses with Arctic fish like Char and Grayling. And Whale.

The world is different there than the world I know. Completely. It is considered one of the most remote places left on this planet, yet still accessible by car. Perhaps that was part of my motivation – the ultimate road trip – to literally drive to the top of the planet and set foot in the Arctic Ocean. To experience being in a part of the world where there are more Grizzly Bears than people. To have a meal of Muk-Tuk and Bannock, Musk Ox burger and Caribou soup in the arctic oil-town of Inuvik. To tee-off on a golf course in the old Klondike gold rush town of Dawson City at midnight while the sun still hangs high overhead…

Perhaps it was just the adventure that drew me there – that beautiful unknown that lurks around every twist and turn of the gravel roads. Whatever the case, the seven plane tickets were purchased, the SUV was rented, the campsites were reserved.

All that was left was the going.

Whitehorse

Friday was a long day. It actually began Thursday night at a bar in Manhattan Beach, in the South Bay section of Los Angeles, where I met up with some friends for some beach volleyball. After three hours of friendly competition and a quick night swim in the Pacific, we replenished ourselves with fried food and pitcher after pitcher after pitcher of beer, as we talked and laughed and toasted birthdays and planned scuba trips and decided upon teams for upcoming volleyball tournaments. It was the second time in three days I found myself biking home at midnight, shorts and tank top still wet, sand stuck to my skin, and a belly full of beer. I dizzily pedaled alongside my buddy Glenn, doing our best to stay on the bike path and avoiding crashing into each other, like that time we were biking through the jungles of Costa Rica – but that’s another story...

Once home I still had hours of work ahead of me, including getting a lengthy list of video and computer equipment, camping gear, clothes, and other items into nothing more than a duffle bag, backpack, and camera bag. Somehow, in spite of my beer-soaked brain, I managed to do exactly that, and was in bed by three in the morning.

I somehow managed to make it to the airport on time the next morning, and a few hours later I cleared customs in Vancouver, British Columbia. My second flight was delayed by an hour, as there weren’t enough people to fill the "big" plane. They swapped it out with a slightly smaller, more "practical" model. Once airborne heading northward, the bustling metropolis of Vancouver and all vestiges of big-city life quickly changed to remote, rugged, and stunning countryside. A coastline carved by meandering rivers and lakes eventually gave way to snow-covered mountain ranges, which gave way to vast expanses of trees, rolling hills, and deep blue glacial lakes. We landed soon thereafter in a small town situated alongside the Yukon River, plopped down in the middle of what seemed to be endless wilderness.

I found the town of Whitehorse bigger than I expected. During the shuttle ride from the airport to my hotel, I saw many familiar stores and restaurants, as well as those unique to the area. Once checked-in to my room at the High Country Inn, I hit the streets on foot – my favorite activity in any new city. As the capital, Whitehorse is the only significant population center in the whole of the Yukon, with about 20,000 residents. Oddly, most of them seemed to be teens and young adults, roving the streets in small, harmless groups, hanging out on corners where the faint smell of weed hung in the air. I listened as a sidewalk banjo player taught a young guitar player a new riff.

mural in Whitehorse
Whitehorse is a quaint, colorful town with a strong native presence, where echoes of a century-old gold rush resonate in the wooden buildings and vibrant murals.

I was looking for a place for dinner, but it was after 9:00pm and everyplace I found was closed for the night. In fact, the town was pretty much closed up tight. Knowing that I’d be back in Whitehorse the following Friday, I decided to head back to my hotel, stopping first at the local 20-Hour Mart for some supplies (closed from 2:00am to 6:00am). I was travel-weary, and walking through this foreign city at night with the sun still high in the sky was disorienting and quite surreal, to say the least. It was hard to believe it was 10:00pm.

I made it back to the hotel and had dinner out on the deck, where they keep the barbeque fired-up until 11:00. After dinner, back in my room, I watched the sun set behind the mountains at midnight. Then a funny thing happened – after the sun went down, the light seemed to "freeze" in time. A perpetual dusk blanketed the landscape. A wedge of blue sky cast a soft light over the town, keeping true night at bay.

I ended the evening by taking advantage of the Jacuzzi tub I was surprised to find in my room. As I contemplated the day it occurred to me that, as far away as this place felt, this was where the road just began.

The Klondike Highway

I got a late start on Saturday. A very late start. I didn't roll out of Whitehorse until 2:30. During breakfast, I got involved in a conversation with my waitress and a fellow traveler. He was a sixty-something retired firefighter who spent thirty years on the job in Los Angeles. Now a resident of Costa Mesa, California, he was up here to go sheep hunting by horseback for eight days. He had a few stories to share, and I was all too happy to listen. I then checked out of my hotel and grabbed the shuttle to the car rental office. My driver, Savannah, who looked too young to drive anything with more than three wheels, upon finding out about my trip up to the Arctic, told me that five people died driving The Dempster Highway just last week. I asked if it was due to hungry bears or human error. It was the latter – speeding around a gravelly turn.

The five young women who worked at Norcon Car Rentals (apparently, the Hooters of Northern Canadian car rental agencies) were happy to tell me all about Dawson, the next stop on my trip, including tales of the Sour-Toe Cocktail. More on that later. The girls were happy to participate in my video-documentary of the trip, and Jenny insisted that I go talk with her uncle. She told me that her Uncle Joey, proprietor of the local fruit stand, was a mustachioed, mulleted midget, and that he loved to talk. She had me at mustachioed. This was all too good to be true. Next stop – fruit stand. I found Joey – he was as described and therefore easy to spot. While not a true little person, he sure was a tiny lil’ guy. And he sure did like to talk. Tales of giant grayling pulled from the Tachun Creek Bridge with nothing more than a piece of bacon and a shoelace. Stories of baby eagles ready to make their first leap from a nearby nest (he demonstrated for me, complete with wildly flapping arms). Stories of fifty-pound trout caught at the lake where he and niece Jenny, and his wife and daughter were going fishing in two weeks. I swear he said it was a shame I’d be home by then, otherwise I could join them. I wanted to hug this little man, but opted instead to purchase two white nectarines and a bag of dried mango.

I made one last stop for some sandwiches and snacks, as well as a cooler and ice, and plenty of water and Gatorade to fill it, before finally punching in Dawson City on my GPS (not sure why I did this, as there was only one road). I headed North on the Alaska Highway and twenty minutes later I rolled up on the Klondike Highway, my home for the next 333 miles.

At first, the scenery was not much different than what you may find driving through Oregon, but that changed quickly. Following the Yukon River Valley, I was never out of sight of a river or lake or some small body of water for more than a few minutes. Hypnotic, deep blue pockets of water abounded, some no bigger than swimming holes, some large enough to fill the landscape. Meandering creeks and churning rivers snaked their way alongside the road. Fireweed, a tall plant with bright purple blossoms, lined both sides of the highway, as did marauding bands of steroid-using Ravens. Even more spectacular were the trees – large, open forests of stunted, skinny Spruce, Birch, and Aspen stretching on to the horizon. What made them so unusual, however, is that as the permafrost beneath them melts and shifts and refreezes year after year, the trees begin to lean in all directions and angles. Pockets of these trees covered both sides of the highway for most of my trip, like groups of stumbling drunkards, leaning on each other as they wobbled their way home.

Stumblebum Spruces on the Yukon River Valley
Stumblebum Spruces

The drive was long, made longer by frequent video and picture stops. In the course of the entire drive I passed no more than a few dozen cars, and four small villages – Braeburn, Carmacks, Pelly, and Stewart’s Crossing. No Denny’s or Wendy’s drive-through at the next exit for a quick bite and restroom break. No Motel 6 if you get tired. No cars or trucks to pass along the way – a surreal and beautiful experience.

I made it to Dawson around 10:30pm, where my campsite was waiting for me. I pitched my tent on a patch of small stones, beneath the balmy evening sun. A cool breeze was blowing in from the North, along with dark and threatening clouds. I had heard talk of thunderstorms later in the evening. I choose to leave the fly off my tent, and fell asleep under the twilight sky, listening to the rattle of wind-swept trees.

The Gathering

Despite the chill in the air and the stones beneath my sleeping pad and the constant light, I slept well. I spent sometime around the campsite Saturday morning, before making my way to the riverfront, a few, short blocks away. Little has changed here since Dawson’s glory-days – during the Klondike Gold Rush, some 115 years ago. I walked along dirt streets, avoiding mud holes that formed near plank-board sidewalks. The wood buildings, many still standing and in use since the gold rush, lean and tilt, just as the sidewalks, just as the trees, just as about anything that attempts to settle down on the ever-shifting permafrost.

Klondike Kate’s, Dawson
Klondike Kate’s

breakfast of eggs benedict, made with local salmon and caviar, at Klondike Kate’s
An amazing breakfast of eggs benedict, made with local salmon and caviar, enjoyed at Klondike Kate’s, where the floorboards moaned as I walked across the
dining room.

I had originally planned to drive to Alaska on this day, but I found out through some locals and tourists that the road was particularly rough along The Top of the World Highway, and the roundtrip drive to Chicken, Alaska would be at least five hours. Seeing as how I have at least sixteen hours of rough driving ahead over the next two days, I opted instead to attend the Moosehide Gathering. This event, sponsored by the tribes local to Dawson (the Han Nation), but open to all of their neighbors, is held every two years on the last weekend in July. It takes place three kilometers upriver, on the sacred healing grounds of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, or "River People." Small boats took groups of 4 to 6 people at a time, mostly the local native population, but a few tourists as well.

I arrived at the Gathering held on grassy bluff overlooking the river. There were tents and teepees, wood cabins and a Potlatch house spread around the site. A few hundred people gathered, many in ornate and traditional clothes, listening to speeches given by anyone wishing to give thanks. A steady beat of a traditional drum accompanied their offerings. I was just in time for some prayers and the closing feast. Many kinds of local and traditional food were there for all, and I tried a little bit of everything, including baked salmon eggs, moose, and an amazingly rich and sweet treat called a Nanaimo Bar.

After spending some time wandering the grounds, taking pictures, talking to the locals, watching a man build a canoe from a tree, and enjoying the scenery, I hopped a boat back to Dawson. I wandered the dusty streets, shooting video of this town that seemed to be all but forgotten, frozen in blocks of time and ice for the past 100 years, and only recently thawed. I stopped in a few saloons and traded tales of my journey with the locals, who are some of the friendliest folk I’ve ever met. Everyone has a story, and has time to hear yours.

Then I wandered into the saloon at the Downtown Hotel.

The Sour Toe Cocktail (as promised)

I started at the bar with a local beer and the good fortune of finding a Red Sox game on the television. However, I couldn’t help but noticing, sitting at a back table in the saloon’s smoky darkness was the self-titled Belligerent Captain Kate, purveyor of the Sour Toe Cocktail. I took my beer and cautiously approached. A large wooden box sat on the table in front of her, in which was kept not one, but two severed, pickled, human toes. As the story goes, the original owner of the bar found a severed toe beneath a floorboard many moons ago, in a bawdier, more reckless time up here in the Yukon. The permafrost had pretty much preserved the thing, which he then dropped in a bottle of booze for all to see. One thing led to another, and, as these kinds of things tend to go, after a few beers and a few bets someone had the idea to put the horrible thing into a shot glass filled with Yukon Jack, and those with an extra cache of personal oomph and moxie would drink the shot abiding by the one simple rule – "Drink it fast or drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe." The original toe is long gone, but the saloon is now the recipient of a variety of anonymous toes lost to chainsaws or frostbite. A logbook, dating back several decades, documents all who dare to drink this appalling cocktail, and, not surprising, there are relatively few names on this list. I am somewhat proud, and somewhat ashamed that my name is now on this list. Now that I’m a member of this "elite" Sour Toe Cocktail Club, all future Sour Toe Cocktails are on the house. And, should I ever lose a toe, I know just where to send it.

Dawson

There is an undeniable charm and charisma that radiates from this historic little town. Much of this is due to the local population (now less than 1000, but in it’s goldrush hey-day the dirt streets swelled with over 30,000). Friendly, sincere, and genuinely happy people were eager to bend my ear about this thing or that. It was refreshing, to say the least, that despite the cruel, dark, freezing, nine-month winter, the locals exude warmth, love where they live, and proudly extol the virtues of their corner of the world. The tourists were just as friendly – mostly Canadian, but a freakishly large number of Germans. A local informed me, "To the Germans, it's like the Amazon." Yeah, okay… we'll go with that.

After dinner on Saturday night (again at Klondike Kate's, where I ran into a few people I met up at the Moosehide Gathering) I decided to play a little golf at Top of the World Golf Course. A small ferry took my Norcon SUV Rental and me across the Yukon River, where I picked up the road and headed north. I pulled up at 10:35pm, but the sign on the door said they closed at 10:00. The place looked desolate, but soon the Course Marshall appeared and opened the door. I had intended on convincing this man to let me play even though they closed a good 40 minutes ago, and there was not another single soul in sight, and it was beginning to rain. He beat me to the punch, however, and offered up a set of clubs, a cart, and a scorecard. He told me just to leave it all by the door when I was done. He then locked up and drove away, leaving me with nine holes of championship golf. It began to drizzle, and the clouds dimmed the night sky as I teed off on the first hole, just before 11:00pm. It was serene and still – so much so that I could hear my ball drop on the fairway 150 yards away. Amazing. I shared the fourth green with a beautiful brown coyote that seemed to grin at my expense as he watched me three-putt, before he padded off to attend to more important business. I finished my game around 12:30 in the morning, and then drove back to the ferry, crossing back into Dawson around 1:00, and back in time 100 years.

the Top of the World Golf Course, Dawson
The front nine under the Midnight Sun

The next morning found me talking with my camp neighbors from Montana. They were a retired couple driving through Dawson on the way to Alaska via The Top of the World Highway, sleeping in the back of their SUV as they went. Mr. Montana talked to me about their canoe and remarked on the impressive quality of my REI tent, as Mrs. Montana offered to fix me a Spam sandwich. Later I took a walking tour of the city, and made a brief stop at Midnight Dome – a rocky plateau above the town, offering an amazing view of Dawson. I drove up the crooked roads past the crooked cemeteries and arrived to find not only a picture perfect view of the town, but also a man dressed in a blue jumpsuit complete with helmet and goggles who was unfolding what I thought was a parachute. After slyly inquiring if he was BASE-jumping, he pointed out that he was unfolding a parasail, not a parachute, as if it was intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer. My mistake. I asked him a lot of annoying questions about his sport as he tugged and adjusted the many lines connecting him to his sail. We chatted a bit until a good gust came along, picked him up and took him away, sailing high above the dirt streets and ramshackle buildings of Dawson. I watched him until he disappeared into the landscape, as I was about to do myself, but with both feet, or more aptly, four wheels on the ground.

the town of Dawson and the Yukon River
The town of Dawson, YT, sitting snugly up against the Yukon River

Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3.

Related Articles:
A Return to Alsaka; Alaska Marine Highway; The Frigid Temperatures of Alaska’s Mighty Interior; In My Wildest Dreams; Dalton Highway and Prudhoe Bay; Sitka By The Sea; An Expedition to the Norwegian Arctic

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FEEDBACK FOR PATTI

I enjoy your newsletters -and particularly Patti Nickell's article about the 'Pudding Club' in the Cotswold's. An old friend of mine is taking a holiday there this year and plans to try their Jam Roly Poly and Spotted Dick - amongst many!

--- John & Maggie - UK

FEEDBACK FOR JULIO

The way I read this article, you stayed at the "Breeze and Waves". Do you have any pictures of the cottages, and would you recommend to some first time visitors to Caramoan?

--- Richard Simons, Stockton, CA

Hi Richard,

Breeze and Waves was still under construction when I stayed there in Feb. 2010. It should be finished by now. You can see pictures of the resort on this page. We got to stay in one of the small cottages in the picture. I'll recommend it to budget travelers but you might want to look at other options. We chose it because of its location right by the beach. You can try other resorts in the Caramoan town proper (you have to get a ride to get to the beach and the jump-off point to go island-hopping but it's a relatively short distance). There are also two higher end resorts located on a cove and very near the islands: Gota Village Resort (unfortunately there is something wrong with their website right now) and its twin resort Hunongan Cove. Caramoan is a relatively new tourism development so resorts are just now being built.

You can go to this site for a good list of choices for accommodations in Caramoan.

I should add that it might be good to go to Caramoan (and almost anywhere in the Philippines) during the dry season from December to May. June to November are the typhoon months and sometimes typhoons will still come during early December.

Julio

* * * * *

Hi, I'm planning to go to Caramoan this coming May. Would you know the number of Breeze and Waves Cottages? Thanks!

--- Ann, Manila, Philippines

Hi Ann,

Breeze and Waves' phone number is 0908-2911072. Look for Freddie. Hope you have a grand time at Caramoan!

Julio

FEEDBACK FOR WENDY

For Nature's Playground: The South Island of New Zealand

Hi Wendy,

In winter, Heritage Heights Apts. now offers free shuttle service to and from Queenstown 24/7 to guests without cars. We own a 7-passenger 4-wd Toyota Highlander used specifically to taxi guests up and down the hill during winter months. We also run advance purchase winter promotions which include a 4-wd rental.

If any of your readers head over this direction, I will enjoy extending Heritage Heights hospitality!!

Cheers

--- Ailey, Owner, Queenstown, NZ

* * * * *

New Zealand text and pix top drawer! Almost as good as making the trip. ( but one still wants to. . . ) Full of useful detail. Only trouble with the website: It's tough figuring out which feedback goes with which article, and the more there are, the tougher it gets!

--- Ken W., Camarillo CA

Thanks Ken..."álmost" is right, you really have to experience the South Island firsthand. Granted this piece is long, but still all I can think about is how much I left out! I agree abut the relevancy factor re the feedback--it can be confusing...sometimes I have a "Wait a minute...what?" moment myself.

Thanks for writing,

Wendy

* * * * *

Okay Wendy, from now on whenever you book your travel, please reserve space for me. I will carry your luggage, bring you cold drinks, massage your shoulders, and change the film in your camera (oops, I guess you don't have to do that anymore). Wonderful ideas and recommendations. Can you get to New Zealand from Boston in less than a week?

--- Carl A., South Easton, MA

Ha ha ha Carl, you're quite the comedian! But you'd be surprised how short that flight feels. I suspect Qantas isn't the only airline who's figured out that 3 movies, 2 full meals, lots of snacks and a complimentary travel pack (eye mask, warm socks and neck pillow) equals a quiet, well-behaved cabin. It really isn't bad. Just fly direct--pick the shortest flight w/ no lengthy layovers and you'll be fine. Re: signing on as my Super Sherpa...why not? I think you know I seldom travel in anything less than Party mode. There's just that pesky background check...

Thanks for writing,

Wendy

For Excellence Riviera Cancun:

Wendy, I truly enjoyed your info especially since we leave in a week to celebrate my 50th Birthday. Was it necessary to make reservations at the restaurants? Was there a dress code for the restaurants? What would you recommend not missing while there? Was the spa experience worth it? Did you travel away from the resort while there? Thanks,

--- Kim P. Fuquay, Varina, NC

Hi Kim.

Sorry for the delay in responding...you had heavy competition with the holidays. Reservations at Excellence restaurants are not necessary and you will not find a wait. The dress code is basically no bathing suits and flip-flops...with a decided a mix of atmospheres. Mostly the open-air beachside spots are super casual, the rest slightly more formal. Truly, as long as you are clothed, I don't think you'd be turned away anywhere, though most people seemed to enjoy dressing up at night...I suspect more for their own pleasure than any sense of decorum.

The spa experience was worth it, though my favorite part wasn't the actual massage. The precursor was a 45 min. or so rotation from sauna to a series of (kind of wild) water jets which was very different and very cool, not just for women. In its' entirety, and with the serenity of the beach/champagne/strawberries, it was memorable.

We did not travel away from the hotel this trip, but the hotel is very helpful in arranging day excursions to fit your desires and you do not have to book these until you arrive.

Have a great time!

--- Wendy

FEEDBACK FOR NINO

I enjoyed Nino's contribution, since we all read about the frightening terrorist attack. Having travelled somewhat through India years ago, I am continually impressed with this country and the gentle spiritual aspects of this nation. Some day I look forward to going back. Nino has encouraged me. Thank you!

--- Yoka Y., Westlake Village, CA

FEEDBACK FOR RUSH & CHUCK

Dear Mr.s/counselors Brown and Koro,

Thank you for a very informed and succinct article on motorcycle accidents and the law. It inspired me to think about getting a motorcycle, but not have an accident. But, if I do I am now well informed with the basics of what to do providing I do not perish in the accident. Any tips about that too?

--- Unnamed

Dear Rush and Chuck,

I wish I had read your article before our camping trip the Friday prior to President's Day.

My wife and I were in a car accident on our way to a camp ground. We were "rear-ended" and the impact caused our car to crash into the car in front of us. The contents of the truck that we were riding scattered onto several lanes. It's a miracle our two dogs decided to stay inside the car. My wife and I were shaken up badly but despite the mess, I was still able to walk out of the car. I got the license plate of the driver in front of me but, to my surprise, after reviewing the little damage on his car, he then sped off. I didn't know you could do that! The driver who hit me from behind gave me his information and then he too left the scene without saying good 'bye. When the police arrived all I had to go by was the little information I had jotted down which I hope was truthful. What if it was bogus? What if I had written the plate number incorrectly? How would that affect my insurance? What if we were unconscious, who would have written down all that information?

I do have one suggestion if you are injured in an accident. The police asked if my wife wanted an ambulance to bring her to the hospital but we declined the offer. I remembered when I rode an ambulance years ago that it was not a comfortable ride. I was strapped to the stretcher and there were all sorts of medical equipment dangling noisily above me. As long as you are able, it is a more relaxful ride inside a car. Besides, isn't there a fee for ambulance service?

--- Dave S. of Pasadena, CA



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