Down North
A Dependent's Notes of Interest
© Jean Watts 2002

Page 10: Moving to Whitehorse

Whitehorse Town Christmas Card
Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

New Northern Posting

This tour of duty, our last in the North, took place in 1959, seven years after our short sojourn in Aklavik. We spent the three years during 1953 to 1956 in Camp Shilo, Manitoba, where Dick was sergeant-major of the Signals battery of the Royal Canadian School of Artillery.

In 1956 Dick was commissioned lieutenant and posted to the Signals squadron attached to Headquarters, Prairie Command, and we moved to Winnipeg. After three years of city life there, Dick's next posting was to the Northwest Highway System headquarters in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. We prepared for another move - this time, a return to the North.

Not quite knowing what to expect, we found Whitehorse to be an absolutely different experience from either of our former northern postings. During a reception in the Whitehorse Officers' Mess, a visiting VIP asked me whether I was enjoying being a cheechako (the Yukon term for a novice in the North). I replied that I found it a little difficult to consider living in Whitehorse as actually living in the North. It seemed more like life in the banana belt!

It was not at all like living in either Fort Providence or Aklavik. The northern border of the Yukon and its neighbours, the Northwest Territories to the east and Alaska to the west, is the Arctic Ocean coastline. But the Yukon's capital city, Whitehorse, is only a short distance north of the British Columbia border to the south, on the 60th parallel. Whitehorse's climate was not as severe as that of our previous northern postings, neither was the town so isolated. The city was, in fact, a very pleasant place in which to live!
Our time there proved to be quite as valuable an experience as living in Aklavik or Fort Providence - its complete and utter difference to our previous northern postings was one of its most interesting features.

The Northwest Highway System

Headquarters NWHS Whitehorse
Headquarters Building, Northwest Highway System
Camp Takhini, Whitehorse (May 25, 1961)

The completion of the Alaska Highway - from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and then to Anchorage, Alaska - resulted in a remarkable transformation of the North.

From Dawson Creek to Whitehorse, the "nine hundred and eighteen miles of rough and dusty road" - as Al Oster, the "Yukon Balladeer," described the Highway in one of his most popular songs - made access to the Yukon far easier than it had ever been before. From an isolated town accessible only by air or by rail from Skagway, Alaska, on the Pacific Coast, Whitehorse became a town easily reached by road.

In the Gold Rush days of 1896 to 1904, when $100,000,000 in gold was extracted from the Klondike creeks, reaching the Yukon required a long and dangerous journey. The fortune hunters trekked in from the coast, slogging over steep mountain passes and navigating frigid lakes and turbulent rivers in hand-built boats or on rafts to reach the Klondike gold fields.

Wrecked at Whitehorse Rapids
"Wrecked at Whitehorse Rapids and Sinking. Half Mile below the Rapids" Photograph by E. A. Hegg, 1898.

Whitehorse, named after the white-capped waves of the Whitehorse Rapids (now tamed by a dam), lies on both sides of the Yukon River. When we arrived in 1959, the town, as well as being accessible by road, was the proud possessor of both an airport and a railway station. The railway, built by the White Pass & Yukon Railroad in 1898-1900, ran from Whitehorse along a precipitous and exciting route to Skagway, on the Alaska coast. Long before the existence of the Highway, Skagway was the port of entry for the many prospectors who travelled from all over the world to stake their claims.

Getting There

Our journey to our new home was not by air, as it had been for our previous postings. Nor did we try the ship-and-railway route. As we had been posted to Northwest Highway System Headquarters, what could be more appropriate than to travel there by road? We decided to combine our move with summer holidays, see the country, and save money at the same time, by making the journey a camping trip. So we loaded up our new Morris Oxford station wagon with tent, provisions, and children, and headed off on our voyage of Canadian discovery.

From Winnipeg we drove west through the rolling terrain of southwest Manitoba, and then into the Saskatchewan plains, where we could see as far as our eyes could reach to the huge horizon all around us. We drove on to Regina and then to the Cypress Hills, where we pitched our tent for an overnight stay in that charming national park. Calgary was our next stop, where the children equally enjoyed the live animals in the zoo and, in the park on St. George's Island, huge concrete replicas of the prehistoric animals that used to roam that country.

The highway through the foothills of Alberta brought us at last to the spectacular Rockies, the first mountains we had ever seen, let alone driven through. Construction of the Trans-Canada Highway, then still under way, made parts of our journey even more memorable than they otherwise would have been. We had to squeeze past road-making machines on narrow passes, staring through our car windows straight down the impressive precipices. The children thought this was great fun - I preferred not to look!

Sunwapta Pass
Sunwapta Pass (6,675 feet), Jasper National Park (July 1, 1959)

Banff and Jasper national parks were wonderful to drive through. They were perfect places in which to pitch a tent - the campgrounds were pleasant and the surrounding forest and lakes were beautiful. Mountain sheep and goats could be seen in the distance on the slopes of the mountains. Closer to us, deer wandered along the verges of the road, hoping for treats from passing tourists.

During our long drive, whenever the scenery lost the children's interest, we resorted to our favourite car game, which we all enjoyed. The object was to watch for car licence plates, collecting one from every province in Canada and every state in the United States, and starting afresh each day. At long last we managed to complete the grand total in Banff, where the many tourists' cars included the really hard-to-find plates from faraway places - even the NWT, Yukon, Newfoundland, and Hawaii! It was the only time we managed to collect a complete set, and it remained a never-to-be-forgotten family triumph.

We all enjoyed the novel experience of bathing in the hot springs. In contrast to the cold mountain air, the water in the open-air pool felt even more deliciously warm and relaxing. The same intriguing coexistence of cold and heat fascinated us when we visited the glacier ice fields in the middle of that hot summer.

Peace River Bridte
Peace River Bridge, Mile 35, Alaska Highway (July 9, 1961)

We left Banff with some reluctance but, looking forward to new sights on the road to the north, we drove on to Peace River. After crossing the long bridge over the river, we carried on past the border between Alberta and British Columbia to Dawson Creek, where the Alaska Highway begins its long journey to the Yukon and Alaska.

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