37 Above 60, Part
Youre 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.
P.C. on You Tube
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 wasnt
an unfair question to ask, as my camping trip was a solo journey that
took me deep into the Arctic. Beginning in Canadas Yukon Territory,
or Above 60 as its 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.
Im 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 reporters 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. Whats more, a
full two-thirds of them live in the capitol, Whitehorse. The other 10,000
are mostly indigenous people from the Gwichin and the Inuit tribes
of Northern Canada.
Eskimos (if youll 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
gold rush town of Dawson City at midnight while the sun still hangs
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.
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 thats 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
werent 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.
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 Id 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 Id 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
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.
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 Stewarts Crossing. No Dennys or Wendys
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
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 Dawsons
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
An amazing breakfast of eggs benedict, made with
local salmon and caviar, enjoyed at Klondike Kates, where the
floorboards moaned as I walked across the
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
Ive 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 couldnt
help but noticing, sitting at a back table in the saloons 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 Im 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.
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 its 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."
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 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, YT, sitting snugly up against
the Yukon River
Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3.
Return to Alsaka; Alaska
Marine Highway; The
Frigid Temperatures of Alaskas Mighty Interior; In
My Wildest Dreams; Dalton
Highway and Prudhoe Bay; Sitka
By The Sea; An
Expedition to the Norwegian Arctic