Seeking True North

Tuesday, August 16, 2016 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Seeking True North, Day 1:  Atlanta to Whitehorse

For most of this year, we have been out of the travel mode due to family illnesses and our decision to move from a south Atlanta suburb to one on the north side.  As always, we have yearned to be anywhere but Georgia as summer temperatures soared into the nineties.  The minute we were settled into our new home, we began plotting our escape. 

Needless to say, our thoughts turned northward. With a trip to Alaska on the calendar for September, we scuttled our Scandanavia plans for this summer as we didn't feel we'd have enough time to fully explore that enticing area. Late one night, while perusing a map of North America, we hit on the idea of visiting the Yukon. A little research told us that Yellowhorse in the Northwest Territories is just a short flight from Whitehorse.   Though Iqaluit (ih-KAL-oo-it), the territorial capital of Nunavut, is much farther away, it was but a minor logical leap to the conclusion that it must be included as well. Having visited all ten of Canada's provinces, we couldn't visit just two of its three territories.  Moreover, if we were to find true north, as the intent of this journey was becoming, a town on the far shore of Hudson Bay was an obvious destination. 

 Shaped like an oversized right triangle, the Yukon is the westernmost of the Canadian territories, butting up against Alaska's eastern border. Completing Yukon's frame are the Arctic Ocean to the north, Northwest Territories to the east, and British Columbia to the south.  Though its northernmost reaches lie above the Arctic Circle, Yukon's winter climate is generally less extreme than its territorial counterparts to the east.  Yet North America's most frigid day on record occurred in early February of 1947, when meteorologists at a military airfield near the tiny village of Snag (pop. 9) measured the temperature at -81.4 degrees Fahrenheit. 

At 186,272 square miles, Yukon is slightly more expansive than California, America's third largest state by area. To give you an indication of the size of the behemoth to our north (the world's second largest country), the Yukon lags at ninth place when Canadian provinces and territories are ranked by area.  Population, of course, is quite another story.  With just over 37,000 residents in that vast landscape, Yukon's population density is similar to that of Alaska, giving each resident a good five square miles of elbow room.

Whitehorse (pop. 27,886) is the territorial capital and only city in Yukon.  Three-fourths of the Yukon's people live in Whitehorse.  Sheltered in Whitehorse Valley, the town has been given official Guinness World Record bragging rights to having the least air pollution of any city in the world.  The city straddles the Yukon River, which flows from British Columbia to the Bering Sea.  Before the river's power was harnessed for hydroelectric production, a nearby rapid was said to resemble the mane of a charging white horse.  Though the frothing landmark has been dammed (damned?), its name lives on as the town's moniker.

Fortunately for those who desire tales to tell, travel always has its hiccups.  Today was no exception.  Our Atlanta to Seattle flight was delayed 35 minutes by a late catering truck, and we waited on the Seattle to Vancouver plane for employees to sort out the luggage of a passenger whose bags were checked through but who didn't show up.  Both flight crews compensated once airborne and arrived pretty close to schedule.  The crew of our Vancouver to Whitehorse flight, piloting an aging Bombardier regional jet on its fifth shuttle between the two cities today, were able to make up only ten minutes of our half hour refueling delay. 

At Vancouver, we made the most of our eight-plus hour layover with a day pass to the Air Canada lounge.  Free food, beverages and wifi.  And entertainment to boot.  Floor-to-ceiling windows offered a panoramic view of the international gate area with planes from every corner of the globe landing, disgorging their passengers, and waiting patiently as they were immediately swarmed with all manner of services connected to their various portals--catering, fueling, cleaning, baggage unloading and loading, re-staffing, and who knows what else to get the aircraft ready for its next departure. 

During our long sojourn in the lounge, we saw hundreds of passengers come and go.  Quite often we saw people walk away from their belongings to pick up refreshments at the far end of the lounge, completely out of view of their computers, charging cell phones, and handbags, all left unattended.  A thirty-something young woman in business attire even sat in her seat in the crowded room and ordered something by phone, clearly enunciating all her personal information and, yes, her credit card number loudly enough for me to hear her 15 feet away.

Call me a cynical American harboring excessive suspicion of my fellow humans--oh, yes, and nosy--but I just couldn't remain quiet.  After a few minutes, when those sitting nearest her had drifted away, I walked over, squatted down next to her chair and quietly brought to her attention that she had freely offered up to a room of strangers all the personal information data thieves work so hard to obtain.  She was absolutely startled, had clearly never considered the possibility that such a thing could occur.  "You must be someone's mom," she said in a vaguely patronizing tone.  Thanking me for my concern, she soon collected her belongings and disappeared.

Finally just after 9 p.m. (midnight to our exhausted bodies) we boarded our flight to Whitehorse, deplaning in the small airport about 11:30.  As the hotel had advised, we "found" the shuttle driver (thanks to directions from a rugged north woods woman leaning on the wall near the exit), boarded the minibus, and crossed the Alaska Highway to our hotel nearby.  It was almost midnight when we entered the lobby of the well-worn Skky Hotel.  Desk clerk Tom was sitting in a corner chatting with a friend.  Clearly he was awaiting our arrival, and he confirmed that we were the last guests to check in.  We were thankful we had notified the hotel of our late arrival and grateful for Tom's friendly and helpful attitude, even at the late hour.  When we mentioned to him that we had reserved a car with Canadian rental firm Driving Force, he replied, "Oh, yeah.  They're really close by.  They'll send someone to pick you up tomorrow....Or they'll tell you why they can't."  Fair enough.

At last ensconced in our second floor walk-up room, we fell into bed completely exhausted, marveling at how differently a sixty-something body responds to lack of rest. Twenty years ago, we'd have just gotten our second wind.

Tomorrow we'll pick up our car--one way or another--and begin exploring the Yukon.

Wifi-ish  for Less:  Though we highly value being connected, we generally do not cough up the exorbitant fees for in-flight wifi ($6.00 for a one hour pass).  En route to Seattle today, we discovered quite accidentally that Delta's Gogo onboard wifi service will permit you to conduct a Google search gratis.  You cannot follow any link on the results page, but you can see the results, including the summary text for each.  If a Wikipedia article is available, it leads the search results with the first paragraph or so displayed.  I was working on this post and needed to check various bits of information.  Wording Google searches precisely enough to obtain the desired information was an entertaining challenge.

Musical Seats:  When we checked in on Delta's web site yesterday, we learned that our flight from Seattle to Vancouver had been treated to an equipment change.  That meant, of course, that we had new seat different rows. With each of us in sequential two-seat rows, we reasoned that we had a pretty good chance of persuading one of our seatmates to exchange places so we could sit together. Logic dictated that these two individuals were either a) traveling alone, or b) also separated from their traveling companion in the airplane switch turnover. Sure enough, when we arrived at the gate in Seattle, the Delta agent confirmed that our seatmates were a married couple from south Georgia. A quick shift and all four of us were happy.  And then came the announcement. This 11 a.m. flight was overbooked.

Rolling the Dice:  Two volunteers were needed to give up their seats and take the next Delta flight to Vancouver, departing Seattle just before 5 p.m.  With an 8-hour layover in Vancouver, we were likely candidates. "What about it?" Ken asked when the gate agent made an offer of $400 (in "Delta dollars") per passenger to volunteer.  "Is that money talking to you?"  I confessed that I couldn't hear it yet.  A few minutes later, the bid went up to $500 each.  "Can you hear it now?"  I had to admit that I could.  When no one else stormed to the desk, Ken sauntered over and asked, "$600?"  The gate agent readily agreed.  Then we learned how this game works.  We were told that a couple of passengers had reservations but no seats.  When boarding closed ten minutes before departure, airline personnel would determine if there were any unclaimed seats.  If there were, the seatless passengers would be directed there.  If all seats were full, they would be given our seats and we would be provided our $600 vouchers and boarding passes for the later flight.  The end result:  snake eyes.  A nervous but friendly couple from Scotland, the seatless ones, ended up with a place to sit when another pair of passengers failed to show, so we were the last ones to board--alas, with no voucher but with a little bit of education.

Can You Hear Me Now?  On our Air Canada flight to Whitehorse, passengers were instructed that from take-off to touch-down, only earbud type listening devices are permitted and only if they are connected to the aircraft audio system.  Passengers with noise-cancelling Bose headphones who wouldn't be able to hear emergency announcements need not apply.

- Flights:  3
- Late flights:  3
- Miles traveled:  3,230
- Passengers passing through lounge during our stay:  1,634
- Trusting Canadians:  yep
- Cynical Americans:  2