Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Atlin, Aaron tells me later, is a little town just off the Yukon border and down a dead-end road. “It’s gorgeous,” he says. “And there’s gold there!” He’s a crazy gold guy.
But before we make the long drive to Atlin, we need to sleep. We pull our trailer into the dirt parking lot outside the Watson Lake Sign Post Museum, admiring what seems like thousands of colourful license plates and homemade wooden signs from all across the world. I learn that the first of the signs was put up by a young Private named Carl Lindley who was stationed in Watson Lake during the second world war . Homesick for his family, Private Lindley pounded a sign into a grassy bit of land, pointing it toward his hometown, hoping it would feel like his family in Danville, Illinois were a little bit closer. Danville, by the way, is also the hometown of Dick van Dyke and Gene Hackman! Who knew?
Over the years, 80,000 more people would add their signs to Private Lindley’s, making Watson Lake’s Sign Post Museum a truly unique sight.
After a noisy and restless night, listening to the rain ping off our metal trailer, we climbed from our warm bed, down the trailer steps, into the cab of our truck and began the five hour drive to Atlin. So easy – no packing up, hauling bags to the car, checking out – I do like this new way of travelling!
We drive Hwy #1, dipping from the Yukon into BC, back up to the Yukon, and back down to BC.
With a quick stop at Jake’s Corner to get some decently priced gas (not an easy task), we get our first view of the stunning Atlin Lake and Atlin Mountain by early afternoon.
Atlin is the ancestral home of the Taku-Tlingit people. They are a community of approximately 400 people who continue to protect and make good decisions about the land and waters within their Territory.
From: University of Washington's Digital Collection
In 1898, a German prospector found gold on nearby Pine Creek. Within a very short time, thousands of prospectors came, set up a ‘city of tents’ by the lake’s shoreline and staked every creek in the area. Atlin became a sea of brothels, saloons, and shops that serviced those gold-seekers.
These days, Atlin is the home of a much more civilized population. Discovery Avenue, Atlin’s main street, takes Aaron and me through town within two minutes, giving us glimpses of a few of the town’s colourful and historic homes and shops as we cross the town’s four streets on our way to the lake’s edge.
Spotting a tiny shack by the water where locals are drinking what looks like coffee on nearby picnic benches, we quickly park our rig on the side of the road and walk over, hoping we'll find some goodies as well as coffee. And we do! We buy some hot beverages, a brownie and a cinnamon bun from the Atlin Mountain Coffee Roaster then, with a coffee in my hand and a hot chocolate in Aaron’s (it’s so not fair that men never battle themselves about coffee vs chocolate), we park our butts on a bench and gaze out at the pretty lake.
To our right lies the MV Tarahne, a beautiful white ship built in 1917 that, for two decades, drew tourists from the world over. They would cruise Atlin Lake while being served petit-fours on silver trays by white-coated waiters. Though Tarahne was decommissioned in 1936 and was somewhat ignored for fifty years, she has been restored to her previous splendor and sits today like a white queen at the edge of the lake.
We throw our cups away, make sure the truck’s locked up, then wander back uptown. Now that we’re on foot, we can get nosy.
We press our noses to the cold window of the 100-year-old general store, astounded at the antiques cramming the tiny space...
and peer through the dirty window of the old jailhouse that was dragged to Atlin from Discovery, another settlement that sprung up when gold was found.
A sign on The Food Basket, a faded, one-story shop on 2nd Street, informs us that it's also a bakery. We quickly climb up its stairs, already anticipating the flaky bits of deliciousness. The owner is a local gem, filling us in on the free camping spots near town as she fills a small bag with pastries for us.
“There are four campsites,” she tells us. “Three are out a ways and free of charge (there are SO many free campsites in this part of the world), and one’s close to town. Because the town looks after the site closest to town, we charge $10 a night to stay there". She tells us that many of the town’s services, in addition to the campsite - like the fire station, the museum - are run by volunteers. "It’s all on the honour system," she says. "If you decide to stay, just stop into any shop in town and tell them you want to drop off $10 for the night’s stay.” Crazy. Gotta love towns where everyone knows each other. As we leave the store, she hands us an Atlin Claim, the town’s newspaper. It is, I discover, a spectacular source of information about the town’s history.
We decide to head to the Surprise Lake Forest Rec Site, twenty kilometres out of town. And in less than a minute, Aaron shouts out. “Look!” He points ahead of the truck. “A lynx.” Oh my god, it is a lynx! Awestruck, I watch the skinny, long-legged cat with its tufted ears stroll across the road and into the bush. “Put the Pomeranians away, ladies.” Aaron says, laughing.
Continuing on, the road soon turns to gravel, but it’s well maintained and we’re soon crossing the bridge at the lake’s west end. A few minutes later, we turn right into the Surprise Lake Rec Site. The road leads down a small hill that looks rocky and potholed and we contemplate parking where we are (there's a couple of sites at the top of the hill). We worry that we’ll crunch the undercarriage of the trailer if we attempt to go further. The lake calls loudly to us, however, and so we continue down the hill. Though we have to go very slowly and maneuver around one piece of bedrock, we arrive at the bottom in good shape.
And oh my god, it's a little piece of heaven down there.
Other than one small trailer tucked in the back corner, the site is empty of people. We have our choice of sites and soon are sitting in our lawn chairs beside our trailer gazing down the blue lake and the blue-shaded mountains surrounding it.
We are here for three long and glorious days. We fish, unsuccessfully, but stifle our pride and ask our more successful fellow-campers to release their fish not back to the lake but to us instead (they’re here to kill caribou not fish). We fry the Artic Greylings in butter and onions, throw some Pringles on the plate and, voila, fish and chips. Delicious!
On the second day, we pull our bikes off the back of the trailer and head up the hill out of the Rec Site.
Eewww, what the hell is that? I look up at a bloody muslin bag hanging high from a pole between two trees, the bag’s sides pushed out by whatever’s stuffed inside it. A huge rack from the caribou beside the bag tells us whose parts are in the bag. Our neighbours have been successful it seems. But…gross…and sad.
I know. I hear the hunters out there berating me for my anti-hunting sentiments. It’s better than buying meat from a grocery store, they’re saying. Supporting intensive farming where animals are crowded together, filled with antibiotics, sometimes abused. I know. I hear you. But it’s still sad to see a big, beautiful creature who should be roaming this beautiful world as free as we are, dead because we’re such carnivores.
We leave the messy kill site and continue our bike ride. At the first creek, Aaron dumps his bike and drags me up and down a creek that's apparently shouting ‘GOLD!' to him. He’s been so excited since learning that there are still fifty active claims in the area. But...no gold for us. Not one sign of the yellow stuff, though we almost go blind from peering into the water for a glint of metal.
Back on our bikes again, we stop to chat with two Taku women berry-picking in the forest. “Moss berries,” they tell us. Sometimes called Crowberries, I discover, when I search Google. Great for jam, apparently. And if the stalks are gathered along with the berries, one can cure all manner of issues: diarrhea, kidney trouble and even cataracts. Gosh, I’d love to know everything about traditional medicinal plants. Later, I find what looks like an amazing and lengthy book (656-pages!) online called ‘Traditional Plantfoods of Canadian Indigenous People’ by Harriet V. Kuhnlein and Nancy Turner and save it for a quiet day when I have nothing to do.
Oh will there be any more of those days for me? I doubt it – this blogging is way too much fun! And then there’s that small detail that I have a full-time job. Oh well. One more year ‘til I retire!
We decide to move to Palmer Lake for our last few days and so, a bit sad to leave this gorgeous site, we pull our trailer back up the bumpy hill, out of the site and back toward Atlin.
On our way, a glimpse of a waterfall to our left on Surprise Road beckons to us and we pull into a small pullout we see .
A tiny sign tells us we are at the Crocus Trail. We follow the pretty, aspen-lined trail along a gorge to a clearing where we see the Pine River, its azure blue water frothing with energy as it comes off the falls, then flowing through several pools then the gorge. Retracing our steps then, we follow the trail back to its other end and see an even more beautiful view of the falls. What a gift to have spotted this gem of a place.
Just past the falls on our left, a small faded wooden sign lures us into the ‘Pioneer Cemetery.’ Yes, a bit morbid, but I can’t seem to stay out of old cemeteries. There’s always so many stories lurking within them. And I’m not disappointed today. We ramble through the grassy site, reading the epitaphs of the early settlers to this village who sailed from Europe in the mid-1800s.
On one, a half-full bottle of whisky sits with a pile of plastic shot glasses. Of course, I take a drink. Cheers, Mr. Etzertza, I say as I slug it back. As your tombstone says....'another little pinch won't hurt us.'
Back on the road, and few kilometres further, we find another, much grander cemetery with a gated entrance and a list of the ‘residents’ on a sign outside the gate.
Again, the graveyard is fascinating. , again called the Pioneer Cemetery. This one is clearly the main cemetery I’ve read about online. The gravestones are sobering. Such a tough life for these tough pioneers. So many men died in mines and by starvation, most in their 30’s. Girls, barely out of their teens, dying in childbirth. Tiny graves of children.
So sad…I think about the easy life our generation was handed. We’re very lucky.
Instead of turning left down Warm Lake Road toward Palmer Lake, we decide to first go to the Service BC building in Atlin to make a couple calls (the only place to find data), then to find some lunch.
We catch up on family stuff then head to The Mountain Shack, a tiny pink restaurant in a chain of three similarly pastel-painted buildings. Very conscious of COVID and the potential concern that these small northern towns likely have about the tourists coming into their boundaries, we order quickly then move outside to wait.
In five minutes, a harried but still super friendly owner brings us two bowls of steaming and creamy broccoli cheese and bacon soup with a side of garlic bread. Delicious!
Warmed and filled up by our scrumptious lunch, we head back to Warm Bay Road and out toward the Palmer Lake Forest Rec Site.
There are two sites and crazily, it seems to us, the other camper has chosen the inferior site. We excitedly pull into the other. It’s perfect. From our spot beside the shore, we have a gorgeous view of the entire lake, the hills and the higher peaks beyond the lake.
Palmer Lake connects to two smaller lakes. We paddle across the big lake then pull our kayaks over a swampy lowland to get into the first and then the second little lake. In both, the water is deep blue and the grasses surrounding them, golden. A dark coniferous forest and carpeted mountains back the lakes.
On our return to Palmer Lake, with lots of the day left, we pull out our fishing rods hoping (we keep trying) to catch some dinner. Not yet having explored the other end of the lake, we paddle over that way, dragging our hooks behind us. I head to a calm little bay and discover that my love of shallow paddling conflicts with the sport of fishing. I spend the next fifteen minutes fighting to retrieve my hook from the weeds.
Aaron, in the meantime, has gone around a corner. Though I can’t see him any longer, I hear him shouting. I paddle quickly around the corner and he points out toward the centre of the lake. We watch as two dark blobs in the water move to the shore then out of the water, becoming a huge, brown cow moose and her calf. Their bodies seem way too large for their long spindly limbs to support. Then I hear Aaron shout out again… ”Look, there’s another!” I watch the new dark blob as it follows the same path to the shore, my camera poised to capture the moose exiting the water. The blob takes shape as it climbs up…
”Oh my god!” I yell. “It’s a grizzly!” Click, click goes my camera as I try to get a close up shot. The grizzly lumbers noisily into the willow bushes at the shoreline then rears up on his hind legs and sniffs the air. Suddenly his big, round bear face turns toward us - he's seen our bright kayaks. He stares at us for a moment. “Maybe you should move back,” Aaron suggests. Yeah maybe. Maybe he decides that we’re not edible, or maybe he just thinks the cow and calf he’s chasing will be tastier, but suddenly, he drops from sight and is gone. Oh my god! I say to Aaron. “A grizzly bear! Right in front of us! So cool.”
Aaron points out an eagle just as we're about to paddle off. And then a scattering of dots mid-lake.
We paddle quietly toward the dots. They become swans. At least twenty of them; gorgeous, and snowy white with ebony beaks. We pick up our paddles again and turn toward our campsite, both of us silent, awestruck at the wildlife we've seen .
As the afternoon darkens to night, we light a campfire and skewer some smokies to roast over the fire. Afterward, Aaron toasts some marshmallows to a perfectly golden shade and we carefully, trying not to burn our mouths, down their sweet, gooey deliciousness. I grab a couple of cold beers and we sit back in our lawn chairs, relaxed, full, and absolutely contented as we gaze at the stars that fill the dark night sky above us.
Our last day at Palmer Lake is windy and the lake too choppy to paddle. “Let’s walk back to that cliff we saw on the way in and get up top,” Aaron says. “ I’ll bet we can see both Atlin and Palmer Lakes from up there!” We head out of the Rec Site on foot. Aaron points out some huge moose prints embedded in the dirt road. “He must have come through last night,” he says. I look into the bushes, hoping he’s still hanging around. But no, he’s long gone.
A half-kilometre back the way we came in from town, we climb off the road and into the bush. Though we’ve hated the rain that’s come along with us on this trip, I love what it brings.
The ground is thick with green moss and mushrooms, tiny snowy white ones, brown ones the size of my head, some cupped to catch the rain, and others flat to shed it. Gorgeous…I wish they were as delicious as others think they are. Yuck. Like eating dirt, in my opinion. We pull back branches and climb deadfall and finally make it through the thick bush to the cliff. It’s easy to climb and in no time at all, we’re at the top. As hoped, we look out at Atlin Lake on one side with the icy Llewellyn Glacier behind it, and in the other direction, the lovely Palmer Lake.
Having enjoyed this little hike so much, we talk about hiking nearby Monarch Mountain tomorrow. The online pictures of the hike show views to die for.
“No, I think we should get going,” Aaron says. “We should get up to Whitehorse before the snow flies.”
We head home after our short but lovely hike, then relax again by the campfire my mountain man builds us.
“I can’t believe how beautiful it is up here,” I say to Aaron, looking out at the lake and the mountains, the latter a myriad of autumn colours. Northern BC has never, ever been a place I thought I’d want to travel through. I’d seen (and shivered in) Prince George in the dead of winter about thirty years ago and I’ve had no interest from then on in going any further north than maybe the Cariboo. But I stand SO corrected. Northern BC is the Galapagos of the northern hemisphere. I have never seen so many animals, nor so much raw and untouched beauty, and I can’t wait to see more.
Tomorrow we head to the Yukon.