Last week, Yukonomist reported on the economic recovery of Whitehorse’s old commercial centre at Front and Main. This week, it’s Carcross.
Caribou Crossing, as it was known until some mail mixups with the Cariboo district in B.C., was a bustling place back in the day. It had train service, with regular sternwheeler connections to places like Tagish, Engineer and Atlin. The old SS Tutshi offered a high-end cruise up the lakes that got high marks in the classic Baedeker guides of the period. And the Conrad mining district on the Montana massif brought many miners and much cargo and money through town.
Then it got pretty quiet for about a hundred years, with the exception of the Second World War when the Americans arrived and built the Carcross and Tagish roads.
So it was with some surprise that I arrived in Carcross last Sunday and found it bustling again. Jaded Whitehorse residents who think all you can do in Carcross is buy cheezies and gas at Montana Services on your way to Skagway should think again.
In addition to traditional Carcross activities, like a quick visit to the old train station and some ice cream at Watson General Store, there is now lots more going on.
We visited the interpretive structure commemorating the burnt-out SS Tutshi, which had some nicely done interpretive displays with lots of photos. We also tried our hands at fishing from the pedestrian bridge. We forgot our lures in Whitehorse but the kind folks at Watson General Store let us rummage through their tackle box.
The ambience on the bridge was memorable. Some sun and great scenery, with locals and tourists chatting away about fish. We even caught one, but it got away, much to the amusement of the kids on the beach. After that, some of the tourists scurried back to their RVs to get their rods.
We also had a very fine lunch at Caribou Crossing Cafe. I recommend the old-fashioned ham sandwich with Yukon fireweed pesto, complete with bread that had come out of the oven just minutes before we got there. The coffee is excellent, and the cakes and pastries look great too.
Upstairs is a small but fascinating exhibit on Carcross’s history put on by the MacBride Museum, stretching from Skookum Jim’s days up to modern self-government, and there’s a small art gallery in the back. I’m told there will soon also be a mural designed by renowned artist Keith Wolfe Smarch, who has a workshop nearby.
Remember to plan your Carcross trip ahead of time since, as befits a historical town, only antiquated cellphones work there. We had a young friend from Europe with us who had recently been travelling in rural Africa, and he remarked that Carcross was the first town he’d been to where smartphones don’t work. We had to track down an errant family member back in the capital city and discovered that the new government visitor centre was built without a payphone. Fortunately, if you need to show the kids what a payphone looks like, there’s one at Montana Services.
There is another coffee shop across the tracks and several new shops as well. The historic Caribou Hotel is still being renovated, but hopefully someday Carcross will again have a vintage hotel with bar and grill (and perhaps a new parrot to replace the legendary Polly, who is said to have learned how to drink and swear while living there from 1918 to 1972).
And don’t forget there’s lots to do in the Carcross neighbourhood. The beach has been a favourite of Whitehorse weekenders going back to the 1920s when you had to take the train to get there. Carcross Desert has some good new interpretative signs explaining the dynamics of the dune system and its origins under an ice-age lake. There’s also good information on the elusive dune tachinid fly. This is the rare insect that the Yukon shares with a few sandy spots in Mongolia and Siberia and whose larvae, according to Yukon biologist Syd Cannings, burrow inside other creatures just like the movie Alien. You can tell the kids to keep an eye out for them as you stroll through the dunes.
The Caribou Mountain trail is always a good one to get out-of-town visitors puffing. But now the place to go is on Montana: it has the new Mountain Hero trail, built by Carcross/Tagish First Nation youth and economic development staff, along with a network of other hiking and mountain biking trails. It’s been designated as officially “Epic” by the International Mountain Biking Association. Head about 14 kilometres towards Skagway, then park and head your feet or your bike up the mountain for some spectacular views in every direction.
All in all, we had a great time. My only complaint is with the extensive new concrete curbs and asphalt sidewalks. Tourists seem to love wooden sidewalks, as Dawson and Skagway show. I know that wood sidewalks are clichéd and high maintenance, but wood would fit better with the Carcross image.
But that’s just a minor quibble. Add Carcross to your list this summer. It’s a great trip for visiting friends and in-laws. And it might be your only option if your mother-in-law has a criminal record and can’t get across the border to Skagway.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.