Photo Essay: Tombstone Territorial Park

First posted in August, 2008

Though I could have no doubt spent my entire weekend enjoying Dawson (see my previous photography essay), the main reason for putting a thousand miles on my truck was to see Tombstone Territorial Park. For years now, I've had this gorgeous photograph taken by Fritz Mueller hanging in my living room...

...and it's bothered me that a place so gorgeous lies so close and yet I've never seen it.

Tombstone lies about a hundred kilometers from Dawson on the infamous Dempster Highway, a dirt road noted for its mud and its lack of amenities and the fact that you can drive through the Arctic Circle and, in winter, go all the way to the Beaufort Sea and enjoy the 30 day polar night should you so desire.

It's generally recommended that you carry two spare tires (though I braved it with one).

As there would be no services at all where I was going, I made sure I had a full tank of gas and opted for one last hot meal (I hadn't bothered to bring a stove with me for some reason (read: laziness)). I had been intrigued by the advertisement for musk ox burgers at the Klondike River Lodge. I generally don't eat farmed meat, but farmed caribou and musk oxen are given ample space to roam and are treated well compared to most farmed meat, and are far more organic than your standard farmed fare. I'd previously only consumed canned musk oxen, and hadn't really enjoyed it, but I decided to give musk ox another try. As it turned out, it was one of the best burgers I've ever eaten (even if you include the portion of my life where I existed as a relative carnivore).

I'd timed my trip to Tombstone hoping that the weather forecast was correct and that I would have the one sunny day of my weekend to take photographs of autumn. The above photograph was the closest I got to a clear sky (admittedly, the patch of sunlight is beautiful).

I did, as hoped for, take a vacation into autumn, which is my favorite season. In Skagway the trees started turning gold on the first of August, but it's still mostly green and there are but hints of autumn in the air. In Tombstone at this time of year, green is far from the predominant color, and the tundra is aflame with cooler temperatures.

I stayed the night in the clean, very affordable, staffed campground inside the park. I was happy to snuggle down in the warmest sleeping bag I own, and when I woke up, it was no longer just autumn--there was a a touch of winter in the air, and snow was falling lightly but melting just above the ground. The snowline that had developed while I slept looked to be less than a thousand feet above us. The interpreter at the campground told me it's about the sixth such snow they've had already this year, but that it comes and goes a few times before winter truly sets in.

The interpreter also told me about when Fritz Mueller visited the park and took his famous photograph which ultimately won an award from National Geographic. The weather was destined to be just as poor on the day I was visiting as it had been during Mueller's stay, and she told me that despite seven hundred or so shots, he felt like he hadn't captured a single one he was happy with. The clouds had parted momentarily, though, and upon reviewing his work back home, he discovered that he'd captured the gorgeous sunset that now hangs in my living room and is sold in galleries all across the North. Perhaps, she said optimistically, the clouds would part for me as well.

They didn't. But I did get one decent photograph... enough to glimpse through the mist at what this place is and make me want to return.

No photograph I took did the place justice. Each shot felt flat, lacking the depth of focus required to capture the grandeur of the sweeping autumn tundra and towering craggy peaks tipped with snow. The colors as seen through the lens, though rich, never appeared true to what I could see with my eye.

I ultimately explored the Dempster only as far as the northern boundary of the Tombstone, though if I'd had the time I would have eagerly tried for the Arctic Circle and Inuvik. As it was, I made it to the half-way point between Inuvik and Whitehorse.

Two spare tires? As I said, I ventured out with only one... and didn't have to use it. However, I mostly credit that to being very, very used to driving on mud-infested roads filled with washboards and potholes in all sorts of weather (because I live on such a road, albeit one not quite so wide nor hundreds of miles long).

I'd been told it's fairly easy to fall off the edge of the road and flip your vehicle. I have friends whose friends have done so, and a coworker who claims he nearly encountered such a fate just two weeks ago. I never came close to doing anything like that, but I did find that the place was so...


...I'm beyond words. The closest I can come to articulating it is that it is heart-achingly gorgeous, and if you are as mesmerized by its beauty as I was, you could very easily find yourself in your vehicle with the shiny side down and the greasy side up. I made a point of never letting another motorist drive within sight behind me (easy to do on such a sparsely traveled road), so that I could slam on the brakes at any given moment to marvel and gawk and take photographs.

As for mud, the road sort of lived up to its reputation there. My truck was so filthy that it was hazardous--I couldn't see out the side windows when approaching intersections, for instance. Upon washing it, I noticed a couple of new chips in the paint, and I'm not sure the rims will ever have the shine they once did. I suppose I could care, as it only has about thirty-five thousand miles on it, but the truck is just a object, it's still in great shape despite being ten years old, and I intend to drive it until such time as I can afford a hybrid 4WD vehicle that not only takes the kinds of roads and winters we have in the north, but does more than merely tip its hat to fuel efficiency (I think, given the cost of fuel, that even those in denial of peak oil are trying to push the technology to where it should be). At any rate, the trip was very much worth whatever permanent damage was done to its paint or rims.

The drive home was not without note, either.

I saw a porcupine. No matter how many I see, I will always stop to watch them. They are a joy.

I observed two foxes. Difficult to photograph... quick and secretive.

The Klondike Highway takes you through several burned areas, each signed to let you know when the fire took place so that you can get a feel for how long it takes for nature to renew itself. I was quite pleased with this photograph of fireweed, so named because it's a pioneering species, one of the first to take hold after a fire has touched the land. It's quite common, but this is the first time I'd seen it growing against a backdrop of charred timber.

The Klondike and Dempster Highways might not be fast interstates, but they still possess some of the crazy Americana roadside stops (in this case, I mean 'Americana' in the 'North Americana' sense, I guess).

The cold snap and rain I endured much of the trip seems to be bringing autumn south... quickly. I swear the colors were more brilliant on my return trip.

I considered driving all the way home from Tombstone in one day, but ran into a bit of a snag south of Carmacks, where the road had been washed out due to all the rain. I dawdled a bit, enjoying a long dinner while they worked on the road, and ultimately followed a pilot car through the floodwaters on the one lane of mostly solid earth they'd crafted and secured with mud berms. It put me behind schedule, as I probably wouldn't be back in Dyea until two or so in the morning, and I was starting to feel weary between the shoulder blades. I pulled into the Lake Laberge campground well after dark, set up my tent during a break in the rain, and drifted off to sleep with the pleasant lull of waves lapping a nearby shore...

...and woke to this view. So. Glad. That I didn't drive straight home.

And I've included so many photographs at this point (just a fraction of the 711 that I took), that I may as well show you the most bizarre thing I saw: