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Slow but steady: Driving on the South Canol Road

Slow but steady: Driving on the South Canol Road

Although there are no reptiles in the Yukon, you will be travelling at turtle speed as you make your way at Johnson’s Crossing and the Robert Campbell Hwy at Ross River, travelling through the traditional territory of the Kaska and interior Tlingit First Nations. Although the South Canol is not recommended for RVs, there are two territorial campgrounds along the way that are great for tent camping or at your own risk RVing. There are no services until you reach Ross River, so be prepared with car snacks for you and fuel for your vehicle. Expect the drive to take about eight hours- unless you are travelling with my shutter-happy husband: then plan for at least ten!

A Brief History

The construction began during World War II as part of a project to construct a pipeline from Norman Wells, NWT to Whitehorse, YT. The project took two years to complete, was way over budget and then the pipeline only ran for about one year! As you drive the road, it gives you a real appreciation for the workmanship that must have gone into it. I can’t imagine working with the blackflies, mosquitos, other wildlife, numerous water crossings and sudden cliffs- all while dealing with the weather, as you attempt to remove the dense forest to construct a road. People are impressive! Of course, the South Canol has had additional construction since, but it’s still slow-going, mostly single lane bridges and barely (if any) guardrails. At the start of the South Canol (from the Alaska Hwy), you will see a few abandoned trucks that were used during the construction along with some interpretive signs to get the full history.

The Best Welcome Committee

Moments after turning onto the South Canol, we were greeted by the largest porcupines I have ever seen. I’m always surprised by how slowly and how quickly they can move as we watched one make its way off the road. Amy, our tripod dog, was hopeful that we would let her out of the car to play with her new spikey friends- not a chance! Coming from Ontario, you tend to only see porcupines as roadkill, so we were thrilled to watch these two climb trees, nibble on some bark and then disappear. What a great start to our South Canol experience.

Camera Happy

Adam is always that guy who is always falling behind because he’s busy snapping pics. He has no formal training in photography, but he just loves it. There are no shortages of scenic shots to be had on the South Canol. From mountains to lakes to creeks to old bridges to fauna and flora- this is a photographer’s paradise. Since we decided to do this adventure almost right after the seasonal road opened, it was the beginning of June and the wildflowers were popping. We saw Yukon goldenweed, orange lichen, cutleaf anemone, narrowleaf leopardbane, lupines and the elusive fairy slipper orchid- a prized find made by Adam. Even for those of us not familiar with flora (that was us until we looked up each of the flowers we had found), it’s gorgeous to see full fields in bloom and some of these plants are endemic to only this region.

First Time Camping in the Yukon

Just a few meters after we turned onto the Robert Campbell Hwy from the South Canol, we saw our first Yukon bear. As we were pulled over to try and snap a pic, a thoughtful older gentleman pulled up beside us- just to make sure we were okay. That’s so Yukon! Unfortunately, his kindness scared our first Yukon black bear away. We had to laugh at the timing though, as the whole time on the South Canol Road, we only encountered one other vehicle. Luckily, we had a few other opportunities along the highway to get some other bear pictures. We arrived at Lapie Canyon Campground and set up our three-person tent right along the Lapie River (on-site 17, if you're looking for a great site-choose this one). The intense rushing water was able to drown out all the noises, throughout the night, that I would have imagined were bears. It’s not that I’m not used to camping, but on a normal day- in my warm cozy bed- I am a light sleeper. Add the chance that a bear might visit and I’m barely sleeping (pun intended). After using the river to cool a couple of microbrews, we were able to enjoy our first beers while camping AND under the midnight sun. Amazing first camping experience except for Amy waking me up at 3:30 AM as it had already begun to get light out again. Umm did she not notice we only went to bed around 1 AM as it was finally getting dark then?

Conclusion

I highly recommend a trip down the South Canol- it’s a must-see. The hours just flew by as we absorbed the serene changing landscapes, explored the two campgrounds and did countless stops for photos. I had a few of my Yukon-firsts on this trip: first seasonal-road trip, first live porcupines, first bears, first camping, first campfire, first time not needing a headlamp while camping, first time our vehicle was fully caked in mud and first time I saw a 10 km/hr sign. Bring on the 2021 road trip season including another pass down the South Canol, but during our early fall for the colours or during salmon season to try and catch a glimpse of a bear fishing. Perhaps even a trip up the North Canol is in order?


Hero Picture- Gorgeous views as we continue into the northern section. Photo taken by Adam