Stepping into Johnson’s Crossing Lodge nestled off the Alaska Highway at historic Mile 836 feels more like walking into your mom’s living room than a highway lodge.
Vintage tins and rusted relics line the shelves overtop a cozy room with tables and chairs. A table top is scattered with hundreds of puzzle pieces waiting to find their perfect fit. Varnished salmon plaques hang on the walls, and a comfy, old-fashioned couch sits invitingly in front of a large screened television which recounts the day’s news.
The air is filled with the scent of brown sugar and cinnamon, a telltale sign that the lodge’s signature cinnamon buns are nearing golden brown completion.
Everything about this place sings of home, except perhaps, for the truck driver tucking into a classic breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast before he heads south to Montana.
The classic, timeless and homey feel of Johnson’s Crossing Lodge is exactly how owners Sandy and Frank Ruether wanted it to be.
“It’s an experience when you come here,” says Sandy. “It has to be a destination.”
If the artifacts, home baked goodies and kick-your-heels-up vibe wasn’t enough to convince you of the destination, one window glance to the Teslin River and expansive Teslin River Bridge will have you wanting to hunker down at this picturesque lodge for an hour (or maybe a few).
As soon as you walk through the lodge’s front door, you’ll notice that Sandy and Frank are proud supporters of local artists. A cozy nook at the shop’s front boasts jewelry, candles, jams, honey, soap, knitwear, cards and other goodies from more than 40 Yukon artists.
“I really take pride in being a Yukoner, and I wanted to honour the artisans here in the Yukon,” Sandy says. “I want to display their art as beautifully as I can.
Call it kismet, a stroke of luck, or fate, but for Sandy and Frank, coming to own and run the historic Johnson’s Crossing Lodge in June 2014 was no accident. This becomes apparent as Sandy explains that they first met when they were both 20 years old, and though they didn’t reunite and marry until 23 years later, their paths always crossed over the years.
“We were always missing each other in some form,” says Sandy of their star-crossed relationship. But this time, it seems that the husband and wife duo have hit their mark.
“We were in the right place at the right time I guess,” says Sandy of taking over the lodge, after it had previously been shut down for a few years. Or as Frank often says, “There I was on a Sunday with nothing to do…”
For Frank, who was born in Fort Nelson and spent most of his youth driving up and down the Alaska Highway, the lodge brought back a sense of nostalgia. He used to unload groceries here during his long-haul trucking days. For Sandy, who was working for Yukon Housing in Teslin at the time, the lodge provided a closer spot to work than the commute from Whitehorse.
Sandy also used to own the popular oasis, Penny’s Place, located in Pelly Crossing. The small, antique building was well known to locals and drivers traveling to and from Dawson City. She ran the quaint eatery for nine years, until she closed shop and moved to Faro.
With Frank’s knowledge of highway lodges and cafés over his years of trucking, and Sandy’s know-how of running her own café and business, the pair seem a business match made in heaven (though the humble twosome would never admit it).
“It seemed like a shame that the property was sitting here vacant and nobody was doing anything with it,” says Frank.
Frank and Sandy bought JC Lodge in fall 2013. Originally, the pair thought they might own the property and not run the business, but when vehicles started pulling in nonstop, it became apparent that the operation of the business was integral to the land acquisition.
Frank says with the help of some good friends, who provided cleaning and free labour the first summer before they opened, things just fell into place, and for that support, they are grateful.
“Lots of people have known this place to be a highway lodge because it has been one since 1949,” Sandy explains. She says some travelers, especially Americans, have been visiting Johnson’s Crossing for 30 to 40 years. Seventy-five percent of the lodge’s customers are Americans, but the lodge also sees plenty of Canadians, international travelers and of course, Yukoners.
“It really is a staple of the Yukon,” Sandy says.
A new lodge was constructed in 1996, and though it reopened in 1997, the hours were often irregular, leaving highway goers questioning whether the lodge was open or not.
“People often don’t know what day of the week it is when they travel, so the open/closed thing doesn’t work,” explains Sandy. “We didn’t want people to think, oh, they’re closed again.”
So, when Frank and Sandy took over the lodge, they made the decision to keep it open year-round, snow flurries or shine. Johnson’s Crossing Lodge is even open on Christmas day, a testament to their commitment to serving locals and weary travelers.
While June and July marks the height of their summer heyday, Sandy and Frank rely predominantly on locals and neighbouring residents from Watson Lake, Teslin, Little Teslin and Marsh Lake for the duration of the year.
The lodge hosts and caters meetings in their comfortable environment, and in the future, Sandy hopes to showcase more artistic and wellness workshops to draw people in from the communities.
January and February are the slowest months for business, but Sandy and Frank note that, “There are always people on the highway, and it’s nice to be there for people that break down on either side of bridge.”
Their year-round “Open” sign makes Johnson’s Crossing an idyllic pit stop for winter sledders and dog mushers heading up the South Canol, and in the summer time, for canoers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
“There’s nothing better than a homemade burger and fries after getting out of the bush,” Sandy affirms.
The lodge features five cozy rooms year-round and in summer (from May to September) a treed RV park with showers and laundry facilities.
“We want Yukoners to have a place to call home,” the couple says.
Many people may be familiar with Johnson’s Crossing Lodge as the location where Yukon author Ellen Davignon was raised, and where she later raised her own family while operating the lodge. Davignon’s connection to the lodge is still strong, so much so, that she came to the lodge to teach Sandy how to make the well-known, iconic cinnamon buns.
“When you make cinnamon buns, you have to go by feel,” Sandys says of the process. “It’s a connection you have with the baking.”
The sinfully sticky buns, which are the lodge’s top seller, sell by the trayful in summer.
“People come here from everywhere for them and that was before we took over,” Sandy says. She believes that because she was trained by the best, the cinnamon buns remain some of the Yukon’s best.
Along with cinnamon buns, the lodge serves other sweet treats like scones and strudels, as well as homey comfort foods like all day breakfast, fresh sandwiches, soups, beef stew, chilli and burgers. Most menu items are made from scratch, including the burgers, soups and chilli, and are available seven days of the week. The lodge also has off sales.
Sandy spends most of her time in the kitchen baking, and Frank is known for his beef stew and soup concoctions, which he jokingly titles “awful darned good soup.”
They recently hired a part-time cook to help on select days of the month, allowing the business owners a little more flexibility in their schedules, which is crucial when you’re running a business every day of the year.
Despite their hard work ethic and loyalty to Yukoners, the strain of constant work doesn’t seem to show on Frank and Sandy, who are all warmth, smiles and jokes with regular customers and newcomers, alike.
“The best part of the job is meeting people and having conversations that you normally wouldn’t have, conversations that seem random, but really aren’t,” Sandy says.
Frank and Sandy encourage locals to come down for a hearty meal, and to experience the comfortable, home-like energy they have created in the historic space. Artists who are interested in selling their works, as well as musicians, entrepreneurs and those with workshop ideas, are invited to stop by Johnson’s Crossing Lodge and talk to Sandy.
“Even though we’re old and dilapidated, we’re still looking for new things to do,” laughs Frank.