Text & Photos By Judi Lees
For years, my friend, Anne’s descriptions of the Yukon included the phrase: ‘there’s not much there, but it is lovely”. I would ponder – what did that mean? During a long-awaited Yukon trip together, I finally got it.
We were wandering Carcross, a mountain-surrounded town rich in cute facades dating back to the turn of the century. Matthew Watson General Store, the Yukon’s oldest operating retailer, still stocks everything from Mukluks to your favourite candy. This tiny town hosts the departure of the famed White Pass & Yukon train to Skagway, Alaska. The overnight train/motorcoach tour is well worth taking for the scenery plus a quick trip to Alaska.
“Not much here, but it’s sweet,” was Anne’s comment on Carcross.
Finally, I got it. It is the appeal of what is not in the Yukon – frenetic traffic, high-end resorts and swarms of people that attracts.
In 1898 it was gold that lured adventurers north, today it is the fresh air, wilderness and solitude. So head to the Yukon.
We drove, we were in boats and we soared above this vast (483,450 sq km) land. Up here north of the 60th parallel, wild things far outnumber humans – consider there are some 30,000 people and 25,000 live in the capital of Whitehorse.
Today Whitehorse has a comfortable buzz but it doesn’t forget its heritage. Look beyond two million years at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre and check on early days in the rail and mining industries at the Copperbelt Railway and Museum. A fun way to get around is the dazzling yellow coloured Waterfront Trolley, you can hop on and off at your leisure. The early days are depicted in large colourful murals throughout the town.
A famous landmark is the SS Klondike, the beautifully restored sternwheeler, on the shore of the Yukon River. From here you can walk the trail along Miles Canyon; a suspension bridge adds to the thrill of the views of the turbulent Yukon River. Even close to town there are challenges for keen hikers and mountain bikers, the best bet is nearby Grey Mountain with great views of the city, lakes and mountains. Recently Outside Magazine rated Whitehorse/Carcross the best mountain biking destination in the world. If this is your sport, check out Boreale Biking.
Whitehorse is the place to rent a recreational vehicle, stock up on supplies and hit the road, Jack. You won’t be sorry. A well worn phrase on our driving trip was “Stop, please, I need a photo!” Just outside of Carcross, on the Tagish loop, I demanded four stops. One was Totshi Lake, lonely and mirror calm, backed by grandiose mountains; a shoreline decorated with lacy bits of frost, lichen-rich granite cliffs and stubby, windswept evergreens.
To perfect the drive, we soon arrived at Inn on the Lake, a touch of luxury where we weren’t surprised that our Governor General had been booked in the week before. Although agog at the scenery, I was equally impressed with the cuisine and accommodation here.
On to Haines Junction. Dramatically nestled in the Shakwak Valley, surrounded by glacier adorned peaks and on the doorstep of four vast parks. It is the base for Kluane National Park and Reserve, a haven of outdoor activities.
A brilliant sunny morning found us in Ron Chambers’ boat (Ron runs Kruda Che Tours) skimming across Kathleen Lake, a 12-kilometre, jewel tucked into the southeast corner of the vast Kluane National Park. The colours were mesmerizing – cerulean blue sky, turquoise waters, deep mossy green growth and startling white clouds – they jump out at you like a perfect painting, except it is all real. We disembarked to hike and see the remains of a trapper’s cabin that had belonged to Ron’s Tlinget grandmother.
For a thrill of another kind, we boarded Trans North Helicopter’s Bell 206B Jetranger. We soared above a green carpet and softly molded hills as our pilot pointed out landmarks then performed a powder puff landing, on the edge of a vast beautiful, lonely wilderness. We exited to scuffle across tundra and take in Kluane Lake, a dazzling jewel backed by the glacial-robed peaks of the St. Elias Mountains, Canada’s youngest and highest.
Back in the air, we dropped down so close to the Kaskawulsh Glacier that we were surrounded by its icy blue and next we spotted Big Horn sheep dotting the mountainside and then, in that picture perfect moment, a ram posed on a cliff’s edge, we were so close you could define his haughty expression at this noisy intruder. It’s always amazing to soar above a wild landscape. Flightseeing tours are also available in Haines Junction with Sifton Air.
Next we followed the Klondike Highway to Dawson City. It’s a journey of perhaps six hours and there isn’t much there but it is glorious. Forests of spruce and birch (the farther north, the smaller the trees) and, in summer, roadsides spangled with a lustrous display of Yarrow, Grass of Parnassus, Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, Vetch and Bluebells.
The treat at the end of the day is Dawson City and thanks to the wonderful restoration by the local heritage foundation, it is easy to flashback to 1896 when three ‘sourdoughs’ – George Carmack, Dawson Charlie, and Skookum Jim – found gold in Rabbit Creek, now named Bonanza Creek. Thus began the Klondike Gold Rush when some 30,000 eager prospectors arrived from all over the world.
The best way to become acquainted with this adorable town with its multi-hued buildings, boardwalks and dirt streets is to take a Parks Canada walking tour that departs from the Palace Grand Theatre. Your guide, attired circa the 1890s, tells entertaining, historical tales on the 90-minute stroll as you view some civic buildings like the mortuary and post office but also the Red Feather Saloon and Ruby’s Place, the last brothel in the area that only closed in the sixties.
Dawson City exudes history. There is the Berton House, the family home of Pierre Burton that, a few years ago, was redone by television’s The Designer Guys. Go to Robert Service’s cabin for a poetry reading and visit the Jack London Interpretive Museum. Pan for gold at Claim #6 and get your picture taken in front of the SS Keno. Explore the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre that traces the history of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in who have lived here for thousands of years.
Save some energy to whoop it up at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s where can-can girls and Gertie entertain and you can try your luck at the slot machines or games of choice. This is where you will truly feel like you are back in those glitzy, golden days.
By the time you depart the Yukon, your memory bank will be filled. We all have our favourites. One evening, after an upscale dining experience at The Raven in Haines Junction, we drove west looking for grizzly. Just before the historic fishing village of Klukshu, we spotted a massive, golden coloured sow on the forest edge. She was larger than a compact car and more beautiful and frightening than any animal I have ever seen. She lumbered into the forest and I didn’t have time for a photo. However, like the rest of the Yukon, I will never forget it.
For information on the Yukon: www.travelyukon.com
The Yukon just keeps getting better. In Whitehorse, two new accommodations recently opened: Northern Lights Resort & Spa and Takhini River Lodge, while the Wheelhouse Restaurant opens this month.
Zip lining and much more is available at Wild Play Element Parks at Mount Sima 15 minutes drive from Whitehorse.
Although restaurants and accommodation stay open year-round to cater to the winter adventurers, many tourism businesses begin their season in May.
For self-drive tours and for vehicle and RV rentals, visit www.travelyukon.com