Travel for me has always been about venturing into the unknown and getting as far out of my comfort zone as possible. So having never experienced a Northern Hemisphere winter, heading to the sub 30-degree temperatures of Canada’s unforgiving Yukon region was rather daunting. Would I be prepared to go from a pair of shorts and thongs to looking like the Michelin man in winter overalls, heavy moon boots, thermal gloves and a hat? With pristine Pacific Coast mountain ranges, meandering rivers and vast lakes, cosy lodges, friendly locals, exhilarating outdoor pursuits and the Northern Lights awaiting me, the simple answer was yes.
My first port of call, like many that come year after year to discover the Yukon’s immense diversity and unique cultural identity, was Whitehorse. The Wilderness City is the capital of the Yukon Territory, an isolated yet vibrant city with a population of 27,000. It’s got everything the intrepid traveller desires: adventure outfitters, high-calibre artists, museums and excellent hotels all encompassed by spectacular natural landscapes. Here, chefs are proud of their mantra of local and seasonal menus, which are often extremely hearty sizes of game meats and fish. And, breweries, such as Yukon Brewery, show that this is a place to have fun; give yourself plenty of time if you take the tour as you can enjoy copious servings of themed brews – the Yukon Gold was a particular favourite.
The Chilkoot Trail
I would return to Whitehorse on several occasions, but my mission was to explore the wilderness. Weather dependent, and I got lucky on my visit, the Alpine Aviation flight-seeing tour over the Chilkoot Trail is spectacular. Known locally as the Chilkoot, this was an important trade source for the Tlinget people and offered a link between their coastal routes and those of the inland Tanana and Tutchone people. Looking down from the comfort of a plane over the snow-covered meadows once traversed on foot by plucky entrepreneurs hoping to strike gold is a truly humbling sensation.
Next was a visit to Muktuk Kennels and a dog-sledding tour, something I have fascinated about ever since watching the Hollywood classic Iron Will. My passion came to fruition upon hearing the howl of 70 jealous rescue huskies as we saddled-up with our team of dogs. Off we went at breakneck speed across an ice-covered river in the Takhini Valley and in the shadow of mountains, where the only sounds are the bark of your dogs and the cries of birds swooping above.
Dog-sledding is both a vital form of transport and competitive sport here. My journey periled in comparison to the 1,000-kilometer-long Yukon Quest and Iditarod races held amid arguably the most beautiful scenery and inhospitable conditions I have ever witnessed.
My head still dizzy with bewilderment, I depart for the Southern Lakes Resort set on the banks of the glacial Tagish Lake. The joy of breathing in the crisp northern air while admiring the solitude of the lake, Jubilee and Base mountains from the cabin balcony was just reward for my day of energetic activities. The hotel arranges several guided tours and the following morning I opted for a 2.5-hour snowshoe hike. There can’t be many better ways to start your day than to follow animal footprints and retrace the paths of pioneers deep inside a boreal forest.
An Afternoon with Yukon Artisans
Slightly reluctantly I said goodbye to the resort on Tagish Lake and travelled west to Carcross, where a catered lunch was waiting for me at the Caribou Crossing Coffee. This café is an absolute gem with a unique and hospitable atmosphere and a menu of homemade pizzas, sandwiches and hearty soups to warm you up. The coffee is sourced from Yukon’s Bean North and Midnight Sun roasters and is the best I tasted in Canada. A charming Italian barista made it all the more enjoyable.
Carcross is a quirky town squeezed between Bennett Lake and Nares Lake. The Klondike Highway passes through on its route from Alaska to the Arctic Circle, mountains rises up in the near distance and artisans ply their trade at workshops. I spent time with the Tlingit woodcarver Keith Wolfe Smarch, who gave me a tour of his studio and a valuable insight into Yukon’s art heritage. I later popped into Lumel Studios back in Whitehorse and was surprised by how much I enjoyed learning about glassblowing and having a go at it myself.
Dinner that night was at G & P Steakhouse and Pizza, which turned out to be one of the culinary highlights of my trip. The mains are mouth-watering combinations of local ingredients paired with fresh fish and tender meats. I was especially happy to sip on a few more beers from the Yukon Brewery.
Rest, Relaxation + Reflection
No matter where I go there always seems to be one place I return to over and again. One this trip the award went to Burnt Toast Café, an eclectic spot and somewhat of a Yukon institution with enough brunch options to last you for a month.
With a satisfied stomach I checked-in at Takhni Hot Pools to cleanse my weary body in the naturally heated mineral waters. Don’t be put off by the water’s brownish colour because it comes from the minerals that are absorbed into the water as it is heated deep inside the earth. This was the perfect moment to sit back and ponder my previous night’s sighting of the Aurora Borealis. I’d finally fulfilled a dream and glimpsed with naked eyes as the lights danced across the horizon and painted the sky in an array of colourful brushstrokes.
Viewing platforms outside of Whitehorse allow for northern lights viewing without the interruption of the city lights. I chose a tour with Northern Tales, who drove me out to a secluded area complete with a campfire to keep our group warm.
One Last Adventure
Eager to squeeze as much in as possible, I signed up for an ice-fishing and snowmobiling trip with Up North Adventures. The journey out involved cruising amid lush forests and along old mining roads and historic trails before a thrilling ride across frozen lakes. Maybe it’s the simple things in life, but there’s an intrinsic beauty about cooking al-fresco over an open fire and here we had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to eat surrounded by the unblemished Yukon wilderness. And the elk sausage sandwich with chili was hands down my favourite meal of the trip.
For my last night I stayed at the Kaleido Lodge, just south of central Whitehorse. As I climbed into the garden hot tub to gaze at the star-lit sky and wait anxiously to catch the Northern Light for a final time, a thought dawned on me. To travel is more than to visit, it’s to go deep into the soul of a destination and the soul of the Yukon is a sincerely inspirational one.