A winter utopia - Yukon under a blanket of white
Last winter, I ventured into the heart of Yukon for 10 days.
This was something most of my Canadian friends could not really comprehend. It was cold enough across the provinces, with temperatures falling lower every day as we neared the holiday season, so why the heck would I be enticed into roaming the Arctic? Canadian snowbirds prefer to fly south for the winter to evade such conditions.
Coming from the Southern Hemisphere, where we generally only experience two seasons with much milder winter temperatures by comparison, I knew it would be a novel experience. In truth, I love nothing more than passing away the summer months, basking in the sun and enjoying the beach. My idea of cold is when the mercury falls to around 12 degrees Celsius. Perhaps it was a test to see how far I could push my coping mechanisms or simply to prove to my Canadian compadres that this Southerner really could survive a trip up north. Either way, there was something alluring about the frigid cold.
Flying into Whitehorse is an experience itself; the plane descends through vast mountains and forests along the Yukon River before landing on a snow-covered plateau high above town. The icy wind billows outside and the low fog made the arrival a little ominous, but simply breathtaking. I don’t think I will forget the moment the plane suddenly dropped through the thick fog before sliding onto the snow-covered runway and coming to a quick stop. A glance across the cabin and the reassuring sighs told me I wasn’t the only passenger sitting with a lump in my throat and pulsating heartbeat as we came in for the precarious landing.
In summer, Yukon is known as the “Land of the Midnight Sun,” receiving, in some locations, 24 hours of daylight. However, during mid-winter, there is only around four to six hours of daylight, giving you limited time to explore.
Whitehorse is a charming town with many buildings retaining the colourful wooden facades and style from the bygone Gold Rush era. There are many small eateries, cafes and historical hotels along 2nd and 4th avenues. Relics of the Klondike-era are scattered around town and the historic SS Klondike sternwheeler ship stands alongside the Yukon River.
The plateau above town offers outstanding views over the small city, bathed in white.
From this vantage point you begin to understand how remote Whitehorse is. In my travels, I am constantly intrigued by the locations and settings people choose to call home.
Each morning, I passed by a school where a frenzy of kids dressed from head-to-toe in thick winter-wear would be running around a field covered in snow. It was around 9:00 a.m. and the only source of light came from spotlights. I watched with curiosity before stopping a teacher to ask what they were doing. She informed me the kids take part in “active living” each morning. It is a chance for them to get some exercise and warm up their bodies in the frigid temperatures before retreating indoors to begin class for the day. I recall, as a scholar, hating the thought of getting out of bed in 10-degree weather, so having to run around in -35 degree temperatures sounded quite ludicrous. I guess life in these parts means adapting to the environment you call home.
The temperatures were the coldest I had ever experienced; the icy wind penetrated the multiple layers I had on. My hands froze instantly each time I took my gloves off to snap a quick photo. At one point, my right hand succumbed to the cold. It was useless — testament to the many photos I had taken. I quickly sought cover indoors and found some hot water to run over my hands to restore blood flow. I subsequently got frostbite and lost feeling in the tips of two fingers for a few days.
Despite the cold, I found a balance between exploring outdoors and recuperating indoors with a much-needed bowl of soup and a few cups of the locally brewed Bean North Coffee.
The town has a few local galleries, museums and sights to keep you busy. Outdoor enthusiasts wanting to experience the very essence of the Yukon should pick up a rental car and venture further out to partake in some of the very best winter activities for which the Yukon is renowned.
Drive the North Klondike highway and visit the Yukon Wildlife Preserve’s outstanding natural enclosures — a chance to spot the elusive moose, bison, elk, caribou and Arctic fox. After a chilling walk through the compound, stop for coffee at the Bean North Fair-Trade Coffee and then try your hand at ice-climbing at a local tour operator, using crampons, ice axes and a harness to traverse ice stacks, or zip-line over frozen terrain. This is an unforgettable experience that will leave you feeling like a true mountaineer and pioneer for the day.
Terence EderTerence Eder
If you’re still left wanting more, head out to MukTuk Adventures for a unique dogsledding experience over the alpine terrain and let the entrancing echoes of the sled dogs mesmerise you as you’re whisked through enchanting scenery. The Yukon also offers fantastic backcountry skiing and snowshoeing through the endless forests dusted in white. Take a moment to appreciate the absolute stillness of the setting, until silence is broken by the piercing shriek of a raven passing overhead.
If time permits, drive the famed White Pass Route from Whitehorse to Skagway, Alaska on the South Klondike Highway. The journey takes around three hours depending on the weather and road conditions. Along the way, stop off at Carcross, another Klondike era town. Carcross Desert – the world’s smallest dune desert — leads to multiple frozen lakes before reaching the Alaska border and winding down into the port town of Skagway. Although the cruise ships and hordes of tourists are long gone, this charming town is still worth a visit in winter.
I hear the summer months in Yukon are equally, if not more, breathtaking and offer the perfect setting for road-trippers traversing the Alaska Highway, but for me, Yukon in winter will remain one of the most memorable journeys of my life.