Canada’s Yukon: Land of extremes

RACV RoyalAuto magazine

Dawson City
Dawson City

Calendars are fine, but in Dawson City, Yukon there are other indicators of the seasons.

If people are walking to work, it’s winter. “I don’t start my car if it’s below minus 30,” the breakfast waitress at the Aurora Hotel confesses, with no discussion of Fahrenheit or Celsius; that’s too cold for an engine in any language.

If you’re sleepy in the middle of the day, it’s summer – but not the middle of the day. Welcome to the land of the midnight sun, where they don’t save daylight, they mass-produce it. In July, night is a few hours of murky half-light from about 1.30.

Helicopters overhead can indicate either ‘freeze-up’, when the Yukon River is too icy for the car ferry but still not firm enough to drive on, or ‘break-up’, which is the opposite. The choppers are supplying those residents of West Dawson who didn’t lay in enough stuff to last the several weeks they’re stranded on that side. The cargo just may be booze.

A Klondike gold dredge
A Klondike gold dredge

Gold fever

Dawson, western Canada’s northernmost town, was born out of one of the world’s shortest and richest gold rushes but also so crazy that the historians call it a stampede. Pierre Berton, whose book Klondike is the definitive work on the era, says Dawson “existed as a metropolis exactly 12 months, from July 1898 to July 1899”, and in that “glorious twelvemonth it was the San Francisco of the North”. No such parallel should be drawn today; Dawson is far more interesting.

“The great attraction for many is the isolation,” says Rachel, a Parks Canada guide who came from Nova Scotia a decade ago and is still here. As she leads a tour through the visually and historically colourful properties in Dawson that Parks Canada manages, she acknowledges not everyone accepts progress. Mobile phone coverage didn’t arrive until 2009, and apparently the first time one rang in a downtown saloon the clientele booed.

At just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, survival has always been a challenge in Dawson. It was founded not wisely on river flats at the junction of the Yukon and the Klondike, so a levee wards off all but the worst floods. The ground is permafrost in various stages of solidity, meaning those buildings which haven’t been shored up by modern engineering have developed significant leans. The streets are left as dirt to save the time and expense of constantly repairing buckling bitumen.  

Moose are hard to spot
Moose are hard to spot

Hippy meets hipster

Yet the old and new can co-exist. Marten trappers and moose hunters seeking supplies drive beat-up pick-ups, perhaps dropping into the Yukon’s oldest hotel, the Westminster, with its two bars, one called the Snake Pit, the other the Arm Pit. Meanwhile, hippy meets hipster just down the street in the Alchemy Cafe with its vegetarian-focussed menu, fair-trade coffee, a wall of philosophy books and an Apple store in the corner. Discovering he has Australians in his midst, the barista volunteers: “I can make a flat white.” This is what we have given the world.

With some large companies still trolling the creeks off the Klondike, and about 60-70 “mom and pop” mining operations digging away in hope, Dawson hasn’t given up on gold entirely. But a drive along narrow Bonanza Creek Rd to Dredge No. 4, now also a Parks Canada site, shows this is hard country in which to seek a fortune. The trees look almost impenetrable but this far north even forest can’t go on forever, and so in Tombstone Territory Park, 100km north of Dawson, you hit the tundra.

The contrast couldn’t be greater. The country is a soft yellowy-green, bereft of anything other than the occasional shrub. Step onto it and you’re up to your ankles in the spongy moss. The meadows roll away to bare mountain ranges, and like many a featureless landscape, it’s mesmerising. We scan it in the hope of spotting something moving; perhaps the moose that the chap at the parks office assured us would be visiting our lunch spot, Two Moose Lake. More like Vamoose Lake, as we see nothing apart from a family of grouse crossing the road and a lone highways worker whipper-snipping the roadside verges.

A grizzly cub
A grizzly cub

The Klondike Loop

There are two ways to get to Dawson from Yukon’s main entry point, its capital Whitehorse, and combining them is an exceptional 1400km loop. The short way is up the North Klondike Highway, with the scenic Fox Lake (scene of a celebrated UFO sighting in 1996) and the scary Five Finger Rapids among many roadside stops. The North Klondike is the most encyclopaedic highway I’ve driven, with the social and historical significance of every wayside stop explained by excellent information boards. 

The long way has its merits, too, because it takes the Alaska Highway, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary. 

Built in 1942 to give the U.S. a land route to Alaska as the shipping lanes were at risk of Japanese attack, it needed to cross largely uncharted terrain and five mountains ranges and was an ordeal for most concerned; the engineers and workers were mainly black soldiers from the south who’d never seen snow let alone bears. The highway was made accessible to the public in 1948, opening up a stunning landscape to visitors.

Two glaciers meet in the St Elias mountains
Two glaciers meet in the St Elias mountains

Elusive glaciers

The highway runs along the eastern boundary of Kluane National Park, a lot of which is taken up by the St Elias Mountains, home to Canada’s highest peak Mt Logan (5950m) and also the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. It sounds spectacular, but we only have the word of Tom the pilot from Icefield Discovery which operates out of Silver City Airport (the only thing in Silver City, as it happens). He’s seen it many times but today neither of us will, thanks to low cloud. “Those mountains have their own weather,” says Tom, and by the time he’s recounted all the challenges of flying into such a place, I accept there’ll be no glaciers for us this trip. Well, none with any snow on them. Tom helpfully suggests an alternative, albeit 105km south. The Rock Glacier Trail is a 15-minute walk up to what is in effect an abandoned glacier, just a narrow river of stones snaking up the mountain. It’s a quirk but the view from up here, across Dezadeash Lake is quintessential Yukon. And just before we make another turnoff, down to the picnic grounds at Kathleen Lake, a bear lazily crosses the highway in front of us.

Apart from Haines Junction, with its excellent visitor centre and the retro burger and ice cream joint Frosty’s, there’s not a lot to block the view on the way to Alaska. Kluane Lake is a companion for 60km from Silver City to Burwash Landing, a settlement with a small natural history museum that punches well above its weight, filled with tasteful dioramas of taxidermied wildlife. Pushing on towards Alaska (through which we must loop to approach Dawson City from the west), the highway surface has yielded to what the locals call “frost heaves”, and roadworks allow time for a chat with the lady on the Stop/Slow sign. “Thanks to Mother Nature, I’ve got a job for life,” she says.   

Welcome to Chicken, Alaska
Welcome to Chicken, Alaska

Syd’s sheds of history

Beaver Creek, Canada’s most westerly settlement, has a lot of history, and a lot of it resides in the yards and sheds of Syd van der Meer. If it’s happened in the Yukon, this octogenarian has some rusty or battered relic of it. 

“I’ve never bought anything,” admits Syd, an expert scrounger. “Traded a lot of stuff though. People donate things.”

Most of it is sorted into themes: a barber shop, a bath house, plus quite an assortment of vehicles. In the grocery store room, a name on a cigar box catches the eye, and Syd fills in the details: “Trump’s grandfather came from Germany to the Klondike gold rush. He was never a miner though, just a rip-off artist.” Syd’s place opens on an ad hoc basis, so ask at the visitor centre, where he may even be manning the counter.

To get to Dawson from here, you have to loop around through Chicken, Alaska, where the locals take every opportunity to trade on the name, from giant metal sculptures to a spot where one can pose with their face showing through a cut-out in an egg-shaped hoarding bearing the slogan: “I got laid in Chicken.” The thing is, the joke’s on Chicken, which was meant to be named for a local grouse-like bird but no one could pronounce let alone spell ‘ptarmigan’.

Miles Canyon near Whitehorse
Miles Canyon near Whitehorse

Top of the world

Chicken to Dawson is 175km along what is rightly named Top Of The World Highway. Most of the time, you’re on an excellent unsealed road that follows ridge lines of the mountains, and the vista is vast. We try to imagine it covered in snow (this route is impassable in winter) which makes the North Pole feel even closer. Fortunately, its icecap can’t extend this far, and we dip into the Yukon’s valley to see the river running free past Dawson, so summer it must be.

The Yukon was one of many routes stampeders used to get to the Klondike. Actually, try to get to there, because a fair percentage of those who set off with an avowed ‘Klondike or bust’ attitude ended up busting. Often this was just a few miles upriver of Whitehorse, at a murderous rapid in Miles Canyon. In summer, holidaying university students take free guided tours along its banks, pointing out the relics of the tramway built to help stampeders’ boats bypass the rapid. They also outline the properties of wild berries found in the canyon, and it’s best to know their differences: the soap berry, so-called because it makes a good shampoo, can also be mixed with sugar to make a meringue; whereas the claspleaf twisted-stalk berry, which looks like a tiny cherry tomato, is nothing more than a laxative. Each is in the diet of bears, our guide tells us, thus dealing with that age-old question of just what bears do in the woods.

Kathleen Lake
Kathleen Lake

Gateway to the north

Whitehorse houses 80 per cent of Yukon’s population, and as such is host to established visitor attractions, from several excellent museums (the Yukon Transportation Museum, and the neighbouring Beringia Centre, devoted to natural history), to a brewery and, just outside of town, Takhini Hot Springs, an open-air thermal pool set-up which must be a blast when it’s minus 30. (Check out its International Hair Freezing Contest video)

On the way to a pre-dinner soak, we drop into the springs’ neighbour, the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, to get a look at animals that in the wild are elusive, endangered or both.

While waiting for the bus to take us around this 120-hectare non-profit reserve, we watch several elk reclining in a large fenced enclosure and feel sorry we’re not here in September – rutting season – when, according to a sign on the fence, “stags bugle, thrash bushes with their antlers, urinate on themselves and roll in urine-soaked wallows or mud holes. Dominant stags may fight.” That’s the origin of “stag night” taken care of.

A musk ox at Yukon Wildlife Preserve
A musk ox at Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Stay warm with musk ox

The pastures are home to all sorts. With our guide Pete’s binoculars, we can just make out the antlers of a pair of moose under a far-off stand of trees. Less shy is the musk ox, which is not an ox or even the bison it resembles but closely related to sheep and goats. Its coat is reputed to be eight times warmer than wool but, even better, it doesn’t shrink in water. And their bulk is misleading in one aspect, because while they look plodding they can outrun a horse.

The smaller critters do a good job of concealing themselves, and it takes Pete to point out several pure white mountain goats hiding in plain sight amid pale rocks on a hillside. They share an enclosure with a small red fox that Pete says displayed non-typical habits when given to the preserve; found abandoned as a baby, he was given to be raised by a dog-loving family in Whitehorse until they realised the youngster was not like the rest of their chihuahuas.

Although the sun is still high in the sky – Pete says that in the Yukon you “tell the kids to be home by dark and you don’t see them until September” – we’re ready for some night-time entertainment, and in Whitehorse that means the Frantic Follies at the Westmark Hotel. The jokes trotted out in this Vaudeville-style production were past retirement age when it was first performed almost 50 years ago, but along with the saxophone-playing cancan dancers, poetry recitations and general mayhem, it shows that when you’re living on the frontier, taking anything other than the extremes of climate too seriously is the best option.

More

VISIT: travelyukon.com, canada.travel
Jeremy Bourke travelled as a guest of Tourism Yukon and Destination Canada.

Save with RACV

The Yukon is easily linked to other Canada experiences as it’s only two hours’ flying time from Vancouver, from where you can experience two other special trips, the Rocky Mountaineer train and the Inside Passage cruise to Alaska.

RACV Cruises & Tours has a variety of packages that include either or both, and RACV members save 5% on cruises and tours booked with RACV. Call 1300 850 884 or go to racv.com.au

Written by Jeremy Bourke
April 19, 2017