Yukon Adventures in Northern Canada
Indigenous Culture, Aurora Borealis, Wildlife and Colorful Frontier History
By Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
Yukon Territory, commonly called the Yukon, is the smallest and westernmost of Canada’s three northern territories. It borders Alaska, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, as well as boasting a small Arctic Ocean coast line. However, it is still a substantial chunk of real estate. Total population of the territory is just under 36,000, with 25,000 of those people living in the capital city, Whitehorse. You can travel quite a distance without encountering another vehicle or human! Most of the Yukon has a subarctic climate with cold winters and warm summers.
The Yukon is proud host to many impressive natural features, like Mount Logan (19,551 ft/5,959 m) which is the highest mountain in Canada and the second highest on the North American continent, and the Yukon River which travels from the mountains of northern British Columbia, through the Yukon and Alaska. It has been the water highway of its long-settled First Nations (native) people for thousands of years as well as for early European arrivals starting in the 1800s. Quite surprisingly, it is the third longest river in North America. Today, with a fine network of roads (including the famed Alaska Highway built in 1942) and excellent daily air service to the Yukon and within the Yukon, the river is of more recreational and tourist interest.
Map courtesy of Travel Yukon.
First Nations Culture
First Nations native culture is an important, authentic part of Yukon life, and of great interest to visitors from around the world. In early July, the annual Adaka Cultural Festival is a weeklong celebration of indigenous culture on the Whitehorse waterfront with music, dance, storytelling, arts and crafts in abundance. To the east of Whitehorse, Carcross is another center of aboriginal culture, arts and crafts, well worth a visit. For a complete list of Yukon First Nations festivals and gatherings, click here, and for attractions and experiences, click here.
As humans migrated across the Bering Strait and into North America, evidence suggests that fully domesticated dogs accompanied them as far back as 15,000 years ago. Dog sledding was once a critical form of transportation in the North, including winter mail delivery by early European settlers. However, today’s visitors may enjoy dog sledding for the pure delight of it especially rewarding on a multi-generational winter holiday. There are a number of expert tour operators that offer day and multi-day dog sledding options, as well as other winter sport activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Aurora Borealis Viewing
The Yukon is one of the most accessible destinations to witness spectacular Aurora Borealis displays from late August to mid April. Like much in nature, their appearance is not predictable so be sure to allow several days of your winter vacation to sample the best of the best. Here is a list of Yukon operators and accommodations where Aurora expertise abounds. I stayed at the highly recommendable Northern Lights Resort & Spa, on a picturesque country property outside Whitehorse where I learned that the owners have designed an original package that offers nighttime dog sledding from the doorstep of your chalet to chase the Northern Lights while traveling through a magical winter wonderland. Or you may choose to stay cosy in your chalet or the resort lounge, with each one having huge picture windows facing north to capture the spectacle of Nature.
Recreational Vehicles (RVs) are a Popular Choice
Though on a map the Yukon may appear small compared to its nearest neighbors, Alaska, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, the road distances between towns are long and serviced campsites are few. Especially among retired travelers with a more relaxed holiday timeline during summer and fall months, either bringing their own RV or flying into the Yukon and picking up an RV rental is a terrific option for leisurely exploration.
On the Water and in the Wilderness
Much of the Yukon is made up of lakes, rivers and wetlands that attract a vast array of birds and large mammals. However, it often takes time and patience to spot them in the landscape that is their home. Getting quietly onto the water by canoe or kayak is magical and a relaxing way to do your wildlife spotting in a variety of geographically spectacular settings. Rentals or wilderness guided tours are available, although many people on a driving holiday from the south bring their own watercraft. Guided horseback riding tours into the mountainous areas also provide a way to be one with the scenery and wildlife, perhaps hoping you will spot that grizzly mother and cubs with a little distance across a field of fireweed.
With not enough time to drive 1.5 hours out of Dawson City to reach the international hiking and camping mecca of Tombstone Territorial Park, I opted for a flightseeing tour with Great River Air. Admittedly, the four-seat bush plane was a pretty noisy option compared to a kayak, canoe or even a horse, but the geological formations viewed from the air certainly gave me a taste of why this 2,200 sq km park is such a coveted camping and RV destination intersected by the Dempster Highway.
Dawson City, Historic Treasure
On the banks of the Yukon River, Dawson City is inseparately linked with the brief but lucrative Klondike Gold Rush (1896 to 1899), but it lives on, frozen in time, in charming historic splendor, including Diamond Tooth Gerties’ excellent cabaret show with energetic singing and dancing harking back to Gold Rush days. It is a must-visit in which everywhere and everything is a photo op! With a distance north of Whitehorse by road covering 333 miles/538 km, and plenty of scenic lookouts to stop for along the way, the drive is about five hours. Or there are one-hour daily flights between Dawson City and Whitehorse which was my transportation of choice. With a permanent population of 1,375, it hardly qualifies as a town never mind a city, but its presence is so much larger than life.
Still Searching for Gold
Gold panning is still a curiosity if not a driven passion for many locals and visitors to the Yukon … sort of like fishing in a quiet stream with your thoughts wandering around your head. However, it does reap rewards if you know where to go, how to do it and what to spot in your pan which can be anything from dust to nuggets. There are annual Gold Panning Championships each July in Dawson City with categories for all ages and abilities.
Craft Beer Brewing is a Fine Art
I was surprised to discover world-class expertise in the field of craft brewing, having presumed that brand name beer would be imported from the south and drunk without much discernment. Wrong! My education began when I visited 23-year-old Yukon Brewery to tour their brewing facilities and taste a flight of six of their 12 different year round and seasonal brews. It was a tough choice, but finally I settled on Lead Dog Olde English Ale. Later in my visit, I spent time at a newer craft brewery, Winterlong Brewing Company started in 2015, experiencing the same local enthusiasm for their seven distinct beer and stout offerings, with a great tasting room and brewing facility.
Adventurous Train Ride
Straddling Alaska and the Yukon, The White Pass & Yukon Route travels 67.5 miles from Skagway, Alaska to Carcross, Yukon along the same route that many Klondike Gold Rush adventurers traversed in 1898. Now this historic day rail journey is popular as an excursion with cruise ship passengers while docked at Skagway. However, doing the whole round trip is not necessary. The season only runs from early May to late September.
I rode these historic rails on a three-hour segment between Fraser and Carcross with an informative strolling stop around the historic town of Bennett and a lunch served on board. Today beautifully maintained by Parks Canada, the townsite was originally established as the gathering place of frantic gold miners as they prepared to strike out for the gold fields using the steep and treacherous Chilkoot Trail over a mountain pass. Hardy hikers today even have the opportunity to replicate the miners’ struggle over the Chilkoot Trail, but not while carrying the heavy gear that early miners were required to bring over the Pass in all weather.
Follow Up FactsFor information on all Yukon visitor options, see Travel Yukon website, https://www.travelyukon.com/.
Author tested accommodations around Whitehorse:
Hidden Valley B&B, https://www.yukonbedandbreakfast.com/, slightly out of town, an historic family home on 55 acres where every guest room is uniquely decorated and a sumptuous breakfast in the elegant dining room is an event in itself. Equally sumptuous dinners may be ordered by request.
Northern Lights Resort & Spa, http://northernlightsyukon.com, offers custom-built luxury log chalets in a country setting, hosted by a German Canadian husband and wife team who truly understand hospitality. Allow plenty of time for included breakfasts and good conversation with a great view that sometimes includes surprise animal visitors passing through.
On the Whitehorse waterfront, Edgewater Hotel, http://www.edgewaterhotelwhitehorse.com/, historic but rooms fully modernized, with a strong focus on local First Nations art. Great central walking distance for many festivals and special events along the shores of the Yukon River.
Author tested accommodation in Dawson City:
Aurora Inn Hotel, http://aurorainn.ca/, blends into the historic streetscape of the “city” while offering fully modern facilities in rooms and public areas. The owners are helpful and knowledgeable about all that is happening year round, including Aurora Borealis packages.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.