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If you have read any of my recent reviews, you will have noticed a theme. Canada! I recently spent three weeks in Canada and had the time of my life. For one of those magical weeks I was in the Yukon! This was probably my favorite place and was well deserving of a review!
The Yukon is basically a territory or State in the North West of Canada. The territory is named after the Yukon river which gently meanders through. Except in winter when it stops flowing, more on that later. The Yukon is a massive place, almost the size of France. There are only 32,000 people living in the Yukon and 28,000 of them live in the capital city of Whitehorse. This really gives you an idea of how vast and remote the Yukon is. This is real hardcore wilderness.
In summer the Yukon is a massive playground which attracts thousands of tourists who are looking for adventure. The landscape is rutted with massive mountain rages the highest peak, Mount Logan reaching a staggering 19,551 feet! The area has many large lakes and hundreds of rivers mainly being fed by snow melt. People travel the rivers on canoe and cayak and camp out under the stars. The capital city swell in summer with tourists looking for adventure.
However I was there in January. And winter has a very different feel. When we got off the plane in Whitehorse we were welcomed by our guide for the week, Scott. Welcome to the frozen North were his first words. And he was not kidding! -25 was the temperature as you step out of the airport. Within a second the inside of my nostrels frooze and I must admit I paniciked slightly, much to the amuzement of Scott. He assured me this was normal and i would get used to it.
Our plan for the week was to spend five nights in a cabin on Lake Labarge which is about 50 miles North of Whitehorse. Then back into Whitehorse two spend two nights recovering in a hotel and then the flight back to Vancouver.
So Scott first of all took us into Whitehorse to pick up supplies. He took us to a large supermarket which had everything we would need in the food department. One thing to note about Yukon is the prices. Most items were about 30% more expensive than anywhere else in Canada. This is simply because they have to drive everything in, and most of us have seen the show 'Ice road truckers'! We also stopped of at the liquor store to get some beers in. Now this is one thing that really shocked us, beer is very very expensive! I would say almost three times as expeniive as buying booze from the off licence in the UK. So our rather modest supply of beer came to over $100! Ouch!
Then we left town and headed North. We were traveling on the famous Alaska highway, and wow, what a road. The scenery is breath taking, the road is just a long white sheet of ice. I could not get my head round how we were traveling at 50mph with no worries. Scott told up how you learn to drive on the ice and it just comes as second nature. Although this area has an average winter temperature of -18 it doesn't usually snow that much. They have about 3ft of snow in an aveage winter, which compared to areas of British Columbia is nothing! Scott was telling us that no matter how cold it gets people function, schools stay open, business run and people venture out quite happily.
We were informed they had just had a foot of snow in the days leading upto our arrival, which was unusual but great news for us! The 6 mile track we had to drive down to our cabin was interesting. I have no idea how that van got through the snow!
Our cabins were so remote it was unreal. Ten miles to the nearest inhabited house, and that we were told was where to head if there was an emergency! Hmmmmm, that was a worry! There was no electricity in the cabins, no phone and no running water! Bliss!
When we got the cabin were given a quick tour of the area. There were four cabins on site, although all were empty for the week we were there. We had a Sauna we could use and there was a wash room with showers that we were aloud to use once every other day, there was a generator we could use in there to charge things and have a hot shower! The two hot showers I had were on of the high lights of our stay! WE had no inside toilet, just an outhouse, which was pretty cold! So after our brief explanation of how everything works Scott left us, he would be back in three days to take us snowmobiling, until then, we were on our own!
Anyhow back to the Yukon! The five days we spent exploring the area were so magical. We were on the side of Lake Labarge which is a massive lake that runs for 30 miles. The lake was frozen solid so we were able to walk on it no probelms. The beauty of the place was amazing. When the sun came out the place came alive, the views were stunning, the cold was not a problem when we wrapped up warm, and the quiet was simply deafening! I could not get my head round the fact that there was no one within miles of us! It was pure wilderness!
The nature in the area was something else. Admittedly we only saw a few birds, in winter we were told the chances of seeing anything of note was slim. But while we were out with Scott he showed us the tracks of a pack of wolves, moose, lynx, cougars and a few other things I would have loved to have seen. We were also informed there were many bears in the area, including some pretty nasty Grizzlys, but in winter the are all fast asleep and are no threat. However in summer a shotgun is a good idea when you are out and about!
To fill our days we had a few activites planned. We went snowshoeing for an afternoon. This was hard work but easier than tramping through the snow with just normal boots on. We also did a day of dogsledding which was wonderful. Scott had booked this for us and Ned and Janine arrived one morning to take us out for the day. We were given a sled each and a team of six dogs. After a quick lesson on how to control the dogs we were off speeding along the lake. This was a magical experience and one I would strongly recommend!
We also did a few tours on the Snowmoblies. Soctt returned with his friend Kirk to take us out. Kirk is a legend in the area, he is a bush man who works in TV. He has filmed with the BBC, and recently took Bear Grills out to help him put a show together. He had some great stories. The snowmobiling was amazing. The first day we did it we had a quick practice out on the lake to get us used to the machines and then we were off on the trails. Flying through the trees at nearly 30mph is pretty intense. We were told to go at a speed we felt comfortable with but we tryed to keep up with Scott for the most part, and wow they get some speed on those things! Our tops speed was 45mph out on the lake, but Kirks machine got upto over 100mph! These are some serious toys that can be great fun!
We also did a late night tour on the snowmobiles. This was to see the Northern Lights which was a big reason for being there. More on that in a bit! While we were out with Scott he took us right down the lake to a small hamlet. He said he had some friends there he hadn't seen in ages. 'Want to experience some Yukon hospitality?' he asked us. We shrugged, it was 11pm! We came off the lake and into someones yard. The lights were on so Scott went and knocked. He waved us over and we were welcomed by an grinning lady, Irene. She asked us in and sat us down with her husband Gus. She took our cotes and gloves, boots and out shells and warmed them by the fire. Then Gus got out his Whisky, Irene made us fried egg butties and gave us the tour of the house. We were there till 1am! These were some of the nicest friendliest people I had ever met. After stuffing us with fruit cake they said there goodbyes and told us to visit anytime. After five glasses of Whisky I was a little worried about the 15 mile ride home, but the cold air soon sobered me up and Scott kept the speeds down.
Our experience of the wilderness of the Yukon was simply perfect, except for one small detail! One of the big pulls to the area had been the world famous Aurora or Northern Lights. The Yukon is one of the best places in the world to see the displays. Mid winter is the best time and we even picked a week when there was no moon in the sky to improve our chances. However we were disapointed. We had a few clear nights and when we were out on the lake Scott showed us a faint green glow on the horizon, but certainly nothing to get exctied about. This year (2009/2010) had been one the worst or record for activity. The lights run on an eleven year cycle, we were told that 2012 was going to be the best year for some time for activity. Many people go to the Yukon just for the lights, I'm so glad we did so much more while we were there. Even though we were disapointed it does give us a reason to go back!
After our five nights in the cabin we returned to Whitehorse. Before we went into town Scott took us back to his house to meet his family. We spent an hour chatting with his wife and kids while we had some lunch. Again the hospitality of this people amazed me! That afternoon Kirk took us on an amzing snowmobile ride up into the mountains. We reached the top of a 5000 ft peak! The views were not great as the clouds were down but we covered nealry 40 miles in that afternoon and saw some more of the amazing Yukon scenery. Kirk was constantly stopping to tell us things about the area and tell us his amusing stories.
The last two days of our trip were in Whitehorse itself which I won't go into detail about as I have already done a seperate review on Whitehorse. So check that out if your interested.
Other places of note in Yukon are pretty limited. Dawson City lies way to the North and sits near the border to Alaska. This only has a population of about 1000 and is really just an old Gold Rush town. Other than that the Yukon is a vast untamed wilderness.
My overall experience of the Yukon was a superb one! The area is so beautiful and knowing it goes on forever is just mind blowing. The people are the friendliest Ive ever met, the local food was very nice, the wildlife is just that, wild! And the area simply has to be seen to be believed.
To get to the Yukon it takes a two and a half hour flight from Vancouver. Or you could dirve it which would take you a good few days as its over a thousand miles! Its well worth it though and if you ever get the chance, this is somewhere you simply must go!
Get away from it all and experience some true pure wilderness adventure!!
Go beyond 60 North, the guide book said. Experience frontier Canada it suggested.
Being an easily suggestible, newly graduated, impoverished travelling type - I took up the subliminal offer and plotted my journey beyond the scary parallel that divides most of Canada from The High Arctic.
Actually - let's be clear, 90% of Canada's 34 million inhabitants live at lower latitudes than Britons do, and the real High Arctic dwellers out beyond 70 North in locations such as Iqaluit and Tuktoyuktuk would consider natives of Whitehorse to be puny southerners, afraid of real snow!
So, it was with great excitement that I boarded the Greyhound Coach in Dawson Creek, BC - the nearest town of any meaningful size to Whitehorse, for my 21 hour, 918 mile trip along the Alaska Highway.
Yes - read that again. 918 miles between them, with only a few very small towns and villages along the way. Now that's remote!
A little background first. The Yukon Territory is a federally controlled portion of Canada, 50% larger than the entire British Isles, populated by 31,000 hardy souls, most of them in the Capital, Whitehorse. A former gold rush area, the Yukon has long been pioneer territory hard up against the border with Alaska.
Formerly built on trapping and mining, the region's biggest employer today is government, with 40% of the workforce running the Tourism, Transport and Hydroelectric concerns of this pristine area. This very untouched nature is its biggest draw, with thousands of square miles of unspoilt wilderness comprising snow-melt lakes, rivers, huge mountains (highest point nearly 6,000 metres).
Whitehorse has been the Capital since 1952, when it moved from the border town of Dawson City.
As remote and northern as it may be, the Mountain barriers form a dry sheltered environment, and compared to some cities further south, the weather is actually more moderated. Nevertheless, average daytime temperatures range from a low of -22C in January, to a balmy 21C in July.
As I pulled into Whitehorse at 4am, and staggered out into the chilly October air, I had no real idea of what to expect. I was mainly travelling along out of a need to keep moving, and a masochistic urge to go to insanely distant places. Luckily for me and the other bus passengers, the local Tim Hortons (Canadian Institution serving 30 types of doughnut, bagels, soup and muffins), was a 24h store.
I sat in the dawn light, reading through some filched tourist brochures, considering my options.
Being the capital, and a modestly sized town of 23,000 - Whitehorse had at least one of everything a community needed to survive: Airport, Supermarkets, Museum, Hotels, Shopping Mall, Fish Ladder, 50ft Wall Mural, and so on...
The city is laid out on the eminently sensible, yet slightly unimaginative grid system, with no building of more than 4 stories (mostly due to the weight of snow on traditional timber structures). With the luxury of space, you really need a car or to use the city's excellent bus system to go beyond the downtown core - separate to which you can find the main residential suburbs and the industrial areas.
The scenery is fantastic - the city sits beside the Yukon River, below bluffs on which stand the Airport, and surrounded by foothills which lead enticingly to towering snow-capped peaks not too far off. Although quite small, Whitehorse does have a big-city feel, with meetings conducted in espresso bars and a brief but noticeable rush-hour as the workers hurry home out of town.
On the banks of the Yukon river stand some of the various points of interest considered Tourist attractions for the city. The paddlesteamer SS Klondike is moored up (imposing but not amazingly endowed with exhibits), and near the Yukon Transportation Museum. The Beringia Centre, which I found rather fascinating, details the landscape and culture as it would have been tens of thousands of years ago, when Alaska and Russia were joined by a mixture of plate tectonics and colossal glaciation.
The Yukon visitor centre is also a good source of information, and offers details on countless hiking trails near and far, including the spectacular Miles Canyon.
Variously, you can also find the Old Log Church Museum, the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, the Takhini Hot Springs and the Yukon Gardens.
The large mural, found in the downtown area depicts an array of Yukon scenes - First Nation hunters stalking caribou, A friendly Mountie, a log cabin...and so on.
The Fish ladder of which I spoke is not too far from the downtown, and allows an accurate count of spawning numbers of Salmon as they fight their way upstream, and aids in setting fishing permits and monitoring the health of both the fish stocks and the water itself. It's quite impressive if the fish are there when you visit, as they hurl themselves up a fairly steep slope, thrashing against the flow of the water to obey their instincts to return to the place they spawned to continue their cycle.
Whitehorse has a sizeable First Nations minority - those peoples indigenous to the region, such as the Dene who lived there during the Beringian Period and still practice their traditions of hunting and trapping - although they do at least have the sense to mix them with modern comforts such as central heating and off-road vehicles!
In the long and dry summers the city comes to life - the handful of main streets opening out to café life, bustling local businesses and the noise of the thriving music scene in the excellent bars.
I'd like to recommend the excellent Talisman Cafe at this point for its thoroughly satisfying all day breakfasts!
Winter time may look foreboding, but the nights are no longer than here in Blighty, and despite the obscene cold and metres of snow, no school days are ever cancelled, and locals thrive on their hardiness, from which the self-deprecating phrase 'Cold out there, eh?' is born. The restaurants and bars offer warm, cosy retreats, and the friendliness is only exceeded by the sense of magnificent beauty, countless hundreds of miles from the racing metropolises of the South.
Obviously, being so isolated, the prices in the Yukon are higher than in the rest of Canada, and a 20% markup of most things is to be expected. Overall though, Canada is a cheaper place to travel than Europe, and you shouldn't feel the pinch too much, unless you plan to dine on flown in products.
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Whitehorse, and its mixture of big-city feel, local friendliness, and amenities outweigh the harsh climate (plan your trip accordingly!), and the increased cost of your stay. It's fascinating to see the perspective of a region so far removed from the bigger cities of the continent, and to get a glimpse of what life has developed from over the centuries in the harsh North, and how adaptation has helped Whitehorse thrive.
I'm glad I obeyed my guide book!