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Gold Rush

ISSUE 5
C
H

Canada's Yukon Territory is almost unimaginably remote but as Amy Watkins discovers, packed with treasure, summer and winter


My breath froze with a snap as I exhaled. It was 1am and minus 37°C. My tinkling breath was the only sound that crackled through the darkness as I stood next to a wooden cabin on the edge of a boreal forest. We were close to Whitehorse, the capital of Canada's Yukon Territory, and I was waiting for the Northern Lights to dance across the wintery sky.

 
Earlier that day, I'd spent several hours sitting next to a hole in a frozen river trying my (very cold) hand at ice fishing so I was glad there was a campfire to keep us warm that night as we waited for nature's ultimate light show. Eventually, a green halo appeared on the horizon and scurried across the sky like a wisp of candy floss – a fleeting glance of the Aurora Borealis before we headed back to our warm beds.


We'd touched down at a snow-blanketed Whitehorse airport after a two and a half hour flight from Vancouver to be greeted by a sign that read 'Welcome to the Yukon: Larger Than Life'. While the airport may be tiny, the north western Canadian territory of the Yukon is twice the size of the UK, sandwiched between Alaska and British Columbia. Although often overlooked in favour of the neighbouring US state, the Yukon is slowly being discovered by British travellers looking for an add-on to their Alaska visit. With a population that would fill less than a third of Wembley Stadium, the Yukon is the sparsely populated remote northern wilderness that the more-commercialised Alaska used to be.


a blanket of snow


In the depths of winter, the Yukon is a vision of the Canadian north of popular imagination. Swathed in a blanket of thick snow, the lakes and mountains jaggedly poke through the ice and the endless forests become a wave of undulating white.


Lured by the chance to experience this winter wonderland, I headed to the Yukon one freezing February to try dog sledding. Safely cocooned in a sledge for the first part of the journey along the frozen Takhini River, I peered out through frozen eyelashes as we sped along until it was my turn to take the controls and stand on the back of the sledge to guide the huskies as they trotted through the snow.

 

It was all a far howl from my summer experience of the Yukon when, in July, the air was fresh with the scent of spruce, the glacial lakes glinted in the sunshine and the huskies were hiking through forest tracks lined with purple lupines, not trudging across frozen rivers. The summer sun was still blazing at 11pm, creating a bizarrely rich light that made colours more saturated and days languish endlessly.


caribou burgers


This near 24-hour sunlight and colourful landscape has attracted creative types to the territory's capital, Whitehorse, and you'll see all sorts of psychedelic paintings in galleries and on the walls of buzzy coffee shops in this remote town, where caribou burgers appear on the menu next to locally-brewed beer.


Whitehorse got its name from the furious rapids in the Yukon River. They were said to resemble the mane of a charging stallion until they were dammed in the 1950s to create Schwatka Lake, which is now a popular place to take out a canoe or watch the floatplanes skim the water. During the Klondike Gold Rush from 1896, after gold was found at Rabbit Creek and Bonanza Creek, this section of the river was the most treacherous and a makeshift 'Canyon City' popped up on its banks after a tramline was put in to circumnavigate the rapids. The epic journey of the gold rushers from Skagway in Alaska continued from Whitehorse up to Dawson City – a 10-day river journey that thankfully, can now be done in a 45-minute flight or six-hour drive up the Klondike Highway.


Even today, Dawson City has retained the feel of a Gold Rush era town with restored clapboard buildings and dirt roads. The 'Bard of the Yukon', British poet Robert Service, lived in a wooden cabin in Dawson City during the early 1900s which can still be visited and the small Dawson City Museum gives an overview of the Klondike rush. Outside town, I tried my luck panning for gold in the Klondike River by Gold Bottom Mine, a still-functioning placer gold mine, and had a moment of joy that quickly morphed into embarrassment when my flecks turned out to be pyrite (fool's gold).


In Dawson City, you can take in a can-can show at Diamond Tooth Gertie's, Canada's oldest gambling hall, eat at Klondike Kate's in an authentic 1904 Gold Rush building or have a drink at the former brothel at Bombay Peggy's. Brave folk can head to the bar at Downtown Hotel and join the Sour Toe Club. Here, a real human toe is dropped in your whisky and the rules are simple: 'Drink it fast or drink it slow but your lips have got to touch the toe.' Captain Ed, a wrinkled but twinkly-eyed old gent, sits at the back of the pub with an old chest full of toes – the original Captain, Dick, found a frostbitten toe in a cabin in the 70s and dropped it in a friend's drink as a gruesome prank.


Dawson City still attracts eccentric characters. While I was walking along the riverbanks, a local lady came running up to me. "Would you like to meet a caveman?" she asked excitedly before leading me over to a friendly-looking bearded man.


He turned out to be 'Caveman Bill' who does indeed live in a network of caves across the river from Dawson City and told me that when a fire gutted his home in the cliffs local people were quick to donate everything he needed to live there again. People send his post to 'Caveman Bill, Dawson City' and it arrives in his cave, where he's lived for nearly 20 years.


But Caveman Bill is just the latest in a long line of pioneers who have come to the Yukon. During the Klondike Gold Rush, 40,000 people called the city home after making the treacherous trek from Skagway in Alaska. Before this influx of gold-diggers, the Yukon was mainly home to fur trappers and First Nations people. The hunters might have gone but the First Nations communities are still thriving – I took a boat ride with Ron Chambers on Lake Kathleen (named after his Tlingit grandmother) to the edge of Kluane National Park to spot bears before taking a plane ride over the park's glaciers and the world's largest non-polar ice fields.


something in the air


As we swooped over blue-white glaciers and soared along the jagged edges of epic mountains, our pilot spoke into our earpieces telling us that we'd have to turn back soon as we'd passed over into US airspace and were now in Alaska. Another passenger asked how he knew as the stunning scenery looked the same. "I can just tell," he said turning to wink at us as his radio crackled with an American voice. "There's something uniquely special in the air in the Yukon."

WAY TO GO

Frontier Canada

Tel. 020 8776 8709 / www.frontier-canada.co.uk

Offers tailor-made Yukon adventures from classic canoe trips along the Yukon River to Northern Lights winter adventures and fly-drive Alaska and Yukon journeys.


Windows on the Wild

Tel. 020 8742 1556 / www.windowsonthewild.com

Has a range of activities in the Yukon, from rafting adventures in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park to husky rides and trekking the Chilkoot Trail.


Travel Yukon

travelyukon.com

provides a list of local tour suppliers in the Yukon and features a holiday planner to help with routes and ideas for places to stay.


Air North

www.flyairnorth.com

Book air passes for the best way of travelling around Yukon with local airline Air North.

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