19 September 2014 by Heather Harris
The Yukon is a vast and sparsely populated territory in the northwest of Canada and is one of the most diverse and remote parts of the world that I have visited. Famous for the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, where people flocked in their thousands to find their fortune in the gold fields, the Yukon was one of the largest gold mining regions in the world. It is the size of Spain, but today has a population of just 35,000.
My adventure to the Yukon began with a long flight from Heathrow to Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia and a coastal seaport nestled between ocean and mountains. Before my arrival I had only heard good things about Vancouver, and I instantly fell in love. Recently voted, for the second year running, the most liveable city in the world, I can completely understand the attraction: the scenic location near the ocean, tucked up against the North Shore mountains, amazing views and great beaches, hiking trails and snow sports in the mountains... the list is endless.
The ethnically diverse city merges culture and cuisine from all corners of the world but primarily from Asia and Europe, meaning that it is constantly competing for foodie accolades. This was most prevalent during my short stay which largely revolved around pleasing my taste buds; from sampling unique homemade products in Granville Island public market, to gastronomic delights at the Sandbar Seafood Restaurant, and the innovative menu at the hip Japanese restaurant, Miku. Sadly the rain had followed us from the UK so we weren't able to explore the city as much as I would have liked, but that only means I will have to go back for a second visit!
Whitehorse & Southern Lakes region
The Yukon's capital Whitehorse is small by UK standards with just 28,000 residents, but is actually the largest city in Northern Canada, and is home to some spectacular scenery. Situated on the banks of the Yukon River, travellers come from far and wide to view the landscapes and wildlife of the area. The wet weather persisted so we stayed indoors and explored some of the local boutique art galleries and downtown souvenir shops. The evening was spent in the newly renovated and contemporary Boréale Lodge, just 30 minutes outside of Whitehorse, where we escaped the rain by cosy-ing up inside to better enjoy a few of the local Yukon beers and a home cooked meal.
We departed the following morning along South Klondike Highway to Fraser, and hopped aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. The railway passes through the remote Bennett Station on Bennett Lake at the top of the famous Chilkoot Gold Rush Trail. Once home to around 15,000 people involved in the Klondike Gold Rush stampede, today all that remains at Bennett is the station, a church and a handful of First Nations cabins. We stopped for lunch in Bennett before continuing along the railway which runs parallel to the beautiful Bennett Lake and towards the historic village Carcross. Short for Caribou Crossing, Carcross is undergoing a cultural renaissance and is returning to its traditional native roots. Totem poles are being erected all over the village, and large colourful murals adorn the buildings. Here we met with Keith Wolfe Smarch, a fascinating Tlingit artist and carver, who belongs to a generation of Yukon artists who merge contemporary ideas with the sacred and traditional art forms of the First Nations.
Kluane National Park
Haines Junction is known as the gateway to Kluane National Park, one of Canada's most treasured possessions. Approximately half the size of Switzerland, Kluane is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to twelve of Canada's highest peaks (including the tallest, Mount Logan) and the world's largest non-polar ice field. It is a land of sheer mountains, lush valleys and frozen expanses that yield a diverse array of plant and wildlife species and it also provides a host of outdoor activities: hiking, fishing, biking, and boating are all excellent ways to enjoy the landscape. Annoyingly our personal rain cloud had consumed us so weren't able to enjoy the spectacular views the park boasted, however we did enjoy a walk in the rain which is what we Brits are used to!
Just across the Canadian border in Alaska, is a small town called Chicken; it's tiny in fact and home to just 17 residents. Founded on gold mining, it is one of the last gold rush towns in existence in the Alaskan state. It is called 'Chicken' due to the prevalence of ptarmigan in the area, but the gold miners of the late 1800s could not agree on the official spelling, so decided to call it Chicken instead. Nice and easy. After our lunch (steak and chips... not really) we continued our journey along the Top of the World Highway, towards Dawson City on the western banks of the Yukon River.
Dawson City & Gold Panning
Home to the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, considered the greatest in world history, Dawson City today is a national historic site, and radiates a strong sense of the past. At the height of the Gold Rush the city was home to over 50,000 residents, including Jack London, Thomas Edison, and the Guggenheims; today however it is home to just 3,000 residents (falling to only 700 in the winter). I couldn't help but be entranced by the unique culture of the place, where all the buildings must stay correctly preserved, and the long streets are unpaved, just as they were in the 1800s. Whilst visiting Dawson City, there are two essential experiences: one is visit Diamond Tooth Gertie's, an old town gambling hall and can-can club; and two is to down a sour toe cocktail, which contains an actual human toe that has been pickled and is served up in a drink of your choice, so long as the alcohol content is above 40%! Without these two specialities a trip to Dawson City is incomplete.
Of course when you are in Dawson City, you must do as the gold miners do and pan for gold. We stopped by Claim 33, a small family owned and operated business located in the heart of the Klondike gold fields, with a veritable museum of antique mining equipment. We were each given a pan and once we had mastered the skilful dip-shake-dip-swirl-shake-dip technique, gold fever had consumed us and, with the warm sun (finally) on our shoulders, we were ready to find our fortune. Gold is 19 times heavier than water so if there is any gold in the pan, it will sink to the bottom. Thankfully I panned a pretty decent haul, worth (I later found out) about 10 cents.
Inconnu Lodge & McEvoy Lake
Inconnu Lodge and McEvoy Lake was, for me, the absolute highlight of the trip. With virgin landscapes and crystal lakes as far as the eye can see, the Yukon feels like one of the truly pristine and unspoilt areas left on earth. At Inconnu Lodge, situated on the edge of McEvoy Lake, you really get a sense of the magic and the remoteness of the great outdoors. Located 180 miles east of Whitehorse and only accessible by a small plane, it is quite possible that you will be the only person for hundreds of square miles. While hiking you could be standing where no one has ever stood before.
We enjoyed a leisurely afternoon soaking up our surroundings overlooking the extensive lake, and late in the evening, we ventured out beyond the warmth of our cabins to try and spot the infamous Northern Lights. As we stood in the clear and still night under the bright moon glow, a mystical glimmer appeared and gradually became more prominent before the elusive enigma faded. It was a once in a lifetime moment to witness the Northern Lights in such a fantastic location.
During our short stay we were also treated to a morning of heli-hiking on one of the nearby mountains (there are a few to choose from). As we soared into the sapphire sky, it crossed my mind that although I am far away from being a millionaire, there are times when I can live like one (the well timed glass of wine at the top from our guide definitely helped!). Once we reached the peak, the views which presented themselves were outstanding. With unblemished skies and a light dusting of snow on the mountain peaks as far as the eye could see, it really struck me just how far away we were from anywhere.