A trip to the Yukon

I’ve heard about the Yukon since I was young. Probably indirectly through one of the many television shows I watched that romanticized barren wilderness living (yes, I still love Life Below Zero). So, this winter, with international travel off the cards and our holiday plans foiled, my partner and I travelled to the Yukon Territory. We boarded the plane in Vancouver, and two hours later we landed in Whitehorse, Yukon.

I became a little obsessed with the way the morning light made everything, even exhaust fumes, look pretty.
Downtown Whitehorse, Main Street

Day 1: Whitehorse to Haines Junction

We got into our rental Nissan Sentra (of which we were extremely sceptical), which ended up being one of the best cars we’ve ever driven. Heated seats, great gas mileage, and it handled great in the snow! However, when we picked it up, it took about 20 minutes to de ice it (it was frozen solid, inside and out). On day 1 it was a balmy -30 degrees Celcius, and this thing kept us toasty warm. We drove out to Haines Junction and on to Kluane National Park and the beautiful Kathleen Lake.

The mighty Nissan – note the charger dangling out the front. This is to plug into your mains electric to keep your engine block heater on at night during extremely low temperatures.
Kathleen Lake – it was very hard to warm my fingers up again after taking them out of my gloves to take this photo!

We called this ‘ice beach’ as the ice slowly crept towards a lake that wasn’t yet frozen. There were this huge planes of overhanging ice that I became mildly (read: completely) obsessed with. The huge mountain in the background is Mount Worthington. We decided we would have to revisit this lake in the summer!

A trucker stopped in Haines Junction at the one and only pub we could find that was open. Note the passenger: doggo!

We had planned to go for a hike/snowshoe on the Auriol Trail, but there was a hungry grizzly roaming the area – which, in November, means he was probably sick and therefore potentially quite dangerous. So, we just stuck to the first section of wide-open trail, and gave the rest of the hike a miss and instead explored the Kathleen Lake area. On the way back to Whitehorse, we found a pub called Mile 1016 to try a nice tasty IPA in!

Looking out on the Auriol Trail.
The Alaska Highway to Haines Junction
Most of the Alaska Highway wildlife came out at night!

So, time to enjoy our first night out in the big city, Whitehorse. We quickly found our favourite stop, which was the Woodcutter’s Blanket. The other half of it is a Brewery, leading to some confusion, and we weren’t even sure it was open. But a quick phone call to confirm meant we got a reservation (Covid and all) and headed on down to discover an extremely cute, quant cabin-style cocktail bar. They had a great beer selection and the best Espresso Martini I’ve ever had. I may have had a few too many.

Another great spot was the Dirty Northern Bastard Pub. The food here was excellent and portions were pretty generous. Although we didn’t get to experience the usual rowdy atmosphere we had heard about (I’m looking at you, Covid), we had a really nice time and the hockey was on, so it was a pretty successful evening.

Some place we stumbled in rather accidentally was the 98 Hotel. We had seen this place on Google quoted as a ‘rustic, northern pub’, and we thought we’d stick our head in to see what time they opened. We were pretty confused as the buildingfront appeared to be just a hotel. But we thought what the heck, let’s see if we can scope it out for later. There was one man outside, enjoying his morning cigarette in a Carhartt shirt and pants, eyeing us suspiciously and making me acutely aware that I was acting like a lingering, over-curious tourist. We shuffled awkwardly out of the man’s gaze and opened the door to what was, to our complete shock, a crowded bar straight from a Western movie.

Like the bumbling protagonists of a comedy, we bustled through the door, and the cold gust slammed the door shut behind us. As we took in the scene before us, silence fell, and about 30 pairs of northern, weathered eyes laid upon us. This was the local crowd, and the bar a true old-timer’s dive. And they were at capacity at 10am on a Wednesday. When the barman asked us what we’d like, I was embarrassed and in attempt to pivot, asked for a food menu. Maybe we could get breakfast there. ‘No food, no taps’ was the answer – everything was sold in bottles only and there was no food on offer. I was imagining the ‘chicken wire’ scene from The Blues Brothers. ‘Oh, great, maybe we’ll come back later’ I replied, vaguely gesturing to my watch. I love a good dive bar, but it was 10am, and I didn’t want to write off the day just yet. ‘Okay, it starts at 7’, he said, to which Ben and I looked blankly back at him, and then at each other. I was sure the music had been turned down to draw attention to how extra ridiculous we sounded. ‘What does?’ I asked, already mentally kicking myself for not knowing. The barman looked at us like we were from Mars. ‘Fiddle Night’ he said incredulously, scoffing and turning back to the spectators as if to say ‘who are these guys?!’.

So, we didn’t make it to 98 Hotel’s Fiddle Night, we had somewhere to be that day, but it’s on the list for next time. I think we’ll have a couple of whiskeys before we pluck up the courage to walk in there again.

Now we’re on to Day 2, and after a trip to the MacBride Museum (awesome!), and a failed visit to 98 Hotel, we headed out of town to try something really new.

Dog-biking, or Bikejoring as Google told us it was called, was something we went into with no expectations. We ventured over to Muktuk Kennels, about 20 minutes north of Whitehorse. We are both keen mountain bikers, and I have been dog sledding once (not, I should add, very successfully). Once we reached the end of a long, winding and snowy road that appeared to go on forever, we arrived in doggy heaven. Over 100 dogs greeted us in what I can only describe as my own personal paradise. Each one has a name, and it’s own little doghouse. As we got out of the car, the dogs became increasingly excited and started running laps around their homes!

After a brief introduction, and absolutely no advice or safety training, we were paired with our dogs. This isn’t a complaint – we were so excited we didn’t even really consider how it would differ to any other biking. We didn’t have questions – we knew how to ride bikes. Plus we had helmets on, what could go wrong? Our guide told us that they don’t advertise Bikejoring, as they don’t want inexperienced bikers to give it a try, to which we laughed. If we could ride a mountain bike down black diamond rock slabs, we should be fine, right?

Picture this: it’s a perfect day, only -15 or so, and the snow is glistening all around you. And you’re desperately trying to change gear, encumbered by your ridiculous, oversized mitts, whilst trying to maintain a strong hold on two handlebars that are repeatedly lunging forward from the unstoppable force of two husky dogs. Oh, and you are wearing snow boots, with little to no grip on the pedals. But it’s so fun you don’t seem to care.

The first thing I learned was, don’t use your front brake. I ended up panic braking into a corner, and my whole front wheel slid out. The brakes were entirely ineffective against the strength of the dogs. I clung on for dear life, being dragged face down in the snow, all the time laughing so hard my stomach hurt and my face froze. I shouted “woah”, “stop”, “mush”, “noooo” and various other words to try and get these guys to stop, but their determination to drag me along laughing/crying prevailed until we ran into their dad along the trail some hundreds of metres later. So, lesson #1: don’t brake, and if you have to, just feather the back brake (but honestly, that doesn’t really work either). Lesson #2, don’t let go of the handlebars, even if you no longer are in the saddle. And lesson #3 that I learned, was to never perch slightly off-camber from the seat, as when the dogs lunge off, the front end of the saddle will leave you with a very nasty bruise in the butt.

That day ended with a visit to one of the breweries, Polarity Brewing, which had a decent hazy IPA, and later we got picked up by local northern lights expert Khoon Chua to find some aurora. Khoon, originally from Singapore, speaks at least 5 languages and has built an aurora viewing cabin. We got picked up from our guest house and driven 30 minutes north of Whitehorse and settled into the glass-walled cabin which was toasty warm. Within just seconds the northern lights appeared, and I then proceeded to stand outside until 2am taking photos! It was magical. Whenever I got a little too cold, I popped back into the cabin and had a snack and hot drink before resuming my obsessive photo taking! It was my first time shooting northern lights photos and I had a lot of fun. There was a LOT of trial and error, and it was so exciting watching them ripple and dance in front of us and wondering how they would show up on the little LCD screen.

Day 3: finding Alaska. This day we decided to drive as close as possible to Alaska without crossing any official borders. Actually, the original plan was to snowshoe over the border, to sneakily say we’d done it. We stopped in Carcross on the way, which resembled a ghost town but was incredibly cute. We found the post office – which saw a flurry of customers during the couple of hours we were there. We figured the post office attendant must have quite the social life! Mostly we just walked around and imagined what life was like there. We saw people driving down the highway on snowmobiles, ATVs, and the propane man doing laps to deliver propane to the houses that were off-grid. We found one coffee shop that miraculously showed signs of life and bustled in with our masks on to a very warm greeting by a lady we think was German. Awesome coffee and soup!

Carcross houses – the little blue building at the end of the post office.

After purchasing one of everything that was on offer at the tiny coffee shop, on we went, further towards Skagway. The road became increasingly perilous, high mountain passes dropping hundreds of feet into lakes, and snow covered. But the Nissan held her own and once we came out of the blizzard, we started to take in the ‘big mountain’ scenery. It was very cool. After getting a little lost, we finally found the trailhead of the snowshoe/hike we were going to do, and found it totally buried in over a metre of snow. Judging from Gaia, we were about 200m from the Alaskan border. After some ‘umm-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’, we realised how wholly ill-equipped we were for this excursion. We hadn’t expected this much snow. All we had were two pairs of snowshoes and an InReach (our satellite communication device). The nearest town wasn’t for over 100km on the Canadian side, so if one of us did slip down a hole or into a tree well, we weren’t in much of a position to rescue one another. Whitehorse had some snow, but nothing close to this much. To test out the terrain, I stepped off the highway and into the scenery, and promptly sank to my waist. Not today, we decided. So we headed back the way we came, waving goodbye to the big Alaskan spines in the distance. But not before poking the nose of the Nissan into ‘no man’s land’ between the U.S.A. and Canada.

There was a sign informing us that we were leaving Canada, but that the US Border Patrol wasn’t for 12km. We were confused. Considering that if we had officially entered the US and come back into Canada, we would have to quarantine, we pulled a u-turn and headed back to the homeland. And then we had to declare ourselves in Canadian customs, having not actually left Canada. It was all very odd.

We pulled up at Canadian customs, and got out of the car to enter the office. We were promptly told to get right back in our vehicle and got a suitable grilling from the officer who was about as Glaswegian as it gets. For perspective, I’ve included a map below on how far away we were from the U.K., and here we were, two Brits and a Glaswegian discussing why we had a right to be there. This customs office was essentially a white, snowy, barren outpost, close to -20 Celsius, and the customs officer was outside questioning us wearing a t-shirt.

A visual reference of where we were versus Scotland.

After some discussion, we were let through and headed back to Whitehorse, with a stop at Winterlong Brewing, just out of town. I don’t have any photos of this one, but it was our favourite place for a beer! A great beer selection and they let us wait for a table inside (score!). Definitely had a local’s vibe – we wish we had brought some home with us.

On our last full day in the Yukon we went to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, which was awesome. It was a chilly 5km walk through the snow, but we saw so much wildlife that we hadn’t seen on our own adventures. It was extremely cheap – $15 or so – and we spent most of the day there walking around! We saw an incredible variety of wildlife, which made up for the lack of road-side spottings on the trip! We saw Arctic Fox (black, white and red!), Moose, Mountain Goat, Elk, Bison, Caribou and my favourite – the Muskox. This was so worthwhile and we absolutely loved it. It also seems to be the local spot to do some winter biking, jogging, or just taking the kids for a walk.

I was pretty sad to be flying back to Whistler, there’s so much still to see in the Yukon – I feel like we barely scratched the surface. Biking, hiking, skiing – this place has it all, and the scenery is just out of this world. I’ll definitely be back.

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