Country mile

Whitehorse / Klondike Highway, Yukon

I don’t need to tell you that the world’s a mess right now. It feels exceedingly lucky to have a break from it all.

Yukon is the smallest of Canada’s three sparsely-populated northern territories, all of which have emerged virtually unscathed by the pandemic with no remaining active cases and a grand total of 20, having closed their borders to the rest of Canada, which itself has mostly closed its borders to the world. With smaller healthcare systems responsible for residents scattered across vast and remote areas, it’s understandable — Whitehorse is the north’s largest (and Yukon’s only) city, with 25,000 people.

But the prolonged closures have taken a heavy toll in other regards, as the north does depend economically on the south. Enter the pandemic bubble: Yukon has opened itself to other territory residents and British Columbians without imposing a quarantine requirement. No other provinces or countries. And that means… No other tourists. Height of the tourist season, and basically no people. Talk to any business, and they’re dealing with a brutal year. Talk to the visitor centres around the territory, and visitor numbers are down roughly 95%. Well, all the more physical distance for us, I guess… though it seems like every other tourist we see is also from Vancouver!

Despite its relatively small population, Whitehorse feels positively bustling. Aside from the great MacBride Museum about the territory’s indigenous cultures and modern history heavy on the Klondike Gold Rush (more on that another day), the downtown core doesn’t have much to entertain the tourist aside from a lovely setting and a pretty great variety of food and beer. It’s a great place to base yourself or decompress. The most interesting stuff though? Driving distance. I’m joined on this trip by my friends Devin (our primary planner!), Yumi, and Daniele, and we really put some mileage on our rental car.

Before we even got to seeing things in the city though, we left the Yukon. Heh.

Taking the Klondike Highway south, not far past the pretty roadside Emerald Lake is Carcross and its namesake desert. Called “the smallest desert in the world” and looking the part, it’s…actually a glacial lakebed. Plus, it rains all the time, as we could personally attest to! We took forever climbing up the big dune, and watched an SUV do donuts and drive up it as we went down, pondering briefly why we didn’t think to do that ourselves.

After a brief stop in Carcross proper, we drove back into British Columbia (“Well, that was a short trip!”) on the way to the Alaska border. Unfortunately, we couldn’t cross the border, but we did pass through some pretty weird landscapes and some deep fog. The Klondike Highway here extends to Skagway, Alaska, parallel to the Chilkoot Trail — over a hundred years ago, people of all ages and abilities from all over the world took ships to Skagway, carried all their stuff and a year’s supply of food, hiking up the Chilkoot to now-abandoned Bennett, BC, where they could continue north by boat on the Yukon. (The cross-border trail still exists as a 3-5 day hike, closed this year due to covid. There’s also the White Pass train line, also closed this year.) Now? Just load up the SUV and make it to Whitehorse in 2 hours!

Whitehorse itself is also set next to the Yukon River. During the Gold Rush, a lot of those boats wrecked while crossing the White Horse Rapids — so named because of the whitewater looking like manes — in nearby Miles Canyon, and what is now the city of Whitehorse began forming around the stranded prospectors. Those rapids are now conveniently gone, flooded by the city’s dam, but the canyon still remains a very pretty sight. Now, it’s the site of dozens of hiking and skiing trails, leading off to nearby mountains and lakes.

With all the time we’d spent already in nature, whether hiking or driving next to it, you’d think we’d have seen some animals. Well… nope. Thank goodness for the Yukon Wildlife Preserve! Moose, caribou, deer, bison, goats… You name it, they’re all there, each in their own vast, vast field away from others. The foxes and lynxes though? Not as much space.

And it’s conveniently located next to the Takhini Hot Springs too, site of the annual hair-freezing competitions. We’ll take the dip, minus the freezing!

The Klondike Highway doesn’t just go south — of course, it leads to the actual Klondike.  On our way 6 hours north, we made a couple quick stops around Carmacks.  The Tagé Cho Hudän Interpretive Centre is sadly closed due to the pandemic, but outside of it are plenty of traditional caribou hunt-related structures in the nearby forest.  Further down the road is the Five Finger Rapids, which aside from looking like its name, posed another obstacle for steamboats heading down the Yukon River: boats would attach themselves to a cable strung by the rapids, and winch themselves across and against the flow of water.

Destination?  Dawson City, just like the prospectors but minus the lengthy steamboat ride.  But before we get into that, we’ve got a few more days of driving ahead…

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