It’s not easy getting to this town of ~700 people, and yet so many people do it. Like in Nunavut, a stone’s throw away, there are no roads to Churchill. However, there’s a train… and it plods. Moving at a snail’s pace, it’s 45 hours from Winnipeg, or “just” 18 hours from Thompson (itself only a 6 hour drive from Winnipeg).
We met people from far and wide who took this option, both domestic and international travellers. Even an elderly Chinese couple from Calgary, for instance, driving 15 hours (sleeping two nights in their car) to Thompson, a city with a notoriously sketchy reputation, and taking the train up. Nobody had any good things to say about the ride, beyond the money they saved. For us though? Again, like Nunavut: airline points. Two hours in an otherwise extremely overpriced flight from Winnipeg. Between 2017 and 2019, that was actually the only option, when floods wrecked the train tracks and repairs were delayed.
It’s really a wonder how this community survives. Of course, there’s one big draw: polar bears.
Kluane, Yukon / Tatshenshini-Alsek, British Columbia
About two hours west of Whitehorse is Haines Junction, the gateway to the St. Elias mountains, the world’s highest coastal mountain range. The whole chain is divided into four parks: Kluane (Yukon), Tatshenshini-Alsek (BC), and Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay (both in Alaska), all of which combined form a UNESCO world heritage site. The Himalayas of North America, so to speak, minus the fame — I admit I hadn’t even heard of this place until this trip.
The tallest mountain in Canada is Mount Logan (a whopping 5250m), deep inside Kluane National Park and Reserve. Without a helicopter or any serious mountaineering chops though, it’s neither accessible nor visible. But does it matter? Just look at this landscape! Continue reading
Dawson City, Yukon
The city of Townsville! The Town of the City of Dawson! Dawson City may no longer be an actual city, with well under 2000 people remaining, but in 1898, it may as well have been the centre of the world. In just a few walkable city blocks, 40,000 prospectors from around the world crowded into what was once a First Nations settlement, transforming it with newfound riches into a place to see and be seen.
It’s not hard to imagine. Strip out the cars from the dirt roads. Un-collapse a few buildings falling apart from being built directly on the permafrost. Slightly straighten the walls of some hundred-year-old buildings. Picture everyone dressed like a costumed Parks Canada employee, and multiply the population by a few hundred to account for the covid visitor numbers. To make those sepia photos all over town come to life, I don’t even need to close my eyes to do it.
The endless stories associated with this place are the stuff of legends. The crazy thing is that Dawson continues to thrive and continues to be stranger than fiction.
Dempster Highway / Tombstone, Yukon
The Dempster Highway has a formidable reputation. With the 2017 road extension from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, it’s Canada’s only road to the Arctic Ocean. Chewer of tires and chipper of windshields, the road is mud and gravel the whole way, generally the domain of speeding long-haul trucks launching dust and rocks at your tiny inferior metal box. You’re in the middle of nowhere most of the time, just you and the tundra as far as the eye can see, and assistance isn’t readily available should you run into some trouble.
To Yukoners, that’s basically another road. To the ignorant city-dwelling southerner that I am, I picture vast, barren expanses of snow and ice, bears chasing you from any direction you’re out in the open, and endless calls with car insurance for the 15 dings on my rental vehicle despite driving nervously at 30 km/h for hundreds of kilometres. An adventure — one which won’t lead to the Arctic Ocean this year due to covid closing the NWT border to non-resident travel, but a beautiful adventure nonetheless.
So imagine my surprise when it turns out everything is the exact opposite of what I picture. Except for the beautiful part. That part wasn’t a surprise.
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!
Nunavut is the size of Western Europe or all of Mexico, comprising 20% of Canada’s landmass. A statistic like this would typically suggest millions of people, heavy attention on the world stage, and significant development.
But we’re not talking typical here. There are no roads into Nunavut, nor are there roads between any of the 25 communities that make up its town-like population of 35,000 (<0.1% of Canada). Majority Inuit, proudly part of Canada yet largely disconnected from the national conversation, it feels like a different country. Maybe even a different planet: the landscape looks like Mars. No amount of Canadian flags, Tim Hortons, or TVs playing “southern” content can change that. Up here, people pay attention to what’s going on down south, but I can’t say that many of us down south do the same for the north. I found myself needing constant reminders that I hadn’t left the country, even with the words “us foreigners” once slipping out of my mouth. It’s hard to absorb how drastically different Canada can be from coast to coast to coast.
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
It’s a lonely, loud propeller plane ride from southern Canada up to Yellowknife. The cities disappear, the Rockies, the roads, the farms and plains of Alberta, and then… no signs of civilisation. You see the familiar Canadian Shield out of the window: bedrock, bogs, short trees, and a million lakes. Like a random map generator, it’s endless permutations of taiga (or boreal forest if you prefer). Then all of a sudden, Yellowknife.
Despite being so far west, in terms of travelling east, Yellowknife is basically it. It’s the easternmost territorial city connected by road to the rest of Canada. (Never mind the fact that across Canada’s three territories, only their capitals are cities, and they’re all pretty small! Yellowknife’s just under 20,000 people, containing roughly half of NWT’s population.) Other tiny settlements east are accessible by ice road in the winter, but the summer? Good luck with that.
So let’s stock up and head east! Wait, whaa?