On a journey through a landscape of untouched splendour and cultural richness, Michael Cowton discovers that the possibilities are only limited by one’s imagination
I travelled to the Yukon with a certain level of expectation, only to find that someone had raised the bar. Perhaps I had not been real before I came here. Perhaps I had been living my life in a bubble. More than that, here in the Yukon I am in a dream world – no, living a dream – somehow transported into the centre of a masterpiece. I close my eyes – not for too long, just in case the bubble bursts – and breathe in the pure, crisp air. With the spruce sap and earthy scent of tundra ever-present, I open my eyes and drink in unimaginably stunning landscapes.
I have encountered pristine wilderness before. Across the Mackenzie Mountains in Canada’s Northwest Territories; amidst the plains of Africa; high in Arctic Lapland in the dead of winter, with only my sled dogs and the howl of wolves for company. I cannot, however, recall ever being so emotionally charged as I am here. Somehow the Yukon has pulled me into its heart and kept me there. A prisoner, it would seem, with a life sentence.
As one of North America’s major wilderness attractions, with close to eighty per cent remaining pristine landscape, the Yukon is emblazoned with a rich tapestry of soaring snow-capped peaks, boreal forests, sweeping tundra, glacier-fed rivers and rugged coastline. Much of the wilderness is protected by a network of three national parks, six territorial parks and four Canadian Heritage Rivers, making up the largest eco-region in the world.
Tourism is the number one industry, and with the Territory larger than the State of California, there is plenty of space to lose sight of the visitors in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps all the more reason for staying over, then. If you do, be aware that in Whitehorse, the capital, there are only a thousand beds. You can go to a big city and find that in a single hotel.
Tourists that do their research are in the main, sensitive to the environment.
Outfitters such as Nature Tours of Yukon actively encourage ‘Leave No Trace’ camping, an international programme promoting the responsible use of wild lands. According to owner Joost van der Putten: “People are looking to have more high-end trips, not in terms of sophistication, but more along the lines of soft adventure. They are expecting a decent meal, and a comfortable sleeping bag and pad, and combining that with the best environmental practices. Having said that, I often have the impression that people do not know what they can and may expect in a wilderness such as the Yukon offers, and therefore sometimes think more in terms of a safari park. They expect to see a bear around the corner, simply because there are a lot of bears in the Yukon. If there is no bear, then occasionally the expectation does not always achieve the same level as the experience. However, if you take the time, you know how to travel and you know how to spot wildlife, you can expect to see quite a number of animals. As long as you respect nature, it will respect you.
“I understand that you cannot do without economic development. The world is changing. The best way you can deal with that is in a sustainable way, and the Yukon Territory with its unspoiled nature is the perfect destination for anyone who likes to explore the uninhabited wilderness from within. That is the wonderful thing about experiencing the Yukon. People realise what eco-tourism is all about whenever they embark on a multi-day trip; that they are part of the moment, just like the animals and trees. The possibilities are only limited by one’s imagination.”
With a plethora of national and territorial parks to enjoy all those larger-than-life vistas and wildlife watching opportunities, invigorating outdoor experiences are certainly plentiful, even from your back door in Whitehorse, where you need to travel only three blocks out of town and you are into wilderness. You can wander down to the waterfront and discover many ways to enjoy the river by raft, canoe or tour boat. My first awe-inspiring site of the Yukon River was from a viewing point overlooking Miles Canyon, a brief drive out of town. In the Athapaskan language, the word Yukon means the ‘great river’ or ‘big river’. At 2,300 miles, it is the fourth longest river in North America, the fifth largest in water flow, and the last major river on the continent to be explored in the 1800s.
Head upriver, and you eventually reach Dawson City and goldrush territory. Here, in the warmth of a northern summer evening, I ambled past mud-strewn, battered pick-ups to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling hall… and into the twilight zone. I caught the midnight show complete with Can-Can girls dancing to tunes belted out by two musicians on an upright piano and drumkit. Locals nonchalantly tossed colourful dollar chips on to gambling tables as they knocked back pints of Alaska Gold beer. I was tempted to drop my bag of gold on to the table, but it might have caused mayhem. Earlier that afternoon I had visited Rabbit Creek, now known as Bonanza Creek, where the Klondike Gold Rush began. A half-mile upstream at gold claim No.6, which is owned by the Klondike Visitors Association, I panned for gold, and stored a few tiny specs in a glass vial filled with water and duly corked for good measure. Later, I was tempted to visit the mining recorders office to stake a claim on any vacant section of creek-side gold bearing ground, until I learned that huge corporations had bought up the rights to the Klondike years ago. There is still ground open for staking, but you are going to have to travel an awfully long way with your mule and backpacks to locate any pockets of land worthy of the $10 annual registration fee.
At first I found it hard to come to terms with the fact that a once pristine wilderness like the Klondike had had its heart steadily ripped out by greed. But then I realised that Dawson City is there purely because of mining, and much of the surrounding wilderness is accessed via the infrastructure originally put in place by the mining and exploration industry. And whilst Dawson needs to ensure that the industry remains because it provides the city with the economy that it needs to exist, there are lots of ways that sustainable tourism and environmentally friendly development can happen.
It did not take me long to realise that Dawson is a living, breathing community; a small town of 1,800 people who are proud of what they have and who want to share it with the rest of the world – to a point. The last thing the city needs is to overload the system via tourism.
I left Dawson reflecting on the frontiers folk of a century ago who, through rugged individualism and sheer determination, had become the stuff of legend. I left with a deeper understanding of the physical and mental challenges they had faced, challenges that still exist today in the Yukon, albeit with modern gear and expert guides to ease the load. And finally, I left a land where human history is dwarfed by the history of the land itself, and whilst it is not quite at the end of the world, you can certainly see the end of the world from here
Time: 8 hours behind GMT
International dialling code: 001
Money: Canadian dollar
Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) fly from Heathrow to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, from where you can get a connection to Whitehorse
WHEN TO GO
The Yukon is a year-round destination. Northern summers are sunny and warm, but the weather can be unpredictable, especially in mountain regions. Northern winters are cold, and require insulated clothing
Hotels, guesthouses and other services are widely available year-round. Campgrounds normally open from mid May and close by October
Bed @ Breakfast Association – www.yukonbandb.org
Yukon accommodation and campgrounds – www.travelyukon.com/yukonaccommodations