In these times of overtourism, madcap presidents, addictive gadgets, always-on working weeks, and never-ending news cycles, there are at least a few places left that allow us to experience different models for living. The Yukon is one such place, finds Oliver Pelling.
It’s not that I’m against the idea of eating porcupine. It’s more that this particular porcupine has been hunted, butchered and cooked by a 14-year-old I met only yesterday.
The kid, Arthur, had to abandon the first porcupine he tried to cook this afternoon because he accidentally popped its bladder when he butchered it—a mistake that left the poor sucker marinading in its own urine for two days. “It was just no good,” Arthur explained to me, delicately.
So it’s a question of Arthur’s culinary prowess, more than anything. I trust his hunting prowess resolutely.
In fact, Arthur, who would like to be a fur trapper when he grows up—still a viable career choice in the Yukon—is already about as capable an outdoorsman as you’re likely to meet. But is he more of a chef? Well …
“Do you want a piece?” asks Arthur, again.
“Maybe in a little while,” I lie, firmly. Arthur walks over to my dad.
“Do you wanna try it?” he asks, shoving a pile of blackened porcupine flesh under my 73-year-old father’s nose.
“Sure,” says dad.
I’ve never thought of my dad as the gastronomically-brave type. Yet here he is, in the middle of the Yukon, masticating a rodent. Emboldened by his ‘whatever’ attitude, I try a piece too. It’s surprisingly pleasant—a bit like steak. But mostly not.
At the risk of over-simplifying things, there’s quite a lot of mad stuff happening in the world right now. But from this vantage point, deep in Canada’s Yukon Territory, you wouldn’t know it. All that’s happening here is a few mountains, the fire pit, the crackle of embers, the near-silence, a cool breeze, the swaying of branches, and the odd swig of beer. Nothing mad about it.
These conversations might be a far cry from your typical family chit-chat but this is what life is like in the Yukon. These people haven’t forgotten how to live with nature.
While European settlement in the Yukon is fairly recent, the territory has been home to six principle indigenous tribes—the Kutchin, Hän, Kaska, Tagish, Tutchone and Teslin—for centuries. It was during the Klondike Gold Rush, a three-year period between 1896 and 1899 that promised prospectors great wealth in exchange for hard times, that the population briefly climbed to over 100,000.
The land was exploited with little regard for the indigenous population or the environment that sustained them for so long. As well as bringing new diseases with them, the Europeans also claimed land, introduced foreign ways of governance, and drastically reduced the populations of moose, caribou and other game—all of which had an impact on the indigenous people who today, make up around 25 per cent of the Yukon’s total population.
When I told dad about a work trip I had planned for the Yukon, we thought it might be a good opportunity for some once-in-a-moonshot father-son time. I grew up in England, but followed my partner to Melbourne nine years ago. She and I now have a young daughter and another on the way, so opportunities to spend time with dad, or the rest of my family, are limited.
We are driving the Golden Circle: A loop from Whitehorse back to Whitehorse, navigating a lump of southern Yukon and a small slice of Alaska. Neither of us really knew what to expect—we certainly didn’t expect Arthur.
Arthur is friends with Sam, and Sam—another pint-sized John Muir-type—is the son of Roxanne and Dave Mason, who run Mount Logan Lodge in Haines Junction, where dad and I are staying for a couple of days.
Earlier, Roxanne and Dave (she, originally from Quebec and he, originally from Birmingham, in the UK), were arguing about how far away a particular mountain is. Then they were telling us about a new ice cave they found. Then 14-year-old Sam nonchalantly asked if he could borrow his dad’s knife. “Which one?” replied Dave, between mouthfuls of home-cooked curried goat.
These conversations might be a far cry from your typical family chit-chat but this, dad and I are learning, is what life is like in the Yukon, Canada’s sparsely populated (40,483 people—or 0.08 people per square kilometer) north-western territory. These people haven’t forgotten how to live with nature. Or maybe moving to the Yukon has just helped them remember.
“You go to Banff or Jasper, there’s trash all over the tourist trails. We don’t do that here. Our national parks are clean.”
Our species’ primordial tango with Mother Nature seems more fluid here—perhaps because there’s more space to move, perhaps because there are no big-city distractions to drown out the music. Probably a bit of both. “People live here because of the nature,” says Dave, an ex-British Army commando engineer. “If you don’t like the great outdoors, the Yukon is hell on earth. If you want malls and shopping, go somewhere else.”
There are supermarkets, electricity, water, gas, Netflix, wi-fi, and smartphones, of course. There’s even a Starbucks or two. Whitehorse (the capital) and Dawson City (the second largest town in the Yukon) are small-ish commercial hubs much like any other, albeit with a little more moose on the menu.
All told, the Yukon’s human presence is more respectful guest than negligent conqueror. Had we kept a few more tabs on population density and ventured a little more to protect our wild places over the past few centuries, you can imagine that other parts of the world might look a little more like this too.
Instead, you can’t help but look around and feel like we swindled ourselves. “You go to Banff or Jasper, there’s trash all over the tourist trails,” says Roxanne, a French-Canadian who had an office job in Montreal before moving out west 25 years ago and eventually buying into the Mount Logan Lodge business with Dave. “We don’t do that here. Our national parks are clean.”
The night after our rodent blowout, Dave takes dad and I on a dusk 4WD expedition into one of those national parks: Kluane, essentially a 22,013-square-kilometer extension of his backyard. Our aim? To find and gaze at some bears and/or moose.
It’s May in the Yukon, and the territory is on the ascent to summer, which means dusk comes late—around 10:30pm. In peak summertime, the sun doesn’t blink at all and the mercury is much more accommodating, resulting in near-24/7 illumination for porcupine pursuits and other such misadventures.
“I’ve never lived anywhere so wild and free. We’re the first people on this trail all year. On that plane tomorrow, you won’t see any signs of human life for 300 kilometers.”
Kluane, home to Mount Logan—Canada’s tallest peak—is as wild as wilderness gets; what hyperbole was invented for. It’s four times bigger than Banff National Park, 100 per cent less inhabited, and home to the largest non-polar icefields on earth. There’s nothing human here; the whole thing a gigantic footprint left by Mother Nature, unspoiled by Father Time, unsullied by Lady Tourism.
We spot one bear during our drive into Kluane. It’s a long way off but no less impressive—a slinking, savage silhouette illuminated by the near-midnight sun.
During our week of driving, dad and I have already seen seven bears (yes, we’re counting) much closer than this one, but it’s still a surreal sight. Dad named the first one we came across ‘Doris’. Not many grizzlies on the mean streets of Lewes, southern England, where he grew up.
“I’ve never lived anywhere so wild and free,” says Dave as we drive back to the lodge. “We’re the first people on this trail all year. You can tell … the ice has only just melted and there are no other tracks. You know, when you’re on that plane tomorrow, you won’t see any signs of human life for 300 kilometers.”
The Yukon is still seen as being ‘out there’ and, in many ways, it is. Especially in winter. But there is also an increasingly short supply of destinations that offer explorative types so much, with zero of the usual headaches (overcrowding, trash, selfie sticks) that naturally spectacular places can so easily suffer.
Many of those who live here—and the Yukon has one of the fastest-growing populations in Canada—came to escape. “The Yukon is wild, still,” says Roxanne the following morning. “It’s a big playground. There’s still so much undiscovered land. It might be undeveloped in some ways because of a lack of people, but the quality of living up here is spectacular.”
“It’s been really nice, actually. Probably one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
“I think people are scared that we live in igloos,” laughs Dave. “People always ask, ‘How do you make a living up here? How do people exist?’ They say it as if it’s some sort of really hard thing to do. But the standard of living and quality of life here is really high.”
Just as Dave predicted, we see no signs of human life during our flight over the ice fields of Kluane National Park. Our plane, a four-seater Cessna, is little more than a sardine tin with ambition. The white of the ice fields is so pure that I lose all sense of perspective—we could be 20 feet above ground or 2,000, and I’d have no idea. Weird feeling, that.
With Kluane’s surreal extremities burned into our retinas, we return to our vehicle and our land-based mediocrity. Except the Yukon doesn’t really do mediocre, not even on land.
Over the course of the week, the old man and I have navigated a 650-kilometer as-yet-unfinished loop from Whitehorse, through to Carcross, into Skagway, then Haines, up to Haines Junction and, soon, back into Whitehorse.
Beyond the comfort of our hire car, we have fished, canoed, hiked, flown, eaten and generally tried to explore this place in as many ways as possible. The views have been eye-bleedingly pristine for the duration, and served as a reminder that nature will always be bigger than us, and that it will always win (even if it has to evict our species, terrible tenants that we are, in order to do so).
There is also, for now, hardly anyone else to share it all with.
The people we’ve met along the way know they have it good—and despite many of them relying on tourism for their livelihoods, even they admit that they don’t want it to change too much. There’s a balance to be struck: Just enough tourism to keep business ticking along year-round, not so much that it wrecks the place. “There are many places around the world where you can go kayaking, and go to the mountains,” says Roxanne. “But here, you can do those things, and you won’t see anyone.”
The Yukon is almost a model for what life could be like if we all bought in to that rewilding malarkey, built sustainability into our everyday lives, spread out, turned off the wi-fi and spent a bit more time outside. I ask dad what he thinks of the time he’s spent here. “It’s been really nice, actually,” he says. “Probably one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
More than just a destination, the Yukon is an ideal. One you can visit, learn from, and lean on whenever the lunacy of 21st-century life gets a little too much to bear.
And if that doesn’t quite cut it, you could always move here. Dave reckons there are more jobs than there are people and, if you ask nicely, Arthur might just give you a lesson in the art of porcupine warfare.
The writer traveled as a guest of Destination Canada and Travel Yukon. The flight over Kluane was provided by Kluane Glacier Air Tours, and Roxanne and Dave Mason are very much open for business at Mount Logan Lodge, year-round.