Too extreme. Too crazy. Too expensive. There’s a misconception that Canada’s frozen north is beyond reach. But not all adventures in the Yukon need to be massive, says travel writer Mike MacEacheran.
Somewhere out on the lake, the snowmobile swerves and we’re suddenly on the ice proper: A medley of hard-packed crystals and frost which glimmers in the midwinter sun, hiding a murky abyss below. It is on this water, hunched on upturned bait buckets, that we’ll catch our lunch. Or soon we’ll go hungry.
“The trick with ice fishing is to stay warm and keep your lure moving,” says ice fishing pro Patrick Beille, jigging his line and peering into the auger-cut ice hole. “The cold water means the lake char (a type of Arctic fish) slow down in winter, making them harder to catch. And I should know: Sometimes it’s taken me three days to get one.”
It’s chilly out on the ice, by any measure. With the mercury hovering around -20°Celsius (-4° Fahrenheit) on Caribou Lake, a natural rink south of territorial capital Whitehorse, we’re dressed head-to-toe in padded jackets and trousers. On our feet are thick, insulated boots suitable for nothing less than moon walking. Gloves are doubled up, so too are neck-warmers and thermal undies. Below us, land and ice mix like watercolor.
Come to the Yukon during winter and you’d better be prepared. Scythed in two by the Arctic Circle, the territory vanishes under snowfall in winter as if by magic. You’ll experience ghostly spruce forests covered by flurries of powder and lakes glazed over with ice thick enough to support a convoy of cargo trucks.
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The annual thaw from Whitehorse to Dawson City means much of the Yukon is only accessible by road during the summer but in winter, temperatures parachute below zero—meaning the best adventures are to be had when the lakes freeze over and forests become highways. Be it by dog sled, snowmobile or snowshoe, this unbelievable landscape is unbeatable as a backdrop for easily-manageable micro-adventures, especially when you realize you’re off-road, and well beyond the reach of Google Maps.
To grasp the sheer scale of Canada’s frozen north, a first-timer’s best introduction is to dip a toe in at the deep end, 90 minutes north of Whitehorse in Kluane National Park.
This is North America at its wildest and most unfiltered; a place to step back and gawp at the sheer power of nature.
Here, mountain summits crowd-out the horizon while meandering valleys filled with ribbed glaciers create the world’s largest non-polar ice fields. Permits are required to overnight in the park—and for good reason. Because near where its northernmost border fades to blank, there’s a feature few other national parks can match: The all-encompassing otherness of the Arctic.
One man who is used to taming Kluane is Daniel Clunies-Ros—a guide, pilot, mechanic, radio operator and grizzly bear-spotter who, ever since his father first took him up in a six-seater Cessna as a teenager, has called the park his back yard. All is usually quiet in the tiny village of Haines Junction, a single strip of cabins and motels, tucked between empty Kathleen Lake and empty sky—until, that is, the Rocking Star pilot buzzes off from the landing strip to fly magnetic west.
“The glacier ahead is 17 kilometers [10 miles] wide, if you can believe it!” he says, swooping low over a leviathan-sized floe. More appear, named after Victorian explorers—Fisher, Lowell, Hubbard, Ritchie, Seward, Tweedsmuir—while others are more unfathomable, as if created by some mischievous god to keep adventurers out. “That’s Kaskawulsh and it flushes water into both the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. Pretty cool, huh?” This is North America at its wildest and most unfiltered; a place to step back and gawp at the sheer power of nature.
Driving south, further “pretty cool” micro-adventures await. Bordering Whitehorse, the single high-speed chairlift at Mount Sima creates a Xanadu for mountain bikers and paragliders in summer.
But in the frozen depths of winter, the glades are recast as a Narnia for backcountry skiers and tourers. The seasons really matter here, nowhere more so than in the surrounding lakes and camp grounds, used as nightly backdrops for Arctic aurora-chasers who linger until 2am on shorelines thick with anticipation, hoary crust and trembling aspen.
We continue deep into the Yukon’s southern belt, where it’s still the era of the Klondike Gold Rush every day of the week. At a crook on Bennett Lake, gold-panners first crossed the Coast Mountains on the notoriously dangerous Chilkoot Trail, a high-altitude trade route, before floating down the Yukon River to the goldfields of Dawson City on makeshift rafts. This was around the 1890s, and the stories of the dispatchers, stampeders and outdoorsmen who came to find their fortune still linger.
Dubbed the world’s smallest desert and formed during the Ice Age, the Carcross Desert is only one square mile and 600 meters (less than half a mile) across.
Another reminder is the tracks of the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, snow-dusted and still, for now, yet a hive of tourist activity in summer. In the nearby town of Carcross, a portmanteau of ‘caribou crossing’ and home to the Tlingit and Tagish First Nation peoples, all that remains of the gold-seeking legacy are relics of the past. Rusted picks and shovels decorate the Sourdough Bakery. Trappers cabins are adorned with moose antlers and corroded steel pans.
The amphitheater of mountains that cradle the town marks the point where the dunes of the Carcross Desert begin. Dubbed the world’s smallest desert and formed during the Ice Age when glacial lakes deposited silt north of Carcross, it is only one square mile and 600 meters (less than half a mile) across. Here, have-a-go adventurers sandboard in summer and snowboard in winter, while wildlife spotters come for caribou, elk and lynx, who lurk in the shadows of the surrounding lupine forest.
Snowshoeing across the desert takes an hour and by the time we make it to the top of its undulating dunes interlaced by fractured cracks of sand, we are alone, yet bewildered; an odd confusion of Wilfred Thesiger desert scout and Ernest Shackleton polar explorer. Beneath the midday sun, we stand in awe of this little sliver of record-breaking frozen desert yet caught in shadow from the cloud-covered mountains bearing down on us.
Like snowshoeing, dog sledding has been a lifeline in the Yukon since pre-colonial times, an essential ingredient in any northern adventure and punctuated by scenes that readers of Jack London’s Call of the Wild would instantly recognize.
This is certainly the case at 100 kilometer-long (62 miles) Tagish Lake at the Southern Lakes Resort, where winter-tuned huskies and hounds bark and bay, while tethered ahead of their daily run. They pause between howls, eager for attention from Vincent Galliard, the dog musher who heads-up their 12-strong team. Here and there, the dogs caper and jump, but soon they fall in line, ready for the off and spearheaded by the two most muscular pups.
Far from an ordinary afternoon, we lurch through forests of fir and fireweed, the mountains silhouetted against overcast skies and a white-on-white background. From the back of the sled, stood astride two metal runners, Vincent’s back is doubled-over as if handicapped from the weight of falling snow, and he holds tight, yelling commands at speed: “Gee” to turn right. “Haw” to veer left, preventing a collision with a thick copse of pine. Between the trees, the sled jettisons out onto a frozen lake before making the journey back to the lodge. It is just in time. Darkness is falling and the temperatures will soon hit -30° Celsius (-22° Fahrenheit). It’s not a night for accidents.
Man and dog vs. Mother Nature. It’s a scene that seems entirely unnatural in the modern age, yet one that epitomizes the timeless appeal of Canada’s last frontier. And that’s where the Yukon’s real magic comes in. It’s where sleds and snowshoes triumph, where impossible-sounding deserts exist side-by-side with unfathomable icefields, and where even the smallest thrill can turn into the adventure of a lifetime.
Find out more about this intriguing region of Canada.