Canada’s Yukon Territory truly is a tale of two stories.
Rugged, remote and far from everything, you find the territory’s capital city Whitehorse, with all your domestic needs and city wants. The people you meet are either locals who have always lived there or adventure seekers tackling the final frontier, and the weather changes from a brief warm, sunny summer with never ending sunlight to cold, dark winter days with little sunlight and regular temperatures below -40.
Our friend from the Yukon recently visited and said it was snowing when she left Whitehorse that morning. This was early April. The weather here in Vancouver had finally turned on the long, warm, blue sky days that adds to the city’s charm, and it got me thinking about how glad I was winter was now over, and about our long weekend in the Yukon last December.
It’s unfair to compare the seasons in this part of Canada because both summer and winter offer such different yet equally amazing experiences.
Whitehorse in summer is all about trail running, bear watching, road tripping, craft beer drinking, mountain biking, rafting, climbing and hiking. A world apart from winter where dog mushing, snowboarding, pond skating and cross-country skiing is just the beginning. Whitehorse and the Yukon are a must for any nature lover and adventure seeker. Here’s why…
A long weekend in the Yukon – Winter edition
We flew to Whitehorse with Air North, landing in a ‘mild’ -8C but not before enjoying the complementary deli plate and famed Air North warm cookie on board. We were picked up by our good friend who just so happened to have a growler of Yukon Brewing’s seasonal Maple Brown Ale in hand… Good friend? Great Friend!
Day 1: Dog Mushing
Something we’ve always wanted to do was go dog mushing and knew there was no better opportunity than a winter trip to Whitehorse. We arranged a half-day (10am-2pm) guide with Up North Adventures (C$200 per adult) at the Sky High Wilderness Ranch on the outskirts of the city.
After a stop along the way at the Airport Chalet for a hearty breakfast and to watch as the sun tried to rise above the horizon a little after 9am, we arrived at Sky High, checked-in with the very awesome Joslyn, met our guide Marine, signed wavers, got fitted with our special boots and were off to meet the dogs.
The next three-and-a-half hours were something else.
We each had our own sled with four dogs, and I can honestly say, these dogs love nothing more than to just run. Their power is amazing.
Even spending such a short amount of time with these dogs, traversing seemingly untouched terrain and them doing what comes naturally to them, is quite an intimate experience. You really get a feel for each dog’s personality, and something about it naturally gives you the urge to name them.
We spent a lot of time in the early stages braking, learning about the sled and the dogs, and trying to keep distance from the sled in front as you navigate a track through the surrounding snow covered forests.
Then the confidence starts to grow, the track opens up and you’re now standing there comfortably, foot off the brake, four extremely happy dogs running forward in uninterrupted, freedom. It’s a surreal feeling.
Despite approaching -10C in the middle of the day, it was warm for this time of year and there was less snow than usual, so we missed out on sledding across the local frozen lake (our favourite Fish Lake none-the-less). But it didn’t really matter.
Clear blue skies, sunshine, a frozen rainbow and, despite a few slower moments, sharp turns, running up hills next to the sled and a couple of stacks, you couldn’t take the smiles off any of our faces.
This moment, and the other three hours (and 20 miles) traversing Canada’s great white north, will take a long time to forget.
I can only image what it would be like to run with 12-16 dogs – the power and the freedom… the Yukon Quest? Yeah no…
We finished our run and fed our dogs. We eventually found out our dogs were named China Girl, Roas, Highway and Tarzan, and Ella, Crosby, Sid and Gommer.
What was really interesting was how similar yet so different every dog was. Some were big and powerful, some small and powerful, some were natural leaders while some happily followed, some had big personalities, some quiet, some happiest following while others enjoyed being alone. They all had their own personality, and they were all amazing.
The tour now finished, we headed up to Sky High’s yurt for coffee and snacks and a sit in front of a warm fireplace.
The rest of the day was a lot more relaxing with a few beers at the Town & Mountain hotel bar before dinner at a mate’s place and then out to watch a local ice-hockey game featuring one of our friend’s colleagues. A keen skater and talented defender, right on queue he got into a scuffle. He clearly lost the fight, but his team won the game.
Day 2: Snowboarding at Mt Sima and the Takhini Hot Pools
Today’s late sun rise paved the way for another beautifully clear day as we arrived at the base of Mt Sima, 10 minutes-drive out of Whitehorse.
A small mountain with a mix of intermediate and advanced runs, this was the first time we’ve snowboarded since our French Alps Christmas trip to Val Thorens in 2011.
The size and length of runs, hours of operation (open 10am-3pm Friday-Sunday), cost of gear ($38 each) and lift passes ($44 each) weren’t important to us. The fact we could go snowboarding again at all, was awesome.
A slow first run turned into one of our best days snowboarding yet. Add the beautiful scenery overlooking greater Whitehorse, sunshine, clearing skies and the fact we remembered how to snowboard, before being joined by our friend for a few hours, only added to the experience.
Our last run was just before 3pm and we packed up, returned our gear and went for a beer and nachos-for-two at The Deck in the Coastal Hotel. Decent!
That night we found ourselves at a friend’s family’s pot-luck dinner before swimming in the Takhini Hot Pools ($12.50 each).
It’s definitely an interesting experience when 36C water feels cold while 42C is just right. Then you feel your hair starting to freeze and ice-over. We were only there for 40 minutes, but after dog sledding and snowboarding it was a great way to unwind, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to be half naked (and comfortable) in -10C.
Day 3: The drive to Dawson for a Sourtoe Cocktail
It might sound a little crazy, driving seven hours on snowy and partially icy roads in the middle of nowhere to go to a small town for dinner and drinks, but we’re a little crazy that way, and it was fun.
The drive was beautiful. Uninterrupted forests blanketed in white frosting, rivers and lakes frozen, and high-noon barely rising above the horizon. The drive is long, but off we went, arriving in Dawson City from Whitehorse in complete darkness at 4.30pm.
Already -18C when we arrived (our coldest temps yet), a walk around the town was followed by a couple of beers at the Westminster Hotel saloon with its old tables and wonky floors. We proceeded onto the best food in Dawson, The Drunken Goat. Get anything and everything with lamb. The plates are big, the lamb chops, amazing.
It was now time for the whole reason behind going to Dawson City, a SourToe cocktail. We headed into the quiet Downtown Hotel for a beer while our friends went for a walk. A couple of beers later and, upon their return, we got the toe.
You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.
As it turns out a lot of people have done this since 1973, apparently well over 100,000 including at least one person eating the toe when the fine was just $500 (it’s now $2,500).
Kept in its own special chest on a bed of salt, our toe was that of a lady from Edmonton whose toe couldn’t be reattached after it was chopped off by her lawnmower.
So our awesome barkeep got the leathery old toe out, with its nail still very well attached, and told us what we needed to do.
‘You can choose any type of spirit, as long as its 40% or above, otherwise the toe will start to re-hydrate.’
We asked what the normal spirits were and because it’s already on a bed of salt, she said most people chose tequila.
I had hoped for something more local and/or whisky, so she pulled out a bottle of Yukon Jack Whisky Liqueur. That’ll do.
The shot is poured, the leathery old dead toe goes in, you shot, the toe touches your lips (its actually harder to swallow the toe than you think), and just when you think its all over, our good friend the barkeep grabs the toe, squeezes all the whisky out of it (including a few black floaters now in the glass), and you have to finish it.
A little more squeamish now, but done. We did it. We had to! We even got a certificate.
Another beer and I think we were all happy.
Day 4: Pond Hockey
Up early and back on the road, we drove the seven hours back to Whitehorse in time for a pond skating and hockey session.
Ice-skating on a frozen lake was another of our bucket list items. We’re really bad skaters, but it was awesome, and playing around with hockey sticks and a puck was an added bonus.
We went to a relatively hidden place called Jackson Lake, a large frozen lake near Fish Lake. We shoveled and scrapped off the snow and started skating around.
Not all that long after we started, our toes started to freeze (which was a little ironic, having just had a shot with a human toe the night before), and it was also getting dark so we called it a day.
Dinner at the Ridge Grill, and we had a quiet night in.
Day 5: Cross/Back country skiing
Something I am not designed to do, is snow ski. I love snowboarding and am comfortable with my level of experience and abilities, I’ve even water skied successfully, but snow skiing, and cross country, or back country, skiing for that matter, is weird and very foreign to me.
If you’ve never done it before, something you may not realise is that you spend most of your time going along flat surfaces and up hills, rather than the classic downhill skiing. Add that to the forward shuffle movements and the carrying of poles to push, it’s not my cup of tea.
But I will try most things, we did it and it was fun. I now understand why people use cross-country skiing as a way to stay fit in the winter, you push, run, shuffle and sweat, a lot. Plus, there’s the beautiful snow-covered-forest scenery.
We hired our gear from Mountain Sports on Main St in downtown Whitehorse ($15 half day hire for skis, boots and poles) and headed to ‘Mt Mac’ to give it a go. Two hours later, a few stacks and the super awkward struggle trying to stand back up after falling over, and we were all happy and knackered.
Lunch and a beer back at The Deck, airport check-in, a beer and the flight back to Vancouver (no warm cookie this time, the cheesecake was good, but inferior to the famous warm Air North cookies), and our long weekend in Yukon was over.
What an unbelievably amazing adventure. Seriously. Sadly the only bucket list item we missed out on again was seeing the northern lights, the weather just wasn’t clear enough, and if there’s one thing you can’t help, it’s the weather.
The Yukon is a two season, two adventure type of place and if it wasn’t for the long and drastically cold winters it would be a dream destination to just go, do, live and be.
How about you? Have you experienced the Great White North in winter? We’d love to hear from you below.