Into the frozen Yukon Wild
A winter snapshot of Canada's smallest territory
*Editor’s Note: Canadian 0utdoor lifestyle journalist Paul Karchut has traveled the globe in search of the perfect powder stash – from the alps in Japan to the Russian Caucasus to South America’s Andes. Lucky for us, Karchut’s recent adventure took him to Canada’s Yukon – the smallest of our country’s three northern territories. He returned with the following story in hand, a charming tale about a snow-encrusted land made up of perfect peaks, craggy cliffs and sunrises and sunsets that last forever.
“It feels really cold out there” – a voice crackles ominously over the local radio station. My feet instinctively burrow into the heated floors of our kitchen as I steel my mind for stepping into the -35 degree Yukon morning.
My wife Devon and I have headed north to experience the treasure trove of winter adventure that the territory has to offer and damn it if we’re going to let a bit of cold stop us!
The first thing I noticed about the Yukon – as our Air North plane made its approach into Whitehorse a day earlier – was the light.
Even though we were flirting with the shortest day of the year, a gorgeous softly lit palate of purples and pinks reflected off the frozen lakes and mountains enveloping the city of just 25,000. Yes, northern winter days are shorter than we might see in Vancouver or Calgary. But there’s still plenty of light to play in from ten a.m. through five p.m. And sunsets and sunrises linger for impossibly long stretches – tinting the surreal landscape in the kind of light cameras don’t do justice.
It was in this morning glow that I first meet Claude Vallier – a Frenchman who, after visiting the Yukon on holidays, fell in love with the area and promptly moved his family here. “People think it’s really cold, but it’s not,” says Claude – an expert mountain man who formerly worked with the French military’s search and rescue division. In fact, the average winter in Edmonton is colder than those around Whitehorse. “And on those rare, really cold days – like below minus forty – I’m forced to take care of the things I need to do around the house,” he tells me with a sparkle in his eye.
Devon and I climb into Claude’s Landcruiser and we all make our way along Annie Lake road about half an hour out of the city. Claude promises to introduce us to the sport of skijoring – where sled dogs are harnessed, not to a sled but to a skier. Before long, we pull into Alayuk Kennels and the home of Marcelle Fressineau and Gilles Proteau.
Fifty some-odd Alaskan huskies greet us with a chorus of whimpers and whines as if saying “Pick me! Pick me!” These dogs are no slouches. Marcelle has competed with them multiple times in the grueling Yukon Quest. When she’s not training for her next event, she takes guests from around the world on dog sledding adventures ranging from short outings to full-blown expeditions.
We each choose two dogs, attach them to our harnesses and click into our skis. With a jolt, I’m silently gliding through the forest with “Wilma” and “Wind” leading me through a maze of trails cut into the forests just behind the kennels.
The power of these, really, rather small dogs takes me by surprise. Their legs find a lightning fast cadence – keeping the rope between me and them as tight as can be. These dogs are obsessed with forward momentum. No surprise that they burn around 10,000 calories a day when they compete in the Quest.
Besides helping them up the occasional hill with a bit of pole planting, I was free to just watch the pine forest drift past me. When I snow plowed to a halt so I could take a moment to soak in amazing mountain panoramas or inhale the crisp winter air, Wilma would yip at me as if to say: “Yeah. Yeah. Let’s get going! We have places to be! Races to win!”
If you’ve got basic skiing skills, skijoring is an amazing way to travel through the endless tangle of trails that weave their way through wilderness surrounding Whitehorse.
With the rush of this extremely cool experience still fresh in our minds, the next day Devon and I find ourselves in the Walmart parking lot (yes, even Whitehorse has one) for our next adventure.
Normand Leroux wheels up in a pick-up truck with gear for ice fishing in tow. He runs Yukon Fishing Adventure, a full service guiding operation that will take you via snowmobile to some of Normand’s favourite and most gorgeous fishing spots. Normand moved to the Yukon nine years ago from Quebec to fully realize his love of hunting, fishing and the outdoors. (FYI, the north seems to attract a large Francophone contingent. Normand was about the twentieth french-speaking person I’d met on our short trip and, word has it, there are around 2,400 of them in the Whitehorse area).
With the help of his son, Langis, Normand informs us we’re headed to Scout Lake, about half an hour outside of the city. When we reach our destination, we unload the gear and boot across the lake on a snowmobile to our guide’s favourite fishing spot – marked by a tattered old red jacket flapping in the wind as it hangs from its perch on a nearby tree.
Normand’s hands – apparently immune to the cold blowing across the lake – expertly tie lures to tiny fishing rods while Devon and I settle into a heated fishing tent that was assembled for us in a matter of seconds.
We spend the next five hours staring down a small hole Normand had drilled through ice – eventually yielding five small, beautifully coloured Kokanee Salmon from the frigid water. But as evening wears on and the sky begins to fade to black, we decide it’s time to move on. Normand’s son escorts us “home”, leaving his Yukon-loving Dad to catch just one more fish and with a plan to fetch him later. Soon after, the delicate smell of Kokanee frying in butter would be wafting through the air.
A couple of days later, Claude agrees to meet back up with us for a day of backcountry skiing in nearby White Pass. The summit of White Pass is on the BC/Alaska border on the road to Skagway but the only way in is via the Yukon.
If anyone knows this remote area, it’s Claude. He’s spent the last five years exploring and gathering content here for his newly published guide book White Pass Backcountry Skiing. As we near the summit of the pass, we’re blown away by two things.
To our joy, the depth of the snowpack quadruples in a matter of kilometres and the landscape pops skyward with towering jagged peaks – all part of the massive Coast Range that stretches from Alaska down into Washington State.
We stick skins on the bottom of our touring skis and start to climb up to the Cleveland Glacier while Claude spouts his amazing knowledge of the area. The dense snow that blows in off Alaska’s west coast spackles cliff faces leaving them coated with what looks like a liberal layer of cake frosting.
The landscape doesn’t seem real. The perfect peaks and craggy cliffs lit by the low-slung northern sun seem more like a movie set than reality. Around every corner, the panorama proves endless and begs us to push on just a bit further with Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon stretching over the horizon.
When we reach our summit, we’re the only souls in sight. Claude points out the famed Chilkoot Pass – the vital route taken by scores of gold prospectors into the territory in the late 1800s.
These days, this great expanse of white wintery wilderness sees fewer and fewer gold-crazed fortune hunters. More often than not, it’s hardy winter sports enthusiasts like us in search of our own Yukon treasure tucked in the mountains, lakes and tranquility of this storied region.
When we eventually depart for home in Calgary – our plane peeling away from the tarmac and then lifting off – I look out over the lakes and mountains below. To be honest, searching for that next hidden powder stash or pulling one more silvery Kokanee from frigid northern water can be as addictive as hunting for another nugget of gold.
As the territory disappears behind us, I’m certain we’ll be back.
***Have you been to the Yukon during winter? What other activities would you suggest for our readers? We’d love to know!