Whitehorsing Around in the Yukon

It had long been a dream of mine to see the magnificent Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, a natural display of usually fluorescent green lights that can be seen in the night sky around the edges of the Arctic Circle. The aurora occurs when charged particles from the solar wind collide with atoms at high altitude in the atmosphere and its distinct curtain-like patterns are caused by the Earth’s magnetic field. During our time in London I had hoped to fly north to Lapland, Northern Sweden, Finland, Norway or Iceland to see the aurora, however auroras are most common during the solar maximum (the eleven year peak of the sunspot cycle) and three years following which did not occur during our time in London, significantly reducing the chance of seeing the aurora. With 2012/13 predicted to be the solar maximum, this winter was an ideal time to try to see the aurora so we booked a tour with Northern Tales packed our winter woollies and flew to Vancouver and then on to Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, to try our luck.

We stepped out of the airport into a -10˚C world of ice and snow. When we commented on the cold to the shuttle bus driver he gave us a wry smile and said ‘this is warm for the Yukon’. Over the next few days we were to discover just how true those words were as the temperature dropped a whopping 30˚C to -40˚C. The locals went from responding to comments on the cold with a flippant but friendly ‘welcome to the Yukon’ to wholeheartedly agreeing with us that it was bloody freezing!

 

Aurora Viewing

On our first night in Whitehorse we joined a rugged-up crowd milling in the hotel lobby to scramble onto a magic school bus-style bus for the short ride to a northern lights viewing site outside Whitehorse. Jazz played and people chatted merrily on the bus swapping aurora stories as snow fell softly outside the bus windows. Our fellow travellers had come from all over the world hoping to see the Northern Lights. While some had made the relatively short flight from Vancouver, we met others from Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and even a couple who have made the trek from Australia. We piled out of the bus into a cabin where our guide Tom stoked up the cabin stove and a campfire outside to keep us warm during the -20˚C night. Clouds obscured the sky, and as we waited by the campfire for the sky to clear a couple of Canadian ladies taught us a new way to roast marshmallows and how to make s’mores. Inside the cabin we sipped on coffee and hot chocolate and set up the camera on the tripod whilst our fellow aurora-watchers shared tips on camera settings for capturing the elusive lights on film. By midnight the sky had cleared and after the headlights of a passing car caused some aurora-novices to raise a false alarm call a faint green glow appeared amidst the blanket of stars. As the lights strengthened it was like looking up at a sheer curtain shifting slowly in the breeze. We watched the lights shimmer in the sky for a couple of hours with breaks by the fireside to thaw our icy fingers, toes and faces. We even managed to snap a few shots showing the eerie green glow in the sky before it was time to pile back onto the bus to head for our beds.

Our final night in Whitehorse we returned to the viewing site hoping to see the lights one last time. It was a bone-chilling -40˚C and too cold to even sit by the campfire long enough to roast a marshmallow. We huddled inside the cabin and napped as the sky remained dark. Finally at half-past one Tom announced that the lights had appeared and we piled out of the cabin toting cameras and tripods to watch as waves of green lit up the sky. By our two o’clock departure time the lights had faded but we felt quite lucky to have seen the lights to some extent each night of our trip, strongly on the final two, and to have captured the phenomenon on film with Nato only getting stuck to the metal tripod briefly on one occasion.

 

Whitehorse City Tour

We met our guide, Wolf, in the hotel lobby for our city tour of Whitehorse. Whitehorse was named for the white water that used to rush down the Yukon River before it was dammed to provide the city with hydro-electric power. The white water resembled the manes of wild white horses, which puts me in mind of this scene from Lord Of the Rings.

Wolf told us of the Yukon Quest, a gruelling annual 1000mile (1600km) international sled dog race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. On 2nd February 2013, the 30th Yukon Quest will start in Whitehorse. Hundreds of spectators will watch the mushers and their teams set off from Whitehorse and follow their progress as they race cross country in icy temperatures hoping to win, or just to complete the treacherous journey.

We crunched through the snow to see the SS Klondike, a sternwheeler that now rests on the bank of the Yukon River after running freight between Whitehorse and Dawson City in the 1930s and 40s. We’re content to see the exterior, but in the summer visitors can clamber on board for a closer look.

We drove along the riverbank passing seaplanes parked up for the winter and I was amused to note that one of the seaplanes had the registration C-FINS. Seaplanes are a common mode of transport in Canada as evidenced by a local real estate listing for a riverside property which entreated buyers to ‘park your boat or plane by the door’! We stopped at a lookout over the dam where Wolf pointed out the fish ladder, a flight of man-made steps with water flowing down them which allow a detour around the dam for salmon swimming upstream to return to the location of their birth to spawn. Then it’s on to another architectural feat, the log skyscraper, a three-story log cabin which once towered over Whitehorse. Our final stop is the log church, standing proudly with its cap of snow as it has for over a century since it was built in gold rush times.

 

Northern Lights Resort and Spa

We headed out of Whitehorse to spend a couple of nights at the Northern Lights Report and Spa. Our hosts Wolfgang and Renate showed us to our cosy cabin which is soon toasty warm with the help of the propane powered fireplace. The fireplace also means we will have no need to tune in to the log fire TV channel which constantly shows surprisingly mesmerising footage of a log fire.

Wolfgang supplied us with a couple of pairs of snowshoes and we strapped them on and struck out along the snowy trail he pointed out to us. There was no sign of the elusive moose and calf spotted the day before by other guests at the resort but we had a wonderful time trekking through the snowy forest and fields as flakes fall softly upon us. We arrived back at our cabin with frosted hair and eyebrows and icy eyelashes and jumped straight into the hot tub for a soothing soak. Wearing a beanie with a  swimsuit is an unusual look, but essential for -15˚C hot tubbing and as an information pamphlet in the hotel pointed out, ‘the cold is no respecter of fashion, you soon won’t care if your hat looks like a giant banana as long as it keeps your head warm’. The hot tub was ideal for soothing aching limbs after a day spent dogsledding or snowmobiling too, and is well worth enduring the brief chilly dash to and from our cabin.

Over Renate’s delicious meals which featured warming soups, baked local salmon and a remarkable sour cherry and cream dessert, we traded tales with our fellow travellers. Wolfgang checked the weather to give us an idea when to look for the lights. We had a little luck with the lights on our first night, spotting a brief squiggle of intense green, but mostly we looked upon a mottled green sky. The second night however was a different story. At dinner Wolfgang predicted the lights would appear at midnight and as would be expected of a German from near the Swiss border he was dead accurate and even knocked on our door at midnight to alert us to a wave of green cresting along the horizon. We hastily pulled on our gear and headed out into the -30˚C night to watch. The temperature was bearable if we kept moving so rather than standing in awe watching the lights we jogged, lunged and squatted, wind milling our arms to keep warm as the lights rolled over the sky for near to an hour. It was exactly what we had travelled so far to see and we were relieved our trip had not been in vain.

We had early starts for our dog sled and snowmobile tours but a continental breakfast of museli, croissants, breadrolls, eggs, ham, cheese and salami washed down with juice and coffee fueled us for the day’s activities. If we’d had more time at the resort I would definitely have treated myself to one of Renate’s massages; maybe next time.

 

Dog Sled Tour with Muktuk Adventures

We were collected early for our deg sled tour with Muktuk Adventures. Mutkuk is the Inuktitut word for whale blubber, a calorie dense treat for sled dogs. Muktuk Ranch is owned and operated by Frank Turner and his wife Anne Tayler. Several Yuokoners had spoken to us of Frank Turner with great respect as Frank is a local legend for attempting the Yukon Quest 24 times in 25 years and winning the race in 1995. The Ranch strives to be one of the most ethical and environmentally-sensitive tourism operators in Canada and in addition to dog-sledding in the winter, the ranch offers kayaking, canoeing, hiking, fishing and swimming in the summer.

First order of business on arrival at Muktuk Adventures was being fitted out with cold weather gear.  We pulled on an additional woolly layer of socks and thick white rubber boots, traded our ski gloves for woolly mittens worn inside heavy duty gloves and pulled a puffy jacket on over our existing ski jackets. Suitably attired we headed out to meet the 125 Alaskan Huskies that call Muktuk Ranch home. We wandered around the network of kennels patting the friendly dogs until our guide Gabe gathered our group together for our dog sled briefing. Sledding is pretty simple, the dogs largely look after the steering, we just needed to lean into the turns, use the brake to slow the eager dogs down and secure the sled when it was stopped.

Once we were loaded onto our respective sleds the handlers began connecting the dogs one by one to the sled. The dogs worked themselves into a frenzy, jumping and pulling at their leads and a great cacophony of whining, barking and baying rang out across the ranch, as if each dog were shouting ‘pick me, pick me!’ With our six dogs including lead dog Yuki connected and Nato tucked securely into the sled I slowly released the brake and stood on the drag pad to keep the excited dogs from running too fast as we followed the lead snowmobile out of the yard, down a hill and onto the trail that runs along the frozen Yukon River. The dogs pulled the sled smoothly and as I relaxed I realised that I was achieving a lifelong dream of successfully driving a team of sled dogs through a majestic wintry landscape. We drove the dogs for seventeen kilometers stopping to swap drivers half way. The dogs, Yuki in particular, glanced back when we checked their speed or to let us know when they needed a comfort break. In our protective gear we stayed relatively warm despite clipping along at around ten kilometers per hour in -20˚C weather.

We stopped for lunch, turning the sleds on their side over their anchors to keep them in place. We first attended to the dogs, patting them to thank them for their hard work, unclipping one of their tethers, distributing frozen meat bricks and offering water which was largely ignored as the dogs were content to chomp the snow to re-hydrate.  Fed and watered, the dogs curled up on the snow to wait for us. Gabe soon had a campfire roaring over which we roasted sausages, sipping soup and hot chocolate while we cooked. It is slightly dangerous dining by a campfire in the cold, Nato was briefly stuck to a metal fork he retrieved from the snow with a bare hand and I burned a finger on a toasting fork I was not expecting to be hot, but we were fine. There was more talk of the Yukon Quest, we were a little weary after just seventeen kilometers mushing in good daytime conditions across flat terrain, which gave us a better appreciation of just how gruelling the Quest must be. With lunch finished we fitted booties to those dogs that needed them, clipped them back up and set off on our run back to the Ranch. The dogs were starting to tire, so we tried to help them out a little by pushing off the ground with our feet. The scenery was breath-taking, the flat white expanse of frozen river flanked by snow dusted spruce trees and sheer cliff banks. We saw the occasional house or a car passing on the riverside road, but otherwise it was just us, the dogs and the wilderness.

Back at the Ranch we patted the dogs to thank them again and then headed over to see the latest additions to the Ranch family – month old Alaskan Husky puppies. They had been (I suspect temporarily) named after the transformers so I had a cuddle with Starscream and Bumblebee who snuggled into my warm bare hands.

As we warmed up inside with hot chocolate and cake, Frank popped in to see how we’d fared. His philosophy for his sled dog team, and his human team at the Ranch is ‘look after the team and the team will look after you’. Judging by his record in the Yukon Quest and his happy volunteers, employees and customers it is quite a recipe for success.

 

Snowmobiling with Up North Adventures

It was a chilly -30˚C as our guide Andre picked us up for our day’s snowmobiling with Up North Adventures. A clear, sunny day was predicted and we watched the sun rise slowly over the horizon as we drove out to camp. We donned protective gear of overalls, puffy jackets, heavy duty boots, gloves, a pair of balaclavas and a helmet whilst the snowmobiles warmed up. Andre showed us the throttle and brake and we each drove a few practice laps around the yard before Nato settled into the driver’s seat and we were off racing across frozen Fish Lake to intercept a trail opening on the bank and weave our way through the trees up the mountain.

The weather was ideal for snowmobiling, it was one of those cold, crisp and bright winters days when if suitably attired it is a joy to be outside. Andre stopped frequently to check we weren’t too cold and to point out animal tracks in the snow. We spotted tracks of rabbit, lynx and moose, and though we kept a sharp eye out for these and any other animals they remained out of view, with only their tracks telling us they had been there.

We stopped for photos at lookouts and the summit and also stopped awhile to let a group of sled dogs pass by undisturbed by our snowmobiles. As lunchtime approached we retraced our path back down the mountain and across Fish Lake to camp, where Andre soon had a fire roaring to heat up the yurt we stayed in for lunch. We drank hot chocolate and ate chilli while sausages roasted over the fire. Our fingers toes and faces defrosted by the warm fire and after hot dogs, banana bread and choc-chip cookies we were refuelled, reheated and ready to head out for another run.

We raced back across Fish Lake and took a different steeper track up the mountain. Some of the turns were tight requiring significant weight transfer to pull the machine around the corners. In parts the path was barely as wide as the snowmobile and if I didn’t stay tucked behind Nato I was liable to get smacked in the helmet by the branches that grew out into the path (or perhaps it was the path that intruded into the branches). After a long traverse across the mountain we turned downhill to meet the trail on the lake and headed back to camp where out snowmobile adventure came to an end. Despite temperatures dropping to -40˚C at times, our bodies and our camera had functioned well throughout the day and we’d had a ball.

 

Return to the Yukon

We had an incredible few days in the Yukon, and I don’t think it will be our only trip to this magical corner of the world. Perhaps we’ll return one February for the Yukon Quest, to try our hand at ice-fishing, go looking for caribou, lynx, elk and arctic foxes at Yukon wildlife preserve and have a relaxing dip in the Takhini hot springs. Now that we’ve seen the aurora we could also return to Whitehorse in summer to spend long (comparatively) warm days hiking and canoeing and see the salmon make their trek upstream. It’s easy to see why people visit the Yukon and decide to extend their stay, or simply never leave. I hope we’ll be back for another dose of Canadian hospitality before too long.

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