Yukon’s northern charm beckons

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Newcomers thrill to area’s rich history

At the Air North check-in, it’s easy to spot "Cheechakos." The first-timers are all decked out in high-tech Patagonia duds, unscuffed hiking boots and crisp Tilley hats straight off the shelf — townies, dressed for adventure!

The "Sourdoughs," old-timers who know dark Yukon winters and frozen rivers, greet each other with a joyous sense of relief. They are heading home where a battered hat, work boots and a pair of worn-in jeans are the fashion statement.

Northern hospitality begins on the plane. Richly filled wraps and oozing chocolate chip cookies are wheeled around the cabin. None of those sad little packets of pretzels requiring a double gin just to sluice the crumbs down your throat.

"Do you take Visa?" I ask the surprised attendant, while scrabbling for cash in an empty pocket. Complimentary? Wow! I must be in a time warp!

The Yukon is bigger than California, but with a population of just 34,000 — 25,000 of whom live in the capital of Whitehorse. That leaves a whole hunk of land for 9,000 dreamers to share. Summers are hot, with 20 hours of daylight. Winters, well — better ask a Sourdough.

In Whitehorse, an impromptu sidewalk BBQ aims to raise cash and volunteers and garner entries for February’s Yukon Quest. Participants in this herculean day race require a healthy dollop of northern madness. Who in their right mind would contemplate driving a dog team over 1,600 kilometres of freezing ice and snow — mostly in darkness?

An antique streetcar saunters along the refurbished riverfront. The original tracks were laid down for the White Pass and Yukon railway in 1898. We hop off beside the SS Klondike. Impeccably renovated and re-enacted from stem to stern — right down to the breakfast menu — by Parks Canada, she sits proudly beside the fast-flowing Yukon River, a testament to her vital role in the Gold Rush and the reason for the town’s very existence.

Getting people and supplies to Dawson was a tricky endeavour. Boats pushing overloaded barges often ran aground on the shifting riverbed. Barges were winched around tight corners to avoid jack-knifing.

Launched in 1937, the 64-metre sternwheeler was masterfully designed to overcome these problems with extra cargo capacity and a shallow draft.

Downstream, the 740-kilometre journey to Dawson City took a mere 36 hours to deliver necessities such as canned peas, Carnation milk, barrels of beer and deep-pocketed passengers.

Returning against the current to Whitehorse was a different matter. Six stops were needed to collect wood to feed the boat’s hungry boilers, which gobbled a cord every hour. It was four to five days before her precious cargo of gold from Dawson City and silver from Mayo could be loaded onto the train, bound for waiting freighters in Skagway harbour.

We head north, up the Klondike Highway, which displaced the SS Klondike in 1955. At Lake Laberge, we search the beach for a bone, a plank, a nail or any telltale sign of The Cremation of Sam Magee. Robert W. Service’s poem, published in 1907, told the story of the cremation of a prospector who freezes to death in the Yukon. Defeated, we stock up on butter tarts at Mom’s Bakery and get the dirt on the picky new Cheechako health inspector.

Then it’s up to Braeburn Lodge, a stop on the Yukon Quest, where one cinnamon bun would feed a whole dog team and the musher and peckish pilots put down on the Cinnamon Bun Strip to refuel!

It takes six hours to reach the scalloped tailing walls lining the road to downtown Dawson City. We ponder a home on Tailings Road in Dredge Pond Subdivision, a new housing development.

Dawson City is as slick as a miner’s tin cup, but that’s the charm of the place. Dirt roads still connect buildings from the late 1800s when 40,000 dreamers once fought and scrabbled their way to the gold rush. The city grader keeps potholes under control.

It is still possible to imagine a "lady of easy virtue" strutting along the wooden boardwalk, twirling a lace parasol, with a come-hither look in her mischievous blue eyes. "Goodtime girls" became rich, mining the pockets of those who struck pay dirt. Gertie Lovejoy flaunted her success by wedging a diamond between her two front teeth. Her fame lingers on at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, Canada’s oldest casino, where cancan dancers today show a fine leg both to gold miners seeking a break from their sluice boxes and to the 60,000 visitors who pass through each year.

There is a lot to hold us here — museums, cemeteries, walking tours and riverboat trips. And just beyond Jack London’s place, a stone’s throw from Pierre Berton’s childhood home, a costumed actor recites poetry in the garden of Robert Service’s cabin.

At the Downtown Hotel bar, Cheechakos go tongue-to-toe with a legend — the sourtoe cocktail —then head to the Dome for a spectacular midnight sunset.

Dawson’s population may have shrunk to a meagre 2,000, but most who live here are open-hearted, eccentric and addicted to the place.

Francine, a rodeo rider from Quebec, came here for a fresh start when a barn fire killed her horses. Now she pours drinks on board the Spirit of Klondike. Caveman Bill, from who knows where, uses solar panels to heat his two caves when winter hits. A tiny float home bobbing in the whirlpools was once the failed refuge of a man hiding from marriage. His family now uses it for fishing!

It is time to leave, our list only half-done.

We are doing the tourist loop over the Top of the World Highway into Alaska.

The cable ferry is free until freeze-up, when folks just drive across the river. Fishermen are out in droves. Salmon are finally coming up from the Bering Sea. We spot the "steamer graveyard" along the far bank — a sad, tangled mass of planking and rusting funnels.

The dirt road to Chicken, Alaska, is rough, winding and prone to washouts. We cross back into Canada at Beaver Creek. Heading south, the Alaska Highway skirts the Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary. Burwash Landing and Destruction Bay are on magical Kluane Lake.

Our week is fast running out, but we have saved the best till last.

We find the unflappable Marcel Leduc, proprietor of Sifton Air, at the Haines Junction Airport. He has two planes, and a group is waiting for a harried mechanic to fix the five-seater.

Leduc’s cellphone rings constantly. A woman is stuck in Blind Bay; supplies are needed at a placer operation upriver; a canoe outfitter, in mid-expedition, is short some paddles ....

Leduc did a stint in the French Foreign Legion. His gold bug will see him up the river by month’s end, reworking old claims.

Finally, we take off into a clear blue sky. Kluane National Park and Reserve contains Canada’s highest mountain and the world’s largest non-polar ice fields. In 1979, it was designated a world heritage site.

With no access road, the options are to hike in or fly.

The pilot constantly fiddles with knobs and levers to keep our little Cessna from bouncing out of control in the wind. Dall sheep and grizzly bears are absent today.

Suddenly, Mount Logan makes a furtive appearance before shyly disappearing behind a mass of fluffy clouds, occasionally reappearing. Apparently we were lucky.

Soon we are right over the south arm of Kaskawulsh Glacier. When we reach the Y, where the "arm" meets the "body" to form a fivekilometre-wide, 1-1/2-km-deep "highway" — well, no photograph could do it justice.

Our little plane throws off a diminutive shadow on the serrated chunks of ice below. Teal-blue ponds of water form in the melting cavities as we retreat to the edge on our way home.

We head back to Haines Junction, population 800. It is our last night. Tomorrow we return to Whitehorse and fly home. How do we maintain the high? A good restaurant would do it.

"Oh you’re staying at the Raven," the girl at Parks Canada responds jealously.

"Dinner at the Raven is not just dinner, it’s an experience! With chef Victor Bongo from the Congo (I’m not kidding!) manning the stove, your little hotel has the best restaurant in Yukon."

She was right.

— — —

If You Go

— -AUTHOR’S NOTE: Every day you will find views that qualify for the "wow" factor. Gold bugs are still out there with their sluice boxes, especially around Dawson, but the real joy of the Yukon is the people. Visitors are made to feel like family. Start your trip at the excellent tourism office in Whitehorse.

— -GETTI NG ARO UND: Distances are huge. We drove about 2,500 km and still left many places on our wish list. Campers and RVs are extremely well catered to with wonderful lake/riverfront sites to choose from.

— -TI ME RE QUIRED: Time spent in the Yukon is like a closet. The more time you have, the more experiences you will find to fill it.

— -STILL ON MY WISH LIST: Driving the Dempster Highway, dinner theatre at the Westmark Inn Beaver Creek, White Pass and Yukon Railway from Skagway, a boat trip on Kathleen Lake (near Haines Junction) with storytelling elder Ron Chambers of Kruda Che Guiding ... next time!

— -USEFUL WEBSITES: travelyukon.com, flyairnorth.com, yukonairtours.com (Sifton Air)

Organizations: Air North, Parks Canada, Visa Robert W Service Sifton Air Haines Junction Airport French Foreign Legion Cessna

Geographic location: California, Yukon, Dawson City Whitehorse White Pass Skagway Canada Yukon River Lake Laberge Cinnamon Bun Strip Tailings Road Alaska Quebec Bering Sea Beaver Creek Kluane Destruction Bay Blind Bay Kluane National Park Mount Logan Haines Junction Congo Kathleen Lake

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