From my first greeting in the territory’s capital of Whitehorse – airport signage reading, “We welcome the world to our home, our land, our Yukon, our people” – to the final farewell, this top-of-Canada destination is a universal surprise. Located a two-plus hour flight from Vancouver, due north toward the Arctic, my draw to the region was for a better-than-just-about-anywhere chance to see the Northern Lights and my hopes were pinned solely to this once in a lifetime light show.
However, it was much more. So, bundle up and follow me through winter’s Yukon. Full disclosure: this is cold country. With temps reaching double digits (below zero, that is), my concern as a native Texan, now San Diegan, came from the perspective of Southern comfort. But with easy access to a full spectrum of cold weather rental gear (thus the sea of identical red jackets around town), keeping warm is no problem if you keep some guidelines in mind – dress in layers, use toe and hand warmers, wear a wool toque, cover your face with a balaclava and rent an insulated parka and winter boots.
Ready? Let’s go. A Northern Lights experience is most likely accomplished when arranged with an experienced, in-the-know company like Arctic Range Adventure. Our designated night served up perfect conditions – clear skies, dark location facing north, extreme cold (I was told this increases your odds, though perhaps it was to lessen my frigid fears) and mid-winter timing.
Picked up in the hotel lobby at 10:30 p.m. and adequately attired for below-zero temps, we were driven about twenty minutes south of Whitehorse. The setup included two teepees and a large heated yurt, outfitted with seating and snacks – both within steps of the outdoor viewing area equipped with numerous tripods and roving camera-savvy guides.
The first of my three sightings on this evening began subtly. Initially looking like a flashlight-like glow near the horizon, it soon morphed into an abstract dance across the sky. Appearing mostly white to the naked eye, with typical tints of green (my sighting was enhanced with the rarer color magenta), it was an exciting display of one of the region’s most cherished natural treasures.
However, should braving the weather and departing your toasty guestroom not appeal, my stay at Northern Lights Resort and Spa, especially in one of its three recently debuted aurora chalets (located almost walking distance from the Arctic Range site), in addition to its private cabins (all facing north), would appeal. Here, each chalet featured 180-degrees of floor-to-ceiling windows facing north and automated, customized shades that operated from floor to ceiling, giving simultaneous privacy and prime views. The luxury lodge, anchored by its main lodge, also had an on-duty staffer whose job was to watch for the lights and awaken guests if requested.
Cue the dogs. Winter also welcomes the Yukon Quest, the region’s celebration of the canines. Noted as the “World’s Toughest Race,” 2019 was its 36th year. A 1,000-mile dog sled race, this was the deal. Teams of eight to 14 dogs (the musher’s strategic choice) crossed four mountain ranges and hundreds of miles of frozen terrain in route from Whitehorse to Anchorage, reminiscent of transportation of the Gold Rush era to excitement that was unabated.
The countdown – five, four, three, two, one – marked its start. When I asked Bryan Wilmshurst, a musher from Dawson and veteran of the Quest and the Iditarod to equate the two, his response was definitive: “There is no comparison. The Yukon Quest is colder, darker and longer with half the check points. Plus, the Quest is like family.”
The following day was the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra, called the toughest ultra in the world (do you see a pattern here?). It’s an international competition of fat biking, cross country skiing and running from Whitehorse to Dawson over a 14-day period. Set on a day when local temps were below those in the South Pole (Whitehorse: -25°F versus Antarctica: -23°F), “hardy” seemed to be the name of the Yukon game.
For a hands-on mushing experience, we traveled to Muktuk Adventures – located at the home of Yukon Quest champion and legend Frank Turner. Greeted with a bevy of barking dogs, after a tutorial on sled control and the assignment of two-person teams (one a passenger, the other a musher), we were off with the cautionary reminder to never let go of the sled – even if slipping from its foot rests. Exhilaration, concentration and, yes, concern described my trio of emotions, but there was no apt description for the free-as-a-bird-like happening of speeding atop snow while propelled by five powerful pooches.
Continuing north on the Alaska Highway to Haines Junction, I learned that the best way to get an area overview was from overhead – glacier flight-seeing aboard a Rocking Star Adventures Cessna above Kluane National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), moose included. Our overnight at Mount Logan Lodge, operated by husband and wife team David and Roxanne Mason, is at one with Yukon’s outdoor amenities. A beckoning wood lodge, it was comfortable and cozy, with every room different. My personal favorite (and my room) was the at-the-top-of-the-stairs suite – accommodations so inviting very little could lure me away. The exception occurred before our raclette meal, a traditional Swiss dinner centered around melted cheese, when David led a team of snowmobiles for a pre-sunset/pre-dinner ride – a high-spirited prelude to a gourmet meal (similarly, breakfast featured eggs benedict).
Further immersing us into this pristine area, our final day was with James Allen, a former Chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, who guided us to Shakat Tun Wilderness Camp (once again via snowmobile) for ice fishing, a trapline tour and a traditional meal of stew and bannock (of course).
In closing, I borrow from Allen’s culture in which there is no word for “goodbye” but rather a phrase that translates to “see you later.” In the same spirit here’s to meeting you again, Yukon.