Larger than life

As I settled in with a cocktail on the deck of my friend’s house just outside Whitehorse last Friday, I couldn’t imagine anywhere more beautiful to be.  Even at 6 pm, the sun was still well above the snow-covered mountain tops, the temperature was in the low 20s, and the scenery was breathtaking.

The fatigue of a long day’s travel, rife with the minor complications that always seem to accompany it, had left me as soon as I stepped off the plane. This was my third trip to Whitehorse, and I quickly remembered the friendly, laidback approach to life here.  The airport is small, procedures are minimal, and we were on our way, with all luggage accounted for, in a matter of minutes.

In the early years of our relationship, my partner had often suggested we take a trip to northern Canada, and I had always responded with a firm “no.” However, the opportunity to work with the Yukon Status of Women Council brought me to Whitehorse in December 2018 and again in December 2019, and so began my love affair with this part of the country.

After my second trip, planning began for a third. This time, my partner would come too, and we would add some travel to the agenda. However, those plans crashed to a halt because of the pandemic.

We’re back to in-person work now, thank goodness, and as soon as the YSWC said they’d like me to come back – I think we were all pretty sick of trying to work in those little Zoom squares – my partner and I reactivated out earlier plans. We’re here for three weeks, with work and tourist time intermingled.

The big sky

The morning after we arrived, my YSWC colleague and friend herded us into her car, and we all headed for Dawson. It’s an arduous six-hour-plus drive, which she insisted on doing so we could take in our surroundings.

A friend texted in response to a photo I had sent her: “Wow seems inadequate. But wow,” and I have to agree. The vistas we saw on the drive were so beautiful and so huge, the sky was so big, the clouds so, well, cloud-like, that we soon ran out of words to describe our reactions.

The Alaska Highway, also known as the North Klondike Highway, doesn’t offer much in the way of services. You want to leave Whitehorse with a full tank of gas, an empty bladder, a portable tire inflater, and whatever drinks or snacks you think you might need along the way. You might as well tuck your phone away, because there is no cell service along the highway. There are a couple of rest stops that offer a pull-off from the highway and basic toilets, but no water or sinks. I think there are three gas “stations,” two of which are simply the gas pump with a debit/credit card slot. No store to pick up a drink or chat with the clerk. No washroom. No chip wagon. Just gas.

Rugged beauty

But, the road is empty for the most part. And that scenery! Rocks; mountains (some of them with snow-covered peaks); alder trees, their fall colour glowing gold in the sunlight; tall, spindly spruce trees; rivers; lakes. When we pulled over at one point to take some pictures, we spotted several huge flocks of birds flying overhead. With the help of our binoculars, we realized we were witnessing the migration of thousands of sandhill cranes, who were constantly calling to one another. Our senses were full to overflowing by the time we arrived in Dawson.

While we were there, we took in Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, Canada’s oldest gambling hall, where I quickly lost $40 and my enthusiasm, so settled in with a drink to watch the can-can dance show. We also ate one of the best meals any of us had ever had at the tiny Bon Ton Restaurant. As my partner said to the waiter when she asked how we had enjoyed dinner: “Shit, that was good.”

We went for a walk along the Yukon River to see the dumping ground for the old sternwheelers (paddleboats) that used to travel up and down the river. We drove to the top of the Top of the World Highway where it did, indeed, feel as though we could see the entire world spread out below us. We had a tour of an old gold mining dredge and saw a few of the current, much smaller gold mining operations just outside Dawson.

We made a trip to Tombstone Park, about an hour up the infamous Dempster Highway, which is an even more desolate route than the road between Whitehorse and Dawson. We were fortunate enough to arrive at the park just in time for a guided nature walk on one of the many trails. Our guide was a young Indigenous woman, who told us stories about her family’s life on that land, pointed out some of the food they gather and process and shared her perspective on the land claims process in Yukon, where 11 of 14 First Nations have settled their claims.  

Of course, work awaited both my friend and me back in Whitehorse so, after four relaxing days filled with natural beauty and wonders, we drove back south; this time, through fog, rain and major road repairs.

We heard the next day that the highway had been closed because of a mudslide and wondered whether we were glad we had made it out ahead of that or regretful that we had not been trapped in Dawson for a few more days.

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