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The Yukon: Canada’s winter playground – Yukon holidays

We could not stop staring up at the night sky as the soothing smell of the campfire drifted towards us and the warmth of the hot Amaretto cider took the edge off the -20º chill. We were deep in the Canadian wilderness at Northern Lights Resort and Spa, located outside of Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon territory. Snow was falling and the mountain backdrop looked just as stunning in the darkness. Could this be the moment we had been waiting for? The Yukon Holidays dream.

Joanna White
December 2, 2021

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Northern Lights viewing in the Canadian Wilderness - Yukon holidays

After being obsessed with the Aurora app for the last few months, I had been religiously tracking the probability of us being able to see the greatest show on earth and this was our chance. We had one night at this heavenly resort and we needed the clouds to play ball. We were greeted by the owner Tobias who showed us to our beautiful glass Aurora chalet. The modern interior and floor to ceiling windows were spectacular. He took a look up at the sky and saw that the clouds were starting to part on the horizon; he said we had a good chance. All we had to do now was wait.

Wait is what we did – firstly for an hour in their relaxing spa where we went in and out of the sauna and chilled on the loungers. We enjoyed a delicious three-course meal with the other guests in the main lodge's dining room. Feeling well fed, we popped back to our chalet to put our sexy thermals and coats on.

Just before midnight, we noticed there was a break in the clouds and our wonderful guide Patrick told us this was a very good sign. At around 1 a.m. the Northern Lights came out to play, dancing across the stars in flashes of green. The lights floated above like thin slow-moving lightning bolts, before forming a perfect rainbow-shaped semi-circle and gradually disappearing. We thought that the show was over but after about 15 minutes they returned for their encore, hovering peacefully above us. My husband is a photographer and had been dreaming of this moment forever. We couldn’t believe it was happening. It was magical and without a doubt, one of the best nights of our lives.

The Call of Whitehorse - Yukon holidays

After 18 months of Covid stress, my husband and I felt in desperate need to get away from it all and head to one of the furthest places in the world that we were now allowed to travel to. We wanted to go off grid, so we started looking for authentic travel experiences in a winter wilderness. After watching Disney’s Call of the Wild last year, we decided to head towards the Arctic Circle and to the Yukon territory in Canada.

The Yukon is known for its role in the infamous Klondike Gold Rush. When gold was discovered there in 1896 – 125 years ago this year – it began a stampede of more than 100,000 prospectors who made the treacherous journey to find their fortunes.

The Yukon was the ideal choice for our winter road trip as it has a long season stretching from November until the end of March. We had researched all the thrilling activities we could try, and we were prepared for it to be very, very cold. After such a long time of being cooped up at home, it was time to push ourselves out of our comfort zones.

The Yukon is 80% pristine wilderness, meaning mobile signal is totally limited. We boarded our Air Canada flight to Vancouver, turned off our phones and began our digital detox. The flight to Vancouver from London is just over nine hours. We had a short wait before boarding our two-hour flight to Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital. We had arrived in the Northwest corner of Canada, the country’s largest winter playground.

Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport is small, and we were off the plane with our cases in no time at all. My husband took a deep breath of the crisp air and said he felt like Sanka from Cool Runnings when he steps outside of Calgary Airport... “I’m not smoking, I’m breathing”.

Our first few days were spent exploring Whitehorse, known as the “Wilderness City”. Making our base at the Best Western Gold Rush Inn, located right in the heart of the action, we took in all the sights along the Yukon River that runs through the city. The mighty SS Klondike was a sight to behold, totally covered in snow. The sternwheeler was built after the Gold Rush in 1929 and has been restored to sit on the banks of the Yukon River, paying tribute to the end of the riverboat transportation era.

20 minutes out of Whitehorse is the 350-acre Yukon Wildlife Preserve, a registered charity that is home to over 12 Yukon species including moose, foxes, bison and my new favourite animal, the mountain goat. The preserve is open year-round, and we spent a lovely few hours walking the 5k loop, observing the animals in their natural habitats.

One of the must-do winter activities in the Yukon is dog-sledding. The Huskies in the Yukon were brought over during the Gold Rush and we were excited to give mushing a go. MukTuk Adventures picked us up from our hotel and took us to their dogsled park. You could instantly feel how excited the dogs were and just how much they wanted to run. Our half day tour saw us speed along scenic and historic trails, but it was not quite cold enough then for the rivers to freeze, which they do throughout the Yukon. It was exhilarating rushing past trees and the scenic lookout we stopped at was breathtaking. The dogs were all so friendly and I totally fell in love with Hazel, a white Husky with the most piercing blue eyes.

Road trippin on the Klondike Highway - Yukon holidays

With Aurora viewing now ticked off our bucket list, the following morning we left the Whitehorse area in our rental car and began our six-hour journey to Gold Rush town, Dawson City. The 444-mile-long highway connects Whitehorse straight to the Klondike goldfields. Setting off, I must admit I was a little apprehensive seeing the snow on the roads. I trusted my husband implicitly though and our 4x4 rental had ‘slippery mode’, ‘deep snow mode’ and winter tyres, so after a while, I relaxed into it.

The Klondike Highway to Dawson City is incredible. The snowy vistas were boundless, and the views never got tiresome. There are only a few places to stop en route, so we enjoyed a coffee and one of the world-famous cinnamon buns at Braeburn Lodge and then refuelled our car in Carmacks about halfway along.

Five Finger Rapids was definitely the highlight of the drive. Mentioned in Jack London’s Call of the Wild, The Five Finger Rapids offer a breathtaking view of the mighty Yukon River. Four islands divide this scenic spot into five narrow channels which freeze during the winter. The snow-capped mountains surrounding the rapids create the picture-perfect backdrop. We spent a good hour there just taking it all in.

Gold Rush Town, Dawson City - Yukon holidays

We arrived at Dawson about 6.30 p.m., just as the snow started to fall down heavily. It was quiet – which we had expected - and it felt and looked like we were in a movie set. The buildings are all different shapes and sizes, some leaning and showing their age. We checked into the Downton Hotel, famously known as being the birthplace of the SourToe Cocktail.

The Sourtoe cocktail is a Dawson City tradition, which involves downing a shot of whiskey or tequila with a mummified human toe in the glass. It started in 1973 when local Yukon Captain Dick Stevenson found a mummified toe and randomly began challenging locals one evening. The city is now gearing up towards their 100,000th SourToe participant. I can confirm that both my husband and I are now full members of the SourToe Club; my husband downed a shot of whiskey while I did a glass of Toe-quila. It was certainly one of the quirkiest things I have ever done and lots of fun.

From Dawson, we drove to admire Dredge Number 4, a monster apparatus used to scoop up sediment from the bottom of the waterways and mine underwater. It is the biggest of its kind in North America and now a National Historic Site. We decided to brave it and drove part of the iconic Dempster Highway. The Dempster is 458 miles of unpaved road that traverses some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. It starts from Dawson City and heads north to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.

I cannot begin to tell you what a thrill it was. Passing Tombstone Territorial Park, we continued for a good hour and while every part of my being wanted to keep on heading up to the Arctic Ocean, I felt that with more snow forecast, we should start to slowly head back. My husband was in his element and felt like a proper ice road trucker.

While in Dawson, we totally soaked up the Gold Rush heritage and learnt a lot at the fascinating Dawson City Museum. It is the ideal place to start your exploration of Dawson and discover the natural history of the Klondike Gold Fields, the Yukon’s First Nations Peoples and the early stampeders.

On our last night, we were fortunate enough to get a booking at Dawson’s newest restaurant BonTon and Company. The intimate dining space serves an evolving menu of sharing plates and charcuterie. The restaurant works with local farmers and producers and has developed the most creative menu inspired by the freshest seasonal ingredients and fused with international flavours. I never thought I would say this, but the kale cakes were absolutely to die for.

We felt glum on our drive back to Whitehorse, not because it was now -32º but because we knew our adventure was coming to an end. We were still totally mesmerized by the endless views and took every opportunity to stop at viewing points along the way. We were also going to miss the Yukoners, who were all so friendly and welcoming to us.

Travelling to Canada was pretty stress-free. We had to do a PCR test before we flew and upload the negative result, along with our vacation status, to their ArriveCan app. Once that’s done 72 hours before you fly, the rest is pretty easy. When we travelled, we didn’t need to test to fly home, but did have to do a day-2 antigen test. You must complete the government’s passenger locator form as standard on all holidays now. But was it worth it? Absolutely!

The Yukon’s slogan is ‘Larger Than Life’ and our trip was just that; everything we hoped it would be and so much more. We reconnected without our mobile phones and people constantly around us. I don’t think we saw one car on the drive up to Dawson; it was literally just us and the highway. While the Yukon winter wonderland provides once-in-a-lifetime experiences, we would love to go back and see how different it looks in the summer, under the Midnight Sun. That trip would have to include canoeing the Yukon River though, so I would definitely have to start training for that now!

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Photography

The photography in this article is courtesy of Chalky White Photography

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