As with almost everything else in my travel life, The Yukon came to me first between the pages of a book. The Call of the Wild, to be exact, although I later preferred White Fang.
Both books involve dogs, in immensely savage situations; not necessarily the most pleasant intro to the Far North. Jack London’s genius was that he was able to illustrate man vs. nature in relateable ways for a child raised in Minnesota. I didn’t understand animal abuse, and the passages where the dogs suffer made me cry as I read before bed. But I did understand snow, a lot of snow – enough to know that I didn’t want to be caught out in it. And I also understood, however vaguely, the motivations of those people in the books who were determined to strike out on their own, regardless of the odds (I was one of those kids who, while I loved my family dearly, couldn’t wait to leave the nest).
The phrase “The Yukon” puts that type of mentality top of mind. You can’t hear it and not think of soaring mountains, raging rivers, uninhabited stretches. It’s where people have gone to escape, to seek their fortune, to get lost. It’s the edge of the frontier, even though that word doesn’t mean as much today. And it seems that the people of Whitehorse prize that heritage. On the artwork above, of a miner and his faithful dog, the inscription reads, “This statue is dedicated to those who follow their dream.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to explore much of the Yukon on my May trip other than the capital, Whitehorse, where about two-thirds of the Yukon’s 30,000 people live. Although its location on the Alaska Highway makes it a major tourist thoroughfare, Whitehorse still feels like a small town, one that’s dwarfed by the sheer space outside of town. And like many cities on the fringe, it has a quirky side that you could see in its architecture and people (there’s even a public artwalk that you can take around town).
Whitehorse’s main street consists of storefronts that evoke its Klondike past. The city was founded in 1898 when stampeders on their way to the gold fields (and later the copper mines) camped out in town.
Whitehorse is not the place to stay if you’re looking for luxury lodges or accommodation. As I’ve found in Alaska, you often pay more and get less up in these parts. To me, this area of the world is best explored by RV or by visiting a lodge in more remote areas of the territory.
That’s not to say that the city doesn’t have some tourist attractions. The MacBride Museum, part of which is housed in a log cabin, is crammed with memorabilia from the Klondike days, as well as stuffed animals, exhibitions of local photography and an old railway engine. It’s a good stop if you’re traveling through town.
But it’s not really the town that people come to see. It’s a good place to use as a base to do hiking, fishing and dogsledding nearby, or as a place to fuel up as you continue on the Alaska Highway. That being said, the city has worked hard to stay attractive to tourists. The banks of the Yukon River have bike and walking paths, and you can also rent kayaks.
About 20 percent of Yukon’s population are First Nation. The Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, on the Yukon River, looks gorgeous against the sky.
It’s hard for me to resist a local newspaper, particularly when it’s one as old as the Whitehorse Star, which has been almost around as long as the mining camps. Like most papers, the Star has undergone changes, publishing only five days a week.
To me, this sign inside the Klondike Rib & Salmon House (where I found my favorite eats) sums the spirit of this part of the North. People do have to rely upon others more, while still maintaining their privacy. It’s the reason why The Yukon remains a draw to those of us below the 60th parallel.