A long, long time ago we had two little boys, aged 1 and 3, when Kees was offered the position of director of Parks & Recreation for the city of Whitehorse, Yukon. We packed up our belongings and left the Kananaskis region of the Rocky Mountains where he had been a park ranger, and where we had lived in the wilderness at the foot of the Continental Divide.
Many people must have thought we were crazy to go to the Yukon. We drove north in our blue camper van along the Alaska Highway. We drove and drove… the trees got more and more spindly, the terrain turned to rolling hills, the mosquitoes got bigger and the bears and moose more frequent.
When we finally reached Whitehorse we could have easily missed the city of, then, 15,000 people. It lay tucked into the Yukon River valley, well below the highway escarpment. But we did take the Two Mile Hill turn-off and started a whole new life. People in Whitehorse were friendly and outgoing. Most had come from far away and it was easy to make friends. We chopped firewood, went tobagganing and fishing. We watched native dances and ate bannock. Yukoners celebrate everything! They have to because without celebrations, life is dark and cold and dull. So we celebrated the ice break up, the midnight sun and especially the winter carnival that heralded the end of winter. We celebrated the Gold Rush, the poems of Robert Service, we watched tubing races down the Yukon River and outhouse races down Mainstreet.
In all the years since we moved south again, I went back three times but Kees never did. We decided that this was our year to go north and visit Whitehorse. Fast forward 27 years!
Whitehorse now is a city of 30,000 people. It has a McDonalds and a Walmart. It has 3 (three!) Starbucks. I’m not sure that this is progress but it certainly is change. We fondly remembered the little supermarket from way back when, as we shopped at the Great Canadian Superstore that made me shake my head in disbelief. Groceries here now are cheaper than on Salt Spring Island. This did not feel like Whitehorse!
There are many restaurants, sushi places and trendy shops now. But some things haven’t changed. There are still shacks with stovepipes sticking out of the roof, leaning helter/skelter against each other. There are still husky pups waiting for snow. And there are still unique, friendly people walking the sidewalks near the Yukon and White Pass railway station.
Whitehorse chosen subtitle is ‘The Wilderness City’ and that is an apt description. We hiked the beautiful Millennium Trail along the fast flowing Yukon River. Watching the water rush by it is amazing to realize that this force will soon be overtaken by the even stronger force of the cold. All the rushing water will be frozen and immobile in winter. Once you have seen the Yukon River freeze, been here during the winter months and watched it thaw and flow again in Spring, you are declared a Sourdough. If you’ve never spend a winter here, you remain a Cheechako.
We watched in fascination the many dozens of trees along the river bank felled by beavers. Leaves and wood chips were everywhere. We followed the drag marks where entire trees had been hauled to the water and saw how these amazing engineers had maneuvered the trees, using the river’s force, to their dam that blocked off a good part of the river. So glad the city does not blast these dams apart of trap those busy beavers! Upriver of the bridge is the Yukon River fish ladder where you can watch salmon jumping up the ladders, in Fall.
Yukon is a federal territory and receives federal funding for many projects, ensuring quality programs and facilities for the residents of this remote corner of Canada. The Canada Games Centre, for instance, has an aquatic centre with a leisure pool, lane pool, NHL rink, leisure skating rink, hot tubs, running track and many other facilities and services. All for $7.80 per day.
If you spend time in Whitehorse be sure to visit landmarks like The S.S. Klondike, one of the last remaining paddlewheelers of a bygone era. You can tour the old wooden boat to get a sense of what it was like to travel up the river. Reading Pierre Berton’s book Drifting Home, and his mother Laura Berton’s book I Married The Klondike is also a wonderful way to learn more about this unique history. The McBride Museum preserves many artifacts important to Yukon’s history. We stopped into The Chocolate Claim, a great local coffee shop, because of many memories tied to this place and also because I was Miss Chocolate Claim! There are strange things done in the midnight sun, which is why many moons ago I was involved in running for Miss Yukon and Miss Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous and was crowned Miss Congeniality! Being here brought back many fond memories.
The house we designed ourselves and built here, some 30 years ago – yikes – is still gorgeous. It overlooks the Yukon River and is now a B & B! I found the website and it was fun to see this gorgeous photo of “our” house and the Northern Lights!
Another must if you visit Whitehorse, is the Takhini Hot Springs. Not cheap ($11.- for seniors) but a fabulous soak in hot, natural water. One side is large enough for slow swimming in comfy, warm water. The other side is HOT. It was weird to visit it now, without snow and ice. In winter your hair freezes with the steam coming off the water and you can have wild, white hairdo’s! They also have a fantastic créperie now where we enjoyed gigantic fresh fruit and chocolate crepes!
Special thanks to our Whitehorse friends who lend us their condo during our time up north.
Sights to visit: