Whitehorse the Wilderness City
Day 1 May 28, 2015
Canadians refer to the Far North area of the country as “North of 60”. This refers to the 60th parallel that largely marks the southern border of the Yukon and NorthWest Territories.
It is five hours flying time from Ottawa to Vancouver on the far west coast of Canada. There is a short stop and we get out to stretch our legs in the Vancouver airport. We were very lucky. There was noone sitting beside us to Vancouver which, with the tight seats on today’s planes, made the flight far more comfortable than we had anticipated. We eat the panini’s that we had brought with us – West Jet is not Lufthansa – flight service even on a five-hour flight is limited to sandwiches that you order on-line in advance and that you have to pay for, so we chose to bring our own lunch.
Then back on the plane and two hours up to Whitehorse. It was cloudy all the way across Canada but now we start to see a bit of the snow-covered coastal mountains peaking up through the cloud cover. We arrive in Whitehorse to a sunny day.
You know you are “North of 60” immediately. As we land we can see the small tiny specks of houses and the street grid of Whitehorse carved out of the dark green pines that extend as far as the eye can see. We can see the blue waters of the Yukon river running through Whitehorse and far beyond. The Yukon River originates in British Columbia and meets the Bering Sea in Alaska. And we can see troughs of snow running down the sides of the mountain tops, like melting ice cream cones.
The “Welcome to Whitehorse” sign that greets us at the airport says it is “The Wilderness City”. Whitehorse is that surprising, but happy contradiction – a “southern” city with all the amenities in this remote wilderness setting. Whitehorse is located at Mile 918 on the Alaska Highway (more about what this means in another post). The closest big Canadian city is Edmonton – 1,994 kilometers away.
The name Whitehorse originates with the first gold seekers who had to cross another in a long long series of dangerous rapids on their way from Skagway to Dawson City. They thought that the rapids looked like the mane of a white horse.
Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon Territory and it is the largest city in northern Canada. To keep things in perspective, according to the 2011 Census, Whitehorse has a population of 26,028 people. The Yukon has a population of about 36,000 people so about two-thirds of the Yukon population lives in Whitehorse. At 483,450 square kilometres (186,661 square miles), the Yukon is larger than California and covers more area than Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands combined. But it represents less than 5% of Canada’s total land area.
The flight left Ottawa at 7:00 a.m. but with the three hour time difference it is noon when we land in Whitehorse. Less than 20 minutes later we have our luggage and are on the shuttle bus, a rattley, but free bus, to our hotel which is about a ten minute ride from the airport and in the city centre. We check-in just ahead of a couple of busloads full of people that are on an Alaskan Cruise with Holland America Lines. The hotel is fully booked with these cruise passengers.
We head straight for the Yukon Information Centre. The Yukon Information Centre is the most eye-catching building in all small “towns” that we visit. The one in Whitehorse is a large, light filled, wooden structure that backs right onto the Yukon River. There is information about all the things to do in the Yukon and also the bordering areas in Alaska, which is what you would need and expect. But there is also beautiful photography of the Yukon landscapes, displays of minerals, animals (taxidermy) shown in their natural habitats, plus local products from jewellery, to fireweed honey, to aboriginal artwork.
Every information centre also has films to see; from what to do if you encounter a bear to promo videos. We were encouraged to go to the “theatre” area with a full size movie screen where we watched a nicely done video with stunning aerial shots of the Yukon landscape. Here, as on the sign panels and other information we are given about the Yukon, there is a clear message of the joint responsibility of the government and the indigenous peoples in protecting and respecting nature.
We leave loaded down with maps, brochures about how to identify flowers, trees, mushrooms, animals, and information pamphlets about how to stay safe in bear country.
It is a stunningly beautiful day with the high blue sky that you can only find in the North. We follow the pathway along the river that is called the Millenium Trail. It is connected with a good network of trails that surround the city.
In 1897, two entrepreneurs capitalized on the obstacles presented by the rapids by building tramways on either side of the river. For a fee, their horse-drawn tram cars carried goods. A tram from 1925 fully refurbished and painted a happy yellow color, runs along the Millennium Trail for sightseeing.
We take the requisite pictures beside a tall brightly colored totem pole. Then we stop as we see a native women jump off the raised belvedere into the freezing waters of the Yukon River and get carried by the current to the shore. She is joined by a few other people and jumps in again. We start to get a sense of the issues related to drugs and alcohol addiction that are a sad reality of northern life. We spent a lot of time reading the information panels alongside the roads during our two weeks in the Yukon. They were well done and I have to say that I now have a much better appreciation of the history of the north that led to this sad reality.
Thursday’s, in the summer, there is a Farmer’s Market along the riverfront. We stopped to enjoy the sights and smells. Small white tents cover the tables laden with everything from home-made breads, brioche, chocolate croissant, jams and jellies to Thai and Chinese food, spring lettuces and lots of artisanal jewellery and wood carvings. A beautiful natural setting but also a number of the first wooden houses built in Whitehorse have been moved here as “living” museums. Overhead we see a big white-headed eagle soaring over the river.
By this time we are a bit thirsty and so we stop for a refreshing rose’ wine spritz and another of those happy Whitehorse contradictions – served in large mouthed mason jar!
Time for dinner now and we decide to eat “light” given that for us it is already 10:00 p.m. with the time difference. We have dinner at a place called “Burnt Toast” and again a contradiction with the name and with the type of food served for dinner. One of us has the whitefish on a soft shell taco and the other a Kobe beef burger both served with a crisp spring salad and a maple balsamic vinaigrette and both of us very happy with our selection. And then for dessert a refreshing lime and basil sorbet.
By now it is nine o’clock Whitehorse time but the sun is still bright. We head back to the river front and sit on a wooden bench, the sun warm on our backs, swallows weaving in and out around our heads as they catch flies, the river is very still, all is quiet and in the distance we stare at three snow-capped mountain tops. There is a full moon in full day light. Today the sun sets at 23:07 and rises at 4:44 tomorrow morning. We start to learn about the effects of these long days where in fact there is no “darkness”. We feel so incredibly energized.
To finish up with Day 1, a story from one of the panels along the Millenium Trail. To most people the raven is a big black bird that conjures up images of witches and darkness. Here the raven is the official bird of the Yukon. Again the contradiction. For the indigenous people of the Pacific North West the raven has an important mythological role. Of the many legends is the legend of the “Raven Steals the Sun”. It presents the world as a dark place where the light is hidden away in a box. The box belongs to an old man with a beautiful daughter. Not wanting to live in darkness anymore Raven takes the shape of a pine needle and falls in the glass of water that the young girl is drinking. After being swallowed by the girl, Raven takes the shape of a human child, is born and is raised as the old man’s grandson. Eventually Raven is told about the box, turns back into a Raven and flies away with the “light”, permanently affixing it in the sky. So the Raven brings light to the world!