A Different State of Mine in Canada's Yukon Territory
Page 2

By Bruce Northam

Yukon lake

Syncing with the 1898 gold rush, a 21-year-old Jack London wintered near Dawson City. The influence of the north is evident in his five novels and 665 short stories. His short story, To Build a Fire is generally ascribed to contain the most poignant description of the cold ever written. White Fang and The Call of the Wild drew worldwide attention to The Yukon—the same Yukon acknowledging the long overdue taming of my wild.

The Big Picture Road Trip
There are some places in this world where humans cooperating with nature means more than pitching nuts to a squirrel. In the Yukon, it implies leaving wildlife as is. Coming full circle appeals to our nearly extinct roaming nature. My 500-mile C-shaped road trip in Canada's version of rapture summoned Yukon nature head-on without hitting it. The week-long ride began in Whitehorse, the "big town" (population 26,500), and included a segment of the Alaska Highway passing alongside Kluane (clue-wanee) National Park's stunning glacial icefields, dipping into Alaska, and finishing in Dawson.

Yukon icefield

The City of Whitehorse, along the legendary Yukon River, is equal parts settler and native Indian terrain. The First Nations word for big river is youcon. Their ancestors used the Yukon River Valley for food gathering and as a meeting place. Their Yukon region culture was based on mobility, which explains why they didn't establish villages with permanent structures. I can relate. From age 18 through 40, I called more than 50 places home—some in Southeast Asian bungalows, others in North Carolinian boatyards.

Driving the fabled Alaska Highway means a ride through Yukon country—this is my and most outsiders' introduction to the region. Ninety minutes from Whitehorse, I behold Kluane National Park, which claims the world's largest non-polar icefield. Combined with British Columbia's Tatshenshini-Alsek Park and America's adjacent Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks, it is 21 million acres—comprising the largest protected area in the world. Mostly covered in spruce trees, the park showcases steely rock peaks soaring above the tree line.

Yukon helicopter

My drive skirting Kluane—there is no road access into its iced heart—means encountering one other car per hour during peak season unlike America's National Park traffic jams that render boondock parking lots. This World Heritage Site steals breath like the Himalayas. The rare crossroads in this remote otherworld take on an increased importance. Enter Haines Junction, a sprawling valley encircled by Kluane's snow-capped peaks. From there, I flew in a four-seat plane over them for an aerial view of its undulating icy centerpiece and Mount Logan, Canada's highest point. This vast, forbidding otherworld is bisected by long, snaking glaciers and imposing ridged silhouettes painted by glacial stripes year-round. Angelina Jolie had nothing on the pilot. In another era (one including way more push-ups), I would've begged her into a cocktails-based summit. Instead, I went on a date with my laptop.

Yukon fish

Frontiersy Haines Junction is where I find baseball cap-sporting rural older men sitting in groups in a diner, while across the intersection the four-star Raven restaurant serves up gourmet fare prepared by African chef Congo Bongo, originally from the Congo. He feels right at home here; another witness to Canada's open arms. Nearby, Lake Dezadeash is a trout nirvana where ethical fishermen throw back would-be trophy Lake Trout measuring more than 40 inches—a resurrection of the native understanding that killing the biggest members of any species weakens its gene pool.

I testify to our girl-crazed fishing guide that I've retired from that category of trophy hunting. Wait, truth be told, I might have been forced into retirement. When the last of my childhood wingmen moved away to start family life in the ‘burbs, I endured as a lone wolf for another decade until finally growing a conscience—when I reported this news to my older brother Basil, he countered that I'd caught one, temporarily, like a flu.

Yukon bear

Back on the Alaska Highway—built in 1942 by the U.S. Military—I peruse Caribbean-blue Kluane Lake, stop to wave at several grizzly bears, and spy a nocturnal and reclusive wild-eyed lynx. I arrive in Beaver Creek for an overnight in a sprawling motel but not before viewing a hokey Vaudeville-like variety show with Alaskan cruise ship couples on an overnight land package. Like the first First Nations aboriginals on the Bering Strait migration route following the animals they hunted, this ilk of the cruise ship set, while on land, obediently follow name-tagged tour guides. Here, it also occurs to me that these permafrost-bedded roads need more maintenance than a marriage—I may claim to be more settled, but I didn't buy into that package.

I also meet other road-trippers on this bucket list drive and share stories of near and far. One senior from Florida, unfurling his map, swears, "Mr. Boredom has not been down this road before." This excursion is 99 percent wilderness, but every 200 miles or so, rustic tourist traps beckon. "Downtown" Chicken, Alaska is a rickety four-shop strip mall that's an on-the-edge experience for bus tourists on cruise excursion breaks. The final leg on the way to Dawson traverses the epic Top of the World Highway, a mostly paved road riding atop a series of mountain spines slicing above infinite backwoods. If this were a video game, it would be called Flying in a Car. Above the tree line, sweet air triggers welcome thoughts. Paradoxically, I recall something a three-wheeled motorbike taxi driver once told me in Cambodia: "Every road does not lead to Rome." Dawson City, yes.

Top of the World Highway

A Different Kind of Gold Mine
I ran into Klondike Kaye again at an acoustic rock concert inside the wood-burning church. She mentioned the previous night's all-night bash, and I confessed that I'd opted for a pillow, adding. "We're more bull-headed in youth."

Kaye, in a corrective tone, muttered, "Yeah, but a wise bull will still charge a vegan."

Yukoners needn't declare what's mine is yours—there's plenty of everything up here. In Canada, a loonie is slang for their one dollar coin, whose backside depicts a floating loon—the front is a stately portrait of their queen. This odd flipside pairing reveals royalty's irrelevancy in these parts. Here, in a retreat from predictability, the loons reign supreme.

I opened my phone, called my daughter, and headed home to that gold mine.

If you go:
Visit www.TravelYukon.com for more info. The 2012 Dawson City Music Festival is July 20-22.

Bruce Northam is the author of Globetrotter Dogma. The Directions to Happiness, a 125-country quest for gritty wisdom, comes out this spring. See more at American Detour.com

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Related articles:

Nome and the Speed of Sound Through Materials by Edward Readicker-Henderson
Mardi Gras on New England's Left Coast by Bruce Northam
Polar Bears in August by Amy Rosen

Other Canada travel stories from the archives

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