Yukon Ho!

    Northern Quest for Canadiana

    S.S. Klondike in Whitehorse, YT. © Alan Luke

    What better time to experience a patriotic northern summer sojourn than over the Canada Day long weekend. And what better place to visit this year than Canada’s western most territory to witness the 20th Annual River Quest race during the Yukon’s 120th anniversary of entry into Confederation.

    We began our Yukon Trip commencing in Whitehorse at the Yukon River Quest (YRQ) aka “Race to the Midnight Sun,” an international competition. We viewed 88 teams from 12 countries competing during last year’s Sesquicentennial. A running start of the participants from the starting line to the waterfront is a collective mad dash. The world’s longest river race involves canoes, kayaks and even a smattering of stand-up paddle-boards heading down river, 715 km from Whitehorse to Dawson City.

    Last year, we observed a cornucopia of watercraft creations and this year should be no different. It generally takes the winning contestant close to 40 hours (with two mandatory stop-overs en route). Yukon Wide Adventures won the “Overall Voyageur Canoe” class in 2017. Those competitors finishing in 55 hours or less received a cash prize; 69 teams completed the world’s longest paddling marathon. Some of the watercraft have sponsors and whimsical names, such as an Aussie team called “Yukoned Me into It.” Stephen Pilon of Red Deer, Alberta, was sponsored by the Terry Fox Foundation. He conveyed that “Terry himself helped me with the training by putting cancer victim’s names on the kayak as my fuel.”

    The YRQ usually finishes on Canada Day in the Town of Dawson City with a population close to 1,400. Check out the local Canada Day Parade with the proud townsfolk led by a few RCMP officers heading along King Street and past the Post Office, Klondike Kate’s and Info Centre. We continued along the dirt road to the renowned Downtown Hotel and the Sourdough Saloon for a drink with a digit. Yes, this is the establishment of the infamous SourToe Cocktail. Since 1973, thousands of patrons have engaged in this challenge. An official SourToe Captain drops a gnarly mummified toe into your glass of Yukon Jack (naturally) and states, “You can drink it fast or you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.” I told the toe-bearer, Terry Lee, I suppose this is the “Canuck Yuck” thing to do. He simply nodded with a wry smile. After performing this ritual, we were presented with a SourToe Cocktail certificate and a member number, as well as a SourToe Cocktail Club Card.

    Teams dash to start the Yukon River Quest race in Whitehorse.
    © Jacquie Durand

    Subsequently, during the close to 19 hours of daylight, we moseyed up the gravel roadway to a venerable institution and Canada’s premier casino hall, Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. From a toe-tasting session to toe-tapping entertainment we strolled into the two-tiered hall. The Can-Can dancers here provide three floor shows daily dressed in period costumes. After our obligatory respite at Gertie’s during the midnight sun, we were awakened to witness a truly golden event. Spread along the riverfront was the annual Gold Panning Competition. Just south of Dawson City the public can pay for a gold panning session of their own. You’re guaranteed a few flakes of gold, which are put in a vial for you as a souvenir.

    The discovery of placer gold occurred on August 16, 1896, when three men staked their claim at Rabbit Creek (currently Bonanza Creek). By the end of 1897, the population swelled from 1,500 to 17,000 and in the following year it peaked at 30,000 with people residing in tents and log cabins. The Klondike Gold Rush was expedited by newspaper coverage which triggered a veritable stampede for the region. The western facades of shops and eateries reflect the golden era of the Klondike days with the gold standard evolving into more of a legacy as mirrored by myriad manifestations. The Klondike atmosphere is a quasi-historical homage which is proudly perpetuated by the local Dawsonians. Some stores are named after the prolific writers who lived here. At the north end of town, you can find the “writer’s block.” Within a block of each other on 8th Avenue are the former residences of prominent prolific scribes: Pierre Berton, Robert Service and Jack London; the latter includes a separate Interpretive Centre.

    It was time to get a topographical view of the region. So, we headed 75 km northeast of Dawson City for a flightseeing tour which provided an ideal aerial perspective over Tombstone Territorial Park. We could identify the tombstone-like rocky outcrop from which the 2,200 sq. km park derived its name. Rugged peaks of the craggy mountain ranges protruded from pristine wilderness, home to bears, caribou and moose.

    From the air to water, we returned to Dawson City for a river tour. Adjacent to the Yukon River Quest finish line sits the Klondike Spirit, an old faux sternwheeler. Reminiscent of the plenitude of paddle wheelers that plied the Yukon River during the late 1890s. An informational narration aboard conveys the history of Dawson City and the historical site of Moosehide.

    Gold panning collage.
    © Jacquie Durand

    Returning south to the territorial capital, we stopped by the riverfront to view the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site. More than 250 sternwheelers shipped cargo from Whitehorse to Dawson for more than 20 years (1929-52). Self-guided tours into the past on this floating museum are available.

    It was time to become airborne once again and drive west 157 km to Haines Junction for more flightseeing. Here we had the opportunity to fly over Kluane National Park and Reserve, (22,013 sq. km), home to Canada’s highest mountain peak, Mount Logan (5,959 metres). The terrain is dotted with turquoise-tinted glacial pools and sprawling glacier icefields. We viewed the Park’s most abundant large mammal, Dall sheep, foraging on the slopes.

    For some indigenous Canadian culture over the Canada Day long weekend, we experienced the Adaka Cultural Festival back in Whitehorse. The week-long arts and culture event involves 70 First Nations people, 60 volunteers and 40 workshops. Funded by different levels of government and other sources, the key project for the Sesquicentennial was the creation of four canoes. They had to weigh less than 40 pounds and be no longer than 16 feet long. It was fascinating to watch these veritable artisans at work on the distinctly different canoes such as a birch bark, spruce dugout and animal hide variations. The latter was a combined caribou and seal skin which they meticulously rubbed with lard as a waterproofing. Founder and executive director, Charlene Alexander stated, “this is a meaningful, interactive, total immersive experience for people”.

    From a cultural to a historical experience, we arrived at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. We explored Sam McGee’s log cabin in the museum’s courtyard. It was originally situated in downtown Whitehorse (1899). There is a replica gold miner’s saloon during the peak of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898. Intricate and colourful beadwork from 14 First Nations groups are displayed. One of the permanent exhibitions is the Wild World gallery. Evidently, the Yukon is home to an estimated 17,000 bears, 70,000 moose and 160,000 caribou. The life-like exhibition of assorted taxidermized wildlife includes a seven-foot tall grizzly bear.

    When you observe the Territory from land, air and water, you can appreciate the Yukon’s motto: “Larger Than Life”. Unequivocally, an underestimation during our quest to become ensconced in a genuine northern Canadiana adventure.

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    SOURCEText and photos by Alan Luke and Jacquie Durand
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