If life is short, summer is even shorter. To check an item off our bucket list and get a taste of the Yukon, we opted to fly to Whitehorse from Vancouver, rather than spend days and days driving nearly 2,400 kilometres. A long weekend is not nearly enough to explore this sliver of the magnificent northern territory, but an extended weekend makes for a great start.
Take the 135-minute flight from Vancouver to Whitehorse. (We travelled on Air North, which is partly owned by Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, situated in a place called Old Crow. The company’s president and cofounder, Joe Sparling, is one of its Boeing 737 pilots. A revelation: it serves light meals! For free! These include warm chocolate-chip cookies, all prepared by an in-house culinary team in its Whitehorse kitchen. The return flight was $356 per person, all in.) Check in to a hotel downtown. (It’s best to be right in the town centre to walk to so many attractions in a city this spread out. It’s bigger than Montreal, Surrey, and Mississauga by area but has a far smaller population, barely reaching 30,000.)
First stop, and an absolute must: Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre. Situated on the banks of the Chu Nínkwän (Yukon River), this gorgeous, welcoming place has artwork and exhibits (including the current Wild Lives: Portraits and Stories from Yukon Traplines, with life-size colour photographs of people who work with and use the area’s wild fur). There’s a beautiful long house as well as a sacred space. When a staff member asked if we’d like to learn more about the latter and take part in a traditional smudge (a symbolic or ritual cleansing of mind, body, spirit, and emotion) we didn’t hesitate. Using one of four smouldering, sacred medicines (cedar, sage, sweetgrass, or tobacco), the experience, elders say, must be entered into with good intent. “We smudge our eyes so that we will always see the good in others”; “We smudge our ears so that we will only listen to positive things about others”; “We smudge our mouths so that we will only speak well of others”; “We smudge our heart to open it to compassion and caring for others”.
There’s more, but suffice to say it was a moving, humbling experience and an incredible honour. Deep breath. Catch it, then head to the Outdoor Fireweed Community Market (3 to 7 p.m.) a stone’s throw away. It’s home to locally grown organic berries, greens, and edible flowers; baby slippers and hand-carved jewellery; and more.
Have dinner at G&P Steakhouse & Pizza, a family-run spot that’s been in business since 1974. Flaming saganaki, souvlaki, rack of lamb, and filet mignon are hits. Go for a riverfront walk or play beach volleyball afterward, as it’ll still be light out when you’re done eating. (The city gets about 19 hours of bright daylight at this time of year, though “darkness” is really more like twilight. When we visited in mid-July, it started getting darker around 11:30 p.m. then light again at about 3:30 a.m. If your black-out curtains have you sleeping in till 8 a.m., you’ll be shocked by how intense the light is at that hour).
Get oriented with a city tour. Sure, you could easily make your way to places like Miles Canyon and the Museum of Transportation with your own rental car and a guidebook, but there’s nothing like getting golden nuggets of information from a local. We went with Who What Where Tours and had a blast. (Did you know that the bar at the 98 Hotel has the country’s second oldest liquor licence and, home to the original “breakfast club”, it starts serving liquor at 9 a.m.? Or that the territory's official flower, fireweed, can be used to make jelly? Or that, of the Yukon’s 14 First Nations, 11 have settled land claims and are self-governing?) A highlight of this guided excursion is Miles Canyon; possibly, you’ve never inhaled air so pure.
For lunch, stop in at Burnt Toast Café. (Faves: Gnarly Barley Salad, with goat cheese, roasted onions, peppers, tomatoes, seeds, and greens with a maple-balsamic dressing; and the Alaskan Smoked Salmon Salad with berries, fried capers, feta, mixed seeds, and shallots). Either solo or with a tour company, start the afternoon at the 700-acre Yukon Wildlife Preserve (home to 13 species of Northern Canadian mammals in their natural habitats, including mule dear, arctic foxes, and bison) before melting in the Takhini Hot Pools. Although the structure itself is in desperate need of rejuvenation, it’s still a relaxing dip, the pool split into two sections, one reading 36 degrees Celsius and the other at 42 degrees.
Hit happy hour at the unpretentiously hip Dirty Northern Bastard pub before settling in for a cozy dinner at the adjoining Miner’s Daughter. Standout dishes include a bison burger with house onion jam and local Arctic char with fresh dill and capers.
After coffee and freshly made scones at Baked café, it’s time for a day trip to Carcross. Located on the Klondike Highway 73 kilometres south of Whitehorse, the community is home to Carcross Commons, a cluster of studios, shops, and a collection of traditional Tlingit and Tagish art. (Prince William and Princess Kate came here on their 2016 Royal Tour.) Steps from the Carcross Art House (where Yukon Liberal MLA John Streicker was volunteering the day we were there) is sandy Bennett Lake, a shallow if mightily chilly body of water with breathtaking mountain surroundings.
On your way back, stop in at Caribou Crossing Trading Post. It’s a touristy junction to be sure, but worth a stop to pet and play with local husky puppies. Also take a look at Carcross Desert (“Canada’s smallest”, or, more accurately, a system of sand dunes) and the stunning, aptly named Emerald Lake, the Yukon’s most photographed body of water, for good reason.
Back in Whitehorse, catch an hour at MacBride Museum, which is home to First Nations artifacts and Klondike Gold Rush history (including the way indigenous families were displaced as a result). The town’s original telegraph office (a little wooden cabin with red trim) has been cleverly incorporated into the museum’s contemporary addition. Next: zip to Winterlong Brewing, which is in a light-industrial area on the road to Mount Sima (the local ski hill); it serves craft-beer flights and often teams up with Wayfarer Oyster Bar, on hand for freshly shucked oysters. Refuel over dinner at Antoinette’s, a sunflower-yellow Caribbean restaurant run by Antoinette Oliphant, a Tobago native who grew up in Toronto. Look for spicy pork, curried stews, “floats” (a Trinidadian fry bread) and, the signature drink, Guavatini.
Walk, run, or bike the five-kilometre Millennium Trail, which is part of the larger (15-km) Centennial Trail. Afterward, have lunch at Klondike Rib and Salmon. It operates out of the two oldest, still functioning buildings in Whitehorse from late spring to fall only; the food is okay (skip the berry pie) but the kitsch factor makes it worthwhile. On your way to the airport, stop in at Lumel Studios, an uber-friendly glass-blowing facility run by Luann Baker-Johnson that offers daily demonstrations as well as workshops (including “hot dates”). File this place away if you ever come back to Whitehorse in the wintertime, when the heat of the furnaces will help drive away the bitter cold.
If you do go back to Whitehorse when it’s -30 degrees, you will have a much better chance of seeing the Northern Lights. (There’s not enough darkness in the summer sky for the natural light show.) Besides, there will be lots more you'll want to explore than even the best and busiest long weekend can afford.