It’s not so much the fact that Jell-O shooters are being served at a makeshift bar in Whitehorse that has me flabbergasted. It’s who’s doing the serving.
The Honourable Scott Kent, then Yukon’s minister of education and—it must be noted—the politician responsible for the Yukon Liquor Corporation, is a celebrity server on a team supplying wine, beer, and neon-coloured shots to an appreciative crowd.
Kent is joined in his bartending duties by two other elected officials: Currie Dixon, the minister of environment and economic development, who looks young enough to still get carded, and MLA Stacey Hassard, who cracks open Yukon Gold beers like a man who’s done it a time or two before.
I’ve come to Whitehorse to attend a writers’ conference, and this evening’s gathering, under an enormous white tent on a pier overlooking the Yukon River, is the kickoff event. Although my days will be filled with meetings, meals, and (gag) networking, I’m determined to explore this legendary city north of 60.
I start early the next morning with a head-clearing jog in the bracing cold through the downtown core.
Except for Main Street, which is lined with interesting establishments both predictable (Hougen’s Sportslodge, with its wall of hunting rifles) and surprising (Baked Café + Bakery, which has a definite Kitsilano vibe), the downtown streets are kind of dull. That is, until I round a corner and see the log-cabin skyscraper.
Imagine four log cabins stacked on top of one another, with narrow porches sporting silver-pipe railings and a rickety-looking external staircase that must be the devil to climb when drunk, in a snowstorm, or—worst-case scenario—when drunk in a snowstorm.
The structure, built in 1947 as temporary housing for men working on the Alaska Highway, is still inhabited. I spy two weather-beaten rattan chairs on the top-storey porch and, a floor below, a pair of men’s hockey skates hanging by the door.
Around another corner is the Old Log Church Museum, built by Anglicans in 1900 as a place of worship and now a small museum with intriguing artifacts and stories about the Yukon’s pioneering days.
When I reach the banks of the Yukon River, I turn south and follow the riverfront path that parallels the historic White Pass & Yukon Route railroad tracks. (In summer, a bright yellow 1925 trolley offers an interpretive ride from one end of town to the other that a local tells me is “kind of lame, but the tourists like it”.)
I finish my sweaty sightseeing at the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site, where a gleaming white sternwheeler, one of some 250 sternwheelers that once plied the Yukon River and tributaries between Whitehorse and Dawson City, sits high and dry.
Over the course of the next two days, I jump at any chance to explore local haunts between conference sessions. One night, a group of us heads to the Klondike Rib and Salmon BBQ, housed in two old buildings, one a former tent-frame bakery built around 1900 (the tent canvas is long gone, but the shape remains). With its red-gingham tablecloths and walls covered in antlers, snowshoes, rusting licence plates, old booze bottles, and the like, the restaurant is known as much for its frontier ambiance as its wild game and fish dishes such as musk ox, caribou, arctic char, and, yes, ribs and salmon.
When we arrive, the restaurant is packed and we’re asked to share a table with an older fellow from Texas. As happens in the friendly North, we strike up a conversation with our tablemate, who tells us that he loves the Yukon; in fact, he leaves his wife at home each year “to come up here and shoot something”.
Another afternoon, I join a group of attendees for some sightseeing via mountain bike. A van shuttles our group to trails just south of the city, where the owners of Boréale Mountain Biking, transplanted Quebecker Sylvain Turcotte and his life and business partner, Marsha Cameron, along with guides, greet us. I’m particularly taken with Kate White, a bubbly, tattooed guide who takes charge of fitting everyone’s helmets and making sure we’re comfortable on the knobbly-tired, full-suspension bikes.
“Be sure to test the brakes,” Kate instructs and I squeeze hard, almost flipping myself over the handlebars when the sensitive brakes grab. “Better than a Ferrari!” she says.
We take off down distractingly scenic trails that for thousands of years were used by indigenous people and, in the late 1800s, by stampeders heading for the Klondike gold fields. The dusty single track weaves through scraggy Yukon pine forests and northern scrub, serving up peekaboo views of the Yukon River.
We ride beside Miles Canyon, where basaltic cliffs form a narrow chute. During the gold rush, hundreds of boats and several lives were lost in the canyon. Pedalling upstream to Canyon City, we stop to explore remnants of the wooden tramway that was built to safely transport supplies around the canyon.
Standing beside Kate in this now–ghost town, I ask what she does in the off-season. Before she can answer, another guide shouts: “She’s a politician!”
And so I learn that when my perky cycling guide isn’t adjusting helmets, oiling chains, and leading cycling tours, she sits in the Yukon Legislative Assembly as a member of the Official Opposition.
It’s enough to make you love politicians, at least north of 60.
ACCESS: A half-day ride with Boréale Mountain Biking costs $80; see borealebiking.ca/. For more info on travelling to the Yukon, see travelyukon.com/. The writer travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission.