Yukonomist: Your Yukon life list

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

After another topsy-turvy and financially painful summer, Yukon wilderness operators are wondering already about next summer.

It’s time to invest, or not, in facilities, gear and marketing.

There are a couple big questions.

Will the tourists return in numbers, or does COVID have another surprise for us?

Will Yukoners keep up the frenzied buying of sleds and mountain bikes as if they were fresh eggs in Dawson during the Days of ‘98, or will they attempt to sell their pandemic purchases all at once on Kijiji?

And will Yukoners continue their pandemic-enforced love affair with local activities, or will they grab their vaccine passports and bolt for Vegas or New Zealand?

This last question is complicated by what I call the Frosty’s Conundrum.

Yukoners will spend thousands on flights, hotels and dinners to explore the natural wonders of Phoenix, the French Alps or Hawaii’s big island. Yet when they go to Kluane, they pack a lunch so they can save money on a Buffalo Burger with Chocolate Shake at Frosty’s in Haines Junction on the way home.

Yukoners will spend a day, often accompanied by a heart-pounding surge in adrenaline when the wind whips up, paddling across Lake Laberge instead of paying someone to tow them to the mouth of the Thirty Mile River. We will sleep in our trucks in a toilet-paper strewn highway pull-out rather than pay $12 to stay in a territorial campground. People will say “not yet” for decades when asked by Outside relatives if they’ve ever gone dogsledding, even though they drive past signs for dogsledding tours every time they take a packed lunch to Haines Junction.

I don’t think anyone really knows where the Outside tourists will go next summer. Or if the snowmobile and mountain bike markets are headed for a fall from a dizzy height like we’ve seen with North American 2×4 prices.

But we can do something about encouraging our fellow Yukoners to savour a bit more of the magic all around us.

What the Yukon needs is a Yukon Life List. These are the things you really want to enjoy at least once, whether you were born here or are grinning through your spouse’s temporary corporate transfer.

Everyone has their own list, of course. That’s part of the problem. Humans love to check things off lists. You may recall the days when American motorhomes all had a map of the United States with a sticker you could put on for each state you drove through. The urge to get that Alaska sticker drove a lot of business for gas stations, restaurants and RV-repair mechanics here.

So I’m going to go out on a limb and propose 10 things the industry should encourage every Yukoner to do, with as many out-of-town friends and relatives as possible.

This includes trips on boots, water, snow and bikes. Yukon trips have hugely different amounts of sweat and risk associated with them, so I’ve tried to include some easier ones along with some edgier options you can build up to. I’ve also excluded trips on both ends of the spectrum, such as visiting Miles Canyon or solo-climbing Mount Logan. Despite this, all these trips require a certain level of Yukon readiness beyond that needed to do the Gondola tour at Whistler.

That, of course, is a feature not a bug.

The first three are hiking trips with varying degrees of challenge. Many self-guide on these trips, but I’ve also seen Yukon guides showing people the ropes (and carrying the heavy gear!).

  1. The Chilkoot Trail. If you do just one of the 10, start here. It is a wonderful family trip and is packed with First Nations and gold rush lore. I’ve seen families with children as young as six doing the five-day scenic tour, or you can go all the way up to the trail-runner one-day special. There are plenty of park rangers and good bearproof lockers at the campgrounds, so it is a good introductory hike in the backcountry. I recommend starting with a halibut burger in Skagway.
  2. The Slims River and Kaskawulsh Glacier in Kluane. This is one of the flattest trails in the Yukon and also one of the most scenic, but the grizzlies and creek crossings mean that it’s no vanilla walk in the park.
  3. Grizzly Lake in the Tombstones. If you spend most of your time in the upper Yukon around Whitehorse, you definitely need to see this part of the country. The distance isn’t long, but the trail can be steep and rocky. The views and sense of accomplishment more than make up for it.

The next three are water trips. Here, safety demands some training and experience. A guide can be an excellent idea, as can renting boats with all the right equipment. You can also get the company to drop you off and pick you up, which beats getting your work colleague’s third cousin’s ex-girlfriend to leave your vehicle with the lights on at some random location in Dawson.

  1. Fishing in a canoe in Tarfu or Snafu Lakes. These are wonderful spots and, being smaller, less likely to get windy than the big lakes.
  2. Guided rafting on the Tatshenshini or Alsek Rivers. These are truly spectacular experiences and, unless you are a river guide yourself, going on a guided trip is the best idea. You can start with the one-day Tatshenshini outing before trying something bigger like the ten-day run to Dry Bay on the Alaska coast.
  3. Yukon River to Dawson. You may not have the time for the full Bennett-to-Dawson run, but doing a four or five day chunk can be a great experience. Some good options include putting in at Minto for the last leg to Dawson, or getting across Lake Laberge to do the Thirty Mile to Hootalinqua and then Carmacks. The canoe is the classic boat, but sea kayaks are also popular.

Getting out there in the winter is also part of the Yukon lifestyle. But the cold means training and experience is required, so again going on a guided trip can be the most fun and safest way to do some of these trips.

  1. Dogsledding. Yes, it’s a cliché. But, yes, it’s also super fun. I can guarantee you won’t forget getting to know the dogs, or packing relatives into a sled and sending them careening off into the forest. Since you don’t want to get into a modern-day version of Call of the Wild trying this with your own dog, a guided trip from an established Yukon mushing outfit is the only way to do it.
  2. Snowmobile touring. Do you ever wonder why all those people have sleds in the back of their trucks? Local operators offer a wide range of guided tours, from day trips around Fish Lake to longer multi-day expeditions. If you haven’t been on a snowmobile since you were a kid, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the invention of the four-stroke snowmobile engine, electric start and heated seats.
  3. Backcountry skiing or snowshoeing. You may ski or snowshoe around town, but there’s nothing like really getting offgrid. The Auriol Trail in Kluane on a sunny spring day is breathtaking or, if you are more avalanche-savvy, somewhere in the White Pass or Haines Pass areas.

Finally, don’t forget your bike!

  1. Biking is a mania in the Yukon. One option is to rent fat-tire snowbikes and try the winter version of the sport. Mount McIntyre has excellent trails. Or, if you haven’t tried a full-suspension mountain bike, rent some of those and take the group out on the trails. You can get a guide, or use an app like TrailForks which has digital maps and difficulty ratings like at a ski resort.

The most important things are staying safe and making fun memories with your friends and family. But if you end up spending a few bucks supporting the Yukon’s long-suffering wilderness adventure industry, all the better!

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.