I was looking for an adventure and saw a cheap flight to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. October seemed to be the latest month to visit before the long winter. After some research, I discovered that it would cost the same to do an open jaw ticket going into Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory and out from Yellowknife. To get between the two, Air North offered a once-weekly flight for just $110 CAD ($80 USD). So, it would be 1 day in Whitehorse and 2.5 in Yellowknife. Yukon has a ton of places to see, so this would be a teaser for the inevitable road trip in the future.
October 3, 2023: North of 60
The cheapest routing from Southern California up to Whitehorse departed not from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) but rather from John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Orange County. I have never flown out of this airport. An Uber from my apartment would be more than $100 so I decided to get clever. I discovered that I could take the Amtrak from Burbank to Santa Ana. From there, the Uber would be only $20. The train ended up being free due to my accumulated points riding them in the northeast, but the cash fare was $19.
There are 3 daily trains from Burbank to Santa Ana and only 1 left early enough to make the flight. The rail journey took about 90 minutes, of which 20 were spent at a pre-planned stop at Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles. While the scenery was ugly, I was overall very pleased with the service and would use it again.
The Uber took 12 minutes to reach the airport at which point I waited 3.5 hours for the 3-hour flight to Vancouver.
Once in Vancouver, I cleared immigration and transferred to another plane. This second flight took 2 hours 15 minutes to reach Whitehorse (it´s a long way up there!!!). Whitehorse is just north of the 60th parallel. The northern border of most Canadian provinces is the 60th parallel and the phrase “North of 60” means you are in the Territories and are far north. This is not entirely true as parts of Quebec and Labrador do extend past the 60th, but…close enough.
We arrived at Erik Nielsen International Airport (yes, it is an international airport, as for many years it has received weekly flights from Frankfurt, Germany during the summer) at 23:00 where I caught a taxi into town for $25 CAD. My hostel was open and I snuggled into the oh-so-cozy dorm bed. What a long day of travel!
October 4, 2023: Whitehorse
After a fantastic night´s sleep, I met the hostel owner, Sarah. The hostel is in the basement of her house and is a true labor of love. She really takes the effort to learn about each guest staying and truly cares about each person. She also definitely has an eye on everything going on; said in a less-nice way, she is a control freak. Because of this, there are many rules written around the hostel. For example, you can only brush your teeth in specific sinks. The most egregious rule is that all guests must completely vacate the hostel from 10:00-13:30. This is to allow Sarah to conduct a deep clean of the premises, work on projects and I suppose have some “me time”. Since I was planning on exploring during that time, I was fine with the rules, but this would have really irked me had I stayed any longer.
The day started with a walk through town to get breakfast. The weather was sunny and just above freezing. The architecture is a mix of heritage and more modern buildings. Along the way, I spotted two red foxes!
My first real stop of the day was at the three-story local museum. Here, I learned about the history of the region.
Geography is everything for Whitehorse. The Yukon River is one of the largest rivers in the north. It forms in Northern British Columbia and flows all the way through Alaska to the Bering Sea. The river is easily navigable except for a single series of rapids. The White Horse Rapids, named for looking like a stampede of horses, were so treacherous that they would claim dozens of lives each year. Additionally, a narrow canyon called Miles Canyon was located just above the rapids. While technically navigable, these twin roadblocks were exceedingly difficult to traverse to all but the best captains.
Two indigenous tribes regularly traveled through the region and consider Whitehorse to be part of their historic territory. The name of one of the tribes, Kwanlin Dun, literally means “People of the Rapids”.
The destiny of the region would change during the world-famous Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 when thousands upon thousands descended on the Yukon to make their fortunes. The gold was in Dawson City, which is north of Whitehorse but downstream on the Yukon River. The easiest yet longest way to reach the gold fields would be to sail to the Bering Sea and then go up the Yukon River across Alaska until Dawson City. A more treacherous route would involve taking boats down the Yukon from the headwaters in British Columbia, but Miles Canyon and the rapids led to the destruction of many boats. In the 48-hours after the 1898 thaw of Lake Bennett, 7,000 (yes thousand) boats attempted this route. Of those, 150 sank in the rapids and many more suffered a horrific multi-day portage to avoid the risk of entering the rapids. The need for a new route was desperately needed.
The rail companies got creative and to build a shortcut utilizing the town of Skagway, Alaska just 150 kilometers south. The White Pass & Yukon Railway which opened in 1900 bypassed the rapids by crossing a mountain pass too steep to hike and is considered an engineering marvel. Once in the newly built town of Whitehorse (which was relocated across the river and had its name truncated from 2 words to 1), passengers transferred to steamships that could get to Dawson City faster and safer.
As the transit hub of the region, Whitehorse boomed – even more so than Dawson. In 1953 after the construction of the Klondike Highway, which bypassed Dawson City, it was decided that Whitehorse would become the capital of the Yukon. Today Whitehorse houses 75% of the Yukon´s 40,000 people. Dawson City, now essentially a summer-only settlement, didn´t get totally left behind: it was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and still is considered the top cultural hub in the Yukon.
1800´s history (especially mining history during the 1800´s) is full of the most colorful characters. I don´t have time to go into all the characters, but many of Whitehorse resident Jack London´s stories take place here during this era.
Besides the history museum, a top tourist destination is the SS Klondike, a historic steam ship that transported passengers between Whitehorse and Dawson. Unfortunately, the ship was closed for the season.
The Kwanlin Dun tribe operates a beautiful cultural center. The building mostly functions as a gathering space for tribal functions and educational programs for young tribe members, but there is also a small museum. Entry was free.
After a lunch of elk and bison sausage, I headed to the Yukon Legislature. Yukon is a territory and not a Province of Canada. I do not understand the difference functionally. The other two territories are the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Today happened to be the first day of the legislative session, so I decide to attend. Yukon´s legislature functions the same as the Provinces. It is a unicameral parliament with a formal government and opposition. This stands in contrast to the other two territories where members are not part of political parties and govern by consensus. There are only 19 members of the legislature so the odds of getting elected here are….pretty good!
The current Yukon government is the center-left Liberal Party. The opposition is the center-right Yukon Party (which splintered off from the national Conservative Party). In an interesting twist, there is a third party called the New Democratic Party. While not in the government, they have agreed to support the Liberals in appointments and votes of no confidence, ensuring that the Liberals have the government. The New Democratic party appeared to be left of the Liberal Party and has among its members, the first non-binary legislator in all of Canada!
Because it was the first day of the session, the day was mostly dedicated to formalities. First, the Sergeant at Arms paraded in the mace, which represents the power of the King of England since Canada recognizes him as the Head of State. MPs introduced their guests and made statements on remembering the missing indigenous women (a shocking and far more recent issue than I realized- I would highly recommend researching this) and energy efficiency. While all parties supported both causes, the wording used was quite different. For example, the Liberal party remembers the suffering not only of indigenous women but also LGBTQI+ and Two Spirit (a term for LBGT indigenous people) people. The Yukon Party said energy efficiency is important in so that Yukoners can save money and be less reliant on the government utilities. All said, Canadian politics and political debates are more liberal than American politics.
It was now 14:00 and I still had lots of exploring left. Just south of town is a 15-kilometer hiking loop along the Yukon River.
The first part of the trail is called the Millennium Trail and cuts through some stunning forests where the leaves were at peak color. This portion of the trail ended at a hydroelectric dam that conceals the White Horse Rapids. Boats can navigate around the dam through a lock system and salmon can navigate around the dam by climbing the world´s longest salmon ladder!
Past the dam is its lake.
On the far side of the lake was Miles Canyon. I crossed over the Yukon River on a pedestrian suspension bridge.
The return trip along the western side of the river was less scenic because of the nearby highway. One highlight, though, was seeing floatplanes take off.
Back in town, I got dinner and went to sleep. Or so I thought.
At 22:00, Sarah woke up the entire hostel because the Northern Lights were out. The aurora was strong enough to be seen in town with a nearly full moon! The streak of green was clearly visible from the back porch. As we sat longer, the lights danced. Glorious!
The peace and quiet was disrupted by the sound of planes taking off. The newest tourism trend here are aurora flightseeing tours.
I attempted to get a better view by walking into town, but instead we just discovered people having sex in a car. I felt relieved to have seen the northern lights on my first night because now I did not need to pay for an expensive tour in Yellowknife.
October 5, 2023: Yukon´s Airline
At 5:00, I woke up to get to the airport for my 8:00 flight. Whitehorse´s airport is one of the few on earth where you can easily walk from the city center. I decided to do it to save on the taxi ride and because I did not want to rely on a taxi at this early hour.
While still cold, the weather felt considerably warmer than yesterday. A warm front often means a storm is coming and the snowstorm arrived just minutes after reaching the airport. It snowed about 2 inches/5 centimeters. When I asked if the snow would disrupt or cancel my flight, a fellow passenger and said “You´re flying with Air NORTH. They are probably the best in the world at flying in snow.”
True to their word, the flight took off without a hitch. The deicing was truly rapid fire.
I ended up sitting next to an airline employee. I asked him why my flight to Yellowknife was so cheap when flights in the Canadian Arctic are typically 4 figures. He said that Air North´s business model is to allow everybody in the Yukon to fly. The airline was founded by Whitehorse local Joe Sparling with the tagline Yukon´s Airline. Based out of Whitehorse, they initially connected Whitehorse to smaller towns in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. In 2002, when looking for funding to purchase 737s to fly to gateway cities in southern Canada such as Vancouver and Calgary, Sparling found funding from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, which lives in the fly-in-only town of Old Crow in far northern Yukon. The tribe purchased 48% of the business. Together they dropped fares so that everybody can afford to fly and access the Arctic and so that Yukoners and tribe members can reasonably access the rest of the world. Yukoners are extremely proud of their local airline.
The scenery over this remote part of Canada was stunning. Endless white mountains!
Two hours later, we landed in Yellowknife.
Whitehorse has more than enough to entertain for a day. The city has museums and restaurants and just outside are stellar hiking trails and even hot springs. I get the feeling that Whitehorse is just the tip of the iceberg and that even more amazing natural scenery is just a few hours away. Hopefully I can come back for a road trip.
The hostel was a strange one. While Sarah’s rules were annoying, I saved a lot of money and saw the northern lights because of her. Also, it is always nice to know that somebody is looking out for you. All said and done, I would stay there again.