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20 Jun 2018

Exploring the frozen wilds of the Yukon

The Yukon, in Canada’s frozen north, offers the ultimate long-haul escape for nature lovers, first-time adventurers and wannabe explorers, discovers Mike MacEacheran.

Kluane Flight Seeing ice fields Sifton Air St Elias Mountains glaciers-credit Yukon Govt.jpg

Before the roller-coaster turns, before the whispery evergreens and before the caribou crossing, dog musher Vincent Galliard stands with a strange confidence for a man about to ride on to a frozen lake guided only by excitable huskies.


“There are two things you need to learn before you can master dog-sledding,” he tells me, matter-of-factly, before we lurch into the subarctic wilderness of Tagish Lake.


“‘Gee’ means turn right and ‘haw’ commands the pups to veer to the left. There’s a very fine line between colliding with the trees – so don’t mix them up.”


The Yukon is hallowed ground for entry-level explorers. Located in the north-western neck of Canada, sandwiched between British Columbia and Alaska, it’s the sort of bucket-list destination that’ll make your clients ooh and ahh.


Once a mighty cog in the machine that drove the Great Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s, it still conjures up images of fur-clad trappers and bearded outdoorsmen. Yes, there are majestic mountains; yes, there are life-affirming vistas and soul-stirring lakes and forests; and, yes, there are opportunities to see inky-black skies filled with the green-hued streaks of the Northern Lights.


However, the territory is now becoming far better known for its have-a-go adventures, particularly in winter. And – these days – it’s easier than ever to handle for first-timers.


Adventure for beginners

Adventure for beginners

Your clients don’t have to be extremely fit or hardy to visit the territory either. The most popular activities are snowmobiling, ice-fishing, mountain flights and dog-sledding: essentially a greatest hits of what’s best about the Canadian north.


Spotting gangly moose, woodland caribou or lynx in their natural habitat is imagination-tingling, too. All that’s really needed is a wanderlust to match the people who choose to live here.


Nor do your clients need to have struck lottery gold to pay for a trip. An increasing number of operators fly from the UK to the gateway cities of Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, including British Airways, WestJet, Air Canada and Air Transat.


Destination Canada, the country’s tourism commission, predicts a 3% year-on-year growth in UK travellers visiting Canada this year, bringing the number to 825,000 UK visitors. Most will be lured to the lower-lying provinces of British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta, but there’s now a strengthening argument for clients to take the two-hour connecting flight northwest to territorial capital Whitehorse.

Hit the ground running

Hit the ground running

Seen from the air, the Yukon appears vast and untouched, but it’s surprisingly easy to get around. If conventional self-drive holidays seem tame, the Yukon delivers the answer. Jump in a 4x4 to deal wit iced-over roads, and 30 minutes after landing your quest for freedom and fresh air begins.

It takes around five minutes to drive into the wilderness proper – saloon bars, all-mod-con hotels and craft breweries on one side, rustic log cabins and spruce-wrapped lake resorts on the other.


There’s a gigantic paddle steamer parked on the Yukon river in Whitehorse, plus the historic White Pass and Yukon Railway station, but the real adventure starts out on the scenic Alaska Highway.


From there, the road winds north, through a territory bigger than Germany or Japan, with peekaboo glimpses of gigantic mountains and sparkling glacial valleys streaming in via the rear-view mirror.

Ready for take-off

Ready for take-off

By the time I reach Haines Junction, jumping-off point for Kluane national park, I’m ready to swap the driving seat for a spot in a Cessna 206 six-seater plane.


What’s brought me here is a “flight-seeing” micro-adventure with Rocking Star Adventures pilot Daniel Clunies-Ross, and our plan is a two-hour, 300-mile circuit puttering over the world’s largest non-polar ice field.


Kluane is no national park with ideas above its station.


“That’s the emergency landing transmitter,” says Clunies-Ross, pointing to a flashing red button on the dashboard as the plane soars west from runway into wild blue sky. “Kluane is Canada’s largest national park, almost completely uninhabited, so it’s not a good place to get lost. But that’s why it’s so much fun to explore.”


From the cockpit, the visual thrills are Imax-worthy. Like most of the Yukon, it’s a natural wonder, an impressive labyrinth of Leviathan-sized glaciers, gargantuan ice fields and snow-packed summits. The final reveal comes with a quick loop around Mount Logan – at 5,959m, it’s the highest peak in Canada.


Those without a head for heights need not be intimidated. As Clunies-Ross says: “Once you get out here, it’s hard to say goodbye.”

Thrills and cultural frills

Thrills and cultural frills

As much as any adventurer wants to explore Canada’s frozen north, it’s also worth experiencing the living First Nations culture that surrounds it.


Near the town of Carcross, by lakes Tagish, Marsh and Bennett, that journey begins with snowshoeing, dog-sledding and ice-fishing – undemanding yet inspiring activities perfected by the Yukon’s indigenous tribes for centuries.


I spend the next few days trying them out at the Southern Lakes Resort and Inn On The Lake, two road-accessible, off-grid properties.


One mixes lavish salmon bake dinners with comfy woodsy cabins. The other wows with understated luxury, hot tub stargazing and a cameo from the aurora borealis.


The next morning, I join wilderness guide Patrick Beille for an ice-fishing masterclass. The hope is to catch lunch – a silvery lake char, perhaps – but after baiting, jigging, spinning and luring through a hole of sloshing lake ice, we’re left empty-handed.


“The fish’s metabolism slows in winter because of the cold, so they should be easy to catch,” says Beille, shaking his head. “Obviously not today. Just as well I brought a back-up.”


Moments later, a crackling fire is stoked on the snowy lake and the outdoorsman begins barbecuing a Yukon specialty: caribou sausage served straight from the spit. It is a moment to savour, literally.


It could be argued that the Yukon is the last refuge of the free spirit: some of the greatest scenery anywhere on earth, majestic lakes and mountains all to myself, dancing lights in the night sky and a thrilling snowmobile ride home. Surely that’s worth a trip north?


Book it: Magnetic North Travel offers a seven-night winter holiday to the Yukon from £1,625pp, including flights from Heathrow, eight days’ car hire from Whitehorse, a three-night stay at Edgewater Hotel Whitehorse, two nights at Southern Lakes Resort and two nights at Inn On The Lake. Trips can be tailor-made to include activities.



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