The spell of the Yukon

Flying over the St. Elias mountain range in Kluane National Park © Barb Sligl
There's a bounty of wild beauty to be found in the Yukon, from mountaintop to the bottom of a glass…

Far below me, and far beyond my line of sight, stretches the surreal, snaking strip of a snow-and-ice-choked glacier. Or what looks like an ice highway. It’s the Kaskawulsh Glacier. At some 25,000 square kilometres, its size is hard to take in, literally and figuratively. It curves around the jagged peaks of the St. Elias range in the southwestern reaches of the Yukon for more than 60 kilometres, at some points six kilometres wide where it converges from different arms—a gigantic, lacy fan dotted with blue glacial pools.

Blue-tinged ice crevasses as seen from the air in Kluane National Park © Barb Sligl

I’m in a little bush plane (outfitted with skis for those occasions when the weather allows Captain Tom Bradley of Icefield Discovery to actually land on the glacier) and struck dumb as we fly from the shores of oh-so-turquoise Kluane Lake into Kluane National Park towards Mt. Logan, Canada’s highest peak. I see the massif, its 5,959 metres just emerging above the clouds. As the plane soars and banks around this mountainous hinterland it’s as if I’m looking upon something undiscovered, wholly new.

The blue, blue waters of Kluane Lake © Barb Sligl

Often called Canada’s Himalayas, the St. Elias Mountains are some of the youngest and tallest with six peaks reaching higher than 5,000 metres. Part of the world’s largest tract of internationally protected land (made up of Kluane, Wrangell-St. Elias, Glacier Bay and Tatshenshini-Alsek parks in the US and Canada), it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And all the standout stats—most seismically active inland area in North America, biggest massif on Earth, largest non-polar icefield in the world, 200-plus glaciers—reinforce an underlining feeling I’ve been having throughout the Yukon. This place is all about superlatives.

In Whitehorse, the capital, I sample what might be the cheekiest cocktail in one of the best-named bars: Half in the Bag (because, yes, it’s a gin-and-St. Germain mix served in a bag with a straw) at the Dirty Northern Bastard. In this public house—wood-panelled, antler-adorned, mummified-cat-displaying (the petrified cat resides in the adjoining Miner’s Daughter restaurant and was found during a reno of the Dirty Northern)—I hang with a happily rowdy crew of locals and sample another nowhere-else drink: the Oldest Pussy. It involves rolling dice to see what shot of whisky I’ll get, from Oban to J&B.

At the Dirty Northern Bastard in Whitehorse and Terry Lee, “Toe Captain,” of the Sourtoe cocktail in Dawson City’s Downtown Bar © Barb Sligl

The vibe at the Dirty Northern is a nice warm-up for my next stop, Dawson City, a mere (in Yukon perspective) six hours away. This territory is a vast place. It’s pointless to try see it in one visit, although with just a few main highways connecting a stray number of communities (there are less than 34,000 people living in the entire territory), it’s simple to criss-cross from Whitehorse to Dawson City and back to Whitehorse to get to Haines Junction and Kluane National Park.

In Dawson, I continue the Yukon’s odd ode to drinking at the Downtown Hotel. This is the home of the Sourtoe cocktail, which is just what it sounds like: a human toe (donated by those who’ve lost their appendages to frostbite or otherwise) in Yukon Jack liqueur (“the black sheep of Canadian liquors”). As I down the stuff—under a sign that says, “man the feck up!”—the toe must touch my lips but not pass them (swallowing the toe would cost me $2,500). Done. I join the 66,836 others who’ve been “served” before me—a number that keeps growing.

Things get lively at the Dawson City Music Festival © Barb Sligl

Certificate in hand, I join locals (who scoff at the touristy toe experience) for a rousing set of music at a surprising number of venues—the banks of the Yukon River, a 1902 church, the ballroom of a Gold Rush-era building and a tent over a mucky lawn where gumboots are in order. The Dawson City Music Festival is on and things are hopping, but this tiny town of less than 1,400 residents is always ahum, which I feel acutely in the Pit, a year-round dive of the most-entertaining kind, and after stumbling out into the midnight sun.

I continue my pleasant hum back in the natural beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, where I end my Yukon foray on the waters of the Tat as the Tatshenshini River is also known. It’s a wild ride, and my rafting guide (with Tatshenshini Expediting), who goes by “Hot Rod,” tells me stories of nearby Million Dollar Falls, one of which claims the presence of that elusive gold nugget, still out there waiting to be found long after the great Klondike Gold Rush came and went. “I imagine all the treasure we’re floating over,” he says. And I think to myself that the real treasure surrounds us right now—from snowcapped peaks and frothy white waters to desiccated cats and toes, nuggets are hidden throughout the Yukon. Φ

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