Ode to the Yukon

The Yukon has long captivated me and a recent road trip to the Territory only deepened that fascination. The wildlife and geography are stunning. A mere 40,000 people inhabit an area the size of Spain. I also noticed a paradox among the people I met: where you have less resources, you often have more resilience. The extreme isolation and climate in the Yukon breeds a kind of innate creativity and heightened capacity to solve problems. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. This resilience is something I’m trying to bear in mind on projects where constraints abound. Below are further reflections on the road trip:

“You have your money mixed up,” the postal clerk barked, returning an American quarter to me and demanding a Canadian coin instead. After nearly two decades in Canada, this was a first. I’d never been questioned about spending the occasional US coin hiding in our circulation, those tiny migrants from the troubled South. But that wasn’t going to fly in the Yukon.

“Yukoners are stubborn,” a local friend later explained. “You have to be if you’re going to survive eight months of winter.”

Ever since migrating to Canada myself from the troubled South, I’d wanted to explore Canada’s big backyard. After months of sheltering-in-place, when the BC border with the Yukon opened up on July 1, we took the plunge, putting 7,000 km on a rental car on a meandering route from Victoria to Whitehorse.

The drive is an adventure in itself. The road north is not yet entirely paved:  gravel stretches appear on major routes to the Territory as a sizable crater on our rental car windshield bore witness. Halfway up the province, what seem like major towns on the map turn out to be a single pioneer residence or a derelict gas station. Even when the road is paved, there’s not enough traffic to bother painting lines on the asphalt. Wildlife abounds: we counted 11 bears, a herd of bison, a waddling porcupine, even a furtive lynx. And the landscape is stunning beyond description.

Who knew there was a desert in Canada? A cluster of mountains near Carcross stand in perfect proximity for their rain shadows to overlap. The result is two square kilometers of billowing sand dunes and arid-adapted plants just around the corner from lush forest and emerald lakes. Who knew that Canada had the world’s largest non-volcanic mountain? Denali in Alaska gets trucks named after it but Mount Logan is nearly as tall but a staggering 32 kilometers wide – larger in mass than any peak on our continent and with far more glacial snow and ice than Everest. Who knew that forests could extend unbroken into the horizon like oceans?  Boreal trees, runted from long winters, stand in ranks stretching hundreds of kilometres resulting in a silence so profound you can almost touch it. Larger than Life is a perfect slogan for the Territory.

The human culture is larger than life as well. Among the 40,000 or so inhabitants, the Territory has a disproportionate number of Olympians, backwoods pioneers, and thrill-seekers. Events like the Iditarod and Yukon Arctic Ultra – a 430 mile road race in February – are not for the faint of heart. Gold panning is still a viable business or weekend side hustle. Most local kids have hunted and fished more by the time they are teenagers than the rest of us will in a lifetime.

“We feel like we are giving our kids a 1980s childhood,” said a mother of two in Whitehorse. The internet is limited, so screen time is as well. Many kids only watch movies on DVD, and keep their own collections to trade with friends. In her neighbourhood, children as young as six roam unsupervised through the nearby woods. “When it’s dinner time we send a few adults out on bikes to round them up.”

That kind of independence fosters both resilience and creativity among adults as well. End-of-life canoes get sawed in half to form a matching pair of display cases in shop windows. In the dead of winter, Takini Hot Springs, just north of Whitehorse, holds a hair freezing contest:  the water is plus 30 degrees Celsius but the air temperature can be minus 30 degrees or below.  Last year’s winner was an Asian man who styled his hair into a noodle bowl complete with embedded chopsticks.

But the story of Yukoner resilience that haunts me most is of three men who crashed their pickup truck on a -50 C January night north of Carmacks. They attempted to get wood to build a fire, but the snow was too thick to gather branches. One started walking the road, but soon realized help was beyond reach. They waited. Hours passed. No other cars came by. One man said he started to feel warm and unzipped his coat – a sign that delirium was setting in. With time and options dwindling, they decided to set their own pickup truck on fire for the warmth to survive. That desperate decision saved their lives.

The Yukon cold and dark are intense, but no account would be complete without attempting to describe the light. The summer days in Whitehorse are long with sunrise at 3:00 am and sundown at midnight. When night comes, it isn’t the black we are used to, just a very deep blue known as nautical twilight. During the day, sunlight filters across the landscape in different angles than we are used to in the South. The light is somehow more radiant, more luminous. It ‘pops’ a bit more. Sunsets last two hours, the giant arc of sky painted in pinks and dusty blues.

One Friday night we started a hike after 9:00 pm, knowing we had hours to explore before the light faded. Heading out of town, I noticed a huge physically-distant lineup outside Coyote Entertainment in a dingy strip mall. It was probably the longest line I’d seen in the Territory.  

“What’s that?” I inquired.

“Oh, that’s a DVD rental store,” my friend replied.  “They’re still big up here.”

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