Yukon Road Trip: The Ultimate Canadian Northern Adventure Part#1
I was at the edge of the world, on a mountaintop at midnight, with the wind ripping at my coat and sun not completely set. The waves of mountain and valley stretched to the impossibly distant fiery horizon, while at my feet a drop of hundreds of meters into the valley below.
It was only the second day of a 3,300-kilometre road trip through the Yukon, and I was running out of superlatives. For someone with his roots in the East, the Yukon felt young and wild. A part of Canada, no doubt, but like a remote colony with its own twist on the rules.
We, my friend Jeane Lassen and I, had taken a dirt road 60 kilometres out of our way on a bit of a whim.
“Are you going to Keno City?” One of Lassen’s friends asked over beers on the eve of our departure from Whitehorse.
“Weren’t planning on it.”
“You should go.”
That was the gist of it, and so we changed our plans. A suggestion given in passing that led to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
Anywhere else the signpost we had driven 11 kilometres up a dirt road outside of Keno City to see, would simply be one of the cheesy posts with arrows pointing every which way with the name and distance to some of the world’s great capital cities.
Here, though, outside a town that last year had six full time residents, it’s a reminder of just how isolated the Yukon is and by extension, you are when you’re there.
We were the first people up there this year. Well, technically Lassen and I were the second and third. Grant, the thick bodied, soft-spoken miner who had opened the route to the signpost earlier that day with an excavator, was the first and fourth.
It was Grant, whom we met at one of Keno’s two bars (yes: two bars, six people), who drove us to the top in his 1983 Jeep Wrangler. By this point Lassen and I had only been on the road a few days and clocked about 464 kilometres in her 2013 Toyota Matrix.
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Yes, we used a Matrix to drive the Yukon. Sure there are pick-ups everywhere, but there are more Matrix’s in the Yukon then I’ve seen anywhere else.
“I sometimes can’t find my car in parking lots,” Lassen joked when I asked her about the phenomenon. “People seem to love them here.”
But in Keno City, a one road mining town gone fallow waiting for the price of silver to climb high enough to start the mine again, the Matrix was at its limit. The dirt roads leading from the end of the paved highway in Mayo were potted and in some places almost washed out with spring snow melt.
The 11 kilometres up the mountain to signpost took about 45 minutes, and Grant wasn’t even sure if we’d make it. Parts of the road were washed out, and at points the snow banks were higher than the jeep.
I wasn’t as worried about rolling off a cliff as I was about getting stuck, which would mean a long walk back to town through bear country in the middle of the night. Black and grizzly bears line the roads in the Yukon in disconcerting numbers, and we were well into the middle of nowhere at that point.
After a few unforgiving switchbacks we made it. And it was beautiful. We spent close to an hour in near silence. I have never been anywhere like that and doubt I ever will.
And that was only the second night of what would be a 10 day road trip.
We had left the comparative civilization of Whitehorse on a Thursday morning. I was there to visit as many communities as possible as part of a program to teach kids about sport. Though you wouldn’t know it looking at me now, I represented Canada at the 2008 Olympics and won a bronze medal in sprint canoeing.
The other point of the trip was to see as much of the Yukon as possible. And there is no better way than by car. But it’s not something done without some preparation. An hour or so from Whitehorse and you’re in the bush. Gas stations are far enough apart that you don’t take them for granted, and on side roads traffic is sparse enough that you could be waiting a day or two for help.
To give you an idea of how sparsely populated the territory is, Dawson City, which would mark the end of the first stage of the trip, is the second biggest city in the Yukon, and has 800 year round residents. Whitehorse has 28,000. The entire population of the Yukon is 34,000.
In other words, it’s big and empty.
Ten minutes from Whitehorse and you’re driving on the Klondike Highway towards Dawson City, which is 550 kilometres north. At first I was just excited to see wildlife, but then I stopped looking for shadows in the trees and looked at the forests of innumerable black spruce and countless lakes framed by distant mountains.
Within an hour or so of leaving Whitehorse we came across the scars of a 1998 forest fire, the famous Lake Laberge from Robert Service’s poem The Cremation of Sam McGee, and Braeburn Lodge, home of a head-sized cinnamon bun.
Our goal that first night wasn’t far. We were stopping for a community dinner in Carmacks only 175 kilometres from Whitehorse, and then camping a little further along. But we took our time. Yukon highways have plenty of signs for lookouts and photo-ops, and for good reason. We stopped at probably 90 per cent of them and they were all worth it.
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Carmacks sits at an ox-bow of the Yukon River, the same river that miners during the gold rush used to get to Dawson. It’s a tiny community, but the gas station/grocery store is a must stop. Particularly because you don’t have that many chances to fill up.
About 15 minutes outside Carmacks on the left of the highway are the Five-Finger rapids. Less impressive now than during the Gold Rush when many miners lost everything, including their lives, when their homemade rafts came apart on the rocks, the view is worth stopping for.
We camped at Tatchun Creek campground for the night. The Yukon is dotted with lakes, rivers and creeks, and it’s worth buying a $25 fishing licence. Campgrounds are free in May, but a season’s pass is only $50 for residents, worth it if you’re sleeping more than four nights. Otherwise it’s $12 a night, but that includes firewood (bring a hatchet though, the logs are big).
We slept soundly that night and the next day we stopped briefly in Pelly Crossing before turning east on to the Silver Trail at Stewart Crossing towards Mayo and eventually what would be an incredible night in Keno.
Driving down the mountain in Keno was less scary, but it was late, and we had to be up early to cover the 300 kilometres to Dawson before noon. We thanked Grant, slept for five hours and then were on the road. Leaving Keno City, the heart of Yukon silver country, for the heart of the Gold Rush, Dawson City, Yukon.