Unexpected luxury cuts through the cold of an authentic Canadian destination.
As my plane lands on the frozen tarmac, I try to convince myself that traveling to Whitehorse in the middle of winter is all about embracing life as an adventure.
Two hours ago, I was smelling the pink cherry blossoms on the streets of Vancouver, and contemplating whether February was open-toe-shoe season.
Now I’ve tossed fashion to the Arctic wind, thankful to be greeted at the airport with a pair of Klondike boots and a puffy Gore-Tex parka. I’m keen to experience the authentic Yukon way of life — the cuisine, culture and recreational pursuits, I tell Carson Schiffkorn, the proprietor of Inn on the Lake, as we drive the remote stretch of highway to Marsh Lake, about 35 minutes outside of Whitehorse.
The rustic-luxe log cabin he built with his father embodies a spirit of escape. Guests gather by the crackling-wood fireplace and behold a glorious winter scene outside, with snow-flocked spruce trees and icicles sparkling like crystals in the late afternoon sun.
After dinner, I’m intrigued when Schiffkorn puts before me a bowl of vanilla ice cream with the suggestion that it will warm me up. As I lift my spoon, I’m about to learn the first of many poignant life lessons here in the Yukon: luxury is found in unexpected places.
This is no ordinary bowl of ice cream. The incendiary heat of cracked black pepper paired with the chill of the cream and a sweet ending of white wine pineapple compote is irresistible. The distinct fire and ice flavours echo each other in quick succession, like going from a cold pond to a hot Jacuzzi.
“It’s my favourite recipe,” says Schiffkorn, who’s made his mark as one of Yukon’s best chefs, known for his adventurous recipes infused with foraged ingredients, such as wild mushrooms, rose hips and low bush cranberries.
“The Yukon is a land of extremes, but that’s what keeps you vital,” he says. I’m in full agreement as I drift off to sleep that night, when a sudden knock at my door pulls me from dreamland.
“Northern lights! Northern lights!” The enthusiasm of tourists outside my room feels all the more surreal after a glance at my bedside clock displaying 4 a.m.
There’s that tug of temptation to pull the covers over my head and stay warm under the down-filled duvet, yet common sense mocks me. To travel all the way to the Yukon and not experience one of the most amazing and ethereal phenomena on earth would guilt me forever.
Catching a glimpse of the thermometer on the windowsill reading minus 37°C, I try to convince myself that for a girl who grew up on the prairies, this won’t be so bad. Yet as I step outside, the icy wind takes my breath away. Snow crunches beneath my feet as childlike excitement propels me down the path leading to the frozen lake — my front row seat at nature’s own theatre.
That’s when I see it. First a hint of neon in the starry sky, then a wavelike burst of green, and soon I’m transfixed by the terrestrial display of a shimmering aurora borealis. As the mystic light show unfolds overhead, we stand united in silence. This is the moment we’ve been dreaming of, the very impetus for our journey to the North, and a lifetime goal. In this remote, rugged wilderness, we have discovered a different kind of luxury.
In the words of poet Robert Service, “The wild sky is blazing… Swift splendours kindle, barbaric amazing!”
A scientist would inject more realism into the moment, explaining that these dancing lights above the magnetic poles are in fact collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.
We watch with marvel until the light of the morning sunrise forces the colour from the sky.
I was warned that if I went to the Yukon, my soul might tempt me to stay, and I admit as I board the plane back to Vancouver, I wipe tears from my eyes. My senses feel limited in describing all that I experienced. My journey up North has taught me that the best things in life can’t be bought — simplicity, contentment, adventure.
I’ve not yet landed, but already planning my return!
What to read before you go:
Start with the classics: Pierre Berton’s Klondike, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, British-Canadian Robert Service’s Yukon ballads: The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses, and House Calls by Dogsled, by Keith Billington.
How to get there:
Whitehorse is less than a three-hour flight from Vancouver and a six-hour flight from Toronto.
What to pack:
Northern winters require insulated clothing, and layering is a smart strategy. Local retailers sell everything from fur hats to down-filled jackets, and most tour operators will rent winter gear as well.
Where to stay:
Inns and bed and breakfasts provide that authentic experience of staying in the home of a real Yukoner, while hotels have the same conveniences you’d find anywhere else in the world. For a complete list of accommodations, from cabins to four-star chalets, visit travelyukon.com/Plan/Accomodations.