Whitehorse: Exploring Yukon's Capital City

On the Yukon River and under the northern lights, this town is packed with wild spaces and historic charm.

Urgent knuckles rap against my bedroom door. I open my eyes. The clock says 2:17 a.m. At the door stands the man I met at dinner. He’s in shorts, winded, fog seeping from his breath in the chill.

“They’re dancing,” Mike from Ontario explains.

It’s totally fine to wake fellow guests in the wee hours in the Yukon. At least when the northern lights are out.

I grab a jacket, slip on my shoes, and hop out into a brisk late summer night. Then I look up. Though it’s only the start of aurora borealis season (which lasts from late August to April), white lights are stretching across the sky. At first they’re slight and murky, then saturate into impressive bold stripes made from solar winds crashing into our atmosphere. I am, well, star struck. They make me think of unseen giants playfully running their chubby fingertips across our sky, as if it were a cosmic cake’s frosting.

“The only bad thing about living here is you don’t get any sleep,” says Wolfgang Bublitz, the German owner of Whitehorse’s Northern Lights Resort. He’s up admiring the view too. “It’s too beautiful.”

Whitehorse—named for Yukon River rapids tamed by a dam since 1958—is like many northern cities. Gorgeous backdrops of low-lying mountains and big skies rim a central grid of wide streets filled with many cubical buildings that seem, at times, like they’re bracing for winter all year long.

But art’s hold on the city is unmistakable too. Everywhere you look, colorful wall murals back buildings with tributes to First Nations culture, moustached Mounties or, in another case, Jimi Hendrix. A brochure I picked up at the Yukon’s visitor center lists 38 studios and art galleries in this town of just over 23,000. That’s about one per 600 residents, an almost Santa Fe-esque tally.

At Yukon Artists @ Work, an artist collective filling a cute royal blue house with a white-picket fence, I meet local artist Heather Hyatt. We talk art, Whitehorse, college life, then—invariably in an election year—U.S. politics. (“We don’t have anything like that here. No rallies,” she says. “Everything in Canada is just … nice.”)

By coincidence I bring up one of her favorite art subjects: ravens. I’ve been noticing the gangly birds all over town, peering at me with a squawk from atop power line poles. From a riverside sign, I learn of a local First Nations story of the raven as a creator/trickster who steals a box of light to create the sun.

“Ravens are clowns,” Heather adds, approvingly. “They used to tease my dogs. One would get my dog to chase him and the other would steal his food. They’re just wonderful.”

One of the Yukon’s most famous artists is the late Ted Harrison, a Brit who lived part of his life in Carcross, south of Whitehorse. His works hang in public buildings and illustrate books like Robert W. Service’s 1907 poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” In them, blocky smears of solid color unexpectedly brighten Yukon landscapes. Mostly it’s the sky—built of interlocking blues, purples, and golds—that arrests attention from the quiet scenes of local life, seen way below.

As the artist explains simply in the book Ted Harrison: Collected, “People see different things in the sky.”

After looking at a couple of galleries, I’m watching the huge Yukon sky above the downtown sidewalks. Puffy clouds seem to mark our Earth’s spherical curve, bending across the blue expanse. I try to capture it on my iPhone camera.

“Why don’t you take a photo in here?”

I look up and connect the teasing voice to a woman with blonde hair giving a goateed man a haircut in a salon. A sign on the door reads Natalya’s. I see some Russian script too.

"Mozhet byt,” I respond, proudly saying “maybe” with my long neglected, college-level Russian.

“Ah! Vy govorite po-Russki,” she strikes back. (“You speak Russian.”)

Then she notes, in English, that I need a haircut (I did) and should come back tomorrow for it (I did not).

Up on the bluffs overlooking town by the airport, the Yukon Transportation Museum has century-old train carriages, bush planes, and weird flatbed trucks that fill a hangar and an outdoor lot. But it’s a simple entryway exhibit that slows me most.

White messages dangle from a string, above a half-century–old Hermes typewriter. Visitors are asked to type answers to the question “What makes a Yukoner?” Results range from “practical” and “a big spirit” to “willing to try new things … even if that new adventure is using a typewriter” and—my favorite—“a lot of facial hair.”

I feel like I’m too new to the Yukon to contribute.

Around Whitehorse, it seems every local has a red canoe on top of their SUV, and at the downtown café, where I get coffee the next morning, everyone has hiking outfits of knit beanies, day packs, and tan faces. (One local told me, “Our only worry is where to hike on the weekend.”) People in Whitehorse love Whitehorse, for sure, but seem to live for the wild.

The 1.5-mile hiking trail up Grey Mountain, a bulky mass looming over the town, tempts me, but I decide to bike. The most popular route is the paved Millennium Trail, which makes a three-mile loop on both sides of the rushing Yukon River, then connects to another trail to the Miles Canyon, which is my goal. (I also wrote about canoeing through the canyon.)

I rent a bike downtown and follow the Yukon River, soon passing the S.S. Klondike, a 210-foot-long stern-wheeler steamboat built in 1929. From the late 1800s till the arrival of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s, 250 such boats filled the Yukon carrying people and goods to Dawson City.

After 20 minutes’ ride, I reach the Whitehorse Fish Ladder by a dam near the tail end of the longest salmon migration in the world.

“Hi,” says a young volunteer cheerfully. “You just missed them.”

As they have for the past 10,000 years, Chinook salmon take three months to swim up the 2,000-mile Yukon River from the Bering Strait. After the dam’s construction here in 1959, this 1,200-foot ladder was built, allowing fish to jump over vertical baffles and swim through submerged openings to continue their journey upriver. Most fall to starvation, predators, or fishermen on the way. This morning at 10 a.m., 72 passed through. I cannot blame them at all for not waiting 10 minutes for me.

Outside the ladder, an elevated walkway leads toward the river torrents. In the spray, I find the tiny Kwädąy K’è Gyü Kù (or Long Ago Day King Salmon Tent), which has a small exhibit of photos and traditional fish traps detailing the First Nations’ cultural link to the Yukon River. One caption reads: “Louis Smith, Fred Smith and Kitty Smith lived in this general area. The fishing was good.”

The past tense of that sentence saddened me. First Nations groups have lived along the Yukon here for at least 5,000 years and were eventually pushed away from their “sacred river.” But in 2005, new legislation granted the Kwanlin Dün, a self-governing First Nation, protection under Canada’s constitution. (Whitehorse’s excellent riverside Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, built in 2012, tells the story.)

Back on the bike, I follow a steep gravel road that reaches the shores of Lake Schwatka. The woman who rented me my bike warned there are two trails that follow the river from the lake’s south end through the woods toward Miles Canyon, made of a tight wall of ribbed, 8.5-million-year-old lava columns.

“Be sure to take the wider one to the left,” she told me.

But I only see one, and I take it.

The path is covered by dried pine needles and is clearly narrowing as I go. I stand on my pedals as my tires bounce over tree roots gnarling across my way. It leads me finally to the river edge. The water is now a stunning emerald green, and flowing fast, 20 to 25 feet below the cliffside rim trail. No one is around. I ride the brakes. And at times I must stop to carry the bike over a fallen log or past a gully drop that turns uneasily toward the cliff edge.

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I am definitely on the wrong trail. And not minding.

And that’s what I’d type up to define a “Yukoner” at the Yukon Transportation Museum.

How To Do This Trip

When to Go
Summer and winter are popular times to visit the area around Whitehorse. In late summer, I hiked, canoed, and biked. Winter is a popular time to come for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, and seeing the northern lights.

Where to Stay
In the summer, demand in Whitehorse is way beyond availability; book your accommodation well ahead of your trip.

Most visitors prefer staying just outside Whitehorse. A 25-minute drive south of Whitehorse, the German-run Northern Lights Resort has four cabins facing big skies and mountains, plus a hot tub to use. Another enviable spot nearby is Boréale.

In town, I enjoyed Coast High Country Inn, a standard hotel with a good bar/restaurant and a towering wood-carved Mountie outside.

Where to Eat
Whitehorse dining is surprisingly diverse, as the makeup of the local population has expanded in the past couple of decades. Sanchez Cantina is a colorful Mexican restaurant including several dishes from the owner’s native Veracruz. The art-filled Antoinette’s, run by a local from Trinidad, serves excellent Caribbean dishes.

Most popular with visitors, the historic Klondike Rib & Salmon is housed in a former tent-frame bakery that dates to 1900.

What to Do
Rent bikes from Kanoe People to go on the Millennium Trail or on to Miles Canyon. You can take half- or full-day canoe trips, with equipment and transport, from Kanoe People or Up North Adventures.

There are several interesting museums in town. The free Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre covers First Nations history in the area and can arrange guides for the exhibits. Best for a general overview and gold rush lore, the nearby MacBride Museum of Yukon History hosts many events, including a playful reading of Robert Service’s famed “The Cremation of Sam McGee” poem outside Sam McGee’s original cabin. (The real McGee, unlike in the poem, wasn’t from Tennessee and didn’t die in the cold.)

Depending on conditions, northern lights twinkle nightly from late August to April. The Northern Lights Resort offers nightly tours if you’re staying in town.

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