In 1897, Jack London travelled from San Francisco to the Yukon with dreams of striking it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush. Like most of his contemporaries, he failed spectacularly as a prospector. But, during the 11 months he spent in the Yukon region, he became so inspired by northern life, with its uncompromisingly beautiful landscapes and rugged characters, that he went on to write about it in bestselling works like The Call of the Wild and To Build a Fire—books that remain as evocative of the North as the day they were published.
Such is the Yukon, a land so epic in scale, it can lift a person to inspiring heights.
Last June, as the calendar ticked toward summer solstice (June 21), I flew to Whitehorse to immerse myself in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Around this time of year, people up north are full of energy, savouring the near-constant daylight. They don’t sleep much, they go for late-night canoe trips and all-night bike rides and they stand in front of easels or behind tripods to capture a golden twilight that is measured not by minutes, but by hours.
Here are some of the best ways to pass the time in the feverish days leading up to the solstice.
Meeting Local Farmers
I may not be panning for gold, but it still feels like I’ve hit the motherlode. It’s early afternoon and I’m wandering past stalls at the weekly Fireweeds Farmers’ Market in Whitehorse’s Shipyards Park. Open mid-May to mid-September on Thursdays (and Saturdays starting mid-June), Fireweeds is an intimate market with a couple dozen vendors selling everything from basketball-sized lettuce and fresh low-bush cranberry jelly to jewelry made from antlers.
It’s no secret that winters in the Yukon are cold with long nights, but summers are blessed with bright sunlight that makes for a brief, but intense growing season, one that is attracting more and more people into the farming business. Growers of Organic Food Yukon, or GoOFY, counts among its members almost 20 farms in the Whitehorse region.
A cool breeze whistles off the nearby Yukon River as I chat with Kate Mechan, one of the vendors and a member of GoOFY. Mechan’s Elemental Farm recently started a fresh vegetable box program. “We deliver weekly to restaurants, and we start seeds in March in our greenhouse, which is heated with a wood stove,” she says.
Wood stove—it doesn’t get much more Yukon than that. I buy a bunch of carrots and crunch into some northern goodness.
For many people, the Yukon spells adventure. People like Vancouver Islander Wayne Roberts. In 1998, Roberts discovered his version of paradise on a visit to Carcross, located some 70 kilometres southwest of Whitehorse. Wedged on a sandy isthmus between Bennett Lake and Nares Lake, Carcross sits at the foot of Montana Mountain, a sprawling piece of geology littered with old mining trails and works.
Roberts, a mountain-biking aficionado, began brushing out the historic Mountain Hero trail, which became an under-the-radar backcountry epic for Yukon mountain bikers. The popularity of the trail inspired the Carcross/Tagish First Nations to start Single Track to Success, a program that employs and trains CTFN youth and non-native youth in restoring and building trails on the mountain. Since 2005, this program—which Roberts has worked with—has created a mountain-biking scene that has outgrown expectations.
I am lucky enough to sample part of the scene, grinding up Montana Mountain road before dropping into a gem called Nare’s View. It’s a swooping single track that whistles through thick forest and traverses rock bluffs with eye-popping views of the valley-bottom lakes.
“I just fell in love with the Yukon and the riding potential. Now the potential is [realized],” Roberts says as we sip Yukon Gold pale ales after our ride.
The combination of the Carcross scene with the bountiful trails around Whitehorse has put the Yukon on the map as a riding destination. It has also birthed some only-in-the-North summer events, including the 24 Hours of Light Mountain Bike Festival, held the last weekend in June and claiming the honour of being the only 24-hour race in the world “where lights are illegal.”
In Kluane National Park and Reserve, 160 km west of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway and Haines Highway, the wilderness is as expansive as the summer days are long. Massive icefields meander and descend from Mount Logan (the apex of Canada) and other chiseled peaks, while boreal forests sweep toward wildflower meadows.
One morning, as threatening clouds stack up against the mountains, I follow hiking guide Brent Liddle along the Rock Glacier Trail. Wind rustles trembling aspens as the trail leads us up to a geological marvel—a slope of rocky talus that sits atop ancient glacial ice.
“I first came here 40 years ago,” says Liddle, explaining it was a dream job with Parks Canada—helping to establish an interpretative program for Kluane—that brought him north. “I [had planned to stay] for three months one summer, and I never left.”
As we gaze out across the park’s vast expanse, it’s easy to see why. At 22,000 square kilometres, Kluane has rich habitat that supports one of Canada’s highest concentrations of interior grizzlies, mountain goats, Dall sheep, caribou and other wildlife. A few valleys away from this zoological variety, you’ll find superhighways of ice like the Kaskawulsh Glacier, which belongs to one of the world’s largest non-polar icecaps.
“It’s such a diverse region,” says Liddle, who likes to capture Kluane’s beauty in watercolour. “You go a short distance and you get a huge change of perspective.”
Visiting Grey Mountain
On June 21, I partake in a favourite local tradition—a pilgrimage to Grey Mountain, which overlooks Whitehorse. I navigate along a bumpy gravel road that ascends, with increasing steepness, toward a bony limestone crest. Below, a dense forest of spruce and fir spreads across the Yukon landscape like a blanket of emerald green.
As I drive, I reflect on the day’s earlier activities. In the morning, I took part in National Aboriginal Day festivities, where I listened as Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Ruth Massie gave thanks to the bounty of summer in front of a capacity crowd at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre. In the afternoon, I packed in a bike ride with born-and-bred local Paul Christensen on a trail called Broken Truck, so named because it passes by—you guessed it—an old broken-down truck. And, earlier this evening, I rocked out to the Raygun Cowboys, who were headlining the annual Sunstroke Music Festival down at Shipyard Park.
It’s near midnight, the witching hour of solstice night. Up north, the dusky twilight lingers for hours and hours, capturing the landscape’s subtleties and nuances in a soft glow. I roll to a stop next to a few other cars parked beneath a radio tower on the mountain’s summit. A foursome of young people sit on a windy outcrop next to the parking lot. Preferring solitude, I hike along the trail before scrambling up a steep switchback to my own personal aerie. The surface of Lake Marsh to the southeast is a ripple of shimmering light; the sort of golden light that inspires celebrated Yukon photographers like Peter Mather.
“You get that beautiful summer light, [with] the rivers, the mountains and the people, and you put it all together,” Mather tells me later, by way of describing the magic of photographing the Yukon. And I truly get what he’s talking about.
[This story appears in the June 2015 issue of WestJet Magazine and has since been updated]
The Best Places in Canada to See the Northern Lights
Canada is a prime destination for northern lights viewing, best experienced between October and March. Watch them dance in the night sky above Lake Superior near Thunder Bay, in Whitehorse, on Prince Edward Island, in Yellowknife or near Edmonton.