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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Yukon: where past and present live together

Yukon. The name alone evokes images of vast, frozen wilderness. Of cloud shrouded peaks, wolves hauling at the Northern Lights and ribbons of frozen river. But there is much more to this northern land that borders Alaska, the North West Territories and the Beaufort Sea.
When my family and I moved here, in 1983, it was an isolated land of resilient people. We drove several days north of Edmonton. The trees became thinner, sparser. When we finally spotted Whitehorse on the east of the Alaska Highway, we could have easily missed it entirely and ended up in Alaska. But we drove down toward the Yukon River and embraced the town that was to be our home for 9 years. It has been the easiest place I’ve ever lived (and I’ve moved 27 times!) to make friends. Because most people came from somewhere else.
Back then, Whitehorse did not have much to offer in the way of modern conveniences. There was a supermarket but bulk items were expensive because they were flown up or trucked up the Alaska Highway. There weren’t many restaurants, leave alone many coffeeshops. Now Whitehorse has two Starbucks, McDonalds and a plethora of box stores, including Walmart. It also has four airlines servicing the town, including a direct flight to Germany.
More than a hundred years ago, in 1897, gold was discovered in this sparsely populated, northern land. The ensuing Gold Rush brought people and awareness. It was the rugged ones that came. And stayed. It was the tough men and women who left the south to carve out a living in the north. They built log houses, hunted and trapped. They interacted with, and learned from, the First Nations people who lived here and knew how to survive in this harsh environment.
And, slowly, more came. A service industry sprang up. Mining. Logging. A school here, a hospital there. A store, a service station, an airport. Slowly, towns were born and grew up. Paddlewheelers connected towns via rivers. The First Nations people’s lives changed as they came into contact with the new settlers. Much of their culture was threatened, and then revived. Costumes, dancing, fur and beadwork mingled with French trappers, saloons, and dog sledding to form an intriguing, northern flavour.

Now, Yukon has its very own, distinct culture. It is a land like no other. A haunting land that gets under your skin and never leaves. Currently, the territory’s population is roughly 35,000 people. Some 27,000 of these live in Whitehorse, the capital city. That leaves 8,000 people spread out across 482,443 km² (186,272.28 ml²). Some towns boast 52 inhabitants. Whitehorse has all the modern conveniences of a southern city. Some better, like the incredible Canada Games Center, hosting an Aquatic Centre comprised of a 25 meter pool with 8 lanes, a leisure pool with water features and lazy river, an indoor waterslide, a hot tub, a steam room and a sauna. It has an NHL sized arena  as well as an Olympic sized arena and leisure ice for recreational skating. There is a Fieldhouse with artificial turf flooring, a Flexihall with sprung hardwood flooring, which accommodate a wide variety of indoor sports, a Wellness Centre and Studio. A 215m Indoor walking and running track circumnavigates the entire centre while parents can drop off kids at a Child Play Area with indoor playground. There are Meeting rooms to accommodate both business and social gatherings, Food services, Physiotherapy services and a Yukon Family Literacy Centre. Adult admission for all this? $7.50.
Combine this with northern allowances, seniors’ and other special services, and Yukon has morfed into an attractive place for families to live. And in this climate, they deserve all the facilities they can get.

Being back in Whitehorse for a visit, I rekindled old friendships, saw the house we built, the school my kids attended, and many other familiar places. I walked down the street in -30 weather with a howling wind that made it much colder and was reminded of why we moved south. I stayed in a wonderful B & B called Historic House B & B:
The house is in downtown Whitehorse and allowed us to walk to many places. But the best part if that we have the entire house to ourselves. My friend Gwyn and I feel like two spinster teachers, coming home to make a roaring fire in the woodstove. We huddle by the fire in our pj’s at night and watch the starry skies from our window. We were delighted to discover that this 2 storey clapboard house was built in 1907 as home for the real Sam McGee and his family. How cool is that?

I visited to the Takhini Hot Spring for a soak in hot, natural water while my hair froze. I watched the last mushers of the famous Yukon Quest come in. The Yukon Quest is known as one of the toughest dogsled races in the world. It runs more than one thousand miles between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon and mushers and dogs spend some eight days on the trail.

But the real reason I came was to participate, once more, in Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous. More on that in my next blog.

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