With fierce determination and a double dose of pride

Peter Morrell goes to the Yukon in Canada and loves the spirit of the land and the people

In his song Watch Sylvia Ride, Yukon singer/songwriter Grant Simpson tells the story of a woman who sets out on a 1500 mile journey in a covered wagon from Bella Coola in British Columbia with fierce determination and a double dose of pride to fulfil her dream in Canada’s north-west province the Yukon.

My journey to the province capital Whitehorse was a slightly more comfortable two-hour flight from Vancouver. I wanted to find out what made this remote part of the world so compelling to the people who live there.

Whitehorse, which sits on the banks of the Yukon River, was central to a drama that was played out more than 100 years ago, the discovery of gold in Dawson City, 300 miles downriver. Prospectors poured into Whitehorse from the coast having to endure on the way the punishing climb of the Chilkoot Pass. When they reached the town their journey wasn’t over. Early arrivals had to build rafts and then survive the rigours of the rapids, from which Whitehorse got its name. This was the fierce determination that the Yukon demands.

Whitehorse still has a very pioneering feel and is now home to around 20,000 people. It has got a saloon with dancing girls, good restaurants and most importantly some very spirited inhabitants, including those referred to affectionately as the colourful 5 percent. Part of my stay was to attend a conference which involved moving people around town in shuttle buses. There were absolutely no hitches at all, the drivers and guides were extremely friendly and we always arrived at our destination on time. They had a real commitment to making our stay as enjoyable and comfortable as possible and a real pride in the place.

There is a lot to see and do like the SS Klondike, a preserved paddle steamer that ferried gold miners downstream, and the Yukon Transportation Museum which tells the story of how boats, trains and planes were used to open up this difficult terrain. For a real insight into the province’s past the MacBride Museum of Yukon History is a must visit, covering everything from the culture of the First Nations people through the gold rush to later times.

For a first-hand look at what it was like for the gold stampeders back in 1896 we flew north to Dawson City for the day. Like everything in the Yukon the flight up was extraordinary. The scheduled service run by Air North uses a vintage 50 year old Hawker Siddeley 748 airplane, noisy and bumpy but a great experience. As we made our way down the Yukon valley we got a bird’s eye view of the pristine wilderness, decorated with the river which looked like a silver necklace and lakes shining like pendants.

This may be big country but it is by no means empty. Spread across the Yukon are 7,000 grizzlies, 10,000 black bears and 50,000 moose to name just three of the myriad of animals and birds which provide constant interest for the visitor. You don’t have to get far out of a town to see wildlife and a trip up the Alaska Highway which runs through Whitehorse is richly rewarded with numerous photo opportunities.

About fifteen minutes before landing the untouched landscape gives way to the scars left by the miners who have jet washed the top soil from the banks of the creeks in search of gold, the raison d’etre for Dawson City.

Our first stop on the short ride into town was Midnight Dome, a great vantage point to see the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. The views were stunning with Dawson nestling between the rivers, the current population of 1,300 is dwarfed by the 40,000 who flocked there during the gold rush.

If you have ever imagined what a frontier town was like then Dawson City is the reality. The wooden buildings are like a stage set but this is for real. It’s so easy to imagine the hustle and bustle on the quay next to the river where now another paddle steamer, the SS Keno bears silent witness to those heady days. Newcomers were known as cheechakos, the subject of another Simpson song. They were people who didn’t know about the terrain, the weather, the wildlife or the culture, for them it was a quick and steep learning curve.

But Dawson is not just about gold. This land has been populated by the First Nations people for thousands of years. In the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre we met their descendants and gained a fascinating insight into their heritage. They are called the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, from which the word Klondike is derived. The striking impression I got from meeting these people is the empathy they have with the land and again the determination shown by their forbearers to survive in this tough environment.

Dawson City also has a very strong literary history. Across town on 8th Avenue is an area called Writer’s Block. Within yards of each other lived three prolific authors, Pierre Berton, Jack London and Bard of the Yukon, Robert Service. With novels like London’s Call of the Wild and Service’s poem Songs of a Sourdough they immortalised the gold rush.

We visited the Commissioner’s residence with its 19th century furniture and decor. As we stood in the large hall resplendent with a wall-mounted moose’s head we got a surprise visit that really did liven up the atmosphere. Dancing girls in Can Can dresses from Canada’s oldest casino, Diamond Tooth Gerties turned up, making the 19th century scene complete.

Our final stop was the Dawson City Museum where we learnt that the town was named after the Canadian geologist George Dawson and developed from a group of tents to something more permanent thanks to the wealth generated by that elusive yellow metal. It is generally accepted that the major discovery was made by George Carmack and Skookum Jim in Rabbit Creek (later named Bonanza Creek). What is less clear is how the discovery was made. One of the more romantic theories is that Carmack’s wife was washing dishes in the creek when she spotted gold in the water. Whether you believe it or not, it’s a charming piece of folklore

At the museum we met an old miner who is still working his claim. After hair raising tales of grizzly encounters he describes how ‘pay dirt’ is mixed with water and passed through a rocker box to separate out the gold. Using this method his claim yields about eight ounces of gold a day. The more mathematically minded in our group multiplied this by the current price of about $1600 an ounce to prove that there still is ‘gold in them thar hills’ and that it’s worth mining.

Back in Whitehorse that night we watched the First Nations comedy duo Gramma Susie and Cash Creek Charlie, the Yukon equivalent of the Kumars at No 42. The cheeky Charlie and feisty Susie gave this hilarious pair universal appeal. After the show I caught up with Gramma Susie, aka Sharon Shorty, some 30 years younger than her stage persona. After talking about her world-wide travels with the act we got onto the subject of the Yukon. She gave me some advice, never judge a person’s wealth by their clothing she warns. The miner in Dawson City extracting eight ounces of gold a day was a prime example.

My four days in the Yukon were drawing to a close, the raw beauty of the surrounding snow clad mountains started to have an effect on me as a city dweller. They were both calming and invigorating at the same time. It was also quite humbling to realise that you were such a small being in such a vast place and I felt privileged to have made the trip. Sharing time with the locals you really started to appreciate their pride and determination in living in the Yukon which although tough has got a natural beauty and a spirit that gives a lot back.

And what happened to Sylvia and her dream? She met a handsome trapper and together they started the Sky High Wilderness Ranch just outside Whitehorse. Still there, it offers accommodation and horse trekking to give visitors the opportunity to enjoy the Yukon, whose motto is ‘Larger than Life’. Sylvia has gone now but her spirit lives on.

There are numerous holiday options available, hiking, driving tours, camper vans, follow the links below for visitor and tour operator information. Whatever you choose you will get rich history, stunning scenery, exciting wildlife watching but more than anything a real sense of pioneering adventure in a unique destination.

Useful links

Yukon Tourism www.travelyukon.com
Canada Tourism www.canada.travel
Frontier Canada www.frontier-canada.co.uk
Audley Travel www.audleytravel.com
Bridge and Wickers www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk
Inghams www.inghams.co.uk