"We stayed another 40 minutes," said a guide, Tom Thurmer (www.northerntales.ca). "It turned out really nice."
I saw some of their digital photos of the northern lights. They turned out really nice.
But this was another night. My lone designated lights night. This time there was no 10 p.m. tease, and clouds foretold the worst. Between upward glances at a starless sky, there was time to talk.
Thurmer first came to the Yukon from Germany as a tourist, in 1980.
“I read too many Jack London stories,” he said with a little laugh. “Seriously, that’s what brought me up here. I looked around and said, ‘Wow! This is cool!’ ”
He came back seven years later. He stayed.
John Ostashek is a bush pilot who does flightseeing tours out of Burwash Landing, a dot on the Alaska Highway near Haines Junction, Yukon.
“I grew up here, then moved away for 25 years,” said Ostashek, 48. He’d been living in Fort Nelson, a gas and oil town in British Columbia. Then, since 2007, he wasn’t.
“Most people that come to the Yukon and spend any amount of time, many’ll leave — and most of them come back.
“There’s something about this place that just draws us to it …”
What is it about this place?
The territory (38,000 people — 28,000 of them in Whitehorse, the capital — plus moose, caribou, elk, goats, foxes, bears (black and grizzly), sled dogs and lots of black spruce) is too unpopulated, still, to be designated a province. It’s about the size of California (population 38 million). Locals are split between calling it “The Yukon” — as in the old radio/TV show “Sgt. Preston of …” — and the official name, just “Yukon.” (That argument: “You don’t say ‘the Ontario,’ ‘the Saskatchewan.’ ”)
Its international airport is in Whitehorse. Regular flights arrive most days from Edmonton and Vancouver; what makes it international, late spring into fall, are weekly flights from Frankfurt for people who read too much Jack London. (His “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” — set in the Yukon’s Klondike River region during its brief gold rush heyday, 1896-1903 — still inspire. London’s cabin is a museum in Dawson City.)
Whitehorse works as a rest stop, especially for voyageurs hauling themselves along the Alaska Highway to or from that Promised Land. There are lodgings in Whitehorse, and surprisingly good restaurants, and outfitters and day-adventure companies and gas stations and museums and a Wal-Mart. A lot of travelers just stay overnight, refuel and move on.
Which amuses Thurmer, immigrant sky guide.
“I like to joke around that, you know, they have ‘the Last Frontier’ on the Alaska license plate? A lot of Americans drive through here on their way to Alaska,” said Thurmer, “and on their way there they pass the Last Frontier. This is the Last Frontier.”
And that, apparently, is what grabs people.
Bob Baxter grew up in Windsor, on the Canada side of the Detroit River, which he crossed regularly to cheer for the immortal Al Kaline and the mortal Ray Oyler. After college, with a degree in engineering, he worked for a time in Winnipeg, wanted adventure, flew to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, looked out the airplane window, saw flatness, stayed on the plane and continued to Whitehorse. Today, 35 years later, he and a partner operate Yukon Brewing on the edge of town (www.yukonbeer.com).
“I had no idea what the Yukon would be until we landed here, and I said, ‘Oh, jeez, there’s mountains and a river and trees!’ ” he recalled. “Outdoors is right outside the window.”
Why should people visit this place?
“Well,” he said, with a hint of a smile, “at the end of the day you don’t come here for the shopping.”
You come here for the day hikes and a true wilderness experience. Drives? The Alaska Highway is maintained year-round, and the section to Haines Junction and beyond into Alaska is special — but there are other roads: When they’re passable and the daylight lengthens in March and April, the Dempster (which extends past the Arctic Circle) and Top of the World Highway out of Dawson City are dazzlers. The Klondike Highway, which links Whitehorse and Dawson (allow six hours), is both a beauty and historic; dreamers chased riches partly via this route in the years after the first strike, and they built Dawson City into a boomtown of 30,000 — that, like most of the dreams, quickly went bust.
Dawson, current population 2,000, has a few gold rush-era remnants, hardy residents who can handle the occasional dips to 40-below (C or F), a few places to stay and eat, frontier-style dance hall girls in a modest (but Canada’s first) casino and several places to imbibe — one of which, in the Downtown Hotel bar, features (ready for this?) the Sourtoe cocktail. Garnished with a severed human toe. A tradition since 1973, the current toe is No. 11.
Said Terry Lee, the toe’s current keeper and captain of the ritual: “It is disgusting, isn’t it?”
In rational weather, the Yukon — or just Yukon — is hiking and climbing and biking and fishing and wildlife viewing and canoeing and scenic drives and other outdoor pleasures.
December and January can be pretty grim, but winter temperatures typically begin to moderate in February, and from then into April that’s a time to celebrate such seasonal pursuits as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, those northern lights — and mushing.
"The draw of the Yukon," said Gary Burdess, who let me do two-plus hours, guided, on one of his dogsleds (www.skyhighwilderness.com), "is the lack of all the boundaries. There's an incredible amount of rivers and lakes. And you don't have to go far — you just hike into them."
Or fly over them. Ostashek (www.rockingstar.ca) takes folks over Kluane National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home of Mount Logan — Canada's tallest peak — the largest ice fields outside the polar caps, lots of glaciers and zero roads.
From up there, you can see Alaska. Ostashek is staying in Yukon.
“You have to kind of like the outdoors and doing outdoor things,” he said. “We love it. We absolutely love it.”
The return to the United States went through Vancouver airport.
“So what brought you to Canada?” asked the customs agent, in Canadian.
“I’m a travel writer,” I said, “and I came to do a story on Yukon.”
“Oh — way up there, eh? Did you see the northern lights?”
“No, and I’m (miffed),” said the travel writer.
“Well, then,” said the Canadian. “You’ll just have to come back …”
(Alan Solomon is a freelance writer.)