WHITEHORSE, YUKON — It’s not every day you find yourself walking onto an icy Canadian tarmac, ready to take a midnight flight to nowhere.
Yet this was the case for 47 passengers (myself included) onboard for the Aurora 360 Experience, stepping onto a chartered jet in the wee hours of Jan. 26. The blowing snow gave an illusion of minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit — a temperature the local Yukoners deemed quite warm. Our tickets showed the same takeoff and return point: Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport.
Our route? A three-hour, clockwise loop up to the Arctic Circle, east to the Northwest Territories and back. The objective: To hunt down the elusive, mesmerizing lights of the auroral oval. And about 18 minutes into our flight, as we headed north into the night, the northern lights began to show.
Removed from all light pollution, we soared across an expanse dotted with confetti stars, and before long, we glimpsed a pale-green band of light, stretched out like a piece of cotton. At 1:37 a.m. we crossed the Arctic Circle and veered east toward the Northwest Territories; around 3:05 a.m., the brightest ribbon of the flight swirled beyond our right-side windows. No doubt, Aurora 360 was a bucket-list experience I never knew I needed to have. (As with all nonessential flights, research the trip’s ecological footprint and consider offsetting your carbon.)
Back on solid ground, there was plenty of Yukon magic awaiting in the days to come. But first, it was time to crawl into a warm bed, visions of constellations dancing in my head.
The Aurora 360 program is an immersive, five-day tour introducing visitors to northwestern Canada. The Yukon is not for the meek or those tied to a rigid plan. After all, it’s home to the toughest dogsled race on Earth, which spans more than 1,000 miles. In this sparsely populated land, it’s no secret that Mother Nature runs the show. It’s best to arrive with proper winter gear (or rent from companies like The Base Yukon in Whitehorse) and ready to follow plans A, B or C.
Due to the whims of weather conditions, it’s possible your northern lights tour may get rescheduled. Yet, in my experience — this being my second time to the majestic territory — the unpredictability leads to a gradual unfurling. It nudges guests to loosen their grip and simply sit back to enjoy the ride.
About the same size as Spain, the Yukon lies east of Alaska, between British Columbia and the Arctic Ocean. The name originated from the Gwich’in First Nations word “Yuk-un-ah,” meaning “great river,” a reference to the Yukon River, which flows across the territory, through Alaska and into the Bering Sea. Some 40,000 habitants currently live in the Yukon; around 30,000 of them call Whitehorse home.
We started our adventure in the Yukon capital, a welcoming, walkable city where Christmas lights stay up into March, helping combat impossibly dark winter nights. Bright murals showcase the work of local artists, and buildings range from historic “log skyscrapers” to sleek, new condos. Easy day trips include Carcross, a hub for the captivating Carcross/Tagish First Nation culture that defines the territory (a one-hour drive), and Kluane National Park and Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest internationally protected area on the planet (two-hour drive).
Whitehorse buzzes with history; its location at the head of navigable water on the Yukon River once made it the endpoint of steel production for the White Pass and Yukon railway route — and a jumping-off place for travelers heading for Klondike gold. Between 1896 and 1899, a gold rush brought some 100,000 to the Yukon’s Klondike region.
These days, Whitehorse boasts an increasing number of commendable eateries, chic shops and cool hangouts. Our home base was the central Edgewater Hotel, a revamped, historical Main Street venue. There’s also much buzz about the brand-new Raven Inn, opening soon.
We ate and drank well, fueling up with treats from Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters, mushroom mochas and “Carrot Lox Toast” from Kind Cafe, and BLTs and Alaskan smoked salmon wraps at cozy Burnt Toast Café. Inside Wayfarer Oyster House, we savored fresh seafood and a warm ambience — marked by a shell chandelier and a walrus skull named Lewis Carroll. We thawed out at trendy watering holes like tucked-away Sheep Camp and Yukon Brewing (“Beer Worth Freezin’ For,” indeed).
For a true slice of local flavor, check out the scene at 98 Hotel, a dive bar that’s home to a “breakfast club” of morning drinkers. Bonus: Patrons who can name all the pelts hanging on the wall win a small prize.
We learned firsthand that Who What Where Tours, run by real-deal Yukoners, prove an educational and eco-friendly way to learn about the city, especially in slick months when driving is best left to the locals. Among more-distant options, this company guides trips to Takhini Hot Springs and Yukon Wildlife Preserve, a tranquil, 700-plus-acre property that features more than 12 species of northern Canadian mammals. (Think lynx, bison, caribou and the lovable arctic fox.)
It’s impossible to spend time in this place and not feel the duty to connect with the original stewards of the land. The Yukon is home to 14 First Nations representing eight different language groups; about 25% of the region’s population are indigenous peoples. In Whitehorse, we were honored to attend a special preflight gala at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, located on the sacred banks of the Chu Nínkwän (Yukon River).
We were also fortunate to connect with Vanessa Ægirsdóttir, maker of finished fur goods, and her partner and husband, George Bahm, inside their intimate shop in Horwood’s Mall. Together, the couple traps on George’s generations-old, Tlingit family trapline, and they also purchase furs from other First Nation trappers. George speaks passionately about his people’s utmost respect for nature; they hope customers feel this powerful energy when wearing Vanessa’s beautiful creations.
In Champagne, halfway between Whitehorse and Haines Junction, we stopped at Kwaday Dan Kenji, an outdoor museum of traditional Southern Tutchone culture. There, our gracious hosts Harold Johnson and Meta Williams led us through deep snow around the re-created village to share how their people used to survive long, unforgiving Yukon winters. (Harold says temperatures used to drop drastically lower than they do today.) Afterward, we broke bannock bread with our new friends, dogs swirling at our feet and a fire crackling in the wood-burning stove.
Another unforgettable highlight? Our stay at the dreamily secluded Mount Logan Lodge, located less than two hours from Whitehorse on the doorstep of Kluane National Park. Among the stillness of a whitewashed snow-globe world, we spent many hours here rosy-cheeked and relaxed, enjoying the hygge of the lodge’s main room. We chatted fireside with affable hosts Roxanne and David Mason and relished the delicious home cooking Roxanne so lovingly prepared.
On our biggest adventure day, with David as our intrepid guide, I tried my hand at driving both a snowmobile and a delightful pack of sled dogs — an activity I loved with every ounce of my being. As the joyful, bounding crew pulled me along a wooded trail lined with freshly fallen powder, my exposed cheeks stung and my eyelashes kept freezing shut, yet I felt a fresh-aired euphoria I haven’t felt in some time. That evening at the lodge, we enjoyed a blissful soak in the hot tub out back, with a sliver of moon hanging low in the rose-hued sky.
CASTING ITS SPELL
On our last night in Whitehorse, we gathered at the Gold Panner inside the Gold Rush Inn. The dress code, like most anywhere in these parts, is “whatever keeps you warm.” (I donned my multicolored, aurora-splattered tights, a conversation-igniting gift that will forever be a favorite souvenir.) We recapped our week over laughter, bison burgers and slightly out-of-place pours of wine.
A parade of stuffed-animal huskies marched above the bar, and the chorus of friendly conversation reverberated against an Old West tin ceiling. Near us, atop an antique upright piano, a sign-up sheet revealed the tarot-card reader — doing consultations in a concealed corner — was fully booked that Tuesday evening. (Rumor has it, her slots fill each week.) As I inhaled the strong aroma of her incense, mixed with the smells of the saloon-style bar, I smiled to myself and thought, I guess most everyone still needs to believe in a bit of magic after all.
And as long as the Yukon will have me, I’ll keep heading north for more.
Note: Though a number of factors contribute to your carbon footprint while traveling — aircraft type, your car’s fuel efficiency, the number of people you’re traveling with — in general, ground transportation that accommodates many passengers has the lowest environmental impact. Trains, buses or even your own car — as long as it’s full — will typically be the greenest options.