Travel

In Canada’s Yukon Territory, Northern Lights and Winter Fun


Frozen hair is a nuisance in most places, but at the Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs in Whitehorse, Yukon, it’s a higher calling. Every winter, hundreds of people try to freeze their hair into a troll-doll-like coif for a chance to win cash prizes of 2,000 Canadian dollars, or nearly $1,500.

And just in case that doesn’t give you goose bumps, Andrew Umbrich, 36, the hot springs’ owner and general manager, has opened a designated snow-rolling area to let bathers cool off without banging into the rocks surrounding the pool. “I have to give them a safe place to roll because they’re going to kill themselves on these boulders,” Mr. Umbrich said.

These are the kinds of safety considerations that tend to arise in rugged places like the Yukon, a roughly 186,000-square-mile wedge of northwestern Canada that extends from British Columbia across the Arctic Circle to the Beaufort Sea. Its long winter nights and boreal location make it a prime destination for viewing the northern lights, and with the sun’s magnetic field approaching the peak of its 11-year cycle, sending more charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere, 2024 could bring the best displays in years (one reason Whitehorse landed on this year’s New York Times 52 Places to Go list).

Those long subarctic nights also make for plenty of pent-up energy, which Yukoners let off just as the sun begins to make its resurgence in February, with the joyous — and decidedly offbeat — Yukon Rendezvous, a festival in Whitehorse that celebrates its 60th anniversary this year from Feb. 9 to 25 with events like chain saw chucking and flour packing, not to mention the hair freezing.

Destination Canada, the national tourism board, has increasingly promoted festivals like Yukon Rendezvous along with other wintry experiences. While the bulk of travelers visit the Yukon in the summer months, winter visits were on the rise before 2019. After taking a hit during the pandemic, the number of international visits recovered, but remained 21 percent below 2019-20 levels last winter.

In 1988, Luann Baker-Johnson, 64, of Whitehorse, carried 494 pounds of flour for 30 feet to place second in Rendezvous’s flour-packing contest, a grueling challenge that has its roots in the late-1890s Klondike gold rush.

Ms. Baker-Johnson, a glass blower and owner of Lumel Studios, now makes some of the prizes, including a nearly three-foot-long glass ax, for the festival’s competitions. Ms. Baker-Johnson’s daughter Shanta Ferguson, 31, a Rendezvous champion, threw a chain saw 32 feet, winning the 2019 women’s competition, an event whose appeal will be self-evident to anyone who’s ever struggled to start a chain saw in freezing temperatures.

Ms. Ferguson and her husband, John Ferguson, 32, run the Gather Café and Taphouse next door to the glass-blowing studio. The menu features fresh local ingredients — no small logistical feat in the remote, frozen North, where imported produce can look a bit haggard. The Arctic char tacos are served with greens grown hydroponically in nearby shipping containers. “People are surprised by the quality and caliber of restaurants up here,” Ms. Ferguson said.

With thousands of people expected to converge on Whitehorse for Rendezvous in the next few weeks, local residents are getting ready. “What I love about Rendezvous is that everyone has the opportunity to enter. They can toss logs, throw an ax, chuck a chain saw and it doesn’t matter if you win a competition or not, it’s such bizarre fun,” Ms. Baker-Johnson said.

The territorial government’s tourism office provides 100,000 dollars in operational funding to the festival and promotes it on the Travel Yukon website and social media, even offering tips on Rendezvous dress code — typically suspenders, feathers and other 1890s garb, along with plenty of warm clothing.

That last bit is sage advice, as Stephanie Hammond, 49, discovered in 2011, shortly after moving to Whitehorse, when she joined the local roller derby group’s float in the Rendezvous parade. When temperatures dipped to minus 35 Fahrenheit, she assumed the parade would be canceled — it wasn’t — and was surprised when her team piled into the back of a pickup truck in roller derby costumes, fishnets and all.

Dog sleds have crisscrossed the Far North since long before the days of “White Fang.” But with climate change making the snowpack unreliable, dog-sled races have run into some difficulties. In 2016, a mild winter in Anchorage forced organizers of the Iditarod, the world’s most famous dog-sled race, to rely on snow brought in by train. The year before that, the Babe Southwick Memorial, a dog-sled race originally held on the Yukon River during Rendezvous, was relocated because the ice had become unsafe. Rendezvous no longer holds dog-sled races (the FirstMate Babe Southwick Memorial Race continues under different organizers), but there’s still plenty of action at the Yukon Quest, a roughly four-day dog-sled race from Whitehorse that reaches Dawson City, about six hours northwest by car, on or around Feb. 7.

Dawson City, a major destination for fortune hunters in the 1890s (including Jack London, the author of “White Fang”), still draws travelers today. The town of about 2,400 is home to Canada’s first gambling hall, museums and other colorful buildings — many of them tilting ominously as the permafrost thaws under their foundations. Warming permafrost is a widespread problem in the Yukon, causing landslides and destabilizing soil. Dawson City residents must occasionally jack up the buildings to keep them level.

Dawson City hosts the Thaw di Gras Spring Carnival (March 15 to 17), a Rendezvous-like event where you can cheer on dog-sled teams, toss an ax or watch adults race on tricycles. The town also challenges those with iron stomachs to sample a local tradition, the Sourtoe Cocktail, at the gold-rush-themed Sourdough Saloon. After taking the “Sourtoe Oath,” initiates drink a shot of whiskey (“Most club members prefer Yukon Jack,” the saloon advises) garnished with a preserved human toe. It doesn’t count if your lips don’t touch the toe. Over the years, the club has acquired 25 toes (all donated).

Once initiated, you may want to clear your palate at BonTon & Company (reservations recommended), a Yukon culinary landmark famous for its housemade charcuterie. After dinner, take in live music most weekends down the block at the Westminster Hotel, which locals lovingly refer to as the Pit. If you’re in town between March 28 and 31, you can catch a movie at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.

The days are especially short in Dawson, a mere 165 miles south of the Arctic Circle, but there are plenty of outdoor activities, such as snowshoeing the Midnight Dome, a viewpoint overlooking the Yukon River and Klondike Valley (and often the only place to catch a few rays of direct sun).

At her home just outside Whitehorse, Teena Dickson, 53, answered the phone for an interview from her “night office” — her hot tub. “Oh wow. She’s coming out early to visit us!” Ms. Dickson said, referring to the green curtains of light waving above. Many Indigenous cultures have a special connection with the northern lights. Ms. Dickson, who is Chipewyan, described them as returning ancestors: “It’s our spirit world coming to visit.”

Ms. Dickson owns and operates Who What Where Tours, a company that not only offers northern lights tours, but also takes visitors to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, where they can ride a bus, walk or kicksled — a small, self-propelled device — around a three-mile loop to see northern animals like musk ox, bison, caribou, moose, lynx and arctic fox in a natural landscape. “In the Yukon, you can hear the quietness,” she said.

Visitors who want to learn about the area’s Indigenous population can tour Long Ago Peoples Place, a First Nations camp, where they can hear about Southern Tutchone history and culture. “In the winter, people want to know how we survived,” said the Yukon First Nations member and camp manager Meta Williams. Imagine what it was like for it to be minus 69 Fahrenheit, she said, “living in a brush shelter, packed with snow and sprinkled with water” (a way to add a layer of insulation from the wind and cold).

Indigenous tourism has expanded rapidly in Canada, outpacing the overall growth rate of tourism in the country. The Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association works with 15 to 20 Indigenous tour operators across the territory who offer dog sledding, snowmobiling, ice fishing and traditional drum making, among other activities. Many First Nations economic development corporations have invested in tourism-related businesses like airlines and hotels.

Ms. Williams hopes that visitors leave Long Ago Peoples Place with a new understanding of the past. “Our history is not all written in books,” she said. “When we started back in 1995, I had no idea that someday we could truly tell our story and not have somebody tell it for us.”

She has early memories of her grandparents, who lived in the bush year-round, making special trips to Whitehorse for Rendezvous. “They would be dressed up in their finest beaded and moosehide tanned clothing,” she said.

On the eve of the festival’s anniversary, Rendezvous organizers reflected on how it has changed over the last six decades, from adapting to warmer temperatures — they once had to buy snow from the local ski hill for the snow sculpting event — to promoting diversity and inclusivity at events like the Call for the Cup, which has been billed as a search for “Yukon’s primo male” but is open to people of all gender identities.

“Rendezvous has changed and evolved” while trying to hold on to the traditional side, said the festival’s president, Tamara Fischer, who said she also wanted to raise awareness of Indigenous people’s participation in the festival. “I’m an Indigenous woman, and last year for the program I wore some of my regalia,” she said. “I wanted people to know that there are Indigenous people involved.”

At its heart, the festival remains a time-tested antidote for cabin fever. Yukoners have long known that silly antics are as much a balm for the winter blues as a quiet night watching the wonders of the sky.

Just ask Mr. Umbrich of Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs, which hosts the annual hair-freezing contest. Wellness and health are primary focuses at his facility. So even when it gets really cold, he said, guests can rest assured: “No one’s ever broken their hair.”

Where to stay in Whitehorse:

The new Raven Inn & Suites, in downtown Whitehorse, offers modern suites and apartments (from 238 dollars a night).

Northern Lights Resort & Spa’s three glass chalets make it possible to enjoy the northern lights from the comfort of your bed. Three-night packages start at 1,690 dollars a person.

Black Spruce has everything you’d need for a cozy forest retreat: a full kitchen, locally roasted coffee, sauna and board games (229 dollars a night).

Where to stay in Dawson City:

Bombay Peggy’s, a lovingly restored gold rush inn — and former brothel — has nine colorful rooms, with Victorian décor and claw-foot tubs (189 to 289 dollars a night).

The Downtown blends modern comforts with tradition at the Sourdough Saloon, home of the Sourtoe Cocktail (from 127 dollars a night).

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