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The Yukon Territory: Canada’s best road trip

I looked at the riverbank and my heart sank. My boyfriend and I were in Dawson City, a remote gold-mining town in the heart of Canada’s Yukon Territory, trying to cross the mighty Yukon River.

Way up north, 532km from Whitehorse, Dawson City has a frontier feel – like something out of the Wild West. On our route to Anchorage, Alaska, this crossing is considered an extension of the road, linking the Klondike Highway with the Top Of The World Highway, which continues on to Fairbanks. 

In winter, travellers drive across an ice bridge; in summer, a state-run ferry connects the dots.

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The only trouble is that our ride, the George Black, was still sitting placidly on the riverbank. It was the same spot it had spent the entire winter, safe from the ice and metres from the water’s edge. We had arrived in May, in the short-but-awkward spring shoulder season, and we cursed the map.

There is no permanent bridge. No alternative route. I checked the map again and found that in this vast and largely untouched wilderness of northwestern Canada, the only way to reach our destination was to turn around, drive all the way back to Whitehorse, and continue on a different road.

Of course, road closures are common in Canada over winter, when snow makes them impassable. However, by the time we began our trip, the ground was clear. We had merrily rolled along without an issue. Until we saw the powerful waterway hurling large chunks of melting ice downstream, that is.

Avoid this rookie error.

Extreme seasonality is to be expected in this part of the world, and truthfully, it’s part of the Yukon’s charm. Adventure is thrust upon you, because even if you’re following a map and you’re meticulously prepared for all conditions (as we were), you can never be sure exactly what’s waiting around the corner.

We had enjoyed breakfast the previous day in Whitehorse, at one of the many pleasant cafes lining the main street. We learnt about the region, soaking up the rich First Nations history and marvelling at the SS Klondike, a large paddle-steamer proudly standing beside the river, having once busily linked remote settlements to the convenience of the town. However, things changed at the city limits.

Thick forest on both sides of the road had been cut back several metres, making it a haven for wildlife to venture out and sunbake after a long and cold winter. As kilometre after kilometre rolled past, we saw everything from newborn bison calves to brown bears, black bears, caribou and an arctic fox.

At one point, an elusive lynx darted across the road in front of us. It stopped in the dry grass and stared at us, its yellow eyes holding a steady gaze, and we couldn’t believe our luck. However, before I could remove my lens cap and roll down the window, it blinked and vanished into the trees.

The Yukon Territory rose to prominence with the discovery of gold, causing tens of thousands of people migrated north in the hopes of striking it rich between 1896 and 1899. To this day, mining operations scour the earth around Dawson City, churning through the soil in search of valuable nuggets.

It’s a fascinating town. All of the buildings, including the school, the hospital and new apartment blocks still under construction, are designed to maintain its original look. The streets are made of dirt; the footpaths are made of wood. Structures are wooden and brightly painted with old-fashioned facades letting customers know what lays inside, exactly as they were at the height of the rush.

Kirrily Schwarz did a 7000km road trip across North America in 2019. Picture: Kirrily Schwarz

Kirrily Schwarz did a 7000km road trip across North America in 2019. Picture: Kirrily Schwarz

There is a lot to do, from touring the local mines and museums to exploring the curiosities tucked away in the local shops, hiking around town and visiting the stunning Tombstone Territorial Park. 

However, there are also plenty of more eclectic options, like placing a bet at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall or partaking in the local tradition of downing a Sourtoe Cocktail (a shot of local whisky garnished with a genuine dehydrated toe) at the Sourdough Saloon.

Dawson City is weird, yes, but undeniably charming.

Dismayed with the turn of events (and with ourselves for not calling ahead to confirm that the ferry would be running), we sought solace at one of the town’s many vintage watering holes. Meandering into the Downtown Hotel, we ordered homemade burgers for dinner and were joined by a young bush pilot, who grew up in the area on a private mine his parents still own and operate.

Secrecy, when it comes to gold, is part of life. He skillfully avoided disclosing the location of the family’s claim, but he did regale us with stories of life in the town – of neighbours, friends, winters, summers, local legends and larger-than-life characters – that kept us thoroughly entertained.

Visiting in spring does come with the risk of road closures, but it’s worth it to beat the summer crowds and maximise the number of conversations you’ll have with locals. After saying goodbye to the pilot, we climbed back into the car and began the long, adventure-filled journey back to the main road.

See also:

26 reasons to visit Canada this year

15 reasons you should visit Canada

My window seat through Canada’s amazing wilderness

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