(Northern) Lights, camera, action in the Yukon
COME ON, let’s be having you. You haven’t travelled all this way to huddle by your log-burning stove, or snuggle under that duvet. Not just yet anyway. The hour hand is approaching midnight. Time to don the winter gear, grab your camera and tripod, step out into freezing night, and walk to the middle of that frozen lake for the experience of a lifetime.
There are a number of scenic places in this world tempting one to view the Aurora Borealis but, for me, there is nowhere quite as iconic as the Yukon. Yes, it is a long way from Europe, which is why you need to make the most of it. You could, for example, rest over for a few days in Vancouver like I did, before taking the internal, two-and-a-half hour flight to Whitehorse. Once there, daytimes can be filled with a selection of traditional Canadian outdoor activities, the most popular being dog mushing and snowmobiling. You could, of course, try your hand at ice fishing for your lunch. Evenings are then filled with anticipation as you stare up at the night sky, wait, hope and wonder.
The beauty of the Yukon is that here, catching sight of the Northern Lights is not a winter phenomenon. The viewing period, in fact, starts towards the end of August, so with this seasonal crossover product, you do not necessarily have to freeze your butt off. Now, imagine crisp days with all that wonderful autumn foliage bursting with colour, wildlife sightings, hiking excursions, and then, come evening, having your very own light show. For, once past the summer solstice, the nights draw in, and it is dark by 8pm. Perfect.
I travelled to the Yukon earlier this year, spending a few days in Vancouver before continuing my journey northwards. What a shocker as I stepped off the plane. That very afternoon I had been cycling around Stanley Park, passing joggers and dog walkers in shorts and tees. And now here I was, almost midnight, stepping into a deep freeze.
The next morning, the skies lay overburdened with snow. The thermometer was registering -24 degrees as I made for Fish Lake, a short drive north of the city. Located in an alpine valley, it is here that I met up with Dave from Up North Adventures, who had arranged fishing permits for our small group.
It seemed rather incongruous that I sat myself in a camping chair, legs astride the hole, and dipped my fishing rod into the quickly freezing surface water. Dave handed me a stick to swirl around to keep it clear, and I was instructed to slide my gloved hand down the line to stop it from freezing over. I am no fisherman, although I did once catch a 6ft, 100lb lemon shark off the Florida Keys.
Minutes ticked by, then an hour, and nothing. The catch of the day was cleverly eluding us all, although I felt the odd nudge and tug on the line. Handed a cup of tea, I cradled it in the snow. Big mistake. The next time I picked it up, it was cold. More time passed, with never a hint of boredom, for this pristine landscape is all consuming. The next cup of cheer contained chilli, a pre-warmer to elk burgers barbecued over an open log fire. By now the sun had done its job, warming the earth to -22 degrees!
Eventually, we ditched the fishing, swapped our snowshoes for helmets, and zoomed across the lake on snowmobiles. We headed through spruce and pine forests and along rising trails to be greeted by a spectacular view across the Whitehorse trench.
We passed tracks made by ptarmigan, red squirrel and horseshoe hares. The landscape was alive with wildlife, camouflaged from humans and predators alike. A timber wolf had been using this trail over previous days, but we saw no telltale signs.
Dave stopped on the lake and asked me if I could spot a house anywhere. We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by whiteness. Of course I could not see a house. Dave told me I was standing on it. A beaver dam. How silly of me. Looking closely, I saw signs of gnawed branches poking through the snow.
That evening was spent in the Southern Lakes region at Boreale Ranch, owned by Marsha Cameron and Sylvain Turcotte. Opened the previous summer, the property sits in 16 acres, just off the South Klondike Highway, 30 minutes from Whitehorse International Airport. What a small world. I had met the couple the last time I was in the Yukon, when I spent a day pedaling a network of mountain biking trails on Grey Mountain with a guide, organised by Marsha and Sylvain’s company, then known as Yurtville. At that time, guests stayed and ate in seasonal luxury yurts at the base on Long Lake Road in Whitehorse. With their holiday packages proving hugely popular, selling out months in advance, it was time for a move. In 2013, with toddler Malina in tow, they purchased the current property near Lewes Lake, spending the following months renovating and extending the house in readiness for business last summer.
Guests are accommodated in four large rooms with private bathrooms and balconies with expansive views of the Seven Sisters mountain range. There is also a kitchen and communal areas, including a library. The yurts, with seven functioning bedrooms, are still around, offering additional sleeping areas.
Boreale Ranch is open all year, offering accommodation and meals, with a large chalkboard detailing drinks and menus in the dining area. Bookings this year have once again proved brisk. For winter activities, the couple have partnered with local tour companies, with Boreale providing the food and accommodation. This is prime Northern Lights territory, and Sylvain will lead you safely across the back yard in the pitch dark where you can set up your camera and, fingers crossed, wait for the sky to start dancing.
After a lunch snack in the log cabin, we headed for Carcross airstrip, where we boarded a six-seater prop plane, overflying the town en route to Tagish Lake. We came to a smooth landing by a snowy pathway, which leads steadily uphill through trees to Tagish Wilderness Lodge. The word ‘remote’ does not cover it. Over 100km long, just two families live on the lake, separated by 10km of shoreline forest.
Only accessible by boat, floatplane, ski plane or dogsled, this is a surreal wilderness getaway. Cosy, private log cabins with wood burners sit behind the main contemporary lodge, where Swiss hosts Sarah Stuecker and Gebhard Zuern welcome guests and serve international cuisine.
In 2007, Gebhard left Switzerland for Asia, where he lived in Cambodia and managed a tour company. Whilst vacationing in Canada, the couple was on the lookout for a small resort project. Travelling north, they fired off numerous emails and came across Tagish Lodge, which was up for sale. In July 2009 they purchased the business as a going concern, although at that time it was a fairly basic fishing camp. They moved the following January and began renovations.
The homestead and 20 acres of land remain a work in progress, although an impressive one at that. Like Boreale Ranch, this is one of only a handful of lodges open during the winter, with the Northern Lights, dog sledding and ice fishing the mainstay activities. During the summer guests enjoy fishing, canoeing, kayaking and hiking in the middle of an adventure playground.
For many visitors, the flight in a small plane and landing on a frozen lake is a unique experience. Add to that the expectancy off seeing the Aurora, and it does not get much better. Guests spend a minimum of three nights here, making footfall across the frozen lake to gaze skywards.
This is truly an ideal location, with zero light pollution and views across the lake for mile upon mile. To capture extraordinary images, you will need a tripod and long exposure of between 20-30 seconds. The amazing thing is that when you do spot misty streaks on the horizon, something could well be happening, for the camera will pick up the colours well before you do. It is down to being patient, and a touch of luck. The most common colour is green, followed by the more rare red auroras, and completed by the blue or purple spectacle.
If you have the opportunity to drive west from Whitehorse along the Alaska Highway towards Haines Junction, the mountains unfolding before you form the Kluane National Park and Reserve, home to the St Elias Mountains and Mount Logan, the second highest peak on the continent.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site contains the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. A number of adventure outfitters offer day trips and longer excursions. However, a flightseeing tour has to be the most impressive way to view this vast wilderness park.
Here in the Yukon, with so much to see, do and enjoy, you can expect nature to dictate your pace, leaving you plenty of time to take a front row seat, embrace the peace and the solitude, and wait for the magic to happen. I can think of nowhere more special to embrace the moment.
For a free Yukon guide and map email TravelYukon.firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Dunn offer a ‘Vancouver and Yukon Winter Fun’ 9-day package from £2,735 per person based on two adults sharing, including snowmobiling, dog-sledding and ice-fishing excursions and economy flights from the UK (www.scottdunn.com/luxury-tours/vancouver-and-yukon-winter-fun)
1st Class Holidays offer a ‘Yukon Winter Adventure & Spa’ 5-day package from £741 per person (land only) based on two adults sharing, snowmobiling and dog-sledding excursions available for additional cost (www.1stclassholidays.com/yukon-winter-adventure-and-spa)