A thrilling place full of classic winter pastimes
For a few hardy souls the concept of winter might be a welcome one, but for most of us it is a season we are glad to see the back of. Unless, that is, we think of an iconic winter which is rich in all the most exciting things that the great cold can provide.
I'm not talking about mere snowmen and snowball fights here, but of truly classic winter pastimes like dog-sledding or snow-mobile travel – chilly images that speak of deep, snow-filled, forests and remote communities near the Arctic Circle where great white drifts sit deep on every roof.
There was a time when this country could put up a respectable show when it came to classic wintry scenes, but no longer. And anyway, this is an overcrowded island and we could never boast that great chilled pine-clad loneliness sometimes referred to as the "Frozen North".
But as the climate changes and our old-fashioned winters disappear, I've got a feeling there is an increasing appetite for such a thing – and I say that after spending a couple of winter weeks in the Yukon.
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What you get in Canada's vast empty north-east quarter is winter writ big. Just being there in temperatures that can dip to minus 50 degrees is an adventure. Looking out of your hotel window at the all-embracing deepfreeze is a thrill. And travelling around in a place that is as big as Western Europe but which only has a population half that of a town like Taunton is, somehow, breathtaking and astonishing.
The immensity of the great empty white-zone doesn't necessarily mean void and silence. There are people out there and they do some thrilling things – like, for example, stage an annual 1,000-mile long race in which extremely tough men and women take on the elements with the help of a handful of dogs.
The Yukon Quest is the longest such race in the world and what it demands of the "mushers" – who drive their dog-sled teams the equivalent of travelling from London to Tunis in North Africa – is simply beyond imagination.
The racers are allowed just one named helper who can give aid at a few stops along the way, but for the most part the mushers are alone out there in the wilderness that lies between Whitehorse in the Yukon and Fairbanks in Alaska.
Apart from driving the dogs the mushers must look after them by arranging hay bedding at night and taking off the little day-glo booties each wears to protect its paws from ice crystals. Indeed, each dog paw has to be massaged and oiled after the rigours of a long stage.
Imagine the scene: it is dark and snowing and you have to strike camp, put up your own tent and then see to 56 canine feet. You will already have started to boil the dog's meat-stew on board the sled before you come to a halt – but only after you've seen to the bedding, feeding and foot-work can you at last grab a bite for yourself. This if followed by two hours sleep, and then you're off in the appalling conditions again. And you will be doing this for nine or ten days!
I attended this year's Yukon Quest, watched the mushers during their preparations and followed them for half the race – and I can only assume they must be made from a different grade of genetic material.
I had a go at dog-sledding. Half-an-hour's drive out of Whitehorse in the mountains around sublimely beautiful Fish Lake there are several businesses which provide the mushing experience for tourists.
All my life I've been aware that people go dog-sledding in frozen places – I've seen it on TV and vaguely thought it might be a bit of fun. But only a bit. It's never been close to the top of my must-do list. But it is thrilling and, somehow, just slightly life-changing. There is something ancient and primeval about being towed through a vast white wilderness by a gang of man's best friends.
And, believe me, the dogs really do become your best friend out there in the freezer. For a start, you cannot believe how strong they are. First-time visitors are given just four dogs for a day out in the mountains – I weigh 13-stone but my team never ceased running, nor showed any signs of wanting to slow down.
The most difficult part is the very start when you are warned the team will pull away like a bolting horse unless you put all your weight on the brake. For an hour I stabbed the steel teeth of the brake into the ice and snow, but it did little to slow the dogs down. And I had just the four – a fact that gave me even more respect for the professional mushers who race the Quest with 14.
Some of my journalistic colleagues mushed just for an hour or two – one fell off her sled and it took a ranch-hand five hours to track down and retrieve the dog team which had just kept running. Because that's what they are trained to do, and what they seem to love doing. I drove my sled for five hours and I can tell you this – it was me who returned exhausted to the log-cabin, not the dogs.
Wearied maybe. But I loved every minute. Indeed, loved every minute of my fortnight in the Yukon. Normally I try to bag trips to hot places in midwinter, but this was something else – the whole experience up north was out-and-out adventure.
For example, while staying in Whitehorse, which is the capital of the territory, I learned to snowshoe in the forests above Fish Lake. Easy enough to learn, but exhausting and also exhilarating. Crossing deep snow which you'd sink far into without the snowshoes is a magical experience. During our hike we went out on to the frozen lake to meet ice-fishermen who had bored small holes and sat in heated tents while they hauled in beautiful looking char.
I spent another day learning to drive a snowmobile. Again, something I've seen on TV but had no particular desire to do. But what fun… Especially after you get used to the fact that the machine doesn't really behave like a motorbike but seems, instead, to have a mind of its own. By the end of the day I was doing 60 mph down narrow forest trails.
On another day we drove 120 miles to Haines Junction (in Yukon terms this is regarded as being just down the road) where a chartered aircraft took us on a scenic flight through the Elias Mountains.
This is where I began – just began – to get an idea of the grand scale of this northern world. For two hours we flew deep in to the mountains, and most of the way we were following just one massive glacier. The Kluane National Park stretches on and on, in to Alaska. It is truly vast. It covers 8,500 square miles – the Lake District covers less than one tenth of that area. Kluane also features Canada's highest peak – Mount Logan measures just under 20,000 feet, nearly 5,000 feet higher than anything in Europe.
Not once on the flight did we see anything man-made. In fact, we didn't see any living thing, save for a lonesome moose spotted in the forest on our return. And talking of moose – I also visited the excellent Yukon Wildlife Preserve. Set in over 700 acres of snow-bound forest and plain, the preserve offers visitors the chance to see local wildlife more-or-less close up – but in a truly authentic setting. So you see the weird looking mountain goats up on rocky ledges alongside Thinhorn Sheep. Bison roam a wide plain and moose come and go through the woods.
Afterwards, frozen to the bone, we decided it was just the weather for an outdoor swim. I say "we" – I was not so convinced. I need not have worried – the waters at the remarkable Takhini Hot Springs are, well, hot.
Each evening, after all these adventures, we returned to cosy little Whitehorse to enjoy its bright lights and sophisticated entertainment. I liked the place – the people are for the most part extremely friendly and the food was excellent in the various restaurants we tried.
Go for local Alaskan king crab if you can and also halibut, which is the great treat of these northern climes. Moose and reindeer meat also feature and are excellent.
Just as I was getting used to my adventurous and at the same time luxurious life in Whitehorse, we were off on the road. And nothing I did in the fortnight was to convince me more about the scale of the Yukon more than our six-hour drive up to Dawson City.
This is the territory's second biggest community – and of course it was the place made famous by the Yukon Gold Rush – but it is over 400 miles distant. And guess how many other communities you pass through as you drive up the ice-bound Klondike Highway? The answer is just two. A town of 400 souls – and one much smaller community with a truck-stop. Imagine driving from Exmoor to Scotland and seeing just two small villages and fewer than 20 other vehicles.
And so to Dawson City – one of the most remarkable towns I've visited in 30 years of travel writing. It is a place of immense character and charm, set in a beautiful valley where the Yukon and Klondike Rivers meet.
I am told it is a destination of two very separate seasons – in summer the resident population grows to 1,500 and there are loads of tourists coming through in their Winnibego homes on the way up or down the Dempster Highway, which begins nearby and heads north into the Arctic Circle.
In winter Dawson City is much quieter, with a population of 800 – quieter, that is, unless it happens to be Yukon Quest week. Then the town goes a bit wild – and I followed suit, which is why I can't recall too much about it. Save, that is, for drinking the Sourtoe Cocktail which, alas, is a thing you have to do in Dawson. It is a real mummified toe which is kept in sea-salt and unwrapped for the ceremony – the barman reads some kind of proclamation and you knock back the vodka (or spirit of your choice) containing the toe, which must touch your lips at least once in order for you to be awarded a certificate. I won't bother repeating the tale (which you can see online) about the frostbitten gold-miner who lost the original appendage...
That's the sort of crazy place the Yukon is. You get to do and enjoy things you wouldn't dream of doing at home. For instance, on my last morning in Dawson I went for a flight with a bush-pilot I'd met the night before. We'd shared our massive platter of king crab with Geart and his wife and he had promised me a turn up the Yukon River looking for mushers on the Quest. "He doesn't fly that plane – he wears it!" murmured the taxi driver who took us to the aircraft.
Half an hour later I began to understand what he meant. At times we were flying just six feet above the frozen river, at other times we were pulling G-forces as we rounded bends amid the trees. It was the most thrilling aeroplane ride I've had in my life. I would extend that claim to say that spending a fortnight in the Yukon is one of the most thrilling wintry things you could do anywhere.