Haines Junction, lively Whitehorse and the magic of Canada’s Yukon

HAINES JUNCTION, YUKON TERRITORY, CANADA – There’s not a lot to this town, which is really just a crossroads on the Alaska Highway about two hours west of Whitehorse, reached by a very pretty highway (see photo).

Haines Junction is pretty much a collection of a few small hotels and motels and a couple gas stations. IMG_2089n The Frosty Freeze appeared to be the centre of action on a 13 degree Saturday night, when it didn’t get dark until after midnight, and even then I don’t think ever turned REALLY dark.

Then again, one doesn’t venture up here for the night life but to tour around the magical mountains and lakes and to check out Kluane National   Park.

The Park Centre is just off the main highway, where there’s also a Yukon Tourism office. There’s a small display about local wildlife and history and native Canadians, and it’s a bright, sunny spot with great views of the mountains. They’ll probably offer to show you a new, 20 minute video they’re quite proud of – and justifiably so. It’s well done, and the scenery is jaw-droppingly beautiful. It talks about how natives were denied hunting and fishing rights when the national was created, something that has thankfully been put aside from what I could tell. There are fabulous shots of glaciers and hiking trails and grizzly bears and moose and all that, and the video along was enough to convince me to come back in mid-summer some time.

IMG_1218The Village Bakery is right next door and offers a decent array of sandwiches, quiche, pizza and tolerable shepherd’s pie for lunch, along with good French roast coffee. I drove from there about 20 minutes south to Kathleen Lake (see photo at left), which is a beautiful, crisp and clear lake in the shadow of what’s called King’s Throne Mountain. The ice was just breaking up and it made kind of a whooshing sound that threw me until I realized what it was. A lovely spot, but I didn’t go too far as I wasn’t equipped for 12 degree weather with strong winds, and didn’t have anything to ward off any bears that might get curious about the guy from Toronto.

It was partly cloudy so I couldn’t see all the mountain tops, and didn’t get up for a plane ride to see the glaciers, but it’s a beautiful corner of Canada. I drove a few minutes further south, then pulled over to watch the clouds dip and swirl over a jagged mountain peak. The road feels similar to the parkway between Jasper and Banff, one of the differences being that when I was pulled over for 10 minutes I IMG_2117 spotted just one vehicle; a motorcycle. A few minutes later, I look down the road and lumbering up the hill is a very large moose. It got within 15 or 20 metres of the car (I had pulled over) before dropping down off the easy path and migrating into the bush.

Still, always nice to see a moose on your first day in the north.

As I pulled into a gas station for a snack (seven bucks for a Sprite and a large bag of chips), I spotted a small, rounded metal hut that has been turned into a church. The story goes that a priest came in 1954 and found an old Quonset hut that had been used by the American army during the building of the Alaska Highway.

He added some lights at the top and it’s now said to be the most-photographed church in the Yukon. The sign says for anyone to go in anytime for a little peace, which is a nice idea. I did and disturbed a poor guy in the back row (I think there are three rows in all; maybe four) reading a bible. He was happy to chat for a minute and told me I could go into the church hall behind the altar. There’s a small room with a couple tables and chairs, and it’s flooded with light and absolutely delightful, as is the entire structure. A definite surprise, and a great little spot in tiny little Haines Junction.

Dinner options are very limited on a Sunday night, and the only fine dining spot was closed. So I ended up on the patio at the Frosty Freeze for a tolerable burger and decent fries.

A teenager was sitting at a nearby table with friends, complaining about not being able to get a ride.

“I called home,” she said, “but they’re all passed out.”

After dinner I drove out and around the area, admiring the mountains as I waited for a midnight sunset.  IMG_1341I pulled over near a bridge just south of Haines Junction just as a huge band of swallows – perhaps three or four hundred – rose up from below the bridge and started swooping and swirling in giant packs in the sky above the Dezadeash River. They came within a few feet of me a couple times, banking sharply in waves and fluttering about above the river for about three minutes before finally dissapating. I don’t like birds in the least, but it was VERY COOL and magical, almost.

I stayed the night at the Raven Hotel, a small but very comfortable place with nice people, plus free WiFi, flat-screen TV’s and the whole bit. Gwen serves a nice breakfast, too, with awesome coffee they have roasted in Whitehorse, plus granola with cranberries, plenty of fruit and juice and pastries/toast. Definitely one of the better spots in Haines Junction, from what I’ve read and what I could see.

The plane ride from Vancouver to Whitehorse is magical on its own, really. I think folks on the right side got the better view of Whistler, but I saw plenty of snow-capped peaks and long, glimmering inlets of ocean along the Sunshine  Coast and further north.

My seatmate and I both were dying to see where we were, but the Air Canada map was pitiful and didn’t give us a clue and there were no seatback TV maps on the plane, a smaller Jazz plane that seated perhaps 80 or 90 people.

If I had my way, there would be detailed maps on EVERY plane; luxurious ones with all the highlights pointed out. I also have thought on occasion that folks down below ought to take the trouble to write the words “This is Williams  Lake” with giant rocks on a hillside or something so that people in the air know where they are.

Yeah, I know. Time for a vacation.


YUKON TERRITORY – I spent most of my first day checking out Haines Junction and Kathleen Lake.

The next day I got up and drove an hour or so northwest on the Alaska  Highway. It’s a beautiful drive, with large, craggy, snowcapped mountains streaked with ice and capped with brilliant white snow set off  IMG_2201against the deep black rock, as if someone had taken the mountains and turned them upside down and dipped them into a vat of white ice cream, then put them back in place.

There are smaller hills on the right as you make your way past  a couple small lodges and settlements, and there’s almost nothing for 45 minutes but the odd rabbit and endless stretches of forest and the occasional pond or small lake. The road climbs up toward looming mountains, then dips and swirls a bit before you finally spot massive Kluane Lake off in the distance, hard by some very high, dusty brown and rocky mountains. Tacahl Dhal (Sheep Mountain) Centre is a small building at the base of a giant hill of brown rock. Way up high you can see tiny white dots, those being Dall sheep who make a living by nibbling on the grasses and plants that dot the slope.

It’s very stark but also very humbling and beautiful. A bright red and white Canadian flag was flapping madly in the breeze alongside an inukshuk when I was there. There’s a ghost town nearby called Silver City but, sadly, I didn’t hear about it until I was in Whitehorse.

Back in Whitehorse in the afternoon, I spent a few hours on the Yukon River searching fruitlessly for fish with local guide Mark Zrum, a genuinely fun and pleasant guy who knows the hotspots on the Yukon River but couldn’t quite conjure up any hungry fish for myself and a visiting writer from Australia. Still, it was a great half-hour trip up the river and back.

We started in Schwatka Lake, just south of town, and then made our way through narrow Miles  Canyon, an historic part of the gold rush route. The canyon is a high, narrow slot filled with curious basalt columns; somewhat reminiscent of the Giant’s Steps in northern Ireland. It’s weird, because the rest of the river banks are sloping hills of powdery sand that look something like the Rouge River or the  IMG_1399Scarborough Bluffs.

The canyon was a treacherous piece of work during the Gold Rush days, a foaming, frothing and deadly narrows filled with roaring water. Only the best pilots knew the safe way through.

Anyway, no fish for me on the Yukon but still a fun time. Folks were out and about on the water in kayaks or long canoes or power boats and there were a decent number of hikers sitting out on the rocks enjoying what passes for spring weather in these parts. It was about 13 Celsius and there was at least one guy in nothing but shorts and shoes.

I went back again later to check out the area on my own. If you drive south of town a mile or so you’ll probably find the overlook of the canyon, which is located on, oddly enough, Miles Canyon Road.

There’s a beautiful, white bridge crossing over the canyon and the river below, with hiking trails galore on the other side. I walked along a bit, ever mindful of stray bears.

IMG_1438Zrum told me during our fishing trip that he was once charged by a grizzly. The bear started perhaps 25 meters away and came up hard, charging within perhaps 10 meters, he said.

Zrum said he was armed but didn’t shoot as the bear was clearly bluffing.

“How did you know,” I asked.

“If they charge with their heads straight up and down, they’re just bluffing. But if they tilt their heads to one side, that’s because they want to get their teeth into something.”

Keep that in mind if you ever see a grizzly. Yeah, right.

Before you reach the bridge, look to your left for a beautiful lookout point. You can stand hundreds of feet above the canyon with views out to several nearby mountains.








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