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Canada’s northern wilderness

Posted on September 14, 2016 by Mansoor Ladha
Photo by Mansoor Ladha A glacier and the frozen landscape of Mount Logan provide awe-inspiring examples of the beauty of Canada’s northern wilderness.

I can now sense the excitement and thrill that astronauts feel when they land on the moon. I had the same feeling of accomplishment when I landed on Mount Logan, home to Canada’s highest peak (5,959 metre). Declared a World Heritage Site since 1979, Kluane has abundant lush valleys and glaciers. It has the largest ice field with North America’s most genetically diverse grizzly population, surrounded by the world’s largest non-polar ice-fields as well as mountain goats, moose and wolves.
Flying up at high altitudes, we had to go through one of the remotest parts of Yukon, between mountainous ranges and a sea of glaciers. One has to contend with unpredictable weather since Mount Logan’s arctic conditions make it one of the least-climbed high peaks in North America. When the weather co-operates, you are sure of spectacular views of the biggest chunk of rock, ice and snow in the world.
We were fortunate in having perfect weather and an experienced pilot in Brad Whitelaw of Whitehorse who manoeuvred the plane expertly and with precision, giving a running commentary throughout. Our party of three watched in amazement as he lowered the aircraft and landed it right on the glacier. It was an unforgettable experience.
We anxiously stepped on the fresh snow as the pilot said: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the highest peak in Canada. You happen to be the only lucky people around on this glacier. Enjoy.” We took our first steps on the glacier and at various times had our feet go right through the soft ice patches. I remembered Neil Armstrong’s famous words when he walked on the moon in 1969: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was a giant leap for me on Planet Logan!
After a half-hour break and a walk-about on the glacier, we boarded the aircraft to return to base. The pilot started the engine and it appeared as if the aircraft was stuck in the snow. We had visions of getting out and shovelling the tires clear of the snow but the pilot jerked the plane backwards and forwards a few times before we flew out from the glacier. It was a once-in-a-lifetime and treasured experience. Highly recommended to enjoy Canada’s untouched wilderness.
Our next stop was the Dalton Trail Lodge, which borders Kluane National Park. Although I’ve never been a staunch outdoorsman, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to view and appreciate the Yukon landscape. The lodge provides an excellent setting for someone who wants to throw on a pack and wander among the mountains or go fishing in the river. The extensive facilities in the lodge includes comfortable modern cabins, a restaurant, a bar and a tastefully decorated living room for guests. One can order jet boats, motor boats or camping gear to suit one’s fancy.
Three of us decided to take a fishing trip with a guide in a motor boat.
After a brief orientation lesson from the guide, we ventured into the middle of the lake to try our luck. After being on the lake for almost two and a half hours, none of us had the beginner’s luck and we watched enviously as an 80-year-old guy in the only other boat on the lake caught six fish. Disappointed, we retreated to the comforts of the lodge to enjoy a cold Yukon Gold beer.
Yukon is known as a land of adventure and wilderness, but it became famous mainly because of the great Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the last century. During the gold rush, approximately 100,000 prospectors migrated to the Klondike region between 1896 to 1899, all of them trying their luck to strike it rich. According to oral traditions, the gold rush story began when Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie and George Carmack travelled down the Klondike River and found gold. News of the discovery spread like wildfire and there was a general belief that here was a land — Yukon — where the riches just lay in the ground for anyone to dig and cart it away. The result was a stampede of would-be prospectors.
Dawson City, located at the confluence of the Klondike and the Yukon River, was founded, jumping its population from 500 in 1896 to 30,000 by 1898.
Visitors to Dawson City have plenty of things to see and do. A perfect way to experience the Yukon is to take a two-hour boat trip, take a walking tour of the city, visit the museums or how the first newspaper of the city, Dawson City News, was printed using the old-style printing presses. We arrived in Dawson City during Discovery Days when locals and residents of neighbouring towns join to celebrate the day gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek in 1896. The festival is a huge party time for everyone with a parade, exhibitions, arts and crafts fair and other events.
Many informative tours are available to visit Dredge No. 4 and view the monstrous machines that processed and extracted gold. At Claim 33, a knowledgeable lady patiently instructs visitors how gold was panned. At the end of the session, most of us, prospective prospectors, had flecks of gold, probably worth less than $5, to take home as a souvenir.
Named after the noted Canadian geologist George M. Dawson, Dawson City has featured prominently in the novels of American author Jack London and is famous as the home of notable writers such as Robert Service and Pierre Burton.
Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, Canada’s oldest (and friendliest) gambling hall, is a must-see in Dawson. Gertie’s, established in 1971, is a place where whiskey and women abound. It’s also a place to party and try your luck at a game of chance. Every evening, it’s packed with people playing at the slot machines, gaming tables or for live entertainment. There are three can-can shows and more risqué as the night progresses. Another establishment worth visiting in Dawson is the Westminster Hotel, popularly named the Pit-Stop, which houses two bars, the Snake Pit and the Arm Pit. It’s a local hangout with Klondike history. We were told that it was the place to get a taste of the Yukon. We were also told that the Pit opens at 9 a.m., adhering to the practice of allowing Klondike night shift miners to have a beer before returning home. As arranged, my buddy Hans and I promptly went to the Pit and had a beer beer exactly at 9:40 a.m. — the first time in my life I have had beer so early. The bar had some early beer drinkers and the friendly bartender, Kathleen, made us feel right at home. Kathleen shared a lot of local stories, introduced us to some regular patrons and really made the visit special and unforgettable. Interesting titbits from Kathleen were that the bar has been open every day of the year since it opened and that there was a mining tradition that when someone rang the bell, he/she had to buy everyone in the bar a round. When a miner had a good day in the gold fields, he would come in and ring the bell to celebrate his success.
In the evening, we went to Dawson’s Sourdough Saloon, to experience a 40-year-old drinking game with a human toe. Patrons have to buy a drink, usually Yukon Jack Whisky, sit at a table before “Captain Dick,” and pay $5 to have a real, salt-peppered toe dropped in your glass. The story goes that the original toe, reportedly a frostbitten toe self-amputated in the 1920s by a gold miner, was found in an abandoned cabin by Dick Stevenson who created the legendary drink in 1973.
The toe has been replaced several times over the years with donated toes, including one from an American who severed his during a lawnmower accident. It is believed that there is a backlog of offers for replacement toes around the world.
The Yukon River, which is a First Nation word meaning Great River, at 3185 kilometres is the third longest river in North America. It is also the largest river after the Missouri, the Mississippi and the Mackenzie. It was one of the principal means of transportation during the Klondike Gold Rush, flowing north towards Alaska. The river is frozen most of the year, with freeze-up taking place usually in October/early November. Break-up takes place late April to mid-May. During this time, one cannot use the river. Inhabitants of West Dawson or Moosehide or one of the islands along the river have a choice either to come to town and rent a room or stay with friends or spend the freeze-up and break-up in their own homes. Residents have to plan for a minimum of one month’s supplies of food, water, wood, gas, propane, books, games and booze. In case they ran out of some supplies or in an emergency, the only way across was to hire a helicopter at $1,000 an hour.
Dawson City can be isolated and lonely, but Whitehorse, the capital, has year-round recreation, educational, medical and other facilities. The road joining the two is barren and takes about seven hours to reach with few facilities between them. Part of the single road is paved with gravel, making it treacherous to drive. Night driving is not recommended and in case of any mishaps, motorists are at the mercy of fellow travellers. One has to be of a special type to enjoy living in such wilderness where one’s survival tactics are always tested.
However, every Canadian should visit the Yukon at least once in their lifetime to learn about the Klondike Gold Rush, enjoy the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and learn about how people in the north live.
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based photo-journalist, travel writer and author of “A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.” His new book, “Memoirs of a Muhindi,” is scheduled to be published by Regina University Press.

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