Many holiday destinations offer to pamper you with deluxe accommodations, gourmet food and a good selection of wines and other libations. The Yukon’s Great River Journey is the only outfit I know that does this in the middle of Canada’s northern wilderness. This recently established enterprise is the brain child of Yukon entrepreneur George Asquith and several First Nations investors.
While the Stampeders of the Klondike Gold Rush suffered great hardship and privation to reach the gold fields from 1897 to 1899, my trip from Halifax to Whitehorse was much faster in the comfort of an Air Canada executive class seat replete with lots of great movies on the flat screen television, comfy seats and a great selection of imported and domestic wines.
Arriving at Whitehorse’s Erik Nielsen International Airport – named for actor Leslie Neilsen’s brother, who was once Canada’s deputy prime minister – I was met by Great River Journey’s Shannon Pearson and whisked to the riverside to board our specially modified river boat, the Shakat. With acres of tinted glass and fitted with first class airline seats, the vessel was expertly designed to expedite comfortable exploration of the Yukon River, North America’s fifth largest waterway.
Cruising downstream with the Shakat’s twin 150 HP outboards purring, we made good time to Lake Laberge – the locale of Sam McGee’s shipboard cremation for Robert Service fans – passing through the barricade and checkpoint at Policeman’s Point where one hundred years ago Sam Steele’s Northwest Mounted Police inspected boats to make sure they were seaworthy for the often rough waters of the lake.
Upper Laberge Lodge is located a short way up the eastern shore of the lake, perched near the ghost town of Upper Laberge. Once hosting the myriad steamships cruising the route from Whitehorse to Dawson, most of the communities along the waterway were abandoned when the highway replaced water transport in the 1950’s.
While I expected a basic level of comfort, I was delighted to discover my rustic cabin sported down comforters on the beds, a propane-powered “wood” stove and an en suite bathroom with a large old fashioned tub. The main lodge was equipped with an amply stocked bar and Chef Carl provided a gourmet dinner with an amazing venison main course, which went down nicely accompanied by a full bodied Australian Shiraz. I decided to throw dietary caution to the wind for the remainder of the expedition.
The next morning our guide, Chris, took his entourage of ten guests out in canoes and kayaks. Mist shrouded the mountains to the west and the golds and reds of the fall leaves glowed in the early morning light. We were delighted to see a woodland caribou splashing through the lake’s shallows as we paddled towards Grizzly Creek. Later in the day we hiked to Lower Laberge and explored the deserted town, now partly restored. Chris pointed out plants such as False Toad Flag reported by the Ta’an people to have potent analgesic properties and fed us on wild berries including high and low bush cranberries. There’d have been no scurvy among the Stampeders if they’d only listened to their First Nations neighbors!
Next day found us cruising up Lake Laberge’s thirty mile coast. We paused for a hike and I noticed colorful beach glass, worn by wave action, no doubt dating from the Klondike. A climb to the top of a 600 foot high hill gave us a fabulous view of spectacular rocky lake shoreline, streaked with gold from the changing aspen, birch and alder leaves.
Next stop was the abandoned community of Lower Laberge for exploration and a shore-side picnic lunch, followed by a cruise up the so-called Thirty Mile River, declared an official Canadian heritage river. Chris promised us at the end of Thirty Mile near the ghost town of Hootalinqua, we’d pay a visit to see Evelyn, a lady over ninety years old who live alone on an island. We were intrigued, but he offered no further explanation.
Cruising along Thirty Mile we enjoyed glorious fall sunshine and constantly changing scenery of craggy hills and mountains, interspersed with sightings of wildlife such as black bear, eagles, hawks and migratory waterfowl on the run from the rapidly approaching winter.
Arriving at Hootalinqua we took an island side trip to meet Evelyn while awaiting a small flotilla of float planes to whisk us north to the Pelly River and Homestead Lodge. Arriving on Steamboat Island Chris led us along a path to the center of the island where Evelyn awaited us. Evelyn was indeed over ninety years old, a still gorgeous steamboat abandoned by its owners on the island. By the time we’d made Evelyn’s acquaintance and explored a bit, our transport north had arrived and we boarded our Beaver and Cessna float planes. The weather by now was partly cloudy with a few showers, gracing our flight with myriad rainbows framing emerald green alpine lakes, colorful stands of aspen and birch and the turquoise waters of the Yukon River.
Next stop was the Homestead Lodge, overlooking the Pelly River and nestled next to the very isolated Pelly Farm. That evening we dined on thick slices of Pelly Farm prime rib and farm fresh vegetables then gathered round the camp fire for readings of Robert Service including The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Shooting of Dan McGrew and the lesser known but hilarious Bessie’s Boil. We all turned in early after an enjoyable but tiring day, only to be woken by Chris in the wee hours. Grumbling, we tumbled out from under our down comforters. The grumbling stopped when we realized we were being treated to a spectacular show which few have an opportunity to see, the Northern Lights.
The next morning a handful of brave souls left before breakfast to bicycle and hike to a lookout point which gave incredible views of the misty, sunlit Pelly River. Coupled with the dazzling fall leaves the scene looked like it had been daubed from some Impressionist painter’s palette.
I picked handfuls of fresh wild sage (carefully sparing the roots) to bring home from the hillsides. The First Nations people consider a sprig of sage hanging in the home to bring cleansing and spiritual purity. Arriving back at the lodge I even sprinkled a little on my Eggs Benedict, made from the eggs of the farm’s free range chickens.
After breakfast, one of the farm’s owners, Hugh, now pushing eighty, gave us a tour of the farm. He still runs the farm’s weather station but leaves the rest of the operation to his nephew. I later saw Hugh and his farm profiled in a 1978 edition of National Geographic.
We spent the afternoon hiking the ridge above the farm, accompanied by a Cliff, a dog rescued by our river pilot, William, the week before (appropriately from a cliff on the river). While we hiked, the dog suddenly began howling. We found out why when we got back to the farm and Hugh told us that a grizzly bear ran across the ridge just after Cliff started howling. Seconds later our group popped out from a stand of trees precisely where the bear had been located. You could say Cliff saved us from a “grizzly” fate.
Leaving the next morning by our river boat, we proceeded on to where the White River enters the Yukon. Stopping here, we observed how the grayish, silt laden glacial waters of the White, contrasted with the clear water of the Yukon. Chris led us on a hike past a small creek, staked with the double post of a prospector, and up a hill to view Shamrock Dome. A recent gold discovery here is thought to be the mother lode of all the gold found in the area.
Our penultimate destination was Wilderness Lodge. Aptly named, this encampment is located many miles from any town or road. Andrew, the manager of the camp, told us he had spotted a wolf pack several nights running and also a cow moose in the cleared areas around the camp. Hiking over to a nearby slough, we saw the prints of the moose and also wolf sign including a paw print the size of my hand! I’m just as glad I didn’t meet face to face with the wolf that made it.
That evening we dined on fresh bison stew and relaxed around the campfire sipping wine or beer from the camps well stocked bar. Afterwards we spent an hour or two admiring the Northern Lights from the comfort of a wood-heated cedar hot tub. I returned to my tent, equipped with a wooden fabric covered floor, comforter bedecked beds, a propane stove and separate bathroom with full size tub and hot and cold running water. Talk about “roughing it” in the wilderness.
The next morning, after an ample breakfast, we headed downstream for the final leg our journey to Dawson City. As we approached Dawson, we passed the famous Klondike River, whose tributary, Bonanza Creek, was the site of the discovery that sparked the famous Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1899.
On arrival we checked into the Downtown Hotel, infamous for serving the Sourtoe Cocktail, a tradition begun in 1973 when Captain Dick Stevenson found a mummified frost bitten big toe and started serving drinks graced by said toe. Those brave enough to allow the digit to touch their lips get a special certificate.
A tour of the town revealed many restored buildings from the Klondike Gold Rush era. Diamond Tooth Gertie’s offers a casino, a bar and can-can dancers showing off their “shwell looking gams” as Bogey used to say. The Palace Grand, a National Historic Site, offers vaudeville shows in season. Visitors can also explore a section of town where the cabins of Robert Service and Jack London and Pierre Berton’s childhood home are all located kitty corner. Parks Canada employees give regular poetry readings wearing period costume in front of Service’s cabin.
If the Gold Fever strikes, you can try your hand at panning at Claim 33 or go on to see a restored gold dredge and the original Discovery Claim where George Carmack – or his wife Katie, if you choose to disbelieve “lyin’ George” – found gold in August, 1896. Both Dredge No. 4 and the Discovery Claim are National Historic Sites operated by Parks Canada. A prospector named Doyle, who owned Dredge No. 4, with typical Klondike panache, ended up moving to Rumania and having an affair with Queen Marie, while helping smuggle out Russian aristocrats from post-Revolutionary Russia.
If shopping is you shtick, there are lots of stores which sell gold nugget jewelry. Mammoth ivory, often found when digging for gold, is also a popular jewelry material. Myself, I bought a couple of gold pans and vowed to check out some of the old gold mining sites in my neighborhood back in Nova Scotia.
IF YOU GO…
Yukon Larger Than Life
Send requests in writing to:
Department of Tourism & Culture
Government of Yukon
Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 2C6
All photos by George Burden
This article first appeared in Just For Canadian Doctors