TRAVEL: Faun Stars of Canada’s Yukon Territory

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I didn’t see a single horse in Whitehorse. But grizzlies? Elk? Sled dogs? Yukon count on them in the capital of Canada’s western frontier (yeah, that’s a crap pun, sorry).

 The Yukon Territory is a Faunographer’s happy place – an epic wilderness of 475,000km2 bordering Alaska and stretching high into the Arctic Circle, as you can see in this handy map. Since only 36,000 people live in the Yukon, you don’t actually see many around, and, in fact, they’re outnumbered by moose 2 to 1 (well played, Bullwinkle).

Riding around Whitehorse

The territory’s capital, Whitehorse, is by no means a thriving metropolis but it definitely has a buzz, with a brewery (try the Yukon Red), quirky arts scene, hot springs, restaurants and laid-back vibe. And although in winter it can get down to -45 ̊C, I visited in August when the summer temps are an adventure-friendly 13-21 ̊C.

You don’t have to go far to find an adventure, either: Whitehorse has 700km of mountain-biking trails weaving all around the downtown area, the surrounding ranges and nearby Miles Canyon. It’s worth taking a bike tour with Boréale Mountain Biking to
 get your bearings. The flat, easy ride lasts for about 90 minutes, passing through virgin forest and along the Yukon River, visiting a few historic sites en route. Boréale also runs Yurtville, glamping-style accommodation perched on a scenic bluff above Whitehorse – a top spot to catch the northern lights if you can drag yourself out of bed.

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My partner and I also spend a night in a cute little log cabin at Sundog Retreat on the other side of town – and I don’t actually have words to describe the silence of the night there…

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Into the wild

Hankering for a wild adventure,
 we head to Kluane National Park
– a two-and-a-half hour drive along the Alaska Highway from Whitehorse. Pronounced “clue- arnie”, the park has more than 800km of chartered trails and mapped routes; for a moderate to strenuous hike, try the 10km King’s Throne route. Within 15 minutes
 of leaving the trailhead at Kathleen Lake, just outside of Haines Junction, you’ll have incredible views of alpine meadows, the Auriol Range and the imposing Mt Worthington. If you’ve got sturdy boots and strong glutes, don’t miss a hike to the summit; the entire trip takes up to eight hours.

As for sleeping in Kluane, we stayed at the Dalton Trail Lodge in a cute little cabin right on the banks of Dezadeash Lake, so we were right in the thick of the wilderness. Full disclosure: I found the lodge’s excessive taxidermy a bit confronting, but the food was tasty, the bed comfy and the location perfecto.

Big tick for the Tat

When I arrive at Kluane’s Tatshenshini River to try whitewater rafting for the first time, I’m pretty anxious. It doesn’t help that “tatshenshini” means “waters of the valley of
the dead fish” in the local Tlingit language. The rafting course spans 23km and features grade four rapids (grade one = easy; grade six = extreme) and even though I’m squeaky with nerves, I woman up and get paddling. About 15 minutes in, I’m in the swing of things when we round a bend… and come face to face with a grizzly bear mid-forage, just a few metres away on the riverbank. He’s huge. Luckily, he’s as surprised as we are and quickly turns to “hide” behind a scraggly bush, standing on his hind legs to watch us pass. I was too awed to get a good shot, but this was definitely a Faunographic life highlight.

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Critters in the city

For a gentler but no less exciting wildlife experience, pop in to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve while you’re in Whitehorse (I went twice because it’s one of the best-run preserves I’ve ever visited – the animals have so much room that there’s no guarantee you’ll even see all of them). There’s a 5km circuit that goes right around the 285ha property, so it’s an easy walk or bike ride to see them all. Faunographic treats here include musk ox, caribou, mountain goats, lynx, arctic foxes, bison and elk. It’s a pretty happy place.

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If you’re a dog lover, you won’t want to miss a sidetrip to Muktuk Adventures’ kennels, also in Whitehorse. Here you’ll get up close to retired sled dogs (and also some in training) – and seeing an ecstatic hound pounding a treadmill will keep you smiling for days.

And as for never seeing an actual horse in Whitehorse… I found out that the city was named after a particular section of the Yukon River where the tumbling rapids resemble a horse’s mane – so it turns out I saw plenty of “horses” in Whitehorse after all…

Many thanks to the Canadian Tourism Commission for making this trip happen.

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