Story by Hans Tammemagi
WHITEHORSE, YUKON — Crowds crammed downtown Whitehorse recently to greet Prince William and Princess Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The royal couple began their Yukon visit by strolling through an enormous community festival where spectators stood shoulder to shoulder to shake hands, wave flags and catch a glimpse.
It’s surprising the royal couple came here, for few Canadians do, preferring Europe or Mexico. Pity, for as the Duke and Duchess discovered, Whitehorse is one jumping city.
Okay, I have no royal blood, but I was drawn to Yukon and Whitehorse this summer, and fell in love. My immediate impression of the grandeur of raw nature and wild wilderness was intermingled with the long history and dazzling allure of gold mining.
With a population of 28,000 in a territory of 34,000 souls, there’s no question Whitehorse is a small frontier metropolis. But being on the fringe of northern Canada also brings blessings: It’s very friendly, there’s a hardy we-can-get-it-done attitude, and the long winter has catalyzed an enormous range of arts and culture.
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I quickly learned the downtown, on the west side of the north-flowing Yukon River, is compact, walkable and attractive, featuring considerable public art including 19 bronze statues such as the prospector and his dog, Pierre Berton, and Robert Service. The riverfront has been developed as a green space with a pathway and, surprise, a trolley, which I rode comfortably back and forth.
Perplexed by the city’s name, I chatted with a grizzled man with an unkempt white beard. He explained, “Just south of the city there’s these ferocious rapids whose waves look like the flowing manes of white horses. Many prospectors on the way to Dawson City wrecked their boats and even lost their lives at those torrents. When a young man, I shot the Whitehorse Rapids, and I’ve spent all the years since hunting for gold.”
Whitehorse has a vibrant arts and culture scene with the only performing arts centre north of latitude 60 degrees in Canada. As one curator explained, “During the winter it’s dark almost all the time, so we have to find ways to keep ourselves entertained.” Whitehorse also has the only public art gallery in the Canadian territories. Furthermore, more than 35 artists will welcome you into their home galleries.
Galleries, Museums and the Klondike Gold Rush
The city is blessed with more than its share of museums: the McBride Museum of Yukon History, Copperbelt Railway & Mining, Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, Yukon Transportation, Old Log Church, and the S.S. Klondike.
Reminders of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, the greatest such exploration for wealth in history, are everywhere, but none is more prominent than the S.S. Klondike, the largest paddlewheeler to ply the Yukon River, now restored as a National Historic Site on the riverfront. I climbed the gangplank and wandered through storage areas for tons of ore, a sumptuous dining room for first-class passengers, and the engine room where a cord of wood was burned each day.
I took the trolley to the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, opened in 2012. I walked past displays that tell the story of this First Nation from more than 8,000 years ago. At the café I enjoyed fresh-baked bannock — fried flatbread that is a staple of aboriginal diets. Behind the centre sit three brightly coloured sheds for artists-in-residence. Our guide explained how the traditional village of the Kwanlin Dün was forced to move five times because of Whitehorse’s growth.
“My uncle went to shop for an hour,” she said, “and when he returned a bulldozer was demolishing his home.”
The cultural centre, which has become a centrepiece of the community as a major tourist attraction and a sought-after meeting place for aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike, represents an enormous turnaround. As I left, drumming and chanting resonated from a storytelling circle.
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Yukoners think nothing of driving long distances. Quickly adapting, I spent some time behind the wheel. An hour south was Carcross with Canada’s only pocket desert and exotic gold rush and First Nations heritage. To the northwest is Haines Junction, Kluane National Park, and vast icefields including about 1,000 glaciers. An even longer drive due north took me to Dawson City, the epicentre of the colourful gold rush. The town is maintained like a museum by Parks Canada and I was entranced by Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall and her dancing girls.
Back in Whitehorse, I listened to recitation of the Cremation of Sam McGee in the McBride Museum, strode along the riverfront path, gazed at totems at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, and felt, well, like a Royal.
MORE ABOUT VISITING YUKON
Yukon Tourism Website: www.travelyukon.com
Address: 2nd Ave. & Lambert Street, Whitehorse, Yukon