Personal Essay

Travelling to the Yukon made me feel like an international tourist

Navigating the North for the first time, Stephanie King felt almost as foreign as the tourists she met from Germany, France and the U.S.

Iceland? Norway? Dear fellow Canadians urbanites: have you seen your own North?

Navigating the North for the first time, Stephanie King felt almost as foreign as the tourists she met from Germany, France and the U.S. (Braden King)

A hunter had warned us a few hours earlier that a grizzly bear had been circling our site — but my fatigue trumped any stress.

"Good night," I said to my canoeing group, retiring to my tent.

With 300 kilometres behind us on the Yukon River, we would reach Carmacks tomorrow, marking the end of our trip.

I wiggled into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.

"Um! Steph?" A voice called with urgency. It was our new German friend, Franz. My eyes sprung open.

I reached for the bear spray.

A dream vacation

I'd always ranked the Yukon high on my list of dream destinations, but my interest perplexed my fellow urbanites in Toronto.

I'd felt called to the Klondike since 2006, after stumbling upon an attractive coffee table book called Yukon: A Wilder Place. Winding rivers, grizzly cubs, northern lights — with each page, the allure of the wild, vast scene teleported me north.

A bald eagle soars above the “Thirty Mile” section of the Yukon River. (Stephanie King)

So, when in 2016 a group opportunity to paddle the Yukon River presented itself, I signed up my husband, my dog and myself without hesitation. Our friends Joel and Drew formed the rest of our four-person (plus one canine) crew.

Meeting in Whitehorse, we were all eager to escape city hustle and bustle. And so began our 320 kilometre self-guided paddle to Carmacks.

Our route required paddling through Lake Laberge — an iconic, yet potentially difficult and dangerous section. Any Torontonian can look over Lake Ontario and see Niagara on a clear day; it struck me that we'd be paddling roughly this distance, about 50 kilometres, up Lake Laberge.

We were warned that changes in the wind, which could happen suddenly, were a cue to take shore.

I'd always ranked the Yukon high on my list of dream destinations, but my interest perplexed my fellow urbanites in Toronto.

Day two, our fate was sealed as we approached the mouth of the beast: whitecaps. Making strong strokes through wavy waters, the four of us were determined to get off the lake, and quickly; each icy, cold splash was a reminder of the danger in taking on water in the boat.

Soon we were back on land, wondering when the lake's roar would subside. Our hearts pounded as the waves crashed — this idyllic canoe trip now faced turbulence.

My, what big teeth you have! Perched at the bottom of Lake Laberge, King's husband Braden (left) and friend Joel (right) hold up an animal skull found by the campsite. (Stephanie King)

Though the four of us started the adventure alone, now we stood with others who had also taken refuge from Laberge on shore. Making friends, we were surprised to learn where paddlers hailed from: Germany, America, France.

We were the only Canadians.

We spent most of the evening chatting with Soan and Franz from Germany. It was agreed that there was strength in numbers on Lake Laberge, and we decided to carry on as a group of six.

Far from the city

The lake seemed passable by morning, and our three canoes set off with the break of dawn. As we tried to make up for lost time over the next few days, we also faced a headwind, and rainy, cool days.

At speeds of 8-12 kilometres per hour, the Yukon River flow helps canoes cover distance. The flow significantly slows on Lake Laberge, leaving paddlers hoping for a tailwind (Stephanie King)

After a particularly grueling 35 kilometre day of paddling, we set up camp and huddled around the fire.

"You can go anywhere in the world," my friend Drew said to Soan. "Why the Yukon?"

Making friends, we were surprised to learn where paddlers hailed from: Germany, America, France. We were the only Canadians.

Soan gestured to the scene, "Because, this! The expanse, nature, peace. Being away from the city. Beauty."

It was at that moment I realized how similar these international tourists, fellow urbanites craving escape, were to our group.

It struck me that someone in a Queen West coffee shop in Toronto probably had more in common with a city-dweller from Frankfurt than with Canadians living in the North.   

Our pace picked up with our last stroke of Laberge and first of the "Thirty Mile" back on the Yukon River. The days started to go by quicker and fell into each other — much like any vacation abroad.

Together, we marvelled at the heritage sites along the river that paid homage to First Nations and the Gold Rush. Often, we and our international friends learned Canadian history together for the first time, remarking on how we all knew more about German history and World War I and II.

Stephanie, Franz, Braden, Soan, Drew and Joel all smiles after the skies finally opened up at the end of the trip. (Stephanie King)

Twenty kilometres outside of Carmacks, we reached our final stop, and set up camp. The sun shone. We were exhausted, but all smiles. Every interaction was seasoned with giddiness, as we reflected on what we had accomplished.

Often, we and our international friends learned Canadian history together for the first time, remarking on how we all knew more about German history and World War I and II.

I think that's why when a friendly hunter warned us a grizzly bear was nearby, we brushed it off.

No place like home

"Steph!" Franz called again. I grasped the can of bear spray.

"The northern lights!" Franz shouted. "Quickly!"

Dropping the bear spray, I unzipped the tent with vigor. Looking up, I saw blue, green and red lights dancing across the sky. I grabbed my camera — and on second thought, the bear spray too — and met the group by the water.

We gaped in silence at the show of a lifetime.

The Aurora Borealis, lighting up the Yukon night. The show lasted over an hour. (Stephanie King)

A week earlier, I had been one of the only Canadians paddling up the Yukon river. My idea of wild Yukon held true.

What I didn't expect was that all of the friends I'd meet along the way would be international tourists, already convinced that the Yukon is a dream destination.

Over 190 countries share the sky; but at that moment, there was no other place in the world that this Canadian would want to be a tourist.

About the Author

Stephanie King

Stephanie King hails from Toronto, Ont. and has a passion for writing, photography and the outdoors. She lives in Kelowna, B.C. with her husband, Braden, and their dog, Walter.

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