The river is a deep blue. Its banks are smooth and white. The afternoon sun catches small waves, where the current moves quickly, making them look gilt-edged in the honeyed light. Thick clouds rise from the water as it tumbles north.
If you snuggle into your parka and squint, you can almost convince yourself this December scene on the Yukon River is actually Mexico, or Hawaii, or Cuba, or any of the places most people choose to spend their winter vacation weeks. Because, really, there’s only a few degrees of difference—about 45 of them, on a day like today, when the low in Whitehorse is -21 C. Just replace the snow with white sand and swap out ice fog for steam.
Or don’t. The other option is to embrace the cold. You wouldn’t be alone. More and more people are visiting the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut during the colder months of the year. Who wouldn’t want to take in the Alpenglow that turns mountains bubble gum pink under lavender skies? Or experience temperatures so low that plastic shopping bags shatter like glass in your hands? Where else can you snap photos of your eyelashes, frozen to tiny, perfect icicles, like brilliant sunbursts around your eyes, whenever you go outside? What could be more life-affirming than running a 100-mile race through the frozen backcountry in February?
That’s what brought Bernhard Hasenbalg from Germany to the Yukon for the first time in 2012.
Hasenbalg, 59, sits in a bakery in downtown Whitehorse, wearing a thin down jacket embroidered with the brand Montane, one of the sponsors of the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra. An annual race that bills itself as the world’s toughest and coldest ultra, it offers participants the chance to run either a marathon distance of 26 miles, or more—100 miles, 300 miles, or 430 miles on foot, cross-country ski, or bicycle. It follows the same route as the Yukon Quest, the famed sled dog race.
When he first heard about it, Hasenbalg a marathoner who had run races at the opposite end of the extreme (in an African desert), thought it was crazy. Two years later, he found himself at the starting line for the 100-mile distance.
“It was kind of... fun is maybe not the right word,” he says. “But I really liked it.” So much so that in 2013, he returned to run the 430-mile distance. An ankle issue forced him to scratch, so he tried again in 2015. (The 430-mile distance is only offered every second year). Temperatures dropped as low as -50 C, but he placed third. In 2017, he signed up again and won the 430-mile distance on a fat-bike.
It would be easy to write Hasenbalg off as an extreme sports junkie, but that’s not what brought him back again and again, or what convinced various family members to join him over the years, or why he now splits his time between Germany and the Yukon, where he met his partner. There’s a solitude on the trails that's surreal to him as a European. There are forests, sure, but they're full of signs of the city—other people, trail markers, garbage cans, sounds, including voices and cars. Even the Black Forest, Germany’s largest, has towns, roads and a railway line running through it. It was surreal to be truly alone out there.
“Being out there, in the night, if you stop, you don’t hear any noise. Nothing. You don’t have this in Europe,” he says. You also don’t have Northern Lights. The first time he saw them, he thought he was approaching a city. At the time, he didn’t have another explanation for the lights reflected in the sky.
These lights are another major draw for winter travellers. “They’re definitely a bucket list thing,” says Katherine Johnson, who helps run Blachford Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories. An off-grid lodge near the east arm of Great Slave Lake, Blachford is uniquely positioned in what’s known as the Aurora Oval, the ring around geomagnetic north. You’re in the eye of the storm.
“If you’re here for three nights, there’s a 98 percent chance you’ll see them,” Johnson says. Not that she’s taking chances. One of the distinguishing features of the lodge is its all-hours Aurora wake-up service. Someone on staff is always awake, watching the sky like a sailor for signs of light. If there's a show, they page guests who want to watch from their own rooms, one of the lodge's viewing decks, or the hot tub.
While they’re waiting, the lodge offers all kinds of activities to keep people occupied. (It’s a half-hour bush plane flight from Yellowknife, so there’s no wandering town to fill the daylight hours.) You can get explore the area on cross-country skis, snowshoes or by kick-sled. Or you can take part in medicine walks, story-telling circles, drumming sessions, spruce salve- making workshops and more.
Like Hasenbalg, Johnson says people are most shocked by the silence.
“You and I and so many in the North know that sound, when it’s winter and you’re alone on the trail and it’s freezing and there’s that pure sound of silence,” she says. It’s the kind of quiet that is itself a sound. That feels like it’s filling your whole head with cotton. “If you live in a city and you never get that? It’s surreal.”
In a way, a lot of people travel to the North to get away from the south, says Jocelyne LeBlanc, who manages Sky High Wilderness Ranch in the Yukon.
LeBlanc sits at a desk in a long, rectangular office in downtown Whitehorse where she is clearly restless. (“I’m not an office person,” she says.) “When we get people inquiring, the first thing we say is, ‘Okay, just so you know, we’re off-grid. We have no electricity. We have no Wi-Fi.’ And the first thing they say is, ‘Perfect, that’s what we want.’”
Sky High also has dogs. Dozens of them. That’s the main attraction at LeBlanc’s lifestyle ranch, which offers everything from day-trips on a dog sled, to 14-day packages that combine winter camping with mushing. You get to feed, massage and outfit your own team.
People don’t expect this kind of thing when they visit. They think the dogs are like service dogs. Working dogs who can’t be pet. LeBlanc laughs at that.
"I'm 47 years old and I can tell you, a dog will always be there for you.” She leans back in her office chair and looks you dead in the eyes as if she’s daring you to disagree. “You can’t find the friendship you find in a dog. You cannot find it in any human. It’s very simple.”
It’s also very popular. Sky High attracts tourists largely from Europe and Australia. Since the pandemic hit, there have been more Canadians than LeBlanc has ever seen. The thing all of them take home, she says, is that bond with their team. At the end of the week, when she drives her guests back into Whitehorse to fly home, she always hears sniffling from the backseat. Guests always email as soon as they get home to find out how their favourite dog is doing.
Animals are also the draw at Nunavut’s Black Feather Adventures, although petting is not advised. The adventure company offers a number of all-season packages, including ski and backpacking trips through places like Auyuittuq National Park. By far the most popular— and the one that earned the company a “Canadian signature experience” designation from Destination Canada—is the floe edge adventure.
“It’s something that stands out because it is so totally different to anything that you would have experienced before,” says owner Wendy Grater.
Trips start in Pond Inlet. From there, Black Feather and local Inuit guides take participants to the sinaaq, or floe edge— the spot where the wide, open water of Baffin Bay meets the ice still attached to the shoreline. They strike a basecamp from which to explore the area, and to see and photograph polar bears, seals, narwhals, bowhead whales and numerous seabirds.
Some just want to be there, while others come specifically to photograph the landscape. It looks like the edge of the Earth—white and blue and, in a word, majestic. It’s also raw and unpredictable, says Grater. That can be challenging, especially for people from the south, even people from more northern south. They’re unfamiliar with the way wind and weather can change on a dime, which can be disorienting. Being on the ice adds a whole other dimension.
“You just realize the power of nature,” Grater says. “The ice can shift and, well, it’s scary, as the season progresses.” She says climate change may add uncertainty to the floe edge season. “Leads start to open and they are in fairly predictable places, where the leads would open each year, but it can happen faster and you just have to be very aware. And that's why working with local Indigenous people is pretty important."
About the only thing you won’t see on the floe edge trip is the Aurora because it’s technically spring, says Grater, and the daylight hours are pretty long.
If you want to be out on the ice looking at lights, Terra Riders in Whitehorse can make it happen.
Daniel Sams established the adventure company in 2018, specializing in fat-biking trips. He keeps an eye on the Aurora forecast so he can plan nighttime fat-bike rides out on Lake Laberge when guests are most likely to see the cosmic light show. Even when the lights are a no-show, he says, the experience is incredible. The Aurora are a bonus.
“It’s just fun to be out there riding in the dark,” he says. With the night sky bright and clear overhead, and the ability to get into nooks and crannies of the shoreline you couldn’t access in a canoe, you can cover a lot of ground quickly. (Terra also offers paddling packages as long as there’s open water, which can be as late as mid-December.)
It’s hard to say how much his business has seen an increase in winter visitors, because it only recently opened, but Sams says roughly 30 per cent of trips are winter bookings. And he’s noticed Terra rising in Google rankings—from the 12th page to the front page.
Sams and LeBlanc say they’ve seen more and more ads focused on the North as an option for winter vacations. They just don’t understand why you wouldn’t come during the darker months—there are things you can do here that can’t be done anywhere else at any other time. And, really, there’s something unnameable about the experience.
“It’s a great place for people to come and really disconnect and realize how life is too fast,” says LeBlanc, half-out of her office chair, wanting to get back to her ranch and her dogs and her propane lights. “It’s one of the places that still has the magic and the mystery.”