The Insider's Guide to the North - January
1) From the Hoarfrost to the Barrenlands
Long-time Yellowknife resident Jennifer Stranart always wanted to travel across the Barrenlands—but how to get there? Though not incredibly far from the city, they’re inaccessible in the winter to anyone without a plane, snowmobile with a bunch of gas, or a dog team. Stranart enlisted guides and friends Dave and Kristen Olesen to take her and two friends to the edge of the Barrenlands, north of Great Slave Lake’s East Arm, last April. (January is the prime time for dogsled travel, though—ice and snow conditions are usually perfect).
“With the dogsleds you’re not going too fast—six or seven kilometres per hour—so you really see the environment you’re in, you see how it changes, every day, every hour.
“After [massive NWT wildfires in 2014] the whole landscape is just devastated. You’re going through these precarious burnt trees, brushing up against them. My sled just glanced off one and it came down. But the burn is beautiful, in its own way. Everything is black and white.
“We only had trails for the first couple of days, then nothing. We were running down Cook Lake, and you look in one direction, and there’s trees on one shore, and then on the other there’s nothing. When we hit the barrens we did two nights in one camp, and did a day-trip through the hills of the barrens. It was sunny, clear—just magical. We were just rolling over these hills with the dogs.
“I love the barrens. It’s so special. They’re silent. Like Saskatchewan with hills, and little copses of trees. The sky is so huge and the landscape is so huge. But it is a desert. We were out for five days and saw one bird, some caribou tracks and wolf tracks. It’s so different from Yellowknife, yet so close.” —DC
2) Dawson City's Secrets
Most people head to Dawson City in the summer, when music and arts festivals abound, and the streets are bustling in the tiny, historic Gold Rush town. But Dawson—the real Dawson—isn’t about most people. It’s about the adventurous types who have a blast swimming against the current (you might have heard them referred to as the “colourful five per cent”). And if that’s the version of Dawson you want to see, farmer Derrick Hastings suggests heading there in the peak of the town’s off-season.
“If you come wanting to meet those individuals who are different … if you come wanting to play music, be involved in the non-profits, arts, history; if you embrace it and come with that desire, Dawson provides the venue and the atmosphere, the experience for you to just join up,” says Hastings, who’s lived there for the past 11 years. He says it’s quiet in the dead of winter. “I find it to be a time where people get together at home a lot more. They’re less likely to be out socially around town,” says Hastings. “But that lends to more of a grassroots social atmosphere. I find January has potential, but nobody’s ever really tapped it.”
Until last year, that is, when newcomers Carly Woolner and Blair Douglas decided to stave off the winter blues with an arts crawl. (s)hiver, scheduled for the end of January, features indoor and outdoor arts installations, a lantern-making workshop followed by a lantern parade, live music, and a bonfire and dance party on the frozen Yukon River. Hastings even had a booth set up where he served soup and green juice made with his own homegrown sprouts.
This year, Woolner and Douglas are planning for more arts and DIY workshops leading up to the two-day festival. And they’re hoping that like last year, everyone in town—“those hardy enough to stick around,” says Woolner—will be there. Because in January, “when you do meet people they have their guard down,” she explains. “In the summer it’s so busy you might not get to know many locals, but that time of year, it’s a different experience.”– SM