November 30, 2017
Flying over the Yukon, we get an aerial view of what we are getting ourselves in for. All is gray and white with snow on mountains and what look like frozen lakes and rivers are below us. I unconsciously pull up my giant down jacket for a warm snuggle. As we land on the ice covered landing strip, I see that it is just darker than the surrounding area, all darker than the white/white of the area beyond. Any reservations about our choice to search out the Northern Lights in this place are melted when we find our host Wolfgang at airport arrivals with our name on a plaque and a huge, huge grin. He can’t grab our hands fast enough for a warm, firm handshake and words of welcome. We are introduced to two other guests, Bev and Sue, who are Sydneysiders traveling sans husbands to see Canadian winter delights. I think they are also under the spell of the snow and this stunning place.
I hear myself exclaim aloud, “It’s like a fairytale!”
Wolfgang drives us onto the property that he and his wife, Renate have built and nurtured for over ten years. The trees are white with layers of snow and the glistening of the snow on the ground makes me think that it’s a child’s shoebox diorama, a child who used too much white glitter. The welcoming glow of the lights in the log chalet and smaller cabins of the Northern Lights Resort and Spa (http://northernlightsyukon.com) are set off a quiet road on Renate and Wolfgang’s 160 acres, just 20 minutes out of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. We arrive at about 5:30PM and it is dark twilight, nearly fully dark. At this latitude and time of year the days are short. Sunrises are around 10AM and sunset at 3:30PM.
Renate comes from her cheerful red kitchen to greet us and to show us around. In Germany she had been a masseuse and here in Whitehorse, she had been a hotel manager. Wolfgang was an electrical engineer working in the auto industry in Germany. He says that they had a dream to live here and build a place to build a small family run resort. Wolfgang designed it and did most of the work. Renate shows us the large lounge area and dining table which seats up to eight guests. The infrared and the Finnish saunas, massage rooms, showers and lounge area are downstairs. Wolfgang and Renate live upstairs. There is a fun looking teepee just outside the circle of cabins. They also have one attached cabin and three peripheral cabins. Barry and I go with Renate to see our cabin, which winds a short distance down a snowy path. The cabin is toasty warm with three baseboard heaters. It looks like a European mountain cabin with light wood furniture, a small kitchenette and a terrific fireplace in the corner. The windows look out onto the fields of snow with lines of trees beyond. With the German precision that one would expect, there is a typed schedule for us on our coffee table. The fire is ablaze, hand knit woolen slippers laid out, ready to warm our feet after we place our snowy boots into the rubber tray by the door. Large red duffle bags are at the foot of our bed and in each are arctic gear: heavy red coats with hoods, snow pants, heavy gloves and lighter wooly liners, massive boots and red beanies.
DInner will be served shortly. In the morning, after the eight o’clock “healthy European” breakfast, we would just have time to layer up some more to go dog sledding for a few hours. We return to the resort for our simple soup and sandwich lunch. During the afternoon we are booked for a hot stone massage with Renate.
As Barry and I go to the lodge for dinner we, again, pass a jacuzzi outside. Later Wolfgang explains “the Yukon Challenge”. This would be soaking in the jacuzzi and the rolling in the snow, then repeat. I was too astonished at the thought to hear what he said the record for how many dunk and rolls someone had done. A fellow in his senior years challenged his 30s son and did it about 8 times? His son did it a few more times after that. I will not be competing.
Our new Aussie friends, Barry and I are joined by four other guests. There is a couple from Texas, outside of Dallas. They are Susan and David. They arrived yesterday and had been sledding, which was very hard on David’s already injured back. A younger couple, Paula and Jason, also from Australia joined us. All the members of our group are well traveled and you might imagine the great travel tales that buzzed around the table. The conversation was enhanced by Renate’s excellent German meal of quiche appetizer, schnitzel, spätzle, side veg and an unusual grape soufflé.
From 10PM until about 2AM, we will be on the lookout for Northern Lights in the teepee. Our “aurora host” is a young Frenchman named
Niko. Niko has a fire going in the teepee and offers mint tea, cocoa and frozen marshmallows to roast. We opt for some tea to keep warm. No lights yet. Barry and I had gotten up at 2:45AM in San Francisco to get to our early flight this morning. The lack of sleep was beginning to slow us down. We decide to go back to our cabin and rest a little, Niko promises to call us if the lights appear. I leave all t
he blinds open and we leave on the first layer of long underwear and socks for our nap. Snow clothes are laid out on the sofa and our boots are open and ready at the door. Sleep came hard and fast. When I awake at 2AM, I don’t see any smoke coming from the teepee. I cherish the view of the moonlight on the snow, the blue and gray shadows and the absolute silence. I have never experienced a landscape quite like this one. My beloved rolls over and pulls the comforter closer to his neck. I close the blinds and go back to sleep.
December 1, 2017
We dress for breakfast and crunch through the icy snow in the twilight of the northern morning to the dining room. Renate has a typical European breakfast with cold ham, some cheese, fruit, breads, fruit garnished yogurt and a soft boiled egg. She teaches us to use a German egg cracker which we had never seen before. The half domed area of the cracker is placed on top of the egg which is standing in an egg cup. Then the especially fun part, we raise a weighted ball from above the dome to fall upon the dome, twice. The result is that, when you gently twist off the dome, a nice round opening is made and part of the shell removed. Renate explains that she boils the eggs for 7 minutes (we will try a little less for a softer yolk) and that she puts a pin into the egg so that it won’t crack. I check these things out and order them on Amazon. A fun, new kitchen toy with a travel connection!
There’s time for adding more layers of clothing when we return to our cabin, including the gear that we got from Wolfgang and Renate. I check my iPhone to find that it is 4° F, pretty chilly to me. Marcelle, a diminutive French speaking woman picks up our Aussie lady buddies and ourselves to take us to the dog sledding area. Marcelle barrels down the icy road, yet easily brakes for a doe that crosses the road. I feel that I am in good hands. We get to see more of this snowy land during the 40 minute drive.
When we arrive at Alayuk Adventures, it looks like a movie set to me of “miner’s shack in the Yukon.” Inside it is actually very nice, though the faint smell of the composting toilet is a little off-putting. It seems a little colder here. Marcelle Fressineau & Gilles Proteau live here year around and I learn that Marcelle has run the Iditarod, possibly several times? Gilles is a 60-something fellow, he looks a little rough, is heavily accented in his speech, with a long, full white beard. He couldn’t play part of a French-Canadian trapper in a movie, because he would look to cliche! Marcelle is Swiss and her partner, Giles is from Quebec. Both of them, as well as nearly all their staff, are speaking French during our whole time with them. They give us heavier clothes than the clothes that we already have. They also give us wonderful heating pouches for our mittens and stick on heating pads for the tops of our feet. I have on thin winter silks under shirt and long pants, heavier 32 below costco pants, corduroy pants, insulated snow farmer john’s, a cotton turtleneck, a wool pullover sweater, heavy HEAVY coat, a fleece headband, a fleece hat with a face cover attached to it, a heavy fleece scarf and a set of gloves and a heavy set of mittens attached to a rope that goes behind my neck.
Now dressed not only for the Yukon, but I think also for deep space, we head outside to the cacophony of dog barking. Nearly all the dogs come forward to be petted, only a few stay inside their little kennels. The literature on Alayuk says that they have 45 dogs, it sounds like they are all hoping to go sledding today. Marcelle will take me in the lead sled, Barry and his driver are behind me, the Australian ladies behind them. The helpers get the dogs hooked up to the four sleds that are going out and I enter a state of wonderment. Though Barry and I went sledding on a glacier in Alaska a few years ago, this experience was even more exciting.
We travel through the forest, around bends, alongside a frozen river and over a frozen lake. The dogs are tearing up the trail, they continue to race along as they occasionally take bites of snow along the way. I took out my phone to take photos a few times and immediately plunged my hands back into my mittens and the warming pack. We stop at a halfway point and I take my phone from inside my farmer John’s. It won’t go on, black screen. Shit, I hope that I haven’t lost my photos! My eyelashes stick together, frozen shut from the cold. The men drivers have iced over beards. I love every minute of the sledding, but decline to take over the driving of the sled, not believing that I could control these amazing animals. Honestly, I also don’t want to delay our return. After a couple of hours, I find that I was ready to get back into the warm cabin, hot tea and warm fingers. Confirming that Iditarod racing is not on my bucket list.
Relief! Upon return to our cabin, I plug in my phone and it starts working again. Though the battery is nearly dead, there is a heartbeat! I Google the whole extreme cold and iPhone and find it is a “thing”. I will keep it warmer next time, in a few more layers closer to me.
The stone massage and the Finnish sauna are so delightful! I fall asleep on a lounge chair outside of the sauna and I think that I dream of flying over the snow.
Tonight, we sit in the teepee again, hoping to see the Aurora Borealis. The forecast isn’t very promising though. Niko is off tonight and Wolfgang is the host. Barry and I try frozen marshmallows over the fire in the teepee. I don’t really like marshmallows, but the experience of roasting a frozen one is pretty fun. I am reminded of the old joke about the three eskimos who are sitting in an igloo. Barry delivered the joke to the group.
One eskimo says, “It was so cold in my igloo last night that my spit froze mid air and dropped to the ground. “
The next eskimo say, “Well, it was so cold in my igloo last night that when I peed, it froze in an arc of ice.”
“Well!”, says the last eskimo, “it was so cold in my igloo last night…Well, let me show you.” He went over to one side of the igloo and brought back an ugly, blue-black chunk of ice and threw it into the fire. [here, you must insert a loud fart sound]
Wolfgang and the Aussie ladies laugh heartily and I am warmed to find that others have the same juvenile sense of humor that I have.
Sadly, no lights tonight. Barry and I give up around midnight, I think. Maybe later in the morning? We still have hope.
December 2, 2017
It’s colder today. At zero degrees it’s the coldest that I’ve experienced, and then we drive out to The Yukon Wildlife Preserve. It is a government owned wildlife park of over 700 acres and houses 13 species of mammals from Northern Canada in there natural environment. Today, their natural environment is -27℃= -16.60000℉. I confirm this with Barry, is that the temperature that is on the car’s thermometer? Yup. I have always wondered what -16°F felt like, now I know. The universe allowed me to really “get to the bottom” of what this is like because I have to use the restroom. Thinking that the potty was in the little heated cabin where Renate got our tickets, I am told, no, no, the toilet is an outhouse. It’s a cute little log outhouse and I’m sure that it will be nice and warm inside. No, it’s a real outhouse. It’s a frozen shit pit with a disgusting toilet seat and a frozen concrete floor. The one saving grace is that there’s a baby changing station where I can put my layers of clothing to get to ready to pee. Straddling the frozen pit, my most sensitive parts exposed to subzero temperatures, I have an appreciation of cold which I never experienced before. Blessedly, unlike the eskimos in our joke, my pee pee fell down in liquid form and I redress as quickly as my frozen little fingers would allow. Outside with the others in my group, even my dancing around can’t warm me and I “sprint” to the office to see if they have warming pads that I can buy. They do, I do and I am feeling much better. The smirking ranger has the nerve to tell me that it isn’t that cold today, where am I from San Diego or something. I grimace. Damn, well, yes, I AM from San Diego, you sadistic bastard! – I think but don’t say.
Renate drives us from pen to pen, which would ordinarily be a very walkable distance. The four of us guests get out with her to see some beautiful animals and then we get back into the car to warm up and drive to the the next pen. It IS wonderful to see moose, musk ox, mountain goats, arctic foxes, bison, and lynx.
For the afternoon, we decide to take a field trip into the town of Whitehorse. It’s larger than I thought it would be. It is the capital of northwest Canada’s Yukon territory. There are museums, a visitor center, hotels, restaurants and gift shops. Barry and I start with a nice warm lunch and we meet a young mom with a darling little daughter. The mom tells me that they have just returned from a few years in a larger city back home to Whitehorse and they love it here. I tell her about our plans and where we’ve been. She recommends Takhini Hot Pools’ mineral springs. She says that locals go into hot springs at night, see the northern lights and freeze your hair into funny shapes. It does sound fun, but I don’t think that we will have time. Later, I look online to see that it might have been lots of fun…if we ever go to Whitehorse again.
Inside a shop, Barry gets jokingly snide comment from a shopkeeper that he must not be from around here. Locals don’t wear snow pants when it’s this warm. Geez! There are some cute things in shops and a local craft fair that is filled with people, but we don’t buy anything.
The lowest probability of seeing the lights since we have been here are projected for today. So, we aren’t too optimistic. Sadly, they do not appear for us.
December 3, 2017
Last day here today. Since our flight isn’t leaving until after 4PM, Wolfgang has arranged for Sky High Wilderness Ranch to pick us up, take us snowmobiling and then take us to the airport. With heartfelt hugs and goodbyes from Wolfgang and Renate, we go with the Aussie ladies to see the Fish Lake area on snow mobiles.
After some orientation, Barry takes the handlebars on our snowmobile and we are following our guide, Kyle across the large frozen Fish Lake. Kyle tells us that the ice is nearly thick enough for them to bring out their ice fishing shacks and that the locals will be drilling through the ice into the lake to catch fish. We see some tracks, but no wildlife. We climb up a mountain on the trails and the views below us are spectacular. We take lots of photos and I try to remember every detail, it is so stunning.
At the top of the mountain, there is a car stuck in the snow. Two young guys (one in just a sweatshirt and the other in a light jacket) are using snow shovels to try to release themselves. I can see a couple of little kids in the car. Barry and Kyle try to give them a hand, pushing on the car, but it is well and stuck. The guys say they are sure that they can dig themselves out. Kyle tells the people that he will return and takes us back to the ranch.
Kyle tells us later how irresponsible it is to be in that area in a car, especially with little kids. There’s no way that they can drive down the mountain. They will go up to evacuate them later. It’s not too cold right now, but will be much colder soon. It brings home how there isn’t room for poor judgement in this environment.
Back at the airport we are flying out to Vancouver with four fellow adventurers: Susan and David from Texas, Sue and Bev from Sydney. (We said goodbye to Paula and Jason yesterday, they are now in Hawaii on their way back to Australia). We have a few hours and enjoy a meal at the airport together. Poutine (French fries, cheese curds and brown gray from Quebec), pierogi (small filled dumplings from Eastern Europe), fish and burgers are on the unusual menu.
We switch planes in Vancouver and go on the shortest flight I know of, 12 minutes to Victoria. The check in, cabin crew talks, waiting for runway times are much longer than the flight. We check in to Brentwood Bay Resort and Spa and enjoy a fireplace, a view and much warmer temperatures. It’s only a little colder than at home in Sacramento!