Exploring Dawson and the Dempster Highway
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years of travelling around Canada is that the best experiences are often unplanned. Landsby’s founder Jason Sarracini and I had just spent a few days visiting some pretty spectacular lodges in the Yukon, with stunning views over lakes and mountains, but we had been unsuccessful in seeing the Aurora Borealis.
As we drove back to the airport in Whitehorse in the early morning hours, we had a clear starry sky, a good solar forecast and some anxious optimism that we might be able to catch a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights.
After two hours of driving, we hadn’t seen anything and then, out of nowhere, we noticed a faint cloud-like streak in the sky. We pulled over and got away from the vehicle and sure enough, there it was. A beautiful band of cascading light jetted across the sky. It seemed grey at first but the colours gradually intensified.
We were treated to hues of pink, purple and green dancing in a line of vertical columns stretched almost directly overhead. It was cold and windy and we were rushing to catch our flights, but it was such an amazing moment.
After staying in all these beautiful lodges, it was kind of funny to see them right off the highway. I likened it back to my guiding days where people came from far and wide to Canada hoping for a grizzly bear sighting. We would do stunning hikes and go to out-of-the-way places but more often than not, we would see them right on the side of the road.
While Jason headed back to Vancouver and eventually Toronto, my time in the Yukon wasn’t over just yet. And just as with the Northern Lights surprising us at the side of the road, I was in for some incredible experiences as I headed further north to Dawson.
Landing in Dawson
Getting on the plane to Dawson did not feel like a typical tourist trip. Save for two passengers with hardshell carry-ons, I was amongst what seemed to be local travellers: grizzled men joking about the cold weeks prior and flying up to Dawson for work; other family groups heading further up north to Old Crow or Inuvik.
It was a stunning flight, with a sunrise that seemed to last almost the whole way. Sitting on the left side of the plane gave me endless mountain views the entire flight (although on the right side, you get a great look at the Ogilvie mountains as you come into Dawson, so you can’t go wrong either way).
It was a beautiful blue bird day in Dawson and I was immediately struck with how much colder it felt in comparison to Whitehorse. I quickly swapped out my city boy boots for the warmer ones that came with my winter clothing rental and hurried to meet my guide. Mike, it turned out, was an amazing source of knowledge and a passionate outdoorsman. Upon meeting him, you could immediately tell he knew the area really well. On a city tour of Dawson and area he was an encyclopedia of history and natural facts.
I stayed at the Aurora Inn, which was a simple but very well kept little property. It had everything you need, with amazing service, a nice clean room and a great hot shower. Location-wise, it is right in town and just a few minutes away from the Yukon River that winds its way through the city.
Dogsledding with the Muttley Crew
That afternoon I had a chance to dogsled with a local guide, Matt. He was a passionate musher with a great team of mismatched dogs he dubbed the “muttley crew”. These dogs were a Ferrari compared to the dogs we had ridden with at Tagish Lake. That being said, it was a bit of a rough go, the trails had been washed out with snow and wind from the days prior but we tried our best to blaze a new trail down the river. It was notably colder and by the end of it my eyelids had icicles and it felt like the bridge of my nose was dark blue. But the views were stunning!
After dogsledding, I went to a lovely restaurant called BonTon & Company, named one of Canada’s best new restaurants in 2021 by EnRoute magazine.
It was a very stylish yet unpretentious setting and the service was excellent. The major focus is on locally sourced ingredients and local suppliers, which is pretty special given their northern location. I tried their signature charcuterie board and a goat cheese salad. It was an amazing meal that would have seemed right on par with top level establishments in Vancouver or Toronto.
That night I went up the hill in West Dawson in a very comfortable and cozy yurt to view the Aurora. I was joined by two ladies from Toronto who had also been making their rounds through the Yukon. It was nice to swap stories with them and we had a great Aurora showing that night.
The next morning we left Dawson and headed north up the Dempster Highway. The Dempster is a highway that stretches for 740 km from Dawson to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.
I had been looking forward to this day the whole trip. I had been on the Dempster six years before in August and I was very excited to see it now during the winter. The drive did not disappoint! Stunning rugged wilderness and not a soul around. Other than a snowplow clearing the highway, we did not pass a single other car. The remoteness and the beauty of this place is breathtaking.
As I took in the stunning mountain scenery visible from the highway, I heard the plane before I saw it. A little Cessna 206 flew in over us and landed right on the highway — this was my ride back to Dawson!
I’ve flown in enough small planes in my life to know they are safe, but there’s always a bit of nerves. Scott, the pilot, was a dream to fly with — super chipper and cool as a cucumber. He immediately put me at ease as we headed toward some of Canada’s most stunning peaks. Mt. Tombstone and Mount Monolith have to be some of the most recognizable peaks in the country.
In the summer their sheer dark rock faces are a stunning contrast to the sky and ground. In the winter, with a dusting of snow, they look absolutely majestic. You usually have to work pretty hard to hike in and see them, so to be treated to a flight that circled around them for about 15-20 minutes was incredibly special and something I won’t soon forget.
We had some great conversations on the way back to Dawson and before I knew it, I was sitting in the tiny little airport waiting for the plane back down south.
Want to have your own Yukon adventure? Contact us and we will be happy to help you plan the perfect trip.