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Monday, August 27, 2012

Day 65 and 66: Whitehorse

Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon, lies 1399 kms from Dawson Creek along the Alaska Highway. We made it there in five days, and that felt pretty speedy by our standards. The hot sunny weather that had also been standard fare for us throughout the road trip suddenly broke as we reached this cosmopolitain little city of 25,000, and we had to resign ourselves to cloudy skies and rain showers. As a result, our photos don't really do Whitehorse any favours...And this is a pity, given how appealing this riverside community known as the 'Wilderness City' in fact is.

We arrived in good time on a Tuesday afternoon and set Carmella up in the Hi-Country RV park that sits, true to its name, on an escarpment high above the city centre. The steep six kilometer descent into downtown Whitehorse and the subsequent ascent after doing a quick recky of the place in Ruby on day one was a snap. Not so snappy was that 6 kilometre climb back up to the RV park on our bikes the following day after a full day of 'doing' the sites and sounds of Whitehorse, and in the driving rain no less. But even that wasn't enough to dampen our enthusiasm for this lively city which is a good 1000 kms from any other urban centre of a comparative size, and which somehow manages to be at once worldly, at once a world away from it all.

That cursed hill excepted, bikes proved to be the ideal way to get around Whitehorse. A beautiful 5 km cycling path that loops round the city took us over a suspension bridge straddling the mighty Yukon River and straight to the longest fish ladder in Canada. Our visit happened to coincide with the time of year when countless numbers of adult Chinook Salmon are returning from the Bering Sea to the Yukon River spawning grounds where they began their lives several years before. Traveling 1000s of kilometers against the current of the Yukon to get back to their place of birth, their last act before they die is to lay the eggs that will begin the cycle all over again.

Some of the pregnant fish were being scooped out of the water at the top of the ladder to be taken to a hatchery, where their eggs will help to improve farmed salmon stocks. Others gathered at the foot of the ladder as they mustered the strength to leap it after their epic journey south. Still others floated belly up - their eggs deposited, hence their journey - and their life - now over. It was an astonishing and, in many ways, deeply poignant spectacle that we found ourselves observing - one that certainly put our own journey up the hill into perspective. We watched those Chinook Salmon intently for a good couple of hours.

We were equally entranced by the story of the SS Klondike paddle-steamer, built in 1929, that had once ferried passengers up and down the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City. Now a national heritage site that sits docked at the entrance to the town, our guided tour shed fascinating light on what it was to work on the boat, as well as to travel 1st and 2nd class on it.

Stepping back from the city's important river links and lore to explore some of its other facets, we chatted to a couple of men who were carving a totem pole to commemorate those children and families profoundly scarred by the residential school program. The finished totem pole will be erected in Whitehorse in mid-October in conjunction with a special event organized around the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation talks. Each chip that comes off the wooden pole as they carve is collected and saved, and represents a life that was touched by this shameful episode of Canadian history. All of the chips will be burned together in an upcoming memorial ceremony and the ashes stored in a box carried by one of the figures on the totem pole.

We were struck by the craftsmanship of these two carvers, and by the beauty of the totem they were creating. We were also struck by how many artists seem to have made their home in Whitehorse, and by how good their art is. Galleries were scattered around the city, as were chic little bistros, lively cafes, and good bookstores. Buskers were on many of the street corners, and right there in the middle of it all sat the CBC, decked out in brilliant red. We liked the vibe of Whitehorse. We liked the bustle and buzz. It felt alive and it felt like interesting things were happening. It's the kind of place you can imagine yourself going back to.