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Winter 2004 | Whitehorse & Frozen Dreams

Winter 2004 | Whitehorse & Frozen Dreams

Revisiting the arctic of his youth, a Canadian writer finds his way home

I grew up in Canada's Arctic area but haven't been up there since I left, by myself, at age 17. But I do return there in dreams, where I wander the streets of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, the snow along the curb as high as my head, deep in the darkness that lasts from November, when the sun sets, until April, when it rises again, the streetlights haloed in the perpetual ice fog of a 50-below day. In this dream I can't get out, can't find the airport. It is basically my adolescence. But even in nightmares there isn't Frozen Turkey Bowling.

I am on my way to Canada's Arctic, to the town of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, and I am attending the annual Sourdough Rendezvous festival. I'm also writing a book about growing up in the Arctic juxtaposed with my experiences trying to make it as a filmmaker in Los Angeles. I was always told to "write about what you know," so I am. But with the Arctic, I always thought that what I knew was boring.

Next to me on the plane was a woman named Nancy. I asked her what the population of Whitehorse was. "Well," she said, "the population is declining because of the closing of all the minds." What? That sounded all too familiar, like the kind of place that would not tolerate gays, which was one the reasons I fled as soon as I was able to. "The closing of the what?" I asked, needing to be sure. "The mines. They're closing down the old gold mines. You won't recognize it," said Nancy. "We got a Wal-Mart."

I looked out the window at the vast, unpopulated expanse of British Columbia's mountains, a sparkling, jagged topography seen from above, gleaming white with dark blue shadows. This was definitely a landscape with more space than people. Indeed, you could continue up past Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway to Inuvik and walk on the permafrost in the tundra--ground that hasn't thawed since the last ice age. "And a McDonald's," Nancy added in a tone that I recognized as pride.

I remember my first breath of Arctic air when my parents moved my brother and me up to an Eskimo settlement called Repulse Bay on the Arctic Circle. The plane door opened and the air, fresh and crisp, hit me like a fist in the chest. As I disembarked from the plane in Whitehorse, I recognized that familiar winter tang.

But Nancy was right: I didn't recognize the north. What had felt stifling and threatening to me as a closeted teenager now had some charm and unique attraction that I can appreciate as an adult. It still looks the same, the square little wooden buildings that look at a disadvantage to the wilderness bearing down on them. Like any frontier town it seems a little impermanent, as though it had been put up by gold prospectors and not city planners--which it was. There is a frontier quality to the people as well: honesty, forthrightness.

I asked most of the people I met what had brought them to Yukon. I half expected the answer to be that they were hiding from the law. Almost invariably, however, they said something like, "Just breathe." I got the point. There are many things of great interest to the traveler who is looking for something different, something rawer and more adventurous than a typical holiday destination. Yukon is not a place that fosters a thriving gay scene--or any scene, really. Although the Yukon Territory approved same-sex marriage in July of 2004 (the fourth region in Canada to do so), there are no gay bars in Whitehorse, but if you're lucky, you might be able to drop in on one of the gay potluck suppers that are held intermittently by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Yukon (yes, we are indeed everywhere), which puts out a newsletter that caters to the "queer, bi, transgendered, two-spirited point of view."

"When packing for a trip to Yukon it's a good idea to pack a boyfriend," said Norman, a local gay shopkeeper, "'cause you won't find one here." Nor is there much in the way of shopping, although I did find a store that sold a fur hat made of a coyote--an entire coyote, its ears and leathery little nose sticking out the top, the tail hanging behind, and the earflaps made from paws that still had the claws attached.

What Yukon does offer is a mind-boggling expanse of wilderness. Only a few miles outside of Whitehorse you can find yourself utterly alone in the middle of a completely untouched wildness. There are more hidden lakes than can be counted, all easily accessible by well-maintained roads. In fact, Porsche was testing its new line of SUV, the Cayenne, while I was there, and I got to experience how it felt to drive around pylons on yards-deep ice. "Handles well, eh?" said Pierre, the most patient of the professional drivers doing the road tests. I knew he was the most patient because he was assigned to me. "Yes," I said. To be honest, it was hard to focus on the driving: I was too busy worrying about the loud, vibrating cracks that were exploding deep in the ice under the tires.

The greatest draw in winter is the spectacle of the aurora borealis, the unpredictable northern lights. As a boy I never failed to stop on my way back from school and stare into the sky as huge electric curtains of light, yellow, blue, purple, and red, snapped and shimmered overhead. Sometimes they would stretch from horizon to horizon, their movement building like the crack of a whip; other times they would be a gently undulating, ghostly greenish glow. And what struck me as awesome was that they are entirely silent. One would expect something so vibrant, so pyrotechnical, so vast, to have a sound.

Although Whitehorse offers a surfeit of outdoor activities--literally thousands of miles of hiking, boating, fishing, and four golf courses--the truly unmissable one is dog mushing, a favorite local sport. Now, these Whitehorse dogs were not the dogs I remember from my youth. Those dogs were Eskimo work dogs, built like werewolves in horror movies, and they would not hesitate to rip your arm off your shoulder--not even for food but just for sport. These Yukon dogs were smaller, sleeker racing dogs bred for the cameras at the finish lines. These dogs wagged their tails and wanted to kiss you.

Whitehorse's annual Sourdough Rendezvous, held at the end of February, is a celebration of all things Yukon: the legendary Frozen Turkey Bowling, Chain-Saw Chucking, Tug-a-Truck (how butch were these people?), and the crowning of the Sourdough Queen, who last year, because of global warming, had to make her procession through slush. For the romantic among us there is the Dating Game-Kielbasa Eating at the Caribou Club, an "antidote for cabin fever," the brochures advertise.

Returning to the Arctic after so many years, I saw exactly why I had left. But what surprised me was that I discovered something in the familiar, something that I was blind to before. Seeing only what wasn't there, I never saw what was there: a landscape with enough room to breathe that is humbling in its vastness. There are getting to be few places left that are not just unspoiled but barely populated. Yukon is one of them, and it should be treasured for it.



To truly experience the treasures that Yukon has to offer--the untrammeled wilderness--the gay-run Inn on the Lake is your best bet (P.O. Box 10420, Whitehorse; 867-660-5253; $94-$218). It's about 50 miles south of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway and consists of a constellation of chalets surrounding the main lodge, where the meals are served. And the meals are the highlight. Proprietor Carson Schiffkorn has brought in Martine, a four-star French chef whose feasts have attracted even Martha Stewart, who made the trek to Marsh Lake to film an episode of her show. The distance from civilization also allows unparalleled views of the northern lights. If you want to stay more centrally, the 85-room High Country Inn (4051 Fourth Ave., Whitehorse; 867-667-4471; $67-$172), which has Jacuzzi tubs in most of the rooms and two restaurants, is a good bet.


Conveniently, The High Country Inn's proprietor, Barry Bellchambers, also runs Yukon Adventure Tours, where you can book activities including kayak and hiking trips, dog mushing, and northern lights tours. If you plan on visiting in winter, a dog-mushin' trip is imperative! Muktuk Kennels (P.O. Box 20716, Whitehorse; 867-668-3647) is another great place to book one, not least for the colorful owner, Frank Turner, a dogsled champion himself with plenty of yarns to tell. The Sourdough Rendezvous, held in late February, does offer some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For more information contact Lance Koschzeck (867-667-2148). Midnight Sun Gallery and Gifts (205C Main St.; 867/668-4350) offers an incredible array of northern souvenirs, such as carvings made with mammoth ivory and coyote fur hats. To get a feel of the gay culture, contact Gay and Lesbian Alliance Yukon (P.O. Box 31678, Whitehorse; 867-667-7857).

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.

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