Follow Robert Service to the Yukon for a Winter Weekend

The ballads of Robert Service hold a special place in my library. I have always been captivated by the history of the Klondike Gold Rush. These are stories of lawless temporary towns filled with gruff miners and prostitutes, stories of crimes of passion and looting. Robert Service, although he only lived in the Yukon after the height of the gold rush, captured the characters and thrill of the area perfectly in his poetry. In his poem The Spell of the Yukon he accurately describes the beauty and quietness of the area:

It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

In my favorite of his poems, The Cremation of Sam McGee, he expertly describes the Yukon winter’s cold,

Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;

But the opening stanza of the poem best expresses some of the mystery this Northern location holds for me:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Doesn’t his poetry just flow off the tongue? Read it again, out loud. Makes you shiver doesn’t it?

And finally in his second famous poem, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, he describes the rough miners and their lady loves you’d have met at the bars after a long day of prospecting.

He looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,

and

how ghastly she looks through her rouge, — the lady that’s known as Lou.

As the prospecting miners and their lady loves are long gone, the community and city of Whitehorse is hardly similar to its former self of the early 1900’s, however the outdoors is still as beautiful as it must have been then. This and the history keep me returning time and again.

Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory of Canada, is the perfect place for a weekend getaway for the outdoorsy type in any season. For me it’s my go-to spot when the middle of winter has me itching to get out of town, but I still want all the benefits that a blanket of snow has to offer. It has some very good restaurant options.  There’s multiple ice rinks in case there’s no snow, and a Nordic ski area if there is. And finally, a hot springs to warm up after a cold day of winter activities. Here’s a sample winter weekend itinerary full of my MUST VISIT places in Whitehorse.

Day One

  1. Sportees – where you’ll want clothe yourself from head to toe in fleece wear when you realize you haven’t brought enough layers for the Whitehorse winter.

I have been visiting this store since Andrea, the owner, ran it out of her house. Almost all of my fleece clothing comes from this store and all of it, after 10-15 years of use, is still in perfect condition. And when I say use, I mean OFTEN. I mean this clothing holds up. And when I say head to toe, I mean socks, pants, jackets, shirts, hats, and magic mittens! If you don’t find anything in the store that quite fits or maybe you’d just like it in another pattern, they will make the item to your specifications and mail it to you later. Even if you don’t think you need anything, do yourself a favor and buy a pair of fleece socks! And tell Andrea hello for me. Last time I visited she not only recognized me (after an 8-10 year absence), but she recognized the socks I had on. Though they were of a distinctive turtle print…

  1. Cross-country ski at the Whitehorse Nordic Center

Now that you’ve decked yourself out in the appropriate fleece layers, it’s time to see the beauty of the Yukon by heading out on the Nordic ski trails! Whitehorse has some fantastic trails for skiing that wind through forest and  are so quiet you can imagine yourself on those arctic trails of Service’s poem. (And when you’ve worn yourself out skiing you can head next door to the Mount McIntyre Recreation Center to watch Curling).

  1. Ice skate & swim at the Canada Games Center

If there isn’t enough snow on the ground for skiing, but you’re still looking for something active to do, head to the Canada Games Center. This athletic facility has both ice skating and swimming, so if your party can’t decide what to do, everyone may find something here!

  1. Soak at Takhini Hot Springs

After a day full of cold winter activities what could be more welcome than a warm bath in a hot springs? It’s certainly better than warming up by cremation like poor Sam McGee! Also, if the air is cold enough you can freeze your hair in funny positions while you bathe. This is always good entertainment for your companions.

  1. Dinner at the G&P Steakhouse & Pizza

Finally, after a long day, you’ll want dinner. If you’re looking for a nice place to eat, I recommend the G&P. It’s a far cry from the dingy bars of the gold rush days, but it’s questionable whether you would have wanted to meet those characters anyway. According to the website, the restaurant is now located in the middle of downtown. Last time I visited this restaurant, it was still in it’s old location,  a hole-in the wall kind of place hidden by a gas station on the road out of town. While the outside looked somewhat sketchy (Micah was very unsure when I insisted we dress nice and drive to a gas station), the inside gave an air of intimacy and the food is delicious. Just remember, you’ll want to make reservations.

  1. Stay at a B&B

I would recommend staying in a B&B where you can get to know some locals. So far I have found all the Canadians of Whitehorse to be very friendly and welcoming, and the B&B owners have been no exception. If you’d like a recommendation, read about my stay at the Muktuk Adventure Guest Ranch & B&B.

Day Two

After the previously active day, take your second day a little slower.

  1. Stroll the Downtown and visit the shops.

Find breakfast at one of the various cafes. Then head to my favorite store: Fireweed Books. Sometimes you can even find books published in Britain but not in America. I used to find all of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books at this shop. Sadly the last time I visited they no longer carried them. You’ll certainly be able to find books about the Yukon’s history if that’s what you’re after.

  1. Browse the supermarkets.

We spent some enjoyable time searching for products not sold in the United States. We found some teas and biscuits, various cereals, and Kinder Eggs!

  1. Visit a brewery

It’s probably time for a beer by this point, so head to the Yukon Brewing Company. The atmosphere will probably be lighter and the inhabitants of the tasting rooms less gruff than in Service’s day, but you can raise a glass to the days of Dan McGrew.

  1. Stroll by the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site

So far you’ve seen the beauty of the Yukon and the modernization of the city, but now take a stroll to one of the remnants of the area’s history. The S.S. Klondike, one of the paddle-wheel boats that used to ferry passengers up and down the river, today has a permanent position. You won’t be able to go inside during the winter, but it’s worth seeing from the outside still. You’ll just have to come back in the summer to tour the inside! Then you can head to the museum to learn more about the Klondike history.

  1. Lastly, Doughnut Holes from Tim Hortons

On the way out of town stop by Tim Horton’s for a box of doughnut holes. Perfect sustenance if you’re driving on to either Haines or Skagway.

Delicious Timbits from Tim Horton's
Delicious Timbits from Tim Horton’s

I hope that most of these places I have recommended continue to exist for many years, but as all things come and go, indulge me for a moment while I reminisce… One of my favorite places to frequent in the Yukon was a small cinnamon roll shop located along the highway before entering Whitehorse from the Skagway direction. It called itself “Best Buns in the Yukon” and the sign along the highway read, “Get your buns in here or we’ll both starve.” The place was owned by a large jolly man and his wife. The cinnamon rolls were HUGE, and they really were the BEST buns in the Yukon. Sadly the owner has since passed away and the shop has passed into history with him.

Luckily, however, each time I revisit Whitehorse there seem to be new and just as awesome businesses that open in the between times. So I guarantee you will find plenty to fill your weekend!

Are you a fan of Robert Service poetry? Have you been to Whitehorse? Do you want to go? Have you revisited a place that has since changed? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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