Saturday, February 24, 2024

Bearing Yukon

Sarah Tucker takes her son bear hunting in the Yukon and discovers a lot more


We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: I remember reading that book to my son, Tom, when he was a baby, until I knew the words to the story by rote. He loved the idea of going on an adventure through different terrains and the sounds that the characters made in search of the bear they eventually found in a cave on page nine.


Yukon is a land that's much more than gold and bears
Yukon is a land that’s much more than gold and bears

Six foot one and fourteen years of him, I decided to take Tom on a genuine bear hunt to the Yukon, where there are more grizzly bears per square mile than there are anywhere else on the planet. The human population is 36,500. The wildlife population (bear, moose and caribou), a staggering 136,000.


The last time I visited this territory, I presented a documentary for the Discovery Channel, following in the footsteps of the gold-rush stampeders travelling from Skagway Alaska to Dawson City. The frequently uncompromisingly harsh yet effortlessly beautiful Yukon scenery inspires people to tears and I experienced the same emotional impact this time as well. This place has a profound effect on those who visit – it tears away all the unimportant diversions of every day life – making the basics of having something to eat and drink, and somewhere warm to sleep the only things that matter. Robert Service, the Scottish poet, famously wrote of how the Yukon strengthens the spirit and touches the soul but even he couldn’t put into words the overwhelming enigmatic healing energy of this place.


Steady as she goes
Steady as she goes

Those who originally came in search of gold experienced a challenging and perilous journey. Many died in the process of crossing the lakes. They appear so serene on clear days but turn character in a breath when the wind changes. As a result, they’ve sent many to a watery grave.


Bennett, once home to over 15,000, one of the stopping off places on route to Dawson City, is a place where only a striking and somewhat haunting church built of wood remain. Many died there but few are actually named in the graveyard. The ground is strewn with the remnants of the settlers. Bottles, tin cans, tin plates, old lamps. Bennett is literally littered with history as the national historic site charter dictates the tin cans must be left where they sit as a record of the incredible journey undertaken by the thousands of goldrushers.


Everyone you meet in the Yukon has a story to tell. They are all natural born philosophers on life, love and how to deal with bears. Park rangers, trail leaders, even the woman selling local coffee (grin ‘n bear it coffee) talks bear encounters with locals who have defended themselves with nothing more than pepper spray and their (usually little) dog. There was the story about the man who walked along the path and a fully-grown grizzly bear was lying still. As the man drew closer he realised the bear wasn’t sleeping, but was dead. They later found out that there was moose calf in the bear’s stomach and two large moose print hooves on the bear. The mother had stamped on the grizzly and obviously annoyed, the bear had eaten it’s calf. Then there was the one about the dog called Charlie – a little terrier who frightened a full grown grizzly away. Everyone tells that story, only the name of the dog changes.


You’ll find some of the best storytellers in Lake Laberge. The Cathers family (Ned, Mar and Jennine) organise and personally guide hiking trips with huskies, canoe trips in summer and dog sled trips in winter. They have a phenomenal knowledge of huskies, the area they live in, local history and dog sledding.  Ned’s daughter, Jeninne is the youngest person to have completed the Yukon Quest, an uncompromising ten to fourteen day feat of endurance which entails taking a team of fourteen huskies over a thousand mile trek in frequently minus fifty degree temperatures in February from Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks Alaska.  She has completed it six times, her father’s done it ten.


You sleep in nearby log cabins, and breakfast, lunch, and supper is cooked by Mar in the summer by Laberge Lake. We had bannock and smokies and pasta and bean salad and marshmallows for toasting as we listened to more bear stories told by the Cathers. They were uutterly enthralling.  Record these conversations – especially the ones about the huskies. The people of the Yukon are as inspiring as the landscape.


Carving a totem pole
Carving a totem pole

On our last day, we met another inspiring Yukoner: native wood carver and trapper, Keith Wolf Smarch. He is something of a local celebrity having made a mask and presented it to Prince Charles ten years ago. Wolf Smarch has given his talent and time to his local community by building many buildings which bear his striking carvings, including a totem pole.


Whilst we were there, Wolf Smarch was working on another totem. When he allowed my hard to impress teenage son to help him complete a section, even he thought that was incredibly cool.


Sadly, though we didn’t see any bears on our adventure, what we did leave with was something far greater. In the  Yukon we experienced a land of riches that actually runs far deeper than bears and the stuff that glitters.


Sarah Tucker and her son flew care of Air Canada and the Canadian Tourism Commission. Ground arrangements courtesy of Tourism Yukon and a wonderful array of product suppliers. Follow her on Twitter @madasatucker


The essentials

–       Motorhome rentals: Fraserway RV.

–       Ground transportation: Husky Bus.

–       Gold mine tours and goldpanning: Gold Bottom Tours.

–       Cabin rentals in the Kluane National Park: The Cabin.

–       Glacier flightseeing tours in the Kluane National Park: Kluane Glacier Tours.

–       Kluane Museum of Natural History.

–       Kluane National Park.

–       Escorted canoeing, husky hiking and husky sled dog tours: Cathers Wilderness Adventures.

–       Tlingit artist and carver Keith Wolf Smarch.

–       Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site.

–       Klondike National Historic Sites.

–       Klondike Visitors Association.



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