Whitehorse, Yukon – Land of the Midnight Sun

I try to figure out what it is about a city that captures my heart.  Is it the heartbeat/ vibe of the streets, or the pace at which the locals go about their daily life?  Perhaps it’s the scenery, natural, man-made or both?  I am told I have a lot of favourite cities. Looking back at my posts I realise that indeed I do have a special spot for almost every city I visit.  It is about finding the beauty in a place I have to be.  Seeking out whatever it is that wins me over.  Sometimes it is about being in the right place at the right time seeing things you can only see in this local.  I recently laid over in one of my favourite cities, Whitehorse.  The Yukon Territory’s capital is so spectacularly beautiful it is breath taking.  The view of the mountains, overlooking the Yukon River makes the destination picturesque.  The locals, those I met that is, were very welcoming and friendly.  The sites I saw were enlightening, and the food was delicious yet I felt a tad expensive.  I do understand that getting the food up to the great white north is large factor in the cost to the consumer.  I still found it pricy none the less.

Over a decade ago I had my first layover in the land of midnight sun and like San Francisco I left my heart there.  I have only spent late spring and summer flying up north, which could explain my love affair with the territory’s capital.  Had I visited it on the shortest day of the year with the least amount of sunlight rather than spending the summer solstice marvelling at the rays of sun still illuminating the horizon at the witching hour, I may have a different outlook on the town.  Being a Canadian from the prairies I am all too familiar with the harsh effects of winter and the darkness it brings but even I am not prepared for the reality and bursting of my bubble of happiness with the city.  The wind-chill alone would disillusion me.  With that said I do need to visit in the winter at one point as I am sure Whitehorse is just as beautiful if not more so with mountains dusted with snow like French toast covered in confectioner’s sugar.

Sun over the Tarmac early morning

Sun over the Tarmac early morning

Through the years I have seen a lot of what there is to see in the city, bit by bit.  There is however so much more to discover as Whitehorse like every other city continues to grow, improve and win over more tourists every day.  The attractions since I was here last have changed and come out as world class exhibits but I am getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning…

After at least 8 years if being away I was back in one of Canada’s jewels.  I had landed in the early afternoon with plans to revisit some of my favourite sites to see how they have either changed or stayed the same.  After quickly stripping out of my uniform and sliding into civvies, I headed down to the lobby to meet one of my crew to start on our exploration.  One of the charming traits our front desk staff had was to answer “about 15 minutes away” to every destination question we asked.  For starters, we Canadians will usually tell you how far places are based on how long it takes to get there.  For example Banff is about an hour and a half drive from my hometown, Calgary.  What we found humorous is that the only way it would take 15 minutes to get to any of the places we had contemplated visiting was by crawling there, backwards, and blindfolded. The downtown area is relatively small compared to some cities and every hotel I have seen is not too far from the main attractions, save those sites  on the highways.  There are some you need a car for, such as the Beringia Interpretive Centre, thusly I have never visited them.  Armed with a local map, I find the battery in my phone drains quickly up north, not sure if the signal is weaker and the phone expends energy searching or if it is my magnetic personality but I always try to have a hard copy of the local terrain just in case.  One of the places I had set out to see were the log skyscrapers.  They are log cabins that are multileveled and have become a tourist attraction much to the chagrin of those who live in them.  Last time I was here the bottom floor of the shorter of the two was being converted in to a shop featuring touristy wares.  Today is houses a nail salon.  This saddened me.  It must be rather hard to make a go of businesses that rely on the seasonal tourist market.  I hope the dreams of the former shop proprietor were not dashed as I fear they must have been.

Log Skyscraper

Log Skyscraper

You can take pictures of the structures but they are private homes and you may not view the interiors as the residents are very private.  You would be too if your house was visited in droves by spectators.  I wonder if some days they feel like Brad Pitt hounded by the  paparazzi with the amount of tourists that click away at their abodes.The homes were constructed in 1947 on Lambert Street and have had a few upgrades in recent years such as electricity and concrete foundations.  Definitely worth a quick stop.  The Old Log Church was closed until mid-week so we missed that but maybe next time.  They have a really neat tale about the bishop who ate his shoe I was looking forward to revisiting.

Old Log Church

Old Log Church

The next stop was the Parks Canada National Historic Site Sternwheeler ship, SS Klondike.  On the banks of the Yukon River the site is open for touring.  When we were there we were able to tour the boat for free.  The parks staff informed us they are reviewing how the tours should be run and are currently letting the public tour as a free self-guided tour of the 1937 attraction.  I have toured the S.S. Klondike a few times over the last ten years.  The self-guided tour was my least favourite and least informative of all the visits.

SS Klondike, Parks Canada Historical site.

SS Klondike, Parks Canada Historical site.

The fee in the past was a minimal five dollar and change to view a video and partake in a guided tour of the cargo, and crew and passenger decks.  I found the site was well kept but really missed the opportunity to learn through stories and tidbits as well as ask questions rather than be referring to a dry pamphlet as one wanders aimlessly around.  It was however nice to take time with the tour at my leisure.   One of the things that stand out in my mind are the accommodations of the lower class passengers.  They were given temporary cots on the freight deck when the first class passengers are provided staterooms, dining rooms and sitting rooms for their passage.  It really sheds light on how different those with money were treated.  The way the first class areas were decorated I half expected to see Agatha Christie’s hero Poirot come out from around the corner at any minute.

SS Klondike Lower Class Cots

SS Klondike Lower Class Cots

My friend and I walked along the Millennium trail that follows the river as we left the ship.   The path is under construction and we were forced to walk away from the still iced over water to the less beautiful but still welcoming surface streets of the city.  We stopped for a drink at Baked Café on Main Street.

Baked Cafe on Main Street, near the train station

Baked Cafe on Main Street, near the train station

It came highly recommended by other crews.  The treats looked tantalising but we were able to keep our resolve and only grab a refreshment.  The prices were pretty good when you compare them to what you would pay at a chain like Starbucks up here.  The downside is the Café is only open until 6 pm on Saturdays so when we stopped by later in the evening we were foiled.  Our will feigned against the sugary beckoning of the tarts and squares we had spied in the cases earlier but was upheld by the closed sign.  My waistline saw the early closing time as a godsend.  There is also a really neat toy store next to Baked we perused after our short stop for a drink.  They had lots of really neat toys that you cannot find at big box stores.

The next stop was the Waterfront Trolley Roundhouse.  This is one place that baffled us.  Is it open to the public? No idea.  Did we wander around it as the door was propped open? Yes.  Were we taking pictures on the trolley? Absolutely.  Were we supposed to be on the trolley? Again no idea.  It really was odd that the building was unmanned but there is a trolley that appears to be set up as a display and has many pictures and written descriptions of the importance of the trolley in the daily life in Whitehorse.

Waterfront Trolley Display at the Roundhouse

Waterfront Trolley Display at the Roundhouse

There is also an exhibit of old photographs along one wall of the round house. I would hazard a guess that the building is open to interested people dropping by as the building covers the track yet the walls are open to let the trolley pass through unimpeded.  It is a small display but it is neat to see the trolley up close and take time viewing it.

On our flight in we brought in many guests of the Museum conference being held in town the upcoming week.  A stop for us to the McBride Museum was in-store to see what the delegates from other museums would be experiencing.   The last time I had been to the area museum it had been capped by a sod roof and I was accompanied by my mum.

McBride Museum

McBride Museum

The roof has been replaced by a lower upkeep metal roof and this time I am with a co-worker.  The cabin that was once residence to Sam McGee is still on exhibit.  The same Sam McGee that was the inspiration for the Robert Service Poem “the Cremation of Sam McGee”.  The taxidermied local animals’ exhibit has been refreshed nicely.  I have to say that the only way I would like to get close to many of these majestic beasts is in a museum.  They are terrifyingly huge and have many pointy parts I would not like to find myself on the lunch side of.

Animals at the MacBride Museum

Animals at the MacBride Museum

The cluttertorium downstairs was an interesting idea on how to display random artifacts that are not attached to any particular exhibit at the moment.  The dogsledding race area downstairs featuring the Yukon Quest Dogsled Race is worth perusing.  The part that really made the $10 entrance fee worthwhile though was the “Gold to Government” building.  Housed in a separate edifice from the main museum it looks plain from the outside and would be easy to skip over based on its exterior.  Do not pass it by though.  It is a modern take on learning history by making it relatable and interesting to today’s tourists.  The exhibit starts at the gold rush and is set up in mini vignettes of Whitehorse life.  It does not have the dry diorama feel that museums of yesterday did.  It instead transports you back to stores, school houses, cinemas, saloons and Northwest Mounted Police tents from the 19th and 20th century and makes the journey interesting along the way.

MacBride Museum - Gold to Government Exhibit

MacBride Museum – Gold to Government Exhibit

It reminded me of the 19th century market area exhibit of the Museum of London where you are able to view life as if the people in the room had just vanished leaving you to experience their life and in some cases step inside the exhibit.  One of the excellent touches are the life stories of the actual citizens of Whitehorse who owned, ran and lived in the scenes depicted.  these made the exhibits relatable and personal.  The museum is setting up a state of the art tablet system so that patrons can get an enhanced multimedia exhibit as they wander.  When the technology is in place the display will be world class.  I was not expecting an experience this positive as I paid my entrance fee.  I was apprehensive of entering once more to see the same cabins and animals I had seen a decade before.  I left awestruck and singing the praises of the museum and vowing to come back when the tablet system is up and running to get the full meal deal.  I highly recommend the McBride Museum and the well planned and engaging display “Gold to Government”.  It is not to be missed.

As we closed down the museum agog at the caliber of the last exhibit we had viewed we became aware that it was coming upon the dinner hour yet the sky showed no signs of evening approaching.  We decided to try a restaurant not too far from the Museum, really though again nothing is too far in downtown Whitehorse.

Klondike Rib &Salmon Restaurant

Klondike Rib &Salmon Restaurant

The Klondike Rib and Salmon BBQ restaurant usually has a massive line up out front starting around 6pm.  We had noticed that there were cruise ship patrons in town and the lines would only go from bad to worse if we did not choose to have an earlier dinner.  As the museum closed at 5pm on a Saturday we were at the restaurant perusing the menu and sat at a table by 5:05pm so we beat the rush.  I found the food to be pricey.  It was around $34 for the Rib and Salmon BBQ of the restaurant’s name.  The portions were rather large though.  It wasn’t just me this time as the ladies sat next to us also found the offerings huge and a table on the other side of us shared entrees.  I ended up taking over half of my platter to go and keeping it cold for the next day’s lunch on my way back home.

Klondike Rib & Salmon BBQ

Klondike Rib & Salmon BBQ

I was blown away by the salmon kebabs.  They were moist and flavourful.  The ribs were okay but not my favourite.  If I was to go there again I would opt for a mountain sized salad and added on the salmon brochettes.  My fellow flyer had the Seafood pasta which she enjoyed as it was teeming with seafood in a cream sauce.

Klondike Rib & Salmon BBQ - Seafood Pasta

Klondike Rib & Salmon BBQ – Seafood Pasta

I have to mention that the desserts looked phenomenal but were large enough to feed an army so we passed.  I regretted not sharing a dessert after we found out Baked Café was closed, next time.