Yukon adventure

Dawson City

I have wanted to go to the Arctic for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid my aunt and uncle went to Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories for a year to work with Inuit artists and they came back with two huskies, a cool nickname for my cousin, and a pack of stories. I’ve been hooked on the north ever since but it’s not a travel destination that many share. When I suggested that I wanted to spend my birthday ice diving in the arctic, Matt just laughed at me. So I went to the Yukon instead.

ice road

It’s practically the Arctic…parts of it are. A few good friends had taken serial trips to Dawson City to photograph the Northern Lights and I figured that my penchant for taking photos (mostly with my iPhone), combined with my fondness for adventure plus my obvious expertise as a Nat Geo explorer wannabe made me an obvious candidate for the trip. I packed my camera and tripod, my warmest toque, and the Pacific Northwest equivalent of a parka and found myself on top of a mountain at 4 AM, jumping up and down with my fists jammed into my armpits trying to keep warm.

Yukon wallpaper

It occurred to me – not for the first time – that I am not cut out to be a landscape or wildlife photographer. Too much sitting around. I am more the type of photographer that takes a selfie out of a train window on a mountain switchback and hope it works out.

Dawson City

But first, we landed in Whitehorse.  I was surprised by the desolateness and big-town-in-the-outback feel. Instead of advertising the usual spas and kiddie attractions, the brochure in the hotel room was a mining directory. There was also a Tim Hortons, a CIBC bank, lots of government buildings and monuments and (of course) a bar. It’s called the Dirty Northern Bastard and we spent the majority of our time in the city there – all of us keeping watch on the cloud cover and refreshing the NOAA forecast for the Aurora Borealis in the hopes that we would get lucky.

Yukon

The first time I went to Las Vegas I drove from Phoenix and the city appeared out of the desert like a lit-up oasis. To compare Dawson City to Vegas would be ridiculous but the surprise reveal was similar; after driving for an hour through a bleak and desolate landscape, we turned a corner and entered a gold rush town, revived. I roused myself from the nest I’d made in the back seat and started oohing and ahhing at all the old buildings.

The top 10 things to do in Dawson include drinking at Diamond Tooth Gerties’, looking at Robert Service’s log cabin, visiting the Jack London museum, walking by the S.S. Keno (an historic steamboat displayed beside the river), walking by the dilapidated St. Paul’s Anglican Church partially sunk into the ground due to the permafrost, and eating at the Greek restaurant (one of the only places open through the winter – we went twice). Aside from eating and drinking, all this doesn’t take very long and it still wasn’t dark yet so we added in a drive across the ice road and hanging out with some sled dogs. And then we had a nap.

Northern Lights

Finally, it was time to head out into the night. We bundled up went to a mountain top outside of town notable for its height, lack of streetlights, and good view of the sky show. It was all of those things and also seriously cold. I set up my camera on the tripod, hopped up and down a few times to get warm, and then stared at the sky. I didn’t have to wait long – a green glow appeared on the horizon, stretched out into a curtain and then hung there shimmering – it was utterly magical.

Northern Lights

Words like ‘awesome’, ‘mind-blowing’, and ‘extraordinary’ were invented for wonders like the Northern Lights but they have become dull and common with overuse. So we have no words for what happens when the sky comes alive and dances with colour. The Inuit have a myth about the lights being spirits of the dead kicking a ball (or walrus skull) around the sky, and others have mentioned aliens in an attempt to understand the phenomenon. Staring skyward for the better part of the night with my friends, it all seemed believable. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Northern Lights

Yukon

Seoul, Korea

Korea
Travelling is a bit of a perspective trick sometimes. For my fellow travel mates (mostly coming from South East Asia), Korea was neat and orderly but for me, just off the plane from Japan, it seemed dirty, grey, and grim. Not in terms of litter – there are no garbage cans here either – but industrial dirt. It was incredibly overcast when I was there and I could barely make out the ships in the distance, but at least part of that must be smog. As we approached Seoul, evidence of industry was everywhere – all kinds of industrial plants, huge ports filled with massive ships and filling mechanisms. And you can see how much land they’re trying to reclaim. It’s not beautiful at all but it is impressive. Korea has been working away, trying to become a force to behold on the world markets, and this is clear everywhere you look.

Korea
In the airport, throngs of women and children in traditional Korean dress welcomed the guests of more than one conference while Korean military and police walked through the airport in bulletproof vests, red mirrored sunglasses and Uzis. In town we passed a grey swimming pool and a girl waterskiing on the grey waterfront before we pulled up in front of the impressive silvery-grey Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). It’s a gorgeous, modern architectural marvel with not one straight line or angle on the whole building and it is massive – it sits in the place where the stadium used to be. But it is also entirely grey and appears to have no windows…traits that only contribute to the feeling of emotionless futurama. I wasn’t sad to move on.

Korea
Finally, at Gyeongbokgung Palace we saw some colour. Intricately decorated wood buildings and gates date from 1405. This was the second palace after the first one (built in the year 13-something), was destroyed. Every surface of the wooden structures were painted in bright colours and I couldn’t help thinking how long it must have taken, not only to do the painting in the first place, but to do the restoration. There wasn’t much to see at the palace grounds other than the walls and buildings but it was my favourite thing in Seoul. Our guide taught us that the Korean language was invented in 1410 by the last king at this palace. It’s a phonetic language, has 27 characters, and they are stacked in groupings of 2 or 3. Neat.

Korea
For lunch, we went to the market area of Insadong. It’s an important cultural district with a network of galleries and tea shops, and I was looking forward to exploring it thoroughly but it turned out to be a tourist trap with almost no merit. I had a nice lunch of bulgogi with all the assorted kimchi and condiments and found a couple of interesting antique shops in amongst the crappy souvenirs but not much to warrant exploring further.

Korea
Our guide spent a lot of time talking about how so much of the country was destroyed after the war and now they are trying to rebuild. His pride was evident when he spoke about the UNESCO national treasures and it’s evident how much money Korea is putting into technology and tourism and construction and industry. That stoicism and determination was something that I saw a lot of in Japan as well… so many temples and shrines that have burned down or been destroyed by an earthquake or a tidal wave or the war (or all of those) and they just rebuild it again and again. There’s no wallowing or thinking about giving up, just getting on with it. My airline magazine had a feature on an historic Korea village in the mountains called Seobaek-dong whose name means “writing the kanji for ‘endure’ one hundred times a day“. That’s not something that we really have the patience for in the west, with our quest for newness, but I think we can take a lesson from it…food for thought on my journey back to the new world.