Rush Redux

Five adventure bonanzas in the Yukon's summertime wilds

May 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Going up: Alaska's green and white glory

WE'RE DOING 70 down the Canadian stretch of the Alaska Highway in a GMC Yukon XL. I think it's ironic, but my guide, Denny Kobayashi, a stocky, seasoned, and whip-smart Yukoner, informs me that more than 2,500 North American companies use the name Yukon or Klondike to sell their products. Looking out the window, the inspired ad copy begins to make sense. Mist shrouds the midriff of the soaring Ruby Range to the east, and it all feels inexplicably prehistoric. I've had this sensation often in the week I've pinballed around the Yukon—fly-fishing, whitewater rafting, and heli-hiking—but that's not surprising in a land where caribou outnumber people six to one and 80 percent of the 186,661-square-mile territory is wilderness. Just 105 years ago, however, all of this immensity was overrun with 100,000 crazed gold diggers. Then Jack London endured the abysmal, scurvy-plagued winter of 1897 in a ramshackle cabin outside Dawson City to pen his most famous dog book, The Call of the Wild, which irreversibly warped the imaginations of millions. But while the legacy of London and the gold rush lingers, it's not like that up here anymore. For one, this province of subarctic valleys and mountains—an area larger than California—now only has about 30,000 occupants, 22,100 of whom live in Whitehorse, the capital.
But what the population lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Take the "colorful 5 percent"—Yukoners' term for the edgiest of their kind—like the guy who lives in a cave in Dawson City or the fellow in Tagish who legally changed his name to Elvis Presley and frequently chops wood in his white sequined jumpsuit. Or any number of the friendly-to-a-fault folks I meet who have a Jack Nicholson-like glint in their eye. "Not to worry," local photographer Derek Crowe assures me. "Everyone's internal freak tends to run freely in the Yukon."
This collective free-spiritedness is what fuels events like the Yukon Quest, the 1,000-mile, dead-of-winter dogsled race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska. (It's like the Iditarod, only colder and more insane.) And then there's Whitehorse's 24 Hours of Light mountain-bike race, where a naked lap under the midnight sun counts double.
The day before I leave the Yukon, Kobayashi mentions Dawson City's Sour Toe Cocktail Club. He can't believe I've never heard of the tens of thousands of deranged folks who have swilled a certain disgusting alcoholic drink. What started in 1973 as a drunken dare to down a gold miner's frostbitten (not to mention severed) toe has since become a grotesque tradition involving dozens of lost toes that have graced nervous lips and, in some cases, been swallowed.
Don't believe me? Go see for yourself. And if you find yourself slamming back a toe shot or screaming down singletrack in the buff, don't fret. People up here are used to it.
Adventure travel options are infinite in the Yukon, but some areas are more accessible than others. Here are five ways to heed the call of the wild.