Picture of the Week: Yukon Winter Camping

Game for adventure: The Cairns-Locke girls cozy up in the Yukon. Photo: Peter Mather

When I opened the latest Patagonia catalog and saw this picture by nature photographer Peter Mather, I was instantly filled with envy and awe. Lying on a dirty concrete floor in a frigid cabin in the middle of winter in the Yukon, reading by candlelight, these three children seemed to embody all the qualities of true rippers. They looked so fresh-faced and content, so intrepid and game! I tore out the photo and taped it to the wall above my desk, for inspiration.

Then, because I had to know more, I tracked down Peter, a high school math teacher in Whitehorse, who moonlights for publications like Canadian Geographic, Canadian Wildlife, and Patagonia, and goes on frequent adventures with his wife and three stepdaughters: Kennedy, 13; Ava, 11; and Maya, 9. Peter gave me the back story on this picture and so much more: a blueprint for raising hardcore adventurous kids in all latitudes and every season. No whining allowed!

Says Peter: "Every New Year’s we drive to Eagle Plains, a tiny village of about 15 people. It’s basically a gas station and a hotel, just below the Arctic Circle. It’s the farthest north you can go in the Yukon by car. It’s in the middle of nowhere, two days’ drive from Whitehorse, and we always spend the first night at Tombstone Territorial Park, which is where I took this picture. We camp in a semi-enclosed cook shelter with just thin sheets of plastic over the open windows and a fire drum. It was -28 degrees Celsius [-18F] that night."

"We got the fire going and lit candles for lights, and the girls just lay down next to it to read. Ava, in the middle, is actually reading a tablet. I got down underneath the stove to take the picture. I find when I try to set up photographs, they never really work out in a way that looks natural."

"We have these two big winter sleeping bags for the girls that we zip together and then stuff them all in. It got really hot in there, which is great when we went to sleep. But in the middle of the night we woke up freezing, and all five of us crawled into two big sleeping bags."

Nice day for a dip, Liard Hot Springs, British Columbia. Photo: Peter Mather

"We’ve been doing outdoor adventures as a family for the past three years. At first, the girls were a little nervous about winter camping, but now it’s really good family time. We’ve been out of sorts lately as a family. It seems all we do is drive around to their sports every night. The kids are just dying to go out again [into the wilderness]. They recognize it’s our family’s way of having some time off."

"We do a lot of winter camping. I’m usually missing in action for half the summer on assignments, so winter is our time to connect as a family. We take a couple of one-week trips every year. Once we did a loop to Haines, Alaska, over to Skagway, and back to Whitehorse to do some backcountry skiing with the kids. We have an old 1975 motor home that’s great for winter traveling. We heat it with propane. We bought it a couple of years ago, and that first trip, we just wanted to get home with it intact. We did, so it was worth the money. On our annual trip to Eagle Plains, we bring a big wall tent and a stove and camp out, and then stay at the hotel for New Year’s Eve. There are fireworks. And every couple of years, we do a three-month trip with the kids. The last time, we toured all the national parks. It’s nice to get out of the Yukon in the winter. In the summer, we do river trips. It’s perfect for kids: They can sit there and relax and you can bring so much gear."

Summer on the Yukon River. Photo: Peter Mather

"It sounds funny, but in the winter, you don’t notice the darkness so much. There are the northern lights and all the landscape is bright and white from the snow. And when there’s a full moon, it never seems dark. But things are changing so fast up here. It’s scary. I spend a lot of time with First Nation people. They live out on the land and are flabbergasted by all the changes. Rivers are freezing later. Other places, the ice isn’t as safe as it used to be. It’s so big up here."

"When we first started doing these trips, the kids would rebel. It was cold and winter. But every time we went out, they thought it was the best day ever. Once they get out, they’re so happy. The hardest part is making sure they dry off. Kids are going to get wet, so you have to bring extra socks, dry stuff. We just bring what they normally wear to school: ski parka, snow pants, long underwear—we always have two sets of everything with us. It’s really not as difficult as you might imagine it to be. Kids are so resilient. If parents are having a good time, they’ll love it."

Thanks, Peter! Pretty sure I'll never think twice about cold-weather camping in the desert again.

—Katie Arnold

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