THE YUKON — At some point after arriving North of 60 I heard someone say going to the Yukon was like taking the cotton out of your ears.
That pretty much sums up life in one of Canada’s three territories in the far north.
It’s a land as vast as it is intimate, where a person can lose and find oneself somewhere among the mountains, lakes and rivers, the region north of 60 degrees north latitude.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Lee Drummond who, with his wife Tiffany, operates Paddle Wheel Adventures out of Haines Junction, population 840, located in the southwest corner of the territory at the edge of the Kluane National Park and Reserve UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Drummond, 29, grew up in Haines Junction and founded the adventure company with his mother Val Drummond 13 years ago.
“I used to take this area for granted as a kid,” Drummond said. “But now I really appreciate it.”
It’s an appreciation Drummond is more than ready to share with visitors to his hometown through the rafting, fishing, hiking and mountain biking excursions the company offers.
For anyone interested in the outdoors, the Yukon is a dream destination and one of the best ways to experience it is with a guide like Drummond at the helm.
Twenty minutes outside of Haines Junction is Mud Lake, fed and emptied by the Kathleen River fresh from the glaciers of the Kluane Mountains.
Just 15 feet deep at its deepest point, the crystal clear lake is home to schools of native lake trout, rainbow trout, graylings and white fish and Drummond knows just where and how to find them.
“I’ve been guiding on this lake for 12 years,” he said from the stern of his fishing boat. “I try my best to keep the good spots in mind.”
That was pretty obvious when, after about an hour of trolling up and down the lake, something hit at the Yukon Pixie lure Drummond had prepared for me.
During the ensuing battle, it was difficult to say who was more excited — me, Drummond or his four-legged first mate Lupine the dog.
After hauling in the 5-pound, 22½-inch lake trout, I find it hard to believe anyone was more excited than I was by the catch.
The fact that this was accomplished during my second ever attempt at fishing is more a testament to Drummond’s guiding abilities than any fishing skills on my part.
“This is a great place for beginners to fish,” Drummond said. “For me, it’s way more gratifying to see a beginner land a nice fish than some guy who’s caught 100 fish in his life. People can come to us with no knowledge of fishing and we provide all the appropriate gear for what they want to fish for.”
To prove his point, Drummond next handed me a fly rod fit with a “bloody mosquito” fly.
After getting a quick introduction on casting techniques, I got down to business and, again due in large part to Drummond’s ability to take his guests right to the fish, I hooked a nice rainbow trout after about 15 minutes of casting.
The rainbow we let go back into the lake in accordance with local fishing regulations, but the lake trout had a different destiny as the catch of the day.
Back on shore Drummond unpacked a small barbecue, some spices, herbs and other condiments before expertly cleaning and filleting the fish, wrapping it tightly in foil and cooking it over a bed of hot coals.
By the time Tiffany and fellow guide Travis Dollan had arrived, lunch was ready to be served.
Over the alfresco lunch of fresh trout and bread from the local Village Bakery, Drummond said it’s the notion of wilderness that draws visitors to the Yukon.
“I have a real appreciation for the space of the land up here,” he said. “Sometimes people can’t appreciate that space unless they see it for themselves.”
At the same time, Drummond noted it’s the little things that create the whole Yukon experience.
“There are people who have this idea there are moose or grizzlies on every corner and they ask ‘where’s the best place to see a bear?’” he said. “I tell them, ‘your here.’”
To Drummond, the wilderness experience is not so much about seeing the denizens of the Yukon forests and mountains; rather, it’s about sharing that wilderness with the bears, moose, mountain goats and wolves who call it home.
Of course, being in the Yukon does mean being in bear country, a fact that was driven home to me when I decided to explore some of the territory by land.
As an avid cyclist I had my heart set on pedaling at some point North of 60, a goal Paddle Wheel helped me achieve.
Val Drummond was more than ready to outfit me with a mountain bike, helmet, gloves, water and the biggest can of pepper spray I had ever seen.
“Oh yes, they see grizzlies on the trail all the time,” Val Drummond said with a smile. “That’s why you need to carry the pepper spray.”
Turns out, the pepper spray is the final line of defense to be used only if the bear is in full attack mode.
“If you see one on the trail ahead of you just stop and stay very still,” Val Drummond instructed me. “Then turn around slowly and ride in the opposite direction and check to make sure it’s not following you.”
In fact, published bear-encounter literature has a special warning for cyclists, stating, “Your speed and quietness put you at risk for sudden encounters.”
OK, so those instructions took some of the initial shine off the whole cycling North of 60 thing and it was with no small amount of trepidation I took off down the old Alaskan Highway.
It didn’t take long, however, for my fears to fade.
For one thing, while I did see plenty of grizzly bear sign and scat, none of it contained any bicycle parts or water bottles.
For another thing, the scenery was simply too overwhelming.
The old Alaskan Highway is a dirt tract that runs between the Yukon and Alaska, at times paralleling the current paved route and at times diverting off into the wilderness.
After a few miles, I was completely captivated by my surroundings amid the mountains and fields of wild flowers.
As for wildlife, the biggest hazard on my ride were the swarms of mosquitoes which were, in a word, biblical.
I gave some serious thought on using the pepper spray on the giant, flying bloodsuckers and will never again complain about bugs in Maine
While I had time for only 12 miles of riding, the Yukon is built for serious cyclists with, in addition to the old Alaskan Highway, miles of paved roads with wide shoulders and even an annual relay from Haines Junction to Haines, Alaska, the third Saturday in June.
A person could spend a lifetime exploring all the Yukon has to offer, but when you have a limited schedule an outfit like Paddlewheel can help maximize that time.
“As a teenager I worked in a general store and that kind of work was not for me,” Drummond said. “This is my dream job.”
Next week: The Yukon from above and on the trail of Robert Service.