YUKON TERRITORY, Canada — I think Robert Service said it best in his poem “The Spell of the Yukon” when, in 1910, he described the Canadian north as the “Big, broad land way up yonder; It’s the forest where silence has lease; It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder, it’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”
In the early years of the 20th century, Service’s poems of life among the gold miners and frontiersmen — and women — earned him the reputation as “the Bard of the Yukon.”
One of my all-time favorite Service works is “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (1907) which tells of an unfortunate prospector from Plumtree, Tenn.,, who spends miserable months in a frigid Yukon winter before freezing to death.
Before his death Sam McGee makes his partner vow to cremate his last remains, something ultimately done in the boiler of the derelict “Alice May” locked in the ice on Lake Labarge:
“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar; And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: ‘Please close that door. It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm — Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, It’s the first time I’ve been warm.’”
So imagine my delight to learn my first days in the Yukon would be spent on the banks of Lake Labarge, albeit in accommodations more than a little superior to the furnace room of the Alice May.
For the past three years Great River Journey (www.greatriverjourney.com) has offered a river safari down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson, including two nights on Lake Labarge.
For eight days participants travel 375 miles by boat and float plane to experience the Yukon wilderness amid all the comforts — and more — of home with guides like Chris Vetterlein, a 30-year-old native of Germany who arrived in the Yukon two years ago and, like Service, fell under its spell.
“I came to Canada for a working holiday for a year and had just enough money to get me to Whitehorse,” Vetterlein said. “Two weeks later I felt like I had arrived home.”
His new home never fails to humble Vetterlein, who keeps up a constant stream of natural, scientific, historical, cultural and personal observations during the hourlong boat ride from Whitehorse to Lake Labarge.
“The vastness and wilderness of this country makes you realize how small and unimportant we humans are,” he said as a bald eagle soared overhead. “But there is also what nature offers you here [and] it’s all the things you don’t get in an urban area.”
Among those special offerings is the opportunity for a walking tour heading out from Upper Labarge Lodge into the Yukon bush with a stop in the old Ta’AnKwanchan native village where abandoned cabins, fish-drying huts and elevated food cache structures are all that is left of the villagers who last lived there in 1954.
Farther along the trail up on a ridge overlooking the lake is a row of “spirit houses,” small house-like structures built over the graves of the area’s First Nations residents.
Objects significant to the deceased are often placed in or around the spirit house and include everything from simple personal items to large, intricate stone carvings.
Back at the lodge guests stay in large cabins designed to look like the walled tents popular during the Yukon paddle-wheeler days in the 1930s.
But unlike those tents, these modern versions boast propane fireplaces, king-size beds, hardwood floors and luxury bathrooms.
Each cabin overlooks the lake and is an easy walk to the main lodge where Chef Carl Pearce creates five-course menus featuring local ingredients with decided gourmet flair.
It’s this balance of the first class with the Yukon wilderness experience that is the hallmark of the entire Great River Journey.
From Lake Labarge guests progress back through time, stopping next at Homestead Lodge, which offers the look of a circa 1901 wilderness homestead, and then on to the Wilderness Outpost to experience life in a traditional 1840s trading post.
“It’s more than a journey back through time,” Vetterlein said. “It’s a journey of self discovery.”
Vetterlein said he has seen people come for the trip and spend up to two days adjusting to life with no cell phones or Internet access.
“People start to relax after a couple of days,” he said. “I feel good sending them back home after this and I hope when they are back at their desks at work they think about their time here.”
The Yukon River, Lake Labarge, Dawson City, the Klondike Gold Rush are all portrayed in the poems of Service through his experiences living among the miners, natives and homesteaders.
One perspective he could never have, however, is the one offered by Sifton Air and Kluane Glacier Tours (www.yukonairtours.com) with its flights over the Kluane National Park and Reserve UNESCO World Heritage site’s St. Elias Mountains and glaciers.
Taking off from the tiny Haines Junction airport, Sifton Air’s flagship “Super Logan” tour is an extensive, two-hour flight culminating with an up close and personal look at Mount Logan, the highest point in Canada at 19,500 feet.
The day of our flight the initial scenic options were limited due to the numerous forest fires burning around the park.
For about 30 minutes the peaks and ridges of the St. Elias Mountains appeared ghostlike through the windows of the Cessna 205 as they materialized through the fire’s smoke only to melt again into the grayness.
Soon, however, we punched through the smoke into a world of startling whites and blues.
Sifton calls their flights a “trip back through time to the ice age” and I had a distinct falling-through-the-rabbit-hole feeling with our plane seeming to shrink in size as our pilot wove us through the range’s immense peaks and valleys, at times seemingly close enough to reach out and grab a handful of snow from a passing ice field.
The massive Lowell Glacier marched in a steady stream below us, crisscrossed with hundreds of crevasses interspersed with pools of vividly blue water.
I could almost hear Service whispering into my ear as I stared out as that vast and unforgiving landscape around us cast its spell on me:
“There’s the land. (Have you seen it?) It’s the cussedest land that I know. From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it, to the deep, deathlike valleys below. Some say God was tired when He made it; Some say it’s a fine place to shun; Maybe, but there’s some as would trade it for no land on earth — and I’m one.”
Complete information on the Yukon Territory, how to get there, where to stay and what to do is available at www.travelyukon.com.