Off the Grid in the Arctic Circle

Do you remember the last time you went for more than a day without access to the internet for your smart phone, tablet, or computer?  I am certain that most people would say no.  And how many of you have been in a place where there is only a single “major” highway, which the locals are totally dependent upon for the delivery of their food and other goods?  Again, I would guess that most of you could not comprehend living in such isolation.  Finally, envision yourself in an area the size of California and a population of around 40 million people, then compare that to an area 20 percent larger, but with only about 35,000 people.

Yet, that is exactly what I encountered a couple of weeks ago when exploring the Yukon Territories in Canada with Les Picker of Havre de Grace, Maryland, a fine photographer and even finer person.  There were a couple of small towns where the internet was available in hotel rooms (Whitehorse and Dawson City, for example).  But in most locations, such as Eagle Plains, with a population of nine, it made no economic sense to build the infrastructure required to offer such service. 

Yukon Grizzly “Honey” Bear

In our ten days in a four-wheel drive SUV, we drove about 3,500 kilometers, or 2,200 miles.  On most days we would awaken at about 5:30 a.m., then drive for ten to twelve hours, with stops along the way, before arriving at that night’s accommodation and dinner. Because there were few restaurants, we carried our own food for breakfasts and lunches. This also saved us time. The ride was broken up in several locations, so we could photograph incredible landscapes or track wild life. We even crossed the line for the Arctic Circle. It doesn’t look any different, but it is still a cool thing to have done.

Northern Lights, Dancing Across Sky

Early fall (late August to early September in the mid-Atlantic) is the best time to travel to the Yukon. Bears and other animals are stocking up, or gorging themselves now, in preparation for what they instinctively know will be a long, harsh winter. This is also the time when the tundra turns into a multi-colored carpet, the aspen leaves shine like gold, and in some parts of the Yukon, the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, shimmer through the sky with an aerial display that is guaranteed to make you laugh or cry.

 Train with Snow Plow

The Yukon’s history is one that many are familiar with, except that it has become so romanticized that it hardly represents the true story of this vast wilderness. Everyone who grew up in the 1950-60’s is familiar with Sgt. Preston and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The television series made the RCM Police seem invincible. Many of their episodes revolved around crimes pertaining to the infamous gold rush. But even stories about the gold rush were exaggerated and distorted. Perhaps my biggest disappointment of the trip was learning the truth about the gold rush. Many of us remember stories of pioneers flooding the Yukon in pursuit of wealth beyond imagination. The iconic vision is of a bearded, grizzled prospector, squatting next to or in a stream, sifting soil and rock for hours on end in hopes of striking it rich. 

Mining Dredging Machine

While this may have been how the search for gold was initially conducted, only a few short years later large companies moved in with their giant dredging machines, leaving behind huge mounds of gravel that still exist. In addition to competition, the miners had other issues that challenged their efforts. For example, transporting goods was difficult, as there were no major roads or trails. Even today there is only one major road going north to south, and it is not a modern, paved road.  Rather it is made of clay and gravel, and is nearly impossible to drive on when it is wet. As an aside, we were essentially stranded at Eagle Plains because of the road conditions, combined with thick fog. The only hotel in town ran out of food and drink, as their supply truck could not navigate the road. This delay deprived us of our chance to drive north to observe a herd of 150,000 caribou.

Paddle Wheel Steam Boat on Yukon River

With no major roads available to provide supplies and transport goods, the miners turned to the Yukon River and paddle boats as an option for transportation. Soon the paddle boats became too difficult to use, as well.  Evidence of the steam boats can be found today, where a “grave yard” of these large boats sits along the banks of the Yukon River, only a short distance from Dawson City.  In the end, however, the solution came in the form of the train, which continues today as a main source of transporting goods.

Northern Lights, with “Curtain” Effect

While I enjoy learning about an area’s history, people, and land, my favorite part of most of my trips is the awe I feel when in the great outdoors. But this was exceptional.  On only our second or third night, we witnessed an incredible display of Northern Lights that the locals described as perhaps one of the most intense and long-lasting they had ever seen. At one point I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I stepped away from my camera and started laughing and even crying a little bit. This is a night I will never forget.

Tundra Changing Colors

Immersing ourselves further into the wilderness, we arrived at the tundra, the layer of earth covered by low-growing grasses and shrubs, mosses and lichens. In the fall, they change colors similar to the way trees do at lower climates. While the Northern Lights dazzle the senses in the sky, a similar wonderment can be felt on the ground by the changing colors of the tundra, which are yellows, reds, oranges, browns and greens. They paint an incredible mosaic, appearing to have come from an artist’s palate.

Alaska Grizzly Bear Eating Salmon

Lastly, of course, no trip to the Yukon would be complete without spotting several kinds of wildlife. The grizzly bear is the apex predator. We spotted quite a few, even venturing into Skagway and Haines, Alaska in pursuit of these amazing animals. Most of the Alaska grizzlies are larger than those in the Yukon, as their diet (mostly salmon) contains far more fat and protein.  Signs warning us that we were in bear country were posted everywhere.  And we were armed with bear spray. But the spray only projected about 15-20 feet, so I wouldn’t exactly say I was confident that the spray would protect me if a bear got that close to me. We also spotted a few moose, many bald eagles, a wolf, arctic fox, and beaver.

Bald Eagle

When we returned to civilization for our last night before flying home the next morning, what do you think was the first thing we did when we arrived in our rooms? Yes, that’s right, we turned on our smart phones and the internet, quickly acknowledging that smart phone technology is something we feel we cannot or do not want to live without.  This is especially true in the digital era, as the internet enables us, when it is available, to instantly contact our family and friends, whether by phone or photo, to rave about the incredible journey we were privileged to have taken.

All photos by Gary J. Kohn
Click here to view more photos of Gary’s Yukon trip.