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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Yukon's Winter Wonderland

Its such a joyful time of the year! Yet another reason to commemorate the purpose of my Savior's visit. Plus, even people who don't believe in Christ or Christmas seem to be just generally happy and celebrating during this time of the year. As we move towards the winter solstice, the approaching of the long "dark" days (for those living above 40ºN), its such a pleasure to see the streets lit up in colorful lights, the sparkly decorations on the evergreen trees and listen to the Christmas carols playing in radio stations. All in all a season of nostalgia!

Brings back fond memories of my childhood days where I would spend the Christmas and New Year(which was also my grand father's birthday) at my grandparents', on mom's side. The family dinners everyone worked to put together, which always ran late, but came out as much anticipated and delicious. I didn't have much share on the dinner preps, but to put together a manger scene with my brother or cousin, some lights, a paper star, and sometimes decorate the tree nearby. Evergreen coniferous were rare in southern part of India where I grew up, not even any noticeably long cold nights; so the thought of Christmas trees and arrival of "winter" was a bit different. But it was still a season of lights, cooler weather, yummy food, homemade wine, no school and much joy!

As Bobby & I began to gear up for this season in late 2011, I found it interesting how most people flock towards the warmest parts of the continent like Florida & the Caribbean. But my heart was set upon some place different. Somewhere I could feel the intensity of Winter, what the season is meant to bring. And I started searching the map for how far up north we could go, and if it had anything that interested us. Which led us to Whitehorse, a small town in Yukon Territory in Northern Canada. Its actually the largest town you would find in the entire Yukon province (with a population of 30,000)! A perfect place to experience the long dark winter nights, and the life below zero. As an added bonus, the Aurora Borealis band regularly went over this part of the country. Since it was our first visit to such a low populated town that stayed frozen most of winter, we decided to do some guided tours - such as snow shoeing in Kluane national park, snow mobiling, dog sledding and ice fishing. While searching for places to stay outside the town we also had to make sure they had running water in bathroom and flushable toilets, as the primitive types are more common.

We arrived at Whitehorse on Dec 24th after a long flight, only to find out our rental car company, Budget was closed on Christmas Eve & Day, in spite of a confirmed reservation we had. Perhaps not many people rent cars at this part of the world. I was also expecting to see some Christmas busy-ness on the streets instead was welcomed by a quiet, empty town. We took a cab to get to our cabin at Sundog Retreat the next day, and was prepared to be content with protein bar Christmas dinner. But our kind hosts at the cabin found out about our low estate and shared the Christmas dinner they had prepared with us. 

Although it wasn't the Christmasy town I imagined, I so loved being there, taking in as much of pristine nature as I could, the powder snow, long starry nights, magical northern lights and the fresh crisp air..

Whitehorse town on Christmas day

Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild who made Yukon famous.
I haven't read the book, but watched the movie prior to our trip to get some background on the Klondike gold rush and people's life during the late 1800s.

We took a short walk to the frozen Yukon river, and later in the night got out to take a dip in the outdoor hot tub at the cabin, which was quite an adventure of its own! With the outside temperature around -15ºC I could see frost on my hair while the body was warming up in the tub.

Tips, if you ever try this at such sub zero temperature: 
- Wear slippers once you get out of the tub, so your wet feet doesn't stick to the icy floor. I could feel my slippers getting stuck, but was glad it wasn't the foot.
- Wear a beanie to keep your head warm. The frost on the hair was interesting, but it also means your head was staying much colder than the rest of the body. Once you get back indoor, you could feel slightly sick from the sudden rush of blood into your brain. I did feel a bit nauseous. But it went away after few min.
- Drink a lot of water to keep hydrated

Hot tub at the cabin

The guided snow shoeing tour in Kluane worked out pretty well considering it was our first continuous days in sub zero, and the gear we thought would work ended up not being sufficient. It was also interesting to hear from our guide how people in Yukon lived - very laid back. But always prepared for the worst weather, stocking supplies to stay warm and fed throughout winter. People usually leave blankets in the car, in case their car breaks down and need to wait for help to arrive from the nearest town, which is probably several tens of miles away. Vehicles are kept connected to power outlets when parked outside overnight to keep the engine from freezing and failing to start. Unless you are within the "city limits" (which is a very limited area), there is no hope of 911. Satellite phones are a commonplace. People in general lookout for their neighbors. Crime rate is also pretty low due to no easy escape route.  

Some may wonder if the weather can get any worser than this. Yes, the worst is when they get hit by a winter storm dropping temperature to 40 below, breaking outdoor thermometers. I wonder what its like!

En route Kluane national park

Snow shoeing at Kluane national park

For the first time, snow felt warmer than air!

It was while snow mobiling that I discovered my snow boots rated for up to -40ºC was not even able to handle the windchill at 20 below. Constantly moving my toes kept it from freezing altogether. Soon we reached the Pilot mountains, and stopped for a camp fire and lunch. I don't recollect well, but I did end up using foot warming pads, either on my way back or when we went ice fishing later, to make up for my boots' poor performance and keep the toes warm. Anyhow, its always good to carry a pair of hand and foot warmers whenever you venture out in the backcountry by yourself during winter.

Snow mobiling on frozen Takhini river

Trying to keep warm

An afternoon sunset

Pretty horses

Dog sledding under the stars was amazing! It took me a while to trust the strength of those little huskies. Once I got a hang of it, the ride was real fun! Sometimes they ran under the trees to do their business,  and I had to duck my head each time to not hit the branches. Shortly after I began to enjoy the ride, my hands started to give up. It was my supposedly extreme weather gloves failing. I thought I could hold it until we got back. But soon I stopped feeling my hands altogether, only to be saved from frostbite that night by our guide lending his mittens. By our third day there, I kind of learned what types of gear would actually work at 20 below.

My dog sledding team

We spent our last day in Yukon ice fishing. It takes a lot of patience. Especially with the fish getting smarter and all they wanted to do was nibble on the bait and play 'catch me if you can'.

At Jackson Lake

Working on patience

Best part of the tour

One of the things we had to spend some time researching was about operating our SLR camera at such low temperature and capturing the Northern lights. Latter wasn't hard, and I did long exposure shots at low aperture. This made the trees much blurry, but the sky turned out well to my satisfaction. As a friend advised, I probably should try an aperture of 7 to 11 with longer exposure next time for sharper frames.
Preparing the camera for sub zero was however a tricky job. At lower temperatures the battery works harder to operate the camera. Which required us to take backup batteries. Condensation was another problem. As soon as you get back into car or anywhere warmer, moisture condenses on the lens. Before going back indoor, I made sure to put the camera in a zip lock bag with silica gel to protect from condensation. This worked out pretty well until we were out capturing the Northern lights late in the night, and the camera battery died. I don't remember what happened to our backup battery, but we tried to switch lens with our second camera (which we normally use with a long distance lens), and totally forgot about condensation. This fogged up our low aperture lens from inside, putting an end to the Aurora photo shoot! Fortunately, we could get some nice shots before that to save for a lifetime. But something to watch out for next time.

Starry nights have never looked so beautiful! I saw a million stars, but the camera caught only a fraction of it

The magical Aurora Borealis

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