The mysterious Yukon

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-CrawfordIf you want tundra, you must either go far enough north or high enough up. So a trip up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon was perfect for my longing for arctic plants. Two days of careful driving over the dirt and gravel road will take you into the Northwest Territories and to the Arctic Ocean. But we chose to drive as far north as we could for one afternoon. It was late August, the last day before a wintery storm blew in. We grabbed our chance, driving through Tombstone Territorial Park, a stunning land of jagged mountains, luminous lakes, trees turning gold, and a landscape carpeted in glowing fall colors.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Tundra, though one of the magical words that embody the mystery of the far north for me, has a perfectly rational explanation. The word itself is Russian, and simply means a treeless land, something the forest-loving Russians would be sure to have a word for. Trees can’t grow when permafrost keeps the soil too shallow for their roots, with a growing season too short to foster their large growth. Dwarf perennials and shrubs hug the ground, where they use the scarce water wisely and protect themselves, and each other, from the cold and wind.

Along the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

There were plenty of trees along the first part of the Dempster Highway, as the Northern Klondike River wound through and by it like a ribbon. But they petered out the higher we got into the Tombstone Mountains. Named, as far as I can tell, from the shape of the mountains in the range, not anything more dire. This is Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Teet ‘it Gwich’in territory. The Han people still live on, use, and revere the land, as their ancestors have for 8,000 years.

Alpine harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa), lichen, crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) bog cranberry (Arctostaphylos alpina)

By late August, the wildflowers were long gone. I found only a few purple alpine harebells still around, one flower at a time, cozily poking out of the surrounding lichen. They often nestled for warmth against the black igneous rock that speaks of the area’s ancient volcanic history. For the rest, there were acres of more lichen, crowberry, cranberry, occasional tufts of grass. The largest plant was dwarf birch, which could get as high as my knees, and had a beautiful fall color.

Dwarf birch (betula nana)

The plants aren’t just for my delight. They feed a lot of wildlife: caribou, dall sheep, wolves, foxes, musk ox, lemmings, bears, moose, voles, and marmots. None of which we saw, sadly. I was hoping for a hoary marmot, a squirrel relative, or at least to hear its piercing whistle since I’m unlikely to run into them elsewhere.

The Yukon has always conjured up a sense of mystery to me, though I have no idea why. The neighboring Northwest Territories don’t do that. Though Alaska had its own powerful lure of beauty and wildness, that didn’t include mystery. I don’t remember reading about the Yukon as a child, beyond whatever Jack London book was required reading in school. It’s another example of places that call to us for reasons we can’t fathom.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-4I’m not alone. I read an interview with a man billed as the territory’s preeminent businessman. He has lived in Yukon since he arrived there as a child in 1944. When asked what makes the Yukon special, he said, “The magic and the mystery.”

He didn’t try to explain. Perhaps we can’t. Even more important, is there any point in trying to penetrate the mystery? There is something in me that leapt to connect with the land around me. That doesn’t always happen, however wondrous a spot I’m in. I can revel in the beauty of a place, but not feel that leaping connection. When it shows up it’s part of the mystery. I get to answer one mystery with another.

Net-veined willow (Salix reticulata) with lichen

In all of us — creatures of Earth — is a call and response to wildness, beauty, and the magic of place. I can’t make it happen. But I can make it more likely by standing on a windswept, far-north slope covered with the ankle-high, adaptable plants I’ve come to find. You never know where you will connect, what part of the earth is yours. Even though you’ve never been there, never even knew about it, may never go back. Something in you connects to the soul of that place. You’re touched by it, you’re never the same, and, perhaps, neither is the spot where your souls met.Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-3

11 thoughts on “The mysterious Yukon”

    1. Thank you! The colors were so interesting, both in the Yukon and Alaska. The latter had much nore humidity, and had a very blue cast.

    1. As much as I loved Alaska, it’s the Yukon I’m longing to get back to. Partly from being there a much shorter time. But there’s definitely something magical about it. I have this vision of following wildflowers all the way up to the Arctic Ocean. However, not this year!

  1. I’m out of superlatives…! Your work is so imbued with “the other thing”… The thing that’s real.


  2. It is also true for me that there are places on the planet where my soul says ,”I’m home.” These places produce a feeling of a greater sense of self- a self combined with the essence of the place and an ancient familiarity without reasons. Thank you for the beautiful commentary and photos and for reminding me of the deep magic.

    1. Thank you, Marcia. I love the idea of ‘an ancient familiarity without reason.’ That’s exactly what it feels like. And so interesting that some places elicit it and other — equally wonderful — places do not.

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