Driving free in the Yukon with Kia's Sportage
Despite being designed with suburban life in mind, we take Kia's latest crossover out into the northern Canadian and American wilderness on a two-day whirlwind tour
Whitehorse, Yukon - When it comes time for the Yukon Territory to replace its "Larger Than Life" tourism tag, here's one we'd like to advance: "Leave your clogged arteries behind."
What it lacks in snappy persuasion it compensates with an attempted double entendre. Unlike the rest of the continent, the Yukon is unfettered from maddening traffic, leaving its modest network of highways free to be enjoyed by delirious driving enthusiasts. (As for high cholesterol, the Yukon offers no real remedy; in fact, the prevalence of caribou and moose meat will probably exacerbate your condition.)
Kia Canada dispatched a bunch of us southerners to the storied Yukon to sample its all-new Sportage in a region that might actually pass for the sport utility's natural habitat - although some wags may counter that a 4x4's native environment these days is more often a suburban parking lot (like Nissan's "Mallfinder"). A 500-km driving loop through some of Canada's most spectacular vistas convinced me that the Yukon is a must-experience driver's destination.
Yukon basks in a brilliant light
Majestic and captivating, the Yukon wilderness unfolded under the wings of our Embraer jet after a two-and-a-half-hour flight out of Vancouver. Diligent drivers can meander through British Columbia's rugged interior in about three days. Surprisingly, more than a few motorhomes make the journey while towing substantial vehicles behind them, things like Jeep Grand Cherokees and Toyota Highlanders. Here's to the lucky windshield-repair franchisee in Whitehorse.
Summer is punctuated by warm days (up to 25 C) and cool but brief nights. A mid-summer's night dream is short lived in the Yukon: It's still light out at midnight and again at 4:30 a.m. I never did see the starry tapestry due to early starts during our time with the Sportage. On the other hand, the sun is so brilliant I had to spring for a hat to avoid sunstroke. What is it about the northern light that makes the colours so vivid and the shadows so sharp?
A river races through it
Whitehorse is the Yukon's government and commercial centre, but with a population of just 25,000 it still resembles the frontier town it's always been. It hugs the banks of the Yukon River, which served as the navigable supply route during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. The discovery of gold near Dawson City in central Yukon set off a stampede of American and Canadian prospectors venturing north, often coming off boats at Skagway, Alaska, and hiking up the Chilkoot Trail or White Pass into Canada.
To avert winter food shortages, the Northwest Mounted Police required every newcomer to bring one ton of supplies each, carried on backs, mules and horses multiple times up the treacherous footpaths. Eventually, the prospectors reached the Yukon River, where they constructed rafts and set off for the gold fields 800 km further north. Today, the river is more a photo opportunity than a transportation route, although I did spot some adventuresome campers living on rafts for the summer.
Whitehorse became the territorial capital in 1953, replacing Dawson City. It got its name from the White Horse Rapids, which were said to resemble the white mane of a wild horse. Don't bother looking for them now; the rapids were displaced by Schwatka Lake, formed during the construction of the hydroelectric dam that supplies the town's power. Whitehorse has its suburban sprawl, too, punctuated by car dealerships, a Wal-Mart and fast-food joints - all the comforts of home, but with a markup (gas was 112.9 cents/litre).
Driving a fast road
Our colourful armada of Sportages left Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway and quickly turned onto the South Klondike Highway headed towards Carcross, tracing an ancient trade route established by the Tlingit people. The road is fast; it's easy to be mesmerized by the passing scenery and lose track of the speedometer, which can creep up to 130 km/h or more. Here the posted speed limit toggles between 70 and 80 km/h, depending upon the proximity to settlements, of which there are few.
The forests - made up of both coniferous and deciduous trees - give way to grand views of the local lakes, some of which look eerily luminescent. The captivating blue-green colour of Emerald Lake, the most famous, is created by sunlight illuminating the white marl on the lakebed. Marl is a white calcium-carbonate clay made from limestone dissolving in the calcium-rich water and settling unevenly on the bottom. Retreating ice 14,000 years ago rasped the limestone from the surrounding hills and dropped it into the newly formed lakes.
South of Carcross we traversed the 60-degree latitude and entered British Columbia, passing a barely noticeable welcome sign (one tourist book suggests far northern B.C. residents view themselves as Yukoners anyway). We began our climb into the mountains to reach the Canada-U.S. border at the White Pass. Far below in the rock-strewn gully you can make out the footpath the prospectors took while lugging their worldly possessions northward.