I was recently invited to speak at the annual leadership conference for Coast Hotels, which took place at the Coast High Country Inn in Whitehorse. The theme of the event was Bucket List, and so naturally, I felt right at home. Since it’s January, and Whitehorse is the most accessible northern city to see the aurora, especially from Vancouver, I brought my Dad along for the ride. It’s been his dream to see the aurora since watching an 80’s movie called St Elmo’s Fire, which doesn’t feature the lights at all, other than, as I write in my book, the “light going out of Ally Sheedy’s acting career.” No offence to Ally Sheedy. Or Andrew McCarthy, an actor in the movie who is now an editor-at-large for National Geographic. #Everythingisconnected. My Dad and I had previously spent five nights in Yellowknife and saw no lights, but we did kinda-sorta see the aurora (if you squinted just so) in Hay River after flying over with Buffalo Air, but never got the full razzmadaddle. Whitehorse would be another kick at the aurora can. What’s more, Coast had arranged for attendees to tick off a full blown Whitehorse bucket list, including dogsledding with Muktuk Adventures (as featured in my books), slurping back the Sour Toe Cocktail brought down from Dawson City, and dipping in the thermal springs of the Takhini Hot Pools. Throw in some elk sausage and Arctic Char from Burnt Toast, my favourite restaurant in the city, and you’ve got a comprehensive winter Whitehorse bucket list covered!
My Dad and I finally see the light
We arrived via Air North, which is the only airline I know that serves hot baked cookies, refreshments at the gate, and affordable flights to a northern city. Settled into the Coast High Country Inn (which is owned by the same folks who own the Best Western Gold Rush Inn, so they have you covered), we took off for our first shot at seeing the lights at a remote aurora viewing cabin. Fire pits were burning, the tent cabins were heated and cozy, and the sky cleared nicely. The aurora report gave us just a 4/10 chance at seeing a 4/10 display, but sure enough, green waves began to pop on the horizon. No fireworks, but fine enough. That we threaded the needle on our first night in Whitehorse is a testament to Coast marketing director Sarah Kirby-Yung’s delightful optimism trumping my Dad’s northern lights jinx.
“Can we tick this one off Dad?” I ask?
“Yes we can.”
And so we did.
Unless you're the lead dog, the view's all the same
Racing a dogsled on a frozen river is pure bucket list too. I’ve had the good fortune to dogsled with Muktuk Adventures filming an episode for my TV show, and researching a chapter for my book. The happiest puppies on the planet were lined up and rearing to go on our arrival, and off they go, running along the side of the Takhini River, pausing only for breaks and cuddles from Muktuk’s caring staff. Go dog go! It was the highlight of the trip for my Dad, which speaks volumes about the quality of the experience (and perhaps the performance of the aurora as well).
Easy listening, easy reading
Your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe!
If only I could do all my book signings at a bar, beer in hand. Every attendee received a signed copy of my book at an evening event, soundtracked by a three-piece jazz band, and the arrival of the notorious Sour Toe Cocktail. It’s the fourth time I’ve had someone else’s severed toe in my mouth, although this time I think some of it flaked off and got stuck in my teeth, which continues to make me gag just writing about it. I got my Dad to join the club too, the toe stubbornly refusing to slide down the tumbler of Yukon Jack to touch his lips. As the Toe Captain will tell you: “Drink it fast, or drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe.”
Feeling good on stage for Coast Hotels
The Wooden Skyscraper of Whitehorse
After finally getting a decent photo of Whitehorse's iconic wooden skyscraper, Tourism Yukon's Jimmy Kemshead drive us along the Alaska Highway to check out the Mount Sima Ski Hill outside of town, and the scenic taiga on the drive to Carcross. Our final night featured a soak in the Takhini Hot Pools, a natural thermal spring located 25 minutes drive from Whitehorse. It was a late night soak, well enjoyed by all and spiced (and chilled) with a half-naked roll in the icy snow. As usual, the travel buzz moment came when I least expected it. Our bus got stuck in the ice in Takhini’s parking lot, and while the driver revved and tried to roll free, the cold night sky burst forth with stars, falling meteorites, and the wispy dance of the aurora herself. Not quite green, but a large distinct light flickering across the dark sky. Eventually we managed to free the bus by lining up and pushing it out in reverse. Rescuing a passenger bus beneath the northern lights in the Yukon? Now that’s bucket list.
Not all bags are equal.
Suitcases are entirely functional, a means to an end. You want them to arrive in one piece, protect your contents, wheel with a degree of ease, and when the handle snaps or the wheels jam or the airline sends it on a one-way ticket to Togo, well shucks, you’ll just have to get a new, snazzier one. A suitcase is an acquaintance.
Backpacks are a different beast, especially when you use them for long journeys or epic hikes. You get to know your backpack. Appreciate its complexities, the inner pouches and deceptively large side pockets. You practice and perfect the technique for lifting them up and balancing them on your shoulders. They are adorned with stains and badges and sticky goop picked up on the floor of rural Indian train stations. You pray for your backpack’s arrival on the baggage carousel, and would be devastated if it never showed up. A backpack is a friend.
A Daypack follows you around everywhere and holds everything that is important in your travelling world – laptop, camera, books, journal, tablet, headphones, notebooks, adaptors, back-up credit card, medication, lucky charms. It never leaves your side, a trusted companion who always has your back. When you eat, you sling it around your legs so nobody can race off with it. It’s been your suitcase, your bullet proof vest, your tortoise shell. Your Daypack hangs around even when you stop travelling.
I first went travelling with an old Karrimor backpack that somehow survived about 30 countries. It lived through trains in Zambia and rat raids in Laos. It was hurled onto chicken buses in Guatemala and hurled on in Albania. I only retired the poor bastard because the zipper kept breaking and even repair shops couldn’t keep it going. I shed a tear when I let the old boy go. I’ve never used a suitcase, although I do use a small one for overnight trips that Tourism Victoria gifted me at a media event. Their logo is covered in obnoxious stickers, like Lionel Ritchie saying Hello, a Deadpool face, and a picture of our planet with the word Fragile all over it. Hope they don't mind.
My Daypack has been through various incarnations, because I’m always looking for a better mousetrap, the Bag of all Bags, the Holy of Holies. It must hold everything, in its easily accessible place. A fine Daypack must be comfortable, durable, and ready to double as both pillow and shield. When laptop pouches were first introduced, I had to have one for the sheer sake of efficiency. I’ve used an Eddie Bauer dayback for years, which has always grated me, because my name isn’t Eddie Bauer, so I don’t see why I should have his name on my Daypack.
My latest contender is called The Every Day Backpack 30 from a company called Peak Design. It was created by engineers and designers to “meet the needs of creative, adventurous people.” They got their start on Kickstarter, and now have 14 employees producing over 20 products that win all sorts of awards. Like myself, these are people who take bags very, very seriously. So they sent me the Every Day and I’ve been using it, well, every day. Things to know about this bag:
After working with Crumpler for a while, I decided their bags were simply too heavy to be of any practical use. When it comes to bags, designers should take a page out of Scandinavian design: Function over Form. It feels good to have this very practical DayPack, but it will take a few countries to break it in.
Unless I’m hiking or taking chicken buses, a wheeled duffel is now my choice of backpack. So many things died in 2016, including my wheeled duffel that had seen off a dozen countries, and the manufacturer that made it go bankrupt. Note: any product with a lifetime guarantee only works if the company remains alive. My bag resembled the actor Rip Torn. Everything came apart, except the wheels, which rolled strong and free. So I went to MEC and bought a new Wheeled Duffel, which is squat and ugly but who cares so long as it keeps showing up at the end of the long-haul.
Bags. We need them. They need us. As for what we pack in them, it's easy: The most important thing to pack, whenever you travel, is the right state of mind.
I don't have a photo of me and the Everyday. Please enjoy this woman gazing towards the skyline of a city.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.