Winter camping in the Yukon
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
In October 2019 three friends and I embarked on a chilly adventure in the Yukon. Our plan? To helicopter into Tombstone Territorial Park, north of Dawson City, and camp for 7 days! At first, something like this doesn't sound too bad, but when you're in the far north of Canada and in the mountains, it's important to remember that winter comes early. I packed with about -20c night temperatures in mind, although I brought gear that would keep me warm in much colder conditions, just in case.
After our evening flight into Whitehorse we drove overnight to Dawson City. The weather was clear and we had the opportunity to stop and view some incredible Northern Lights alongside the highway. In the morning we arrived in Dawson and had breakfast at a local restaurant before our flight. Afterwards we grabbed some last minute equipment that you cannot fly with on airliners and then made our way to the helicopter hangar.
We got everything loaded up, paid our fare and listened to the pilot's safety briefing. The views from the flight in were atmospheric and moody, to say the least! Every moment in a helicopter is special, but this one was particularly memorable. At one point, our pilot motioned to our right and we looked out the window to be greeted by one of the most dramatic and jagged peaks I've ever seen. Moments later, we were coming in for landing in the snow.
We waited a minute for the blowing snow to clear and for the pilot to idle the helicopter, and then we quickly exited, unloaded our gear and gave the pilot the signal. There is a bit of pressure when it comes to heli drops and pickups, and while this was not my first time in one, this was my first heli camping trip. You have to be quick and follow various safety procedures with the extremely loud rotors spinning above you, and opening/closing the basket and various doors properly can be tricky for a nervous first timer.
But soon enough, we were surrounded by snow, silence and mountains.
The greatest feeling in the world. For me it's a feeling of true freedom and connection with nature, and it was extremely strong here. The problems of everyday life disappear and do not matter. It's a feeling that I always long for, and is what inevitably always pulls me back to the outdoors. It makes me want to build a cabin in the middle of the mountains and never return to society.
But, there was also a sense of vulnerability from being in this place, in winter conditions. Every night, my boots froze solid and it was an ordeal to put them on. To thaw them out I walked around in them until they were warm. Trying to sleep with them in my sleeping bag would drive me crazy, so this was preferable to me. On one of the nights I forgot to bring my water bottle into my sleeping bag, and I left it completely full. In the morning when I realized my mistake, I definitely let out some choice swear words. To thaw it out, I had to boil the bottle in my pot, and then repeatedly pour boiling water inside it. It took a while, but eventually I succeeded in thawing it out, and I vowed to never repeat that mistake again.
When we arrived, the lake was open water. Within a couple days, it was completely frozen over. Although not my first time winter camping, it was my first time experiencing a lake freeze solid before my very eyes. During the night when it froze over, temperatures dropped down to -20c and the lake began to make noises that sounded like they were from a Star Wars movie. It was like someone was firing laser blasters into the frigid night.
Although the noise was a bit unsettling, I eventually fell asleep, but I set my alarm to wake me up in the middle of the night. I took a peak outside my tent, and I could see the Northern Lights. I begrudgingly got dressed and left the warmth of my sleeping bag. The Lights weren't too crazy, but I sat with my camera and watched them for a little while. Experiencing the Aurora up north is always a magical experience, even during the weaker displays. I didn't come away with any portfolio images of this particular evening, but I did snap some for the sake of memories:
After watching it meander across the sky for a while, I returned to my tent and went back to sleep.
Now that the lake was totally frozen over, it made getting our water a bit trickier. We wanted to avoid melting snow as it's a tedious process, so we broke through the ice with a pickaxe to make our own watering hole. If any trip has made me feel like a real Canadian, it was this one!
For about four days we lucked out with beautiful weather conditions before it began to shift.
Temperatures warmed a bit, but thick clouds and heavy winds rolled in.
On day five, winds were roaring, snow was blowing and we couldn't see any of the mountains around us, not even the one at our lake. It looked bad, so we decided to call our pilot and let him know we were looking to be picked up a day early.
Mother Nature must have been reading our text messages, because she came at us with a vengeance that night. The winds were relentless, my tent unable to stay upright. I thought I was going to blow away. My eyes were closed, but I didn't get a single wink of sleep. Eventually, morning came, and things were a little better, but still not good. Our pilot texted us and told us to let him know when visibility was 700 meters. I used the map on my GPS unit to figure out which mountains would be visible at the 700m mark, but they never showed.
So, we spent the day half napping, half watching for openings in the weather. It didn't seem to be improving very much.
But suddenly I could hear something. I opened my tent, and listened again. I swore I could hear the faint sounds of a helicopter or airplane in the distance. Sure enough, a few minutes later, a helicopter suddenly appeared, speeding out of the mist.
We started yelling at each other to wake up and began scrambling to pack.
The pilot landed the helicopter, shut it off and ran to our campsite while wearing only jeans and a light jacket. Everyone was scrambling, packing as fast as we could, and he was helping us. Every minute counted, as unbeknownst to us at the time, there was a severe blizzard warning in effect. Undoubtedly he did not want to end up with a surprise winter camping trip! It was the quickest camp pack-up I've ever seen in my life, and I won't be surprised if it stays that way. We boarded the helicopter, engine roaring to life. It was a welcoming sound.
Although we had to take a detour around some bad weather, we safely arrived back at the Dawson City heliport. We asked our pilot how he knew it was okay to come get us, as we hadn't texted him the green light and he hadn't texted us. He said another pilot happened to fly over the area and gave him an update on the conditions. I still suspect he took a bit of a risk for our sake... but I'm no pilot, so I could be wrong.
We had enough extra supplies to spend 10 or more days there but it wouldn't have been ideal and it's safe to say we got pretty lucky!
Oh, and I forgot to mention... in the winter, the outhouses in the parks are boarded shut. 😂
Would I do it again? Hell yes.