Rugged-up, chilled-out adventurers strike gold in Yukon
CANADA’S Yukon Territory is like the outback in ice. Straddling the Arctic Circle and abutting Alaska, it has desert conditions, vast unpopulated spaces and an eclectic cast of characters. Gerard Cruchon is one of them.
In 1982 this Frenchman moved from Paris to Dawson City, the Yukon town once known as the Paris of the north; he squatted in a small cabin on the Arcticbound Dempster Highway. Four years later, the territorial government handed him ownership of the land, which he subsequently converted into Bensen Creek Wilderness Adventure & Retreat, the finest accommodation along one of North America’s great adventure drives.
Accommodating one party at a time, Bensen Creek provides a unique and personalised experience, combining Canada’s great tradition of wilderness lodges with the adventurous spirit of the 750km unsealed Dempster Highway, which is the country’s only year-round road into the Arctic.
The small cabin from the squatter years remains but guests are accommodated in a double-storey lodge that began life as the dance floor for Cruchon’s wedding in 1993. Hand built with spruce logs over the subsequent five years, the lodge is spread over two floors. Downstairs are a lounge, kitchen and dining area with two wood heaters (a necessary luxury in a place where winter temperatures can drop below minus 50C).
Upstairs, the spacious bedroom extends the length of the cabin, ending in the lodge’s finest feature: a large window that offers views of the aurora borealis from the bed. Waking in the night to discover ribbons of coloured light dancing across the sky is a superb experience.
Outside, beyond the large deck, are a wood-heated shower and hot tub, perfect for a northern lights vigil; this spring Cruchon has been building a sauna.
The experience is rustic and remote; the property is 70km from Dawson City and 20km from its nearest neighbour. The openfronted outhouse means calls of nature are just that, yet there is a wireless internet connection for guests and the finest food within a moose’s roar of Dawson City.
And it’s during meals that Bensen Creek’s hospitality comes into its own. Cruchon visits the lodge to prepare breakfast and dinner for guests in their lodgings. Though untrained as a chef, Cruchon is blessed with the French flair for fine food, and meals usually consist of Alberta beef, bison, and salmon caught in the Yukon River.
The first night of my stay, I’m served caribou that Cruchon has hunted. I order the steak medium but chef knows best and it comes out on the scarlet side of red: sweet, gamey and as tender as fresh bread. It’s preceded by a dip made from morel mushrooms, a delicacy that only appears in the Yukon one year after a wildfire has swept through.
Bensen Creek’s natural advantage is its proximity to Tombstone Territorial Park, one of Canada’s lesser-known natural treasures, where black, razor-sharp granite peaks frame wide valleys and an autumn tundra display is as vivid as the northern lights. The colours flare briefly in late August.
In summer Cruchon offers guided hikes in the park and canoeing trips on nearby waterways. I amhere in winter and he introduces me to the soft art of snowshoeing, heading up the frozen headwaters of the North Klondike River towards the Tombstone Range. It is a satisfying day out, even if only to build an appetite for the next meal at Bensen Creek. Andrew Bain was a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Bensen Creek Wilderness Adventure & Retreat, Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory, Canada. +1 867 993 5469; www.bensencreek.com. Tariff: $C144 ($153) a night for two; three-course dinner, $C60. Menus can be pre-ordered. Getting there: Air North flies to Dawson City from the Yukon capital, Whitehorse, where vehicles can be hired. It’s about a five-hour drive to Bensen Creek. Pick-up can be arranged with the lodge if you are flying into Dawson City. The lodge is about a 30-minute drive from Tombstone along the unsealed Dempster Highway. Checking in: Wilderness seekers, hikers and those wishing to enjoy the northern lights in solitude. Wheelchair access: No. Stairs into the lodge (and up to the bedroom) and ice on the paths much of the year. Bedtime reading: TheCalloftheWild by Jack London. (The novel was inspired by London’s experiences in the late 19thcentury Klondike gold rush in Dawson City.) Stepping out: Hike in Tombstone Territorial Park or drive 45 minutes into quirky Dawson City for a bit of wild west in the permafrost. Brickbats: The lodge’s unmaintained entry road off the Dempster Highway can be a challenge even in a four-wheel-drive. Outhouse visits in sub-zero temperatures (the Arctic Circle is less than 400km away). Bouquets: Utter solitude blended with personal service. To view the northern lights from bed is a treat.
Rustic and remote: Find good food and bright lights at Bensen Creek