Tales of Two Northern Cities: Whitehorse and YK Pt. 3

We’ve both got cold, natural beauty, and colourful names that confuse southerners. It’s hard not to compare Yellowknife and Whitehorse. In this third installment of a series exploring the two cities, EDGE online searches for a good cup o’ joe in Whitehorse, and discovers much more than coffee. (See Parts One and Two

Maybe Whitehorse’s Cascadia vibe is channeling a bit of Seattle (it does have two Starbucks). Maybe people are just really tired from gold-panning and late-night can can shows, or those long commutes across their sprawling, highway-riven metropolis.

Whatever the reason, for a city of 28,000, Whitehorse has a lot of coffee.

In addition to Starbucks and two Tim Horton’s, there are six independent cafes, for a total of 10 coffee shops – 11 if you count the one just outside city limits.

Yellowknife’s 19,000 people have only four java joints to choose from, which may explain why our Tim Horton’s was ranked tops in overall sales within the franchise in 2007.

Getting a Tim’s in Yellowknife can be challenging, with lineups that snake out into the parking lot. But getting coffee in Whitehorse can be a downright adventure.

My first morning there I wandered into Java Connection — a family-run, downtown mainstay for almost 20 years — for a latte. A man walking on the sidewalk stopped, signalled through the window for me to watch, and then pulled what looked like a dead mouse from his pocket. Holding its tail, he turned his profile to me, slowly slid the mouse into his mouth like a sword swallower, then walked away, leaving photographer Angela Gzowski and me speechless.

This would not be our strangest wildlife encounter of the day.

Java Connection is supplied by Bean North, one of two local roasting companies. Manager Stephanie Beasley, whose mom Cindy bought the shop in 2006, suggested we check out Bean North’s operation. It was a nice drive, only 25 minutes from downtown, and we’d be assured of having a quality caffeine fix for our efforts.

Bean North fair trade coffee is sold at their cafe in the forest

Owners Michael King and his wife Helen Voogd were in Peru (everyone we talked to seemed to know that), sourcing their fair trade, organic beans. But the roaster and its adjoining café at Km 9.3 Tahkini Hot Springs Road were open for business.

With an address like that, we figured we’d best come prepared, so we bought bathing suits at Sportslife on Main Street before jumping into our champagne-coloured minivan – every other rental car in the city was taken because of a huge hockey tournament that week – and heading down the North Klondike Highway.

Whitehorse is big on natural beauty

Jaws agape at the stunning mountain scenery, we almost missed our turn. A few kilometres in we spied signs for the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.

We’d better take a look, we decided.

 

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve is 750 acres of fenced flatland where the deer and the buffalo roam, a peaceful and quiet open-air zoo of sorts loaded with trails. Started in the ’70s as a private wildlife reserve, the Yukon government bought it in 2004 and it’s now run by a non-profit group.

Muskox, caribou, hares… there are 10 species and more than 100 animals in total, none of which could be set free at this stage in their enclosed development.

The preserve has also become a rehab facility for injured and orphaned animals, the star of which these days is an orphaned baby moose that was not camera shy in the slightest.

Deer, along with moose, bison and other species, roam in fenced enclosures at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve

This is the perfect place to retreat to if you’ve had too much coffee or stress. Note to self: bring cross-country skis next time.

Since we were a little chilled from walking, we decided to drive right past Bean North and try out our new bathing suits. At the end of Takhini Hot Springs Road, Km 10 is, predictably, the Takhini Hot Springs.

Open year-round, the privately owned tourist attraction draws 42,000 people a year to its two outdoor manmade pools, gravity-fed with piping hot water from a nearby artisanal well. With a mineral content similar to Epson salts – things like iron, calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium – a good soak is therapeutic, especially if you suffer muscle pain or arthritis.

It was so sunny I had to keep my eyes closed while seeking out the hotter, 40-degree pool, (should have brought my shades) but that only added to the relaxation.

Owner Andrew Umbrich and his fiancé Lauren O’Coffey are planning a massive reno this summer that will turn the facility into a spa, with saunas and a more natural pool setting. The upgrade should also eliminate the need to use chlorine in the pools, a health standards issue now related to how long it takes to refill them.

Umbrich, who completed his masters in Nordic studies while living in Reykjavik, visited a lot of hot springs there.

“Our new facility will be a mix between Japanese and Icelandic cultures and then mainly European saunas,” he says.

The couple were basking in an unprecedented amount of free publicity when we visited. An internet video featuring bathers with basilisk-like frozen hairdos went viral the week before, prompting calls from TV stations worldwide.

“Even Ashton Kutcher’s office called,” says O’Coffey.

Serenity at the Takhini Hot Springs

She made us promise we’d drink lots; the hot springs can dehydrate you. I know coffee wasn’t what she had in mind, but that’s where we headed next.

Finally, Bean North, so close to the springs that one woman arrived wearing her towel over wet hair. Quaint and unassuming, the leafy grounds, modest wooden building and deck reminded me of Yellowknife’s Old Town. Inside the café was hopping with young mothers and children enjoying a beverage and fresh baked goods.

We toured the roaster out back with Bruce MacDonald. He’s been roasting with the company for nine years and says all the beans used are high quality organic, as well as guaranteeing fair price and treatment of its growers.

“They’re all hand-picked and it goes through a rigorous cupping for quality control and it has to be in the specialty coffee zone, it has to score over 80 points, which is high,” says MacDonald.

My latte did not disappoint.

On our drive back to Whitehorse we passed Icycle Sport, a full-service bicycle and ski shop, where you can also get really good coffee.

Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters, another family business, has been micro-roasting premium coffee for 15 years. It set up its ultra-funky, light-industrial café alongside bicycles tires, stained glass and art, after a fire in an adjoining business destroyed its original location in 2005.

The roaster was just closing down when I dashed in, but the friendly barista let me choose anything I wanted from the large carafes he was about to empty, and didn’t charge me. Whitehorse is a friendly place.

If you’ve ever been on Air North, you’ve had a Midnight Sun coffee. It was on an Air North flight from Yellowknife where I met Whitehorse musician and producer Bob Hamilton, sipping a cup o’ joe after performing at the Snowcastle.

He’s planning to combine his love for caffeine and music by opening up a downtown coffee shop where Whitehorse musicians can play a tune or buy a good used guitar.

So I guess that means the highly-caffeinated city will be cranking up its number of coffee shops way past 11. Eleven!

To be continued… in our next installment in this series we take you inside Bob Hamilton’s Old Crow Recording Studio.

 

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