Northern Exposure: Experiencing field school in the Yukon.

Jenna Bell takes you along for the ride, learning about conservation and Indigenous issues in Whitehorse and Kluane

Jenna Bell is a fourth year environmental science student in the Faculty of ALES. Last month, she found herself in the depths of winter, 2,000 km north of Edmonton for the University of Alberta’s Yukon field school.

To give all students a peek into this incredible experiential learning opportunity, we asked Jenna to keep a journal on her trip. Here are just some of the amazing sights and experiences she gained while learning about conservation and Indigenous issues in and around Whitehorse, YT.

Feb. 6, 2020
8 days before the trip

My name is Jenna and over reading week, I will be flying up north to experience the wonders of the Yukon through the field course Ren R 465. I have never gone so far north before. When I think of the Yukon, I imagine a remote landscape populated by maybe twenty people, buried under seven feet of snow with a windchill of −80℃. It’s hard to imagine living in a place colder than Edmonton — but of course there is more to life than weather. I’m excited to learn about the unique culture, wildlife and people who occupy this part of our country.

Snowshoe hare (Internet Archive). Building the Alaska Highway (Wikimedia Commons).

Feb. 10, 2020
4 days before the trip

Prior to my departure, I’ve been assigned to read several academic articles and complete a short online course introducing me to the history of the Yukon. I have now perused a variety of topics: the unorthodox nature of snowshoe hares, some major challenges facing northern communities and the significant impacts of European colonization. I also learned some interesting facts — did you know that one-quarter of the Yukon’s population is Indigenous? The topic which sparked my interest the most was about the construction of the Alaska Highway. The road greatly interrupted the way that Indigenous people had lived for thousands of years, without giving any chance to voice their opinion. However, the building of the Alaska Highway also led to the establishment of Kluane National Park and Reserve — one of the highest rated parks in Canada!

Thought of the day: How many good acts are spurred by something bad?

My roommate’s cat trying to sneak into my suitcase and join me on the trip.

Feb. 13, 2020
1 day before the trip

Hot diggity-dog, am I ever excited! I am currently looking over our itinerary and it is jam-packed with activities. Starting in Whitehorse, we will first visit an interpretive centre and explore the city. Over the next couple days we will go to a wildlife preserve, medicinal plant library, carving studio and the hot springs. We will then travel to the Kluane National Park Reserve (which I am super stoked about), where we will check wildlife traps, take a permafrost tour and study the local fauna.

The course is one week long — from Feb 14–21. However I have decided to stay an extra three days to attend the famous “Rendezvous Festival” and visit some friends. I am looking forward to so many things, but I’m most excited to (hopefully) see some spectacular northern lights. I will be bringing my camera for sure.

Flying on luxurious Air North.

Feb. 14, 2020
Day 1 — Travel Day
First Nations Territories: Treaty 6, Kwanlin Dün & Ta’an Kwäch’än Council

A couple of issues arose this morning. First up — I can’t find my winter jacket anywhere?! I looked high and low but ended up having to buy one (can’t go to the Yukon without a good jacket). Luckily it’s the end of the season and there are some mad dealz on jackets right now. [Editor’s note: The University of Alberta neither condones nor encourages the use of the words “mad dealz.”]

Second issue — I woke up with a horrible cold. Nevertheless, I am on the plane and I’m hyped despite the sniffles (sorry to the people sitting next to me). By the way, Air North is a fantastic airline. Not only did we each get a warm cookie — we also got two drinks and a plate of assorted cheese and vegetables. And it’s only a two and a half hour flight! I feel fancy.

The Yukon!!! Photo by Gabe Rivest.

Feb. 15, 2020
Day 2 — Whitehorse, Beringia Interpretive Centre
First Nations Territories: Kwanlin Dün & Ta’an Kwäch’än Council

We arrived in Whitehorse safe and sound last night. All 21 of us squished into bunk beds at the Takhini Hostel and promptly fell fast asleep. I had a dream about eating warm cookies, endless warm cookies…

I woke up bright and early, and we all piled onto a bus. I stared out my window and gazed in awe at the incredibly dense forest surrounding the road. The landscape here looks quite different to Alberta’s. Mountains, trees and snow are not new sights — but for some reason up here everything seems more “wild.”

Learning about the woolly mammoth from our interpreter, Tyler, at the Beringia Interpretive Centre. Photo by: Gabe Rivest

Our first stop was to the Beringia Interpretive Centre where we learned about the geological formation of the Yukon and the animals which occupied this territory in the past. I really enjoyed looking at the fossils — particularly the woolly mammoth because it was gigantic. Next we had a presentation about the impacts of mining in the Yukon and a proposed solution to cleaning up waste from the mines. This lecture was extremely interesting, however the combination of a hearty lunch, cold meds and a room that felt like an easy-bake oven made it difficult to pay attention. I did push-ups in the bathroom to try and wake up. Lastly, we hiked to a dam located on the Yukon River. We learned that the Yukon’s energy supply is close to being unable to meet demand (particularly on very cold days).

Thought of the day: Why do we call it “the Yukon” when on the map it only says “Yukon”? We don’t say “the Alberta”…

A mother and daughter lynx at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. Photo by: Ben Strelkov

Feb. 16, 2020
Day 3 — Yukon Wildlife Preserve
First Nations Territories: Kwanlin Dün & Ta’an Kwäch’än Council

Today resembled what I had pictured the Yukon to be like — bundling up in as many layers as possible to avoid the chill of −35℃ and being surrounded by furry animals. In the morning we travelled to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, located only a few minutes away from our hostel. Although it was a bit chilly, getting to see the animals at the Wildlife Preserve was an unreal experience. We saw caribou, mountain sheep, muskox and bison. We also saw two lynxes (they even posed for us) and my personal favourite — the arctic fox. They look like little white puffballs (so cute!).

We learned about adaptations which animals have made to live in the north and observed some field sampling techniques. There was a competition put on to see which team could get the most accurate coordinates of an animal collar using telemetry. This is done by listening for the radio signal being broadcasted by the collar, and recording the coordinates when the signal is the loudest — my team lost (oh well!).

We went back to the hostel and then soaked in the hot springs located only a few meters away from our hostel. After a long day of hiking in the cold, relaxing in the hot water was definitely a treat. I looked up into the night sky to see the brightest stars I’d ever seen.

Carving studio in Carcross.

Feb. 17, 2020
Day 4 — Carcross Learning Centre
First Nations Territories: Carcross/Tagish Nation

My goodness, today was so neat. We hopped in the bus early in the morning and drove to a beautiful facility that showcases Indigenous art, culture and history. First we learned some words in Tlingit, the traditional language of the First Nations from this region. This language has been voted as one of the top five hardest languages to learn in the world! Later we were given a tour of their medicinal plant library and carving studio.

The generosity and expertise of the First Nations people at this facility blew me away. A lovely woman named Donna not only shared her knowledge about medicinal plants, but also shared her medicine with us free of charge. She gave me an abundance of yarrow and caribou leaves to help relieve my cold by making tea from the plants. Donna shared with us that she does not charge anyone because medicinal plants are a gift from the Creator. Anyone can seek remedy at this facility for free — I think that is admirable.

This is me. Oh, and some spectacular mountains too. Photo by Alyssa Zorniak.

Feb. 18, 2020
Day 5 — Kluane Interpretive Centre & Da Kų Cultural Centre
First Nations Territories: Champagne & Aishihik Nations

Rise and shine! Another day — another adventure. We eagerly packed up all our stuff as we’re heading to a new location… Kluane National Park (gasp). I’ve heard such great things about this region, and let me tell you — they’re all true. It is breathtaking. The mountains here are very different to the rockies; I would describe them as rounder and wider. Did you know that the Yukon has the youngest and the tallest mountains in all of Canada? Upon arriving at the interpretive centre, a Parks Canada interpreter shared some information with us about the history of the park and the effects of glaciers on the landscape. Then we heard from an Indigenous communicator who talked about the effects of colonization and how the First Nations people lived historically on the land. The part I found to be most fascinating about today was learning about how the land is co-managed with the government and the Indigenous people. There seems to be a very strong emphasis on making decisions together. Now off to Kluane Research Station to have dinner and get some rest!

Thought of the day: Why are mountains so awe-inspiring to humans? Do other animals find mountains to be just as magnificent?

My co-worker Latiya was also on the trip!

Feb. 19, 2020
Day 6 — Kluane Lake Research Station & Squirrel Camp
First Nations Territories: Kluane Nation

I literally had the most terrifying experience last night. For some reason the research station has this creepy doll in their dining room which “mysteriously” went missing in the night. Lo and behold, I walk into my cabin with only my headlight — and as my gaze moves upwards I find the CREEPY DOLL staring at me from on top of the wood-burning stove. AHH! We have a prankster amongst our group. It became the “running joke” to place the doll in different spots around the camp.


Beyond this experience, the research station has really impressed me. The researchers have come from all across Canada to work here. They talked to us about their projects and methods, and then we got to go out and learn how to set traps for lynx, squirrels and hares. I feel like I really got an inside look into what it’s like to be a researcher in the field. In the afternoon we went snowshoeing and found the skull of a thinhorn sheep right in the middle of the path. Our guide suspects a wolf had killed it maybe a week prior. We did not see any living animals (besides birds and squirrels) — but we did see lots of animal tracks (like lynx and caribou) which is almost as cool.

Our interpretor shows us permafrost ground that thawed and caused a landslide. This photo makes me laugh because it looks like a selfie, even though I took the photo.

Feb. 20, 2020
Day 7 — Permafrost Tour, Long Ago… People’s Place, Bean North Coffee Roasting Co.
First Nations Territories: White River, Kluane, Champagne & Aishihik Nations

Today we did A LOT. We learned that the Alaska Highway has a major issue — a large portion of it is built on top of permafrost. This is a layer of ground that has been frozen for anywhere from two years to centuries. With increasing warmth brought on by climate change, the permafrost is thawing quickly. We went on a short hike to look at one of the many issues that this is presenting — landslides; massive quantities of earth and vegetation sliding into the river below. It was really shocking to learn about this issue and see the effects for myself.

Sights at Long Ago People’s Place: A shelter; beaded moccasins; learning about tools; a bear dog.

We hopped on the bus and travelled to Long Ago People’s Place, a First Nations cultural and heritage site. A lovely couple named Harold and Meta built and maintain this camp to help educate people about the structures and tools historically used by the Southern Tutchone.

This was probably my favourite part of the entire trip! It’s one thing to learn about the traditions of First Nations people — but to actually see and experience it for myself was truly a unique opportunity. Also they had the cutest dogs ever and made us delicious bannock.

We finished the day by taking a tour of a local coffee roasting facility and then checking into a hotel where we finally had access to showers after 3 long days without. It was glorious.

Thought of the day: Being a researcher is not as glamorous as I had presumed. Three days without showers?! I guess if it’s in the name of science…

The coolest winter field school students ever (literally cool… brrr). Photo by: Gabe Rivest

Feb. 21, 2020
Day 8 — Wrap-Up & Rendezvous Festival
First Nations Territories: Kwanlin Dün & Ta’an Kwäch’än Council

I can’t believe it’s the last day of the course already. Did time ever fly by. The Yukon far exceeded my expectations — it is so much more than a sparsely populated deep freeze. It is an extraordinarily beautiful and vibrant region, filled with a diverse and kind-hearted community. What I found to be most encouraging about the Yukon is the way in which they embrace Indigenous cultures and create space for Indigenous people to thrive. There are 14 First Nations in the Yukon and 11 are self-governing. The Yukon Government and the First Nations people have created an umbrella agreement where they co-manage the land. Although I’m sure there are hiccups, this agreement seems to be working well. I think Alberta could learn a lot from the Yukon!

Although I wish it didn’t have to end, today I said goodbye to my new friends as they left for Edmonton. Myself and a few others are staying an extra weekend to experience more of what Whitehorse has to offer and to attend the famous Sourdough Rendezvous Festival. I’m excited to watch can-can dancers and eat sourdough pancakes!

Me again! Photos by Alyssa Zorniak.

Feb. 25, 2020
1 day after the trip
First Nations Territories: Treaty 6

Wow. What an experience! I am so thankful for this opportunity to experience the Yukon in such an intimate way. There is no way I would have been able to do all these things on my own and learn all that I did. Our instructors Gabriel Rivest and Marianne Douglas went above and beyond to ensure we got the most out of our week in the Yukon. If you’re at all interested in experiencing the northern region of Canada, you should definitely consider taking the Northern Environmental and Conservation Sciences field school. It’s offered in the fall, winter and also in the summer (when you can canoe down the Yukon River!). Students from any faculty are welcome (with a few prereqs).

So what are you waiting for??? Go North!

Northern Lights seen at the Kluane Lake Research Station. Photo by: Ben Strelkov.

Final thoughts: I never did end up seeing the northern lights unfortunately. Although one evening they appeared very faintly in the sky. My classmate got a cool shot of them using a long exposure time on his camera. I hope to return to the Yukon some day in the summer — maybe I will see them then.

Jenna Bell is the Sustainability Council’s 2019–20 writing intern. Read more of her work featuring University of Alberta students and faculty engaged on sustainability.



University of Alberta — Sustainability

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.