Skating on Mirrors in the Yukon

Photo by Peter Maher

You’ve hopefully noticed that the items that make up The Great Canadian Bucket List rely on things that you can actually do, as opposed to fantasy scenarios that are fun to imagine, and all-but impossible to experience. This is why you will not find the following:

  • Watch a dolphin somersault over a harbour seal during an eclipse
  • Star in a big-budget superhero movie filmed in Vancouver
  • Watch a Canadian team hoist the Stanley Cup (ouch!)

Years ago, when I saw a Youtube clip of a bunch of guys shooting a puck to each other on a mirror-ice lake, surrounded by mountains with fish swimming beneath them, I had to wander: Can you really do this? Yes, you can. Or more cleverly, yes, Yukon.

Granted, the conditions have to be goldilocks, and this does not happen every year. It has to be early winter, when the temperature drops for weeks, the lakes freeze up, but the snow is yet to fall. Alternatively, the snow has fallen, but heavy wind has scattered the flakes before they can scratch up the smoothness of the lake surface. Every three years or so, you’ll find these conditions at one of several lakes not far from Whitehorse. Kluane Lake, in the national park, Fish Lake, Kusawa Lake, and the scene of the video that went viral and dropped jaws around the world, Windy Arm on Tagish Lake. It’s part of a chain of lakes that form the headwaters of the Yukon River, framed by dramatic mountains that create a tunnel for the wind to barrel through, hence its name.

Photo by Peter Maher

Local photographer Peter Maher (who graciously shared these incredible images) takes his family out every year searching for this type of magic. He’ll arrive at the shore, and check the ice. Just four inches will do it, since trucks can drive on six inches, and thrillseekers might go out on as little as two. Strong winds keep snow off the ice, and the surface as smooth as a freshly cut window. Once you’re skating, it’s a window that reveals schools of grayling or trout swimming beneath you, or bottom feeders drifting along the sandy depths. Ice bubbles create beautiful art in the ice, smooth pockets of air suspended like frozen thought balloons. You can skate for miles on this pond hockey rink of dreams, although strong winds might blow you further than you realize. Peter might have someone drive the car 10km down the road to avoid trying to skate against the wind, which I’m sure his three kids appreciate. He’ll whip out his camera, and take some remarkable photos.

Once word gets out, locals start showing up with their skates and sticks. There used to be dozens of people, but with Facebook and Youtube spreading the good news, these days there might be hundreds, not to mention people coming in from further away. Of course, on a lake that stretches over 100 kilometres long, there’s plenty of room for everyone, with games of pond hockey featuring twenty or thirty players. All bundled up, carrying thermos flasks with hot chocolate (or something stronger), gliding on their reflections in a real-life fantasy. “This is one of the things that makes being a Canadian so special,” says Peter. And while you may not be able to show up and do this every winter, it’s special enough, distinctly Canadian enough, and real enough, make it on the Bucket List.

Great Canadian Bucket List