Fall at Lake Labarge, Yukon, Canada.
Fall at Lake Labarge, Yukon, Canada. (Les Picker, Baltimore Sun)

It's a crisp, cold morning.

Inside our recreational vehicles, we don fleece jackets and sweatshirts as the temperature hovers just below freezing. Ice has formed on one of the kettle ponds we are parked alongside in the vast Arctic tundra. As we step outside, the red and yellow colors of fall are all around us.

It is August in Canada's famed Yukon Territory.

Few vistas in this world are as spectacular as the land above the Arctic Circle. The tundra is truly a magical place, stretching as far as the eye can see, a place that few people ever experience. Rolling hills and stark mountains dot the landscape. A herd of caribou can be seen grazing on lichens in the distance and grizzly bears are ever-present, feasting on the abundant berries and the occasional caribou carcass. Fox frantically chase field mice as they fatten for winter. The chilly Arctic winds whisper of things soon to come.

This is my sixth visit to a land I have grown to love, only this time I have brought five of my dearest friends from Maryland with me to celebrate 25 years of comradeship. While we have periodically vacationed for a few days together — to places like Maine, the British Virgin Isles and Deep Creek Lake — we wanted to celebrate our silver anniversary with something special.

We agreed on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to Canada's pristine and storied Yukon Territory, a place I had become intimately familiar with over the years. Given that we range in age from 58 to 65 and that one of us had recently developed Parkinson's, we wanted to rise to the challenge while we all could.

Our goal was ambitious. After landing in Whitehorse, the capital city, we would travel in two recreational vehicles to Inuvik, in neighboring Northwest Territory, then by puddle-jumper to remote Tuktoyaktuk, where we would take a plunge into the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean.

We had arranged for two RVs with provisions, Air Canada flights out of BWI-Marshall Airport, hotels and a propeller plane from Inuvik to Tuk, as the locals refer to Tuktoyaktuk. We had timed our trip so we'd be in the Arctic Circle region to experience the spectacular fall foliage. Leaving from Baltimore on a mid-August morning, we found ourselves in Whitehorse by early evening the same day. It was a long 10-hour travel day, but we were just happy to be there.

The journey begins

Excited to get going, the next morning we climbed into our RVs and took off for points north, hardly spending any time in the lovely capital. I bunked with Joel and Bill, while Jay, John and Randy traveled in the second RV.

For the next eight hours we drove along the well-maintained Klondike Highway, a beautiful road that retraces the route that so many gold miners hiked to get to their promised land. After gawking at the heavily forested and mountainous scenery all morning, we made a brief stop at Moose Creek Lodge & Restaurant for home-baked pies. In another few hours we arrived at our destination for the next two days, Dawson City.

The town is a throwback to the 1890s, when more than 100,000 men — and a few women — sold all their possessions and braved freezing cold and hardships beyond imagining, crossing mountains and glaciers before journeying down the Yukon and Klondike rivers to Dawson City. Overnight the tiny outpost exploded and is now the hub of the Arctic Circle, although it is once again tiny, with a population of about 1,500.

Dawson City appears frozen in time. All its buildings are wood, and wooden sidewalks weave throughout town to protect people from the gravel and mud in the unpaved streets. There are more historic buildings per capita than any other place I have visited, each one contributing to the rich stories of the Klondike Gold Rush. Diamond Tooth Gertie's, Canada's first gambling hall, still stands and entertains tourists nightly with burlesque shows and gambling.

We spent a pleasant evening and a full day touring the town's museums and historic sites, which are plentiful. The Dawson City Museum is a little jewel that encapsulates the Klondike story, from its geological formation to its native history, with a focus on the famous Klondike Gold Rush. To get an idea what the latter stages of gold fever was like, don't pass up a visit to the immense Gold Dredge #4, just outside town on Bonanza Creek.

The 'Dempster'

Technically known as the Dempster Highway, Yukoners simply refer to it as "the Dempster." This legendary gravel and mud road is the only route to the Arctic Circle, and once you get to the Yukon you'll hear lots of tall tales about the way it treats travelers. Don't believe them. Well, not all of them.

Unfortunately, we hit the Dempster during a particularly rainy period, unprecedented in recent memory. Driving was treacherous, as our RVs slid on muddy patches and rattled on washboard sections of road. The first night, we camped at the side of a river, and Jay, our inveterate fisherman, immediately jumped out and caught two fish. As we were to learn over the next 10 days, just throwing in a lure was guaranteed to land us dinner, and we feasted on our fresh catches of salmon, char and northern pike.

On the second day, we made it to Eagle Plains, a rambling outpost with a gas station, motel and restaurant, the only stop between Dawson and Inuvik. After gassing up, eating and frantically checking our emails, we were off for the famed Arctic Circle.

Not a mile from our stop, we saw the first of the many grizzlies we were to see. This juvenile male walked down the road, undeterred by our RVs. As we paused to admire him, he sauntered by without a care.

Inuvik or bust

After the obligatory stop at the Arctic Circle monument, we focused on slogging our way to Inuvik, a route that took us out of the Yukon into Northwest Territory. To get to Inuvik, we had to cross two rivers by ferries, a real concern since the heavy rains had caused the ferries to stop running for days at a time. But at each crossing, we were the only vehicles, and the passages were smooth.

One of the many joys of traveling the Dempster is that you are on a road carved from pure wilderness. At night there are no lights to impede the stunning views. Each night we would stop, play cards, read, laugh a lot, listen to good music, make dinner and just plain enjoy each other's company. At night, the light show would begin, the sky ablaze with the clearest star show one can possibly see.

On our third day, we arrived in Inuvik, which sits on the Mackenzie Delta. During the winter, a made-famous-by-TV ice road links Inuvik with Tuk, but during the rest of the year the only ways to get to Tuk are by air or a long, rocking boat ride. We spent the afternoon walking along Tuk's main street, updating our store of groceries and trinket shopping. Since the town is built on permafrost, all water lines are above ground and shielded from the intense winter temperatures by a pipe that also carries steam and electricity cables. These conduits lace the entire town.

After a dinner of fresh-caught Northern pike, we awoke ready for our trip to Tuk and the dreaded — I mean, highly anticipated — dip in the Arctic Ocean. Initially our flight was delayed by the rain and extreme fog that blanketed the town. Hours passed as we paced the tiny Inuvik airport. Finally, in midafternoon our flight was canceled, a mixed blessing since I expect that we all secretly had anxieties about the ice-cold dip we made a pact to do. Unfortunately, we also missed out on an Inuit lunch and a meeting with some elders that I had arranged.

With the dip canceled, we packed up our RVs and headed down the long road back to Whitehorse. Magically, the weather cleared and we had sunny skies all along the Dempster, resulting in lots of grizzly and caribou sightings.

On our second camp stop, one of us, a man who shall remain nameless but will surely live on in infamy in our group's history, got up at dawn to fish in the stream we were parked beside. He put his bear-repellent spray in his pants pocket. As he bent over to tie his shoes outside, the can, whose cap was put on backward by another of our esteemed outdoorsmen, went off.

Bear spray is essentially pepper spray on steroids. Considering the can's proximity to certain, shall I say, vital organs, this man's reaction was unfortunate. And funny. As he ran to the ice-cold stream, we saw a trail of clothes being strewn left and right. Finally, the infamous plunge. This guy's recuperation was easy compared to the pain the rest of us felt in our stomachs from laughing so hard.

On the last day of our trip, I said goodbye to my friends at the airport, since I was staying in the Yukon to teach a photography workshop. Jay, standing at the ticket counter, summed up his experience in a way that had us all nodding our heads in agreement.

"When I get back to the daily business pressures, I'm going to go into my office, close the door, and think of the Yukon … its mountains, streams, open spaces, wildlife. I'm just going to breathe it all in again."