It was a dark and stormy Family Day morning.
“Wake up,” said Mia, but her twin brother Joey just lifted his pillow and stuck his head underneath.
“It’s raining, again. Where’s the snow? I hate February, Mia. It’s the shortest month of the year, but it feels like the longest. I want to go back to sleep and wake up in June!”
“But, it’s Family Day! And I heard Mom and Dad whispering last night. They’re planning a coddiwomple, I swear!”
Joey held the pillow down tighter. Mom and Dad were both writers – and they’d had writer’s block for months. This meant home life had been somewhat tense, and coddiwomples – the spontaneous adventurous trips the family used to go on – had suddenly become a thing of the past.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Joey. “I’m sure whatever their plan is has nothing to do with us. They’re too busy trying to write”–
Joey’s bedroom door flew open. There stood Mom and Dad. “Kids! We need a break! We’ve got wanderlust, not writer’s block! The only cure is to go on a —
“Coddiwomple!?” screamed Mia and Joey at the same time.
Dad was holding a rolled up map and now he unfurled it with a flourish: Canada. “Whose turn to pick the destination?”
“Mia picked last time,” Joey allowed.
Mia approached the map of Canada, eyes closed. She extended her index finger, and when it touched the map, she was sure she felt a flash of magic. A flash that was blue, and green, and the palest yellow. She knew exactly where she wanted to go, and what she desperately wanted to see. Her finger landed on ... the Yukon!
“The first option,” said Dad, “is to fly from Toronto to Vancouver, and then on to Whitehorse. If we do that, we’ll have more time to explore the Yukon.”
“The second option,” said Mom, “is to take the train cross-country. After four days, we’ll be in Vancouver and can fly to Whitehorse from there. Less time to explore, but we’ll have seen the country from a new perspective.”
The family departs from Toronto’s Union Station at 10 pm and wakes up in Winnipeg. Mia and Joey were sure they’d be too excited—and too crowded in their four-person sleeper cabin — to fall asleep, but the sound and sensation of the train cars speeding over the tracks was surprisingly soothing. The scenery outside has morphed from the snow-covered trees and granite outcroppings of Northern Ontario to the understated majesty of the prairies in winter. They arrive in Saskatoon by nightfall.RIDING THE RAILS
In the morning, the train pauses briefly in Edmonton; then it’s on to Jasper. The scenery outside the windows has changed again, this time to mountain lakes, rushing waterfalls, narrow canyons, soaring eagles, and snow-capped peaks. Mom has her notebook out and is smiling to herself.
Mia and Joey take a trip to the Skyline Car and watch it all rush by through domed windows. They even see a group of grizzly bears foraging beside a river.
When the family arrives in Jasper, a lengthy stopover means they can leave the train. Joey is winning at Ticket to Ride and wants to stay put: It looks cold out there. Besides, it can be tough to get good seats in the Skyline Car, and tonight is a full moon. Mom wants to go for a hike. She needs fresh air, and more inspiration.
The family catches the shuttle from the Jasper train station to Maligne Lake. They snowshoe across the frozen water, which is almost completely devoid of people, and take in the breathtaking views. They see fox, fisher, and snowshoe hare. There’s a cold wind, and as Mia goes to adjust her tuque, she notices an eyelash on her mitten., and makes a wish before blowing it into the breeze.
The family holds onto their spot in the Skyline Car— and Joey wins the all-day board game! That night, they have a perfect view of February’s full Snow Moon. Mia sees a shooting star through the domed glass of the roof, and makes a wish.
It’s late in the day when the family arrives in Vancouver. They check into their hotel, and are up early in the morning for their flight to Whitehorse.Yukon
After checking into their Whitehorse hotel, the family has a small disagreement: Joey and Dad want to rejuvenate at the Takhini Hot Springs, but Mia and Mom want to go to the MacBride Museum and then souvenir shopping at the Caribou Crossing Trading Post. (Mia is looking for something in particular).
The hot pools are only 28 km outside of Whitehorse; the family spends the afternoon chilling (“You can’t chill in a hot pool, Joey!”) in the red-tinged, mineral-rich waters while gazing at mountains cloaked by snow. Dad says it’s official: His terrible case of writer’s block has lifted, replaced by a wonderful sense of eudaimonia—a word with Greek origins that describes the state of being perfectly content and happy while traveling.
The family wanders the museum for hours, and learns about the history of the region, from the gold rush days to the establishment of Whitehorse. Mia and Mom especially love the Land and Light Collection, featuring artwork and tools from decades past.
Later, at the gift shop, Mia finds just what she’s looking for: a Labradorite pendant necklace. The beautiful stone refracts light and shines with flashes of indigo, gold, aquamarine, and coppery red. Mia is hoping it will bring luck and help her wish come true.
The family spends the day at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. A bus tour is available, but they opt to bundle up and walk the trails. Animal lover Joey is thrilled when he spots cute arctic foxes, caribou, muskoxen, and a lynx. (Mia and Mom wish they’d been on the bus when they spot that one.)
It’s time to travel into Kluane National Park, where the family has booked four nights at the Kluane Wilderness Lodge. They take a flight-seeing tour over Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak; their pilot points out glaciers with ice more than a kilometre thick. From high above Joey spots a dall sheep, two moose and what he thinks might be a wolverine. Every night, Mia keeps her eye out for what she’s longing to spot, to no avail.
During a half-day dog-sledding trip, both kids get to try driving the sled. (“Please, can we get a dog when we get home?” Joey asks, approximately 50 times.) An ice-fishing adventure yields a large Char — caught by Mom — but still Mia’s wish hasn’t come true yet, even with her lucky charm.
As the trip winds down, Dad can tell that Mia is starting to feel dejected. He doesn’t know why - and she just says “it’s nothing” when he asks what’s wrong. So he decides to put the final leg of the trip in her hands, hoping that will help cheer her up.
Dad announces he has a surprise: Instead of a short drive along the Alaska Highway in their rental car as planned, they can book a two-day tour with Northern Tales, a company that specializes in showing travelers the often-elusive northern lights. Either way, they’ll fly home after. Inspired by his spontaneity, Mom suggests skipping the flight - and other potential activities - and drive the rental car all the way to Vancouver from Whitehorse for a three-day roadtrip.
The family is set up in a heated tent and spends their first night sitting around a roaring outdoor fire, eyes on the sky. And, that’s when it happens: camped in the Yukon wilderness, Mia finally gets her wish! The northern lights begin earlier than usual, and blaze on all night—until she can’t help but fall asleep. She’s wrapped in blankets and surrounded by her family, and the best part is, she gets to do it all again tomorrow.
After the northern lights tour, the family spends one more night in Whitehorse, before flying to Vancouver, and then back to Toronto.
After Kluane, the family rents a car and drives along the Alaska Highway. They explore the Watson Lake Sign Post Forest — a quirky attraction that was born during WWII when a lonely GI put a sign up in the forest that pointed the way to his distant hometown. They visit the Northern Lights Centre and learn all about the aurora borealis, but for Mia, this just makes things worse. They check into a roadside motel, and plan to drive back to Whitehorse the following morning.
Mom and Dad wake Mia and Joey past midnight. They lead them out to the parking lot of the motel. It’s not how Mia imagined it—in the wilderness of the Kluane, or camping out near glaciers - but none of that matters: The sky above is a dazzling, magical display of colour and light, all greens and blues and yellows, a magical glow draped over a sky full of luminous stars. It’s the Northern Lights, and Mia’s wish come true.
They cancel their flight and drive along highway 97 for several hundred kilometres — highlights include Bear Lake and Crooked River Provincial Park— until they get to the Transcanada Highway, and Vancouver after that.
In Vancouver, they check into the Fairmont Pacific Rim, and this luxurious night helps Mia almost forget her disappointment: She never got to see the northern lights. The family flies back to Toronto the next morning, making plans for their return visit to the Yukon next winter. Mom and Dad promise: Next time, they won’t leave until they see the aurora borealis.
Special to The Globe and Mail