Skip to main content

Main Street in this Yukon city is a mixture of faux frontier-style fronts and small-town stores that could be anywhere in the country.

But look closer. "Wir Sprechen Deutsch" is prominently displayed outside Pandas restaurant. Its menu is in German and English. Shoes-R-Us is dusting off its German signs for the summer season.

Further down the street, the Gold Rush Inn is distributing a tourism pamphlet with a brief history of the city in German and English. At the other end of town, the Riverview Hotel is arranging for German-speaking staff at the front counter.

And it's not just in the city. During the summer months, German is spoken in isolated fishing lodges, cabins and campsites across the northern territory, 7,570 kilometres from Munich. "On some rivers, all you hear in July and August is German," said Whitehorse realtor Uschi Eyding. "It's very, very weird."

More than 15,000 German-speaking Europeans from Austria, Germany and Switzerland are expected this summer in this northern corner of Canada. They will be following in the footsteps of 50,000 others who have passed through this city of 20,000 in the past three years.

A hundred years after thousands of prospectors streamed into the Yukon to pan the Klondike for gold, a new kind of gold rush is transforming the territory.

The Deutschlanders have sparked a minor backlash, with some people complaining about foreigners hunting more than their fair share of caribou and busloads of Germans taking the best seats in the local eateries. Also, misconceptions about the North have created some problems for Yukon's First Nations.

But many Yukoners welcome the Teutonic newcomers.

The Europeans arrive three times a week aboard 767s from mid-May to late September, direct from Frankfurt and Zurich. Unlike miners, merchants and women who streamed into the Yukon between 1898 and 1904, they are not in a mad dash to exploit the land.

The 21st century prospectors are chasing after clean air, wide-open spaces, wildlife and the eerie thrill of spending days in the wilderness without seeing anyone else.

Also, rather than taking away the area's wealth, modern-day adventurers are leaving behind a small fortune. With a slump in mining and little else happening in the territory, German-speaking tourists are the brightest spot in Yukon's economy this year.

Widrig Outfitters Ltd, which maintains a Web site in German and English, offers a 12-day hunt for caribou and dall sheep for $9,000 (U.S.), plus $225 (U.S.) a day for a non-hunting companion and $675 (U.S.) to fly from Whitehorse to the base camp in northeast Yukon.

Even at those prices, many have difficulty finding space on those flights from Europe. "My clients cannot get on those direct flights," said Chris Widrig.

The impact reaches beyond the tourist trade, Ms. Eyding said. German-speaking tourists have begun to invest in Yukon properties and businesses.

"There's a lot of interest in raw land along a river or lake, where they can build a log cabin," she said. Depending on services and size, prices can go as high as $250,000. Many cottage lots outside Whitehorse are going for $100,000, she said.

A favourable exchange rate on the German mark has also meant business on Main Street. Rita Fincham, at Shoes-R-Us, said internationally-known footwear, such as Harley Davidson boots and Vans, are less expensive in Canada than in Germany.

Rudy Muehldorfer, a chef and owner of Pandas, an upscale restaurant offering Bayerische spezialitaten (Bavarian specialties) said in an interview he grew up outside Munich in the 1960s dreaming of Canada's North.

Steeped in romantic tales of heroic adventure, noble savages and hidden treasures of gold, he imagined the land to be one of the most fascinating places on earth, he said.

The Germans yearn for open spaces with sparse population, he said. Many have grown up reading writer Karl May, (pronounced m-y, not m-a-y) the most published author who ever wrote in the German language.

Mr. May, who died in 1912, wrote voluminous family sagas swept up in historical events. Over the past century, more than 100 million copies of his 73 books, which have been translated into 30 languages, have been sold.

"I can still see it," said Mr. Muehldorfer, speaking with a heavy German accent. "The log cabin, The Treasure in the Silver Lake, Winnetou the noble Indian, and it was the Indians who knew where the treasure of gold was hidden."

But the image of a primitive Indian, who helps a German cowboy figure named Shatterhand, does not sit well with Yukon's First Nations.

"About 95 per cent of the German market is looking for an aboriginal cultural experience," said Debbie Parent, executive director of the Yukon First Nations Tourism Association. "But their ideas of First Nations and what they actually see is quite different. They are expecting to be greeted by someone in a head dress and on horseback."

Many in the aboriginal community refuse to exploit the misconceptions just to make a buck, she added.

"We want to offer a true cultural experience that depicts the life of First Nations," she said. That means tourists can do things like seeing how First Nations traditionally tanned hides or smoked fish, or join a traditional feast known as a potlatch.

Nevertheless, the tourists keep coming, looking for Winnetou.

Interact with The Globe