From grandma’s cabin to yoga-canoe trips: Indigenous tour operators in the Yukon respond to demand

Paul and Bree Josie’s wilderness tourism business was fully booked last winter with tourists who were looking to get off the beaten path and experience Gwich’in culture in the fly-in arctic village of Old Crow, Yukon. 

“As Gwich’in, we’ve always been very welcoming to people that come to our communities, we always share meals and stories. That’s something that I learned from my grandmother years ago,” Paul said, sitting in his backyard, while his young daughters played with the newest litter of husky puppies. 

Indigenous tourism is growing in the Yukon with existing companies expanding their offerings, and new ones opening up, according to the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association. 

Paul and Bree, a married couple, operate Josie’s Old Crow Adventures. They closed up shop for several years during the pandemic, but reopened almost a year ago with more to offer, having shifted from hourly tours to all-inclusive multi-day packages. It is the only business of its kind in the small community of less than 300. 

Paul Josie co-owns an Indigenous tourism company with his wife Bree in Old Crow, Yukon. Part of their operations include opening their home to visitors and sharing meals and stories, following the teachings Paul received from his grandmother. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC News)

“There was just kind of a gap there and now that we’re offering these tours people are making the time to come to Old Crow and have these experiences,” Paul said.

Growing list of options

Demand for Indigenous tourism was already increasing exponentially in 2019 before the pandemic started, according to Harmony Hunter, manager of tourism development for the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association. The organization is working to encourage Indigenous Yukoners to develop and grow businesses in the sector. 

Hunter said the Indigenous tourism offerings in the territory are expanding, with 15 to20 companies in operation. “Some of them are still in their very (early) development stages,” she told CBC News, noting there’s an Indigenous guide who plans to offer hiking tours in Kluane National Park, Yukon, in the near future. 

“You can go up to Dawson City and you can go on Fishwheel Charters with Tommy Taylor on the Yukon River, jump on one of Teena Dickson’s van’s for Who What Where Tours and tour all around the Yukon — into Kluane into Carcross — you know, head on to a yoga-canoe trip with Northern Nomad,” said Hunter outlining just a few options. 

“The demand is there, the excitement is there,” she said, adding that visitors are looking for authentic experiences. 

A man stands at the back of a metal fishing boat as it speeds along a placid river. The shore in background is lined by yellow grass and green trees.
Paul Josie drives his boat along the Porcupine River, Yukon. Paul and his wife Bree Josie, offer multiple tour options throughout the year, including boat tours that go to places such as Tl’oo K’at and Rampart House. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC News)

‘It’s just quiet’

That authenticity comes naturally to the Josies, who not only share their way of life, language and community with visitors, but who welcome guests into their home. 

“As people come to Old Crow and they want to know more, a lot of teaching about who we are and why these things are important to us — the Porcupine caribou, the salmon, the animals — everything is very important to us and it’s all intertwined,” Paul said. 

Visitors also have the chance to stay in a cabin that belonged to his late grandmother, Edith Josie, a well-known writer, who put Old Crow on the map with her nationally syndicated column, Here Are The News. 

Getting tourists ready for a visit to Yukon’s most northern community takes some preparation according to Bree, ensuring people from cities far away understand the remoteness and reality of Arctic life.  

“We’re like, ‘You know the accommodations are really rustic, you know you’re staying in a cabin.’ So we try and really prep them. You know, ‘We’re driving in an ATV, it’s going to be muddy,'” she said. 

And for Paul, sharing the more intangible elements of culture with visitors is equally important. He likes to take people up Crow Mountain.  

“When they’re up on the mountain it’s so quiet that they just want to take a moment to take it all in because there’s no sounds, no traffic, no nothing and it’s just silence. That’s what always catches me and I just sit back and just wait. Let them have the moment, listen to the birds or else just the quiet. In the winter it’s just quiet.” 

Determined to succeed

Although the number of tourists returning to the Yukon post-pandemic is on the rise and some Indigenous businesses like the Josies are seeing that, not everyone is getting the number of reservations they’ve been hoping for. 

In Ross River, Dennis Shorty and Jenny Froehling offer home-stays and Dene workshops in carving, drumming and storytelling. 

“We did see a lot of campers and trailers coming in and out of Ross River but yeah, [they] barely stopped at our house,” said Froehling on the phone. “It was just a couple, it wasn’t that much actually.” 

A man in a red plaid shirt and baseball cap and a woman with a large grey knit scarf stand side-by-side against a backdrop of mountains.
Dennis Shorty and Jenny Froehling of Ross River, Yukon, offer home-stays and workshops in Dene carving, drumming and storytelling but say demand for their businesses hasn’t fully rebounded since the pandemic. (Submitted photo)

Since the pandemic, Froehling said it’s been a struggle. While they do have people making reservations at their lodge, most of the bookings are coming from out-of-town workers. “We would like to see more people being involved in the cultural activities that we are offering.” 

Despite the lack of demand Forehling says they remain determined. 

“We will continue to pursue it because that’s in our heart, to share the traditional knowledge that Dennis has of the Kaska people, the local knowledge that is here and to share that … with everyone who is willing to learn from him. We hope it will get better,” she said.

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