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Jesse Cooke (centre) receives the Youth Tourism Entrepreneurship award from members of Parks Canada. Photo: Courtesy of Jesse Cooke

Jesse Cooke adapts to business in Canada’s North

If you think getting to class in the winter is hard, think again—lack of transportation in the northern Yukon can make travelling near impossible in any season. However, University of Ottawa graduate Jesse Cooke’s chartered bus service, Husky Bus, has been making moving around up North a little easier.

Cooke first travelled to the Yukon as part of a Glaciology course in 2006, and after experiencing travel difficulties first hand, Cooke started Husky Bus.

Entering its fifth season of operations this year, Husky Bus was recognized with the Parks Canada Youth Tourism Entrepreneur Award at the 2015 Canadian Tourism Awards on Dec. 2, 2015.

Cooke, an Environmental Studies and Education graduate, found inspiration for his startup in Dawson City, Yukon, a town he describes as transient but very isolated—it’s also the starting point of his route, which ends in the capital, Whitehorse.

“Since the time that I’ve been living here there’s been no way to get here except the airplane,” said Cooke. “When I first came I hitchhiked to get up here, like so many others.” He said this is a widespread problem for towns that lie in northern regions of Yukon, and that “a lot of these communities are totally offline.”

As an entrepreneur in the Yukon, Cooke faces some unique challenges. He often grapples with making ends meet while serving a small market of people.

“The entire Yukon has a population of about a few city blocks in Ottawa,” he said. “As an entrepreneur that means that I’ve got to get very creative.”

In the Yukon it can also be challenging to simply get people from point A to point B. Load limits in the springtime and extensive construction are necessary inconveniences in the Yukon, where some roads, including the one Husky Bus operates on, experience freezing and thawing periods with the permafrost found in northern terrain.

According to Antoni Lewkowicz, a professor at the the U of O’s Department of Geography, this thawing effect on roads is a pattern that will worsen with climate change.

“You’ve got the asphalt on the top… and then you have the part that’s basically gradually thawing,” Lewkowicz said.  He explained that the ice is not distributed uniformly under the asphalt, so during thawing periods there are roads that suffer from “waves and depressions.”

While global warming won’t pose immediate threats to the operation of services like Cooke’s, it suggests that future initiatives in Yukon transportation could face greater barriers as the permafrost thaws.

“Places where right now there might not be a problem there might start to be a problem,” said Lewkowicz. “There are places where right now there are problems, and those places will get worse as a result of climate change.”

Despite the challenges of entrepreneurship in the north, Cooke doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon. With plans to rebrand Husky Bus this year as the Klondike Experience, Cooke will be expanding his services to adventure tours.

“It’s the kind of place that keeps drawing people back, and that’s why I’m still here.”