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Story by Haley Ritchie
Photos by Manu Keggenhoff

The poet Robert Service may have been infatuated with the North, but he never waxed poetic about the way a rugged bush pilot’s abs rippled while chopping fuel for the wood stove. There are hundreds of romance novels set in the Yukon and Alaska that do just that, filling out a subgenre with suitably northern titles like Married to an Alaskan Man, Baby It’s Cold Outside, and Staking a Claim.
There’s something about remote cabins, long nights, and wood stoves that gets the heart beating faster. What makes the North such a popular setting? Romance novels need some angst to work, explains Yukoner Barbara Dunlop, a New York Times bestselling author. In her Match Made in Paradise, supermodel (and super rich) Mia Westberg couldn’t be more different than Silas Burke, the bush pilot who picks her up from the airport and forces her to leave some of her overweight luggage behind. Far from her urban home, confident Mia needs to rely on the standoffish man to show her how life works in the wild, but she won’t put up with being judged at face value either.
“I think it’s a whole lot of fun when you have a hero and a heroine in a romance where their backgrounds and ideas are so completely different,” said Dunlop. “It’s pretty easy to come up with heroes that are rugged and independent when you’re … in the Yukon.”

Like Dunlop, The Simple Wild author, K.A. Tucker, loves a couple for whom opposites attract—and the North, a land of extremes, is the perfect setting for that type of conflict.
“I love ‘enemies to lovers’ or a ‘fish out of water’ [themes] because there’s so much personal conflict that the characters have to triumph over in order to find common ground. There’s a lot of push and pull, and I think a lot of readers love that,” said Tucker.
In Tucker’s Alaskan series, Torontonian Calla Fletcher is summoned to the last frontier when her estranged father is diagnosed with lung cancer. Calla’s mother fell in love with a bush pilot but couldn’t learn to love the North—a story her daughter risks repeating when she meets the handsome Jonah.
For writers, versatility is key. Dunlop, who grew up in Vancouver, can write about the big city—her more than 50 novels for Harlequin Books are set everywhere from Colorado and Texas to Chicago and New York—but a few of her novels, including the Paradise series and Gambling Men, take place closer to home. The author moved to the Yukon over 30 years ago with her high-school sweetheart, who became a career bush pilot.
First-hand experience certainly makes the research easier. After all, the road to a good romance is fraught with danger from critics—while Mia has to get a lesson on bear spray from hunky Silas, romance writers must also tread carefully to avoid the one-star wrath of locals calling out inaccuracies. Not everyone writing about the North knows, for example, how dark it gets in the winter or that there is no road connection to Alaska’s capital, Juneau. Dunlop recalls reading a novel where a character picks up the reins to a dogsled (dog harnesses don’t have reins). But writers are granted some creative license. Tucker and Dunlop set their books in fictional towns, which give them more freedom of setting.

“I think it's a whole lot of fun when you have a hero and a heroine in a romance where their backgrounds and ideas are so completely different.”

“She’s a woman from the South who has never seen the northern lights, and it turns out to be very romantic,” said Schramm about one of the characters.

In Patty Schramm’s idealized version of Whitehorse, explored in her Romance in the Yukon trilogy, gay women in the territory’s capital meet at the Pot of Gold lesbian bar and climb at the local rock gym. Sadly, neither exists in real life, but Schramm said that’s part of the appeal of reimagining a place.
“I thought that was clever,” said Schramm, with a laugh from her home in the Netherlands, explaining that if Whitehorse did have a lesbian bar, she imagined it more of a cozy pub than a trendy city spot. “That’s my poetic license.”
“For me, personally, the appeal of a romance in a small town is because I wish I had had that,” said Schramm. “How cool would it be to be in that small town, be gay, and find the love of your life working at the flower store or while you’re working at the gas station? Maybe that’s how that works sometimes, but I just love the fantasy idea of it.”
Like Tucker and Dunlop, she also found a northern setting an excellent place for drama. Part of the romance genre’s appeal, explained Schramm, is the guarantee of a happy ending. But it can’t be too easy for the characters to get there. “You have to have that romantic formula, whether they’re friends … reigniting something from the past or whatever trope you’re using. You’ve got to have that angst. If you don’t have angst in the romance, the ending is not all that exciting, right?” she said.
Schramm hadn’t travelled to the Yukon or Alaska when inspiration for her series struck, but she did plenty of research while crafting her stories about the northern rock climbers, Mounties, gold miners, and flight paramedics who fill the series. In Finding Gracie’s Glory, two women meet while working at a gold-mining operation. Schramm, a former paramedic, researched placer mines to get the details right. “I can spend a year researching a book that will take me four months to write,” she said.
To get acquainted with the streets of the Yukon’s capital, Schramm used satellite imagery  to virtually visit settings like the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre and Whitehorse General Hospital. She also “hiked” to a spot where her characters see the aurora borealis.
“She’s a woman from the South who has never seen the northern lights, and it turns out to be very romantic,” said Schramm about one of the characters. “For me, writing up in the North was just a cool little adventure because you get to learn more things, you get to see more things virtually.”

“It's pretty easy to come up with heroes that are rugged and independent when you're … in the Yukon.”

Tucker’s setting for Calla and Jonah is even farther from most people’s imaginations than Anchorage and Whitehorse. To write realistically about life in remote western Alaska, she turned to blogs, articles, and documentaries to establish how her character—a city girl from downtown Toronto—would adapt.
“I did a ton of research, and in my head I was always thinking, I’m not from here. So, I hope I get this right,” said Tucker. “What I read when I was doing my research was, basically, there’s the people who make it through the first year and there’s the people who don’t,” she said.
Her character falls in love with Alaska and her handsome bush pilot, but relocation is anything but simple. Impressively, Tucker captures how difficult and isolating winter can be for a visitor in a place with a lot of darkness and no road out. But she also captures the things that keep folks in the North, including natural beauty and unique people.
It wasn’t until writing her fourth book in her series, which involves the world of dog mushing, that Tucker finally had the chance to visit Alaska, go on a sled dog tour, and travel in the bush planes she’d been writing about.
Luckily, her previous research had paid off. “I received a lot of messages from people who live in Alaska and the Yukon who said, ‘You did this right. This feels like home.’ And so, that to me, that meant something,” said Tucker.

The romanticization of life in the North, including the idea of it being a frontier or an untamed wilderness devoid of people, can be tiresome to those who grew up here and whose families and ancestors make up the real history of the place. Still, people from Outside can’t help but be curious about a place they’ve heard so much about but few travel to, explained Dunlop.
“Some writers and some readers, when you say that you’re from Yukon, immediately their interest picks up. All the Canadians say, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to the Yukon. I’ve heard about it all these years.’”
For many Canadians and Americans, the Yukon and Alaska are as remote as you can get without leaving your own country. “I think there’s an emotional safety to [reading about the North], but you get all of the advantages of going somewhere that feels quite foreign and feels quite different and you don’t know what to expect,” said Dunlop.
Emotional safety for the reader, maybe, but not for the tortured characters in the books, who struggle to adapt. At one point, Tucker’s character Calla asks herself, What hold does Alaska have on them? What makes this place worth giving everything else up?
In the end (spoiler alert) she finds her answer. And while not everyone finds a fantasy romance on a trip to the Yukon, pretty much everyone leaves with a good story. 

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