Back In The Cold Embrace Of The Yukon Winter

It is a difficult transition, to reach the end of an adventure and return to work. After eight months of sauntering and wandering, it is time to work and save our pennies for the next adventure, just four months away. Click here if you’re curious about that adventure.

It is cold and dark this time of year. The nights seem to stretch on, unending. A typical 9 to 5 job means arriving to work in the dark, missing the stunning 10:30am sunrises over the surrounding hills. The sun sets long before the workday ends. The sun holds little warmth. But the woods are charming to stroll in. The chickadees sing, the red squirrels sit in the sun atop their midden. While we fight to keep our hands warm on late night walks the northern lights dance – flickers of green and crimson and violet above us. A coyote might pass by while the rest of the forest remains silent.

We sport frosted eyelashes, rosy cheeks and runny noses. -35C nips at exposed skin. The dry snow crunches and squeaks under each footfall. The forests are silent, no fresh tracks but our own in the snow. Ursus major, the Big Dipper, the North Star, they all shimmer on clear night. The northern lights dance.

We may no longer be in the warm embrace of the Utah or California desert but we have frosty forests and northern lights to embrace.

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Good-Bye Red

I don’t think red squirrels get enough love in the world. We are leaving our cozy little 300-square foot cabin in the woods to go traveling indefinitely. This means saying goodbye to the red squirrel who has been living in the abandoned shed beside our outhouse. We have become friends with the squirrel whose territory our cabin sits on and have been watching his antics. He has entertained us with his chittering, mushroom drying, cone collecting and his territorial disputes with neighbouring squirrels. The only time we find fault with him is in the fall when he develops a desire for our cabin insulation. Instead of killing him like so many people would do we scrounge up scrap pieces of insulation and leave it on our deck. His excitement when he stumbles upon it is obvious. It’s a win-win situation for both of us. He still gets a cozy home for winter and our cabin keeps its warmth. He has been a good friend and we’re going to miss him.

Winter Plans Thwarted – Then Renewed

When our winter’s travel plans began to fall apart before the trip had even begun our response to the disappointment was to disappear into the mountains and lick our wounds. But what a time it was. We tasted the freshly fallen snow, nodded a greeting to the Dall sheep. Indulged in naps. We scrambled up mountain peaks, sunglasses shielding eyes from the glint of sun on glacier. We found the inspiration we were searching for and crafted a new list of adventures to embark upon this winter. It is amazing how a hike and a nap in the alpine can combat stress and will settle a mind turned anxious caused by the uncertainties that often come up in a wanderer’s life.

Lupus may have forced us to cancel a winter of backpacking in Patagonia but a winter to convalesce and hike in the deserts of southwest US will undoubtedly help restore my health. In the end it doesn’t really matter where we end up, as long as we are able to wander and live outside.

Forget The Beta

Instead, tap into curiosity and get reacquainted with the sense of adventure.

From our home on the outskirts of Whitehorse we paddled a mere three hours down the Yukon River and Lake Laberge and backpacked another three hours to a gem of a lake nestled beneath mountains. We spent a few nights camped here, spending free days hiking the peaks casting shadows on our tent.

This mountain is slowly becoming known. For those who scan their surroundings and topographic maps looking for a new place to explore, this mountain stands out.

Our campsite beside the lake, at the base of the mountain, was beautiful though it showed signs of use. A nearby bear rub tree cloaked in fur was a bit disconcerting but as always we were diligent in keeping our food and kitchen far from our tent.

There were so many unknowns on this trip. We didn’t know if there would be a trail to follow in the summer. Or how boggy the marshes marked on the topo map would be. We didn’t know what we would find for camping. Or how easy the mountain peak would be to summit. People often post on Facebook hiking pages asking occasionally for beta on hikes, this one included. Doing so would have answered all the unknowns we had but it would have taken away the sense of adventure. It would have been less stressful, less time consuming if we had GPS tracks and waypoints to follow, a predetermined route but where’s the fun in that? It is a fallacy we must venture far from home to feel adventurous. Any place new to us is ripe for adventure.

We went, we wandered, went the wrong way, found our way, scaled the mountain and had some good ol’ fashioned backcountry fun.

No beta but lots of adventure.

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(And a small bottle of Coldstream Cinnamon Hot Shots helped shrug off the late evening autumn chill).

The Donjek Route – Kluane National Park and Reserve

It’s a Kluane backpacking classic. Approximately 130 kilometres long, the route took us seven days. We travelled each day but still had time in the afternoons and evenings to explore around camp. The route follows abandoned and overgrown mining roads, creek beds, wolf and grizzly paths and more wildlife trails and more creek beds.

The Donjek Glacier, spilling out of the Icefield Ranges is a sight made all the more magnificent given the wilderness one must traverse in order to reach its toe. And once there it is difficult to walk away from such a place, a wall of blue ice sparkling in the sunshine – if you’re lucky enough to get a sunny day.

Kluane’s backcountry is usually cold, often wet. We, however, got lucky and found ourselves hiking the Donjek during a heat wave – what would be considered a heat wave in the Yukon at least. Every day was 27C with clear blue skies. Creek crossings, usually dreaded because they are often glacier fed and numbingly cold, were enjoyable. We lingered in the creeks, trying to cool down. Heat like this in the Yukon mountains is rare and we relished every moment of it.

There were plenty of very fresh signs of grizzlies but other than one head popping out of the willows for a brief moment, we saw none. A wolf,  however and many sheep, mountain goats and moose were spotted. Voles and arctic ground squirrels were quite abundant.

Few backpackers hike the Donjek Route. Its length, difficulty and lack of a trail keeps most Kluane visitors away but this only means that those with the experience, time and tenacity will most likely not see any other humans during their time here. And that solitude is something we yearn for. It is one of the things that keeps us coming back.

 

Blue Skies Near The Skagway Summit

When the weather forecast calls for only four days of sunshine for the next two weeks, you have to take advantage of it. We went into the mountains to wander, frolic and skip about aimlessly.

Upon reaching the alpine, there were so many options. Do we go east towards the rutting Dall sheep? Or wander due north to the cliffs above Lake Bennett where the mountain goats like to hang? We could also go northwest to the glacier beneath a craggy mountain. We instead chose to follow the caribou tracks west past a half frozen lake to a pass where we two peaks to scramble called to us.

The glacier tumbling into a tiny alpine lake is certainly not the most jaw-dropping glacier around but we were the only human souls here in the heather, rocks and mountains. We mingled instead with the sheep, goats, grizzly, wolf and caribou and arctic ground squirrels.

Topo maps would have been useful but they take away the spontaneity, surprise and sense of exploration. It’s not about being the first person to do some thing, it’s about going outside to play, to experience the wonders of nature. Simplicity.

It’s Birding Season Again

Autoimmune illness flares again but the great thing about a week spent birding is very little energy is required. We can sit in the woods and alongside marshes, just listening and watching, occasionally falling asleep until a ruffed grouse begins to drum or another bird peeps or screeches, waking us.

Rusty blackbirds and greater yellowlegs were loud in the marshes while the mallards, long-tailed ducks and shovelers quietly fed. Along the shores of Little Atlin Lake we found a boreal chickadee excavating a nest cavity in an old spruce snag and a pair of black-billed magpies were building a nest in a willow thicket. In the alpine, Wilson’s snipes winnowed and wandering tattlers ambled lakeshores.

At our campsite on Chotla Lake, a ruby-crowned kinglet sung all evening while three American kestrels hunted the snow-free hillsides.

A wonderful bonus to sitting quietly in wilderness looking for birds are all the wildlife we also spot. Moose, caribou, Dall sheep. The chipmunks and arctic ground squirrels, including skittish melanistic ones (they must know they are much more vulnerable than the ”normal” coloured relatives) were also out enjoying the spring weather after eight longs months of hibernation. Sunshine, birds, mountains and wildlife. We couldn’t have hoped for more.

When The Lakes Are Free Of Ice – Agay Mene Territorial Park

As soon as the ice melts from the local lakes, off we go paddling. Snafu Lake offers coves and bays to explore and lakes beyond beckon the curious determined enough to portage the beaver dams and shallow creeks. It is also a wonderful place for birding. Common loons, all kinds of ducks – mallard, goldeneyes, buffleheads, wigeons and more – all nest here. Osprey nest and fish here. Bald eagles as well. As do mew gulls. More than once we have spotted lynx. Last year a lynx watched us paddle beneath the hill it regally sat on. This year a lynx, its back turned away from us on the water and therefore unaware of us, hunted the edge of a marsh. A black or grizzly bear may be seen ambling a grassy hillside or a porcupine might be found napping among soapberry bushes.

-30C Won’t Keep Us Inside

It may be -30C during the day and we may only be getting five hours of sunlight but it is definitely worth all the effort of getting dressed in layers and layers of wool and down and fleece and going outside into the woods, into the mountains. The recent snowfall made wildlife tracks easier to read, easy to follow.

Some nights we scramble up hillsides in search of northern lights. One evening, instead of the aurora we watched an orange moon set behind the mountains. Once sleepiness settled in we hiked home through the spruce forest, headlamps casting eerie shadows. The yellow eyes of a lynx reflected back at us and moved silently around us to sat hidden in the thickets, watching us.  The lynx was so capable of slinking around us silently and perfectly capable of watching us stare into the darkness.

With these long nights trail runs cure my cabin fever. My legs spin over the icy trails and snowshoe hares scatter from my path and any self-doubt that might be gnawing at me ebbs. My mind quiets as it zeros in on my breathing. By the time I make it home, I’m soaring on endorphins and the sun is rising.

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Our wanderings in the woods and hillsides have been less than “epic” this winter but sometimes that is what the mind needs most, calmness and quiet, time for reflection.

 

 

 

 

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