Yellowstone – Don’t Be In Such A Rush Here

There is a quote from the movie The Shawshank Redemption that has been rolling in my head for a while. The old man Joe (I think that was his name) is released from prison after thirty years and is shocked by the changes and says something along the line of “The whole damn world seems to have gotten in a goddamn hurry.” I share a similar sentiment even though I live in the Yukon, which to the outside world is small and quiet. But even in the Yukon we seem to all be in a rush to get somewhere. Even if the time to get to that somewhere is only five minutes in the difference people are happy to run red lights, weave in and out of traffic, speed. Traveling through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons from one hiking trailhead to another the traffic seemed so hurried, so frantically rushed and I am baffled by it. We have all come to these wild places from all the corners of the world, the scenery is stellar, there is wildlife lurking in every bush and plain and glen. What’s the rush? I was thinking of this quote while John and I sat on the boardwalk in the Thumbs area of Yellowstone, amused by a wee geyser out in Yellowstone Lake, spouting  sulphuric puffs. People walked past us, snapping photos, selfies, then continuing on to the next thing, the next Instagram photo opportunity. We didn’t have much time to hike in Yellowstone, with a snowstorm threatening to close roads so we hiked what we could and enjoyed the peculiar landforms Yellowstone is acclaimed for. This little geyser might not be quite so mighty as Old Faithful but in its own unassuming way, is just as worthy of our attention. But only if we remember to just slow a little. And really look around at where we are. There is a lot to be discovered, amused by.

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.

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.

Nova Scotia After Tourist Season

For people who reside south of the 60th parallel, visiting Nova Scotia in November might not sound like much of a vacation but we find it a most ideal time. November is already cold and wintery in in the Yukon. For the month we were in Nova Scotia the weather in the Whitehorse area sat around -20C as a daytime high. Arriving in Nova Scotia we stepped back into glorious fall. True, we may have missed the fall colours of eastern Canada’s hardwood forests but the temperatures were still above freezing. Our experience of Nova Scotia after December is of icy trails get icy, too icy for hiking to be any fun. And it’s often windy. And the damp freezing temperatures are less agreeable to us than the dry cold of our Yukon home. But November. The tourists are gone but the snow hasn’t yet arrived. This means we get the trails, the woods, the beaches to ourselves. We also get to experience some fierce Atlantic storms. And the thunderstorms of eastern Canada possess a power Yukon ones do not.

Never underestimate the benefits of traveling in the shoulder season. Sure, some hotels and restaurants might be closed (as we discovered in Cape Breton) but if you happen to be an introvert, it will most likely be worth missing out on those few comforts for the quietness of the trails.

Summer Recap

14 weeks of playing outside. There was way too much rain but we played as much as we could. We canceled a pretty big canoe trip as a result of many things getting in the way. Life is rarely predictable. Instead, we wandered the southern bit of the Yukon and a corner of northern BC, hiking, paddling. Somehow, even when we agreed to have an easy day of hiking we ended up far off trail and scrambling on mountain goat paths above canyons. The mountains are addictive. Once you start wandering, it’s hard to stop. We napped in alpine meadows. Read a lot of books on gloomy rainy days. Met a couple of grizzlies, a few black bears. It was a summer of aimless wandering, something we have perfected in twenty years of foregoing the pursuit of careers and material possessions.

Autumn is upon us and winter will soon follow so we return to work.

Below is a compilation of some of our summer highlights. Social media, however is great at making people’s lives look “epic” when the truth is we all have our bullshit struggles. Sure I’ve been fortunate to spend the summer playing in beautiful places but there are days when it is hard to see beauty in anything, difficult to find optimism in the blackness in my head. There are days when it is challenging to crawl out from the crushing weight of depression to hike, even though I know that once I’m up in the alpine, where the heather blooms and grizzlies roam and glaciers shimmer, I will be in my happy place. But hiking up a mountain to reach the alpine is easier than hiking out of a depression. This summer I had a few of those difficult days but, as always, the mountains never disappointed to recharge the soul.

The mountains surrounding our home were our focus in the spring. Only a ten minute drive from home we had three different mountain ranges to wander. And for the summer we wandered between Kluane National Park and Reserve, Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park and Atlin Provincial Park and the mountain ranges in between.

Among Mountains

After twenty years of backpacking and hiking I think I’ve grown a bit soft. I’ve become a fair weather hiker. If the clouds swallow the mountains I don’t feel much pull to head into the backcountry, to endure rain. Once you’ve seen the inside of one cloud there really isn’t a need to look into another. However, one cannot sit around home falling into a depression because the sun refuses to shine. We resigned ourselves to the reality that the Yukon summer this year is a rainy one and that to hike this summer is to endure the wet. We traded backpacks for daypacks and spent the week day hiking one mountain ridge after another along the South Klondike Highway between Carcross and Skagway in the rain and clouds. After each bone chillingly wet day of hiking we returned to the coziness of our little red wagon (a ’93 Corolla wagon). It was a good combination of mountain adventure and comfort (if you are happy enough sleeping in the back of a wagon).

We hiked among the mountains, not up them. The peaks were cloaked in thick cloud but the alpine was brilliant despite the lack of sunshine. With all this relentless rain the wildflowers are bursting. As we climbed up into the mountains the smell of the land changed: alder and moss in the forest, devils club and valerian further along. Just before the alpine it was the alpine fir that slowed our pace, one of my favourite tree to pause before, rub its needles in the palm of my hands, to inhale its essence. In the alpine the mountain heather speckled the green alpine with its white blossoms. There is no way to describe the scents. Periodically the clouds would part, revealing mountain peaks blanketed with fresh snow. We used the snow to our advantage, to descend from rocky ridge tops back to the green alpine valleys below.

We spent the week following moose and wolf tracks through forests and up near craggy summits mountain goat paths guided us until their agility inevitably took them places we could not follow. When we could no longer follow we fell onto our backs in the wildflowers to watch the mountain goats maneuver terrain with an ability we will never possess.

Despite the gloominess of the weather our depression lifted, replaced with awe. No matter how much time we spend wandering the mountains, looking at flowers, listening to birds, we never get our fill. Fortunately we live in the Yukon and do not have to wander far from town to find wilderness, to fill our lives with unstructured adventure.

Kluane, Part Two

Ten rainy days kept us from scaling mountain peaks but we hiked lakeshores, forests, rock glaciers and canyons. Instead of focusing on mountain views we had the opportunity to observe the less heralded but equally exciting side of Kluane. The large aspen tortrix have been busy consuming balsam poplars in the south end of Kluane, dangling on threads from branches, waiting for unsuspecting faces to cling to. At one point I turned to John and he pointed out a dozen worms on my pants and another half dozen in my hair and neck. It is at these times when I can’t help but think, “Nature is gross.” My girly side comes out. Having lunch beside a creek at the base of Mount Barker we watched two ants hauling away an apen tortrix, still alive and losing the fight.

Despite the rain obscuring the mountains and glaciers Kluane is known for, we found plenty of beauty. The pyrola was blooming, as were the ladyslippers, monkshood, larkspur and arnica. Fledgling birds fluttered everywhere. A spotted sandpiper chick tried hopelessly to hide in the rocks, a juvenile white-crowned sparrow stood beneath a wild rose bush flapping wings and peeping for its parent to bring food. We found a Wilson’s warbler nest tucked beneath a tuft of grasses, at least three newly hatched chicks inside, naked and blind. Northern harriers and red-tailed hawks and sharp-shinned hawks dominated the skies. Perhaps most exciting of all, if you’re a birder, on Kluane Lake (just outside park boundaries) were Caspian terns, uncommon in the Yukon.

Lynx abounded, as well as grizzlies. A porcupine waddled away from us while a pine marten, curious and angry, stomped its feet and growled at us.

In the end we didn’t really care that we couldn’t see the mountains. The rain forced us to slow down since we canceled our grand ambitions for scaling peaks and long distance backpacking. Instead, we took our time sauntering down trails and frolicking in alpine meadows. We had time to sniff the wildflowers, watch the birds and watch wilderness exist as it does.

Kluane National Park and Reserve, Part One

Kluane National Park and Reserve lies in the southwest corner of the Yukon, protecting nearly 22,000 square kilometres but is only one of several parks in the area. To the west is Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and to the south is British Columbia’s Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park and Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Together, these four parks combine to create the largest internationally protected area in the world. Dominated by some of North America’s tallest mountains (including Mount Logan, Canada’s tallest) and containing the world’s largest non-polar icefield, it is a land so special to have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is home to all those enigmatic North American mammals everyone hopes to see one day: wolf, salmon, wolverine and moose. Kluane is also home to the most genetically diverse populations of grizzly bears and home to the largest population of All sheep.

Some of our most memorable wildlife moments have happened here. We once sat for two hours watching a grizzly in a valley of cow parsnip chase willow ptarmigan. In another valley we hiked alongside a nonchalant young grizz, sharing its valley with us. Wolves have serenaded us to sleep, moose have startled us awake. Alpine wildflowers in bloom have brightened gloomy days. Arctic ground squirrels, Dall sheep, pine marten, lynx, snowshoe hare, mountain goat, porcupine, black bear. They all live here and when we’re lucky we get a peek into those wild lives.