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.

 

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.

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