What’s In The Pack??

“What the eff is in this?”

Anyone who has accidentally picked up my daypack will ask me this.

It’s only a 33L @osprey pack, so in no way should it weigh 25+ pounds.

I hike every day and I always carry my ridiculously heavy daypack. Even if I am just strolling around the neighbourhood, I take my pack.

What’s inside is not gear, hiking essentials or snacks. None of those. I have Nalgenes filled of water and as many hardcover books as I can stuff inside.

Why?

Because I don’t go to the gym.

Instead of the gym I carry a backpack full of books everywhere I go. I also wear my pack to do squats, lunges and any other exercise that allows me to wear it.

What is better training for backpacking season than wearing as much as possible a full backpack? Yeah, I lift free weights as well but I always carry my pack.

At some point life will return to ‘normal’ and when it does, I plan to shoulder my pack and head into the Yukon backcountry. And I’ll be grateful for all the hard slogs I’ve been doing with an overkill heavy pack.

 

An Ode To The Northern Wood

It was a bluebird day.

+1C.

There was no need for long johns or puffy jackets. Or toques. Or mitts.

We had no destination in mind, only to saunter the day inside the boreal woods.

Our eyes strained against the glare of sunlight on snow. We cursed forgetting sunglasses.

We were excited for the fresh snowfall.

Sure, it’s tougher hiking but fresh snow makes new wildlife tracks crisp. And there were so many out in the woods beyond our cabin: moose, mule deer, grouse, red squirrel, chipmunk, mouse (unknown species), wolf, coyote, red fox, lynx.

We traced the path of grouse and snowshoe hare wandering from rosehip bush to rosehip bush, seeking berries still lingering. We admired lynx tracks meandering through a poplar grove, envious of their snowshoe paws keeping them afloat in the deep snow.

The fresh snowfall revealed a wolf came out of the woods and crossed the frozen lake to circle a beaver lodge before trotting over to investigate the length of the beaver dam.

A red squirrel’s hole opening into the subnivean zone intrigued me. I long to know how it would be to travel between earth and snow.

We also watched black-capped chickadees peeling bark away in search of grub, listened to a three-toed woodpecker rapping on a tree.

We found several muskrat pushups.

And the first pussy willows of spring.

The balsam poplars are beginning to bud. I pinched a bud and then gave it a sniff. Inside a poplar bud is the familiar scent of spring. When the leaves finally begin to burst forth the winds will be thick with the familiar scent.

The same can be said for pasture sage. But that plant is still only melting out from under the snow. We have to wait a little while yet before she emerges.

We are also eager to find the first of the prairie crocuses. To see the first black-bellied plover of spring.

My happiness lies in a quiet, slow, simple life nestled in nature.

The stillness of the woods still draped in winter and mountains I’ve come to know slowly over twenty years this is home. Not some structure with four walls but this sense of belonging to a landscape. I don’t need much for a place to lay my head as long as I can step out the front door and into the wild.

Undoubtedly, I am fortunate to be spending these days in a cabin in the Yukon woods. My neighbours are arctic ground squirrels and the mule deer. Trails splinter off in all directions behind our home, trails leading to lakes, to hilltops and mountain peaks where wolves and coyotes, lynx and moose roam.

Our Two-Week Self-Isolation Cabin On The Tagish River

We might not have running water in our cabin but we have plenty of books and podcasts. The crib board has seen quite a bit of use. And we’ve got tunes.

The alcohol won’t stretch out the entire 14 days but the oatmeal cookies will see us through.

We’ve got vegan sausages cooking on the fire, plus tequila for sipping and marshmallows for dessert.

Internet is a fifteen-minute walk away so we are very much living in the moment, in the boreal forest of southern Yukon.

The river flows outside our window, mountains loom beyond. We do not tire of the views as light and shadows shift each moment. No moment is alike. Hopes for glimpses of the northern lights make every midnight run to the outhouse hopeful, despite -20C temperatures.

I cherish this simple life. This quiet time. Sure, I’d rather be backpacking but I have my health and a warm place to shelter. I am lucky.

The Yukon makes it easy to self-isolate. It’s easy to stay at home when its -20C outside.

Below are some observations and thoughts from our days spent in isolation.

Today in the neighbourhood, March 26

A family of four river otters are playing on the ice. A pair of common mergansers are fishing nearby. A pair of ravens are collecting sticks for a nest. A flock of common redpolls are providing the evening’s music. And just as I write this, twenty male common goldeneyes arrive, a single male bufflehead among them.

We must stay away from our human friends but we are still in the company of old friends, the red squirrels, the grey jays, the American dippers.

I have always been able to entertain myself and delight in the subtleties of the outside world. I don’t always need to be hiking, paddling, skiing to enjoy the outdoors. Simply sitting outside is enough for my soul.

Today in the neighbourhood, March 30

Watched a coyote trotting across the frozen river, skirting the open leads, making two trumpeter swans swimming around nervous. And there were ravens having sips of fine Tagish River water, collecting twigs for nests and croaking at us for no apparent reason as they fly by. To live in the northern woods is to be in the company of the wise, curious, mischievous raven. A small herd of eight woodland caribou are feeding in the woods near our cabin, just a fifteen-minute walk down a wooded trail. I adore caribou. Seeing them always makes me smile.

Self-isolation, despite not having Internet or television, in the Yukon is no trial for us when wilderness exists outside the front door.

Today in the neighbourhood, April 7

Today is our last day in self-isolation, our last day at our friends cabin in Tagish. It makes us sad to leave. It’s been delightful to watch spring slowly move in, to watch the migrating birds return, to observe the local wildlife. Today on our hike we ran into the caribou again. We kept our distance so as not to disturb them. We also came across a female moose who seemed fairly unconcerned by our presence. She just continued feeding in the willow thicket. Woodpeckers were rapping on trees and the white-winged crossbills, common redpolls and black-capped chickadees were singing up a storm in the woods.

I will miss the sunrises and watching life along the river. I may have been in isolation but I was not alone. The fourteen days went by too swiftly.

 

The COVID-19 Mad Dash Home

The hiking and camping in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument had been chilly, rainy but sublime. That’s canyon country. Sublime, regardless of the weather. We hiked canyons, neoprene socks keeping us warm in swollen creeks. We read books by campfire. Scrambled up slickrock overlooking the desert. Sniffed the sage. Photographed the Henry Mountains. Star gazed. Fell asleep to coyotes howling. We frolicked, sauntered and skipped. Napped.

After those blissful two weeks of camping and hiking in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument we rolled into Bluff. The town was quiet. Quieter than usual. We drove to the visitor centre very much closed. I turned on my phone, a message from my sister waiting. She was wondering where we were and if we knew what was happening. She suggested we come back to Canada as the impact of COVID-19 was growing, and growing swiftly.

Southern Utah was closing and Moab and Bluff was urging travelers to stay away. We live in the Yukon, full of small, isolated communities so we understood their concerns.

Obviously, we didn’t want leave. Spring had just arrived. We were headed for Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa, to spend a few weeks camping and hiking there. It’s one of our favourite places in Utah. Temperatures were reaching +20C. How could we leave now?

We sat in the parking lot of the Bluff visitor centre, googling COVID-19 and listening to NPR. It didn’t take long to understand the situation we had just driven into. There was only one responsible option.

We filled our water jugs in Bluff and headed North, stopping in Moab only for gas.

The drive from Bluff, Utah to Tagish, Yukon is nearly 4500 kilometres. There is a lot of splendid wilderness and it was achingly difficult to drive by it all without exploring, without even stopping. We drove past a few wildlife refuges, several national forests, a couple national parks. It seemed so blasphemous not to visit. John and I don’t like to drive more than 100-200 kilometres a day when we’re traveling. Now we were driving 800km a day.

And if the mad dash back to the Canadian border with a looming pandemic wasn’t worrying enough, we were camped in a national forest just outside Salt Lake City when the 5.7 earthquake hit. We were listening to a podcast about the locusts in Africa when the truck started shuddering. Fortunately, we are somewhat accustomed to earthquakes living in the North. We laughed at the sense of an imploding world. What else could we do? Locusts, a pandemic, an earthquake. We got up, cooked up some oatmeal, made coffee and continue North.

On top of the great distances we were driving, we were traveling on Interstates since they are most direct. 130km/hr speed limits, however, seem excessive at the best of times and in times of a pandemic, seem absolutely outrageous. Now was not the time to get into an accident. But pandemic or not, earthquake or not, people were going, and going as fast as they could.

We played a lot of Neil Diamond to soothe our agitated souls. Our 4-Runner has her original tape deck so we pick up tapes in thrift stores. Neil Diamond and Brian Adams have been with us for six years and we still haven’t tired of them. A few weeks before going into GSENM I bought ABBA, Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray.

The day we returned in the Yukon we stopped at Little Atlin Lake, to stretch our legs, finally able to relax. A raven flew overhead, croaked at us. A lynx strolled by, weaving among the poplars.

We were home.

And we were happy, even if we arrived at the beginning of an unseasonal cold snap that would end up lasting the two weeks we would be self-isolating in a cabin.

The Grizzly On The Big Salmon River

The experts say never to run from a bear, running provokes a chase instinct in bears.

This is true, which we discovered along the Big Salmon River, a small winding tributary of the Yukon River. It is a fun, swift and narrow river with a few sweepers but little else to really worry about.

This hard fast rule for bear encounters, don’t run, is fine when on foot but what are paddlers to do on a swift river? We paddled around a corner to meet a young grizzly just hauling himself out of the river. The river pushed us past him, nearly under his now and instantly the bear took off along the bank, running after us.

We feel confident in traveling bear country. We’ve read the literature on bear safety. In twenty years we have met many grizzlies. In some summers we have met more than a dozen girzzlies in the backcountry. Usually they run from us, some watch us, others ignore us. A few have bluffed charged. This was the first to chase us. And it was at this moment we discovered we didn’t know what the protocol was to stop a charge. Is it the same as a bluff charge, hold your ground? John and I were both hesitant to stop paddling, a grizzly at our heels.

So we kept on paddling.

And the grizzly kept on following.

Three times the grizzly entered the water, began swimming towards us. We yelled at him, slapped paddles on the water. Each time the grizzly returned to shore and continued his pursuit on land. We paddled on until losing sight of the grizzly.

And we kept on paddling.

At the time of our meeting, we had been scanning the shore for a place to camp. Now we had no intention of camping any time soon. When we finally did camp, three hours later, we were hesitant, jumpy. A three-hour paddle for us is no distance for a grizzly to travel.

We did not sleep well that evening.

Aside from this one exciting moment, the Big Salmon River was a beautiful and peaceful trip, with quiet lakes, sandy beaches and forests filled with cloudberries.

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.

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.

 

Strange Wanderings

No one ever seems to post pictures of dead animals found in the woods. A recent article I read discussed the popularity of the van life hashtag and owners of a very popular social media account said their followers wanted two things: photos of her, the pretty thin blond, and their van. Well, I’d rather not fill another feed of photos of a blond girl in contrived yoga poses beside, or on top of, her boyfriend’s beloved vehicle. I’m going to choose to post photos and observations of dead mice instead and dusky grouse performing courtship displays. And whatever other things I come across in my wilderness wanderings.

And it has been a strange spring in the woods and mountains. A black bear family has moved into the woods behind our cabin, two cubs practicing their climbing skills on the poplars. Their proximity means we have ceded the trails to them and our evening wanders to watch ravens on a nest have ceased. Instead we have gone wandering elsewhere and found dead and uneaten field mice, a desiccated red squirrel that did not survive winter, plus wolf scat with plenty of red squirrel fur in them. We also came across a river otter in a beaver pond. Let it be known otters are quite unfriendly, not at all hesitant about hissing and growling.

We have once again left our jobs for the summer. As Edward Abbey once said, the best jobs come with end dates. The feeling of walking away from work with months ahead without a schedule, the freedom to wander and live as we choose, is something we cherish and something we see as necessary long before retirement age. By choosing time over wealth we have discovered happiness in simplicity. And with time comes the opportunity to wander the mountains of the Yukon where we are most happy, angering river otters, spying on bachelor bands of Dall sheep and getting chased by male dusky grouse we interrupt during their courtship displays. This is how we spend our days instead of working.

Leaving work also means leaving behind city life. I love the peace found in mountains and forests. The tweets of songbirds, the flutter of poplar leaves and the pungent scent of sage grounds me. I am grateful to be able to escape the unnecessary rush and aggression of Whitehorse streets, people pushing and shoving at frantic paces so unnatural to the rhythms we should be following. Traveling by foot in wilderness teaches how to move at a softer pace, which leads to a quieter life. And the virtues of silence have been lost as we surround ourselves too long in traffic and city life.

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