Mountain magic in Kluane National Park
This is the last in a three-part series on Canada’s North.
I’ve been a geography nut since I was a kid, constantly cramming my noggin full of useless facts.
In pre-metric days, I memorized details of the world’s highest and lowest: Mount Everest 29,028 feet. Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench 35,814 feet.
As a proud Canadian I knew that our highest peak, Mount Logan in Yukon’s Kluane National Park, topped out at 19,850 feet.
To my chagrin, North America’s highest reach, Mount McKinley at 20,320 feet above sea level, was located in nearby Alaska. Once again, America had outdone us, even at something as Canadian as rock, snow and ice.
I’ve always wanted to visit Logan and, since we intended on swinging through Kluane, I made inquiries.
As usual, I didn’t do a lot of planning until a Whitehorse friend told us that it was possible to organize a flight to Logan base camp, in the heart of the St. Elias Mountains, a vast uninhabitable wilderness.
Sian Williams and her partner Lance Goodwin operate Icefield Discovery near Haines Junction, Yukon, on beautiful Kluane Lake.
I called early in June to book a trip. Sian (pronounced “Shan” — a Welsh name chosen by her bush-pilot father Andy) told me that due to spring’s late arrival, they’d been unable to access their summer camp beneath Mount Logan on the Kaskawulsh glacier.
I was crest-fallen when she said the long-term forecast was poor as we were booked to leave the North by ferry on June 21.
By the time we arrived in Kluane National Park, we had only a two-day window of opportunity. I wasn’t optimistic.
I checked in with Lance. Sian had made it up to the camp but had been socked in for almost a week. Kluane’s mountainous terrain means that all access is by air, visual flight rules always applying. This region is too dangerous and unforgiving to rely solely on instruments.
We sat put, waiting for the mountain weather gods to calm. Our first night, camped on the shore of beautiful, frigid Kluane Lake, we enjoyed a repast of fresh Arctic grayling (courtesy the fine fly-fishing technique of yours truly).
Metres away, a grizzly bear combed the beach in search of his own catch, its terrifying claws in close-up view.
We spent the next day hiking amongst Dall thin-horn sheep, enjoying the pristine alpine view.
The morning arrived when we needed to make a move for the coast. I phoned Lance but he said, “I just spoke to Sian on the satellite phone. It’s still a whiteout up there. Sorry.”
We reluctantly packed camp and were on our way south when Lance rang back:
“You’re not going to believe this but Sian called back. It’s cleared up at base camp and the radar report looks good. It’s a go if you’re still willing.”
We were willing as Barkis and high-tailed it for the airstrip.
Our pilot Donjek was born here, named after the glacial Donjek River that flows into Kluane (naturally his father was also a bush pilot). As we took off, the plane’s dark shrinking shadow followed us across the emerald beauty of Kluane Lake.
Soon the lake gave way to a snaking, silt-laden river. We gained elevation and the dirty toe of Kaskawulsh glacier appeared. Then all was ice, white snaking fingers merging in mountain valleys. Dark lines of ground rock defined the course of each icy highway.
As we flew into camp, Sian waved from below, a tiny solitary figure surrounded by white glacial enormity. Mount Logan, draped in sun and cloud, stood imperiously in the background. Donjek lowered the skis of our Helio Courier prop plane and we skidded to a smooth stop at Logan base camp.
It’s a good thing I wasn’t piloting; for me the contrast between snow and sky was indiscernible.
We climbed out of the cockpit and strode through the snow to where Sian was standing deep in a hole, shovel in hand. I thought she was cutting blocks for an igloo but she was actually trying to retrieve the prior season’s camp from its burial under three metres of winter snow pack. (That’s how glaciers grow — year upon year of snow accumulation eventually compressing into ice. At Logan base camp, the ice is over a kilometre thick.)
After we helped Sian haul a heavy tent from its deep winter interment, she suggested we hike up the glacier to a viewpoint framing Mount Logan. As we set off, she pointed to a gaping blue spot part way up the snowfield, “Stay away from the crevasse.” We set course accordingly.
When we returned Sian boiled water for tea en plein air and over biscuits we chatted about the inner workings of glaciers and their importance to world hydrology, geography and climate.
Icefield Discovery’s headquarters and airstrip on Kluane Lake is also home to the Arctic Institute of North America, which conducts glacier research. Kluane and the St. Elias region boast the world’s largest non-polar ice field, ideal for ice-core sampling and other Arctic exploration due to their proximity to the warmer, lower Kluane valley and nearby Whitehorse. Canada’s more northerly polar Arctic regions are largely inhospitable and inaccessible. (As an aside I should mention that Mount Logan has been re-measured since I was a kid and its official height has been lowered to 19,551 feet. This doesn’t help in our quest to out-do the Yanks.)
After three sun-drenched hours on the glacier, Donjek fired up the propeller and we skied our way into the airy abyss, back down the winding glacial trail to summer greenery at Kluane Lake.
It was late in a great day when we finally headed for the coast, to Haines, Alaska, a few hundred kilometres south. Along the way, colourful pink Yukon wildflowers — and my beet-red face — contrasted with the snowy splendor of Kluane’s mountains. I was fried. I’d forgotten to apply sunscreen.
Near midnight, we arrived in beautiful Haines, located on a spit in a narrow Alaskan fjord. A wildlife ballet greeted us at our campsite as two brown bears performed a twilight dance. Behind this grizzly duet, two majestic waterfalls cascaded into the ocean.
In the morning, we awoke with the solstice. Summer had arrived. Our ferry departure was nigh.
For a final boreal treat we rode our bikes through a virgin coastal rainforest, dwarfed by thousand-year-old giants. As we crested a hill, we came upon a large group of Japanese tourists hiking the dappled forest. Each sported a pair of white gloves and what looked like a beekeeper’s hat. One by one they broke into spontaneous applause — golf-clap style — as we rode by.
On occasion, life is surreal.
If you go:
Icefield Discovery (icefields.org) is located on Kluane Lake 210 km north of Whitehorse. An international airport destination, Whitehorse is easily accessible by air — but it’s a long drive!
Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.