The Sockeyed Blog

Ben Johnson's Blog

Kathleen Lake, Kluane

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It was dark when the alarm went off at 5am, but we managed to get moving pretty quickly. I boiled the kettle and made us some tea, then we drove to the ferry dock for 5:45. As we sat and munched granola with frozen blueberries, two cruise ships emerged from the gloom looking very small against the steep-sided fjord. They were anything but small by the time they docked.

The state ferry loaded from the side and all of about 15 cars rolled on. It was clear that some folks had sailed through the night, judging by the rumbled linens in the staterooms with doors left ajar and blankets left on benches. The ferry wasn’t pretentious in the least; it was medium-sized, utilitarian, and a half-century old.

The clouds hung low on the mountain sides, and it was obvious that it could have been a spectacular trip down to the Lynn Canal. Nonetheless, impressive waterfalls blasted down sheer cliff faces from glaciers hidden in the clouds as we chugged past them into a strong wind.

After an hour we docked in a complicated manner at Haines. Haines was the town we had wanted to reach the day before, and it would have been great to do so. It felt like a real place, with ordinary shops and a great cafe serving house-roasted coffee. We strolled through the town and down to the water, imagining the huge peaks that towered overheard (we had an occasional hint through the clouds). At the tourist office we asked about seeing spawning salmon and were directed 11 miles down the road to the Chilkoot River. In the office I overheard a middle-aged couple asking the same. Noticing that they didn’t have transportation, we offered them a ride in the van. It was a worthwhile thing to do as they proved to be very nice and very appreciative people (they hailed from Asheville, North Carolina).

The river was a wonderful experience. The first thing we spotted was a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs, walking through high grass then swimming in the river near its mouth. They were a rich chocolate colour, and the mother had the pronounced shoulder hump that grizzlies do. The cubs played like children, messing around, picking up salmon carcasses, then running after mother.

After watching them for some time, we drove a few hundred metres up the river where we could watch the sockeye salmon climbing the river, spawning, and dying in great numbers. I haven’t seen salmon spawn in years, and I can’t recall the last time it was sockeye. It was a beautiful sight.

Before too long, and not surprisingly, the mother and cubs arrived again and started to make their way down the riverbank in our direction. We retreated to the van to give them a wide berth, but they still passed within about 100 feet. I overheard a guide explaining the mother will actively seek the presence of humans. Male grizzlies will often kill cubs if they are not their own, but the do not like being near people, hence the reason mothers will try and find her way to humans.

Around noon we returned to town and dropped the couple at the coffee shop where they thanked us warmly, then we headed out of town, stopping to fill up with gas and empty our waste tanks. We drove along the gravelly and braided Chilkat River, a famous eagle sanctuary (although there are few around until the chum spawn). After 40 miles we came to the Canadian border where we were lightly questions and not relieved of any vegetable or fruits.

We began to climb into the most beautiful landscape. The fall colours became richer and richer as the trees disappeared; rich despite the heavy overcast. Mountains we felt more than saw towered above us as we drove through a wide open ochre and amber and dark red landscape. It was rugged and groved, but not sharp. Channels cut through the sweeping walls of the mountains. We stopped constantly to look and to take pictures. At the summit of the Chilkat Pass, we made ourselves lunch, which felt quite privileged in such an environment.

A long steady descent took us down towards the Tatshenshini River, long an important artery for trade for the First Nations in the area. As the trees began to reappear, the colours remained, intensified by the occasional splash of sun as the clouds blew past.

It was a jaw-dropping drive, and we were one of a few dozen cars that seemed to be on it. I cannot even imagine what it is like under clear blue skies.

At around 6pm we pulled into the Kathleen Lake campground in Kluane National Park. The colder and somewhat damp weather has kept us mostly in the van, reading, writing and cooking (nasi goreng), but the campsite is situated among mountains topped with hanging glaciers and yawning cirques. I hope to get a closer look tomorrow.

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Written by sockeyed

September 9, 2010 at 10:39

Posted in Travel

Tagged with ,

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