Posts Tagged ‘Kluane’
With some disappointment, we woke up to another cloudy day. The clouds were higher, however, and there was promise of sunshine.
After a breakfast of granola and frozen blueberries, we drove about 10kms back down the highway to Tachal Dahl, or Sheep Mountain, at the south end of Kluane Lake. The bare mountain is known for its population of dall sheep, but sadly none were to be seen.
We bumped about 1.5kms down a dirt road and parked when it looked too steep for the camper. From there we set out on a 12km hike above and along Sheep Creek. The going was easy along a former mining road, but it was steep, gaining about 500m. Again, we were among the blazing autumn colours. Down below the braided Slims River carried meltwater down from the heart of the St. Elias to Kluane lake, while other gravelly creeks fed in from the side. The clouds were high enough for us to see some of the larger peaks around us and even the distant toe of the Kaskawulsh Glacier. The higher we climbed, the more open the landscape got. In the sub-alpine, it was carpeted in scrubby bushes in autumn colours.
We reached our high point (1300m) where 40 Pup Creek cut our path as it made its way to Sheep Creek far below us. Unfortunately clouds started to roll in and obscure the surrounding peaks and distant views. A couple of parties who were behind us going up the trail probably missed out, although perhaps the clouds parted for them (weather changed quickly).
The walk down was smooth and easy, and we were back to the van shortly after 2pm. After a change of clothes and lunch, we were on the road northwest towards the Alaska border. We gassed up and emptied our tanks in Burwash Landing at the north end of the lake. At this point the Alaska Highway took a turn for the worse. This section is infamous for potholes and heaves resulting from the permafrost. The van didn’t do too badly, but it did force us to drive slowly. My gas/brake foot ached by the time we reached our destination. The scenery was gorgeous, however. We took in a stunning vista over the Kluane River, and the low angle of light illuminated the fall colours around us. The landscape changed as well; the very rugged mountains of the St. Elias gave way to more openness and smaller trees. Distances really opened up around us.
At around 7pm we rolled into Beaver Creek, apparently the most westerly settlement in Canada. It boasts a population of 140 year-round, swelling to 200 in the summer. We checked into the functional Westmark RV park (it has showers, which we’re excited about). We then walked from one end of the town to the other in the low, glowing light. The most exciting find was a Catholic church built out of corrugated metal, looking a bit like a miniature airplane hanger.
We’re about to eat some curry.
It rained on and off through the night but we slept soundly. What I love up here is the silence. It’s not until you get away from cities that you really realize just how noisy they are; here there is actually pure silence.
The clouds were low when we pulled out of our campsite. We stopped by Kathleen Lake and awed at the autumn colours ringing the lake, the still waters, and the mountains rising into the clouds. The lake is home to landlocked kokanee salmon – once sockeye – who became isolated in the lake system when an ice dam collapsed catastrophically in around 1850.
We drove about half an hour down a freshly-asphalted road into small Haines Junction which lies in an incredibly broad valley, with Kluane park’s awesome presence to one side. We stopped in the park information centre and chatted about hikes, watched a film and enjoyed some exhibits.
For a hike, the first of our trip, we drove back down the highway a short ways to do the Auriol loop. The 16km trail let us up through golden boreal forests then into more stunted sub-alpine environment under the looming peaks of the Auriol range which, while relatively minor in the St-Elias scheme-of-things, were most impressive. The pinnacle of the hike found us on a knoll overlooking the valley, with Kathleen Lake in the distance. We gawked up at peaks above us which were now emerging as the clouds began to clear. Glacier spilled over between peaks in the higher points, and fresh snow dusted the mid elevations on the dark rock of the mountains. Gravelly creeks flowed down past us through the endless golden vegetation, and the sun emerged to bake our faces.
It felt like a long hike for poor out-of-shape slobs such as us (the wedding absorbed all of our time and energy for the last few weeks), but the perfect air was renewing and I’m sure we’ll sleep soundly tonight.
We stopped briefly for a few groceries and some gas (the fellow at the station was watching Cantonese soap operas, which seem incongruous with where we are), then we drove west along the Alaska Highway about 60kms to Kluane Lake, the largest lake in the Yukon. The sun was getting low, setting the vegetation on fire. The turquoise lake shimmered and glowed as we drove along it. We’re camped next to it now in a government campground (Congden Creek). I just whipped up some pasta for dinner, and we’re about to step out for a look at the lake before it goes totally dark.
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.