Sunday, May 30, 2010

Whitehorse to Haines Junction: Experiencing the Sublime

"It is not the mountains we conquer but ourselves"
~Sir Edmund Hillary

In an area of Canada as large as the Yukon Territory, you would think that the distance between towns would be vast. In many cases it is, but there is a whole lot of beautiful country that separates nearby day drives to Skagway, Alaska and on this particular day, Haines Junction.

My friend Allison and I headed out on a drive to hike and explore Haines Junction during February and March of this year while I was housesitting for my friend Ian. It was a perfect distance...2 hours to reach Haines Junction, another couple of hours to hike and then the drive back. Most of my days during the month I was in Whitehorse were spent working on new paintings brought with me from Ontario. Thus this excursion further afield held great appeal.

The view about 30 minutes northwest of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway

I had heard great things about this drive, and I was NOT disappointed. In fact, that drive from Whitehorse to Haines Jct rivals any I have ever driven...we stopped to take a lot of photos as we made our way north and west. Haines Junction is a perfect jumping-off point to explore the gorgeous Kluane National Park.

A sign indicating the Kluane region that we were entering along the Alaska Highway

Last summer I went hiking and camping in Wrangell St. Elias National Park in Alaska. You can read about that adventure here! These two parks are joined together and encompass some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.

The mountains continued to rise out ahead of us as we drove along.

We drove through the Ibex Valley en route to Haines Jct. A week later I would be hiking through the Ibex Valley on a 27km trek that I will never forget. Look for that post in the next two weeks! The weather was typically quite changeable. The big skies of the North enable you to see shifting weather at great distances. The air is very dry in The Yukon. I couldn't believe how arid it was. One's skin becomes dry, the air is thin, and this is in the spring and summer. Ian informs me that this dry climate is even more pronounced in the winter.

Tempestuous clouds and far off rain seen on the horizon..

There were very few people on the fact, not many people period! The highway is so quiet that you look every time a car goes by if you are stopped by the road taking photos...It was the antithesis of Toronto, a far cry from the typical traffic found in Burlington too. The lack of congestion brought as much peace of mind as the mountains and clean air. Looking out over miles and miles of pristine forest, across untrodden slopes of snowy peaks, is catalyst for calm and inward reflection.

Such beauty made me catch my breath

We detoured into a popular campground where only a week previously there had been an incident with a bear. Bears are very frequent in the North...especially in the Kluane area. I was quite surprised that I didn't see any during my time in and around Whitehorse. Only some tracks. Perhaps this is for the best:)

The view across the lake by the campground. Sheets of rain can be seen on the right.

As we neared Haines Junction I continued to be awestruck by such great swaths of beauty. Haines Junction itself only has a few hundred people. It is very small but has a great sense of community. We stopped in at a local bakery/café after paying a visit to the Visitor Centre for some information. We were warned about bears in the area. Fortunately I had borrowed some bear spray from Ian's brother and I had it in my side pocket to retrieve it quickly should I need it. Fortunately I didn't!

Arriving in Haines Junction

We opted to hike along the Dezadeash River. It is an interpretive trail that is 6 kms long but we didn't read the signs, we just enjoyed the hike and surroundings. Allison was a bit on edge with the knowledge that bears were in the area but we continued on. The trail parallels the river for quite a ways and then loops back to rejoin itself. Although technically in town, the trail was sufficiently remote for us to feel the true benefit of the hike.

The foliage was still minimal as the temperatures were quite cool still. Nonetheless the landscape had a particular type of beauty that only the spring can possess. Seeing the trees bare and leafless makes you appreciate the transformation that will happen in a few weeks.

Across the river there was a wonderful view of the mountains. The perspective and scope of the land continued to inspire and humble me. I was half tempted to become a landscape painter then and there, as landscapes and their faces change just as frequently as any individual's. We continue on and as we passed this sign were reminded about whose territory we were really in:

This sign says "You are in bear country".

The Yukon is home to an abundance of black bears and grizzlies. I would not want to tangle with either kind. When bears attack people often it is because they have been startled, or feel that the lives of their cubs are in danger. Thus making noise is always wise, and one of the most important things I took into the Wrangells with me last year was a simple whistle. That and talking loudly and making lots of noise will hopefully alert any nearby bears to your presence and thus reduce the chance of a potentially deadly encounter.

This sign informed us that the area was a part of a Grizzly Monitoring Project

We hiked the loop and decided to make our way back to Whitehorse at a leisurely pace. On the way back we were fortunate to see a bison walking along the highway, along with some horses that had been abandoned by a defunct outfitter. They appeared to be enjoying their freedom and still had thick winter coats on.

Bison along the Alaska Highway

Wild horses

The drive back to town was certainly eventful, as threatening weather brought bouts of rain intermixed with sunshine. We chatted amiably and Allison's dog Nugget had provided us with some entertaining moments throughout the day. To be a small part of such a big place caught me in moment of overwhelming peace and terror, but a good terror. The knowledge that our lives hinge on the smallest variable out here in the vast and unrelenting wilderness gives one cause to pinch oneself and also to sober us in the face of this reality.

"All good things are wild, and free.." ~Henry David Thoreau

Monday, May 10, 2010

A daytrip to Alaska...Whitehorse to Skagway!

"Nature has neither kernel nor shell; she is everything at once."
~Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

I have enjoyed a few excursions during my time here in Whitehorse. One such morning I decided to drive to Alaska for the day. I knew that the trip to Skagway, AK was about two hours each way, and apparently one of the most beautiful drives in the area (which is saying a lot).

I grabbed my passport and left Whitehorse at 8:30am, intending to stop and take photos along the way, arrive in Skagway before lunch, hike and head back by the end of the afternoon.

I noticed how arid, or semi-arid Fairbanks was two years ago when I visited there and explored around Denali National Park, visiting Bus 142 on Stampede Trail in the process. I couldn't manage to stay hydrated it seemed. I was constantly drinking water and yet it seemed like a losing battle. Whitehorse is no exception. The air is quite thin, dry and crisp as compared to the soft, temperate climate that you encounter along the coasts. I know it is simple science that makes it so, but the contrast was extremely evident as I drove from Whitehorse to the coastal Alaskan town of Skagway that day.

heading south down the Alaska Highway

If you wish to see the route I took to Skagway, here is a link.

I stopped and took some photos of the world's smallest desert, The Carcross Dunes. Its size is only 1 square mile if you can believe it!

It was so bizarre to see sand juxtaposed with snow in such a way...certainly I had never seen anything like it before. It was quite cold and windy, particularly with the gain in elevation, so grabbed my toque and continued on towards Skagway.

Eventually you take a turn and leave the Alaska Highway, heading southwest on the South Klondike Highway. There was no one on the roads as usual, even on a Saturday. I only passed the occasional car and when I stopped to get out and take the odd photo, I would stand and listen to nothing but the wind and feel a lovely heaviness in that moment, feel the gravity of where I stood and tried to process it all.

There was still a lot of ice on the lakes near Whitehorse

Eventually I crossed the border into northwestern British Columbia. The highway passes through B.C. and then on to Alaska. But the borders, the latitude and longitude, were irrelevant in the face of so much beauty all around. Such grandeur made labels and statistics seem pale and unimportant by comparison.

The mountains and their monochromatic quality reminded me of a
scene that Ansel Adams might enjoy

The snow accumulates as I pass through Northwestern British Columbia

I continued on and as I made my way onwards and upwards, my increased elevation turned the precipitation into snow. It was quite leave the sun and brilliance of Whitehorse and to now be an hour away and in a fog of blowing snow..quite surreal. At one point I stopped to shoot some photos of the blowing snow near the top of what seemed like a pass and, to my surprise, a family in a truck next to me took out skis and began cross country skiing...on May 1st no less!
Eventually I crested the top of the pass and began to head down towards the coast. I passed a rather bizarre sign that I tried not to think too much about:

I passed through U.S. customs without any issue. The border guard, all decked out in uniform, was pleasant and bid me on my way. Slowly but surely the snow began to dissipate as I neared the coast...the trees awoke as the snow receded, and by the time I rolled into Skagway there was greenery and lush vegetation everywhere.

Skagway is a popular destination for cruise ships and people beginning to hike the historic 53km Chilkoot Trail. The Chilkoot trail is rich in history as it was one of the main routes that intrepid men and women hiked during the Klondike Gold Rush. I would like to hike this trail within the next five years if possible. It sounds like an amazing adventure. There are still old stoves and other possessions that were to cumbersome to carry, now long abandoned and left by the side of the trail.

Skagway is home to about 500 people, yet the town was quiet in the drizzle of rain that was falling. I wandered about but most of the tourist shops and even the visitor centre were all closed. It appears that tourist season doesn't start in earnest until Mid-May up here. That was fine, as I didn't want to fall in step with the throngs that would inevitably descend here and in other popular spots in Alaska and the Yukon. I prefer to visit and explore places in off-season, when residents are more relaxed and life beats at more of its regular rhythm. Stopping in at the ferry terminal to track down a map of local trails, a friendly ticket issuer passed me a map and told me where the trailhead was. As I turned to leave he said rather nonchalantly "make sure you watch out for bears". I was slightly unnerved as I was on my own yet appreciated his advice and made my way to the beginning of the trail system.

I was going to attempt a longer trail with a higher elevation gain and more challenge, but after encountering a fair bit of snow on the first leg of the trail I opted for a lower route. I had never hiked on my own in earnest before, and certainly not in Alaska. Nevertheless I made lots of noise, stayed alert and enjoyed the solitude as I ambled up the steep slopes that levelled off and followed my chosen route.

Skagway, as seen from the beginning of the trail

My path wound up sharply for the first while.

After awhile I came to the lake I had been seeking and stopped to listen and observe everything around me. I was pleased that the trail was fairly well marked, yet it was still easy to take a wrong turn up there. Everywhere I could feel the earth waking up and enjoying the rain. I put my jacket back on as it was quite cool out. I loved the feel of of rain and didn't use my hood once. I can see why many women in northern climes don't wear much if any make-up. Who would want to up here when everything else is so natural and unaffected?

The lake was quiet, so still, with a thin layer of ice receding near its far shores.

I eventually found my way back down to the beginning of the trail and headed back to Whitehorse. I left the temperate rainy forests for the ice and snow of the pass, then back down to Whitehorse, a fabulous day of amazing sights seen, adventures had and peace felt. I will never forget it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Beautiful Silence...Whitehorse 2010

The trail that hugs the shores of the Yukon River

We're all like detectives in life.
There's something at the end of the trail that we're all looking for.
~David Lynch

Last Friday I went for a run down by the Yukon River. It has been just over two weeks since I arrived in Whitehorse. Most days have been clear and sunny, or the occasional clouding over which has lent a lovely atmosphere with the mountains off in the distance.

Admittedly I'm a cautious girl, despite traipsing off and hiking alone in Alaska this past weekend (that will be another post, another day :)). Thus when my friend Ian told me about a great loop to run down by the river I was excited and scheduled it in as an alternate to my usual route down Hamilton Blvd to the Canada Games Centre and back (about 4.5km). This loop by the river is about 5km. Thus I headed down and parked near the S.S. Klondike, a designated national historic site which is situated right at the river on the way into town.

islands of ice line the river

It was brisk at 9am on Friday morning. Granted it WAS a workday. Nevertheless I was astonished at how few people I saw on the trail. In fact, aside from maybe two other joggers and one man walking his dog, I saw no one for the entire loop...It was alternately peaceful and unnerving. I was raised in the suburbs...a town that is home to 155,000 people. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the capital city of The Yukon Territory only having 25,000 people. Once you leave Whitehorse the average settlement that you encounter is only home to about 300-800 another example, there are about 700,000 people in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto that is two cities over from Burlington where I live. That is the ENTIRE population of Alaska contained within Mississauga essentially. Wow.

The patterns of ice were so beautiful, I was quite hypnotized by them.

Ian had informed me that there was a bridge called the "fish ladder"that crossed the river some distance down the trail. Thus I set off along the asphalt and stopped periodically to take photos of the melting ice on the river. The last time I saw this river was in certainly has personality...clear waters that vary from teal to slate ranges from over a hundred feet across to narrower channels but always, always is on the move. I was glad I had my toque with me as I skirted the river and paralleled Robert Service way, one of the main thoroughfares into the city. Even so there were not many cars going by (surprise).

Here is a short video that I shot while running along the river.

A fun side trip but I had definitely taken a wrong turn

As I made my way around the loop I encountered a small wooden bridge. Not knowing the area I presumed that this was the bridge Ian referred to. I was wrong. The asphalt turned into wood chips and soft earth but I kept running, happy to have a change of surface. The trail became quite overgrown in parts and I had the feeling that I had taken a wrong turn but kept on with the route. Finally I realized that indeed I was going the wrong way. Serendipitously, just at that moment another runner came by. I asked her where the elusive fish ladder was and she instructed me to where I would find it. A few minutes later and I was on track again.

The fish ladder is right at the hydro station in Whitehorse. Signs posted everywhere indicated how hazardous the area was so needless to say I hastily ran over the bridge and made my way along the far shore in the direction of the start of the loop.

The fish ladder bridge that crosses the Yukon River. A nice 5 km loop.

I have not run inside at the Canada Games Centre since arriving in Whitehorse. Generally it is easier on the knees to run on a treadmill than paved surfaces. Concrete is the bane of runners' knees. Asphalt is 10 times softer apparently and you can definitely feel the difference between the two. However here the natural trails are so ubiquitous and inviting that I would almost feel guilty running inside. Thus I cherish the fresh air and ability to run outside here.

The river with the Whitehorse skyline in behind

I happily steered clear of the water's edge here

The trails on the far side of the river veered off of the asphalt and I followed them, the soft ground being the most preferable for my feet and knees. Periodically I stopped to take shots of the river, signs and landscape. My memory of the entire experience is clean, fresh, cool air, adventure and the excitement of taking a new path. Though familiar to many residents of Whitehorse, this loop was brand new for me...a great discovery. I can't wait to run it again...Not today is snowing and has been all morning. Here is the view out into the backyard when I awoke at 7am.

As the days continue on here in Whitehorse I am continually struck by the constant quiet. In fact, when I awoke this morning I heard what I thought was the soft thud of a neighbour hammering next door. Upon listening closer I realized it was the beat of my own heart.

Have a wonderful day....

"A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life,
for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy dare live."
~Bertrand Russell

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