Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Goodbye to Yukon - Backpacking in Kluane National Park and Reserve

The backpacking trip to Kluane National Park and Reserve was our farewell trip to Yukon wilderness. 

After a summer that didn't end up being ​as active for us as we had ​expected we were eager to do something we loved and had missed. Without settling down anyway during our stay in Yukon it almost felt like going home. 

Comparing to our previous trips the preparation was different this time. After a fairly lazy summer without a car and an access to the backcountry we felt like our bodies needed some training. So we packed our heavy big backpacks with some heavy gear and took plenty of extra food just to be extra heavy. After studying the park maps Julien planned a route for us that would include big part of the Donjek Glacier hike and also a few days of off route backpacking. And we were ready to go.

The morning we wanted to hit the road our dear old Subaru decided otherwise. Maybe it was the numerous miles we had put on the car already. Or maybe it was the quiet summer without not much action in its motor.  It just didn't start anymore. So we had to delay our trip for one day and then start hitchhiking the next morning. And the second we joined the highway and put our thumbs up we thought we were too old for that stuff. 

It took us the whole day to get to Haines Junction (about 150 km from Whitehorse) and we were lucky to get to the visitor centre in time before closing, to register our trip, get the backcountry permits and mandatory food canisters. Surprisingly we managed to get a ride from the junction to the trailhead even though it was already late. The driver with his companion were very enthusiastic to convince us that basically nobody could survive in the Kluane wilderness without a gun, or at least an axe, to fight the bears away. Piia regretted ever to hop in that car.

When it was getting dark we had followed the first part of the route, which was actually a forest road, for a while and decided to camp there for the night. Julien was nervous about our shelter of choice, a tarp, that was one of the few light gear we carried and wanted to try out basically for the first time. Julien handled the pressure well and we were safe from the rain. Just the idea of bears wondering near made us keep our eyes and ears open.

The next morning showed us an increasingly clearing sky and we started hiking, glad to have a trail for the first few kilometres. We climbed until we reached the alpine area and the view was already beautiful. Even tough we got some showers on us most of the day was sunny and warm.

We appreciated the easy trail even more after we left it behind and started trekking on a huge swamp which felt like a loose trampoline. Physically very demanding, and sweaty, but also rewarding. This was why we had come here.

It took us several hours to pass the swamp and reach a riverbed that finally took us to the first campsite, just next to a warden cabin. The cabin seemed to be crowded with lots of people cooking and hanging around there. Being faithful to our backpacking spirit, we just hiked on and found a camping spot further from all the hassle.

It was rainy and windy which made setting up the tarp even harder but again Julien beat the conditions and after a warm dinner we were ready for bed.

We woke up with the sun and were amazed by the beauty of the land in the morning light. The first part of the day took us up and through alpine meadows that we shared with several sheep that didn't even bother to run from us.

After the pretty easy ascent to Hoge Pass we had a snack and started to go down following an increasingly steep creek canyon that meant climbing down big rock formations and getting in the middle of the water from time to time.

After a few hours of descending we finally reached a bigger riverbed that took us quickly to the huge Donjek river valley and we got the first glimpses of the Donjek Glacier in the distance. It already looked fantastic. 

Big dust devils were travelling down the riverbed with the strong, luckily for us, tailwind. The day was sunny and hot ("Where are the cool and chilly days of the fall?").

The easy progress on the wide riverbed was interrupted eventually when we were trapped between a cliff and the stream of the fairly massive Donjek River. The only choice was to climb the river bank and bushwack occasionally dense willow areas and climb up and down the smaller creek canyons connection the Donjek. 

We went through steep and dense terrains, "the view is worth it" mantra in our heads. The forest and bush mazes could sometimes be avoided by walking near the edge of the bank on grassy clearings where you only had to worry about not wiping out by ground squirrel holes.

The later it got the more we where checking the riverbed for a nice camping spot. And of course when we were finally ready to call it a day we saw a grizzly down the riverbed, wandering around a perfect spot for a tarp. First the only thing we could do was to watch it to see where it was heading to. Of course the same way as us. So we stayed up and kept going, making noises while fighting our way through the bushes, Piia was now missing her dad's axe. We didn't see the bear again but we wanted to do all the precautions so we ate up in the grassy riverbank and then went down to the riverbed and camped there. Our minds were occupied by scary creatures and encounters while we did evening chores and then spent a restless night, listening possible cracks and crawls in the darkness.

This day was dedicated to the Donjek Glacier. We had already been following the edge of it the previous day, but we reached the best view spots for it today.

Standing in front of it and watching it felt something that is hard to describe. It was definitely the biggest glacier we had ever seen. And the bluest. And making noises all the time. 

Somehow it also felt like witnessing something endangered. Especially when we saw a huge ice berg breaking down from it and rumbling to the water while creating huge waves to the glacier lake in front of it.

For Julien the Donjek Glacier was: Huge. Impressive. Magnificent. For Piia it was: Unbelievable. Beautiful. Alive. So almost beyond words.

We spent lots of time in front of the Donjek, taking pictures, having pauses, enjoying, admiring. The rare way for us to backpack, but you couldn't pass that kind of wonder of nature too fast.

Eventually in the afternoon we had to continue. We climbed Expectation Pass which meant long and steep ascent on grass and rocks and remarkable increased wind. 

At the top the air was moving so fast you couldn't stand anymore and it was amazing to get to the other side where the world was suddenly silent. Time for a nap!

The rest of the day we descended on an alpine area towards our planned camping spot, middle of meadows and hills. It was challenging to find a flat terrain for sleeping and finally we decided we didn't mind being crooked so much.

After a windy night we woke up and prepared ourselves mentally for another steep climb. The morning was cold but the climb warmed us up pretty good. At the top the view was amazing. Steep canyon in front of us, colourful rocky hills near and mountains as far as you could see in the distance. Way to feel very very small. After that it was just matter of following the Atlas Creek down and then turn right to follow the Duke River up. We spent the day feeling lucky to be in that beautiful part of the world, deep in our thoughts. In the evening we stopped for a dinner and then continued a bit further for a nice camping spot on the river bed where there was just enough vegetation to make a soft bed.

The next day we kept following the Duke River valley, occasionally crossing one or multiple streams. We saw dozens of glaciers hanging on or over the mountains surrounding the valley. It was incredible.

In the afternoon, when the water level began to rise we found ourselves stuck again between water and a cliff and had to climb up and bushwack. Good thing about it were the blueberries we found for a snack. Bad thing was the fact that we were bushwacking, especially when we had to wear our ponchos to protect ourselves from the rain. Luckily the shower didn't last for long time but we couldn't go back down to the riverbed so the rest of the day we walked on terrain covered by low shrubs or high dense willows. It was getting colder in the evening and we saw bigger rain clouds in the distance so it was time to find a camping spot. There was one creek we had to cross before, only it looked like there was way too much water and speed in that stream to safely cross it. Julien went first, Piia hanging on to his backpack and over we went, getting ourselves wet just before stopping for the day. It was very challenging to find a flat area on the slope so we ended up sleeping a bit downhill.

The night was again very windy and restless so we woke up early and started hiking before the sun came out behind the mountains. We kept ascending, leaving first the bushes behind, and then the shrubs. Finally there was only grass and then only moraine. It was amazing, standing on a terrain so obviously modified by impressive power of ice.

Before noon we reached our second goal of the whole trip, a glacier waiting for us at the end of the Duke River. It was smaller than Donjek but beautiful nonetheless. Perfect place for a snack and pictures.

The next step was to climb a pass next to the glacier and then follow yet another creek valley down, a route that would eventually take us to the Observation Mountain, which is very popular hiking destination in Kluane. Unfortunately in late afternoon our plans needed to be changed. The canyon bordering the creek was too steep to walk safely on, and since the water level was high we couldn't cross the creek neither. So we could either wait for the next day, cross the creek in the morning and hope we could descend following the other side of the canyon. Since we couldn't trust that the canyon would be accessible on the other side either, we had to make the hard decision of turning back and following the same route back again. It was definitely frustrating but we didn't want to risk safety. And after all, it was still beautiful around there, even we had already seen the landscape once.

We spent the night next to the pass and the glacier we had reached earlier that day. The camping spot was located next to a lake and the view was beautiful. It was also very cold, since we were staying at 2000 m that night. And to make things, let's say, more interesting, a rain cloud went through us during the night so it was actually raining inside our tarp. We started thinking it wouldn't be too bad to finish the trip early.

The morning was cold, it felt freezing actually, so we started hiking wearing everything we had and slowly decreased layers as we went on. It was a sunny morning again, and new snow on the mountains made it very very beautiful. It was peaceful and silent. 

We rushed through the familiar landscape, first higher on the slopes and then back on the river bed, again crossing the streams from time to time.

In the afternoon we were getting closer to our camping spot where the Dickson River joins the Duke but we were on the wrong side of the river valley. It was hot and sunny and suddenly we realized the water level was rising in front of our eyes. We were basically running from spot to spot desperately trying to find a safe place to cross while the water was spreading everywhere. At the last minute Julien found a route taking us to the other side but you could tell it was a matter of minutes.

We found a perfect place for the tarp, took all our gear out, dried them in the sun and washed our clothes and ourselves in a creek nearby. It felt amazing. Then we laid in the sun and relaxed. We were sill disappointed about the fact that our original plan didn't work, but at the end, that what off route hiking is like. Exciting and unpredictable. In the evening we cooked a dinner and set up the tarp without a rush. The wind was getting strong again and spread sand and clay was everywhere!

We woke up early and were eager to start the day, after a incredible windy night. The morning was cold and once more we started hiking wearing all the layers, including our down jackets. We knew we had one more big climb to do and were also excited to see the view up in the pass. The ascending was very easy at first, following the Dickson riverbed. Once we had to climb the steep riverbank to go around a canyon but later decided to go back down since the swampy tundra terrain wasn't our favourite. Finally we got to the steep part and it was like climbing a wall, with lots of loose rocks. Reaching the pass was amazing, gorgeous view surrounding our minds and sweaty clothes surrounding our bodies.

Going down wasn't as simple as we had hoped, since after choosing the more challenging side of the creek we faced walls that were too steep to go down on. After searching for a while and having a lunch at the top, we decided we should try and go down. Maybe the hill wasn't as hard as it looked, we thought. The first 20 m where definitely the hardest, without a good grip under our shoes and facing very very steep downhill. Carefully we kept going and finally got to safer part where descending was easier. It took time to slower our heartbeat and at least we had one more story to tell. 

After reaching the riverbed the rest of the hike meant just crossing the stream about 100 times and watching for bears. Julien saw one, pretty near, but luckily the bear was just interested in getting far away from us. In the late afternoon we finally reached the Highway and were more than ready to head back town. For the first time in our lives an RV picked us up and we had a relaxing ride back to Haines Junction. We spent one night next to the road and hitchhiked back to Whitehorse the next morning. Many changed plans and hiking philosophies in our heads.