Kluane National Park: where are the grizzlies?

I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed, but our trip to the Yukon is drawing to a close and we have not yet seen a grizzly bear. Kluane National Park and Reserve is home to a large percentage of the 6000 to 7000 grizzlies in the Yukon, and I figured that at least one of them would cross paths with us – preferably from a safe, photogenic distance. We spoke to a couple who watched from their car for over an hour as a big old bear crossed the road, posed for photos, rolled in the grass, grazed for a while and then lumbered off.

There are plenty of bear warnings, including ominous signs on some trails that read “Bear Frequenting Area”, but in spite of hours spent hiking, camping and driving in prime bear territory, we have seen nothing more threatening than a squirrel.

One of the campgrounds in the middle of Kluane is deep in grizzly territory and they have an electric fence around the tenting area. We gingerly opened the gate and wandered around inside, but did not see a single tenter. Perhaps it felt too much like being an animal in a zoo, or perhaps (like me), they would be overcome by curiosity and want to test out the wires. Common sense would dictate that park officials are not interested in electrocuting their visitors, but seriously, how much voltage is necessary to make an impact on a bear?

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Our campsite at Kathleen Lake Campground was far more civilized. We were told by the park ranger that although bears do wander through this campground, it is prime soapberry season right now and park officials have done a great job of clearing out the female berry bushes. The bears have had to move to more hospitable ground.

Lucky us, we got there early enough to nab one of the very few mountain-view sites – this is where we stayed for four nights.

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Kathleen Lake Campground is about 25 km. south of Haines Junction and on the road to Haines Alaska. Haines Junction was first established during the final construction of the Alaska Highway and today is a central hub in the park; providing groceries, gas, and restaurants.

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The setting is simply breathtaking, but  Haines Junction is not a fancy town. The Lucky Dragon Motel is typical.

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Our Lady of the Way Catholic Church was built in 1954 by Father Morisset and Father Tanguay, who were the first Catholic priests in the area. They converted an old Quonset hut into the church that still has services to this day.

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Our Lady of the Way may be “the most photographed church in the Yukon“, but it is impossible to forget the dark and lasting destruction that Christianity brought to First Nations communities.

Artist Mary Caesar expresses it well in her painting The Cattle Truck.

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It is also impossible to travel throughout the Yukon without being aware of how the Alaska Highway was built.

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This spot, overlooking Kluane Lake, is called Soldier’s Summit. It is marked by a plaque and the American and Canadian flags; commemorating their combined engineering efforts to bring the road to this point.

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The building of the Alaska Highway in just eight short months, under brutal conditions, was an astounding achievement. But the dark side of this story is how First Nations people were betrayed. They helped soldiers with food, water and guiding and in return had the rights to hunt and fish on their own land taken away from them.  It took decades for them to regain access to their land to reclaim their way of life.

First Nations were not the only people negatively impacted. African-American soldiers who were recruited to build the road suffered greatly. We listened to a short clip from an interview with a former soldier who described how they were segregated and denied the same food and privileges as white soldiers.

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And so little changes…
The Da Ku Cultural Centre featured this exhibit from the REDress Project. Artist Jaime Black began this project as a powerful visual reminder of missing and murdered aboriginal women; red dresses hang in public galleries all across Canada.  Red is a sacred colour, and it also symbolizes blood. Twelve hundred women are confirmed as missing or murdered, although many other sources estimate those numbers to be closer to 4000.

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The outstanding Visitor Centre at Haines Junction is an important stop, as it incorporates information about First Nations, Kluane National Park and Reserve and the Yukon all in one building.

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First Nations art is prominently displayed here. This installation, by Tlingit artist Don Smarch Jr.  is called Ice and Flowers. He was inspired by the first drops of water in spring and how they are reflected back at the faces that look at them.

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There were a number of quilts created by The Threadbearers hanging in the halls. This one tells the story of the Kluane area.

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We watched an excellent HD video of the natural history of Kluane, including Mt. Logan, the world’s largest massif. It has 11 peaks and covers over 20 km. of glaciated land. Fascinating stuff, since we will never hike several days back into the glaciers to have that head-back-arms-thrown-out Instagram moment.  Next time we’re here we will take a glacier flight.

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There are several hiking trails in Kluane – everything from a short interpretive 1 km. stroll to multi-day backcountry treks that require significant navigational skills.

The St. Elias Lake hike is a popular 8-km. hike with a bit of elevation, ever-changing scenery and a rest stop at a lake. First we had to hike through deep forest and keeping in mind that “grizzlies don’t like to be surprised“, we whistled, clapped and sang. For some reason I was stuck on show tunes and could not get Old Man River off my playlist.

We hiked through a few kilometres of this trail…

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…to a beautiful open meadow.

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We stopped for lunch at St. Elias Lake and had a chat with a young Swiss couple who were on “our last holiday before we have a baby in November.” She is a teacher and that of course opened up  the chance to share our astonishing coincidence of having a daughter-in-law who is also a teacher and now a new mother! What a small world!

We have met so many Swiss and German tourists – the wilderness beauty of the Yukon and Alaska are a huge draw, and more than a few are here with campers they have shipped over from home.

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Pretty lakes are a mainstay of Kluane National Park. Most of them are very deep and very cold, with good fishing but less appealing swimming. Kathleen Lake was no exception, but it did lure a few hardy souls in for a “refreshing” dip.  I don’t have a photo of Stephen fully submerged, but he did make it in for about one minute.

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I sat back here with the rest of the beach crowd.

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This was a calm day – the very next day the temperature dropped by about 10 degrees and the wind blew up and the lake took on a whole other character.

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You know those gorgeous creeks with gravel islands you find in the north? The water is so clean you can drink it and you want to pull over and have a picnic or at least stop for a photo? The Yukon is full of creeks and rivers like that.

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Kathleen Lake is at the southern end of Kluane so we headed north one day as far as Burwash Landing. This tiny village ( 109 people) was a seasonal fishing camp for the Tutchone First Nations and then grew during the construction of the Alaska Highway. The Jacquot brothers from France arrived here during the Gold Rush in 1904 and some of the businesses they started still stand, although they are no longer operating.  An entire section of Burwash Landing is filled with the structures from a more prosperous time. It is a bit eerie to walk around this part of town – the Closed sign is quite incongruous. The old resort stands as though it is expecting guests any minute.

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Remnants from the Kluane Lake Boats sit on the shore. These boats were used between the ’20s and the ’40s for delivering freight and mail.

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The Kluane Museum of Natural History was built in 1974 and first designed as a Catholic church but it was deemed too large and turned into a museum. The excellent exhibits show Yukon animals in their natural habitat, as well as displays of First Nations’ tools and clothing.

Interpretive panels outside the museum and charred stumps serve as reminder of how a fire in 1999 very nearly wiped out the whole community. Wildfires are a way of life in the Yukon and due to the determined efforts of the local residents and firefighters, the museum and other notable buildings were saved.
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Our visit to Burwash Landing was also a reminder of how most Yukon communities are isolated and tiny. As of 2019, the entire population of the Yukon was 38,000 people, spread out over 482,443 square kilometres. As of 2016, the population of Whitehorse was 25,085, so that leaves a lot of room for very few people to live in other parts of the territory.

What it means for tourists is having to plan between destinations – making sure to stock up on groceries and supplies in larger centres and being aware of distances between gas stations.

What it also means is  the driving experience is sublime. This is a typical day on the road.

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Glaciers lie just behind this mountain range.
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You’re never very far from a lake view

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Or a more pastoral scene.

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Our time in the Yukon is coming to an end. We are currently in Whitehorse and tomorrow will head south to Atlin Lake, B.C. The Alaska Highway dips in and out of British Columbia, and we will dip down to BC for a few days and then dip back up to the Yukon again before we begin our travels south. Still more adventures to report – see you in a few days.

Travelling to the True North

Last summer we drove the Alaska Highway as far north as Liard Hot Springs (just south of the Yukon border) and vowed to return; we were the only people who were not heading further north. We listened to several stories from excited campers who raved about the beauty of the landscape and wonderful people.

However, after spending last winter travelling through the U.S. during such uneasy political times and dropping an extra thirty-seven cents on every dollar, we decided Alaska could wait for a bit.  We’re spending the next several weeks travelling through northern British Columbia and the Yukon instead.

We began to feel we were “north” when we stopped for gas in Pink Mountain. I chatted with the woman behind the counter about bear safety (I am petrified of close encounters), and asked her if she had ever come across a grizzly. She laughed and said, “There was one on my back deck a few weeks ago.”   Well, that got my attention – “What did you do?“, I asked.  With the inimitable common sense of a northerner, she replied, “I stayed inside.

Next northern stop: Tetsa River Lodge. The signs for Cinnamon Buns began appearing a few miles in advance, and since we needed gas anyway and could use a break from the road, naturally we pulled in.

The price of gas up north had been a pleasant surprise until now, but there is a stretch of northern British Columbia where gas prices hover around $1.80 – $1.90. Interestingly, prices drop again in the Yukon to about $1.34, but we couldn’t wait that long.

Obviously we weren’t the first to gasp when we saw the price – $1.79.

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This lodge (motel, campground, gas and fresh baking) is a well-known way station.  We stopped here last year for the cinnamon buns and they were every bit as fabulous this time. A sign on the wall proclaims the Tetsa River Cinnamon Bun as one of the Top 50 Iconic Desserts in North America. When I asked owner Gail Andrews for a photo, she sighed. “I wonder how many ugly photos of me are out there? My daughter keeps bugging me to put on makeup.” Gail’s husband bakes the cinnamon rolls and fresh bread and also makes artisan meat products. Don’t even think about driving past this spot – it’s a culinary highlight.

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We reached Liard Hot Springs Campground by mid-afternoon – time to set up and head to the hot springs for a soak. The campground is just beautiful – well-treed and private, and it’s very popular. Be sure to make reservations or arrive early in the day to nab a first-come, first-served site.

I loved the whimsy of the potted palm and flamingo set out in this northern boreal forest. We chatted with these campers later in the day; they are on the road for an extended period and she needed to bring “a little piece of home with me wherever we go“.

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As we walked along the boardwalk to the hot springs, there was a small crowd and three park rangers watching a cow moose and her calf. The cow had a significant scar on her back rump and she was favouring one leg – possibly she had been hit by a vehicle.  The rangers told us she was staying in the marsh for the safety of herself and her calf, and they were monitoring her behaviour. Since she continued to graze, the rangers assured us we were safe on the boardwalk to quietly watch her.

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The Hot Springs. This end of the hot springs is extremely hot; close to the source and neither Stephen nor I could stand the temperature.
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The water temperature cools off gradually as it makes its way down to this end and around the corner. The water is clear and clean and moving and soaking in these springs is nothing short of heaven.

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The first day we arrived this place was packed.  As we cruised down to the lower level, we encountered a German couple in their fifties who were passionately entwined. It seems the warm water had sprung some blood vessels. They began making growling guttural animal sounds to one another; oblivious to the bathers all around them and the Girl Guides just around the corner.

Or perhaps it is simply the matter-of-fact approach to sex in the north. The birds do it, the bees do it, and for us humans, there are free condoms in the washroom at the laundromat.

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The area between Fort Nelson B.C.  and Watson Lake, Yukon is called “The Serengeti of the North.” Big animal sightings along the highway are almost guaranteed.  We didn’t see any big-horn sheep this year, but we did see nine black bears, including two yearlings. Just when we had given up hope of seeing bison, we turned the corner to this:

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The calves were well protected. We watched them kicking up their heels and being corralled back into position away from the road.

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This big old fellow strolled right by our truck, confident of his place in the world. I could almost have reached out to touch him, except that would have been an entirely bad idea.

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Watson Lake was our first Yukon destination. It is not a picturesque place, but has some very interesting historical landmarks and serves as a hub for fuel, groceries, laundry and showers. We stayed here for three nights, at the Watson Lake Territorial Campground, just outside of town. You cannot reserve campsites at Yukon campgrounds; they are first-come, first-served, charge just $12 a night and provide free firewood.

Here is our huge site, preparing for the last campfire we will be allowed for the duration of our trip, due to wildfires further north.

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The beauty of  a northern lake.

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Although the park operator told me there had been no sightings of bears in our campground so far this year, we had the lucky fleeting sighting of a mama bear and her cubs on the road out.
As we drove slowly by, she watched us carefully.

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Watson Lake was developed during WWII, with the first settlements by the U.S. and Canadian militaries. The airport was built to ferry US airplanes to Alaska. Today, the airport terminal is still in use; as a log-sided building, it is unique in Canada.

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The pictorial display inside is a fascinating glimpse into that era.

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Watson Lake has a number of original buildings, including this old garage. Still in business, it was once the largest garage in the territory.

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We know our chances of seeing aurora borealis during the summer are slim, so the show about the northern lights being held daily at Northern Lights Space and Science Centre was appealing. We settled back into our reclining seats and watched flashing green lights being beamed across the ceiling. A complex explanation about the science and folklore of the aurora borealis ensued, set to Anya-type music. We have never done acid, but this experience had to have come close. Mesmerized by the lights, the music and the narration, we promptly fell asleep.  All the more reason to return to the Yukon in the winter and see the real thing.

The biggest tourist attraction in Watson Lake is the Signpost Forest. It began as a homesick effort by G.I. Carl Lindley during WWII. While working on damaged signposts, he created one for his hometown in Illinois, and it has since grown  into a forest, with the last estimate at over 80,000 signs, contributed by travellers from all over the world.

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Naturally, among the simple place names are personal stories.

The poignant:

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The ambitious:

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The romantic:

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Such a unique collection of travellers and their stories; the Signpost Forest was designated a Yukon Historic Site in 2013.

Retired among the signposts is Gertude, a 1938 International TD 35 tractor that worked for 40 years in the Yukon, including the Alaska Highway. Today she sits quietly, but for the attention from the odd tourist.

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Our next stop is Teslin Lake, and from there we will literally go where the wind blows. As you may have heard, some significant wildfires have broken out in Alaska and northern Yukon. The smoke has created air advisories in Whitehorse and north.

We’ll travel with the most current information we have, so at this point, our trip has become a bit loose-goosey.  See you again in a few days.

Serengeti of the North

We left Fort St. John to drive north to Liard River Hot Springs in search of BIG animals – bear, caribou, moose, bison and stone sheep. Our first stop was Fort Nelson – an easy four hour drive and a comfortable rest stop – renovated Motel 6 with full kitchen and good wifi, and a very Vancouver-ish vegetarian restaurant just up the street. Perfect transition before we hit the road the next day for Liard River Hot Springs – just south of the Yukon border.

The  area between Fort Nelson and the Yukon border has earned the title “Serengeti of the North“. This area is teeming with wildlife – you cannot drive this highway without seeing animals.

First up was this big boy – we watched him roll in the mud, then lurch up to his full majestic height. We saw two bison by the side of the road, but had a nocturnal visitor just outside our campsite.  According to the park operator, Fred the bison makes his late night rounds, stomping noisily though the campground. A reminder that a nylon tent might not be the most practical choice for northern camping.

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Caribou travel in small herds, and are notorious for coming right onto the road to lick the salt. Luckily, they are timid and move away quickly once cars approach.

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Nothing timid about the Stone sheep. It falls to the driver to pay attention and move around them.

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We drove by slowly and pulled up beside the male for a staring contest. Guess who won?

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And then there were the bears; mainly black bears in the Liard River area – the grizzlies are a little further north. Our son Dan was perturbed that we were entering bear country without bear spray, and we were probably being a bit ignorant of the reality of travelling, hiking and camping in the northern wilderness. Certainly the locals come equipped to handle bear encounters. One of the park operators showed us his weapon of choice – bear bangers.  No bullets, just a loud noise.

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Signs like this one are posted in most campgrounds and hiking areas.

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As if to prove a point, we saw this little fellow just outside our campground. He looked to be just a youngster  and was so interested in eating that he refused to oblige with a decent profile shot.

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With all the bear warnings, followed by this sighting, I was quite nervous to begin our first into-the-woods hike. There was not one other car in the parking area and we were feeling quite alone. I never did relax, in spite of my manic whistling and clapping. Once I  reassured myself about the statistical odds of bear attack, I could appreciate it was a lovely woodland hike, along a creek.

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We walked along for about 20 minutes to the waterfall;  then I beat a hasty retreat back to our truck. Stephen was less concerned about being bear bait.

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We spent two nights camping at Liard River Hot Springs campground.  It was a perfect mix of rustic camping (pit toilets, no showers) mixed with a book exchange shelf at the office and homemade bread for sale.  This was our site.

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Liard River Hot Springs is not to be missed. It is one of the largest natural hot springs in Canada, with temperatures between 42C and 53C degrees. The hot springs are reached by a leisurely 10-minute walk along a boardwalk.

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Along the way, you pass by a marshy area that promised (but did not deliver) frequent moose sightings.
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And…the hot springs – ranging from scalding at the source:

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…to more temperate water for those with tender skin.

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We left Liard with great reluctance. Everyone we met was on their way to Alaska, or returning back south again. We only just skimmed the surface of the north and can’t wait to return next summer.

Even the highway has a story to tell – it is none other than the famed Alaska Highway (also known as the Alcan Highway). The Americans punched through 1500 miles from Dawson Creek to Alaska during WWII to protect Alaska from Japanese attack. Punched through is a factual term as bulldozers knocked down trees and gravel trucks followed behind at a blistering pace – timing was critical.

Driving such an historic highway felt somehow special, but the scenery alone was simply jaw-dropping. And the best part – we had the road to ourselves. Occasionally, we hop-scotched with cars and RVs, but the road stretched ahead with nothing but the view in front of us. No wonder this is such a favoured route with motorcyclists – we know so many people who have made the trek to Alaska. Imagine the freedom.

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This bike belonged to a man who had travelled all the way from Brazil to Alaska and was on his way back south to Miami, and then to South America via cargo ship. We wanted to chat with him, but he was in deep conversation with a young couple, so we just eavesdropped.

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And on to the scenery, which changed from rough and rocky to lush and green…and back again. These were our views for our four-hour drive.

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We had heard about the challenging northern roads, but we experienced mainly good conditions – the odd pothole and the asphalt a little worn in spots, but very easy to drive.  There are loads of rest stops and pull-outs, so plenty of opportunity for photos and just taking a breather from the road. It was reassuring to see a front end loader clearing rockfall.

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We made it back to Fort Nelson for the night and visited the excellent Heritage Museum there. We watched a video on the construction of the Alaska Highway; grainy old footage mixed in to great effect. To look at the photo above and realize this was a small part of a 1500-km. road that was blazed out of the wilderness in extremely difficult conditions in just nine months is astounding.

The museum exists thanks to Marl Brown, the 86-year-old “mad trapper”, who collected so many cars, trucks and artifacts he got the order from his wife to “move them somewhere.”

Marl with one of his vehicles – most of them still in good running order.

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Marl and people like him, are one of the reasons we are so keen to return. Characters, tall tales and deadly elements – this is a different and fascinating world.

We’ll be back north next summer – we have to see if the mosquitoes in Hay River are as bad as they say.