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.