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.

Winnipeg: so much more than mosquitoes

We haven’t had to deal with Winnipeg’s famous mosquitoes because we have been dealing with cold and rain instead. But they’re coming… and the city is ready. They will begin their fogging program soon – spraying vulnerable areas to try and keep the staggering numbers of skeeters under control. At that time, dogs and children are advised to remain inside – poison being spread for the greater good.

As well, trees are banded for cankerworms – the battle against nuisance insects is vigilant.

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Our weather, which started out in such promising fashion a week ago, has turned on us. We’ve been dogged with cold and rain and winds since we left Grasslands. Naturally we would prefer sunny and warm, but since we are a nation of weather-kvetchers, this feels right.

The last time we were in Winnipeg was 25 years ago, visiting dear friends who had moved here from Toronto. They rented a fabulous home on a leafy street, of which Winnipeg has no shortage (fabulous homes and leafy streets.) This time, we are staying on the 3rd floor of an old house in an Airbnb on Spence Street (an “emerging” neighbourhood, according to our host). It’s very cute and compact – Stephen describes it as having a “first apartment” feel. We spent a day walking around the nearby neighbourhoods and were struck by the variety of homes and the beauty of the treed boulevards and gardens. Winnipeggers are spoiled for choice.

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Winnipeg appears to have considerable wealth, judging by the number of very exclusive homes. We walked past this “gated” neighbourhood, flanked by stone pillars.

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A couple of blocks away, we headed up Wellington Crescent, one of Winnipeg’s “addresses.”

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Many homes looked like this one – imposing and stately.

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I loved this barn and silo construction – faithful to the prairie landscape, right down to the native grasses in front.

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In fact, much of Winnipeg shows really well. It has a bit of a reputation as “murder capital”, and it still feels edgy, but as for being in actual danger? I think Winnipeg’s rep may be more perception than fact.

We drove past the famous intersection of Portage and Main several times. From past references, I was sure we would find a desolate no-man’s land, populated by sketchy characters and pawnshops. (That can be found further north).  Portage and Main is ringed by banks and insurance buildings and is right in the heart of downtown.

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The Legislature Building is as resplendent as would be expected, including a floral tribute to the 2017 Canada Summer Games.

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We missed a lot of the Exchange District – due to the miserable weather we were unable to walk around much, but we did do a drive-by. The Exchange District is the historic centre of the grain exchange, and its 20-block area has over 150 heritage buildings. Home to theatres, shops, restaurants and condos, this is a very exciting neighbourhood that envelops history with modern-day.  We passed by two theatres that perfectly illustrate the feeling of this area – the old Pantages Theatre:

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…and the newer Centennial Concert Hall

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The VIA Railway Station is close by – we walked through and it reminded us of Union Station in Toronto.

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Unlike Toronto’s station, this was eerily quiet – the next train not for several hours, and almost no-one around. It gave us a chance to admire the tiled floors, the stone columns and the domed ceiling.

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We walked through to The Forks, which has been an aboriginal meeting place for over 6000 years. It is right at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and today has a market, shops, restaurants, performance venues and miles of parks and walking trails along the river. We checked it out the first day we arrived, when it was actually sunny and the place was packed.

The Provencher Bridge leads pedestrians over to St Boniface, the French part of Winnipeg, and the final burial spot of Louis Riel, the famed leader of the Red River Rebellion.  We walked across the bridge, then turned back again to The Forks – planning on visiting later. We never made it back – we just ran out of time.

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This was our first glimpse of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

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We stopped to watch this young man practicing parkour (the discipline of running up and around obstacles, often upside down, before landing.)  His impromptu parkour structures are part of a celebration circle, to honour the ancestors who gathered there centuries before.

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Aboriginal culture (and issues) are quite dominant in Winnipeg. Just behind this circle is  a very different circle – a memorial to Manitoba’s missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.

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We walked by this arresting billboard – proclaiming outrage at the silence surrounding indigenous genocide. I don’t understand the symbolism and would love to find out if any of you have any ideas, or know the artist.

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Metis artist and activist Jaime Black began the REDress project in 2010, in which she hung installations of red dresses to begin the discussion of over why over 1200 murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls have received so little attention. She has had exhibits all over the country, with hundreds of red dresses donated to her art. One of her exhibits is on display in the staggering Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

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We spent four hours at this museum today, and it took every drop of energy we had to get through it. It is wrenching to see what we have done and continue to do to one another.  The notion that there is no “other”, that we are all equal, has been very slow to come. We did not walk away feeling we have made much progress.

This is a must-see museum – it has achieved greatness on all levels – from the architecture to the content within. Architect Antoine Predock designed a building that would literally and figuratively take one from darkness to light.

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The twists and turns of the ramps parallel the human journey. (You can also take the elevator, but it felt like a necessary part of the experience to climb the ramps.)

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Dealing with the question of human rights, the term generally refers “to the rights and freedoms we have simply because we are human”. It need not be more complicated, nor equivocal than that, but as we travelled through the floors, we understood that while the notion of human rights has been trammelled throughout history, it has not stopped.

Human rights touched on many areas, including Canadian indigenous perspectives, language rights, protecting rights, the Holocaust, breaking the silence, taking action, and inspiring change. Much of this was powerfully portrayed through art, interactive exhibits, videos and personal anecdotes.

Another important element of human rights is one’s willingness to speak up in the face of injustice. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said it most eloquently.

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Winnipeg is so many things – a hotbed of artistic creativity, a bedrock of history and a place of protest and activism that spawned the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which resulted in the labour movement. We could easily have stayed for another 2 or 3 full days – we’re leaving so much undiscovered.