"When it rains, this road turns into a muddy mess, and even the best trucks have trouble." So said our man of north Harris, who had a hand in building this road, the Dempster Highway, in the sixties and seventies.
We were bouncing north after having left the relative comfort of the paved Klondike Highway, running from Whitehorse to Dawson City. The Dempster is the most northerly road in the world and runs all the way to the Arctic Ocean, across some of the most empty and forbidding terrain in the world. It’s made of gravel on a raised bed to insulate the road from the underlying permafrost. We were only scratching the southern surface while driving to Tombstone Territorial Park, where the road was still lined with dense fir forests. Yukon Territory is larger than California but has a population of only 35,000. Translation: plenty of wide open spaces.
I was a client on a new trip by Sea to Sky Expeditions, a Vancouver-based adventure travel company specializing in outdoor adventures in western Canada. They run hiking trips on the West Coast Trail on soggy Vancouver Island, trekking in B.C.’s coastal ranges, whitewater rafting in the north, and this, their newest adventure, an off-trail backpacking trip into the remote and beautiful Tombstone Range.
Our destination was Grizzly Lake, sitting at the head of the Grizzly Valley under the towering rock face of Mount Monolith. From there, we hoped to explore the surrounding wild terrain and find an accessible pass over to the North Klondike Valley and Talus Lake, where we hoped to have great views of Tombstone Mountain itself. Both of these rocky pinnacles soar above 7,500 feet, a rarity this far north, where so much of the landscape has been gouged by glaciations. Part of the region’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it escaped much of the historical ice, and as such, there are rare and unique geological formations, flora and fauna. The park is about 500 kilometers north of Whitehorse and about 60 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle.
As we set off through the forest, we climbed upwards in order to attain the ridge, where we looked forward to walking on open tundra instead of bushwhacking our way through dense alder or muskeg thickets. Reaching the ridgeline, we were treated to panoramic views of Grizzly Valley and Mount Monolith to the west and the Dempster Highway, far below to the east. Now, in late August, the colors of the tundra were starting to turn and would soon be at their peak in the short northern autumn. The weather stayed warm through the morning, but afternoon saw increasing high clouds that portended bad weather to come. We hurried onwards but realized we couldn’t make Grizzly Lake by nightfall—it’s important to remember that cross-country travel and topographic route-finding can be considerably more time-consuming than standard on-trail hiking. We made camp on a wide alpine meadow on a high bench a thousand feet above the valley.
The following day, we made our way to Grizzly Lake, which we reached around lunchtime. Stone cairns or red pin flags marked much of the way, though there was no real trail. The sun’s warmth was thin, and with the barometric pressure dropping, we made camp on newly installed wooden tent decks near the lake. With the Tombstones’ new designation as a territorial park has come an increasing number of visitors, and the decks and composting toilets were just built to combat user degradation.
That afternoon, it began to drizzle, and soon enough it became a steady rain as thick white clouds settled over the valley. These clouds were not to lift for the next four days. The fickle weather of the north had struck again, forcing us to alter our plans for exploring more remote sections of the park. Fresh snow coated the higher ridges, while constant rain and poor visibility confined even the most adventurous of us to our tents for long periods. We did manage to take a short hike up to a ridge above Grizzly Lake, but once we reached about 5,000 feet, we were in a complete whiteout.
Due to the uncooperative weather, we made the decision to hike out of the valley several days earlier than planned. The rain didn’t let up, and as we climbed back up the ridge on the way out, we made fresh tracks over sharp rocks and tundra grass slippery with fresh snow. The howling wind and blizzard conditions made for an interesting day, to say the least, especially when we temporarily lost the "trail." Still, as crazy as it sounds, the hike was enjoyable. The raw power of Mother Nature at these latitudes was on full display, even though it was only the very beginning of September. Plus, as we descended back to the Dempster, we saw that the storm and cold snap had brought out the full spectrum of autumn colors on the tundra.
We spent the next couple of days holed up in Dawson City while the rain continued. We sampled the local cuisine (Klondike Kate’s was a particular favorite) and explored the town, now largely free from tourists after mid-August. Jack London’s rebuilt cabin and Robert Service’s small home testified to the town’s literary legacy. We also drove out to Bonanza Creek to see with our own eyes the huge dredging operation sparked by the gold strike there in 1898. These men endured unbelievable hardships in their quest for riches, and to touch on them here would do scant justice.
As we headed south, back to Whitehorse, the weather improved noticeably. The following day, we drove out to Kluane National Park. Encompassing the entire southwestern corner of the territory, the park is one of the most bio-diverse areas in the north, benefiting from the intersection of Arctic and Pacific weather patterns. The remote interior also contains the largest non-polar ice fields in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan, which tops out above 19,000 feet. We didn’t have the time to explore this vastness, but we did hike up to a fantastic viewpoint above Kathleen Lake known as the King’s Throne. Back in Whitehorse, our group said our goodbyes, and I settled down to enjoy several more days exploring the Whitehorse region.
The next day dawned warm and sunny, and I spent the morning with the legendary Frank Turner, winner of the 1995 Yukon Quest sled dog race. In mushing circles, the race is known to be even more difficult than the Iditarod, due to the huge distances between checkpoints, the challenging terrain, and its sheer remoteness. Turner has run it 20 times! He now runs Muk-Tuk Kennels, and we took some of his beloved dogs out for their first run of the season as they pulled us in an ATV. Turner’s love for his dogs was clearly evident, and his riverfront kennel is a great destination for all dog lovers and anyone who wants to get a real winter mushing experience. He runs day trips based out of his kennel and the several guest cabins on property, as well as extended trips under the northern lights for true dog sledding aficionados. I can think of no finer way to experience the "real" Yukon.
That afternoon, I drove up to Grey Mountain, outside Whitehorse, and hiked out along the windswept ridge for a stunning view of the Yukon River Valley from arctic tundra, showing its beautiful fall colors.
On my last day, I drove to Lake Laberge, about 30 minutes north of Whitehorse, to meet up with Ned Cathers. Cathers runs his own kennel and adventure company and is also a veteran of many Yukon Quest races. For Ned, it’s all about the experience and the dogs, and he stressed how much more important these values are than using all the latest technology to compete to win. While his methods may differ from Turner’s, he obviously shares the same love for his animals. Cathers and his wife live in a remote cabin on the far side of Lake Laberge, with the only access by boat across the windswept lake—their nearest neighbor to the east is probably at least 100km away. A generator supplies their only electricity, and for several months each spring and fall, they’re basically isolated during the spring thaw and the autumn freeze-up. Cathers and I went on a beautiful hike (with the dogs and their packs) along a ridge above the 50-kilometer-long lake, and the blue waters and golden trees stretched away to the horizon. He and his daughter led winter mushing adventures, summer dog-packing trips (the dogs carry all the food in their own specially-designed packs), fall hunting trips, and other trips unique to the far north.
The Yukon, while relatively unknown to many travelers below the 49th parallel, is a perfect destination for the adventurous traveler interested in seeing a place where nature, in all its ruggedness, still rules.