A win­ter’s tale

It’s a world of blue and white in the Yukon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada - JEN­NIFER EN­NION

Snowy slopes grad­u­ally creep sky­ward from a forested floor. Pines be­come sparse, un­til the tree-line halts their ris­ing march. White gul­lies etch their way into moun­tain­sides. Ridge­lines are near ver­ti­cal, cor­nices creamy and pow­der wind­blown and un­touched. It’s the stuff of an intrepid skier’s dreams.

Yet win­ter sports en­thu­si­asts are few and far be­tween in Klu­ane Na­tional Park and Re­serve in the Yukon, one of Canada’s most re­mote ter­ri­to­ries. There are no chair­lifts or ski re­sort fa­cil­i­ties on these slopes, ex­clud­ing all but the most ad­ven­tur­ous skiers and snow­board­ers will­ing to hike into the park and carry emer­gency bea­cons and sup­plies. Such ven­tures are dis­cour­aged, left to the likes of North Amer­i­can ski movie vet­er­ans such as War­ren Miller. “It’s pretty des­o­late coun­try if you get stuck out here,” Klu­ane He­li­copters pi­lot Bill Kar­man says. “You’ve got to know when to get out and call it a day.”

I meet Kar­man in Haines Junction, a tiny town on the edge of Klu­ane Na­tional Park, west of the Yukon’s cap­i­tal, White­horse. I’ve trav­elled here to get a bird’s-eye view of one of the largest non-po­lar ice fields in the world. Lo­cated just shy of the Arc­tic Cir­cle (about six de­grees lat­i­tude), the park fea­tures glaciers that stretch 100km through val­leys of spruce, aspen and po­plar. It’s part of one of the largest in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised pro­tected wilder­ness ar­eas and gained UNESCO World Her­itage site sta­tus in 1979.

We take off from Klu­ane He­li­copters head­quar­ters, hover over Haines Junction then cut across a clear sky to­wards one of the world’s purest en­vi­ron­ments. Rooftops of build­ings are re­placed with a dense for­est of dark wil­low pines and a trac­ery of frozen rivers. A large ex­panse of white beck­ons ahead, while dra­matic peaks pierce clouds streaked across a vast, blue ceil­ing. It’s like Tolkien’s Mor­dor, only white, al­lur­ing and much grander.

The star at­trac­tion of Klu­ane Na­tional Park, which cov­ers al­most 22,000sq km, is Mount Lo­gon (5959m), the tallest moun­tain in Canada and sec­ond tallest in North Amer­ica, af­ter Mount McKinley (6194m) in Alaska. “It’s got its own weather sys­tem al­to­gether,” says Kar­man. On this oc­ca­sion, it’s in­vis­i­ble, wrapped in cloud. But what we do see is breath­tak­ing. In one di­rec­tion are strange for­ma­tions, like alps of white cho­co­late Toblerone and wed­ding cake frost­ing. In another, the moun­tain faces are so steep that snow strug­gles to stick, ap­pear­ing like cas­cad­ing ic­ing sugar. Else­where, I’m re­minded of white caps on a tur­bu­lent sea. The land­scape’s stark, wild beauty is over­whelm­ing, giv­ing most visi­tors a sense of iso­la­tion and in­signif­i­cance.

Kar­man shakes me from my reverie by bank­ing the chop­per sud­denly to the right, be­fore sweep­ing low and bring­ing us close to a jagged ridge and cracks of sap­phire ice. “The glaciers get re­ally opaque once they’ve been ex­posed to oxy­gen,” he ex­plains. We fly over nu­mer­ous glaciers. They’re mag­nif­i­cent but, as vic­tims of global warm­ing, are re­treat­ing at a speed of about 12m a year. I ask Kar­man if lo­cals are wor­ried about cli­mate change. “We al­ways say ‘it is what it is’,” he replies.

“The climbers who ex­plore the park al­ways get into a pickle due to the un­sta­ble land­scape,” he adds. Born and raised in Haines Junction, Klu­ane is, lit­er­ally, his backyard; add 35 years of fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and Kar­man is the ideal guide. When he talks about the chal­lenges of the area, shrink­ing glaciers aren’t the only is­sue. Klu­ane’s spruce trees are bat­tling the trou­ble­some spruce bark bee­tle, which is a com­mon prob­lem across much of North Amer­ica. The bee­tle is at­tack­ing live trees, and is said to be the big­gest cause of dam­age to the Yukon’s ma­ture spruce forests. The cur­rent out­break in Klu­ane Na­tional Park and Re­serve was dis­cov­ered in 1994; by then, 32,000ha of for­est had been killed off. The sit­u­a­tion wors­ened over the fol­low­ing 15 years, spread­ing to land around Haines Junction and de­stroy­ing about 350,000ha. It’s be­lieved cli­mate change is the main con­tribut­ing fac­tor, with warmer sum­mers dry­ing out trees and mak­ing them more ap­peal­ing to the bee­tles, and those same con­di­tions lead­ing to a higher rate of the in­sects’ re­pro­duc­tion.

For­tu­nately, the epi­demic has slowed but the dam­age to trees has re­duced habi­tat for Klu­ane’s wildlife, in­clud­ing red foxes, Dall sheep, moun­tain goats, bald and golden ea­gles, moose, cari­bou and black bears. Klu­ane also has one of the high­est pop­u­la­tions of griz­zlies in the Yukon, and ar­guably the health­i­est and most ge­net­i­cally di­verse. The bears’ hi­ber­na­tion ends in spring, the same time chang­ing weather con­di­tions lead to un­sta­ble snow­pack in the park, po­ten­tially set­ting off avalanches.

Klu­ane has im­por­tant ties to the lo­cal South­ern Tutchone na­tive peo­ple. Fea­tur­ing heav­ily in their sto­ries is Naludi, more com­monly known as Low­ell Glacier. Naludi was re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of many First Na­tions peo­ple when it re­treated, caus­ing a flash flood in the mid-1800s. The South­ern Tutchone also suf­fered when the land that now makes up Klu­ane was ini­tially de­clared a game sanc­tu­ary and they were pro­hib­ited from hunt­ing and fish­ing. This rul­ing co­in­cided with the con­struc­tion of the Alaska High­way (1942), which spawned Haines Junction, the sub­se­quent home of many na­tive fam­i­lies re­lo­cated by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in the 1960s. About a decade later, Klu­ane was es­tab­lished, and lo­cal First Na­tions peo­ple are ac­tively re­con­nect­ing with the land and work­ing with author­i­ties on its man­age­ment.

Although Klu­ane is vir­tu­ally all white in win­ter, by sum­mer, most of the snow is gone, re­placed with hardy ma­genta fire­weed bloom­ing across the coun­try­side from July to Septem­ber. Melt­ing rivers at­tract rafters, ca­noeists and fish­er­men, while wilder­ness trails lure hik­ers, moun­tain bik­ers and horse riders.

My heli highs are al­most over and, as we de­scend, I can make out the tracks of thin­horn sheep on a canyon wall, while, fur­ther along, the noise of the chop­per’s ro­tor blades startles a red fox, which darts be­neath scrub be­fore I can cap­ture it on cam­era. The limbs of spruces sparkle with the fin­ery of ice crys­tals un­der the blue sky. And then the lone Alaska High­way comes back into view, slic­ing its way through Canada’s re­mote reaches.

Jen­nifer En­nion was a guest of Tourism Yukon and the Cana­dian Tourism Com­mis­sion.

Klu­ane Na­tional Park and Re­serve, the Yukon, left; he­li­copter pi­lot Bill Kar­man, be­low; Kath­leen Lake, bot­tom

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