Lured to Yukon by out­door pur­suits and bears

Lured north by out­door pur­suits and a chance to pho­to­graph bears

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY PAUL GAINS

Some­one once told me when you get out of your car in the Yukon you’re in the wilder­ness – there’s no buf­fer zone. It was not meant as a warn­ing. But those words res­onated with me as I boarded my flight for White­horse, cap­i­tal of Canada’s west­ern­most ter­ri­tory. Over the years, I’ve pho­tographed many ex­otic wildlife in close quar­ters. I love the out­doors. How­ever, en­coun­ter­ing bears is another matter en­tirely and the Yukon is full of them.

In early Septem­ber, when I vis­ited, there were ap­par­ently some 7,000 griz­zlies and 10,000 black bears wan­der­ing about the forests and moun­tain­sides, fat­ten­ing up for their win­ter hiber­na­tion.

My ap­pre­hen­sion had been stoked ear­lier by my not-so-sup­port­ive teenage son who calmly asked if he could have my bi­cy­cle if I was eaten by a bear.

Among my first tasks in White­horse was to pur­chase a can of bear spray. The sales­per­son ad­mit­ted he never car­ried the stuff. An odd sales tac­tic, I thought. Talk loudly in bear coun­try, was his ad­vice.

I wanted to hike Klu­ane Na­tional Park, a mas­sive 22,000-square-kilo­me­tre area known for its ice fields, glaciers and the pic­turesque St. Elias Moun­tains. There is a tremen­dous con­cen­tra­tion of bears in the re­gion. Need­less to say, I left the shop with a $40 can of spray.

My friends, John and Les­lie Car­son, moved to White­horse five years ago. They lured me north with tales of fly-fish­ing, ca­noe­ing, hik­ing and moun­tain bik­ing. At the first chance, John took me hik­ing on pic­turesque King’s Throne, in­side Klu­ane. The en­trance is near the vil­lage of Haines Junc­tion, about 158 scenic kilo­me­tres west of White­horse along the Alaska High­way.

The moun­tain peaks were hid­den by dark clouds as we ap­proached the trail head. The early-morn­ing rain had stopped as we plunged into the for­est be­neath King’s Throne moun­tain, talk­ing loudly as we hiked as it’s never good to sur­prise a bear. Ev­ery few me­tres I in­stinc­tively tapped the can­is­ter on my belt for se­cu­rity.

Above the tree­line, we en­tered a se­ries of very steep, scree-cov­ered switch­backs. John’s pace was re­lent­less, and in a lit­tle over an hour we had climbed more than 600 ver­ti­cal me­tres, reach­ing a flat sec­tion known as “the sad­dle.” There, we stopped for a well-earned drink and watched clouds cas­cad­ing over the moun­tain­top.

Be­low was pris­tine Kath­leen Lake. Around us there was noth­ing but moun­tains and forests and wa­ter, not a sign of hu­man­ity.

The mo­ment was in­ter­rupted when, as if in a scene from a Hitch­cock film, a man ap­peared through the mist-cov­ered trail

above us. “Willem from Utrecht, Hol­land,” he an­nounced as he de­scended. We in­tro­duced our­selves and a short con­ver­sa­tion fol­lowed be­fore we posed for pho­tos. Willem con­tin­ued his de­scent, while John and I started up to­ward the sum­mit.

The morn­ing del­uge had ren­dered one ver­ti­cal sec­tion quite muddy and, for me, im­pass­able. With dis­ap­point­ment I con­ceded de­feat and we trudged slowly down to the trail head. Re­gard­less, I had whet­ted my ap­petite for Yukon wilder­ness.

A few days later I re­turned to Haines Junc­tion in a rental car, hav­ing booked a seat on a sin­gle-en­gine Cessna 207 with Klu­ane Glacier Air Tours. The pi­lot en­sured I would have ac­cess to win­dows that opened at the rear of the plane so I could take pho­tos.

The flight path took us over the St. Elias moun­tains and gave us a spec­tac­u­lar view of the Low­ell and Kaskawulsh Glaciers

LEFT: An aerial shot of the Low­ell Glacier in Yukon’s Klu­ane Na­tional Park. The ef­fects of cli­mate change can be seen clearly as the glacier is re­treat­ing. TOP: A view of White Moun­tain in south­east­ern Yukon.

deep in­side Klu­ane. Roughly five kilo­me­tres wide, the Kaskawulsh Glacier has re­ceded so much that its melt wa­ter has ac­tu­ally changed di­rec­tions. It now flows south into the Kaskawulsh River, then into the Pa­cific Ocean, in­stead of its his­tor­i­cal path north to the Ber­ing Sea. Sci­en­tists say this is the first case of “river piracy” caused by cli­mate change.

In the dis­tance we could see Mount Lo­gan, at 5,959 me­tres the tallest moun­tain in Canada. Much nearer was Mount Kennedy, which is named af­ter the late United States pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy. The year fol­low­ing JFK’s 1963 as­sas­si­na­tion a group of climbers led by his brother, Robert Kennedy Jr., sum­mited the moun­tain, leav­ing some of the pres­i­dent’s per­sonal ef­fects on the peak.

Fol­low­ing the bumpy 90-minute flight, I drove a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres into Haines Junc­tion to fill up with gas be­fore re­turn­ing east­ward to the Yukon cap­i­tal. Out­side White­horse I would have no cell­phone cov­er­age and, with lit­tle to no ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic along the Alaskan High­way, I didn’t want to be caught with an empty gas tank.

Although I spot­ted sev­eral bald ea­gles, a pair of coy­otes and some elk feed­ing along the side of the Alaska High­way, I was ob­sessed with see­ing a griz­zly bear. I mean, why fly across the coun­try and not see this apex preda­tor?

On the night of my ar­rival in Yukon, over a plate of na­chos, award-win­ning wildlife

pho­tog­ra­pher Pete Mather had ad­vised me of the best wildlife view­ing sites. He said he’d had hun­dreds of bear en­coun­ters and I won­dered if a sin­gle can of bear spray would suf­fice.

How­ever, bear sight­ings that time of year are rare along the Klondike and Alaskan high­ways, so I took Mather’s ad­vice and drove to Haines, Alaska. It’s less than five hours from White­horse pass­ing through Haines Junc­tion, then south into B.C. The high­way crosses the U.S. bor­der at Dal­ton Cache, Alaska. Dur­ing the 1896-99 Klondike gold rush thou­sands of gold seekers passed along this very same path through the moun­tains seek­ing their for­tune.

A room at the Hals­ing­land Ho­tel was rea­son­able con­sid­er­ing prices in Haines are geared towards the cruise ships that reg­u­larly dock at Port Chilkoot. A ‘half’ por­tion of fish and chips at The Bam­boo Room, for in­stance, cost me $16 US. Drop­ping my bags at the ho­tel, I fol­lowed my map to the river flow­ing be­tween Lake Chilkoot and the Lu­tak In­let. Sock­eye salmon were spawn­ing here, and Mather had been pre­cise with his di­rec­tions.

Pa­tience is an ab­so­lute ne­ces­sity for a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher. For sev­eral hours, I watched a pair of ju­ve­nile ea­gles feast­ing on salmon, won­der­ing if I would be lucky enough to see a bear. It took that long to get used to the pun­gent fishy smell hang­ing ABOVE: A young griz­zly bear fish­ing for salmon near Chilkoot Lake, Alaska LEFT: An adult bald ea­gle fly­ing across the Lu­tak In­let in Alaska af­ter feast­ing on salmon. in the air.

My skep­ti­cism proved un­founded when a large griz­zly en­tered the shal­low river from the other side. For the next hour this mag­nif­i­cent an­i­mal splashed about the rocks pounc­ing on salmon, scoop­ing them up with its long claws and tear­ing into them. Salmon car­casses floated on the sur­face to be picked at by hun­dreds of scream­ing gulls.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, I learned I had missed a sow and her cubs in the same lo­ca­tion because my alarm clock failed. Re­gard­less, I spent most of the next day watch­ing bald ea­gles fish be­fore driv­ing back to White­horse in a euphoric state.

Main Street is where the ac­tion is in White­horse. Restau­rants, out­door stores and gift shops abound. Most days be­gan

with a cof­fee and raspberry scone at Baked Café, where back­pack­ers mix with friendly lo­cals who are proud of their life­style. One fel­low, cit­ing the lack of in­dus­try and sparse population, in­formed me White­horse has the clean­est air in the world. In­deed, there are only about 35,900 peo­ple in the whole of Yukon and about 25,000 live in the cap­i­tal.

Up the street there is a bust of Amer­i­can writer Jack Lon­don, whose works in­clude “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” tales set in the Yukon. I had read them in high school but was in­tol­er­ant of teach­ers who forced me to read. So at Mac’s Fire­weed Books, I picked up a copy of “Call of the Wild” and headed down to the nearby Yukon River and sat on a bench to read.

The trip had been stel­lar thus far. But my friend John rec­om­mended I get the true “Yukon ex­pe­ri­ence” by driv­ing down to Car­cross, 70 kilo­me­tres south along the Klondike High­way. Orig­i­nally called Cari­bou Cross­ing, the lo­ca­tion fig­ures promi­nently in Lon­don’s books.

Vis­i­tors can try their hand at pan­ning for gold and also go for a dogsled ride through the woods for $35. These dogs are born to pull sleds and, if there was any doubt, one had only to lis­ten to the racket they kicked up once the first dog was con­nected to the sled. They barked, howled, yelped and nipped each other all with a clear mes­sage: Pick me!

Warned by the musher that the ride would get a lit­tle bumpy, I took up a po­si­tion on the front of the sled, hold­ing on pre­car­i­ously with my left hand while at­tempt­ing to take musher’s-eye-view pho­tos of the dogs with my right. Through the woods we bounced along as I gripped my cam­era tightly, the dogs lis­ten­ing for di­rec­tions of “gee” to go right “haw” to go left.

Be­fore I left for the White­horse air­port 10 days af­ter ar­riv­ing, I put my un­used can of bear spray on the shelf near John and Les­lie’s front door – next to half a dozen other un­used cans, ev­i­dence of past vis­i­tors.

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