- “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn” – John Muir, 1901.
It had been a grand summer in the northern interior, but is was time to head south to meet up with Angela and have an adventure in the Yukon, so after tying up loose ends in Fairbanks and getting the archaic Toyota back into travel mode, I say goodbye to Sven and all the great folks I had met during my stay in Fairbanks this summer, gas up, and hit the highway. Driving south and seeing once again the massive central Alaska Range dominating the skyline, it is decided nearly instantly that I wish to head back to Delta for a few days to have a closer look around to do my own thing, shoot some photos and video, and look for animals. That evening at my familiar camp along the Delta River, another sublime sunset graces the southern horizon and showcases the white giants I dream of so often.
The areas around Delta Junction had fascinated me for sometime, and a venture with Dennis up nearby Donnelly Dome just south of town had wet my appetite for the vast tundra and river valleys of the region. It’s an area of concentrated wildlife, dense forest mixed with open tundra, raging glacial rivers, and giant mountains. In the morning following, I whip up some tailgate coffee and breakfast and soon head south to an area surrounding Donnelly featuring herds of wild Bison, Caribou, Moose, Grizzly Bear, and a vast network of dirt roads unexplored by yours truly. After stomping the brush filled valley below Donnelly and scaring up a large bull Moose near the Alaska Pipeline, I decide to drive up a dirt road I had spied some weeks prior that led past an old military installation and winding down to Jarvis Creek, but a sizable pool of water and it’s inherent mud hole prevents passage to the places I seek. So I stomp the area on foot on search of anything of interest. Grizzly tracks lead from and abandoned military bunker where once inside, I scare up several big Owls who are surprised by my presence and flee the scene entirely. Walking through the thickets, a large bull Caribou trots past not far off and climbs a short brushy hill to get a better look at me. Such a magnificent animal in silhouette against the storm encumbered sky; he smells the air briefly before descending the north side of the escarpment and soon is gone from my sight. Another Caribou appears and gallops fast to catch up, and soon I am alone walking the old dirt road en-route back to the truck. It begins to rain in earnest and soon it I am engulfed in a frigid downpour; in the dry and warm confines of the truck, I call Angela to solidify our plans to meet in the Yukon in another week or so for a climb up Mt Archibald in the beautiful and enchanting Kluane region less than a three hour drive from Haines. But for me, the drive will take a full day or so, but I have time to kill and decide to take my time and explore and maybe even climb a peak on the way south. I drive the old truck back north to Delta and back to my camp along the Delta River, where it rains hard for most of the night.
The next day is spent driving slowly, stopping often, exploring dirt roads and gawking at one of my favorite parts of Alaska. This place has the sensation to me of an ancient and somehow significant nature; people have lived in these vast northern valleys for thousands of years, flourishing in this striking and beautiful land. So many rivers, creeks, and un-named mountains here… It is a staggering thought to try to encompass all of its geography into my psyche. There is a thousand lifetimes of exploring to do here, and I can only hope to come back again and again to see and experience as much of it as I can in this one life. I pull down a dirt road and scope out an area for a hike and possible peak climb in an area north of Tok about 20 miles. Feeling satisfied that I have my bearings about me, I head down the road to Yerrick Creek, one of my favorite creeks in the area, to gather drinking water and bathe my stinking carcass. After a pleasant bath I drive to Tok for supplies and head back up valley to a sweet camp along the Yerrick. Once again, that night it rains a rain that can only be described as intense. Morning arrives and the rain shows little signs of dissipating, so I pack the truck and ponder my next move.
I decide to head back to Tok and do some laundry and fuss around town some where I drop into the visitor’s center for a look at the weather forecast that tells of inclement weather gaining momentum; after a walk through the old Tok cemetery during a rush of raindrops, I decide that the best way to spend my time before Archibald is to simply head back to Haines and catch up on much needed house projects that have been neglected all summer. Driving south of Tok through the maze of high forested ridges and immense wetlands, I emerge into the great taiga filled river valleys of the Robertson River, Johnson River, White River, and the beautiful Donjek River, all giant glacial fed braided specimens born of true and unrelenting wilderness. The Kluane region is now at hand and a pair of blonde Grizzlies graze at road’s edge as I pass. I camp down an old dirt road overlooking the fantastic St Elias Range where a small herd of Dall Sheep can be seen on a neighboring hillside grazing in the midnight twilight. Passing near Haines Junction the following day, the mass of Mt Archibald comes clear and its steep and glaciated east face dominates my view. Back in Haines hours later, I settle into my little house and fondly breathe in its strangeness; I have not been here for over two months, and it seems foreign to me. Nonetheless, a good nights sleep is to be had, and now preparing myself for the new electrical breaker panel that needs to be installed at the power lines adjacent to my house was in order. Five days later, the breaker panel is installed, the truck worked on, and gear and supplies gone through for the next Yukon adventure with Angela mostly taken car of.
The day before departing again back into the Yukon, Angela comes over and we spend several hours organizing gear and prepping for the Archibald climb. It feels good to be in a state of anticipation of an adventure goal once again, and soon we are ready. The plan is to leave late morning or even mid-day and casually head to Haines Junction to re-group and find the dirt road that leads Thunderegg Creek where we will spend the night before the hike in to our basecamp for Mt Archibald. Casually driving up the Haines Highway and up and over Haines Pass, AKA Chilkat Summit, it feels good to be in the high country once again. We take our time stopping from time to time to explore a little here and there and taking in the peaceful valley where the stimulating Klukshu River flows; it is a tiny river with runs of large King Salmon, but none are seen here today. It is a place of crossroads where cultures of the Aishihik and Champagne peoples would meet with the Chilkat Tlingits to trade goods and furs for the highly sought after Hooligan fish oil. In Haines Junction to gas up, we get to the visitor’s center just before closing time to secure our permits for backcountry travel, but are told that we need no permit to enter the area we are going as it is just outside of the Kluane National Park boundaries. Suits us fine, and we hit the Little Green Apple, Haines Junction’s tiny grocery store, for our supper supplies and hit the road north towards Thunderegg Creek.
Thunderegg creek is the drainage that flows from the un-named glacier that grows from Mt Archibald’s southeastern flanks and is named so for the marvelous round “eggs” of stone that grace the corridors of the raging river. In the morning, we pack up casually and shoulder our relatively light packs and begin the stomp up valley towards the glacier. The accounts we had read on-line gave a thin description of a faint game trail that peters out into thickets of Alder, Willow, and Aspen that must be navigated in order to avoid the impassable shores of Thunderegg Creek. Soon we find the trail disappearing and the thrashing through Alder thickets begins. The descriptions mentioned that the bushwhacking should last “no more than an hour”. True to the description, we emerge from this dense northern jungle in short time to find ourselves clamoring up an exposed ridge where two drainages parallel one another. At the ridge’s top, flat walking lead to a decision: either continue bushwhacking higher to where tree line ends and the glacier and moraine begin, or bushwhack down and to the left into the drainage of the creek that flows from the ice. It seems the downward option is our best bet, and another great and thrashing jungle session begins. The going is slow and methodical; it is very dense, but it is fairly short and soon we are deposited into the dry and rocky creek bottom, sans creek. We had hoped for water here, but none is found. An uphill trudge of about an hour and a half brings us to the very base of Archibald herself, where sprouts of tundra meadows appear. We ponder camping here, but realize quickly that not only is there still no water here, but the base of the Southeast Ridge that we intend to climb would be much better gained higher up the moraine. Getting both dehydrated and exhausted, we trudge on in hopes that drinking water and a suitable bivouac will reveal itself. Following the lead of the description we had read, drinking water could be found at the base of the terminal moraine; we gain the base of the massive scree to find none at all. Working up and around the lower portion of the moraine, a decision is made that we must go up and over this beast to find salvation. Another 20 minutes of scrambling and we are on top of the moraine and looking down slightly to a flowing creek of fine glacial drinking water. Dumping packs, we scamper downward to the creeks edge and fill ourselves with the glorious liquid. Bringing no tent along on this adventure due to the outstanding weather forecast and wishing to save every once of burden from our backs, we spy a small shelf situated at the exact starting point of our proposed climb. It is stupendously perfect. After moving rocks around for a few minutes, we have ourselves a perfectly flat and relaxing spot to throw down our sleeping bags; but it is hot. Very hot. The sun will not be behind the rim for another two hours and all we want to do after supper is go to sleep for our 3 am wake up call for the climb. So we wait… After the sun begins it’s descent behind Archibald’s summit ridge, we close our eyes and…. not sleep. We are both gifted with a bout of insomnia that allows us just scant minutes here and there of real rest. This seems to happen to me a lot on these high mountain bivy’s. Not sure why, but it seems I am just too much in awe of the glorious alpine setting and can’t seem to get my eyes or mind to sleep. Occasionally, when I am camped in these high glacial cirques, there exists sometimes the sensation of faint voices; like souls wandering these glaciers and whispering slightly. It is a strange phenomenon and Angela speaks of it as well… a curious thing these voices. The northern summer twilight that never really gets dark soon gives way to a display of the Aurora Borealis that sets our hearts on fire as we gawk in awe at it’s offering. Soon, the Aurora dissolves into the early morning dawn as the 3 am alarm goes off and we are up packing, cooking oatmeal and tea, and rubbing the lack of sleep from our bewildered eyes.
Following Dall Sheep trails up endlessly steep and sliding scree, we emerge on the top of the lower ridge to find a staggering sight: the un-named peaks to the west of Archibald are adorned with glaciers exhibiting broken seracs and icefalls, lit up by a full moon rising above their rarely seen summits. A post-Aurora alpenglow that sears the sky with streaks of pink and orange light outlines the mountain horizon to the east and north. The sight fills me with the notion of being a part of this grand and ethereal landscape that is not to be taken lightly. I find that being in these place gives me a sense of deep spiritual and emotional connection to the natural world that allows me completeness as a Human Being living on this strange and beautiful planet.
The southeast ridge of Mt Archibald is a long and rocky ridge, perhaps 3 miles in length and rising nearly 6000 feet from Thunderegg Creek to it’s 8,491 foot summit. This ridge is a steep and sometimes narrow feature sporting many sizable ‘summits” along it’s way, several gendarmes up to class 4-5 climbing, and near it’s top, the glacial ice from it’s east face creeps over the top of the upper ridge where steep and exposed snow and ice climbing accesses Archi’s true summit. It is a big mountain with a huge elevation gain for a peak of its height, and requires a variable set of skills to reach its summit. One must be comfortable with loose rock, exposed class 4 rock climbing, route finding, and snow and ice climbing skills. Given the length and elevation gain of Archi’s bulk, exceptional fitness is also a must.
A short scramble from our perch atop the lower ridge and we are surmounting the first of many gendarmes, most of which are in the solid class 3 range. Up and over, side hilling scree, of traversing back and forth across rock ranging from shattered Schist, to loose scree, to blocky talus generally accomplishes dealing with these many features and false summits. The hardest part of this ridge is the elevation gain… then loss, which one must deal with when going up and over these false ridge summits.
After a couple of hours of traversing and scrambling, the sun begins to crest just above the distant horizon and the ridge begins to get steeper, looser, and more exposed. Sections of steep scree lead to flatter sections of the ridge, where Dall Sheep sleeping platforms appear; there are several spots grouped together and have been manicured by hoof to produce flat and comfortable sleeping arrangements. Most are right on the apex of the ridge itself where wind and exposure are a way of life for these magnificent and hardy animals.
Higher up, another steep gendarme is negotiated by means of traversing left and scrambling the steep, exposed and shattered rock diagonally and then climbing directly upward and over it’s tiny summit; a brief down climb leads to another short traverse on it’s right flank to a point where the ridge eases off once again before climbing abruptly to the base of what had been described as the crux of the route: a true summit in it’s own right, a sub-peak of sizable proportions that bars access to the upper ridge, and the final stretch of chaotic mass of shattered debris below the steep and forbidding summit snow and ice where the glacier bends itself agonizingly over the summit ridge’s lip. Once the bulk of the gendarme is reached, the climbing turns to extremely exposed and loose class 4 climbing. We brought no rope so great care was taken climbing through this section. Once gaining the broken, tiny summit of this mammoth sub-peak, a view towards the final rib of snow and ice can be seen for the first time on the climb; it appears to be a steep knife-edge leading directly to the Archibald’s summit.
We are extremely lucky today to have the unbelievably outstanding weather we are experiencing, and from this point on the upper ridge, a view west reveals completely unobstructed and crystalline views of the entire Mt Logan massif and all of the big peaks of one of the most expansive glaciated mountain ranges on the planet. After moving through a section of broken towers and blocks, we find a pool of drinking water and fill our bottles and eat; we are both getting tired.
Another long, steep section of extremely loose scree forms a knife-edge and leads to a long flat section of ridge where, at its end rises the final snow and ice where the summit lie just beyond. After donning crampons and ice axe, we begin up the steep snow, Angela above of me front pointing then plunging the axe’s shaft, and repeating till there was no more. We are standing on the tiny summit; in fact it is just barely big enough for both of us to sit. The weather is striking and the views are mind blowing; however, I had been developing vision problems for the last hour or so from sunscreen dripping into my eyes, and now sitting here on Archibald’s summit, the pain is increasing, and my vision getting very bad indeed. We have 6000 feet of dangerous and time consuming ridge to down climb and here I am with only one working eyeball. We snap some photos and then begin the long and arduous descent back down the snow rib and the long loose section leading to the big gendarme. By the time we reach the dangerous class 4 sections, my vision is really bad and the pain increasing still. I have one semi-working eye in which to navigate the down climbing past a deadly exposed section, where if one fell or slipped, it would be the end of you. After managing, I stay close to Angela and she down climbs the bad section; relief hits us both and we are soon traversing and side hilling the long mid section of the route; I have managed to sort of “ski” the scree in my mountain boots, making downward progress a little less tiring, ice axe in hand just in case. After a few more hours, we are at the top of the Dall Sheep trail that leads back to the bivi. I am so tired, I can barely stand, but commit to this last section with abandon. Angela does the same and when we reach our bivi site, we collapse for a brief spell and ponder what we are doing.
Again, my eyes are inflamed and I cannot see at all out of the left eye, leaving only my bad right one still working, which has been of poor vision since childhood. We decide that hiking back to the truck is in order and the possibility of seeking medical attention a reality. After packing up our alpine ghetto, we shoulder our packs, our bodies scream, and we begin descending the debris covered glacier towards the dry creek bed and the route home. The going is slow, but soon we are at the point where we had bushwhacked from the ridge and into the drainage. Not feeling like going up through the thickets, we opt to stay in the dry bed in hopes that we may find a way to navigate around the toe of the buttress and it’s inherent Alder thickets. After stomping down through the Bear tunnels and shouting “Hey Bear!!” every so often so as to not startle one and provoke an encounter, we find ourselves on the shore of Thunderegg Creek. Fed by the glacier we had just come from, this specimen is no creek, but a dangerous and massive river, dark chocolate with debris, very deep, very fast, and very cold. We walk it’s shores for a very short time before realizing that we are trapped by the dense thickets leading directly to the edge of the raging torrent. Everything we had done to avoid the bushwhack just exploded in our faces and the only option left is to aim uphill and attack the matrix of the dense and unforgiving web of Alder, Aspen, Willow and small Spruce. Not 50 feet into it, we are encountering the worst bushwhacking of our lives. I once was a part of a conversation with some Washington climbers years ago about how the locals had a “bushwhacking rating system” for back country travel and mountaineering approaches in Washington state. I thought it was kind of of funny at the time, but now, after living and stomping in Alaska and the Yukon for a few years, it is no joke. This thicket we are in is definitely “class 5+” bushwhacking. Add a full pack and a pair of trekking poles to the mix and you’ve got some real fun. After about an hour or so of this, we emerge on a faint trail that leads to the cliffs at Thunderegg where the truck is parked and rest awaits.
The exhaustion we feel is overwhelming, and my eye is in horrible pain; perhaps the worst pain I have ever felt. It is late and we decide that staying here for the night is the best option, since the closest clinic is in Haines Junction or possibly even Whitehorse over 100 miles away. Oddly, there is phone reception here and Angela gets on the telephone and inquires about the clinics and general eye care with a nurse in Whitehorse. Not only would the drive be horrendous, but the cost of such an endeavor would be very difficult for me. We hunker down for the evening in the tent, sipping a cup of wine and me trying desperately to hold on. The pain is overwhelming. After a few agonizing hours, I pass out and wake hours later to my eye feeling slightly better, but still not good. We pack it in, drive out the long and sustained 4WD road back to the highway and head into Haines Junction for some grub and decide to head home and go to the SEARHC clinic in Haines.
The drive back over the pass is striking as always; the tundra surrounding the peaks laid out like a sub –arctic blanket and the peaks themselves jutting proudly to meet the sky. The drive from the alpine at the pass down the Chilkat corridor to Haines is always an interesting one to me as witnessing the transition from one ecosystem to another is always a joy, even with one eye. At the clinic in Haines, the visiting eye doctor examines my eyes and runs me through a series of tests that determines that the sun screen was in fact the culprit, and that applying some eye drops and rest will alleviate the pain and irritation. The entire experience, from the sleepless bivouac and the early morning Aurora, to a long and arduous route and it’s subsequent beautiful summit, to a terrible bushwhack and a murderously painful eye condition, has been one of great significance in a lifetime of outrageous adventures spent in an array of wilderness places that continue to touch our hearts and souls. It is being in these places that both Angela and I seek, both on a physical and spiritual plane.
The Kluane area of the western Yukon remains one of my most revered place on this planet; it is a place where some of the largest glaciers on Earth are born from some of the mightiest and remote mountains… it is home to scores of Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Wolf, Lynx, Dall Sheep, Moose, and has an ancient Human cultural spanning thousands of years. The wilderness here is far reached and commands respect from any creature passing through it. It is a place near my home and one that I will return to visit time and time again to explore and experience magic.
Getting on the road by 10:00 am or so following town chores and paying bills, I am happily cruising up the Haines highway and northbound for the Yukon and beyond. I approach the Eagle Preserve at 20 mile and the engine alternator idiot light comes on… funny, never saw that before on this truck. I pull off the road and pop the hood for an inspection. Using a volt meter, I check voltages of the battery with both with the engine running and not running. A nominal voltage of 12.4 with the engine running indicates that the alternator is not doing it’s job. In fact, it has shit the bed… Reluctantly, I turn around and baby the 30 year old Toyota back to town to re-group. Pulling into the parts store, I am amazed that they have one in stock. 142 bucks and two hours later, I have the alternator installed and the last bolt tightened and I am on the pavement rolling north once again.
At the Canadian the border, there is a length of vehicles waiting I have never seen here before. After an hour wait, I am flagged in and questioned. I am asked to exit the vehicle and wait inside while my car is searched, which the Canadian border cops do with abandon. Again, I have never experienced this before. Another hour and I am free to go after they come to terms with the fact that I have nothing to hide. Two hours to get into Canada. I am beyond happy to have the Chilkat Valley behind me. Driving over the Haines Summit and into the high country sees me smiling and as the Yukon border comes ’round. I am washed over by an array of mixed feelings; most of me is extremely happy to be on the road and rolling away from Haines, but part of me dreads the inevitable slash of loneliness that will undoubtedly come in short order. In fact, as I near the Tahkini River, the dreaded sensation enters me, invades my space and riddles my ravaged heart with bullet holes. I shuffle this back to a place of inner strength that is there for survival reserves and continue. Â I get to the Tahkini and make a fine camp there; it was a familiar camp as I had spent time there on past trips. The evening colors around 1 am filter the sky orange and pink and patches and fills my heart and soul with much needed color and softens the dramatic episodes within me. I sleep.
I awake to the warmth of sunshine and something splashing in the river. I pack up and pull out onto the Alaska Highway again heading towards Whitehorse. These feelings I cannot seem to shake and I hope that once past Carmacks or Dawson, they will fade. In Whitehorse waiting for the Fireweed Bookstore to open, I am accosted by a pair of drunks jabbering nonsense at me. Soon, my maps and food are purchased and I am driving the wide open spaces of the North Klondike Highway bound for Carmacks. A torrential rain storm ensues. The roadway becoming a slab of dangerous water; I slow down but other traffic does not. I won’t be bullied by these vehicles and I pull off when I can, but it is up to them to pass if they wish to drive at unsafe speeds. Camping that night in the Taiga forests among Aspen and Willow, tiny yellow birds flutter my camp and a Red Squirrel chirps in the forest nearby. These trips, when I am by myself, which is 95 percent of the time, tend to promote moving along, bound for a destination and goal. It is sometimes difficult to just set back, especially these past weeks, as the creeping dreaded sensations that have filled me lately prevail when I have come to a stop. So I simply keep moving. Regret is futile, and yearning for an undeniably uncertain future is equally so. I have no past, and working toward the future like some kind of mystic jewel seems pointless; I simply am. My heart and desire are too big for this world and most cannot deal with my intensity and passion… the heart is the only guiding force. Chalk it all up to a lifetime of amazing experiences. I am the wind…
The morning sees me drifting closer to Dawson City; nearing the Klondike river at the entrance to the mind bogglingly beautiful Dempster Highway, I spot a pair of bright blond Grizzlies grazing the grass on the side of the highway. So beautiful these magnificent creatures; I often wonder what attracts them to the highway like this… is there something that grows only near the road that they find edible and tasty? I pass the Dempster and head to Dawson for fuel and a snoop around and maybe a nice espresso drink. It had been 4 years since I had been to Dawson, and not much had changed. That is a good thing. Dawson is a gem in the far north to me; it is a place of historical significance, color and interest. I get an Americano at the lovely Alchemy Cafe and soon I am back down the highway the 25 miles to the start of the Dempster. My plan is to hike into Grizzly Lake in the Tombstone Mountains and spend the night there, taking photographs and shooting video. But when I get to the trailhead, there is a notice that the trail is closed. This is the second time that this happened… I was here in 2013 to not only hike to Grizzly Lake, but to also ride the Ogre all the way to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Neither happened on that trip. After pedaling for three days, the road was washed out north of the Ogilvie River, and I was forced by the road crews to turn back. The Grizzly Lake Trail was closed due to high Bear activity in the area at that time; this time it was closed due to heavy snow still on the ground. So in 2013, I stashed my backpack under a rotting Spruce log and continued my bike trip up to Deadhorse and beyond. But today I was in my truck, bound for who knew where. I walk into the forest and immediately locate the pack I had stashed 4 years prior, and skedattled up the gravel Dempster to my favorite section. It is a place where the second of three continental divide crossing occur on the Dempster. A place north of the Blackstone River in the Taiga Range; birth home to Engineer Creek, Mountain Goats, Grizzly Bears, and Caribou. I am looking for a peak to climb in the area, and a ridge leaving the pass right from the road directly on the continental divide leads to an un-named summit of perhaps 6,000-7,000 feet. I decide on it, but first I wish to continue north and do it on the way back. A couple miles down the road is a beautiful alpine canyon situated directly at tree line with the headwaters of Engineer Creek flowing through it’s guts. I find a wonderful camp and set down upon it happily. Glassing the slopes nearby, I spot a heard of a dozen strong Mountain Goats, including several babies who seem to be happy to be jumping around and playing wildly amidst the high and treacherous slopes they are perched. This area north of the Blackstone in the continental divide country is by far my favorite part of the Dempster experience. Late that night, perhaps around 1 am, I awake with a yearning to leave the tent and go on a “night” stomp. I exit the tent and walk across the road and disappear into the muskeg and Taiga. Tussock tundra appears and I run as fast as I can towards a barren hillside, where Willow Ptarmigan scatter. Being spontaneous is what sometimes drives me, for better or worse. It is simply fun, and nothing beats the sensation of just making a snap decision and going for it. I look out over the alpine valley I am in and it occurs to me that every Human on this planet is going through some form of struggle largely unknown to the rest of us. I am not alone…
With my cup of Green Tea in the morning, I make a toast to the South, East, West, and of course, the North in thanks and offering of gratitude. I drive north again, this time paralleling the Ogilvie River at at point further that I got on my bicycle in 2013. A Grizzly slowly walk across the road in front of me a couple hundred meters off and disappears into the Taiga, and more Ptarmigan flutter about at road’s edge.
Many miles after leaving the high country, the road drops into river valley’s and enters First Nation native hunting lands. The Dempster at this point climbs to a high point on Ogilvie Ridge, where unobstructed views of the Ogilvie and far, far off, the Peel River, heading to the great und vast McKenzie River flowing to the Arctic Ocean. The road continues along this high Taiga bench for many, many miles. It is dry up here. And exposed. And monotonous… till finally Eagle Plains comes around where I gas up the Toyota and continue on. Soon the Arctic Circle appears and beyond are the rounded tundra summits of the Richardson Mountains, which, in essence are an extension of the British Mountains in the Yukon which are an extension of the Brooks Range in Alaska. The Richardson’s are unique in three ways; They are the final continental divide crossing on the Dempster, dumping all water from them on the northeastern side into the Arctic Ocean, they form the border of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and they are the last formidable geologic uplift barrier between the interior and the arctic plains of the Canadian “north slope”. Beyond which lie the extremely remote communities of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. The road travels directly north along the western escarpment of the Richardson’s for many miles, traversing some of the most incredible Arctic scenery I have ever seen; in fact it equals the Brooks Range in beauty and remoteness. Although it is not nearly as big as the Brooks, it is even more remote really. Soon the road turn east and climbs over Wright pass at the final continental divide and crosses into the Northwest Territories. This place is absolute magic. It is quite chilly here, this far north at the continental divide. The last time I was in a similar place was in 2013 on the summit of Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range on The solstice at midnight. It was cold then too… The road continues through the Richardson Mountains, revealing tundra, high peaks, wild flowers, and wild rivers. After descending the last great decline out of these magnificent mountains, the Canadian Arctic slope appears in the distance, extending for hundreds of miles to the McKenzie Delta. I pull off the road, some 30 kilometers into the Northwest Territories and notice the immense trail of numerous Grizzly prints decorating each side of the road. At night these massive creatures must use this road as a path. There are more Grizzly prints here than I have ever seen anywhere in my life.
Finally, after saying farewell to the NWT’s and wishing to continue on to the Arctic slope, but becoming increasingly paranoid about the 30 year old Toyota Truck’s engine with a quarter million miles on it, I turn back and drive back to from which I came. Passing once again the Arctic Circle and gassing up in Eagle Plains again, a few hours later I am back in my favorite and stunning alpine valley north of the Blackstone River. I am exhausted and plan on a peak climb in the morning. In the tent, I sleep like a dead man.
After crossing a short bit of tundra in the morning, I begin climbing up the class 1-2 talus of the ridge line to where it nearly flattens out but continues in a westerly stretch for about a half mile before the final summit pyramid rises abruptly and ends. After 4 hours from the truck, I stand on the unknown summit and marvel at the other peaks around me and the strange and unknown alpine valley’s that separate them. I decide to descend a different route in order to walk out one of these valleys following a creek where I hope to see signs of animals. The decent was treacherous; some of the loosest scree and talus I have ever encountered kept my attention level extremely high and after considerable time and effort, I find myself at the head of this glorious alpine valley, flowing within it the beautiful little creek mentioned. On the way down valley, I see no animal prints of any kind, but spot a pair of caribou antlers lying in the tussock. The are from a small and possibly younger animal, with part of the skull still attached; taken down by wolves I imagine. After a bit I am back at the truck and I blast off again, this time bound south for Dawson, where contrary to my intentions to keep this an alcohol free trip, I decide to duck into a tavern and have a beer. I order my beer and when I go to pay for the beverage in U.S. dollars, the First Nation’s woman in the chair next to me starts ridiculing me for being an American. She proceeds to stick her finger in her mouth indicating forced vomiting, therefore expressing her displeasure. I tell her, “I’m not American, I’m Alaskan”; she was not pleased and continued the harassment. After a bit, I told her she didn’t know me and that she was a no good judgmental SOB (as it were). I left my lone beer sitting there on the bar and left. All I wish for is friendship, love, and understanding – hard resources to find on this here planet. Later, at a makeshift camp, the cops show up to kick me out, but tell me where I might go for a low profile and free bivy.
That night, I toss and turn and sleep eludes me nearly completely. Tomorrow I will ferry across the Yukon River and drive the Top of the World road (AKA the Ridge Road) and into the deep interior of Alaska. I had ridden this road on my bicycle a few years ago and found it to be one of the toughest rides in the north. I’m happy that the old ‘Yota and me will be traversing this together this time.
A bit early in the season still, but an escape from town and into the Yukon seems prudent, so I pack the truck with food, water, and gear, point it north and fly up the Haines Highway towards the border. Once past said political nonsensical imaginary line in the sand, I am cruising the upper corridors of the Haines Summit area and whisping down into the interior. I am surprised to find the great and vast Aspen stands here are just now beginning to bud with no leafing yet having occurred. I see three Black Bears between Haines and Haines Junction today… they are out foraging and the roadsides seem to attract them; for whatever reason I do not know.
My mind and heart are a wreck and a good stiff hike into the Yukon wild is in order; I have chose to explore the Slim’s River West trail, which travels up the Slim’s to it’s source at the toe of the enormous Kaskuwalsh Glacier and until recently, was the source for the Yukon’s largest lake – Kluane Lake. The Slim’s native name is A ay Chu, but the english name comes from the name of a horse who got stuck in the river’s quicksand and subsequently died. Poor ‘ol Slim. The Kluane region of the Yukon is much more than just a beautiful and vast place. It is a place of ancient history, eminent cultural treasures of the Kluane, Aishihik, Tutchone, and Champagne first nation peoples, and has been for thousands of years. It is also an enormously beautiful and mysterious place that holds the northern hemispheres largest non-polar icefields, including the remote and seldom seen Mt Logan, Canada’s highest peak at 19,551 feet above sea level. Recently, due to glacial retreat of the Kaskuwalsh, the Slim’s River has changed it’s course and now no longer empties into Kluane Lake. In a short time, the mighty lake has already lost a great deal of it’s holdings.
I head to the visitor center in Haines Junction to buy a map and get some info; an enjoyable and slightly flirtatious conversation with the Kluane woman who sold me the map reveals that the Slim’s River West trail has been closed down due to high Grizzly activity in the area. Apparently, a large boar Griz walked right through two hikers kitchen just a couple days prior. She informs me that the Slim’s River East route is in fact open, but I may have difficulty with route finding this time of year and especially since the geologic upset in the area recently. I ponder this briefly and I am out the door heading north to find my old campsite up on Bear Creek Summit. I had last camped here in 2011 while riding my Ogre up from Moab. A lovely little spot amongst the White Spruce and Aspens with views to the west of the Kluane front range, and to the east, the low sub arctic hills of the vast and wild Dawson Plateau. Later, after my supper of Turkey and avocado sandwiches on home made sourdough, I set up my trusty tent and then set on the tailgate and crack open a beer. Something is amiss here; my mind is struggling, my heart bleeding. I realize that my passion, intensity, and perseverance tend to drive those away that I wish to hold close. This set of traits works great for backcountry trips, mountaineering, and all out survival, but seems to be of little help regarding people. My constant need for self expression seems to always do more harm than good. At 49 years old, I still seem to be learning life’s hard lessons. I am as tough as nails, but have a tender heart; a winning combination it would seem, but it is not always so. I come from a place of only love, but my execution seems constantly in need of improvement. I fear not the furry four legged creatures of this planet, but fear greatly the hostile and unpredictable two leggeds. Melancholy grips me and I am unable to enjoy my surroundings…
I crawl into my tent and ponder the coming the midnight sun. There seems to be too much of it these days. I wish for winters return so I may fold myself into it; all this sunshine is nurturing my sadness. The Slim’s seems a far fetched notion at this point and my alternate, Mt Decoeli is still under much of winters snow. All I feel now, here in my tent is emptiness and without hope. In a flash, I pack my shit into the back of the decrepit Toyota and pull onto the Alaska Highway, and head home.
After getting mentally and physically prepped for the last couple of weeks, I awake one Monday morning and decide that leaving several days early on a ride of the North’s “Golden Triangle” is in order. My boss and co-workers seem to have no issue with the notion, and off I go to take care of last minute details at home.
Some folk’s call the ride in question the ”Alaska Golden Triangle”, which is a misconception since most of the ride occurs in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The route however, starts in Alaska, crosses British Columbia, traverses about 180 miles of the Yukon’s mighty interior, crosses back into B.C., and finally ending in Alaska at Skaguay. The first few miles and the entirety of my first day pedaling consist of the Chilkat and Klehini River corridors through the beautiful Chilkat Valley, ending at the Canadian/ U.S. border and the beginning of the climb up to Haines Summit, more locally known as Chilkat Pass. This Pass separates the interior of Northern B.C. and the Yukon from the coastal and heavily glaciated Chilkat Mountains and Alaska’s ice capped Coast Range, of which temperate and maritime systems exist at their feet. It is in this coastal region that Haines, and my home exist.
Going to bed a bit late and waking casually, I dress in my normal bicycle traveler garb consisting of loose fitting nylon pants, t-shirt, Loose fitting long-sleeve shirt, and lace up cross training footwear. Onto the Ogre, I spin into town to meet with Angela and grab some coffee and breakfast before commencing to the endless highway.
After a casual time at Sarah J’s eatery in Haines, I say goodbye to Angela and begin the flat and pleasant cruise up the highway in hopes of finding a good camp near the border. Hours later, a faint path appears on the river side of the road leading through the Alder thickets and ends abruptly on the Cotton Grass flats above the Klehini River. A great camp with views of the Saksaia Glacier and fine and tasty drinking water direct from the river has me smiling on this first evening of the trip.
Many bicycle travelers it seem have a burning desire, especially in the northern tier, to seek out camping in “official” and pay campgrounds where other people gather. To my thinking, this never really made any sense, not here in the northern wilderness, where some of the best and most plentiful free range camping are to be had for the taking. Why pay to sleep when one can create their own world wherever one wishes? Many claim it is their fear of Bears. After spending more nights out in the Alaskan and Yukon bush than I can count, I believe that the Bears have far more to fear from Humans than the contrary. Of course extreme occurrences can happen, but being smart about the way one camps greatly diminishes these chances. In fact, I believe that having Bear problems are increased in public camping areas where Bears may be conditioned to Humans and their glorious trash. As far as the social thing is concerned, well, to each there own. Camping alone in these wild places allows me breathing room and a purposeful reflection towards the natural world and creates in me a great and humbling respect for it. This is where I can watch the river flow and the Falcon soar; hear the wind blow and smell the sweetness of the North in the air unencumbered by a Human world that tends to feel dominance toward all I see before me. That said, loneliness could from time to time drop in for an unexpected visit. But not tonight.
The morning sees rain pattering the rain fly of the tent and I must say I dread it, since today is a big climb up to Chilkat Pass, where I am hoping to spend more than a day hiking and bagging a peak or two if the weather cooperates, But, cooperating it is not and I pack up my little world and spin the mile up the road to the Canadian Customs gate and soon I am climbing upward into the big grind known as “Marinka’s Hill”, the primary climb up to the pass. The rain shows no sign of letting up and I don rain gear and continue, sweating as much on the inside of the clothing as the rain on the opposite. As the storm intensifies, I realize there will be no hanging around and leisurely climbing mountains, but instead, waiting the fury out tent bound. Just past Three Guardsmen Lake, in a low hollow just before the main summit, I pitch my tent and dive in. For the next 18 hours I read, eat, drink a beer or two, and sleep. The following morning the rain is continuing, but I must go on and the tent is put away wet and the pedaling continues. At the pass proper, the rain stops, clouds open, and glorious sunshine reveals itself, if only for a few minutes. Then it begins again. But heavier this time. Soon torrential downfalls of drops appear, and for a moment, even the roadway ahead is barely visible to my eyes. Although a part of the journey, especially in the North, rain can make the difference between pure suffering and pure bliss on a bicycle voyage.
Later, after the rain lets up, I cross the Yukon’s Takhanne River and set up a pleasant camp next to the water and bathe my foul clothing and myself. Snacking on my supper that evening, I watch a Hawk harass the Swallows at the entrance to their mud nests burrowed deep into the ancient riverbank. Clouds gather and then part again while the sun peeks in to cast great and colorful splashes of yellow and orange against the rocky mountainsides before me. Patches of deep blue sky swirl around the sun/cloud union like a predator in pursuit. At midnight, a Loon cries out from somewhere nearby, and the only thing stirring now is the soft and occasional breeze gently touching the tops of the Spruce and Aspen stands situated nearby camp.
To my ears, the call of the Loon is one of the most enjoyable and haunting sounds coming from the forest and lakes. It is nearly as engaging as the sound of the Wolf howling in the dark of night. And as I pedaled the next morning up a monstrous Yukon hill, one of the biggest of the trip, the Loons were creating a symphony of joyous monotony pushing me upward and over that mound and deeper into the great Yukon interior I love so much. I meet a 64 year old French man on a decrepit bicycle, heavily loaded and carrying an axe for which to chop twigs for his home made hobo stove. He has spent a great deal of his life traveling by bicycle in various parts of the planet, and travel in these parts is not alien to him. Later in the day, I take a side trip to the ancient native village of Klukshu. A side trip of about a half mile leads to the small but Salmon heavy Klukshu River, where native people have been harvesting Chinook, Sockeye, and Coho Salmon for millennia. I arrive at the bank of the tiny river; a Sockeye splashes about as it sees me, there is not a soul around but the fish and myself, lest a Bear hidden in the forest nearby. The village is deserted. There is something going on here that is unexplainable; there is an ancient sensation that I am somehow connected to that feels both like sadness and deep connected love. The air feels thick with history and community. Tears swell my eyes as I sit next to the river; this strange place I have never been feels like home. It is strange indeed. If there is such a thing as past lives, then I’m certain I was a Native North American. I pedal onward and past the equally haunting and beautiful Kathleen Lake and the beginning of the colorful and rugged Kluane Range, forefront to the overwhelmingly enormous St Elias Range and Mt Logan. Home to the second tallest peak in North America and some of the biggest and expansive ice fields and glaciers on Earth. The Yukon is a mind-blowing place indeed. Soon I am rolling into Haines Junction for a meal and some re-supply on food and luxuries.
Now I am into the thick of things. The Alaska Highway is traffic heavy compared to the mellow Haines Highway, where trucks shipping supplies from Canada to Alaska whiz by at maximum speed and clueless tourons barely in control of bloated recreational homes-on-wheels as big as my house meander down the pavement, gawking at the scenery and not watching the road, too lazy or disinterested to actually stop and explore beyond their steering wheel, most of these southern travelers never really see much at all.
The pedaling is flat and windless; miles fly by. The Ogre slithers along in silence. The endless boreal forest of the interior swallows me up and I am one with it. Arctic Ground Squirrels scurry in and out of the roadway as if attempting to throw themselves under passing vehicles. I often hear bicycle travelers complain about the sometimes endless and monotonous stretches of Alaska and the Yukon’s boreal timberland, saying that it is a dread to ride through it. Beats riding through most anywhere down south if you ask me. I connect with this forest; to me, this boreal play land is an endless supply of tranquility, animals, lakes, rivers, muskeg, swamp, taiga, streams, and beauty. There is a living breathing force here that cannot be ignored. To me, there is nothing monotonous about it. Riding through endless highway traffic and Human civilization is monotonous, dangerous, and disturbing-nowhere to camp either.
The climate and terrain is changing rapidly from a wet mountain environment, to an almost desert like boreal landscape that reminds me somewhat of western Colorado. A several mile gravel section of road appears near the Native village of Champagne, and I unknowingly watch as the last stream goes past and some 25 miles later, I am running low on water. At the 61 mile mark for the day, I emerge on the banks of Stoney Creek; a crystal clear mountain stream perfect for both drinking and bathing, and with an endless supply of ripened Raspberries growing adjacent to it’s flanks. I call this lovely place home for the evening and settle in with a sizeable grin adoring my mug, all the while snacking on raspberries for dessert.
In Whitehorse, I’m tossed into a world I have not seen in a long time. Since moving to Haines nearly three years ago, I have not left at all, except to go see an orthopedic last year when I broke my ankle at work. Haines is a quiet little Alaskan town; very little commotion at all. Whitehorse on the other hand, although quite tame by modern city standards, was abrupt, fast, and in my face a bit. I actually like Whitehorse. It is a small city of about 40,000 souls, with tons of mountain bike and hiking trails, the glorious Yukon River, and surrounded by endless wilderness. But on this day, to me here and now, I just wanted to get through it and back to my forest. Pedaling through town finds me along the Yukon River and past the hydro power dam and on the shores of Schwatka Lake, a Human made reservoir with float planes and powerboats here and there, but still a beautiful and serene place to be camped. That night, I awake about 1:00 am and noticed the first star in the northern sky since late April. Summer is slowly closing down and the days are getting a hair shorter each cycle. Before you know it, there will be some of the white stuff back on the ground, the tourists will be back in Florida, Texas and all parts south, and the Bears will be heading to their high country denning grounds to await the next round of Salmon entering the rivers in May.
Heading south on the Klondike Highway in the morning, I pedal all the way to Spirit Lake and devour a breakfast there before spinning down into Carcross (Caribou Crossing) and the beginning of what is known as the “southern lakes region” of the Yukon. In this part of the Province, there are many, many extremely long, deep, cold water lakes; meltwater remnants of the massive glaciers that covered this part of the Yukon a millennia ago. These lakes are a thing of beauty to say the least. Encased in wilderness, and rising from them mighty mountain ranges so remote, few have seen their endless and omnipotent shores outside of a powerboat. Soon, I can see the coastal mountains rising from the horizon and the beginnings of small yet prominent glaciers adorning their sides. The road now traverses the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake and around the bulk of Tutshi Lake, where this highway begins to tilt upward a bit, and the Yukon/B.C. border comes and goes. More climbing in the distance I can see, for White Pass is ahead, separating Canada from Alaska and the end of my Journey at Skaguay.
Finding no outstanding place to camp, I reluctantly pedal mile after mile, passing mediocre spots hoping the Golden Camp Spot will appear. After 76 long and exhausting miles, the fabled glory camp does not appear, and I throw down my nylon ghetto onto a deserted gravel pit and enjoy myself regardless, happy to be off the bike once and for all for the day.
Up bright and early the following morning I am sore, and there are rapidly moving clouds and wind coming through, but I feel good. It is only about 20 miles to White Pass from here according to my calculations. The road turns gently and ever so slightly upward from here and the landscape changes once again from the sub-alpine boreal forest to the higher and more colorful alpine arena of tundra, swiftly moving streams, and low lying brush and stunted Pine and Spruce. The route follows a glorious emerald river, adorned with many rapids and small waterfalls. A Bald Eagle soars overhead, and a Gull meanders behind, perhaps hoping to reap any benefits the Baldy might conjure. The wind picks up and it is a struggle to keep the Ogre upright on the hills. At timberline, the first of many low lying alpine lakes appear, and the stiff breeze grows fierce. Glaciers show themselves briefly during interludes in the cloud cover and before long they disappear once again into the thick alpine mist. Near the pass, I clamber over granite boulders to get a good look at Summit Lake and onslaught of the storm; wind and whitecaps embellish the lakes surface. A Gull scares up and hovers over me, squawking loudly that I must leave. She must be protecting a nest. I wish her well and skedaddle back to the bike and finish the last bit of the climb to the pass. At the top, a great and magnificent alpine meadow sits below and decorated with a mighty waterfall, so picturesque it is difficult to believe it real. At the pass, the weather is foul, and thoughts of espresso and a hot meal entice me. I peer at the highway ahead and it is a steep downhill for 14 miles to the sea. I had ridden up this massive hill back in 2013 when I rode from Skaguay to Deadhorse to Valdez, so I had gained a healthy respect for it’s magnitude. After tossing on my jacket and sporting hat and gloves, I fly downward and into the fantastic canyon, past more waterfalls and jagged peaks and soon there is no more. A gigantic cruise ship appears a half mile off; perched in the waters of the upper Lynn Canal, it’s passengers flooding the streets of Alaska’s biggest tourist attraction. I meander through the insanely crowded streets attempting not to hit or be hit by those not paying attention, which are many. It is a shock to the senses again. Haines will feel quiet and pristine compared to this insane asylum. Later, after a meal and some casual town observation, I board the marine vessel Le Conte for an hour ride down the canal to Haines, where a six mile ride from the ferry terminal deposits me back at my quiet little crib.
All in all, I had ridden most of this trip previously: the Alaska Highway portion back in 2011 when riding from Moab to Fairbanks, and the Klondike Highway/White Pass section in 2013 on the way to the arctic. Only the Home stretch of the Haines Highway over Chilkat Pass were new, but it is an outstanding pedal through some of the most beautiful countryside the North has to offer. I may even ride it again. Complete with a side trip to Klukshu, some exploring of random dirt roads in the forest and the pedaling in Whitehorse and looking for camp spots, I had pedaled about 385 miles over eight days. I can’t think of any reason why one would attempt to do it any faster; there would be too much to be missed, and in my opinion, far less enjoyable. These trips are not a race folks; they are to be felt and appreciated.
The Ogre pulls off another one.
One of the key players from my “new” life in Alaska as a home owner has been largely absent these past two years. It is something that sparks my soul and makes precious life even more so. It is something to maintain a youthful and vibrant self and outlook. It is spontaneity. Seems these last many, many months, every move in my life needs to be planned, calculated, examined, and inspected, largely taking any playfulness out of it. Spontaneity is what makes trips and adventures youthful and fun.
Spontaneity is what I crave. Adventure is what I crave.
I wake up Monday morning, 4 days before my planned departure date for my two week bike ride into the Yukon. I am not feeling it; I want to go now. I dress for work as usual, but hope that my employer Dave and the rest of the crew will see fit to set me free upon myself so I may leave right away. Everyone at work gives me the thumbs up, wishes me well, and I drive home casually with a grin on my face to pack the bike, smoke some Salmon, shop for supplies, and relax a bit.
The next morning I awake and am totally ready: everything is in order, Angela is coming by at 8 for some coffee and I will hit the road. It is raining a bit, but hey, it’s Alaska in the summer, that’s what is does here! I’ll be out of range for the next couple of weeks; when I return, I’ll do a full write up and photo share here on JRB.