In pre-metric days, I memorized details of the world’s highest and lowest: Mount Everest, 29,028 feet; Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, 35,814 feet. As a proud Canadian, I knew that our highest peak, Mount Logan in Yukon’s Kluane National Park and Reserve, topped out at 19,850 feet above sea level. To my chagrin, North America’s highest reach, 20,320-foot-high Mount McKinley, was located across the border in Alaska. America had outdone us, even at something as Canadian as rock, snow and ice.
I’ve always wanted to see Mount Logan. We were nearing the end of our six-week Yukon road-trip. The highway would take us through Kluane National Park, so I made inquiries. A Whitehorse friend told me it was possible to organize a flight from Kluane Lake into Logan base camp. The camp is on a glacier in the heart of the Saint Elias Mountains, a vast roadless, uninhabitable wilderness.
Sian Williams and her partner Lance Goodwin operate Icefield Discovery near Haines Junction, Yukon, on beautiful Kluane Lake. I called early in June to book a day trip. Sian (pronounced “Shan,” a Welsh name chosen by her bush-pilot father Andy) told me that due to spring’s late arrival they’d been unable to access the camp located on Kaskawulsh Glacier beneath Mount Logan. She added that the long-term forecast was poor.
I was crestfallen. We were booked to leave the North by ferry on June 21, the summer solstice.
We arrived in Kluane National Park with only a two-day window of opportunity. I checked in with Lance. He wasn’t optimistic. Sian had flown into the camp a week earlier and been stuck there, socked in by a brutal snowstorm. Kluane’s mountainous terrain means that all access is by air. And this region is too dangerous and unforgiving to rely solely on instruments so visual flight rules are always in force. No see, no fly.
We stayed put, waiting for the mountain weather gods to calm. Our first night, camped on the shore of frigid Kluane Lake, we enjoyed a repast of fresh Arctic grayling (supplied courtesy of my fly rod). Metres away, a grizzly bear, terrifying claws in close-up view, combed the beach in search of its own fishy catch.
The next day, we spent cautiously hiking an alpine ridge, bear aware. Fortunately, we shared the pristine view with only mountain sheep, moose and caribou.
The morning arrived when we needed to make a move for the coast. The solstice was nigh. I phoned Lance and he said, “I spoke to Sian on the satellite phone. It’s still a whiteout up there. Sorry.” We reluctantly packed camp and were on our way south when Lance rang back, “You’re not going to believe this. Sian called again. It’s clear up at base camp and the radar report looks good. It’s a go if you’re still willing.”
We hightailed it for the Kluane airstrip where we met Donjek, the pilot. He was born here, named after the Donjek River that flows into Kluane (naturally his father was also a bush pilot). As we took off, the plane’s shrinking shadow followed us across the emerald beauty of Kluane Lake. Soon the lake gave way to a snaking, silt-laden river. We gained elevation and the dirty toe of Kaskawulsh Glacier appeared. Then all was ice, white curving fingers spilling from mountain valleys. Dark lines of ground rock defined the course of each icy highway. Then all became snow, the line between earth and sky indiscernible.
We flew over the camp. Sian waved from below, a tiny solitary figure surrounded by white glacial enormity. Mount Logan, draped in sun and cloud, stood imperiously in the background. Donjek lowered the skis of the Helio Courier prop plane and we skidded to a smooth stop.
We climbed from the cockpit and walked through virgin snow to where Sian was standing in a deep pit, shovel in hand. It looked like she was cutting blocks for an igloo. Actually she was retrieving the prior season’s camp from burial under three metres of winter snow pack. (That’s how glaciers grow – year upon year of accumulated snowfall eventually compressing into ice. At Logan base camp, the ice is over a kilometre thick.)
We helped Sian haul a heavy tent from its deep winter interment. She suggested we hike over the glacier to a viewpoint framing Mount Logan. As we set off, she pointed to a gaping cobalt scar partway up the snowfield, “Watch out for the crevasse.” We set course accordingly.
When we returned, Sian boiled water for tea and chatted about the inner workings of glaciers and their role in hydrology, geography and world climate. Icefield Discovery’s headquarters on Kluane Lake house the Arctic Institute of North America, which conducts glacier research. We were in the heart of the world’s largest non-polar icefield. Due to its proximity to the warmer, lower Kluane Valley and nearby Whitehorse, the Saint Elias region is ideal for ice-core sampling and Arctic-style exploration. Canada’s other, more northerly polar Arctic regions are less accessible and more inhospitable.
After three sun-drenched hours on the glacier, Donjek fired up the prop and we skied off into the airy abyss, down the dirty winding glacial trail and back into the summer greenery of Kluane Lake. It was late in the day when we finally climbed into our RV and started south for Haines, Alaska, 300 km away on the coast. Along the way, colourful pink Yukon wildflowers contrasted with the snowy splendour of Kluane’s mountains – as did my beet-red, fried face. I’d forgotten to apply sunscreen.
Near midnight, we arrived in Haines, located in a narrow spit on a scenic Alaskan fjord. As we set up camp, a wildlife ballet greeted us. Two brown bears were dancing, performing a grizzly twilight duet. Behind them across the spit, like curtains on a stage, two majestic waterfalls cascaded into the ocean.
In the morning, we awoke with the solstice. Summer had arrived. Our ferry departure was nigh.
For a final boreal treat, we rode our bikes through a coastal rainforest. Dwarfed by thousand-year-old giants, we crested a hill in the dappled forest and came upon a large group of Japanese tourists, walking single-file. Each sported a pair of white gloves and what looked like a beekeeper’s hat. As we rode by, one by one they broke into spontaneous applause – golf-clap style.
On occasion, life is surreal.
Troy Media travel writer Gerry Feehan, QC, is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer.