Last in a 3-part series on a Yukon road trip – Mt. Logan – Kluane National Park
by Gerry Feehan
“You’re not going to believe this. Sian called again. It’s just cleared up at base camp and the radar report looks good. It’s a go if you’re still willing.”
I’ve been a geography nut since I was a kid. My noggin is full of useless facts. 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, Mt. Logan in Yukon’s Kluane National Park, topped out at 19,850 feet above sea level. To my chagrin, North America’s highest reach, 20,320-foot-high Mt McKinley, was located across the border in Alaska. As usual, America had outdone us, even at something as Canadian as rock, snow and ice.
I’ve always wanted to see Mt. Logan. We were nearing the end of our six-week-long 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 St. 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 Mt. Logan. She added that the long-term forecast was poor. I was crest-fallen. 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 sat 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). Meters 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.
As we set off she pointed to a gaping cobalt scar part way up the snowfield, “Watch out for the crevasse.” We set course accordingly.
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 just cleared up at base camp and the radar report looks good. It’s a go if you’re still willing.”
We high-tailed 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. Mt 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 meters 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 kilometer thick.)
We helped Sian haul a heavy tent from its deep winter interment. She suggested we hike over the glacier to a viewpoint framing Mt. Logan. As we set off she pointed to a gaping cobalt scar part way 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 ice field. Due to its proximity to the warmer, lower Kluane valley and nearby Whitehorse, the St. 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, three-hundred kilometers away on the coast. Along the way, colorful pink Yukon wildflowers contrasted with the snowy splendor 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.
Gerry Feehan QC is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.
Thanks to these amazing local companies who make Todayville Travel possible.
Click below to read Part 1 in Gerry’s 3-part series on the Yukon.
Click to read Part 2 in Gerry’s 3-part series on the Yukon.
Click here to visit our Travel section and see more of Gerry’s stories.
Join Gerry for a wild ride through the Slums of Mumbai Pt. 3 of a 4 part series
This is the third in a four-part series on India
The Slums of Mumbai
It was in the rooftop restaurant of the Intercontinental Hotel in Mumbai, that we first encountered Joe Tourist. He was at the other end of the open-air bistro, ordering sushi. “Hey,” he shouted across the floor at the flustered waiter, “make that four tuna belly and throw in an extra order of unagi.”
Ordering sushi in India is ill-advised – for a couple of reasons. First, there is a near-zero probability that you will actually receive what you ordered and second, in the days following, you will almost certainly regret your decision to consume raw fish netted from the Bay of Bengal.
While events unfolded on the far side of the restaurant, we sat quietly enjoying a soft Indian evening and a delicious appetizer of aloo gobi and paneer fried in onion gravy. On the street far below the honking traffic crawled while pedestrians strolled Mumbai’s broad malecon, which serpentines along Marine Drive.
We overheard Joe Tourist ask for the bill, “La cuenta por favor.” (He must have mistaken Mumbai for the Mayan Riviera.) The waiter, barely able to comprehend English, stared blankly, mystified by Joe T.’s garbled Spanish.
Minutes later, as if on cue, a tsunami arose from Mr. Tourist’s table over the fishy tab. Ignoring the commotion, we dug into our delightful entree of tandoori chicken and bhindi masala, served with a side of steaming garlic naan. But serendipity had a cruel fate in store for us. This was not to be the last time we would cross paths with Joe Tourist during our adventure in India. (Part IV next month).
Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the fourth largest city in the world. India’s business capital is undergoing the greatest construction boom in the country’s history. Everywhere huge apartment buildings are being erected, scraping the sky. Yet just meters from these multi-million-dollar luxury condominiums lie Mumbai’s vast slums. Eighty percent of Mumbai’s twenty million residents live in these jumbled shantytowns.
In the movie Slumdog Millionaire the protagonist, an 18-year-old orphan from the Dharavi slum, relies on his street smarts to answer a series of obscure questions – and collects the grand prize of 20,000,000 rupees. In true Bollywood fashion there is also an elaborate dance scene – and of course in the end he gets the girl. 22 year-old Nic is also from Dharavi. He picked us up at the hotel for a tour through the slum he calls home. But first he showed us the sights of colonial Mumbai: Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Railway Station), the iconic Gateway of India in Mumbai Harbour and, across the street, the opulent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
On November 26, 2008 Pakistani militants stormed the hotel, setting off explosives and killing 31 guests. Nic was in the plaza across from the Taj when the terrorists began strafing the crowd with automatic rifle fire. “When the firing started, I broke away on my own,” he told us matter-of-factly. “Shooters are more likely to fire at a group than one person.” Duly noted.
We weren’t permitted to take pictures in the Dharavi slum. But what I saw is forever seared into my memory: a group of women crouched on haunches in a dimly-lit room, separating an endless mountain of used plastic utensils; two young lads – without the benefit of eye, ear or lung protection – shoving broken toys into a gas-powered chipper. I stuck my head in that forsaken room for a few seconds before the deafening noise and smell of churning plastic drove me out.
From the ‘plastic’ district, Nic led us past open sewers, under precariously dangling electrical wires and through narrow twisting passages to a quarter where the planet’s discarded leather coats are re-tanned. The gutter ran ochre with chemical sludge. Then, holding our breath, we entered a smoky neighbourhood where bricks are re-kilned. Finally we toured an area where dirty paint cans from around the globe are emptied, cleaned and banged back into shape. The gutter here ran all colours of the rainbow.
And every Dharavi rooftop billowed to overflowing with stuff the world has long-since discarded.
Amidst all this commotion folks lived, cooked, cleaned, ate. Children played, old men smoked, teenagers flirted, mothers nursed, babies slept. In this single square kilometre of squalid, stifling slum, a million people go about the daily business of survival. But to street-smart Nic, Dharavi is just home, the place where he rests his head each night.
If you visit India, you may wish to bring an attractive blonde along. Your group will be popular. We couldn’t walk down the street without someone requesting a selfie with our cute friend from Saskatoon. In Mumbai’s main square locals surrounded her like paparazzi hounding a celebrity. Thus began our symbiotic photo relationship with India. Locals took shots of our ‘BB Ji’ while we, demanding a reciprocal favour, photographed them photographing her.
Last evening in Mumbai. Returning to the Intercontinental from a late-night stroll along the Malecon, I was pooped, ready for bed. A motorcycle pulled up to the curb. “Jump on.” It was Nic. Fueled by a couple of Kingfisher beers and disregarding all common sense rules mother may have laid down, I climbed aboard for a death-defying, adrenaline-stoked roar down Marine Drive. Nic laughed and joked as we weaved at break-neck speed through cars, trucks, rickshaws, pedestrians – and other insane motorcyclists. I hung on for dear life. Eventually he returned me, unscathed, to the hotel door. “That was fun,” I said, shaking. He waved, shouted “Alvida,” and sped off into the bedlam.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night. Despite utter exhaustion, I lay awake listening to the incessant, unrelenting, honking traffic – and thinking of the millions of souls eking out an existence in the slums of Mumbai.
In the morning we left chaotic Mumbai for the relative calm of Kerala, on India’s extreme southwestern tip. The ‘land of coconuts’ is a tropical paradise dense with rain forest, wild elephants, monkeys, tea plantations – and spices. Kerala is home to a wonder of zesty flavours: pepper, cinnamon, licorice, chili, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, turmeric. For centuries the colonial powers fought, won and lost wars over the exotic spice trade.
And from these amazing seeds and roots comes India’s great contribution to world cuisine: curry.
Next time: the spices of Kerala.
Thanks to Rod Kennedy and Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for helping to make this series possible. Please support them.
If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C. (www.exploreindia.ca) capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.
I’m going back to Boulder Hut
I asked the pilot where we were bound.
“Boulder Hut” he said. “Where’s that?” I queried. “Twelve minutes that way,” he said pointing west over Northstar Mountain.
There are no baths or showers at Boulder Hut. Clean-up after a day of strenuous backcountry skiing involves soaping up in a wood-fired sauna, then dumping a bucket of water over one’s head. To my surprise a fellow guest, fit naked – and female – offered to do the pouring. I reluctantly acquiesced. Thereafter, the absence of a proper shower seemed trivial and I decided to forego my complaint to management.
Management at this remote backcountry lodge consists of owners Mark and Sarah Yancey, whose infectious love of Boulder Hut – and the remote lifestyle it entails – is evident from the moment they greet you on the snow-packed heli-pad.
Over the years I’ve acquired all the accoutrements for ski-touring – and on occasion I’ve skinned up from our condo on the Kimberley, BC ski hill – but I had never before toured in the backcountry.
So I was curious when a helicopter touched down at the base of the ski hill on a sunny morning in January. A group of people, ski paraphernalia in tow, was preparing to board. I put down my coffee, stepped off the deck and wandered over. I asked the pilot where they were bound.
“Boulder Hut” he said.
“Where’s that?” I queried.
“Twelve minutes that way,” he said pointing west over Northstar Mountain.
As I ain’t gettin’ no younger, I determined to be on that chopper before the season ended. And so in mid-March I was soaring over our place, watching my wife Florence waving goodbye from our deck. I hoped it was not a permanent farewell.
Moments later we were up and over the Black Forest on the ski hill’s back side.
Then we were into the rugged roadless world of the Purcell Range. We hugged a ridge of wintry peaks, summited Boulder Pass and descended into a broad forested valley. A tiny dot far below soon resolved into Boulder Hut.
After a welcoming lunch and safety briefing we strapped on skins and started our first ascent through the thick forest of old-growth spruce that provides Boulder’s gorgeous back-drop. The conditions were fabulous; a storm had just blown through. Fresh powder and sunny, bluebird conditions greeted us.
Drinking water is drawn directly from a small creek that flows year-round.
Every winter the media warns of avalanche danger in the backcountry. At Boulder Hut safety is paramount. With Mark and alpine guide Brent Peters constantly checking conditions – and leading the way through dicey areas – we felt safe and comfortable. When there was any hint of risk they dug a snow profile to check for stability and to ensure some rogue slab wouldn’t ruin our day.
Boulder Hut is remote, quaint and rustic – guests share an open sleeping cabin. If you forget earplugs (and sleeping pills), your repose may be ruined; exhausted snoring skiers make a hell of a racket.
In the evening guests are responsible for stoking the wood-burning stove. Failure to maintain the fire means for a long cold shivering night. As the only rookie, I was utterly exhausted at the end of each day and slept like a baby – with an assist from earplugs (and a little blue friend).
Drinking water is drawn directly from a small creek that flows year-round. The same stream supplies power via a small hydroelectric plant.
Boulder has no laundry facilities. By the fourth night my ski socks, hanging over the bunk to dry, had taken on a crisp flavourful bouquet – or so my fellow guests noted (I was obliviously comatose).
Boulder’s bathrooms are located al fresco; open A-frame jobbies where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Purcell Mountains whilst engaging in one’s morning constitutional. A sign planted in the snow announces whether the privy is occupied or available.
At Boulder Hut there is no cellphone coverage or internet. And guests are (gasp) expected to help with the dishes after dinner.
I’ve been to five-star ski lodges where a cat whisks you to the top of the mountain for each run. At Boulder Hut every turn is earned. Mark calculated that we climbed 14,000 feet (4300 meters) during our stay.
Sound like a miserable experience?
I had the time of my life. Mark, Sarah, their kids Grace and Alden, mascot Rosie the Great Pyrenees and my seven fascinating fellow guests made for a fabulous, unique experience.
I’m going back to Boulder this winter – and taking along a few buddies – all rookies.
Now if only I can arrange for a reprise of that fit lady with the water bucket.
Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.
THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.
Read more of Gerry’s travel stories here.
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