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Todayville Travel: Part 3 of Gerry’s Yukon Road Trip

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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.

 

A grizzly set of claws

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.

 

The airplane shadows Kluane’s emerald waters

Kaskawulsh Glacier

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.

A landing on skis

 

Sian had spent nearly a week alone on the glacier

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.)

Donjek helps to dig out last year’s camp

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.

The glacier toe

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.

Don’t forget your sunscreen!

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.

Yukon wildflowers

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.

A Grizzly midnight waltz

In the morning we awoke with the solstice. Summer had arrived. Our ferry departure was nigh.

A glacier highway

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.

Gerry Feehan

 

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.

 

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Alberta

“Can you tell me if there’s a good spot to fish around here?”

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Fly Fishing Alberta

I remember the first time I played golf. It was a beautiful summer evening. That first shot flew out over the blue Edmonton sky and settled in the middle of the fairway. I was 12 years old and, from that moment on, addicted to golf. My appetite for fly fishing began many years later, but was also sparked by a single, memorable event – when, in a classic example of beginner’s luck, I landed a big brown trout on the Bow River.

Over the last decade I’ve wasted a glorious allotment of life’s brief flicker engaged in this new, perplexing pastime. Fly-fishing, like golf, is a pursuit that involves a litany of painful moments on the steep road toward competency. Unlike golf however, fishing does not entail the agony of a triple-bogey or the humiliation of a whiff. But, like the errant swing of a driver, casting a fly can result in plenty of frustration and some unintended consequences. There are missed fish, tangled lines – even an occasional need for the apologetic retrieval of a barbed hook from the derrière of a fellow fisherman.

There are a few different ways to wet a line. If you have a boat, you can drift a river or float a lake. If not, you can stand on a dock or cast from shore. But best of all is to walk and wade a shallow river. Nothing beats the solitary experience of crisscrossing a remote meandering creek, searching for elusive, rising fish. Plus I get to spend long peaceful hours alone with my favourite person. Haha.

Fly fishermen are notoriously secretive about their favourite fishing spots. One fall evening, at a secluded spot on the Oldman River in southern Alberta, I arrived late and, in the near-dark, set up camp. I wandered over to chat with a couple of well-fed fellows who were sitting contentedly by a campfire, cooking smokies and enjoying a few brews. A pair of hip-waders drying in the setting sun identified them as fly-fishermen.

‘Hi there,’ I said. ‘Can you tell me if there’s a good spot to fish around here?’ ‘

Yup,’ said the more portly of the two, taking a pull from his beer and looking downstream. ‘Just that way a bit. It’s called Zippermouth Creek.’

‘Where?’ I asked excitedly.

He looked at his buddy knowingly, then turning my way, pulled a thumb and index finger across his lips. Then he laughed, took another sip and returned his attention to the roaring fire. I slunk away – rebuffed but undeterred. And in the morning I did indeed hunt down a nice fishing hole. And since then I’ve discovered a few Zippermouth Creeks of my own.

That’s Tony’s fly stuck in the brown’s tail. Honest!

Like every other endeavour, people who are skilled at fly-fishing make it look easy. A lot of time can be saved – and aggravation averted – by watching and imitating the pros. Turns out there are just three parts to the program. First, one must learn to operate a fly rod. Then, you need to figure out where the fish are hiding. Last is to determine what our pesce little friends are eating that day. My buddy Tony has patiently – and somewhat effectively – educated me in these three basic principles. But on occasion, even the master gets fish-schooled. We were drifting the Red Deer River on May 15th, opening day.

Tony was at the oars, scanning the surface, vigilant for signs of rising trout. Suddenly he pointed quietly toward a sunken log: ‘There, a big brown!’ He eased the boat toward shore and silently dropped anchor. Soon the telltale signs of a slurping snout re-emerged. Tony ambled onto the bank, tied on a green drake and, with precision, dropped the fly a few feet upstream of the log. The drift was textbook, directly over where the trout had been feeding. Nothing. Puzzled, he tied on a stonefly pattern and made another perfect cast. Nada. Finally he tried a caddis. Sure enough, the fish struck. But it was foul hooked and easily busted off. Tony, frustrated, gave up and, muttering about ‘dumb fish’, wandered up toward another hole.

I looked in my fly box, pulled out something that looked like a beetle, and tied it on. First cast the monster attacked. I set the hook and, to my utter amazement, the fly was firmly attached to the maw of an enormous brown. I reeled in the line but when the fish saw me – and I it – we both panicked. It set course for the middle of the river and the safety of strong current while I stumbled and fell on the slippery rocks.  I regained my footing and after five minutes fighting the brute I called for help: ‘Tony, bring the net!’ But the cascading river drowned out my wails. I’d have to land the beast solo. Which, amazingly, I did, although the fish’s mouth and tail were spilling out the edges of my cheap net. Tony arrived in time to snap a picture, verifying what otherwise would have gone down in history as just another of Gerry’s fictional fish stories.

Do I tie my own flies? Certainly not. I get everything from my dealer, Tony. It starts with a phone call:

G: ‘Hey, Tony, I’m outa green drakes and I need some, real bad.’

T: ‘I ain’t got no green drakes, I can get ya some browns. Maybe.’

G: ‘No, Tony, please I really need the greens.’

T: ‘Ok, ok, calm down. I’ll leave a packet in the rear mailbox. Leave cash. Use the back gate and don’t let nobody see ya.’

G: ‘Thanks Tony, you’re a life saver.’

Then the conversation changes:

G: ‘Oh, Tony, did I mention the big cutthroat I landed at Prairie Creek last week.’

T: ‘No, Gerry. Tell me more. Was it male, female? Any colour?’

G: ‘Golden red. A fat male. 18 inches. Maybe more. With a huge kype.’

T: ‘Oh, Gerry, that is so-o-o exciting! Tell me more.’

I call this 1 (900) FISH TALK. It’s kinda weird. But then, fly fishermen really are fanatical.

These days I spend about as much time casting about as I do strolling fairways – and if I have the choice between fishing and golfing, more and more I’m leaning toward avoiding those nasty three-putts and instead trying to land that big one.

By the way, did I mention that, after hitting that first big drive all those years ago, I duffed three shots in a row?

contact Gerry at [email protected]

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. We hope you enjoyed his Irish adventure.  He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

 

We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

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We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

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Editor’s note:  We will travel again.  And when we do, it will be with renewed anticipation and appreciation. In the meantime, please enjoy Ireland – A Buddy Trip, by Gerry Feehan.

____________________________________________________________
Despite my bona fide Irish heritage, I never had any burning desire to visit the Emerald Isle. But some years ago when I asked my mom if there were any place she’d like to go, she leapt at the chance to see Ireland, “Your father and I were there in 1970 and I’ve always wanted to go back.” So my brother and I, together with our better halves, took mother Teresa on a grand tour. We stayed at the venerable Gresham Hotel in Dublin, drove the Ring of Kerry, peered over the Cliffs of Moher and visited the multi-purposed Feehan Pub and Funeral Parlour in Tipperary. We even kissed the Blarney Stone.

Feehan’s bar and funeral parlour

My mom was astonished by the change the Celtic Tiger had wrought since the ‘70s. It was 2003 and Ireland was roaring with economic prosperity. What had been drab villages lined with grey terrace houses had evolved into affluent towns filled with bright new homes painted all colours of the rainbow. It was an emotional trip. On what would have been my dad’s 80th birthday, the five of us stood on a hill overlooking Galway Bay at sunset and sang his favourite song:

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland — Then maybe at the closing of the day — You will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh — And see the sun go down on Galway Bay

I get a tear in my eye e’en now as I recall that brilliant Irish evening. It sounds corny but I truly felt at home in Ireland. I felt a bond with the peaty earth and a genetic connection to the people, their demeanour, wit – and love for a pint.

I’d been itching for an excuse to return and, as Irish luck would have it, last year the opportunity arose. But just like the first time around, this latest sojourn to Ireland wasn’t my idea. It was my school buddy’s notion that a bunch of us – eight old friends – should celebrate our 60th year on the planet by gifting ourselves a trip to the golf links of Ireland. I’ve known this group for a while; five of us attended kindergarten together. Collectively my association with these fellas has spanned 352 years. I did the math.

So in late May we packed our clubs and boarded a jetliner bound for Eire. After a couple of nights wandering the streets of Dublin’s fair city, in a state of jet-lag-induced somnambulism, we boarded a private coach bound for the lovely port city of Kinsale. Distances on an Irish map can be deceiving. The 250 km traverse took us almost five hours. Fortunately we had a couple of guitars, some harmonies, plenty of bonhomie and the affable chatter of our driver, Mr. PaeBottle, to shorten the journey. And there’s no better way to pass an evening than marvelling at the serenity and bucolic beauty of an Irish country lane.

Ireland’s roads are ancient and narrow

In the morning we arose to a brilliant sunny day, a rarity in soggy Ireland, and chowed down a modest Irish breakfast of rashers, black pudding, white sausage, runny eggs, fried tomatoes, baked beans, soda bread, butter and preserves – all washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice and black coffee (I waved away the creamer to avoid the fat).

“Yes, once, briefly,” Morris said sheepishly, “no one deserves to be happy all their life.”

Sated, we departed for Old Head, our first test of links golf. I have stricken many a golf ball in my day but never have I enjoyed  (or endured) a more beautiful (yet painful) experience than my introduction to Irish golf.

The devilish 12th at Old Head

It is bittersweet to see a brand-new Titleist sail up over a gorse-laden glen, observe its apex framed by a heather-topped mountain, then watch its descent over a 200-foot cliff en route to a watery Atlantic grave. “Gimme a double,” was the oft-used phrase of our Irish experience – both on and off the course.

On the trip with my mom in 2003, the Irish cuisine was noticeably un-notable. Supper invariably consisted of boiled fish, boiled chicken… or some other bland boiled protein substance. And always there was the ubiquitous potato, served in two or three varieties at every sitting: mashed, fried, boiled, etc., stacked grimly on one’s plate. One evening, tired of the usual fare, my mother politely asked if she could have a vegetable side with her dinner. The waitress promptly delivered a baked potato. “I asked for a vegetable,” said my puzzled madre. “The potato is a vegetable ma’am,” deadpanned the waitress, then turned and delivered two plates of over-boiled haddock to an unimpressed American couple at the adjoining table.

This time round the food was amazing. The Irish have upped their cuisinal game dramatically, fusing traditional Gaelic fare with actual flavour. Even the potatoes were tasty (although they are now mainly imported from Cyprus; apparently the Irish countryside is too good for the lowly spud). And the Celtic Tiger is alive and well. The streets are full of fancy imported cars and well-heeled women. The shops are stock-full and pubs overflow with tourists. But Ireland is expensive. Menu prices are similar to Canada but the currency is Euros, so the tab is 60% higher when converted to lowly Canadian dollars.

Which is not to say the Irish look down upon us. Au contraire, they love Canadians. We get it. The Irish are a loquacious bunch, always quick with a quip but also appreciative of a little conversational give-and-take. We Canadians laugh – then give it back.

Tralee Golf Links

Our driver Morris PaeBottle was a patient and diplomatic man, his Tralee accent oddly tinged with a Norwegian-like lilt. On the drive from Killarney to Waterville Golf Club we nearly rear-ended a number of cars. After the third incident I asked Morris, “Why do the drivers wait until the last possible moment before signalling a turn?” Unperturbed he explained at length how the Irish had suffered through centuries of poverty, then said, “They’re afraid to wear out the bulb.”

Mr. PaeBottle overflowed with Gaelic pride but was not full of himself. I asked if he’d ever been married. “Yes, once, briefly,” Morris said sheepishly, “no one deserves to be happy all their life.”

When we arrived at Waterville the friendly starter hurried out to help Morris unload clubs from the coach’s boot. My bunkmate Martin began gushing to them about how pretty were the Irish lasses.

“That barmaid in the pub last night took my breath away,” Uncle Marty said. “Surely, that would be a blessing,” Morris said, under his breath.

This wasn’t just a golf trip. A few of the lads are musical, so it was fitting that we’d join in a late-night ceilidh (traditional music, singing and dance) at the Cornerstone Pub in Lahinch.  The boys acquitted themselves nicely and received a thunderous ovation – before being politely asked by the barman to exit the stage and let the truly talented locals reel off a jig or two.

It was a rare treat to join a group of long-time friends on a journey to the old country. It may happen again one day but unfortunately some of the vintage 1957 parts are wearing out. One pal, I’ll call him “TD”, struggles with his hearing.

Memento from Ballybunion

At Ballybunion golf links, which is as famous for its fiendish layout as for its long history, he had a particularly bad finishing hole. As we left the 18th green I noticed him exiting in the wrong direction.

“TD,” I shouted, “the clubhouse is this way.” He looked at me, held up some fingers, and said, “Seven.” As always, Morris was standing by at the finish. He looked at me, winked and said, “Those hearing aids are a real eye-opener.”

I proceeded briskly toward the 19th hole and, killing two birds with the proverbial one stone, said to my scorekeeping friend Sid, whom I’ve known for almost six decades and whose turn it was to buy, “Gimme a double.”

The 19th hole

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. We hope you enjoyed his Irish adventure.  He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

 

Angling and adventure greet our intrepid traveller on Padre Island

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