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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 below 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

“India? Are you nuts?” Join Gerry for Part 1 of his series on India.

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Feature Image India part 1

This is the first in a four-part series on India

“India. Are you nuts?” an incredulous friend remarked. “Why would you want to go there? It’s dirty, crowded, smelly and full of stray cows.”
So, I was anxious as I stared out the window of the Dreamliner 787 on descent into New Delhi after a 14-hour flight from Vancouver. But Delhi was nowhere to be seen. The worst smog in the country’s history had enveloped India’s capital. Visibility was near zero.

Man carrying basket on head

Smog in India

The late-night ride to the hotel was a dystopian dream. With the twelve-hour time change we were in a trance-like state. The streets were eerily quiet. An acrid smell hung in the air. As we drove through dense smog, the moon made a futile effort to silhouette India Gate, Parliament House and the Prime Minister’s residence.

“What’s happening?” we asked the clerk at check-in.

“Diwali,“ he smiled.

Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival that pays tribute to the victory of light over dark, good over evil – and a highlight of the annual celebration is the setting off of fireworks. When Delhi’s 22,000,000 inhabitants simultaneously ignite firecrackers and other pyrotechnics, the sub-tropical air becomes thick with the stagnant refuse of gunpowder. Add to this the exhaust of 9 million vehicles, smoke from burnt stubble fields in nearby Punjab, plus a temperature inversion – and you have unimaginable, eye-searing air pollution.

“…At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium…”
Schools were closed. Construction was halted. Roads were sprayed to keep dust down. Farmers were threatened with fines for illegally burning rice stubble; all to no avail. The particulate index climbed, from just over 600 when we arrived, to 964 three days later. This level is 15 times the “safe” limit in India – and 60 times what would be considered hazardous in Canada.

Women selling wares

Street Vendors during Diwali

Then the currency crisis hit. In an effort to weed out “black money” – cash hoarded through corruption and counterfeiting – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetization of all 500 and 1000 rupee bills. That’s like cancelling all our $10 and $20 bills.

India’s 1.3 billion people were given a fortnight to exchange old rupees, after which the old bills would become worthless. The bank lineups were horrifying.

India’s is a cash economy and many people don’t even use banks. The country was in chaos. But surprisingly, most people we met – guides, drivers, shopkeepers, restaurant employees – were sick of the endemic corruption and in favour of this Draconian strategy.

Our tour group consisted of my wife Florence and me, together with our fun-loving travel-mates Kim and Simone from Victoria and Joe and Carla from Saskatoon. We struggled through these pollution and currency crises from the comfort of an air-filtered, credit card-accepting hotel. Meanwhile out on the streets the locals coughed, lined up and resolutely carried on life in 21st century India.

school kids some wearing masks

Air quality is an issue

But for me more astonishing and unfathomable than the choking smog and worthless bills was India’s overwhelming, perpetual traffic congestion.

The “sub-continent” has 54 cities with more than a million people. Four of these urban agglomerations have over 20 million souls. And even the smallest Indian village is a clogged spoke of trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and foot traffic. Pecking order is determined by size. Bicycles give way to motorcycles, which give way to rickshaws… ascending up to the big Tata transport trucks.

 

full bus carrying men

Traffic is insane

Buses overflow with humanity – arms, legs and heads spilling from every door and window. A moped transports an entire family – and their belongings. The lowly pedestrian occupies the bottom of the traffic heap, flirting death with each wary footstep.

At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium.

people watching cow in street

Cows rule.

This may come as a somewhat of a surprise but Indians are fantastic drivers. In what can only be termed functional chaos, traffic actually moves. Roads designed for two lanes harbour four – in each direction. The tiniest opening in traffic is immediately filled by the largest object that fits that space. India abhors a vacuum.

Horns blast non-stop in a cacophonous chorus, used not in anger but to convey a message. A little beep means, “Hey, I’m here.” A resolute honk indicates, “I’m filling that gap.” And an extended blast from a bus states unequivocally, “Coming through, out of my way.”

The first two weeks of our month-long stay in India were spent in the company – and under the watchful eye – of guide Anoop Singhal and driver Devinder Singh. Each morning Singh Ji, a soft-spoken Sikh, greeted us with a colourful turban and a contagious smile. (“Ji” is an honorific, used to show respect – and we happily started referring to one another as Kim Ji, Anoop Ji, etc.)

kids with balloons

Despite the culinary curry shock to my digestive system – and the occasional experiment with street food – I managed to avoid “Delhi belly.” I credit my intestinal well-being to a daily dose of local yoghurt. But even with the use of air masks, we all eventually succumbed to the dreaded Delhi cough.

White palace on water

The Lake Palace of Udaipur

After “seeing” the capital, we travelled a few hundred kilometers southwest to Udaipur to begin an exploration of the fabulous architecture of Rajasthan. Vast palaces built by fabulously wealthy Maharajas in the 17th century still dominate the landscape. The Lake Palace of Udaipur, the White City, is a stunning snow-white jewel set in a liquid surface.

In Jodhpur, the Blue City, we looked down on a jumble of turquoise buildings from the heights of Mehrangarh Fort. The last in the colourful triumvirate of Rajasthan’s famous towns is Jaipur, the Pink City, where in 1857 Maharaja Ram Singh ordered his palace painted pink to impress the British overlords.

India is a photographer’s paradise. No need to search out photo ops; simply plunk down on any curb and start snapping: a vendor hawking fruit, women in crimson saris haggling over spices, a cow imperially chewing its cud, children laughing, beggars begging. All day, every day the flavour, colour, texture, sound, energy and urgency of India unfolds spontaneously, unrehearsed.

On the last day of our stay in Rajasthan, we stopped in at the famed camel festival of Pushkar where local dromedaries are auctioned annually. I nearly closed on a fine one-humped specimen but was outbid by a clever camel herder from the Punjab. Just as well; probably would have been tough to squeeze a grumpy dromedary into my suitcase.

Next time: Taj Mahal and the Sacred Ganges.

Thank you to these great local sponsors who make these stories possible!

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.

Click below to read about some of Gerry’s other great travel adventures.

 

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I’m going back to Boulder Hut

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BOULDER HUT by Gerry Feehan

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.

Rosie (indifferently) guards Boulder Hut.

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.

unloading the helicopter

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.

a bluebird day

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.

lunch

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.

okay, so Sarah does most of the dishes

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 al fresco

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.

a great crew

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.

girls just wanna have fun

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.

a sliver of winter sun lights Boulder Pass

I’m going back to Boulder this winter – and taking along a few buddies – all rookies.

goodbye Boulder Hut

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.

Gerry Feehan

THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

 

Read more of Gerry’s travel stories here.

 

 

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