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.
8 miles off the coast of Ireland Gerry Feehan’s “Buddy-Hike” discovers the Skellig Islands
Skellig Islands, Ireland (part 3 of a 3 part series)
Click to read Part 1, Gerry’s buddy trip to Ireland
Click to read Part 2, Hiking in Ireland
The remains of Skellig Michael’s 6th century monastery
Although the fine details of our trip to the Emerald Isle had been neatly settled months before leaving Canada, the folks at www.irelandwalkhikebike.com contacted me shortly before our departure to suggest a change in the itinerary. We could skip a day of hiking Ireland’s west coast and instead visit the Skellig Islands, a craggy set of rocks poking forlornly out of the Celtic Sea, eight rough miles off the Kerry coast. Initially I was reluctant to dedicate an entire day to seasickness. But there was something in the tone of the email that suggested this was an opportunity not to be missed. And so, foregoing my own health and thinking first of others—as I am wont to do—the boat trip for our group of six was booked.
We arrived in the sleepy seaside town of Cahersiveen on the fourth day of our weeklong Irish trekking adventure. Elaine, our hiking guide, drove us to the boat and cheerily waved goodbye. She doesn’t fare well at sea either and was happy to keep her feet dry for the day. When we arrived at the pier the sky was grey and the sea looked rough. There were a lot of anxious-looking people milling about the wharf. I wandered over to a fellow who was tying knots or scaling barnacles or some such other salty-dog task that identified him as a mariner. He was in fact the first mate. I inquired as to how the boat ride might be.
He turned to me, squinted, looked up at the sky and said, “It’s going to be terrible.”
“How terrible?” I asked.
“Miserable terrible” he said, with conviction.
“Can things get worse than miserable terrible,” I asked.
“Aye,” said he, “there’s awful terrible. That’s when, as you leave the pub, you hold your hand over your face so the wind don’t blow your teeth out.”
Reassured, I stepped around the back of the boat, practiced my vomiting stance, then returned to the gangplank, stepped aboard and prepared myself for a truly awful experience.
The 90-minute motor out was windy, choppy and exposed. The small boat rolled and rocked in the constant swell. But I’ve learned from vast seafaring experience that the best method to prevent seasickness is to stand up, hang on and concentrate unfailingly on the horizon. This I did for an hour and a half and landed with a full stomach—which is more than I can say for the pretty young Irish lass who, by the time the Skelligs came into sight, was tossing her breakfast of rashers and black pudding over the stern.
We weren’t sure what to expect of the Skelligs—other than the rough boat ride, a lot of nesting seabirds and a steep set of steps up a cliff to some ancient Gaelic ruins. As we neared the tight landing at Skellig Michael, birds were soaring and diving in a feeding frenzy. “What are they?” I asked the first mate.
“The big ones, those are gannets,” he answered, “And the little colourful fellars, them are puffins.”
My wife Florence looked up from her knitting. (Yes, she can knit onboard a dinghy in a gale.) “Puffins? Did you say puffins?” “Aye, Atlantic puffins ma’am, in breeding plumage.”
Florence was so excited she nearly dropped a stitch. She has yearned to see puffins for years. I thought we’d need to visit Greenland or Labrador or some other remote, inaccessible place to view these remarkable birds. And lo, here, on a last-minute Irish hiking side-trip, the cute little cliff dwellers appeared in unexpected, colourful brilliance—magnificent mating feathers on full display.
The small boat rocked into the landing. The first mate quickly tied off as the captain helped us hop-step onto the pier. Within seconds the boat was gone, back into the rough offshore sea, where she would wait, bobbing like a cork, for the two hours of our Skellig visit. We stumbled off the landing, regained our land legs and looked up. A narrow, exposed staircase, carved into the uneven rock face rose steeply upward, beyond the ken of craned necks.
Access to the islands is forbidden without a local guide. Our escort, Sinead explained that Skellig Michael was inhabited by Gaelic monks starting in the sixth century and then abandoned a few centuries later. It was these early voyagers who had carved the sheer staircase directly into the rock. At the precarious summit 180 meters up, they had built a few lonely stone structures. Here they lived a life of cold, isolated austerity, living off fish and bird’s eggs—scraping a meagre sustenance from the infertile rock.
The guide told us the steps were steep and uneven, with no handrails – and that those with even an ounce of acrophobia in their veins should not attempt the climb. Properly forewarned and with eyes cast downward to avert the consequences of a misstep, we began our ascent up the 880 steps to the monastery on the stony peak.
It’s 880 precarious stone steps to the summit
As we climbed nesting puffins, mere feet away, went about their business, oblivious to our presence. These birds evolved in an environment lacking predators. With its magnificent ruins and endemic unworried birds, Skellig Michael is a perfect mix between Machu Pichu and the Galapagos Islands.
Atlantic puffins in full breeding plumage
When we reached the top, the summit flattened into a small walled compound of beehive structures made entirely of stacked stone. And despite the absence of masonry, these lonely dwellings have withstood a thousand battering years of Irish rain and wind.
The Skellig Islands poke forlornly out of the Celtic Sea
The opening scene in the newest Star Wars movie was filmed at Skellig Michael. An unfortunate bi-product of this Hollywood notoriety will be a “Star Wars” chaser industry, where tourists converge on the island, not to observe the stark beauty of a 6th century monastery or the glorious plumage of horny puffins, but to see where Luke Skywalker eerily pronounced, “It is time for the Jedi to end.” Even without the boat ride, it makes one want to puke.
When we returned to the wharf, the weather had softened. The return boat trip was reasonably benign. Elaine awaited us when we docked, looking refreshed after a quiet stroll in the green fens above Cahersiveen. “Well, how was it?” she asked. The others gushed on about the stone stairs, the view, the ruins and the Darwinian fauna experience. I looked at her, holding my hand over my mouth in feigned illness, and said, “Wow”.
If you go: www.irelandwalkhikebike.com
Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in 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.
Hiking in Ireland (part 2 of a 3 part series)
Hiking Ireland (second in a three-part series)
‘A good walk spoiled’ is how Mark Twain described the game of golf. But clearly Huck Finn’s author never had the pleasure of strolling the links of Ireland. Having said that, after eight days chunking shots and misreading putts at Ballybunion, Lahinch, and a number of other venerable golf courses with seven buddies, I was more than ready to hang up the clubs and go walkabout.
Five of the lads made their way to Dublin Airport for the long flight back to Canada, but I and two lucky buddies remained behind at the Brooks Hotel, awaiting the arrival of our better halves – and the second portion of our Emerald Isle adventure. We were bound for a week of relaxed hiking in the west of Ireland. I was looking forward to a calmer, tamer chapter than the golf marathon. A road trip with the boys can leave one’s body – and brain – badly bruised.
We were slumped in easy chairs in the lobby of the Brooks perusing the Irish Times when a cab pulled up and the gals came swinging through the doors. We kissed hello while Connor, the affable doorman, unloaded bags. After a quick freshen up we hit Dublin’s late afternoon streets, introducing the ladies to the Stag’s Head, our favourite Temple Bar pub, where we slurped a Guinness, stared up at the stuffed stags staring down upon us and chowed down on some fine Irish stew.In the morning, before boarding the train for Killarney – the starting point of our hike – we enjoyed a city walking tour, visiting the statues of sweet Molly Malone and Oscar Wilde who, amongst other great witticisms, coined the phrase about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. As an unrepentant pilferer of other people’s ideas, I tip my hat to Oscar.
Making small talk in the taxi en route to the train station, I looked up at the sky and asked the driver, “Are you expecting rain?” He looked at me as if I were daft and said, “This is Ireland lad, we are always expecting rain.”
The train-view from Dublin to Killarney was uneventful – lots of tunnels and high hedges. On arrival, a dark-haired woman with a friendly face and a broad smile greeted us on the platform. Elaine Farrell introduced herself as we threw our packs in the back of an eight-seater van. Elaine, from Ireland Walk, Hike, Bike, would be our driver, private guide and constant companion for the week.
The forecast for hiking was not as favourable as it had been for our golf week but, as the locals joyfully proclaim: “You don’t come to Ireland for the weather.”
The first day began with a soggy boat trip to the headwaters of the Three Lakes, in Killarney National Park. As we motored the narrow waters, the third-generation boatman entertained us with local history – some of which may have been true – and an infectious laugh. We docked at Lord Brandon’s Cottage from whence we tromped the ancient Butter Road from Mol’s Gap back to Killarney town.
After two nights in Killarney, we packed for Cahersiveen and a beach hike on the north shore of the Ring of Kerry. From there we moved on to Dingle and a glorious trek skirting Annascaul Lake.
We climbed up and through a mountain pass connecting the south of Dingle peninsula to the north. As we reached the summit, we encountered a solitary shepherd clad in leather breeches, a soiled woolen sweater and gumboots. He also sported a grizzled visage.
I asked for his picture but he shook his head resolutely, “I’m not that attractive. Better to get a shot of the dog.” But the border collie was having none of it and hurried off in search of a wayward lamb.
Elaine turned and, as always, sloshed ahead, warning us around wet spots and cautioning against the few poisonous plants. “Beware the kidney vetch,” she said, “it can lead to Dingle chin.” She laughed, then strode into a field of bog cotton.
Every hike was different and unique. One afternoon we marched along a lonely beach, skirting sea-scoured boulders, tidal pools and the rising sea. Another day it was a narrow path, with ancient stone walls flanking our journey. There were high traverses and stunning outlooks to the ocean.
And every night was unique. A fine pub with great dinner. Fish and chips with mushy peas, spring lamb, stew. And good company.
Elaine always ate with us. In my experience it is unusual for a guide to eat supper with the guests; usually they’re exhausted after a long day attending to the whims of indulged tourists, so the tour boss lets them have a peaceful, solitary evening. But Elaine’s energy never abated. She was there ‘til the bitter end each night. And in the morning there she was, knapsack packed and water bottle full, ready to pilot us on a new adventure. These names won’t mean much to you, but if you’re thinking of traversing Ireland’s paths you should consider the Kerry Way, Derrynane, the Dingle Peninsula, Slea Head and the pilgrimage up Mount Brandon.
On our Mt. Brandon day, the final chapter in our weeklong experience, the summit was socked in – so Elaine spontaneously changed the itinerary. Scanning the horizon, she spotted the remains of a 15th century lookout on Brandon Head overlooking the sea and said, “Shall we give that a go?”
We jumped in the van, veering past ripening hay fields and a soggy peat bog toward what appeared to be a trailhead. Elaine asked the local landowner for permission to enter and directions to the summit – which were happily proffered – and off we trod up the steep pitch. The hike was a highlight – and the reward spectacular. As we climbed toward the ruins the path narrowed to a ridge; to the south all of verdant Dingle laid out below us, to the north certain death loomed over a sheer cliff.
We ate lunch in the lee of the old fort, protected from the buffeting wind by a crumbling wall. “Brilliant,” Elaine said. We all looked around and silently agreed.
If you go: www.irelandwalkhikebike.com
Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in Kimberley, BC! Thanks to Ing and McKee insurance and Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this great travel series.
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