After a bumpy 90-minute drive down a dirt track that cut through dense forest and across rushing streams, I emerged from a pickup truck – next to a cabin that bore the teeth and claw marks of some overzealous grizzly bears. Kluane National Park, I later learned, has the highest concentration of grizzlies in Canada.
Luckily, I was headed for the water. Climbing into a small tin boat, my guide and I rolled out onto Mush Lake. Thirteen kilometres long, ringed by majestic mountains and filled with fish, the lake is the kind of place that would attract weekend warriors, were it located close to any settlement with more than a few hundred inhabitants. “Look around,” the guide, Allan Hansen, told me. “We’re the only people on this whole big lake.”
Kluane National Park is one of the most beautiful and isolated places on Earth. The park is located in the far southwest corner of Canada’s vast Yukon Territory, a place famed for its historic Gold Rush and a territory that's 10 times the size of Switzerland in land area but houses the population of a small town.
Both a Canadian national park and a Unesco World Heritage Site, Kluane’s 22,000sqkm are 80% covered by snow and ice. Much of the rest is temperate rainforest, thanks to the relatively warm waters of the Pacific Ocean lying just to the southwest of Kluane’s boundaries. While mind-bogglingly huge, Kluane (a First Nations word meaning “plentiful fish” and pronounced kloo-wan-ay) is also remarkably accessible, well-connected to a network paved roads, including the Alaska Highway. I was here to experience its best.
As Hansen piloted our little boat past a series of snow-crested peaks, he showed me the survival pack he had thrown on board. “If I die, this bag has everything you need to live,” he said. “Just make a fire, chill out and don’t worry. They’ll come for you from the lodge by nine o’clock.”
Luckily, we both made it to lunch. At one of Hansen’s favourite fishing spots, he offered to give me 30 minutes to catch us a fish before he cast his own line. I got a hit on my very first cast and hauled in a lake trout soon after. “Four minutes – not bad,” he said with a wry smile, looking at his watch.
Within the half hour, I had caught three trout, and we set up on a nearby beach amid a rugged beauty straight from a Jack London novel: red sand, log cabin and fish baking over a crackling fire. As Hansen prepared the meal, I asked if there was anything I could do to help. “Yes,” he said, handing me a blue can of Kokanee beer, a popular Canadian brand. “You can drink this.”
After our fresh lunch of trout, roasted onions and pineapple, we took a short hike, using hip waders to walk into the cold stream that emptied the lake. We were looking for grayling, a breed of fish found only in cold subarctic waters. Hansen showed me a number of different casts, and – as I tried everything from a simple roll cast to a complex double hull – I learned the hard way that fly fishing is more art than science. But the number of fish, and their seeming eagerness to get on my hook, made up for my shortcomings. Sometimes two grayling would jump for the fly. Within an hour or so, I had reeled in some 40 fish; at some point, we lost count.
Kluane also offers about 160km of backcountry trails, ranging from five-day treks to half-hour cakewalks. To experience the most scenic of the park’s non-aquatic attractions, I joined park guide Brent Little for a leisurely stroll.