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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
came to the Yukon in 1975 to help prepare the park for its opening the
following year. The park, he told me, is home to the youngest and highest
mountains in North America, including the 5,959m-tall Mount
Logan, Canada’s tallest peak. Since Kluane lies on a major fault line, the
rubbing of the two plates constantly drives the mountains even higher, so they
rise at a rate similar to the speed of growing fingernails. “It’s hard to think
of terra firma moving at all, but this is a landscape in motion,” Little said.
I got an
even better understanding of the landscape’s ongoing formation from the Rock
Glacier Trail, with its famed glacier born on the slopes of the nearby Saint
Elias Mountains, whose vertiginous peaks towered over us. We pulled into a small
lot with just four or five parked cars (“Wow, it’s crazy busy today,” Little
said, without a hint of irony). Within 15 minutes, we had hiked along a wooden
boardwalk and up an incline, above the tree line, to the rock glacier – a landform
created when glacial ice moves loose pieces of stone into a vast area. Walking
through a field of boulders, we took in a vista of blue lakes, green forest and
snow-capped peaks. “That’s the Dalton Trail,” Little said, pointing. “It was
the longest but the lowest of the Klondike routes. During the Gold Rush,
prospectors spent five long days on it, from the Pacific Ocean to the Yukon
appreciate both the size and grandeur of the park, Little suggested I see it
from above. So I headed to the tiny airstrip in Haines Junction, the closest
village to Kluane, and climbed aboard a six-seat Cessna 207 aircraft. As we ascended
up over mountains and down into a deep valley, my pilot, Melissa Hough, pointed
out Disappointment River. “It was named by depressed miners who got to the Gold
Rush too late,” she said.
The sun had
just begun to wane. The massive glaciers, which looked like giant tire treads
running through the mountains, reflected orange. Soon we were flying over the
heart of the park, with nothing but snow and ice below. Mount Logan sat before us on the horizon.
Hough pointed out the (invisible) Continental Divide; Pinnacle Peak, which bore
an uncanny resemblance to the Matterhorn; and the Kaskawalsh, South Arm and
Lowell Glaciers, riddled with crevasses 1km wide at their thickest points.
As we prepared
for landing, I marvelled. Here, in this little-known corner of Canada, was one
of the largest parks in North America. And I had to explore in three ways – by
water, land and air – to even start to fathom its magnitude and magnificence.
and August) is the best time to visit Kluane National Park. As it lies in a
subarctic climate zone, the season is short, with warm temperatures lasting as
little as two months.
Canada’s major carriers – Air Canada and
WestJet – fly into the territorial capital,
Whitehorse, from Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. From there, the park is a
two-hour (150 kilometres) drive west along well-maintained roads (including
part of the Alaska Highway).
Dalton Trail Lodge is located near the
park’s boundary. It provides comfortable accommodations, good meals and some of
the most legendary fishing and hiking guides in the Yukon. The lodge also offers
a number of fishing and eco-adventure packages.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the size of Kluane National Park. This has been fixed.