Kluane Air Flies in Nahanni Air

Kluane Air Flies in Nahanni Air

 We booked with Kluane Air to fly us into Glacier Lake, the landing spot for those going into the Cirque of the Unclimbables, an international climbing destination located in the Nahanni National Park. Our rendezvous with the airline was at Finlayson Lake located on the Robert Campbell Highway, north of Watson Lake, Yukon. We expected to be flown into Glacier Lake within a few hours of our arrival at Finlayson Lake.


After a long two-day drive from Prince George, Peggy wheeled her fully-loaded SUV into a gravel pit skirting the lake. We were met by a sun-bleached cabin perched at one end of the gravel pit and a row of sports vehicles framing the lakeshore.


After checking out the cabin, we dumped our gear on the ground so we could load it quickly when our plane arrived and settled into some lawn chairs we had found under the porch of the cabin. I had barely read a chapter when a car full of Brits pulled up, checked out the cabin and asked when their plane would arrive.

We shrugged in unison and returned to reading.


After six hours of swatting mosquitoes and reading our books, Linda jumped up and shouted, “I hear a plane!”


We dropped our books and ran to the dock to watch the Beaver land. The Brits had sauntered down after us and arrived just as Cam, the pilot was explaining that he’d be refueling and then taking the Brits to the resort/lodge next. We knew from the Internet advert that their stay at the lodge would have cost them about $500 each a night.


Fair enough we thought and trudged back to the lawn chairs to prepare supper. The ambiance of the gravel pit with the loons calling from the lake made our wine taste sweeter than ever.


Early next morning, while sipping coffee on the deck we again heard the plane and again rushed down to the dock only to learn that Cam couldn’t take us to the Cirque yet because he had to transport a group of Americans staying at the lodge to some hot fishing spots. He was there just to refuel.


He flew off and, within three hours, was back again. This time he dropped off an assistant who fired up one of the derelict trucks that was parked in the gravel pit and loaded it with empty propane containers. The assistant was heading into Watson Lake to refill the containers and would need a plane pick up when he returned four or five hours later and we couldn’t fly to the cirque during the wait because Cam had to fly a client staying at the lodge into Whitehorse to catch a plane.


Resigned to the fact that we weren’t flying that afternoon, we sat sucking up the sun but we soon got bored so we walked the dusty road to a lookout point two kilometers uphill. We then went down hill, past our waiting spot at the lake and explored a creek that crossed the road until the bush whacking became unpleasant. We returned to the gravel pit and had lunch. We took our packed gear to the dock. Finally, we checked out some abandoned lake-front cabins. Once back at the gravel pit we tapped our toes while Peggy sang tunes from the 1960s. I was impressed that she remembered every word of every song.


“I hear something!” Linda shouted, interrupting the music. We froze. Sure enough we could hear the now familiar drone of the plane’s engine approaching the lake. We raced to the dock and waited, cheering to its arrival. Cam confirmed that it was finally our turn to fly.


But Cam seemed to stall. He checked the fuel barrels up at the gravel pit and he had a snack. He refueled the plane and he cleaned out the back seat where the fishers had left some garbage. He offered to take photos of us and he looked at our maps to see what we had in mind as hikers. He shook his head dubiously at our plans.


Finally we loaded our packs and ourselves. Since it was the first time Peggy had been in the area, we put her in the front so she could get a bird’s eye view of the terrain.


Cam told us that, due to the clear skies, we’d be able to fly over the Brintnell Glacier, circle the cirque and approach the lake from the east. This was a lucky break; we could see a lot of the area before we walked it and we could take photos. We lifted above Finlayson Lake and started across the tundra. It looked inviting and nonthreatening from where we were, but in reality walking that bog would take all one’s energy to go a mile plus all one’s blood to feed the mosquitos that lay in wait.


As I peered at the landscape, a story came to mind that Warren LaFave, owner of Kluane Air told me when I booked the flight. A few years prior, Warren had been at a conference in Oregon and met up with two guys who planned on walking from Tungsten into the Cirque. They believed they could do it in two days. No matter how much Warren tried to tell them this was not possible, they knew better.


The following summer, Warren happened to be flying some passengers in his helicopter over Rabbitkettle River about a kilometer from its source. Looking down, he noticed two fellows on the river waving wildly for his attention. Suspecting it was the two guys from Oregon, he left them waving and flew over the Brintnell Glacier to deliver his passengers into the Cirque.


An hour or two later, he returned and landed close to the fellows. They were starved and miserable and unable to cross the river, which they had to do to get to the cirque, because the water was too wild.


“The pass where it begins is just a kilometer up valley,” Warren said, pointing. “No problem hopping over the trickle up there. Then you’d have to come back down the river on that side which would take about two or three days and then another two or three very long days to get over to Glacier Lake.”


But the boys had had enough. They agreed to pay Warren for a lift back to Tungsten. This country was too wild for them.


We could see a new road had been carved into the hills going toward Howard’s Pass and a moment later, the Rabbitkettle River below where the boys had been. When I asked, Cam told me that it was a new mining road that ran from Tungsten to Macmillan Pass, which is north west of Ross River by about 500 kilometers.


“Need to carry gas if you’re on that road,” Cam said. “No stations along the way once you pass Ross River.”


Within fifteen minutes, we were deep into the Mackenzie Mountains where most creeks, valleys and peaks have never seen a human boot. The mineral distribution lent shades of red, yellow and brown to the rock and the upper valleys were fed by melting glaciers. I kept peering down and thinking how much I’d like to visit each and every valley we passed.



“Holy shit,” I muttered, the speaker of my headphone on full blast.


“No more of that,” Cam said.


Assuming that because he flew bush planes over this rough terrain, Cam wanted his passengers to stay on the right side of God. I swore no more.


We crossed over the Brintnell Glacier, its crevasses threatening even from the plane. The granite of the peaks in the Cirque came into view. We circled once and flew to the east end of the lake. As we dropped the immense monolith of Cathedral Mountain guarding the entrance to the Cirque loomed ahead.


“Oh my fucking god!” Peggy hollered, her eyes wide, her hands slapping her mouth. I heard Cam chuckle. I guessed that he had stopped worrying about God now that he was landing.

We hit the lake with hardly a bounce and taxied to the gravel bar where most visitors camped and were greeted with a whoop and holler by the park officials. Peggy jumped down and stared at Cathedral, her mouth open.


“Tomorrow, you can touch it Peggy,” I said.