It began with a floatplane ride from Kluane Lake near Burwash Landing in southwestern Yukon. We flew over the Alaska Highway, a ribbon of concrete cutting through the bush and tundra of the Burwash Uplands. We crossed the Duke River reflecting blue from the clear sky and then followed Burwash Creek to its mouth.
As we glided over Hoge Pass I peered down hoping to spot a clear route up. We would ascend the pass from Hoge Creek and ascending this route would be the first time for me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see a safe way up. Of course not, I thought.
“Nothing comes easy in the Yukon.”
“Every step forward is a victory.”
This was my sixth trip to the area and for me it was exhilarating to look down on places I had hiked during the last 16 years. Three of those trips involved backpacking the entire 60-mile (90 kilometer) Donek Route, an epic experience each time.
Leaving Hoge, we flew down to the Donjek Valley and skirted the five miles (seven-kilometer) wide toe of the Donjek Glacier. I got my first ever glimpse of the elusive Donjek Falls, a landform I’d heard about but never seen. From the air it looked to be about eight feet high and was hidden between steep hills and glacial debris.
After crossing the mouth of Bighorn Creek, our pilot, John Ostashek of Rocking Star Adventures, set down our first group on Bighorn Lake and went back to Burwash Landing to pick up the last three members of our party. Once we were all together we stood on shore and waved as the floatplane soared above and slowly droned out of sight.
We stood alone in the ponderous silence of Kluane National Park, Yukon’s stellar park that sees few people – but is inhabited by grizzly and black bears, wolves, moose, golden eagles, Dall sheep, mountain goats and woodland caribou.
Our planned route was one my son Brandon and I had never done. It would take us into some uncharted areas, places that had never seen the sole of a hiking boot before. We were on a Sierra Club hike and Brandon served as my assistant leader. We had four other hikers with us from various parts of the U.S., two men and two women, all of us, except my son, in our fifties and sixties.
For two days, we camped near Bighorn Lake where we had landed, close to a vacant warden’s cabin, that was surrounded by coniferous forests and mountain peaks. It was a near perfect wilderness lake. Water birds, mostly scoters and phalaropes, glided over its calm waters and the delicately marked phalaropes often spun in tight circles attempting to round up bugs. After setting up our tents, we climbed the hills west of the lake and got good views of Kluane Glacier to the south, the Donjek Glacier to the north, and Bighorn Creek cutting its way to the Donjek River. High mountains bordered us in every direction.
After breakfast the following day we explored to the south of camp where the Kluane Glacier beckoned. The terrain was accommodating for KNP: flat and open — easy walking. We spotted wolf and bear tracks and scat, and we saw snowshoe hares, ptarmigan, and a merlin. On the way back, we watched, mesmerized, as a cow moose swam across the braided Donjek River.
On day three, we broke camp, donned our full backpacks, and hiked north, crossing five channels at the delta of Bighorn Creek. It was an easy crossing, flat and about shin deep. The hiking continued to be easy, as we walked in the open valley, crossing small streams every mile or so, until we found the perfect campsite: flat, soft ground, an unobstructed view of the Donjek Glacier, and a stream with clear water nearby.
During supper, we listened to the booms and cracks of the glacier, and watched house-sized pieces of ice calve into the river. With the light still good for another three hours in this northern landscape, we walked along the banks of the Donjek River for a closer look at the glacier. The 40-foot high cliffs were a mixture of white and blue ice mixed with sections of dark, ground rock.
Back in camp, as we brushed our teeth and unzipped our sleeping bags, we heard in the distance some canine yelping and squealing. We convinced ourselves that they were wolves, a far more romantic possibility than coyotes, which we knew were also present in this valley.
It was now day four and time to get going. We followed a faint horse trail that runs north and south through the valley, from Bighorn Creek to Hoge. Though there was no elevation gain, it was a challenging trek: the trail cut across fast-moving creeks that had to be forded, and led through willows and alders that were four to eight feet high and tight to the trail. We walked around huge swaths of ground, dug up where the grizzlies had searched for arctic squirrels.
Near Hoge Creek, the trail petered out so we followed my compass bearing through a mossy, wet forest and finally camped in the woods, on the banks of the creek. As expected, it flowed silty water that seemed to grind our teeth when we drank. It was a long day — about eight miles (12 km).
After double-strong morning coffee that was delicious even with the silty water, we hiked three and a half miles (five kilometers) straight up Hoge Creek, our path wide and rocky at first but narrowing with elevation. Clear streams poured in from the sides, one of them forming an impressive waterfall. On our last mile, the way narrowed into a canyon, which in turn forced us to cross the stream about ten times, with some of the crossings, due to the high afternoon water and steep topography, challenging. This took a lot of time and as we trudged upward, we looked for a suitable campsite. Eventually the creek bed opened and we found five almost flat spots for our tents.
Although the campsite had charm, it didn’t have the magnificent views we were accustomed to. But it was secluded with vertiginous walls of reds and browns and grays and with a clear stream thundering into Hoge Creek, a few feet below us. Because it was so far up Hoge Creek, we thought it highly unlikely that others had camped here before.
The campsite elevation was 4800 feet and Hoge Pass was 6400 so early the next morning we started with an abrupt climb of 1600 feet. The first third was steep and rocky creek. Then we reached a grassy slope, which was even steeper. The final push of a few hundred feet was straight up a rocky hillside that was so steep the rocks seemed to scrape our noses.
We sat in the sunshine and munched on cheese, macadamia nuts and mango slices. In the distance were snow-peaked mountains and below was the wide alluvial fan of Spring Creek where it flowed into the Donjek River. At eye level were the green meadows of the pass decorated with wildflowers and from the ridges above, a small herd of Dall sheep warily watched us. And with the climb behind us, we decided that it hadn’t been such a bad ascent after all.
The walk down the backside of Hoge Pass, on an old mining road that ran beside a trickling stream was, for us, all beauty and easy walking. The green hillsides were speckled with yellow poppies, the sun reflected off the water and a gentle breeze kept us cool. I meditated on the past and remembered that one year, for a little extra adventure on a day hike, we had walked down the creek itself, doing a little canyoneering and even some chimneying.
My reverie was disrupted when we came to Burwash Creek, raging with dirty brown water. I could hear the water forcing rocks down the creek bed. To the right, or South, was a rock wall where the creek flowed through an opening and farther upstream, hung the Burwash Glacier flowing from the U-shaped valley behind.
We walked down Burwash Creek, past the Warden’s Cabin and camped just outside the park, in the Kluane Game Preserve.
Doing the full Donjek Route in the past and going in the opposite direction, I had had little time to explore this area. The emphasis had been on making miles. In recent years, though, we have slowed down and I’ve been able to poke around a bit more. One year, we climbed the sedimentary Ampitheater Mountain with its distinctive ridges that gave the mountain its name, reaching the top around 11 at night. On another occasion I explored Badlands Creek and the headwaters of Granite Creek. Today I was overwhelmed with the desire to go even farther into the park, but time was again running short.
The following morning, our final full day, we slogged across four or five miles (eight to ten kilometers) of tundra made up of tussocks that bent and sunk into the marsh with each step. After one such sinking, I looked up to see a mother grizzly making her way across a hillside in the distance, with her cub following, trying to keep up. We hauled out our binoculars and watched and watched. After another mile of tussock hopping, we also saw some woodland caribou. We all felt privileged.
That night we camped on the mining road that runs beside the conspicuous hump known as Burwash Upland and watched the mountains in the fading light, dramatic clouds floating above, rain falling in the distance, and a rainbow.
Finally, during our last hours in the area, we hiked down the Duke River Road to our car, parked near the Alaskan Highway and as always, it was a thrill and a letdown for the trek to be over. My four intrepid companions had been rewarded and challenged and for me, it was satisfying to see them push through the hard times and to learn new skills in this rugged yet beautiful land.
As I said goodbye I started thinking about what route I’d take in 2017.
by Kevin Breen