During the first six hours at Findlayson Lake we had watched Kluane Air’s Beaver land so it could refuel and take the Brits, who had arrived mid afternoon, to the Lodge on a lake an hour away. The following eight hours or so were quiet and we slept.
Early the following morning we heard the plane again and rushed down to the dock. The pilot, Cam couldn’t take us to the Cirque yet because he had to transport Americans staying at the lodge, to hot fishing spots. He was there just to refuel.
He flew off and within three hours, was back again. This time Cam 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.
We couldn’t go to the cirque while Cam waited. He had to go back to the Lodge and take a fisher to Whitehorse so he could catch his plane back to the States.
Resigned to the fact that we weren’t flying soon, we sat sucking up the sun. That soon became boring so we walked the dusty road to a lookout point two kilometers uphill. We went down hill 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 a First Nation’s hunting camp complete with abandoned cabins that was just half a kilometer from the landing dock. 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 as it approached 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.
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 the area before we walked it and we could take photos. We lifted above Findlayson 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 in the bog.
As I peered at the landscape, a story Warren LaFave, owner of Kluane Air told me when I booked the flight, came to mind. 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, a distance of 75 kilometers of off-trail hiking. 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 climbers in his helicopter over Rabbitkettle River about a kilometer from its source. 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 because the water was too wild, they were unable to cross the river, which they had to do to get to the cirque.
“The pass where it begins is just a kilometer up valley,” Warren said, pointing. “No problem hopping over the trickle up there. Then you could go down river for a couple of days, up onto Mt Sidney Dobson and over to Brintnell Creek. That’d take you less than a week.”
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 the river below where the boys had been and the mountains looming up beside us. I noticed a road below. 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 towns 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 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.
I assumed that Cam was religious and could understand that anyone who flew bush planes over this country would want to be on good terms with god. I swore no more.
We crossed onto 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 against her mouth. I heard Cam chuckle, so I figured he’d given up worrying about God now that we were landing.
We hit the lake with hardly a bounce and taxied to the gravel bar where most visitors camped and as we disembarked we 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. “If you have any strength left after you’ve climbed up there.”