The three of us stood stripped to our underwear and contemplated the rushing glacial stream. The water came to hip height—if we wanted to stay dry we’d have to undress still further—but wordlessly we agreed to cling to this one last vestige of propriety. And then, backpack waist straps unclipped in case of calamity and using each other’s bodies for support, we inched our way through the numbing torrents.
This was the last morning of our nine-day hike along the Donjek Route, a spectacular 80-mile loop past the Donjek Glacier in Kluane National Park in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Together with the adjoining parks of Tatshenshini–Alsek in British Columbia and Wrangell–St. Elias and Glacier Bay in Alaska, Kluane (pronounced Kloo-AH-nee) comprises 38,000 square miles of unbroken wilderness: That’s almost the size of the state of Kentucky. For the last nine days we hadn’t seen another human soul. But while the interior of this vast backcountry is seldom imprinted by the heavy boots of bipeds, it’s a popular stamping ground for grizzly and black bears, wolves, lynx, mountain goats, and moose. The park is home to the largest concentration of Dall’s sheep in the world, as well as more than 150 bird species including trumpeter swans, peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons, and bald and golden eagles.
The Donjek Route, Parks Canada emphasizes, is not a trail. “Wilderness travel experience is essential, including excellent route finding skills, map and compass skills, and creek/river crossing skills,” the rangers insist in their literature. I had none of these estimable qualities. However, the other two in my party—my guide Stefan, from Whitehorse-based adventure company Nature Tours of Yukon, and his girlfriend Cynthia—were made of stern muscles and sterling map-interpreting stuff, and seven years in British boarding schools had bestowed on me a stiff upper lip and an unwillingness to complain.
We’d started hiking at an old horse camp that lay three miles down a rickety old road off the Alaska Highway between Destruction Bay and Burwash Landing. Tumbledown cabins told their own silent story of the land’s past: gold was found in the Kluane area in 1903 by Tagish Charlie, one of the trio that had struck the rich seam in the Klondike seven years earlier. A bit of a rush ensued but the deposits proved disappointing and most prospectors quickly moved on. We trekked along a well-defined mining road, etched into the landscape by those stampeders. But, as had the gold they once sought, it soon petered out. The path became a grassy track pocked with moose tracks and wolf scat. Then it sank into the sodden, peaty ground, and we struck out across the tundra.
The going was slow. Every footstep sank into the hummocky terrain and the mosquitoes were many. Our packs, at this early point of our journey, were heavy – we girls started with almost 45lbs each while Stefan was carrying 60lb. Frequently, we stopped for breaks.
The view, however, made up for our discomforts. This was a vast plateau giving onto distant mountains and as summer turned to fall the mosses gleamed golden alongside silvery lichens, scarlet bearberry plants and bright-amber willow. Every now and then we heard the beating of wings and turned to watch small flocks of ptarmigan alighting from the shrubs. We ran our fingers through the leaves of blueberry plants and ate the plump fruit that fell into our hands.
“Look!” said Cynthia one morning as we ate breakfast by our campfire. “Look at that huge porcupine!” Stefan and I turned to admire this strangely voluptuous creature that stood by the creek and gazed back at us, its eyes shiny black marbles in a velvety face surrounded by plush, pointed whiskers.
Later that day, we climbed Hoge Pass. The view from the top was truly extraordinary. It was utterly enormous. We stood among wispy clouds on the crest of a copper-colored hill and looked down upon the wide grey valley of the Donjek River, whose braided waters weaved like fine strands of silvery hair towards the chiselled granite mountains beyond. Beneath us, a golden eagle soared.
Over the brow of the next hillock, we found a small flock of Dall’s sheep – ewes with their lambs – that stood grazing, then cantered away when they saw us. We slid down a steep bank of loose scree and proceeded to clamber over the boulders that lined the creek bed. By now I was exhausted and, as I climbed down from one rock, my legs buckled beneath me.
“Are you OK?” asked Stefan. My British boarding school stoicism deserted me.
“No,” I replied. The rigors of the trip were catching up with me. We stopped to camp.
The river flowed close to the cliffs; we needed to scramble up them the following morning and then bushwhack to find an old horse trail. Long disused, this trail was for the most part well defined, but every now and then it disappeared under soft platinum-colored glacial mud. We crossed dry creeks whose rocks were tinged pink with mineral deposits. A red fox with a white-tipped tail darted between them. As we arrived in a grove of balsam poplar trees, whose late-summer leaves shone saffron-yellow above green grasses smeared with the blood-red leaves of bearberries, we saw to our right the Donjek Glacier, which cast a dramatic streak of bright white onto this vibrant landscape. We camped near its toe that night, and lay in our sleeping bags listening to the thunderous roars of calving ice.
We spent two nights in this camp. We’d been hiking tough terrain for four days and on our fifth we needed a rest. We took a short stroll to the glacier, and as we ate our lunch we watched tonnes of ice crumble like sifted sugar into the water before us. Refreshed the next morning, we proceeded once more along the horse trail though lush meadows, which now stood against a backdrop of the snow-capped St Elias Mountains. We stopped for a break, and sat and stared at the view until the high-pitched howling of coyotes broke our silence.
Rain set in during the final leg of our journey. We lay in camp for a day, waiting for the weather to clear. It turned to snow. We took out our maps and rewrote our itinerary: Instead of hiking for two days via Cache Lake and Copper Joe Creek, we’d attempt to walk out in one by following the shorter route of the Donjek River.
We hoped to walk along the gravel bars of the riverbed but the water was too high. So we climbed the cliffs and bushwhacked. The creeks rose and rushed. We changed our boots for sandals and waded through deep streams so icy that our feet screamed in pain and our legs turned numb with the cold.
“Good, there’s a bridge!” Stefan smiled to himself as we arrived at one frothing torrent over which a tree trunk had fallen.
“I can’t walk over that,” I said flatly. The trunk lay perhaps five feet above the water. Stefan looked thoughtful. I had amply demonstrated my inability to cross creeks by falling into two within a 15-minute period a couple of days earlier.
“Do you think you could cross it if I tied a rope as a handrail?” he asked. And then he danced nimbly back and forth across the trunk to fix it as if there were nothing but playground rubber below.
We continued through the scarcely penetrable bush, hauling ourselves over the tangled trunks of uprooted trees. We scrambled up and down steep slopes thick with shrubs in quest of game trails that might indicate an easier route. We attempted to navigate bogs and marshes, hopping from clump to clump of saturated moss. And then we gave up. Our boots were full anyway. We might as well just wade through.
We bushwhacked for nine long hours on that final day and when we came to the last few metres, where the trees had been cleared and a road put in, I’m sorry to say that we rejoiced at the sight of human interference. This was certainly one of the most magnificent wildernesses that I had ever hiked through. The panoramas from the mountain passes, the colors of the tundra, the mighty roar of the calving glacier – all had been stunning. But my shoulders ached and my feet were wet – and, just for now, the sheep and the porcupines could keep it.
For guided hikes of the Donjek Route, contact Nature Tours of Yukon
. For those who choose to go unguided, route descriptions are provided by Parks Canada and by Vivien Lougheed in her Kluane National Park Hiking Guide. Note that it’s mandatory to register all overnight trips in Kluane National Park. The best time to do this hike is late August or early September, when the fall colours are vibrant, and the mosquitoes fewer than in full summer. For more information, see the Parks Canadawebsite. Travel Yukon has information on Yukon wilderness adventures.