I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I didn't grow up camping. I loved my childhood, but my siblings and cousins and I spent our summers performing plays we "wrote" like Killer Whale which was about...spoiler alert... a killer whale that KILLED. We were obviously too busy winning Tony Awards to strap tents to our backs and sleep outside in the trees. Besides, we lived in Illinois. What trees are we going to camp in? Corn stalks? Elliot, on the other hand, being of hearty Minnesota stock did plenty of camping and hiking, and it's him I have to thank for opening up a whole new world of experiencing nature to me. Since then, we've had plenty of moments with bears, and mountains, and Germans, (oh my!), but this latest backcountry camping trip in Kluane National Park may have taken the cake for the most "Holy shit!" of them all.
Our plan was to hike the 22km of the Ä’äy Chù (Slim's River) West trail to the Canada Creek campsite, spend the next day hiking the Observation Mountain route, and then hike out on the third day. The hikes in and out were almost entirely flat, but hiking over 13 miles with 35-40 lbs of gear strapped to your back and chest is gonna be moy-der on the hips. And hips don't lie. In fact, when I first pulled on my gear, I became a human weeble-wobble and thought to myself, "Oooo this is gonna be tougher than I thought."
We slept in our car at the start of the trail to get an early start. The first 5.8 km are actually on a road-like surface, so it made it easy for us to get to the first kilometer post in an hour and a half. We knew going into this hike that we'd have to do a few creek crossings because the ranger at the Kluane Visitor Center asked me in no fewer than three different ways if I'd done creek crossings on previous hiking trips. Technically the answer was 'yes' because we had to cross a few creeks on our way out of Watchtower in Jasper, but the part I left out was how I wiped out on said creek crossings and was only saved from totally falling into the water by the strong grip of my mountain man hubby. But I don't think that was the answer the ranger was looking for, so I just said "Yes". After we hit the 5.8km mark, we encountered our first creek, a little guy that had a log already laying across it. Easy peasy. It wasn't long though before we hit our second creek crossing, and that one was a little wider and the water rushing a little faster than the first. So we put on our water shoes, rolled our waterproof shell pants up to our knees, tied our boots to our packs, and forded the creek like we were on our way to Oregon. Because of the rushing water, we took each step gingerly, but the water was so freaking COLD that it encouraged a faster crossing. I'm talking "clench your butt cheeks cold". If I had slipped and fallen into the water, hypothermia would have been a serious concern, so I ignored how my legs were so goose-bumped (not even a word) that the goose bumps had goose bumps and took my time crossing. Thanks to that caution, we made it across that creek and the one that came later without incident.
The weather wasn't terrible, but there was a light sprinkle and wind in our face pretty consistently throughout the hike. Beyond the road-like trail the first few kilometers, the majority of the hike was across dried creek beds that had turned into rock fields. The decent-sized rocks embedded in the ground would make for some pretty uncomfortable walking had we not had really durable hiking boots, and the whole stark environment made it feel like we were walking on the moon.
We took a break at the 12km mark where we encountered four other hikers on their way out. We chatted for a bit, and they recommended going up to just the plateau, rather than the summit, of Observation Mountain because you get the same views but with lower elevation. The next part of the hike was through really muddy flats, and one of the guys offered his walking stick to us. We already had hiking poles, so we thanked him for his offer but maybe should have taken him up on it because his stick was much longer than our poles and there was quicksand in addition to the mud. Yes, quicksand. Like the kind you'd see in Looney Toons or the Fire Swamp in Princess Bride. I'd always assumed that quicksand's sucking capabilities were dramatized, but I can now say from experience that NOPE, Bugs Bunny was telling the truth. The quicksand in Kluane sucked our boots right in, soaking our socks in the process and making each step a difficult one. Although the mud was a pain in the ass to hike through, we got to see some moose and grizzly cub tracks, which was super cool. What was even cooler was the fact that they had already dried, which meant we weren't gonna encounter any angry mama grizzlies anytime soon. The countless mud and rock fields made it difficult at times to tell where the trail was, so we had to rely on our GPS and the footprints in the mud to get back on track.
We were a few kilometers from our campsite when the hike took us uphill through the trees. I'm not sure which sadist decided that the last portion of a 22km hike should be uphill, but I envisioned throwing them into the quicksand if I ever met them. At one point I contemplated abandoning my pack only for El to remind me that I'd have to climb up with it at some point, so we might as well power through. We eventually got through the trees to this hill ridge, and trying to be encouraging El saw a sign and said, "Okay only one kilometer left!" That was not what I wanted to hear; at that point the only acceptable thing for him to say would be, "We're here!" In exhaustion and annoyance, I said, "Are you fucking kidding me?!?", flung down my hiking poles, and sat down like a toddler who refused to move any further. But like a toddler I didn't have much choice in the matter; it was either sit there and be a snack for a curious bear or get up and keep moving. I chose the latter.
We got to our campsite shortly after and realized why the trail had taken us uphill to get there: it was really well protected from the wind. Given the wind had picked up and was on the verge of being called "howling", that was absolutely key. After we set up camp and collapsed for a few minutes, we went off in search of the water source the ranger had told us about. There was none, at least there weren't any creeks in close proximity to the campsite, and there was no way we were going much further than a few hundred feet to find one. Replenishing our water source would have to wait until our Observation Mountain hike the next day.
Four hikers and a dog showed up an hour after us, and you could tell they were serious hikers based on their gear and the fact that they'd decided last minute to do this backcountry hike. We chatted with them a bit and learned they were from Atlin, BC, a mountain town that's a pretty big tourist destination for fishing and hiking. We gathered from their conversations that they worked in the tourism industry, and that they loved dates (the food). Or at least one of them did because he kept excitedly talking about the dates he'd brought to eat. Like, several times. They were really nice, but El and I were freezing so we quickly ate our meal and warmed up in our tent. When we were prepping our gear before we left for the hike, I asked El if he thought I should bring my fleece leggings. He said no, so I was like "Okay, I won't pack them." Fast forward to us in our tent, and after changing our skivvies, I had to pull back on the hiking pants I'd worn that day. "Why didn't you bring a pair of leggings or something?", El asked. And that was how Elliot died...jk but I could have killed him at that moment. In his defense, he didn't realize that's why I had asked him if he thought I'd need them. It was a good lesson in communication for both of us, I guess, but that didn't change the fact that I was wearing damp pants.
Walking 22km anywhere will wear you out, but walking 22km, part of which was uphill, with 40 lbs of gear strapped to you will really tucker you out, and we were dead asleep before 8pm. Even though the hike was tough, we fell asleep proud of ourselves for making it...despite a temper tantrum or two from yours truly. The pride we felt that night, however, was going to pale in comparison to the next evening, but that's a story that deserves its own blog post...
Up next: The mountains were calling... and totally kicked my ass.
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