Our journey from Dawson City into Alaska via the Top of the World Highway took us a few hours and one border crossing at a very isolated, very tiny, but very friendly, border patrol agency. Lucky for the agents, it’s closed for the winter, and we happened to squeak by just a few days before the season ended. Also lucky for the agents is the fact that the Top of the World Highway is supposed to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world, with sweeping views of mountains, trees, creeks, and pure wilderness. Unfortunately for us, the first half of our journey was shrouded in clouds and rain, so we missed out on the more spectacular views on our way to that night’s destination, Tok, Alaska.
Tok is a small town that sits along the Alaska Highway and was pretty much what we pictured in our minds: a big hunting supplies store, a greasy spoon called Fast Eddy’s where you can get everything from pizzas to a $10 salad bar (which I did, and Elliot gave me shit for it), and more than one place called The Bear’s Den ___(insert lounge, liquor, bar, etc.) It was the last day of moose season in Canada, so the roads on our way into town were lined with tractor trailers loaded with antlers and coolers. To really drive the point home, there were plenty of hunters dressed in a combination of bright orange and camouflage no matter where we went in town. Combine the town setting with the fact we were staying in the Wolf Cabin at Burnt Paw Cabins and drank a beer called Alaskan Husky IPA at dinner, and our Alaskan experience seemed to tick all the boxes. I loved it.
The next day’s journey took us on the Alaska Highway to Haines Junction, and that route gave us what the Top of the World Highway didn’t: abundant sunshine so we could enjoy all the views. It took about five hours to cross back over into the Yukon, mostly due to us stopping to take pictures of everything around us. From the snow peaked mountains, like Canada’s tallest – Mount Logan, to the gold and green trees that screamed “Fall is HERE, bitches!”, to the loop around gorgeous Kluane Lake, the drive did not disappoint. There were still, however, a few portions of the trip where the earth had been totally scorched by recent wildfires, and we could see some small fires still smoldering on the hills. Timing was fortunate for us because we had arrived at the tail end of the wildfire season, and for the most part things had petered out.
Where Tok is a hunting haven, Haines Junction is a hiker’s dream thanks to its valley location and being home to the impressive and modern Da Kų Cultural Centre. You have to register any overnight backcountry camping in Kluane at the National Park Visitor Centre (within the Cultural Centre), but rather than being bureaucratic it was super helpful because the ranger rented us a bear canister (apparently the one we had wasn’t approved), looked up the forecast for us, and gave specific tips for hiking the Ä’äy Chù (Slim’s River West) trail and going up Observation Mountain. Much like the rest of the Yukon, a lot of Haines Junction’s shops and cafes were already closed for the season, and we had made it just in time before the Centre itself closed its doors for winter.
One of the perks of going to the Yukon at the end of season is the fewer number of people around, which is how we ended up with the most spectacular campsite overlooking the lake and mountain at Kathleen Lake Campground. Or so we thought it was spectacular. Given it was on a hill, as the wind picked up throughout the night, which it did with an effing vengeance, the harder it was to keep our tent staked into the ground. The wind got so insane that El basically didn’t get any sleep b/c he was trying to hold down the tent with his body. I, as I am in most camping situations, was utterly useless. Poor guy.
We had an early start the next morning, well at least for me b/c it was basically a continuation of the night for El, and decided to make breakfast in the communal kitchen next to the lake while the sun was still rising. I brought our stove, pot, and freeze dried food into the kitchen and almost made freeze dried food in my pants when I heard rustling in the corner. When someone said “Morning” to me, I don’t know if I was more relieved because it wasn’t a rabid bear or more pissed b/c people were squatting for free in a communal space. I mumbled a “Hey” back, avoided eye contact because I didn’t know what state of dress they were in, and hightailed it back outside with our stuff. While I grumbled to myself about having to cook breakfast outside, El sharply whispered “Look!” and pointed to the lake. Not more than 30 feet from us was a mama and baby moose strolling out of the forest. El quickly grabbed the camera, and we both watched them drink from the lake, look over at us, and then disappear back into the trees. Not a bad sight while sipping morning coffee. And guess who didn’t get to have a side of morning moose? The squatters.
We inhaled a breakfast skillet and felt good about getting up early to fuel up before that day’s hike to the King’s Throne cirque (or “seat”). The first 2km of the hike are a flat walk through the forest and nice and easy. The wind hadn’t died down at all and had blown so many gold leaves onto our path that it looked like we were walking a golden carpet. Fit for a queen. Once we got out above the treeline though, it got real steep, REAL fast. So fast that that heavy breakfast that was “fueling” me was trying to make a reappearance. It was like the Rabies Fun Run on The Office where Michael carbo-loads on fettuccine alfredo. Despite feeling like I was gonna go full Exorcist on the side of the mountain, the weather was mostly clear, and the sun peeking through the clouds made for a pretty beautiful scene. The wind was a different story and made for an extremely difficult hike, especially the closer we got to the top. Even though it was a tough climb under normal circumstances (1,800 feet in just under two miles), it was made even harder by us hiking into the wind, and we expanded much more energy than we normally would.
Despite the wind doing its damned best to blow us off the mountain, and the loose rocks on the trail that made each step a deliberate one, the views to the seat of King’s Throne made up for it. The reason we chose that hike was due to the views of Kathleen Lake and the mountains and trees surrounding it, and the clear weather that day made us stop more than once along the way and take it all in. Well, the views and the breakfast skillet made us stop. By the time we reached the seat, the wind was absolutely HOWLING around us, and we decided that it would be foolhardy to attempt the summit. The seat was more than enough for us. On our descent, we saw a lot more people than we did in Tombstone and warned every one of them that the wind was a lot harsher towards the top, but it seemed like most of them were just planning on ignoring us. Fine then. DON’T be safe.
We finished the hike a lot faster than we expected, and besides the wind the weather was absolutely perfect (the sun warmed the temp up to a whopping 15 degrees!), so we decided to do an hour long flat hike along the Dezadeash River. A nice calm hike through the forest was a great palate cleanser after battling winds like American Gladiators for the past three hours. At one point we during the hike, we stopped because we thought we heard a bear sniffing and nosing around. After waiting in silence for fifteen minutes, we dismissed the sounds as being nearby construction equipment. Kind of a shame because I was looking forward to an epic q-tip battle with a grizzly.
We justified having burgers, onion rings, and beers for dinner at the Mile 1016 pub because “We did TWO hikes today, and even though our calorie intake is going to be wayyyy more than the number of calories we burned, who cares because we did TWO hikes today!” After every big hike, food always tastes like manna from heaven, and my jalapeño and cheese curd stuffed burger was damn near worthy of worship. The view from the patio where we ate just added to the experience; in Toronto our al fresco views consist mostly of pigeons shitting on sidewalks rather than majestic mountains and cascading glaciers.
Armed with some Winterlong Brewing Co. roadie beers, we drove the short distance to the Thechàl Dhâl parking lot, where we were going to sleep in our car that night. The next day’s hike on the Ä’äy Chù (Slim’s River West) Trail was going to be over 22km with all our gear, and we wanted to get an early enough start to get to our campsite before dusk. The parking lot is actually for three trailheads; besides the one we were doing, there was also the Sheep Creek Trail, appropriately named for the sheep we saw high up on the mountain next to us. We prepped our gear for going off-grid for the next three days, cracked open those Winterlongs, and gave ourselves a nice wet-wipe bath, which we nicknamed “The Rasputin” for reasons still unknown. “Freshly” smelling like citrus, we crawled into our sleeping bags to catch some zzz’s before our big backcountry adventure. And as you’ll find out in the next post, we definitely needed the energy…
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