Backpacking in the Alsek Valley of Kluane National Park in the Yukon is a solitary venture in the early spring. This popular Park, a Unesco Heritage Site and home to Canada’s highest mountain peak, Mount Logan (5959 m) is a popular spot. That’s why I prefer to hike either in the spring or late fall. That and well…no bugs.
There is one teeny issue when hiking in the spring that you have to be aware of. The mountain run-offs can cause the rivers to have high, powerful, cold and unpredictable crossings. It’s important to have a plan B, just in case.
This Alsek Trail isn’t technically difficult and in fact, if you are lucky you can bypass the first 15 km since it’s accessible via 4-wheel drive. Did I mention that the spring offers some challenges?
For us, this meant that only 1 km was passable by vehicle. Due to the late and cooler than normal spring, snow pack levels were still high in places including on the path, making it impassable for a vehicle. Unfortunately the snow pack was only 1 km into the hike but included a deep gully rushing with water. Much of the rest of the path would have been fine except for this one spot early on. Nonetheless, we had to adjust.
The initial plan was to drive the 15 km to the end of the trail at which time we would hike to either the 25.9 km post or even a couple of km before where we would set up camp at the junction of the Alsek, Dezadeash and Kaskawulsh Rivers. Instead we would have to hike the first 14 km in addition so we decided that we would go as far as we felt like it. Admittedly we were not in the best of shape.
The start of this hike reminded me of hiking in Mexico. The weather was starting to turn and the sun was beating on us. We were very exposed along the surprisingly dusty road and later along the rocks where the path crosses rock slide areas…the few patches of Spruce and Poplar made for a welcome respite from the sun.
As the kilometres fell behind us we were able to see incredible views into this expansive Alsek Valley. It’s a stark and lovely valley. High beach ridges left behind by a succession of glacial lakes are obvious here. “Further down the Alsek valley, the Lowell glacier has surged across the valley four different times during the past 12,000 years, damming the Alsek River and creating glacial lakes, the last one having drained only just over a century ago” (Parks Canada).
We made good progress until we arrived at the 18 km mark or so. The afternoon heat caused the snows to melt and the rivers were starting to run. It started slowly as we crossed along the muddy, tar like terrain and eventually the mud began to stream into small rivers and eventually larger more challenging streams. We lost sight of any type of route. Neither my husband nor I have the best route finding skills. We thought it wise to stop here, find some higher ground and set up our camp for the night. This we did.
It was a beautiful evening although at one point some very strong winds blew up and storms threatened. We had to secure the tent better and wait for it to pass. The worst missed us, instead following the ridges of the mountains and the sun came back out. It was warm and quiet. Very very quiet. With no other hikers except one couple earlier in the day who were just out for a short day hike, we felt incredibly alone in this vast valley. There were numerous sightings of bear, wolf scat and paw prints, but even more caribou tracks. The latter were huge. Luckily or unluckily depending upon your perspective, none chose to join us at our camp that eve.
We both eventually fell asleep only to shocked awake by the sound of a huge crash. I thought it was thunder and lightning but it turned out to be a giant rock slide. We were safe and a distance from the slide, but were able to watch the exciting event from the comfort of our tent through the door flap. It went on for some time and was spectacular to watch.
Tomorrow’s walk home seemed a like a lifetime away. That was okay with us.
Photo credits: Jim Milne, Pam Johnson