North to Alaska (Part Two)

Author’s Note: In July 1983, my brother Dave and I (a.k.a. Joe Juneau and Skookum Jim) pulled on our mukluks, smeared our chins with whale blubber (so to speak), and headed off for a three-week trek into the vast frozen reaches of the Klondike – and lived to tell about it. Our story resumes in the uncharted wilderness of Yukon’s Kluane National Park.

Sharp peaks, glistening snowfields and glaciers reflected the warming sun and piercing blue skies. The days were incredibly long – the sun seemed never to set. Camped on the tundra after full days of hiking, the cool mountain air, rich fragrance of the land on the breeze, and the intoxicating flow of water all around conspired to knock us out each night. 

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Backpacking in Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

An occasional Grizzly moving across the green plateau was a prudent reminder to set the bear bag (with any scented items that might attract bears – food, toothpaste, soap) far out on the tundra at night. There were no trees to hang it from.

Our tent is cozy – a tiny speck in this vast wilderness.  Steady rain slapping the sides of our tent, Joe Juneau and Skookum Jim lay warm in their bags. Cold and windy, at times calm and silent at approximately 5,500 feet elevation, our lonely little tent sat in all its vulnerability on the wide, alpine plateau.

Spectacular 10,000 foot peaks white with glaciers and laced with long, silvery tracks of cascades filled our view. Barren, green tundra everywhere else. But the cold and wet were of small consequence, as it was pure pleasure simply to be there to experience it. Indeed, we were lucky to be alive. Caught on a steep, crumbly precipice above Sheep Creek, I might not have made it had Dave not been there.

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Kluane – a vast wilderness reserve

We got tired of rock-hopping along the creek with full packs and got the bright idea to climb what appeared to be a steep but short bluff at a bend in the stream. But it turned out to be very high, with few sure foot and handholds – one of those never-ending rises that keeps going up the higher you climb.

But Dave managed to make it up, and I was stuck on a slippery ledge, just out of reach of solid handholds. I carefully dug out a foothold, made the move – and missed! With both hands I dug into the loose soil and gripped with all my might while feeling frantically with my feet for a solid hold. But I began to slide – slowly down towards the edge. Had I fallen over that would surely have been the end!

Thankful for another chance at life – to breathe, and smell, and eat, and sleep, and look around at the land, water and sky – to feel the wind and the rain, to bundle against the cold, crawl into a warm, cozy sleeping bag, and share that little tent with Dave, who reached out his hand and pulled me to safety. It was indeed wonderful to be alive and well – we just hoped the Grizzlies wouldn’t bite our asses!

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Camped on the tundra

Eventually the sun returned, lighting up the glistening peaks – snow fields and glaciers reflecting the welcome sun and blue sky. Ground squirrels chirped from all reaches of the pock-holed meadow. Delicate butterflies alighting on moist, frail flowers.

Four Mountain (Dall) Sheep scampered from a nearby hillside to become four pure white dots against the dark talus of a distant slope. Bees buzzing, magpies landing close by – fresh bear scat and diggings everywhere.

But the nights were bitter cold. The stars came out and shown despite the brilliance of the moon, which lit up the brief darkness of the snapping, clear cold nights. Dave broke the ice in our precious stream for morning tea. Our tent looks very homey even in its smallness in this vast wilderness.   

Descending to the treeline and into the tall pines lining the windy shores of Kluane Lake, a local pickup brought us along the Alaska-Canadian Highway past rugged peaks of the Alaska Boundary Range in the Coast Mountains to a cold, swampy campsite at Haines Junction

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Catching a few rays on board our ferry

After fruitless hitching, we splurged and took a bus over Chilkat Pass back into the USA. Through relentless freezing rain, ice and snow, we followed the Chilkoot River along the back side of Glacier Bay past a native village called Klukwan, and finally to the beautiful little seaport of Haines, Alaska

Four relaxing days on BC Ferries carried us through the Lynn Canal Fjords to Juneau and down the rest of the Inside Passage along the coast of British Columbia to Seattle, USA.

We had survived our Klondike expedition!

Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.

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