Heaven and Hail
“It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder. It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.” ― Robert W. Service, in The Spell of the Yukon.
YUKON – ABOVE THE OUTSTANDING
“But Jim, do you realize it is going to be as hot as Hades”.
That was the typical reply when I told family and friends that I was planning a photo trip to the Tombstone Mountains in early September. They really questioned my sanity when I told them it might be cold; it was the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon Territory not those near Tombstone, Arizona.
“Yes, but why those mountains?”
“Well, it’s called the Patagonia of the North. In 2011, I had visited Patagonia in southern Argentina and Chile, a majestic destination with rugged granite-spired mountains, glaciers and waterfalls. Another location resembling that area is worthy of a visit. Also, I’m going with three great nature photographers that I met on that trip. We’ll be doing our own planning and organizing. And five days of backpacking and camping in the wilderness – what an adventure!
Before my trip, people wished me safe travels on my trip to Alaska. Sorry folks; right direction but wrong country. The Yukon is bordered on the west by Alaska, the Bering Sea on the north, the Northwest Territories on the east and British Columbia on the south. Evidently, there is a friendly provincial rivalry between BC and the Yukon. British Columbia is famous for its Canadian Rockies but Yukon one ups them with a huge welcoming poster in the Whitehorse Airport: “YUKON – ABOVE THE OUTSTANDING!”
Just a few facts before we venture into the wild. Yukon is about 4X the size of North Carolina but has fewer people (about 33K) than most small cities in North Carolina. The population density for the entire province is approximately 1/1000th of the state of NC. Caribou, elk, grizzly bears, wolves, moose and Arctic ground squirrels (more later) individually exceed the human population of the Yukon. Some Yukon backcountry musts: Don’t get lost and carry bear spray!
If you say that a journey is better than a destination, just book a trip to Dawson, Yukon. It started with a two-hour drive from Blowing Rock, NC to Charlotte; connecting flights (and airport waits) to Chicago, Vancouver, BC and Whitehorse, Yukon; an eight-hour drive north on two-lane roads from Whitehouse to the Tombstone Mountain Provincial Park including the dirty and slippery Dempster Highway; and finally, a twenty-minute helicopter flight to our backcountry destination in the Tombstone Mountains.
INTO THE WILD
Fortunately no lost luggage or camera gear but unfortunately, lost mountains. When we arrived at the Park headquarters in mid-afternoon, the mountains were shrouded in fog. While we waiting patiently and pondering our options the fog slowly lifted and by early evening, we received word that our copter pilot was leaving Dawson and headed to our pick-up destination along the Dempster.
Liftoff and twenty minutes later it was touchdown at Talus Lake at the base of Monolith Mountain. The exhilaration of the flight was soon replaced by reality as we gaped upward at awesome Monolith Mountain. Pessimism replaced optimism: These mountains are so rugged … a training ground for mountain goats? And, it’s cold. This is going to be an exciting but challenging five days in the wild. That rock formation at the summit of Monolith Mountain — is that nature’s “middle finger” greeting to naive hikers?
It’s Tuesday evening and the start of five days in these rugged mountains. My 60-pound backpack – I can hardly get it on my back much less endure a steep hike. While the primary objective was nature photography, I now questioned my wisdom in bringing my Canon 5DII and a full gamut of photo gear including three lenses (17-40, 24-105 and 70-200 mm), tripod, filters, etc., etc. Do I have sufficient winter clothing if the weather turns really sour? All this camping and cooking gear and food for five days in the backcountry; perhaps it would have been a perfect time for a crash diet!
As we pitch our tent, I marveled at its peace and solitude and thought about our lack of connectivity with the outside world – no cell phone,no computer or Internet, and very few people within a fifty mile radius. Doug Solis had a satellite phone for emergencies and it was our only connection. But a warning to those grizzlies that were eyeing us and licking their chops; we’re heavily armed with $50 industrial-strength bear spray canisters!
It was soon nighttime and my friend Denis was bubbling with enthusiasm about photographing the Aurora Borelis during the night. Denis had done his homework and believed that the Northern Light displays for the next several nights will be above average. About 4 am, Denis’ yells echoed through the cold Arctic air. A grizzly attack? No, just Denis’ excitement about the abnormal brightness in the northeastern sky above Monolith Mountain. It appeared like a light colored cloud to the normal eye but a 30-second time exposure transformed it into a greenish Aurora glow ! (for Aurora Borealis novice photographers like me … Canon 5DIII with 17-40 mm f/4 @ 24 mm, ISO 800, f/4 and 30 seconds).
Real morning finally arrived followed by a pre-dawn walk down to the shores of Talus Lake. It was easy to understand how Talus Lake acquired its name as the far shore was littered with talus rocks from a near-vertical granite spire. Border fields dominated the far hill leading up to the spectacular mountain range. That bear spray seemed to be working ; no grizzlies were around to disturb the peace.
Later in the day we each ventured into uncharted territory around the lake. After studying topo maps, I opted to conquer the border fields above Talus Lake as it appeared there might be two small glacial ponds below the base of Monolith Mountain. I started the climb and quickly realized it was a real hiking challenge; what appeared to be small rocks from a distance were actually large boulders (3-5′ in diameter). My upward progress was slow with a constant over- or around-scramble. As I climbed above the first boulder field, I emerged into a patch of Yukon fall lushness. Brilliant red-colored blueberry bushes were growing amidst a patch of Arctic cotton grass. Walking on this grass felt similar to the sensation of a walking on a foam mattress – very soft and spongy.
I determined that the first glacier pond was dry and decided to forego investigating the higher pond when a rain storm was sighted far down the valley. Knowing that a fast trip down through the border field was an ingredient for disaster, I hunkered down and enjoyed watching the cloud dynamics and the approaching rainstorm.
Yukon’s fall colors are certainly different than the brilliant reds and yellows of our hardwood forests. The blueberry (small but very tasty berries) and cranberry bushes were glowing red while the abundant Cladonia lichen added a grayish white floor. There are over 20,000 lichen species in the Arctic that supply badly needed carbohydrate and energy to the migrating caribou. And, that’s a good view of Tombstone Mountain (7,749′).
Not everything that glistens is gold. Try telling that to the thousands of fortune seekers that stampeded to the Yukon in the 1890’s. If you want a good read on the greed, foolishness, and hardships of the many that traveled to the Yukon in search of instant fortune, I’d recommend “The Floor of Heaven – A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush” by Howard Blum. Luckily, I also discovered a different kind of gold. This small creek that that was flowing down the Tombstone River Valley was filled with golden light for my memory card. (Photo technique – 3-stop GND filter plus blending of two layers, one for the golden sky and the second for the stream).
The night time skies cooperated as auroras were observed each of the three nights we camped at Talus Lake. Each occurred around 3-4 am and lasted for approximately 30 minutes. This creative image was taken the third morning as Denis kept a lantern glowing inside his tent. (Canon 5DIII with 17-40 mm f/4 @ 17mm, ISO 800, f/4 and only 20 seconds to prevent overexposure of tent).
After several days were spent exploring the area around Talus Lake, it was time for some serious hiking. Our pre-trip plan included a round trip hike from Talus Lake to Divide Lake and then up-and-over Glissade Pass to Grizzly Lake. Although it sounded good on paper in the comfort of our homes but with advice from the Park Rangers and several days of real Yukon experience, we wisely decided that Divide Lake was good enough. Evidently a hike over Glissade Pass is one of those “2-steps forward, 1-step back” adventures in a steep talus rock field. As one ranger advised, “Don’t get right below your hiking partner unless you want to get hit by fallen rocks.”
While we discussed our various hiking options, we heard a distant “thump, thump” noise as the air seemed to be being beaten into submission. Finally, a helicopter emerged and landed. We greeted our company and learned that the photo group was being led by Marc Adamus, a great nature photographer from Oregon whose website heading is, Unforgettable Wilderness Photography. Mark’s photo tours are truly out-of-the-world experiences for those in excellent physical condition as Mark has photo talents similar to Ansel Adams and the physical endurance of a Himalayan sherpa. We later met Marc’s group on a hiking trail and Marc claimed his backpack was in the 80-100 lb range as he was carrying the food for everyone for their five-day trip. My kind of photo leader!!
Marc informed us that a powerful storm was predicted to come through the Yukon on Sunday, the day of our departure. If so, we’d probably be stuck in the mountains for another 1-2 days. Doug called our friendly helicopter pilot and moved up our Sunday departure to Saturday evening. Because of park rules, helicopters can only land at Talus Lake so our plans were revised – an one-day hike to Divide Lake, overnight camping at Divide, and a return hike to Talus Lake on Saturday. A demanding two days!
My best image of Divide Lake was taken on the helicopter ride into the mountains. However, my favorite view of Divide was on our eight-mile hike from Talus when we came to the top of Tombstone Pass and realized it was all downhill to the lake. A steep downhill that was seemed much steeper the next day; distance-wise – only two-miles down but six-miles back up!
When we awoke the next morning at the Divide Lake camping area, the long range view up the North Klondike River Valley with its vibrant autumn colors was magnificent.
Finally, we’re over Tombstone Pass and the end is in sight – Talus Lake and the helicopter landing pad. It was mid-afternoon and several hours before helicopter pick-up. Time to enjoy the warmth of the sun and relax and reminisce on a wonderful week in the wilderness. And yes, stoic Monolith Mountain is proudly displaying a good-bye finger salute!
“Hey Jim, that’s an interesting story but why hail in the title?”
HAIL AND “PEST”-ILENCE”
“Well, a hallowing event occurred on our second evening at Talus Lake and almost ruined the week. A strong thunderstorm developed far down Tombstone River Valley. As it moved up the valley, it gained strength with ever-darkening clouds and frequent lightning strikes. A creative photography opportunity: Tombstone Mountain in the background with perhaps a lightning strike. Perfect time to use a variable density filter to obtain a long time exposure and a better chance of capturing a strike.
The storm picked up both speed and intensity and quickly engulfed our campsite with very strong winds, rain, close lightning strikes and pea-sized hail. It was a miracle that our tent survived the winds and hail. For about twenty minutes is was terrifying; Frank and I were sitting in a tent and struggling to hold onto it while it was being pelted by heavy winds and pea-sized hail. Those super-strength aluminum tent rods were badly bent. Thank goodness they didn’t serve as lightning rods!
This hail storm demolished the brilliant fall colors of the bushes around Talus Lake as most of the red leaves on the bushes were lying on the ground after the storm. We later learned that this storm flattened many large pine trees on the Grizzly Lake trail.
On the positive side, bear spray works! We never had an close-up and personal experience with a grizzly. Powerful stuff, I guess. The only wildlife we encountered during on five days in the wilderness were fat Arctic ground squirrels that were ready for their winter hibernation. We were warned by the Park Rangers about these critters. Leaving shoes or clothing outside the tent was a no-no as they eat anything. One “grizzly wanna-bee” attempted to sample the legs of my carbon-fiber tripod. I was tempted to get my money’s worth from the bear spray.
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by the hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
And I want to go back and I will.
― Robert W. Service, in The Spirit of the Yukon.
I hope you enjoyed the images and this story as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to visit the Yukon.
Would appreciate your comments and feedback!