October 03, 2007

Boneheads in Backpacks

With Fawn and Jade out of town, I thought I would take an opportunity to spend a couple of nights out hiking; something that I haven't really done all summer - and it has been far too long since the last time I really got out.

After a bit of deliberation, I decided that I would start at Fish Lake, hike over the mountain to the Bonneville Lakes and then follow the horse trail to the end of Fish Lake an on towards Ibex Mountain. From there, I would cut around the back of Mount Granger, connecting with the Coal Lake Road, following the "road" down to the Trans-Canada Trail, which would take me close to home. It was a little too close to home for my liking, but being able to walk back would allow Norris the use of the car without forcing either of use to be constrained by a schedule.

Norris dropped me off at the end of the Fish Lake Road at noon. I had filed my plan and back-up plan with him (I have found that it's always a good idea to have a back-up plan), so he knew where I'd be. Still, he seemed reluctant to leave and asked repeatedly if I was going to be alright. Perhaps he was just having a hard time believing that I would actually want to spend a couple of nights, just me and my dog, amidst the snow-capped mountains. Perhaps he was wondering what I would do if something went wrong. I wasn't worried about that. After all, I was prepared.

As I walked, I reflected on my packing and how out of practice I was. It took me longer to pack than it would normally. My hiking philosophy is that the physical effort of carrying a couple more pounds of useful items in my pack is worth the mental weight that is lifted by having those items along - items that, on some hike or another, I'd wished I'd had with me (a hatchet, snare wire, first aid kit, etc.). As I said, I was prepared.


Going over the mountain to the Bonneville Lakes was easy. Instead of the grinding slog that I had expected, my pack felt light - even with my "emergency items". My winter sleeping bag and an extra blanket took up most of the bulk and they were light. The trail, normally muddy and chewed-up by horses' hooves, was frozen hard and easy to walk. Before I knew it, I was up in the saddle on the mountain, enjoying the view of the lakes on either side.

Up on the saddle.

Looking back across the Yukon River valley.

More views of the snowline, across the Yukon River.

We were above the snow line now. There had been dustings of snow on the trail all the way up, but now it lay an inch thick or more on the ground. It was dry snow, but would become wet as the day warmed. Not wanting to soak my feet by following the mountain ride, we started down the mountain towards the Bonneville Lakes.

Nanuq pauses to enjoy the view.

It's not long before he's ready to move on. There are places to sniff, things on which to pee.

Cutting through the willows and scrub birch, we picked up the horse trail again and began following it to the end of the valley. Willows hung over parts of the trail and Nanuq was following too close for my comfort. He kept knocking me with his pack, almost causing me to fall on more than one occasion. When he wasn't tucked up to my side, he was right behind me. Unintentionally, as I walked, my heels kept knocking his jaw, but he never backed off. He always does this when we go through willows and no amount of humane discouragement will keep him from doing it, so he keeps doing it. Apparently, the knocks on the jaw are less troublesome than trying to force his own way through the willows.

The Bonneville Lakes.

Down in the valley, Nanuq was alert and I got the feeling that something was following us. I have seen on more than one occasion that I should pay attention to Nanuq when we're out on the land. We were upwind of whatever it was, making it hard for him to get a good bead on the scent, but we were both on the alert now.

Walking along the Bonneville Lakes, toward their outlet into Fish Lake.

Looking over the largest of the Bonneville Lakes, with Mount Granger in the background.

At the largest of the Bonneville Lakes, Nanuq seemed to relax. I removed his pack and removed mine too, deciding that the flat grassy patch overlooking the lake would be a nice place to stop for a hot lunch. The sun was peeking through the clouds and I was in no rush to get anywhere.

I pulled out my stove and the soup packet and then began searching for my cooking pots. Only the pots weren't there.

I searched again.

I knew I had gotten the pots ready for the pack. I was sure of it. I just forgot to put them in into the pack.

Slapping myself on the forehead for my boneheadedness, I did a quick inventory of my food. Now that I was unable to rehydrate any of my dehydrated food, I had about a day's worth of grub.

It can be a fine line that distinguishes an asset from a liability. My nice, lightweight dehydrated food and portable stove were nothing now but dead weight.

I considered making a pot, but there were no birch trees around and I wasn't prepared to spend a couple of hours to carve and burn one out of a piece of wood (something I've done before and found to be quite time-consuming). I considered walking to the end of Fish Lake where I had once seen an abandoned and dilapidated cabin with junk lying all around, but then decided that it was unlikely I'd find a stainless steel pot that wasn't riddled with bullet holes, and I really didn't feel like cooking my meals in an old rusty can.

I was hooped.

I knew that, unless I was prepared to go hungry (and I wasn't), I had to fall back on Plan B, which was to walk back to where I had started just scant hours ago and then walk over Mount MacIntyre to get back home.

I was determined to enjoy it though. I re-packed my bag and, savouring the brief moment of sunshine, pulled out a Louis L'Amour novel. With Nanuq cuddled up beside me, and the warm sun on my face, I fell asleep.

I was awakened when Nanuq started. A squirrel started churring down the trail that we had been following, and then another started doing the same, closer this time.

I've been told on more than one occasion that grizzly bears will follow a scent and that it is never a good idea to back-track one's trail while in grizzly country. Putting Nanuq's pack on his back and putting my pack on mine, we headed over the saddle that lay above the place we had stopped. On our way over the saddle, I looked back down the valley but saw nothing.

Over another saddle, toward Fish Lake (If you look closely, you can see it).

The trail over the saddle led directly to Fish Lake, which was high with water. The area around the shore was soft and spongy and wet. We took to higher ground, dodging week-old bear scat and very fresh moose droppings.

Stumpy, the magical tree stump, somehow manages not to collapse under its own weight.

I wasn't worried about the bears. There were lots of berries around and they were obviously well fed. It was the moose I was worried about. They tend to be "ornery" this time of year and, against the side of the mountain, there weren't very many places for me to go.

The moose trails were very fresh (only hours old) and plentiful. I followed a moose highway up into a high willow grove. I kept my eyes on Nanuq as we went. He was alert, but unconcerned. Judging by the tracks, we were now following hot on the heels of a cow moose. When I heard the cow call, I realised that it was a situation that I did not want to be in. I was worried that the sound of our packs brushing up against the willows could be misinterpreted as a bull's antlers. Now, I realise that my line of thinking doesn't give the moose much credit - they have very good ears and can probably easily distinguish the difference - but I really didn't want to take the chance.

"Ornery" moose country.

I tried leaving the moose trails and tried to avoid the willows, but everywhere I went, there were fresh moose tracks and fresh - even warm - droppings.

On occasion, we stopped for snacks and water breaks, listening to our surroundings. It was quiet. The wind was calm, and, through the brush, I cold hear the lapping of the waves on the edge of the lake. A bird would flit by once-in-a-while, unconcerned with our presence. It was nice.

The sun, though it was mostly obscured by clouds, was behind the mountains now and I needed to find a good place to stay for the night. The ground was damp and generally steep on that side of the mountain so I pushed on, stopping only to eat some cranberries and blueberries here and there.

We emerged at our starting place and my stomach told me it was dinner time. In my mind, one of the greatest outdoor culinary pleasures is a plate of campfire fried spam and a bowl of hot beans. Unfortunately, I had no means to cook the beans (cooking them in the can is not a healthy idea) and knew from experience that cooking spam on a stick is seldom a successful venture since it tends to fall apart and into the fire.

I opened the can of spam and cut some slices, placing the slices in a folded pita. I got through a half-a-can before I started to feel ill. Spam just isn't meant to be eaten raw (and I know some who would argue that it shouldn't be eaten at all) and anyone who can eat it raw has an iron stomach. Enclosing the rest of the spam in my bear-resistant container, I shouldered my pack and pushed on, walking around the end of the lake and backing in the glow of the evening sun and it slid below the clouds.

I picked up the "road" that led up Mount MacIntyre and started looking for a good place to make camp. I was getting thirsty now and no amount of water could get rid of that thirst. I had been drinking plenty of water and realised that it was probably the nitrates in the spam or the beef jerky I had eaten earlier. Beef jerkey just can't compare to dried moose meat - and since I moved to Whitehorse, I'm fresh out of that.

I finally found a good camp spot off the trail, with plenty of dry firewood if I needed it, and a good, flat, sheltered place to lay out my bivy sack. Under a lone spruce, I hung my rain poncho and rolled out a blanket for Nanuq. Beside him, also under the spruce, I placed my pack and bedroll.

Still thirsty, I drank the last of my water and crawled into bed. It was dark now and I read a little more of my Louis L'Amour by the bright light of my headlamp.

After a couple of chapters, I turned off the light and looked up into the sky, but there were no stars because of the clouds. It had felt like it was going to snow for most of the day, but now the air felt pleasant and almost warm. A very gentle breeze kissed my face as I lay there. Eventually, trying to ignore the feeling of thirst, I fell into a peaceful sleep.

I was woken when Nanuq sat up. He makes for a great early warning system. I didn't know what time it was and I didn't care. The orange lights of Whitehorse shone on the clouds from behind Mount MacIntyre. I listened for what had caused him to stir and it wasn't long before I heard it, too.

A truck was attempting to make its way along the "road" up the mountain. I heard it splashing through the puddles before I heard it's rough-sounding engine. It rumbled by us and I could hear it skidding off in the distance as it drove up the mountain. Later that night, a caravan of 4-wheelers went through. We were camped along a busy route, it would seem.

It was a pleasantly warm night and I was comfortable, pulling back my sleeping bag on more than one occasion to keep from overheating. I fell back into a restful slumber and slept well.

I woke in the morning feeling refreshed. I ate an improvised cold breakfast and went off to hunt for water. I was well above the lake now and opted to filter some from a muskegy-area where there were small "puddles" and the water was clear. Those grassy/mossy hummocks are like nature's own filters. The water felt good and tasted great and my thirst was gone.

I packed quickly and started off. I didn't know what time it was and I liked it that way. It was cloudy and I couldn't see the sun. Fortunately, the clouds were high and I wouldn't need to walk through them on top of the mountain.

I could feel the previous day's walk in my muscles, but they weren't tired. I felt good.

Looking back at where I would have liked to go.

Fish Lake. The second saddle I crossed over the afternoon before can be seen on the right-hand-side of the picture.

Just like my hike up the mountain the previous day, the walk up Mount MacIntyre was easier than I had expected. I had not realised that Fish Lake was already at such a high altitude.

Very mushy, very juicy, and very tasty alpine blueberries.

Crossing over Mount Mac.

Now that I was back above the snow line, I could see where the truck had driven. There were fresh moose tracks, likely a bull, on top of the truck's tracks. I back-tracked the moose's tracks over the mountain onto the Whitehorse side of the valley, leaving the road in favour of "routes" I had not yet travelled.

The Alaksa Highway towards Marsh Lake, as seen from Mount MacIntyre - a road often travelled.

The air felt like it had been cooling all morning and my nose felt cold when I breathed deep. From the top of the mountain, I could see my destination and Lake Laberge beyond. It seemed near yet far at the same time. We trumbled down through the balsam pine and willows, eventually reconnecting with the road up Mount MacIntyre. Again, Nanuq kept close to my heels. He was far too close for me to keep my balance and I began to wonder if it wasn't all some sort of fun game for him.

Going down into the willows and balsam pine, with Nanuq at my heels.

The rest of the walk was uneventful, though we tried to take the back trails as much as possible. I was a little shocked when I emerged at the Hamilton Boulevard extension, and it took me a moment to figure out what was going on. The trail that had once been there was now bisected by a wide swath of cleared brush. Large piles of roots and branches stood along the route, ready for burning.

So much for those trails, I thought, but I couldn't honestly say that I didn't know it was coming.

I stopped at Ice Lake for a break. It wasn't meant so much as break, exactly, but I wasn't really ready to go home. Amidst the roar of heavy equipment in the background, I pulled out my Louis L'Amour and read a few chapters, watching the ducks on the lake out of the corner of my eye, determined to be outside for just a little bit longer.

Looking back.

As I read, I reflected on the trip. It was brief but it was nice. Every once in a while, I need to get back to the basics. When I'm done, no matter how brief, I know that it does me a world of good.

And it was brief. But it was also very good.

1 comment:

dogsled_stacie said...

Great write-up Michael! Photos as well. Sounds like a fun trip even if you did have to cut it short.