It was on the twelfth day since leaving Fort St. John, bushwhacking up a ridge well within the mountains, that the words of George, a fisherman we'd met on his quad along an old seismic line, played out to be true:
"The grizzlies won't bother you, it's the black bears you gotta look out for," he'd said, patting the rifle scabbard strapped to the side of his quad.
The angry, huffing black bear, head swaying and hair bristling, stood only 30 metres away and edged towards us. I fumbled with shaking hands to reload another cracker shell into the bear banger. The first cracker had sent the stocky bear crashing through the thick deadfall, but he'd returned within seconds to move in closer. I was hoping the second cracker might buy us the time to escape, but it caused the bear to do little more than flinch a shoulder before it resumed its aggressive approach.
Written accounts of the predatory black bear played over in my mind as Leanne and I jammed canisters of bear spray into accessible pockets, drew our knives and began to pick our way from clearing to clearing in a hasty retreat down the mountain. Adrenaline surging, we could track the trailing bear via the unnerving sound of its continuous huffs and snorts.
Based on its aggressive behaviour, we fully expected the bear to attach, but after fifty metres, it abandoned us and returned to whatever it had been guarding - perhaps a kill. An hour later, back down in the valley, we sat on our packs long enough to let the adrenaline settle out of our legs and plan an alternate route into the next valley.
"Up until now I'd thought the scariest thing out here were the bugs," quipped Leanne to ease the tension. She was referring to the clouds of mosquitoes that had forced us to cover ourselves with clothing from head to toe and don head nets as we walked through swamps in stifling heat. It took time for our nerves to settle. For the next few days, as we bushwhacked up rushing creeks and along overgrown game trails, bears, or the possibility of bears, lurked around every corner.
It wasn't until two days later, while we packed up camp in the gray light of a morning drizzle, that wilderness migrated back from something fearful to something we loved.
Three wolves, rain-soaked gray ghosts emerging from the forest at the edge of a mineral lick where two bull moose had browsed the evening before, are what triggered the shift and dissolved our fear. Stopping long enough to size us up in the green valley that lay before them, they drifted back into the mist as silently as they had emerged.
We are privileged to be walking through a northern landscape filled with wildlife and seldom visited by humans. Except for Ted Wood, a photographer for Smithsonian Magazine, who flew in to join us eight days ago, we haven't seen a person, or sign of recent human activity, in the past 27 days.
Six weeks through rugged country has taught us much about wilderness travel through often trailless valleys. In a landscape where swamps are frequent, game trails regularly peter out in huge meadows of tangled, head-high willows, and glacial rivers run high, we've learned to avoid psychological disappointment by no longer estimating how long it will take us to travel through a particular valley. In a world filled with unknowns, our answers to Ted's questions about the upcoming day have been:
"You never know for sure," and "it depends".
At its worst, our forward progress has screeched to a tedious 1 kilometre per hour down steep, bush-choked valleys in driving cold rains that forced us to build warming fires many times a day. At its best, travel has been effortless along open alpine meadows of heather, scree and lichen that unfold in endless sensual lines of snow, rock, vegetation and turquoise lakes under taut blue skies.
Caribou trotted across snowbanks in the afternoon sun while dozens of bedded elk shone like red-brown lanterns against hillsides of deep green. and, at the glaciated head of a spectacular open valley of green slopes and looming peaks, two grizzlies, immersed in waving meadows of chest-high cow's parsnip, sent our hearts racing when they sauntered down to the creek to drink within 200 metres of our exposed alpine camp.
Over the past two days we've come close to two wolverines. One scrambled down the glassy, wet rocks that fringed a waterfall and then skipped from boulder to boulder down the rocky creek bed, oblivious to us lunching only 20 metres away. I'm sure that much of our travel through thick brush and under heavy packs over the last six weeks has been tracked by the acute and watchful eyes of many unseen animals. For once, it was refreshing to be the unseen observer and the wildlife the unknowing subject.
Yesterday afternoon, within view of a good horse outfitter's trail but trapped on the opposite side of a flooding river, we laboured our way through thickets of birch and willow as we wove our way off the west of the Continental Divide. At about 5 pm, we arrived at a major tributary, it's banks overflowing with chocolate water that roared and frothed over a steep bed of jagged boulders.
We probed, tested a few crossing points and walked kilometres upstream but were unable to cross the livid creek. This was the sixth major river crossing that had seen us rig high lines and pulley systems to ferry across our equipment or float it across in garbage bags wrapped in our sleeping pads for flotation. We would swim, naked and half frozen in the rain, groping our way ashore on slippery, unwelcoming boulders on the opposite bank.
The toughest of these crossings had been the Akie River, where we were forced to swim across a grade three rapid that ripped us downstream much faster than we'd ever imagined. We'd emerged, numbed and shocked by the cold and the current, on the opposite bank with only seconds to gather our gear and seek the shelter of a spruce tree before another cold rain shower broke out.
But this stream before us, narrow but extremely turbulent, posed new challenges. The gardens of boulders made swimming extremely dangerous and impossible to pull across the packs without hanging up the rope. Finally, after hours of scouting, we settled on a new but chancey approach: to fell a 30m-high spruce tree across the mouth of a canyon onto the top of a small, 10-foot cliff.
It took two hours with our tiny saw blade and some luck, but finally the tree fell perfectly. We tested it halfway across before losing our nerve where the trunk narrowed to less than 6 inches in diameter and bending so that the longest branches swayed in the current and sent the whole makeshift bridge bobbing and waving six feet above the foaming brown water. Exhausted, we pitched camp as far as possible from the nerve-wracking roar of the current, in two tiny patches of bush-free lichen surrounded by chest-high willow and birch. The crossing would have to wait until morning.
After a cold night, the creek dropped more than two feet and in a gutsy move of impatience, we decided to wade the river as a threesome, the current ripping at my waist and drifting my feet over a bed of boulders while Leanne and Ted, in the eddy of my body, pushed me against the current in a constant breathless battle. On the other side we coaxed Webster the dog who, nursing a cut toe pad and wounds from a mouthful of porcupine quills, inspired us once more in an incredible show of deterination as he swam the whitewater, gulping gritty water at the crest of each wave.
Tonight I sit in an outfitter's cabin in an empty hunting camp along the gravel banks of the upper Gataga River. Etched into the log walls are the statistical summaries of guided hunts that every trophy hunter dreams of:
- Dale Gaugier, Pennsylvania, 1996
- 37 1/8" sheep - 9/1
- 7 1/2" goat - 9/3
- 6'3" grizzly - 9/6
- 53 1/2" moose - 9/11
- Slap Waylett - Fort Mill, South Carolina, 1995
- 38" sheep - 9/2
- 7" goat - 9/3
- 8' grizzly - 9/5
Outside, the power of streams and rivers that barred our progress over the past few days have gathered into one river and spilled their energy into a huge outwash plain that sculpts, cleans and reworks a constantly changing canvas of mudflats and sandbars that paint a picture of the last week's activity. Grizzly tracks lay at right angles to the prints of a pack of wolves. The wanderings of elk, moose, coyotes and caribou criss-cross the flats in patterns of overwhelming abundance. Everywhere, the wind whips and swirls the seeds off the dry carpets of mountain avens.
Tomorrow morning we'll leave Ted here to wait for a plane that will pick him up later in the evening. Leanne, Webster and I will continue northwest, over another pass and then downvalley for three or four more days to a lake where we will meet friends flying in with canoes and lots of food. There, we'll start a 10-day canoe section down the Gataga and Kechika rivers. Midway along the Kechika, we'll leave them to paddle to the Alaska Highway while we walk across swamps and through low forested hills, the last 10 days into the Yukon. Or it might be 11 days. Or even 12.
You just never know for sure.
Karsten Heuer, Leanne Allison and Webster the dog (Hikers)
Erica Heuer (Publicist)
Karsten, Leanne and Webster are expected to arrive in Watson Lake, Yukon between September 4 and 7. We are organizing a special event in Whitehorse in September and everyone is invited to attend (what better place to be in September?) We'll keep you posted on time, date and place. We have invited some special guests (Sheila Copps, our federal minister responsible for parks, and Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior and her U.S. counterpart), so final arrangements hinge somewhat on their availability, if any. We are hoping for an avalanche of press around the completion of the hike, so if you notice any, we would sure appreciate you sending us notice or even better, a copy of the clipping, to: Y2Y Hike, Box 8358, Canmore, Alberta T1W 2T9. Thank you.
- You can contact us directly, on the road, at:
- email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- phone: 403.540.6446