Beauty and Death in the Yukon

Beauty and Death in the Yukon

I trudge up to the creek. It doesn’t look that bad from a distance – a silver ribbon braided through a blanket of rocks. But up close, it’s a throbbing gunmetal vein and my stomach swirls at the thought of crossing it.

I’m in Kluane National Park, one particularly wild corner of the Yukon Territory in northwest Canada. I’m hiking up a river valley hemmed in by precipitous mountains. I’ve scrambled up sand dunes, squelched through marshes and teetered across rocky creek-beds.

But here’s the first legit challenge: crossing Bullion Creek. I dip my hand in the water – fuck. It’s freezing.

Behind me, I hear Louise holler, “Heeeeeyyyyyooooo!”

Louise is a hiking guide with an enchanting Quebecois accent. We are in grizzly bear territory – hence the yelling, so we don’t inadvertently bump into one.

Further away, fellow hiker Mary laboriously places one foot in front of the other. She looks like a wise old chief with her wizened hiking sticks and tendrils of smoky hair. Mary sighs and tuts and tells us every detail of her struggles, “Oh I’m just SO tired. This pack is SO heavy. This terrain is just so hard on my feet.” Mary had crammed too much crap in her backpack – 100 pre-moistened face wipes, her own personal shit shovel and snacks that would’ve lasted me two weeks. She folds in half beneath her heaving pack.

Louise finds a safe spot to cross the creek and instructs Mary to unclip her pack. Mary holds onto Louise as they cross by sidestepping, leaning into the oncoming flow. Suddenly Mary tumbles, her hand desperately latching onto Louise’s arm as her pack pulls her backwards and the torrents begin to carry her. Her eyes and mouth form three huge circles and she gasps.

After a few terrifying moments of panic, Mary is hauled onto the cold stones. She is chilled to the bone, a little shook up, but otherwise unscathed. Her mammoth pack is waterlogged. Petrified that the same bitter fate would befall me, I wobble my way across. The water flows so swiftly I can feel rocks being pushed along the bottom. But I make it. Safe.

After a sluggish climb and descent, we reach Canada Creek campground. Two other tents hunch beneath the trees. A couple wrapped in beanies and fingerless gloves murmur in Spanish. As we pitch tents, collect kindling and water, it emerges that a third person has been at the campsite. There has been no sign of this lone hiker for at least 36 hours.

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“Maybe someone should check the tent,” I volunteer.
Why did I do that? Fuck. I tiptoe up to the tent.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
No answer.
I reach for the zip and it hisses open. I peer in. Empty. I finally exhale.

We huddle around the fire, spooked and a little numb.

“I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” mumbles a downcast Mary. She decides she will pay for a Parks Canada helicopter to fly her out the next morning. I curl in the foetal position in my tent, trying not to think of bears and cold creeks and dead people.

The next morning, a helicopter whirs into the meadow and a park ranger emerges. He takes notes about the missing hiker, then bundles Mary up into the ‘copter and they wheel away down the valley.

Louise and I set out to view the nearby Kaskawulsh glacier from Observation Mountain. After crossing Canada Creek, we arrive at a scrabbly steep track, ascending straight up the side of the mountain. Everything drops – my bowels, my mouth and my confidence. I’m afraid of heights. To make matters worse, my left arm is encased in plaster. Just a few weeks earlier, I had slipped while walking down a mountain and broken my wrist. Fuck-ing-great.

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“Right. We’re going down. Now,” Louise decides.

I don’t protest. We have no idea how much further we have to climb to reach the plateau, or how much tougher the track might get. The sun is slipping closer to the rugged peaks. I slide on my bum most of the way down the eroded path.

On our way back to the campsite, we find the creek has surged to ten swollen channels instead of just two trickles. My feet grow numb with each icy crossing; my sandals are filled with sharp pebbles. Wilderness demands your full attention: one mis-step and I’d be rolling with the rocks downstream. But not today – I make it to the campfire for hot chocolate and twilight yarns.

Next morning brings mountaintops dipped in white, wreathed with drizzle. The whining of a helicopter provides the soundtrack for a long, wet trudge. It drones up and down the valley systematically searching for the missing hiker.

He is found in Canada Creek with his pack still firmly attached. It is likely he fell and drowned in the glacial torrents, unable to get up due to the burden strapped to his back. I can picture it a little too easily: the image of Mary immersed in the rushing water.

Back in range, I’m deciding which of my photos to upload. I swipe through the scenery snaps: sharp blue, green, brown and grey pixels. My shots are beautiful, but do they really capture the truth? Real wilderness isn’t just a pretty picture – it’s the raw river tugging at your ankles with a deceptive strength and the wind pummelling your tent. It’s invigorating, but not always comfortable.

With our flawless lawns and manicured cities scabbing over landscape, we’ve created the concrete illusion that humans are in control. We’ve subdued vast tangles of jungle and tamed wild beasts. Disconnected from wilderness, we instead interact with it via a flattened, two-dimensional version splashed across smartphone screens. Drunk with power, we forget the might of Mother Nature. But it’s in our best interest not to forget. To respect the raw bite of her wilderness, sharp and indifferent to human hang-ups. She’s actually fucking brutal.

Cover by Katerina Bartosova, inset by the author