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The Wander Stuff

Exploring the snow-covered trails of the southern Yukon

II by Erin McMullan II


Winter 2011 (V5I4)


The first time I walked outside in -36º C, the snow squeaked like Styrofoam against my Sorels and the world glittered through my frost-cloaked lashes. The frozen air of that cold November morning claimed skin and hair left uncovered by my balaclava and bulky, black parka. It was the early days of my first Yukon winter, and my friend, Jacquie, was leading me to Ice Lake, between the Whitehorse subdivisions of Hillcrest and Lobird.
    My dogs made their way over the trail, their vulnerable paws barely making contact with the snow. By contrast, Jacquie's stalwart malamute, Ross, was nonplussed. It was just another walk for the seasoned sourdough.
   “Not much more than a big frozen pond,” Jacquie said of our destination. But I had a more distant place on my mind: the Yukon in February. How cold would it be here by then? But I was determined. No cabin fever for me-- everyday was a chance to play outside.
    Within Whitehorse city limits, there are over 800 kilometres of trails connecting neighbourhoods and subdivisions or looping through the wilderness. Some routes intersect with stretches of the Trans Canada Trail, a network of paths that will reach across the country once completed and connected. Those sections of the Trans Canada in turn intersect with more traditional trails radiating outward from Whitehorse, south to Marsh Lake, and north to Dawson City and beyond.
    Over that first winter, my intrepid roster of hiking buddies shared favourite winter walks beneath big skies and through wide, peaceful valleys abundant with wildlife. Every chance I had, I slipped out behind my home in the Copper Ridge subdivision to explore, observing the world around me as it became infused with colour. Late sunrise suffused pink and purple across a crayon box of houses. Sundogs burned through ice fog at midday. Golden patches of light illuminated the frozen pines on Mount Mac at sunset. Even at 10 p.m., when dark had descended on the city, the snow glowed enough to light my path regardless of the moon’s progression.
    The weekend following that first walk to Ice Lake, I travelled to Wolf Creek, only fifteen minutes south of downtown. Entering the woods from the trailhead, the story of a lively world unravelled, written in fresh powder: tiny mouse prints winding side by side with a bear's; a willow, chewed down to a pencil nub by a beaver; and far below the frosted cliffs lining the Yukon River, moose prints, which skated across the shimmering ice.
    Early in January, I drove up the Alaska Highway, turning at Km 1,428 onto Fish Lake Road. It was another five minutes to the Copper Trail--part of the Trans Canada-- which follows an old road used to haul copper from mines operating in the area from the late 1800s to 1970.
   I made my way along the historic trail to McIntyre Creek, where ice mist rose from warm, black waters, mingling with a small trailside campfire--a group of dog mushers cooking up hot coffee. With icicle beards, they looked like prospectors of old, their modern parkas worn and faded. Their dog teams waited patiently, anchored to a tree and watching me as I passed.
   By February, I was acclimatized to minus 30-something days. Early in the month, I discovered access to another hike while cheering on competitors in the Yukon Quest, a 1,600 km dogsled race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska. Fans gather on the Takhini River Bridge, 20 minutes from downtown on the North Klondike Highway, and shout to mushers passing underneath. As the race starts alternately in Whitehorse or Fairbanks each year, this flat stretch of river is either the glorious first or the gruelling last leg for the mushers.
   Shortly after the Quest's end, I returned. The race was over, but this is still a popular spot for mushers-- when I arrived, I encountered one of them, loading his grateful athletes back into the hayfilled warren of boxes built into the back of his truck. Descending onto the ice below, I followed fresh dogsled tracks, attentive to any changes in the river ice. Upriver, past the Muktuk Adventures ranch, where I once lived alongside over 100 sled dogs, I kept alert for distant barking or the drone of a snowmobile coming around the bend, knowing that Muktuk often uses this stretch to introduce first-timers to mushing.
    Some of my hikes took me deep into the wilderness, but I found I didn't need to wander far to find treasures. I walked the downtown riverside with my camera, capturing hoarfrost etchings, bold snow sculptures, and bright red berries against the blue sky. I brought my camera to the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous, an annual festival celebrating the Yukon's gold-rush history. Women and men dressed in period costume sashayed under streetlamps. As easily as I could slip from wilderness to city, past and present blurred in my camera's lens.
   My second winter is milder, and amid frost’s first sheen in late September, my friend, Peter, showed me where to pluck purplish cranberries just off a trail near Hillcrest. By November, snow had returned to neighbourhoods perched near the mountains. But across town, east of the Yukon River at Chadburn Lake Recreational Area, it was possible to find the last remnants of autumn, where fall leaves cushioned exploratory hikes through colour-coded trails.
    The area surrendered to winter by December, when a white blanket covered its hills and lakes. The parking lot was soon jammed with carloads of crosscountry skiers, especially on weekends. I was careful to stay off newly groomed ski trails and veer off into less-trafficked outer reaches. The red trail at the corner of the parking lot connects with Miles Canyon and its spectacular sweep of bluffs flanking the Yukon River, but I knew enough to stay back from its slippery edge. Across the road, the yellow trail meandered along a snowy ridge overlooking pothole lakes, connecting with labyrinthine Hidden Lakes trail system. The forested green trail promised a shortcut, but its lower fork detoured through deep drifts. My favourite, the blue trail, is a full-day hike to Chadburn Lake.
   For quick evening walks, I would head downtown for a spin on the Millennium Trail, a 5-km loop along and over the Yukon River. I would stop at the Millennium Bridge, listening to the river pulsing beneath the ice. Further along, past Robert Service Campground, I marvelled at Bert Law Park, an island oasis of snow floating on a frozen river. The lights of the city beckoned in the distance, but this meditative circuit proved so enchanting I found myself circling around for a second pass.
   On Christmas afternoon, at Marsh Lake, I trudged where I once waded, tracing the shoreline towards the Marsh Lake Territorial Campground, avoiding slushy spots where water seeps to the surface. Wolf tracks ran between trees, over the very ground I slept on that summer, my tent pitched in view of the now frozen lake. My dogs excitedly sniffed the scent of their ancestral kin wafting on the chill wind.
    By January, the Research Forest, a kilometre north of the Takhini River Bridge, had become a favourite place to walk. I had grown to love the eerie silence there--even the ravens, the only birds usually obvious in the deep new-year cold, leave the place alone. I explored the forest's many offshoot trails, which overlook rounded mountains and the Takhini River Valley.
   Later that month, on a path closer to my home, a sleep-drugged bear called from the valley below. Putting dogs back on leash, I stood silent, listening to the forest breathe until I was sure it was safe to return.
   One sunny morning in March, I walked around Schwatka Lake with my friend Paul. We saw the first fissures of spring crack through the ice. In a few weeks, the ice and snow would be a memory and trumpeter swans would fly overhead, wings beating steady like my winter-fed heart. I wouldn't see them though. The next day, I was bound for the South. A herd of caribou appeared as I crossed the B.C.-Yukon border. It was a reminder that I could always return, following my own tracks, to the glittering North behind me.
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