I’m back in Alaska and on the MV Le Conte—six and a half hours from home. We are waiting for last southbound vehicles to drive onto the car deck so we can depart. Onshore, the tourist town of Skagway awakens from its winter hibernation. Outside, gulls wheel over balls of herring. The Edgar Oldenhdroff waits for a load of Yukon ore.
Surviving the drive to here from Whitehorse always seems a bit of a miracle this avalanche-prone time of the year. During our last March visit to the Yukon, we had to drive through a small avalanche. It bent our front license plate but otherwise did no damage. Today we pass over pavement recently cleared from snow slides but had no close calls.
Before the drop down White Pass and into Alaska, we skied at the northern terminus of the Chilkoot Trail. Pushing our boards through newly drifted snow, we waddled to the snow-walled aid station that volunteered had crated for last Saturday’s Buckwheat ski race. Three days ago, the place was noisy with skiers. Today, we had the place to ourselves. I wanted to push on even though sticky snow slowed our progress. Just over a low set of hills lay the way to Lake Bennett, where more than 100 years ago stampeders built rafts and DIY boats for the Yukon River float to the Dawson City gold fields. Then, axes and saws would have shattered the late-winter silence. Today, it is only diminished by our creaky skis.
The grouse is a surprise, as was the pair of lynx that crossed languidly across the Klondike Highway in front of us a few says ago. The bird appears to nest in snow on the forest floor near a Chadburn Lake ski trail. I test the extent of its privacy zone by skiing closer and closer until it flies into a nearby pine tree.
We ski on through the mixed aspen/pine forest to a Yukon River overlook. Not too many years ago, I paddled a canoe under this bluff with a Swedish friend. The Yukon was a source of fear then as it is today. In the canoe, I entertained a little fear of the river’s power that moved us forward as the glacier silt it carried scraped against the canoe’s submerged skin. Today, I fear that the ice beneath the river’s snow covering would be too weak to hold my weight. It is a silly fear. I only touch the river with my eyes.
Later in the day we ski do on the river near the Moss Lake dam, reassured by the presence of newly laid ski tracks. The tracks keep us close to the shore. Across the river, dark clouds block out the sun, bringing drama before the next snow squall.
Mt. MacIntyre is Whitehorse is a world class cross country ski area. On a sunny day like today, when the temperature is near freezing, it provides a ski experience that justifies the effort to get here from Juneau.
Stopping to enjoy the sunlight bouncing off the heavy layer of trailside snow, I spot a large squirrel drop down from a white spruce tree and pose on an upturned tree root wad. Unlike the red squirrels in Juneau who can’t tolerate Aki or I, this guy seems to enjoy my attention. He doesn’t chit a challenge or toss down an empty spruce cone. He just strikes a series of ten second poses, like a life drawing model.
Aki wouldn’t be allowed on this ski trail near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. No dogs may trot loose along side us through this poplar forest. The trail has lay dormant since last week’s storms but a classic track set by a snow machine still dimples the snow.
We are only 270 kilometers from our usual ski trails around Juneau but it feels far away from home. Even the snow, dry and fly away, would be out of place on the lake in front of Mendenhall Glacier. But we travel to experience new country and enjoy interactions with the people that live in it. Fortunately for us, the Yukon is only a short drive and ferry ride away.
Leaving Aki at home with friends this morning, her other human and I board an Alaska ferry for Skagway, Alaska. Many tourists, international and otherwise, ride the ferries up and down the inside passage. But this time of year, the boat carries only locals. Some are heading home to Whitehorse. Most, from Juneau, will ski tomorrow on the Buckwheat cross-country ski race.
During the six hour boat ride from Juneau to Skagway I spot few people looking out the window even through winter sun sparkles off the waters of Lynn Canal and makes the beautiful Chilkat Mountains even more lovely. In summer, on days when low clouds hide the mountains and flat light turn the canal waters leaden, the ferry windows will still be lined with gawking visitors. The locals could take a lesson.
Fog covered the Alsek River this morning at Haines Junction. But even before sunrise we could see the St. Elias Mountains. They stood like an eroded wall between the Yukon Territory and the Pacific. Their lower flanks were exposed yesterday evening when thick shafts of sunlight powered through to illuminate the thinning cloud cover. I almost expected saints to descend from Heaven.
By the time we started the drive to Haines, Alaska the sun had already reduced the fog to wisps on the water.
I don’t want this post to be a weather report about sunshine and the cloud cover we drove under before the approach to Three Guardsmen Pass. But just out of Haines Junction we did enjoy sunlight sparking on masses of yellow poplar leaves and later on a swan pair that seemed to enjoy its warmth while resting on the waters of a pocket lake. We could see the beauty under clouds but the sun enhanced it.
With the tidal door slowly swinging closed, Aki the poodle-mix, my daughter and I round the little point that forms its door stop on the lower Mendenhall River. Six to eight feet of sloping beach still separate ocean water from rocky barrier. We walk quickly down beach on pebbles glued in place by ice. Full sun blankets the glacier and its mountain consorts but we are in shade. So is a mid-river sandbar covered by noisy ducks and Canada geese. Some float away on cold water, lifted off the bar by the rising sea.
It’s only 1140 but the sun appears to have already set for us behind a ridge of Douglass Island mountains. Then it slides into a notch from where its rays can reach our beach. “What a beautiful place we live,” says the daughter to the dog. She reminds me about the tide. We turn back, finding the beach around the point underwater but not a gap in the rocks through which we make good our escape.
Back on Chicken Ridge, a raven stands atop the utility pole outside our kitchen window, sun lighting a slice of beak and feathers, leaving the rest in shadow. He chants, sending out little puffs of clouds from his beak. Water filling the tea kettle prevents me from hearing the actual song so I make up my own words:
Raven brought the first light
Raven brings this light
be sharing on the solstice
or Raven will fly the light away