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Walking, Hiking & Trail Running

Yukon | Hiking On The Frontline Of Climate Change

Seeing the effects of rising global temperatures on a wild journey through northwest Canada

Featured Images by Tristan Kennedy

In the cult 1980s American strip cartoon Calvin and Hobbes, there’s an extended story arc which sees six-year-old Calvin and his best friend, a stuffed tiger who magically comes alive when no-one else is around, attempting to “secede” from their family and run away forever. Their choice of destination? Yukon. It’s a place where, Calvin dreams, they’ll be able to live wild, befriend timber wolves, and never being told to clean their room again.

They never make it, of course. Just twenty minutes from home, the carefully-plotted expedition falls apart when Hobbes mutinously steals ‘the commander hat’, and tries to eat their last sandwich. But having succeeded where they failed, and made it as far as Yukon’s Kluane National Park, it’s easy to see why in Calvin’s mind, and in that of his creator, cartoonist Bill Watterson, this northern Canadian territory represented the ultimate in unbridled freedom. 

“About 37,000 people currently call Yukon home – that’s a population roughly one-quarter of the size of Slough’s, living in an area the size of Spain”

From our 1,990m-high vantage point at the top of King’s Throne peak, the visible landscape is almost inconceivably vast. On one side snow-capped peaks jostle for position, each ridge seemingly higher and more jagged than the last. Somewhere out of sight, about 150km away to the west, they join forces and rise to form the 5,959m-high Mount Logan, Canada’s highest mountain.

Beneath us to the north lies Kathleen Lake and the cluster of tents by the beach we’ve climbed up from. Follow the road up from there and you can just about make out Haines Junction (population 613), but beyond that, and to the east, and to the south, there’s… nothing. Just endless miles of virgin, boreal forest, broken only occasionally by a rocky ridgeline, a marshy clearing, or the glacial blue of a meltwater-fed lake.  

Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Credit: Tristan Kennedy

Yukon is nothing if not remote. The territory covers a huge swathe of Canada between the top of British Columbia and the Arctic Ocean. It’s on the same latitude as Alaska, with which it shares its western border, but when it comes to people the “final frontier” of America looks like a bustling metropolis in comparison. According to Jessica Ruffen, who works for the local tourist authority, about 37,000 people currently call Yukon home – that’s a population roughly one-quarter of the size of Slough’s, living in an area the size of Spain. 

This of course makes the territory an outdoor sports lover’s paradise. The Kluane National Park joins onto the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, the Wrangell-St Elias National Park, and the Glacier Bay National Park (both in Alaska), to make up the largest protected area in North America, covering nearly 98,000 square kilometres (South Africa’s Kruger National Park, by comparison, covers just 20,000 square kilometres). Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, this massive wilderness is also home to the biggest ice field outside the polar regions. But it’s a landscape that’s changing, and changing rapidly, in ways that neither that UNESCO designation nor its protected status can prevent.

“Statistics show that average temperatures have risen by 2 degrees in the last 50 years, and winter temperatures by 4 degrees”

Global warming becomes more pronounced the further north you travel. As Dr. Henry Penn, science and sustainability manager of the Arctic Institute of North America’s Kluane Lake Research Station explains: “Two degrees at the equator is basically five degrees at the poles”.

While the rest of the world is trying to limit warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, Yukon is way past that threshold. Local government statistics show that average temperatures have risen by 2 degrees in the last 50 years, and winter temperatures by 4 degrees – increasing at more than twice the rate of southern Canada. The knock-on effects these changes are having on landscapes and livelihoods are becoming increasingly serious, and increasingly visible even to visitors.

*****

Credit: Tristan Kennedy

None of this is instantly obvious when you land in Whitehorse, however. In fact, what’s interesting is how little the territorial capital seems to have changed down the years. All but a few thousand of Yukon’s population lives in what they refer to as “the city”, but it still feels like a sleepy frontier settlement. Fly fishermen perform languid casts in the stretch of river that runs through the city centre; every second car is a farm-sized pick-up; just outside town a handful of float planes bob gently against homemade jetties.

“There are really only three major moments in Yukon’s history when people came here,” Jessica Ruffen explains. “The Pleistocene era, when the ancestors of the First Nations walked across the land bridge connecting Asia with Alaska; the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s, when hopeful prospectors ‘stampeded’ up to Dawson City; and then the building of the Alaska highway by American GIs in the 1940s.” In between, this land was left largely alone. 

“From the air, the empty A’ay Chu riverbed is now a scar in the landscape”

We admire the prehistoric artefacts on display in the museum, browse the Jack London classics in the local bookstore, and poke our noses into the SS Klondike, an old paddle steamer which uses to carry people and goods north to the gold fields. Then we tool up on camping gas, bear spray and a last few essentials, and head north on the highway.

Driving the Alaska Highway features on many American and Canadian bucket lists, at least if the number of rented RVs is anything to go by. Tourism numbers in Yukon remain small, but they’re increasing steadily with the bulk of the growth fuelled by this main artery. It’s certainly prime road trip country – the scenery is stunning and the highway is blissfully empty. The only time we encounter anything that could conceivably be called traffic is when a couple of cars pull up alongside us to watch a black bear and her three cubs gambolling by the side of the road. 

Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Credit: Tristan Kennedy

It’s one thing encountering bears from behind the protective shield of a windscreen of course, and quite another thinking about meeting one in the flesh. I’m well used to hiking, camping, and cooking outdoors, but I’m not ashamed to admit that the thought of doing it in bear country has made me nervous ever since we set off from the UK.

The leaflets laying out the complicated rules about when to play dead and when to fight back if attacked have done nothing to assuage this fear, nor has the ‘reassuring’ chat from the guy who sold us bear spray in the camping shop. Identifying whether a bear is merely curious, or wants to “make a meal of you” seemingly depends on which way its ears are pointing. This is all very well in theory. But having seen ferocious-looking stuffed grizzlies up close in Whitehorse’s museum, I can’t help thinking that in real life their razor sharp teeth and claws might prove something of a distraction from the business of observing the ears. 

Thankfully, we never have a chance to put theory into practise. Perhaps this is because we follow Parks Canada’s precautions to the letter – cooking downwind and well away from the tent, storing food and anything else remotely smelly in a bear-proof canister, and singing lustily while walking, so bears can hear us coming. Or perhaps it’s because, despite spending several days in the Kluane National Park, we’re still very much just skirting the edges.

*****

When plotting our routes, we knew we’d be confined to ‘the front range’, but it’s not until we jump into the tiny Cessna flown by Kluane Glacier Tours that we realise what a tiny fraction of the park this represents. “It’s an area the size of Switzerland,” says Stuart, who’s manning the office, “and there aren’t any weather cams”.

Despite their lack of eyes on it however, he and Lisa, our Scottish-born pilot, manage to find a suitable weather window, and as we bump down the airstrip and up into the air we get the most incredible views – not just back over the paths we’ve been hiking, but out over the ice-field itself.

“The glacier hit the global headlines after it receded so far that the meltwater flowing from its face changed direction”

Glance at a map and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was just an enormous expanse of white, punctuated by the occasional rocky peak. Seen out the windows of Lisa’s expertly-piloted plane however, the contours, crevasses and even the character of the ice becomes apparent. Glaciers are usually thought of as inert, unmoving, “glacially slow”. But the swirls and cracks and violent-looking ruptures visible in the ice tell a different story. Long before climate change sped up the process, this was a landscape on the move.

In terms of size and sheer power, I’ve never seen anything like the Lowell’s, a “surge-glacier” that calves into a lake littered with icebergs. But it’s the first glacier we fly up, the Kaskawulsh, that leaves the lasting impression. 

Pictured: Kaskawulsh. Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Pictured: Kaskawulsh glacier retreat. Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Credit: Tristan Kennedy

In 2017, the glacier hit the global headlines after it receded so far that the meltwater flowing from its face changed direction, and a river that had existed for thousands of years all but disappeared. From the air, the empty A’ay Chu riverbed is now a scar in the landscape – drying up and scabbing over, but still a potent reminder of the ravages of climate change. It’s on the ground however that the real effects of global warming on this fragile environment become apparent. 

We spend our last evening in Yukon as guests of Dr. Henry Penn and his colleagues, whose Arctic Institute research station coincidentally sits on the southern shore of the Kluane Lake, just a mile or so from the mouth of the river which once fed it. We drive out to it with Dr. Matt Ayre, a historical climatologist and keen outdoorsman. “They have to send a snow plough down this section of the Alaska highway in summer now because the dust gets blown onto the road,” he says. “At one point the dust storm was so intense, the plough drove off the side of the road.”

“Basically a huge flash flood called – it’s an Icelandic term – a jökulhlaup”

Back at the station, Henry talks me through the various research projects scientists based at the station have conducted into the possible long term effects: The dust that now coats plants, potentially affecting the entire food chain; the reduced level of the lake, which may eventually settle at “around 12 feet below where it once was”; these are changes that may affect the entire ecosystem, including “fish populations, salmon spawning areas,” and potentially much more.

It’s not just animals who will suffer either. On the northern side of the lake sits Burwash Landing, home to the Kluane First Nation (KFN), one of the indigenous ethnic groups who’ve lived on these lands for centuries. “Look at what’s happening with the lake, with our climate here,” Bob Dickinson, the Chief of KFN the Toronto Star recently. “We’re feeling this first hand”. As Henry says, “all of their boat launches, all of the access points, have been lost.”

Credit: Tristan Kennedy

As dramatic as the diverted river is, it’s far from the only observable effect of climate change in Kluane. As research station manager, Henry’s right hand man is Bob, the head chef and long-term Yukon resident who cooks up a storm, smokes like a chimney, and merrily rips the piss out of anyone in firing range. “I usually put about 2,000km on my snowmobile each winter, but last winter I only did 300,” he says. “I love to go snowmobiling, there just isn’t enough snow. I didn’t have to shovel my driveway once.”

Over one of Bob’s excellent lunches, I get talking to Professor Brian Moorman, a glaciologist from the University of Calgary’s department of Geography and Geosciences. He explains how “ice-dammed lakes” can form as glaciers melt, and then burst their banks. “You can get 2km, 3km lakes, that drain in a matter of two days,” he says. “Basically a huge flash flood called – it’s an Icelandic term – a jökulhlaup.” 

The talk of climate catastrophe and jökulhlaups might sound like Ragnorök is just around the corner. But it’s not all bleak up here in the far north. Yukon’s government has an unusually progressive relationship with its First Nations inhabitants, becoming the first territorial administration to settle the thorny issue of land claims. The Kluane National Park is a shining example of how the policy benefits the people. It’s now co-managed by the federal government, the KFN and the Champagne-Aishihik First Nations, a situation that Tom Buzzell, Parks Canada’s First Nation Liaison officer and himself a member of the Champagne-Aishihik, describes as “very progressive”.

Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Credit: Tristan Kennedy
Credit: Tristan Kennedy

The advantage of this is not just that indigenous peoples have more rights, access to better jobs, or fairer representation on national park boards. It’s that the generations-old knowledge they have about land management, fish and game breeding patterns, and climatic conditions are now being utilised. As Professor Moorman explains, numerical data gathered in the last 50 years is one thing. But when you have centuries-worth of oral history about the land you’re studying, as a scientist you’d be stupid to ignore it. 

The tragic fact is, of course, that as progressive as they might be, the fate of these lakes, forests and glaciers may not end up in the hands of the people who live here. Policies enacted in far away capitals may end up determining whether the Yukon remains the byword for pristine wilderness that it was when Calvin and Hobbes struck out here in the 1980s. Yet Moorman remains optimistic about the potential for the Yukon, and the planet as a whole. “People ask if you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and I say I’m a scientist: The glass is completely full – half full of water, and half full of air.” He chuckles, and then sighs. “But as a species we’re very adaptable,” he says. 

Tristan’s trip was supported by Travel Yukon.

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