Backpacking Trip into Yukon's Kluane National Park Reserve (Part 1)

Backpacking trip into Yukon's Kluane National Park Reserve has been the most adventurous, physically and mentally challenging yet rewar...

Backpacking trip into Yukon's Kluane National Park Reserve has been the most adventurous, physically and mentally challenging yet rewarding trip I have ever done in my life so far. And here is why. I saw what I expected to see - the enormous glacier; what I didn't expect to see, but was hopeful I would - the Northern Lights; and what I kind of knew I could see, but was hopeful I would not - a huge male grizzly bear in the wild. Details about these and other things I've seen in Kluane National Park Reserve - in my article.

My friend and I planned our trip to Yukon almost six months ahead of time. It didn't take much time to figure out that the highlight of Kluane National Park and Reserve is its enormous glaciers. And there were only three attainable ways to see them - by plane (too expensive and too easy), by raft (too expensive as it requires a flight back) and by foot. Our choice was apparent. The shortest route - the Slim's River West (Ä’äy Chù) which is 23 km / 14 miles one-way plus the Observation Mountain - 9 km / 5.5 miles one-way - takes at least three days to complete. But we decided to give it a try, because we felt it would be worthwhile. Obviously, we could not predict the weather, our health condition and things of that nature when we were planning this trip and were booking the tickets, hotels and a rental car. But we were hoping for the best. 
If you ever walked for at least 15 km / 9 miles, you'd know it's not easy. We were supposed to hike 23 km / 14 miles on our first and last days as well as 22 km / 13.6 miles round trip with 842 m / 2,762 ft elevation gain and then loss on our second day. Add here a fully loaded backpack, and you can do the math. So it was a no-brainer that we had to physically prepare ourselves for this trip. Now looking back, I have to say that I was in a decent shape during the trip, although I felt tired by the end of the third day. Here is what I did for a couple of months to be pumped up: daily push-ups, walking home from work for 8-10 km / 5-6 m a few times per week and the two other short backpacking trips - less intense, but still demanding.
Parks Canada requires you register for a backcountry trip. We arrived the day before and did all the paperwork, so we could start our hike earlier in the morning and not wait until the park's office opens at 9 am. The park's officer mentioned a few things that made me feel a bit nervous and unsure we should attempt our backpacking trip at all.
First, it was raining for three days, so the water level in creeks could be dangerously high if not impassable. Two groups turned back the day before, and one man even drowned last year in one of the creeks (Bullion Creek to be precise).
Second, almost every group sees a grizzly bear which, the officer said, is nothing unusual. Although no one died since 1996, there have been a few bluff charges this year when a bear runs into you and then stops trying to scary you. Lovely. We were only allowed to carry a whistle, a bear bell and a bear spray which is effective if the distance between you and a bear is 3 to 5 m (9 to 15 ft) given the right wind conditions. Needless to say, a bear is very very fast, so there is no chance to run away from him. To avoid a contact with a bear, the officer recommended we bypass forested areas and take a river bed. The downside of it is that a river bed might have sink holes.
The other requirement was to have a bear-resistant canister which you can borrow from Parks Canada when registering. I actually recommend you read the Bear Safety brochure from Parks Canada, it explains a lot about bears and their behaviour. 
After all those creeks, sink holes and grizzly bears, I was almost tempted to switch to the plan B which required no backpacking at all. But my friend's 'we can do that' was both very persuading and encouraging. Our perseverance should have paid off. 
So the next morning, we drove to the trailhead which is located 70 km / 43 miles from Haines Junction, the village where we stayed. By the way, I highly recommend our hostel - Wanderer's Inn Backpackers Hostel. Very welcoming owners, nice spacious house and reasonable rates. There were only two other cars at the parking lot which meant that we could only meet two other groups. Packing is finished and we are ready to go!
After about 300 m / 900 ft, there is a sign which tells that a person died here in 1996 after encountering a mother bear. 
There is an old mining gravel road for the first 1.6 km / 1 mile or so until you reach the Sheep Creek.
Our trail lies along the Slim's River (Ä’äy Chù) surrounded by the beautiful Saint Elias Mountains.
Patches of alpine tundra.
Between the Sheep Creek and the Bullion Creek (the most dangerous one), the trail first takes you through the swampy area. 
This water seems to contain oil.
And this water seems to contain lots of iron.
The trail then reaches the aspen forest which I bet is the most beautiful now, in the fall, when leaves turn yellow, orange and red.
This is where we tried to be as louder as possible to avoid a bear encounter.
The park's officer also advised us to look for, pardon, bear feces to see if it's fresh. If so, the bear might be very close.
Bear's food.
Approaching the Bullion Creek. Preparing for the worst.
After changing our shoes, taking off the pants (sorry, no photos!) and stepping into the water, we realized why crossing a creek can be that dangerous. First of all, the water is freezing cold as it flows down right from the mountains. Secondly, it's very fast, so it's better to cross the creek in pairs: one person (usually the heavier one) stands in front facing the creek, and the other person standing behind holding the first one upright. It's important to look for a shallow way and release the straps on a backpack in case you fall. Hiking poles play an essential role when crossing a creek, but you'll need only one, so pack another one.
Water level in creeks tends to be higher in the afternoon as ice and snow up in the mountains melt during the day, so we tried to reach the Bullion Creek as soon as possible. Looking back now, I can say that crossing it was not that bad. The water level was slightly above our knees, which is way below the dangerous level.
And, by the way, hiking poles will make your life mu-u-uch easier, especially on steep descends as they offload a heavy weight of your body and a backpack from your knees.  
Sand dunes.
We finally reached the river bed that we can now take to avoid walking in the forest full of bears :) It marks almost the halfway of our route for today.
The area where a creek spreads into dozens of streams before it reaches the river is called the 'alluvial fan'.
Colourful rocks brought by a creek from the mountains.
The last 5 km / 3 miles we again hiked through the forested area.
Interesting optical effect - looks like a rainbow.
And we finally reached the Canada Creek which marks the end of the trail. Tired, but we did it!
Although the mouth of the Kaskawulsh Glacier can be seen from here, we hiked the Observation Mountain route the following day to see this glacier from the top. Stay tuned for more pictures and stories!

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