From Whitehorse we set out in the rain with our packs full and high hopes for better weather. Although our last night had been spent soaking in the warmth of the Takhini Hotsprings, the rain only dampened our hopes of hiking in better weather as we left the warm waters and headed for Tombstone Territorial Park, located off of the Dempster Highway 100km southeast of Dawson City.
The Dempster Highway is a force to be reckoned with on its own; as Canada’s first all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle, it runs 671km from the Klondike Highway into the Northwest Territories, eventually connecting to Inuvik at the terminal of the Mackenzie River where it meets the Arctic Ocean. No traveler crosses onto this dirt highway and makes it to the end without the use of several spares, a few quarts of windshield washer fluid, a clear picture next to the Arctic Circle marker at kilometer 409 (or thereabouts), and high hopes of tundra scenery and wildlife. Although we embarked with only the latter of the four aforementioned items, our faith was in the Delica that she would get us to km 70 in one piece with blessings of dry weather as we embarked on our four day trek into the Yukon alpine tundra.
Called the ‘Ragged Mountain Land’ by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in tribe whose traditional territory the park encompasses, Tombstone Territorial Park is one of spectacular black granite peaks and open alpine wilderness formed thousands of years ago; it leaves you truly in awe of what time and geology can do to the surface of the earth.
The weather held out as we reached our destination and checked in at the only visitor center present the entire length of the highway. As a way of keeping account of all backcountry travelers, those which are overnighting at any of the three designated camp sites in the park must check in and confirm their entry to the trails, as well they must confirm their possession of bear spray and ‘bear barrels’, canisters which hold the entirety of a hiker’s delectable smelling food, snacks and bathroom goodies so that they may pass unnoticed from the sensitive noses of those larger carnivores one wishes to avoid in the later hours of the evening. On Saturday morning we headed off to Grizzly Lake, our first stop on our 3 night, 4 day trek into Tombstone. While the sun kept us company for most of the day, smoke from a nearby forest fire moved into the valley and blocked our view of the lake for most of the hike. Unfazed, we persisted to the base of Monolith Mountain and Grizzly Lake where our first night’s camp site awaited us.
A large kudos must be given to the staff of the Yukon Parks system; while they limit the number of backpackers that can stay at each of the three designated sites each night (you are allowed to camp anywhere in the park, albeit without the amenities soon to be mentioned), those three sites are equipped with raised tent pads, a reasonably covered cook shelter, bear bin lockers and outhouses. As Byron and I arrived at Grizzly Lake, we quickly gained appreciation for the cook shelter too; no sooner had we arrived and set up our tent than the nightly thundershower rolled in and gave us a taste of what we would be in for the next three nights.
There is nothing more spectacular than a wicked lightning and thunderstorm; I have always been a lover of wild weather, and watching the lighting blaze and hearing the thunder crack overhead mere seconds later gave me equal chills and excitement as we stood huddled in the cook tent with the rest of the camp occupants, fully well knowing my attitude would probably be less of wonder and glee and more of misery if I had still been on the trail when the evening storm hit us full on.
After our first night at Grizzly Lake we loaded our sore shoulders with our worldly possessions for the next few days and headed off to Talus Lake, the third and farthest lake in the circuit of three in the designated sites. We headed off in hopes of a site to ourselves after conferring with several other hikers that we were most likely to be the only ones there that evening. Many kilometers and even more sore feet later, we arrived, and our hopes were confirmed; we were the only ones who had made the full trek that day and we had Talus Lake, and the striking figure of Tombstone Mountain reigning over the landscape in the distance was all to ourselves.
We arrived early enough in the evening to enjoy the last few sips of Tequila we had packed into our little flask and dream of a warm dry night in our little tent. A quick look at the horizon surrounding our site quickly put these dreams to bed however; the evening thunderstorm was rolling in, and we quickly decided that although our chosen site was the most picturesque of the lot, it was also the highest point in the surrounding landscape. After relocating to a lower point on the lake shore, we ran for the cook shelter to heat up that evening’s dinner, and watched from our little shelter as the tent withstood the squall that dropped into the valley like a bomb, bringing driving winds, lighting and thunder. The domestic quickly falls dwarf to the wild.
That evening’s storm only turned out to be an opening act for what we were in for that night; as if the Chili Peppers had only just been an opening act for KISS, Byron and I awoke to a storm that night that made you feel like you were in the drums of the thunder gods themselves. Never in my life have I heard such noise; it echoed off of the walls of granite around us and bounced up and down the valley; each call in the distance brought close in the response by the clouds directly overhead. It paddled back and forth for what seemed like eternity before trailing off down the valley in search of its next warm blooded victim to keep from a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we woke to peaceful skies but a low cloud ceiling, dashing our hopes of doing some scrambles in the surrounding mountains. Succumbing to the weather, we packed our (soggy) bags and headed back towards Divide Lake, the second lake in the chain of three which we had continued past on day two in order to reach Talus Lake. The weather broke as we ventured to camp however, allowing us time to dry our things out and head off for an afternoon hike around the lake, where we happily enjoyed scrambling among the rocks for once without the full weight of our packs on our backs.
Day four saw us packing our bags for the final trek out; the night had passed uneventfully with only a few small sprinkles of rain, and now we had to ready our legs and minds for the 19km hike up and over the pass back to Grizzly Lake and then from there back to the car, dropping the 800m of elevation we had worked so hard to gain three days earlier.
Stymied in our search for sights of a critter larger than the curious marmots that frequently crossed our path, seven hours later we retraced our footsteps back through Tombstone to the Delica, which sat just as we left her four days earlier. Although we sit in the comfort of a hotel room tonight (treat!), that first night back in the Delica couldn’t rival the best night in a five star hotel anywhere in the globe. There is nothing comparable to your own bed, pillow, and the comfort of a roof over your head, be it Delica roof or an actual house. And for now, for this journey, after four spectacular days in Tombstone, we’re pretty happy to have our Delica roof back and continue on this journey in the van we call home.