Kluane National Park: Bear Spray and Backpacking
Canada. The Yukon: it’s almost synonymous with adventure. And exploring the glaciated terrain of Kluane National Park on foot is an exercise in adventure any way you go about it. Just a few miles into our trip, the trail we’d been following quickly dispersed into a vast valley that I am certain some countries could fit into. The trail of your choosing was the only real path through the snaking mud pits of the low and glaciated brown river. The river which, I assumed in spring, covered our walkway. But the expanse was so vast that you could see for at least ten miles ahead with what made nearly every washed down stump, rock, and brown object look like a massive grizzly in the blurry waves of heat rising up from the ground. But as always, as we got closer to these elusive grizzly stumps, they deceivingly turned out to be just a washed down piece of debris from the massive glacier ahead. And gratefully, so.
Just hours earlier at the trailhead, the scene had been a broken record. I asked my girlfriend yet again if the bear spray was packed, while still not getting the satisfaction of knowing that it was even there. Again, she responded that it was, suggesting that we get moving. ”Let’s just start and maybe your nerves will settle once the blood starts flowing?” I quickly answered, “My blood is already flowing,” I said, with my heart pounding like I just ran a marathon. I was genuinely scared.
I’m from California. Our bears are small and generally more scared of you than you are of them. In fact, every backcountry trip I’ve been on in California, every bear I’ve ever seen were already running away from me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black bears face in the wild, oddly enough. But when we stepped foot into Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory of Canada, my level of confidence walking into the backcountry plummeted.
At the visitor center for backcountry registration in downtown Haines Junction, the 45 minute safety briefing,; as well as the post hike instructions to make contact upon the return to your vehicle seemed were ominious; the thoughts of joy and beautiful imagery seemed like a far distant shore in this endlessly described predatory sea of a backpacking trip.
The center detailed how the park held the most genetically diverse population of Grizzlies in the world, complete with a live screen of tracked bears in and around the trail where our 14-mile one-way trek to the “Kaskawulsh Glacier,” was to take place. Don’t get me wrong, the informative briefing of the hike and the professionalism of the center was there, but I was curious leaving the building how many backpackers have showed up to get there permits, and then proceeded not to hike after getting it.
But needless to say we set off and were immediately greeted by the simple silence and pure awe of the park. We had to ford a river, which was a surprisingly refreshing ordeal even though, at the visitor center, they made it sound like a terrifying prospect. A father and son crossed the river shortly after we did and sadly fell in and got most of their gear wet. But with Kluane being a literal alpine desert on the inland side of this giant coastal range, with the sun almost never setting, the possibility of getting their gear dried was rather high.
Shortly after the first and only river crossing of the 14-mile one-way trek, we were greeted. with the sight of a rabbit that had met an untimely end. The beginning of the hike was rather mellow with the rhythmic spouts and screams that we had to do in order to make noise and hopefully steer any carnivores away before we witnessed them. But upon the sight before us, I again lost my courage for the hike. Asking my poor, annoyed girlfriend, how close that bear spray actually was…again.
But once we rounded the corner of this giant valley after nearly 10 monotonous miles of chasing fluvial fans from the peaks to our right, we were greeted with the view of the glacier with the magnificent glaciated peaks that rise above it. But the funniest part of the entire trek there wasn’t the fact that a single bear or print was witnessed, but upon our arrival to camp, we found over a dozen other backpackers from different corners of the globe.
Upon meeting them and setting up our camp, the situation turned into something of a happy hour, and I felt more like I was at a hostel gearing up for a fun night out at the local bar rather than in the middle of the Yukon wilderness. But all I had to do was look around and realize that we were in one of the largest pieces of conserved land on the planet, deep in bear country. I had to pinch myself for freaking out from fear during the hike, as now the thoughts of a large carnivorous being were a far distant memory in this social hour of a backpacking trip.
Like at any hostel, the people you meet the night before vanish the next day, almost never to be seen again. Though we were able to say our goodbyes to some and exchange contact info, I couldn’t help but chuckle at what transpired. Never did I imagine the sociability of what had happened. But as it came time for us to leave as well, we were again alone in the giant alien world of this glaciated river valley.
We woke early to get a head start, as I wanted to see what the sunrise colors would do to the valley. Beams of light shot through the peaks like a child making shadow puppets with a flashlight. And as the light began to paint the riverbed, we were greeted with our first set of fresh bear prints. Clearly made during the previous night, or shortly before our arrival. Again, that feeling of discomfort shot back through me and I obsessively scanned the horizon for those ever numerous giant brown rocks and tree stumps.
But with the rest of the five or so miles seeming to be this never ending scan of moving brown objects, we stumbled upon some more tracks and eventually made it back to the car. Like any and most of my weekend backpacking trips, I always save a beer for the return to the car. We threw our packs down, cracked them open the refreshments and cheered to a safe and successful trip in a remote corner of Canada, densely populated with grizzly bears. As I took a sip and set the beer down next to my girlfriends pack, I noticed the bear spray. I picked it up and joked to her about how stressed I was about the exact location of this thing while hiking. Especially since not a single bear was witnessed. In fact, we barely save any wildlife at all. But I began rolling the bear spray around in my hands looking at it in a somewhat embarrassing relief until I noticed the date on the bottom of the can. Expired. Perhaps next time, I’ll be a little more mindful of the bear spray.