‘The Raw Stunning Beauty of the Wild’
Author: Patricia St-Jean
In 2004, I travelled the Alaska Highway north through pristine wilderness along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains to Yukon. A handful of fuel stops crowd the highway offering home-cooked meals, a chance to stretch your legs and swap stories with locals. Here, the Rockies are more approachable than the majestic sentries of Banff. Exposed shoulders of folded bedrock seduce, drawing you into their wild embrace through open river valleys alive with grizzlies, black bears, elk, caribou, moose, mountain goats and sheep, cougars, lynx, bobcats, wild horses and wood bison.
Once in Yukon, Caribou Crossing crouches between rolling sand dunes and Lake Bennett where ancient artefacts unearthed after 4,500 years bear witness to Tlingit and Tagish villages that once thrived here. Huge migrations of caribou, decimated during the Klondike Gold Rush, crossed this natural land bridge between Bennet and Nares Lake. Now, swarms of caribou, the ancient villages of Tlingit and Tagish, and Klondike Stampeders are gone forever. Instead, my panoramic photo of Caribou Crossing, with mountain ranges soaring above Bennet Lake, picks up a trajectory of light following an orange disc in flight or perhaps, a ghost image of my cameras’ flashbulb. ET or fluke? You decide.
From there, Klondike Highway stretches west to Whitehorse through thousands of miles of unspoiled wilderness caressing the shores of Tagish Lake, home of the Athabaskan “People of the Fishtrap”. I still savour the scent of smoked salmon hung above fire pits dotting the beaches of Tagish and Taku; the ancient villages occupied by “Big Sinew People”, the Tlingit Áa Tlein Ḵwáan and Deisleen Ḵwáan. “Skookum Jim” aka Keish, a Tagish is credited with the discovery of placer gold on Bonanza Creek igniting the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush. In January 2000, just four years before my arrival, a meteorite imploded against the ice surface at the centre of Taku Arm, a two-mile wide finger of Tagish Lake. Tlingit and Tagish stood watching as the asteroid fireball hurtled towards them from space. Can you imagine how they must have felt? Nasa determined asteroid fragments contained carbon and amino acid molecules, essential for life on this planet. Is this then, how life on Earth evolved from star dust?
Further west, Whitehorse emerges below Miles Canyons’ corrugated pillars of volcanic basalt cut by the azure waters of the Yukon River en-route 3200 km to the Bering Sea. As many as 40,000 prospectors rode the frothing rapids here between sheer vertical cliffs on makeshift rafts and boats, risking everything in their quest for gold. Many perished. Of the 100,000 Stampeders who left Skagway in 1896 only 30,000 made it to Dawson City. For those who survived the gruelling trek over Chilkoot Pass to Miles Canyon, the “Whitehorse” awaited downstream; a steam-powered paddle wheeler in which weary travellers journeyed in overcrowded comfort from the headwaters down the Yukon to Dawson City and legendary Bonanza Creek.
Most memorable of all, however, was the spectacular Aurora Borealis viewed from the shores of Kluane Lake; a throbbing dome of dancing ribbons of yellow, green, purple, blue, violet light pulsating across the Milky Way. The palpable crackle of electro-magnetic energy made the hair stand up on the back of my neck; the startling profound silence infusing my entire being. Here in Yukon the sanctity of the soul is inseparable from the raw stunning beauty of the wild.
— Patricia St-Jean