Northern Exposure

Never once upon waking up had I looked out the window and said, “What a glorious morning!” It is simply not a phrase that my been-there-done-that synapses have ever spawned. Yet when I awoke in the Yukon, in Haines Junction, the morning light, the jagged snow-capped peaks behind Kluane RV Kampground and the anticipation of a day filled with adventure caused me to exclaim, “What a glorious morning!” Looking back on that July dawn, I will forgive myself my cliched exuberance, since what the campground lacked in upscale amenities it made up for in location. Situated at mile 1016 of the infamous Alaska Highway, Kluane RV Kampground borders Kluane National Park and Reserve, the rugged home to the stunning St. Elias Mountains and Canada’s highest peak, Mt. Logan. The park borders Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to the west, and British Columbia’s Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park to the south.

So, with all that wild land to explore and time to explore it, I anticipated an exciting day. I got more than I expected. The first surprise came when I looked at the map and learned that not a single inch of road exists within the national park, so I wouldn’t be driving the rented camper past any back-country vistas. Hiking was the thing, then. But first I’d pursue what some editors like to call “drool shots,” photos that make viewers immediately check their calendars, then start
making travel plans. And, in such a spectacular setting, I knew such a shot couldn’t be too far away. As I drove south on the Haines Highway, admiring wide-open views and appreciating the practically empty road, I contemplated stopping time and again when I saw a location that had decent saliva potential. But I drove on until my response was positively
Pavlovian, and I knew I’d get the shot I was seeking.

Just past Quill Creek, I parked the camper off the highway and arranged it so I could try to fit the rig, the fast-moving,
glacier-fed water and the white-shrouded mountains in the background, all in the same shot. Seemed reasonable enough. I pulled out the Canon and started snapping, changing positions, adjusting settings, working every angle. I took about 20 shots and figured I must have captured “the one” in there somewhere (I still shoot slides, so I’d have to wait until the
film was developed to learn if I’d been successful). I got in the truck, started the engine and felt I’d forgotten something. I had missed a possible award-winning shot by not jumping down to the terra firma slice that was surrounded by the braided creek. From there I could shoot back up at the camper, I hoped, and make it appear that I was standing dead smack in the current.

I turned off the engine, then set out to rectify my oversight. Getting onto that slice of rock and dirt wasn’t too tough, requiring a leap that any gazelle could easily manage. I got myself in position, squatted to create a severe angle (heightening the drama, I hoped) and clicked off a few shots. Then the fun began. I went back to where I’d accessed the small island and learned that to jump back to where I’d started would require a five-foot leap and a one-footed landing on a pyramid-shaped rock. Now, someone not so dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, so determined to please his editors and to supply his readers with the quality art they deserve (someone paying attention, in other words) would have recognized this how-do-I-get-back problem before he made the first leap.

Being the determined, selfless professional that I am, however, I found myself practicing my approach, walking off my steps and visualizing my tricky landing. The “launch pad” where I’d have to plant my left foot to make the jump felt like quicksand under my boot, and all I kept visualizing was landing askew on that pointed rock, breaking my ankle, then falling backward into the rushing, ice-cold water, out of sight of the road — not that there were any cars on it anyway. Obviously, I needed another rescue plan. Simply wading through the who-knows-how-deep water remained a possibility, as did foot-entrapment, a circumstance that regularly proves deadly to rafters and anglers who get a foot stuck between boulders. Another alternative, perhaps. I walked the length of the island sliver, about 50 yards, looking for a way off it.

The main channel was far too broad and deep to even consider, but the one to the north was a possibility. I debated three or four places where I had an outside chance of clearing the channel with a Carl Lewis-like jump. It was about this time
that I thought, Bruce, if a grizzly was chasing you, do you think you could make it across? This was not an entirely paranoid thought, since I’d read the You are in Bear Country brochure Parks Canada offers in its visitor center. But since no grizzlies were presently there to rescue me, I kept looking. I found a sturdy branch that I could use to support myself if I had to wade through the creek. I came across a felled tree, lying parallel to the current, some of it in the water, some of it on dry land.

If I could somehow manage to lift one end of that tree, I thought, I just might be able to walk it around until I could heave it toward the bank. Three attempts and two hernias later, I’d managed to chuck the thinner end of the tree toward the far bank. It didn’t quite get there, but I had my walking stick, and I figured I’d take a few steps on my burbling bridge, then jump when I had to. Slippery step after slimy step, I negotiated my way to the middle of the log, where my weight forced the wood to submerge. Since this was all the grizzly I needed, I leaped for the bank, landing with the most pleasant thud I’ve ever heard. My northern adventure/exercise in outdoor idiocy was all worth it, the way I see it, since I got the shot. Kluane RV Kampground, (867) 634-2709.

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