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Mountain to mountain, hut to hut

When I first hiked to Grizzly Lake in the Tombstones 20 years ago, it was an off-piste wilderness trek. We didn’t see anyone else.

When I first hiked to Grizzly Lake in the Tombstones 20 years ago, it was an off-piste wilderness trek. We didn’t see anyone else. We improvised a route out to make a loop, and my friend is still complaining about the buckbrush and creek crossings two decades later.

When I went back last August, you checked in with friendly rangers at the visitor centre who told you all about the marked trail and prepared campsites. There was even a mock warning poster about the “Terror of the Tombstones,” the feisty local ground squirrels who own the tentsites and like to gnaw on boots and packstraps left carelessly outside during the night.

Interestingly, the parking lot was full of cars. We met people from distant lands like Patagonia and Ontario. They were loving the route. It was still very wild by the standards of everybody except the most extreme adventurers, but had a well marked trail and enough signs to comfort visitors that they weren’t about to embark on their own private Franklin expedition.

According to CBC News, park rangers counted 1,629 nights spent in the area in 2013. That is surely higher this year.

The Yukon has an incredible number of amazing and unique hiking and backcountry ski touring routes. But most of them are known to only a few Yukoners, and many require bushwhacking and navigation abilities that even adventurous tourists lack.

I recently chatted about this over Hot Lindemans at our alpine camp with a pair of grizzled Yukon backcountry veterans. They are the kind of guys who eat buckbrush for breakfast, and consider it a luxury if you put a dollop of evaporated milk on top.

Both have also done hut-to-hut hiking trips in other countries. Countries like New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland have some superb backcountry hiking networks. The trails are well marked, and there are either warming shelters with tent pads or even sleeping huts at regular intervals.

The shelters are a critical part of the plan. They make the route safer for summer outings given the Yukon’s unpredictable weather. Our trip to Grizzly Lake was at the end of August. It had been raining hard for a few days, and the fellow we met from Patagonia definitely could have used a shelter to dry out.

Then it snowed on us. My daughter spoke to two young women from Ontario who said they were going to wait until the snow melted to hike back to their car. My daughter remarked later, “I hope they have enough food to last until April.”

Small huts are also critical to open up the backcountry to ski touring. They don’t have to be fancy, but a place to dry out and warm up can dramatically increase the number of winter visitors. It also makes it easier for families to hit the trail. I can say from experience that it can be a challenge to convince teenagers to go winter camping.

We should create some hut-to-hut routes here. First, we should pick some scenic routes. Then we would get trail crews of local First Nation and non-First Nation youth to clear the trails, build simple tentpads and cook shelters, and put up some signage. Then we would start marketing the world-class hiking, mountain biking and ski touring opportunities.

As with the “Single Track to Success” mountain biking trails near Carcross, it would be a great opportunity for the Yukon Government and First Nations to cooperate to create jobs, attract tourists, provide opportunities for youth and make it easier for all Yukoners to enjoy all the territory has to offer.

Some of this is already happening. The Chilkoot Trail is well known. The Tombstone Park rangers are thinking about building more trails to create a loop around Grizzly Lake. Some of the folks involved with the Montana Mountain biking trails have proposed a hut-to-hut route from Carcross to Bennett, which would be spectacular. Others have proposed a hiking trail from Log Cabin to Bennett. The website has done a great job documenting around 75 excellent Yukon hiking and skiing adventures.

But we need to give these efforts more oomph. A few million dollars from the Yukon Government committed over several years would be a great start. Maybe federal infrastructure funds could help.

Basically, for the cost of a couple highway culvert repair jobs, you could literally put the Yukon’s best trails on the map forever.

The economic impact of each route would be relatively small, compared to a mine or natural gas well. But cumulatively they would add up if we could establish the Yukon as a trekking mecca. The initial investment in trail clearing and small huts would be small, the subsequent maintenance costs low and the benefits steady and long term. Given the thousands of people who have visited Grizzly Lake in recent years and the potential to lure more visitors to the Yukon, the return on investment for some hut-to-hut routes in the Yukon could be impressive.

It is kind of like how having 20 small placer mines operating every year ends up creating more jobs than the high-profile mining mega-project that never happens.

It also makes sense if you think about the Yukon’s portfolio of economic-development projects. A series of inexpensive, easy-to-execute and low-risk projects you can do next year are a nice complement to bigger projects that might take years to materialize even if they do get off the drawing board.

The other great thing about the idea is that we can do it ourselves. It is not expensive. There is no technology risk. We don’t need to wait for copper prices to go up or global capital to smile on us. The environmental impact is minimal. We just have to get started.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist.