Skiing the Cottonwood Trail in Kluane

One last good ski was what I wanted. Early April mountain biking was a messy proposition and my back muscles were not tuned up for spring cleanup…

One last good ski was what I wanted.

Early April mountain biking was a messy proposition and my back muscles were not tuned up for spring cleanup around the house.

There were a few brighter options: Telemarking at White Pass on the Easter weekend or a lake ski to a friend’s cabin.

When a friend Catherine phoned to say that she and another couple were going to ski the Cottonwood Trail in Kluane Park over four days and were looking for another person, I jumped.

While discussing our plans for food and gear, Mary said she had skied the 85-kilometre route with a backpack in three days 10 years ago.

This time she and Gerry were going to use pulks. Pulks or pulkas (but not polkas) can be made out of aluminum, fibreglass or wood, but the most common Yukon variety is a plastic, one-child sled with a homemade harness.

The harness vaguely resembles those for a jingling along in a one-horse open sleigh.

Instead of wood, the stiff components are made from plastic plumbing pipe. These drainpipes are long enough to allow skis to clear the sled.

A padded belt attaches the harness to the drafted animal. It should be clear now that you will be that animal (oh what fun they had … laughing all the way….).

Day 1

Good Friday came and finally we were off. Three of us were dragging sleds and Catherine hoisted a backpack. My borrowed, elderly pulk had Teflon runners on the bottom.

This should have been a good sign, however a friend of mine had added the same kind of frictionless strips to a wooden toboggan used on a previous unsuccessful expedition on this trail.

It was hard not to succumb to a premonition of equipment problems, even on this beautiful day.

His other additions were plywood reinforcement points for tie ropes and a hinged attachment for the harness made from a variety of metal, wood and plastic plumbing hardware — much more weight and uncertain function.

Mary and Gerry, on the other hand, had very simple, light and flexible points of attachment for their harnesses.

As the day progressed, the weaknesses in my pulk became apparent.

By the end of the day, additional parachute cord and duct tape were assisting the harness to function close to what my friend, the designer, must have envisioned.

I also got the technique of packing the heavier objects as close to the bottom of the pulk as possible. This kept it from rolling up side down every time it leaned too heavily in the deep ski tracks.

Nothing, however, could prevent the corn snow from filling every space not occupied by my pack.

Despite my success in mending the pulk, I really found it uncomfortable having my middle pulled at every reluctant lurch of the deadweight behind me.

Without a pack, however, my back stayed dry.

Our camp that night was at the Dalton Creek crossing and the junction of the Cottonwood Trail.

It was close to a perfect camp: a dry, cozy spot under the spruce trees to set up our stoves; shelter from wind for the tents and a view of the full Easter moon rising above the eastern mountains.

The creek was open under the footbridge. Its subtle gurgles gave us the impression that warm spring winds were about to rise gently into these alpine valleys.

Day 2

In the morning, a few birds made an appearance near the camp, although it was so early no one was actually out of their sleeping bags to see them.

We heard an American Dipper, a varied thrush and a pine grosbeak. The varied thrush was a sure sign of spring. I have heard the other frost-loving residents singing cheerily at minus 35.

Mary and Gerry took off early because of the simplicity of packing their two gym bags in each sled. I had to stuff my packsack, strap it tight to keep the snow out, strap the pack onto the pulk, heavy side down, and strap myself in the harness.

I was now ready to hear bells jingling.

I only made it 7.5 metres, to the first tree across the trail. The pulk lodged behind a small part of the trunk that I had easily skied over. I gave it a jerk, and the harness snapped. I thought that one of my additions had broken, but it was the main plastic joint.

There was just no easy way to repair it.

I calmly took my pack out, placed the jumble in a tree beside the trail, heaved my pack up on my shoulders and continued. Left behind was a broken kid’s sled, a mess of duct tape, parachute cord and enough plumbing parts to install the proverbial kitchen sink.

In the spring, trail crews might feel compelled to call CSI about a sleigh ride gone very wrong.

The rest of the day progressed easily without any equipment problems and we took long rests to take in the views of rolling snow-laden alpine meadows. The day could have been more eventful if the four of us visitors had arrived in the pass at the same time as three local carnivores.

The pass is located between a branch of Victoria Creek and the head of Dalton Creek. Gerry was breaking trail at this point.

My altimeter appeared to read 4,119.8 feet.

It had been reading this altitude for about half an hour.

I couldn’t figure out how Gerry could maintain such an uncanny read of the side of the valley so as to not climb or descend more than necessary.

I later realized I was reading the date.

Sorry, I digress. The point is that it was easy skiing and we didn’t have to focus on navigating. My skills certainly weren’t needed.

Three different sets of tracks were visible.

They converged at the bottom of a deep blue- shadowed ravine. I went down from our trail to investigate.

Wolverine tracks, hardly making impressions in the snow, had preceded us up Dalton Creek. Wolf tracks paralleled us on the other side of the ravine and deep Grizzly bear tracks came part way down the mountain on the other side of the ravine.

Then the bear must have slid on its vast bottom right to the scene of a few remaining drops of blood. An avalanche kill? A predators’ luncheon meeting?

We chose not to think of the latter and planned to switch to summer rules for storing and cooking food.

The noon sun blazed like the star that it is; photons and other burning rays beaming down through the thin, clear atmosphere — blue/black in our glacier glasses and reflecting off the brilliant white snow desert.

We were skiing in light shirts and getting very thirsty but in this part of the pass there were no open creeks.

It’s amazing how much perspiration can flow at a few degrees above freezing.

We all added snow to our water bottles and enjoyed flavourless ‘slushies.’

Our descent down the steep 30-metre hill to a potential campsite was less graceful than the bear’s style.

Mary and Gerry freed their pulks and let them glide straight down the slope. Then most of us slipped, tumbled and generally crashed our way down on our skis.

Catherine and I were particularly ungainly because of our packs.

We were pleased to find part of the creek open and most of the rocks on the banks were bare. During supper a dipper flew back and forth encouraging us to move from its’ tiny empire of open water.

On the other end of the wing span spectrum, we saw golden eagles soaring above the cliffs on the southwest facing mountains.

Gerry thought it was the beginning of their migration north.

Over the next two days we saw a few every time we looked up.

Catherine and I took a little ski after supper and we found the smooth, belly slide marks of an otter in the snow.

It was traveling downstream from one open area of the creek to the next. Ptarmigan tracks and wing imprints were everywhere.

Seemingly endless photography in the golden, setting sunlight and deep blue shadows finally did end when the shadows and my hands became very cold.

With no place in the valley left to stand in the sun, it was time to get in the tent and into my thinning sleeping bag which was losing loft at an amazing rate. (Dry Loft must have been invented by a freezing adventurer).

To be continued on Monday.

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