Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Mountain Hero Trail, Carcross Yukon

Mountain Hero - IMBA Epic
29 km, 1400 m elevation gain
5 km of descending, 835 m descent
5 1/2 hours
Dropping into Mountain Hero on Montana Mountain (Carcross, Yukon)
Somehow Kyle always finds the "epics," even in unlikely places. This is the 4th IMBA epic trail that we have done together and they always end up being a blast. As with all the epics so far, Mountain Hero was a long day. The common epic theme includes lots of pedaling and excellent scenery, without much in the way of technical riding (blue trail).

The access trail for Mountain Hero starts at the bottom of Montana Mountain in Carcross, Yukon. Montana Mountain is becoming a destination for mountain bikers thanks to its fun downhill trails (pedal or shuttle accessible). The trails were built by Carcross/Tagish First Nations youth as part of "Single Track to Success," a volunteer program to encourage reconnecting with the land and promote wellness in their community. Their ongoing efforts have resulted in a growing network of world-class mountain bike trails! Google it and check out the documentary SHIFT.

Since Mountain Hero is a point to point trail, there are a few logistics riding it. The easiest way would be to bring 2 cars and drop a car at the end of the trail (follow highway 2 south of Carcross for about ~17 km. Park in the parking area accessed by a short road on the left side of the highway immediately after you pass the old mining cable car tower and cross a creek), then shuttle as high as you can up Montana Mountain to avoid the lower part of the long climb. For people with one car, some choose to drop the car at the end of the trail, then start the ride with a pedal back to town. Its mostly downhill but it would still add on 17 km the day and can get quite windy along that stretch of road. We were told riding the road first is significantly better than riding it after the day on the trail. By dropping the car, you can also take advantage of the nearby creek to chill your post-ride beverages. We went with hitch-hiking. I left Kyle in Carcross with the bikes then drove to the parking area. People in the Yukon are very friendly and I was picked up by the first car that drove by! Even still, that took about 40 mins and we had to start riding from the lowest point on the mountain.
Pedaling up double track in the lower Carcross Trails
We rode up the single track climbs (Lower and Upper Dai Kwann) then pushed our way up a steep double track to join the shuttle road. Pedaling up the road would probably have been less steep but it was nice to be out of the direct sun. Shortly after meeting the road, we took a branch off to the left, following signs for Mountain Hero.
Onwards and upwards towards Mountain Hero
 We stopped at a small warming hut for a snack before continuing up. The approach to the trail is long. Although not too steep, we frequently ended up pushing our bikes through the loose, rough terrain. We had started the climb at 3 in the afternoon so we were in the heat of the day which did not help!
Kyle takes advantage of a cool stream on a hot day
Soon we were in the alpine and had amazing views over Bennett Lake and the mountains of the Southern Yukon Territory. We kept our eyes peeled for bears and other wildlife that would be right at home in the low shrub.
Getting up into the alpine on the long, loose climb
Alpine views and alpine flowers
We took a break at the top of the pass. Afterwards, there was a long, rough descent before we started to climb again. We started to pass old ruins and the remains of a mining operation. It felt like we were stepping back in time into the gold rush as we passed old structures and mining equipment.
Stopped for a snack at the top of the pass
Old mining relics with the trail in the background
Almost there?
Flowers, mountains and lakes 
Endless roads

Old mining equipment along the trail
It was a good feeling to reach the top of the trail! We stopped for a celebratory beer and a snack before lowering our seats and dropping in. At the end of July, the sun doesn't set until 11 pm so we weren't concerned that we were going to run out of daylight. We did however still have a 45 min drive back to Whitehorse after the ride, so we didn't linger long. The descent dropped us back down to the lake on a fast single track trail that cruised through the alpine before switch-backing through the forest. It wasn't too technical or steep, just fast and loose! We rode down beside the mining tram towers and the trail criss-crossed over the old cable. We even passed an old cable car laying on the ground. It was pretty cool!
Finally made it!
Riding single track in the alpine glow
Beautiful evening for a ride
The whole ride took us ~5.5 hours (including stops), and when you factor in the 1.5 hour round trip from Whitehorse, plus a car drop, it turns into a big day pretty quickly. We somehow managed to fit it into an afternoon, but I would recommend giving yourself a bit more time just in case! We came prepared with lots of food and water. It is pretty remote up there and we didn't see anyone else all day. Be prepared. This epic lives up to its name and can be pretty grueling, but the views and descent were worth it!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Golden Circle Route - Whitehorse - Skagway - Haines - Haines Junction

Alaska is a place that conjures up visions of remoteness, wilderness and adventure. My first exposure to Alaska was watching Eric Hjorleifson in Matchstick and TGR ski movies in the early 2000's. I would spend hours pouring over Powder and Skier imagining myself skiing the huge spines and deep powder in the Chugatch and Alaska Ranges. The names of Alaska heli-ski operations and mountain ranges have been a part of my vocabulary for years. Later, I revisited Alaska through Jon Krakauer's literature, "The Call of the Wild," and "Eiger Dreams" and the desire to visit this mystical place grew stronger. It was only natural to take advantage of my proximity to the border this summer to go see Alaska for myself! With limited time, we were only able to scratch the surface of this massive state, and it left an even deeper desire to return and explore (hopefully with my skis!).
Made it to Alaska!
Kyle arrived in Whitehorse for a whirlwind trip, in typical Jenny planning fashion. Our Alaska road trip was only one part of the visit which also included exploring Whitehorse and a bike trip to Carcross. I had created an itinerary to drive the "Golden Circle Route," from Whitehorse to Skagway, Haines, Haines Junction and back to Whitehorse in a weekend. This involved 600 km of driving, 2 border crossings, 2 time zones, 2 breweries, 2 mountain passes, a hike, a ferry, a desert, and a scenic flight! In order to fit in everything, I had to leave straight from work on Friday evening. There was no time to spare! Well, actually we stopped for some sushi in Whitehorse before hitting the road. We were on vacation after all.
Kyle in the Carcross Desert
Fortunately for us, the Yukon daylight hours are long in late July. We started the trip in Whitehorse, driving south on Highway 2 towards Skagway, Alaska. Our first stop was at the Carcross Desert, a one mile by one mile area of glacial sediment that looks very out of place in the surrounding boreal forests and mountains. It is considered the "worlds smallest desert" which sounds cheesy but it was actually pretty cool and worth a visit.
Yukon desert, the worlds smallest desert!

We drove through Carcross and continued south towards the USA border. The further south we went, the bigger the mountains and more rugged the terrain became. We drove through White Pass which runs parallel to the Chilkoot Trail from the Klondike Gold Rush one valley to the west. We left the Yukon and drove through a small sliver of Northern BC before arriving at the USA border. This blew Kyle's mind!
Open roads on the way to Alaska
Nares Lake
Scenic views through White Pass
White Pass somewhere between BC and Alaska
Yay Alaska!
Thanks to a time zone that I didn't realize existed until this trip, we arrived in Skagway at 9 pm. Hooray for Alaska time! We checked into our Bed and Breakfast then wandered the downtown area of historic Skagway before grabbing a beer at the Skagway Brewing Company. Spruce tip beers seem very popular in the North so we made an effort to sample one at each destination.
Late night in Skagway
Skagway shops at 11 pm - this photo was taken for John!
We stayed at the Historic Skagway Inn, an old brothel from the gold rush times. It was a unique place, but we were a bit disappointed by the tiny breakfast portions. It wasn't cheap either. We opted for a second breakfast at a cafe that we ate as we investigated town by day. Two huge cruise ships docked in the harbor and as shops started to open, the streets were flooded with cruise ship people wandering around aimlessly buying tourist things.
Cruise ships in the Skagway port
I had booked the fast ferry from Skagway to Haines that was departing at 11 am. We were able to check in early then drive back to the main drag for more people watching. When we returned to the ferry dock, we basked in the sunshine and watched scores of helicopters zipping around the fjord on scenic tours.

The ferry arrived a few minutes behind schedule. The booking had been very specific about the length of our vehicle and we soon discovered why. The ferry comes up from Juneau where vehicles can drive on from the back of the ship, however the docks in Skagway and Haines only allow for boarding and disembarking from the door on the side of the ship. The cars that boarded in Juneau are loaded so that they can drive off forwards, but all the large vehicles that load in the other ports have to reverse onto the ferry so that they can get off. The parking staff are able to provide direction and guidance to the drivers but they don't park your motor home for you. We watched in agony as an older gentleman struggled to reverse his massive 5th wheel onto the ferry while his wife filmed the whole thing. It took about 45 mins and will probably be a story that they will tell forever. So, be warned, boarding can be a slow process. Don't count on getting anywhere on time! We were about an hour behind schedule. Fortunately, everyone was loaded on in such a way that disembarking in Haines was mostly painless.
The fast ferry to Haines
Challenges backing onto the ferry
Looking back down the fjord to Skagway
The ferry covers the ~20 km down the Taiya Inlet in 45 mins. It was a beautiful cruise and we had views of huge waterfalls, high alpine glaciers and bright green/blue ocean. We had our eyes scanning the horizon and although we didn't see any whales, we did see a number of bald eagles, especially as we approached Haines which is one of the world's bald eagle capitals.
Ferry views
Haines is a small fishing village that is totally opposite from the bustling cruise ship port of Skagway. It was quiet and low key. We grabbed some overpriced fish and chips for lunch then went for a short hike out to Battery Point to stretch the legs. Following the hike, we checked out the Haines Distillery and sampled their spirits on a beautiful deck overlooking the ocean and mountains. We wandered through first nations art galleries and of course had to try a spruce tip ale at the local brewery. Unfortunately we had a tight timeline and had a 240 km drive to Haines Junction that night so we couldn't linger. Being a small town, no restaurants were open in the afternoon so we waited until 5 pm to grab a bite to eat before hitting the road. We went to the Haines Bakery, which actually is a Thai Restaurant (as well as Mexican, American, a coffee shop and bakery!). We had a delicious and authentic Thai meal cooked by a Thai woman and her mother, then stocked up on some baked goods for the road. One thing that was a bit surprising about Alaska was how expensive everything was! As soon as we got back to the Yukon, prices dropped.
Haines Battery Point trail
Haines shoreline
Visiting the brewery
The drive between Haines AK and Haines Junction (Yukon) is gorgeous. We drove beside the Chilkat River and up into the mountains of the St. Elias Range (which contains Mount St Elias in Alaska and Mount Logan in the Yukon) following the Haines Highway. There is some amazing terrain up in the mountains that looked perfect for ski touring.
Chilkat River likely full of salmon at this time of year
Views from the Haines Highway
We arrived in Haines Junction just after 9 to check into our Air B&B at Mount Logan Lodge. I had booked an old miners cabin for the night, which was beautiful self-contained room complete with a wood stove, Coleman stove and outhouse. The main lodge had a number of guestrooms and a big kitchen, dining area and living room for guests to enjoy. They also had a hot tub on the deck with views of Kluane National Park! The lodge has recently been purchased by a couple that were very friendly and accommodating. They told us about the time they had spent living off the grid in a school bus, which is now one of their rental units on the property! I wish we could have stayed longer.
Our "miners cabin" at Mt. Logan Lodge
Awesome little cabin
Cabin sunset
Views out to Kluane National Park
The next morning our hosts were up early to make us breakfast because we had a scenic flight over Kluane park planned for 8 am. It was a 15 minute drive to the tiny airstrip where we met our pilot and piled into the plane with one other passenger who turned out to be a guy I had met in Whitehorse a few weeks earlier. Kluane National Park is a remote mountain park in the St. Elias Range. It contains Mount Logan, the tallest mountain in Canada (5959 m) and a massif with the largest base circumference of any mountain in the world! Our pilot flew us deep into the park, pointing out mountain peaks, glaciers and rivers. The park is very difficult to access and only a limited number of people are granted access at any given time. Those who want to climb Mount Logan often have to fly into the park, then ski up to 100 km to reach the base before they start to climb. We caught a glimpse of Mount Logan off in the distance at the furthest point in our flight. It was still a few hundred kilometers away but it looked so big it could have been right beside us!
Smallest plane I've ever been on!
Big glaciers in Kluane
Watching glacial moraines form in real time
Kilometers of glacier flowing down the valleys
Huge mountain peaks!
Mount Logan looks so close but in reality it is very far off in the distance
We couldn't stop staring out the windows
Scenic flight crew!
Colourful bands of rock
Massive crevasses 
Beautiful big lines out the window
Steep couloirs!
More glaciers and crevasses
Crevasse field and icefall
Glacier calving into the lake
Beautiful colours on the way out of the park
Coming in for a landing
The flight itself was only 75 minutes long but it felt like we had just visited another planet. We were both awestruck by the huge glaciers, mountain peaks and icefields. Kluane contains the largest non-polar icecap in the world and the ice can be over a kilometer thick in places! It was gorgeous. 

For the remainder of the day, we decided to hike up to the King's Throne, a mountain above Kathleen Lake on the edge of Kluane Park. We stocked up on sandwiches, snacks and coffee at Village Bakery, a cute little spot nestled just off the highway in Haines Junction. The hike to the "King's Throne" was a steep and direct trail (550 m elevation, 5 km one way) and we were at the turn-around after only an hour of hiking. Feeling a bit ripped off, we decided to continue up to the summit which added an extra 900 m of elevation and 8 km return. This gave us epic views deep into the park as well as over the lake.
Kings Throne in Kluane National Park
Hiking fun!
Kathleen Lake view from the ridge below the Kings Throne summit
We finished off the Golden Circle by driving back to Whitehorse, stopping for dinner with Kyle's friend on the way home. We somehow managed to pack it all in and still have a nice mini-vacation! As I said before, we had only scratched the surface of Alaska by visiting a tiny corner. We will save the rest for next trip!