5 days at Kluane Lake: grizzlies, history, and beach fun

I got home from our 62-day wander around BC on June 26th, and on the 28th, was on the road again. I had come home a few days early so that Cathy could join us for an extra-long Canada Day (July 1st) weekend out at our favourite campground, Congdon Creek on Kluane Lake.

Cathy took the Tracker to work that day, and after she got off work, we met at a rest area at Km 1436 of the Alaska Highway, just west of Whitehorse. I hooked the Tracker up to the motorhome there, and by 5:00 pm, we were on our way. Just after 6:00, we stopped at the Otter Falls Cutoff lodge at Km 1546, fed the kids dinner and then went in to the cafe and had a leisurely dinner ourselves.

As we neared the campground a couple of minutes before 9:00 pm, we saw a grizzly along the shore of Kluane Lake at Km 1663. That put the weekend off to a great start – we seldom even stop for black bears, but seeing a grizzly is always a very special experience for us.

Grizzly bear along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake, Yukon
He was very focussed on eating a very specific light yellow flower, and paid little attention to us.

Grizzly bear along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake, Yukon
We spent half an hour with the bear, and then continued on.

Grizzly bear along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake, Yukon
Just a couple of hundred meters/yards from the Congdon Creek Campground entrance at Km 1666, more grizzlies! This was amazing.

Grizzly bear with new twins along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake, Yukon
There was very litte traffic on the highway at 9:30, but everybody stopped to watch this family. A semi-trailer even stopped and sat in the traffic lane for a few minutes while the driver took photos from the passenger window.

Grizzly bear with new twins along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake, Yukon
After about 10 minutes, the family came right up onto the shoulder of the highway. The cubs were really funny, standing up, and playing, as well as getting the business of having dinner taken care of.

Grizzly bear with new twins along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake, Yukon
We stayed with the family until they wandered off into the forest after about 20 minutes, and normal traffic resumed on the Alaska Highway.

Grizzly bear cub along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake, Yukon

We prefer to set up in lakefront campsites, but knew that they would all be taken by the time we arrived. They were, and we set up in site #28 up in the forest (there are a total of 39 sites at Congdon Creek Campground). The next morning, though, I took the Tracker down to the lakeshore, as as soon as the camper left site #8, I parked the Tracker on the site and then walked back and drove the motorhome down. Having a “toad” can be very handy! The Yukon family camped next to us in #30 was also watching for a lakeshore site, and one of the kids had come down on his bike to watch for an opening. While I got the first site to open, they soon got #6. The man actually came over and good-naturedly congratulated me on my method of getting the first opening 🙂

The big event for me for our first Kluane Lake day, Thursday, June 29th, was an Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary celebration hosted by Parks Canada at Soldiers Summit. The party was scheduled to start at 12:30, but I went over about an hour early.

Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary celebration at Soldiers Summit, Yukon
I was really pleased to see new interpretive panels in the parking lot…

…and even a very good new brochure, “Plants of Soldier’s Summit and Thachäl Dhäl (Sheep Mountain)”. I’ve scanned a copy of the brochure and put it online for download (pdf, 1.7MB).

Plants of Soldier's Summit and Thachal Dhal (Sheep Mountain
Although there was a lot going on in the trail parking lot, I expected that the actual ceremony would be done up at the site where the opening ceremony actually took place on November 20, 1942. The 50th Anniversary celebrations were done up there on November 20, 1992, but it was very cold! Anyway, I began my visit by walking up to that site. All of the interpretive panels along the trail have been replaced. Some, like the one in the next photo, have audio recordings of interviews.

Interpretive panel along the Soldier's Summit Trail, Yukon
To go along with the brochure, several plants now have signs identifying them, in 3 languages plus the scientific (Latin) name.

Prairie sagebrush along the Soldier's Summit Trail, Yukon
There are still some very nice places to sit and enjoy the broad views over Kluane Lake and the new Alaska Highway.

Bench and interpretive panel along the Soldier's Summit Trail, Yukon
This new panel includes a map showing the location of the 1943 road, the bridges that were built over the Slims River in 1943, 1955, 1956, and 2010, and the extent of the new shoreline since the retreat of the Kaskawulsh Glacier dramatically reduced the amount of water flowing from the Slims River into Kluane Lake. This was the first time I’d seen a name put to what used to be an island at Slims River Flats – it’s called Fish Heart Island (Lutsiï).

Interpretive panel along the Soldier's Summit Trail, Yukon
High above the 1942 highway opening site, the are even a couple of the Parks Canada Red Chairs. The Red Chairs are a program to encourage people to stop and enjoy a few particularly fine locations across Canada.

Parks Canada Red Chairs above Soldier's Summit, Yukon
Walking back down the 1942 road to join the party beside the new highway.

Soldier's Summit Trail, Yukon
By 1:00, the food tent was very busy. I was there early and had already filled up on stew and bannock and cookies.

The food tent at the Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary celebration at Soldiers Summit, Yukon
To bring a bit of 1942 life to the crowd, my friend Fawn Fritzen was singing period songs, with Andrea McColeman on piano.

Fawn Fritzen and Andrea McColeman at the Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary celebration at Soldiers Summit, Yukon
I love hearing Fawn singing these old songs. It’s hard to believe that music so beautiful was being produced during some of the most horrible days of the last century.

Fawn Fritzen singing at the Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary celebration at Soldiers Summit, Yukon
There were, of course, speeches, but all were kept short. Our Member of Parliament, Larry Bagnell, is almost always fun to listen to in any case, and he was clearly enjoying this celebration. There’s a long section of highway resurfacing going on west of Whitehorse, and Larry joked that since the original construction crews were averaging 8 miles of new road a day, it should only take a day to complete the work. I didn’t hear a response from the Highways Minister, who was in attendance 🙂

MP Larry Bagnell at the Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary celebration at Soldiers Summit, Yukon
At 2:00, the speeches were over, things had slowed down at the food tent, and most people were walking up the trail to the summit to hear more highway stories. I headed back to the campground to join my family.

The food tent at the Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary celebration at Soldiers Summit, Yukon
We had an enjoyable day at our campsite and on the beach, then after dinner, went out on a grizzly hunt. We hadn’t got very far before meeting this fellow, who had some large patches of fur missing. We didn’t stay with him very long.

Grizzly bear along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake
We had no plans on Friday – it was a full day of relaxing at the campsite, playing on the beach, and going on grizzly hunts (we saw one more grizzly between the campground and Destruction Bay). Bella has started to be bothered by the rocks on the beach in front of the campground.

The beach of Kluane Lake
She much prefers the fine gravels and sand of the beach further down the lake. Tucker just likes any beach that he can run on, and really perks up when that word is spoken 🙂

Our dogs Bella and Tucker on the beach of Kluane Lake, Yukon
We drove over to Destruction Bay to see how badly the new lower lake level has hurt the marina there. It has completely ruined it to the point that the docks have even been removed. It doesn’t seem to me that digging it out would be that big a job if there was any will to do it. In 1942 it would have only taken a few hours to fix the problem…

The former marina at Destruction Bay, Yukon
I really wanted to get the kayak out, but it was too windy at the campground, so we drove over to the south end of the lake, past Slims River Flats. I stopped at the Slims River Bridge to get a few photos.

Slims River Bridge, Yukon
The new, much smaller, Slims River, looking up the Slims River Valley into Kluane National Park.

Slims River, Yukon
Conditions were perfect at the large pullout at Km 1642. I launched the kayak, got Tucker on my lap, and with a lifejacket on Bella, she had lots of fun swimming after us. She loves fairly shallow water, but doesn’t like swimming until we put her lifejacket on.

Kayaking on Kluane Lake with my dogs

Kayaking on Kluane Lake with my dogs
It was an absolutely perfect Kluane Lake afternoon.

Enjoying the beach at Kluane Lake, Yukon
Back at our campsite for a steak barbecue.

Campsite #8 at Congdon Creek Campground on Kluane Lake, Yukon
The weather on Canada Day, July 1st, was cloudy and cool. At about 1:00, we decided to drive to Haines Junction to see what was going on celebration-wise. I stopped at the Slims River East trailhead to read the notices about the entire Slims River Valley being closed to hikers due to a problem grizzly. The fine for violating that closure is $25,000.

Slims River East trail - closed due to a problem grizzly
A slope above Christmas Creek definitely provided a Kodak moment or two.

Wildflower along the Alaska Highway at Christmas Creek, Yukon
We arrived at Haines Junction just as a heavy rain was shutting down the festivities and people were scrambling to get sound equipment and fabric chairs into the Convention Centre. We stayed for a few minutes, then went over to Frosty’s for burgers and ice cream. Bella and Tucker love soft ice cream cones! 🙂

Rain shuts down Canada Day festivities at Haines Junction, Yukon
The rain followed us back to Congdon Creek, but then about 9:00 pm the skies cleared, so we headed out on another grizzly hunt. We met one grizzly about halfway to Destruction Bay, but he was pretty grumpy and didn’t want us there, so we quickly left. The next photo was shot at 10:01 pm in The Land of the Midnight Sun.

The Alaska Highway in the sunshine at 10 pm
A couple of minutes later, I took a couple of photos of the grumpy grizzly from a distance that wouldn’t bother him.

Grizzly along the Alaska Highway at Kluane Lake
On our dog walk the next morning, we saw a campsite that had been trashed by some local pigs. Park attendants might not be around for several hours, so I went back and cleaned it up. I just don’t understand that sort of disrespect in a place like this.

Trashed campsite at Congdon Creek, Yukon
On our last full day at Kluane Lake, I wanted to go for a long walk on the Slims River Flats. When the dogs and I got there, though, the wind was screaming. I decided to see if the far side was any quieter. The dust at the Slims River Bridge didn’t look promising.

A dust storm at the Slims River Bridge, Yukon
It was bit better, and I decided to head out across the flats and see what it was like. Within about 10 minutes, the wind quit. This is Bella and Tucker’s favourite place to play!

Dogs playing at Slims River Flats, Yukon
And mud – what awesome areas of velvet-soft mud to play in! The deeper the mud, the more Bella likes it (so does her Dad 🙂 ).

Mud on Slims River Flats, Yukon
I walked and the kids played until I thought that Bella must be exhausted, then started back towards the car.

Slims River Flats, Yukon
The patterns of the mud offer some really interesting photography. Sometimes tiny blades of grass, or dog paw-prints, add to the interest.

Dried mud on Slims River Flats, Yukon
The only animal prints I saw on the flats were these ones. I couldn’t identify it positively, but I expect that it was a caribou.

Caribou tracks across Slims River Flats, Yukon
One final shot, with a very muddy Bella. We walked up to a distant spot along the lake with clear water and a fine gravel beach, and all of us got cleaned up.

Slims River Flats, Yukon

A very strong wind returned shortly after we got back to the campground, so it was a quiet evening. Monday was raining and dreary, and we headed home, arriving at about 4 pm. Now, I’m just watching for some good weather to return to head out for a few days camping and hiking at the White Pass or Haines Summit. I also have some healing to do – while cutting kindling to get a campfire started on Saturday evening, I cut the tip of my thumb off with the axe. I bandaged it up and we carried on, but went to Emergency on Monday night to have a doctor look at it – he said it looked good. It didn’t hit the bone, but it’s going to look odd for the rest of my life. *sigh* (sorry, no photo of that 🙂 )

Our final count of grizzlies for the 5 days was 9 encounters, with 8 different bears. That’s by the far the most either of us has ever seen except in Denali National Park, where I saw 13 grizzlies on one incredible day a few years ago.


5 days at Kluane Lake: grizzlies, history, and beach fun — 7 Comments

  1. Wonderful pictures Murray. That female with the two cubs really looks great, nice and healthy. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What a great synopsis! Thanks for snapping those action photos of the music at the 75th anniversary celebration!

    I also appreciated the speech by Jeanie Dendys about how the First Nations of the area helped in the construction, and how she and her sister wouldn’t exist without it because it brought her father to the Yukon… but also that the construction of the highway marked the beginning of a difficult time for the First Nations in Yukon. I thought she was very personal and balanced.

  3. This really seemed like you were rubbing it in…first 62 days of fun on the road and barely a heartbeat later you are headed out for more days of fun and scenic beauty…what a place! Love the look of that country.

    And the bears…makes me a bit fainthearted to think about tent camping and solo rambling, even near the highways…bears don’t respect ‘bear signs’ much!

    Somewhere I have some good books on the building of the highway and need to get them out and reread and locate places of interest on the maps.

    Thanks as always for sharing and your sense of fun and adventure – much appreciated from me!

  4. Hi Murray wonderful photos looks like you had great. trip to. the Kluane