By Skiplane to Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak

Many years ago, Cathy was in the right place at the right time, and flew to Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak at 5,959 meters high (19,551 feet). It’s also the largest non-volcanic mountain in the world in terms of mass – it’s 100 miles around the base. Last Monday (August 1st), she and I finally got to experience the flight and glacier landing that Icefield Discovery calls “The Ultimate Experience!” – and we now definitely agree with that name.

We’ve driven down this road to Icefield Discovery’s base on Kluane Lake a few times, but things have never worked out before, usually because of the weather in the back country. As recently as 3 weeks ago, we drove in and made a reservation for the next day, but then the weather shut down. Their base is located at the Silver City airport, where the Arctic Institute of North America’s Kluane Lake Research Station is also located. Last year, the Yukon News published an excellent story about Icefield Discovery’s history.

The road to Icefield Discovery's air base on Kluane Lake
This is the office of the Chief Pilot, Tom Bradley – the main office is on the other side of the runway.

Icefield Discovery's air base on Kluane Lake
C-GXFB, a 1966 Helio H-295-1200 Super Courier on retractable skis, would be our chariot to the ice. This incredible aircraft, with twin turbochargers on a 295-hp Lycoming engine, can take off and land at 30 mph on gravel/dirt strips less than 500 feet long, and can climb to over 20,000 feet. With an identical aircraft, former company owner Andy Williams made some 200 flights into a research station at 5,311 meters (17,425 feet) on Mount Logan.

C-GXFB, a 1966 Helio H-295-1200 Super Courier
I asked for the front seat and all of the 3 women flying agreed. Having a few hundred hours in the left seat of little planes, I love seeing the various components of “the office” at work.

The control panel of C-GXFB, a 1966 Helio H-295-1200 Super Courier
At 4:05 pm, we started taxiing to the far end of the gravel runway, and at 4:13, our takeoff would have looked like this (this is a photo of a takeoff the next day). The elevation of the airport is 783 meters (2,570 feet).

C-GXFB, a 1966 Helio H-295-1200 Super Courier, taking off from the Silver City airport in the Yukon
A minute later, we were looking down on the Slims River pouring silt into Kluane Lake, with Sheep Mountain towering over them. The furthest, whitest beach is the one we’ve been playing with Bella and Tucker on recently.

Aerial view of the Slims River and Kluane Lake, Yukon
The old Alaska Highway leads from the new highway out of sight to the right, past the Sheep Mountain (Tachäl Dhäl) Visitor Centre to the parking lot in the centre of the photo. From there, you can hike the Slims River West, Sheep Creek, and Bullion Creek trails in Kluane National Park.

Aerial view of the old Alaska Highway at Sheep Mountain
Sheep Creek.

Aerial view of Sheep Creek, Yukon
Bullion Creek.

Aerial view of Bullion Creek, Yukon
Looking south, up the Slims River towards the Kaskawulsh Glacier.

Aerial view up the Slims River towards the Kaskawulsh Glacier
One of the many impressive deltas along the Slims River valley. I’m still reading scientific literature to confirm a few things, but these seem to me to be kame deltas, formed when the creeks emptied their sediment into the lake that existed here as the Kaskawulsh Glacier started retreating some 12,000 years ago. But they could just be alluvial fans 🙂 We were now climbing through 6,700 feet (I took several photos of the altimeter to keep track of this).

A kame delta along the Slims River valley
To the right of centre is a large rock glacier along Canada Creek. A rock glacier can be either a mixture of rock and ice, or ice overlain by rock and gravels. This is one of many in the area. Along the Haines Highway, the Rock Glacier Trail is a popular hike, but that rock glacier is much smaller than this one.

A rock glacier along Canada Creek, Yukon
There are glaciers everywhere – most of them, as with most of the mountains, are unnamed. I think that Tom told us the name of this one, but it’s not on any of my maps.

Glacier in Kluane National Park
The size of the Kaskawulsh Glacier is stunning, with a surface area of more than 25,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles).

Kaskawulsh Glacier
The Central Arm to the left is about 3.5 km wide, and the North Arm is about 2 km wide. Where the two arms converge to form the Kaskawulsh Glacier proper, the width is 5-6 km.


It’s hard to imagine the volume of ice that’s been lost since the days when these two glaciers met the North Arm, or the volume that’s been lost by the North Arm as evidenced by the ice scars on the slopes above it. An article in the “Journal of Glaciology” in 2011 reported that between 1977 and 2007, the thickness of the glacier decreased by an average of 6.1 meters (20.0 feet), with maximum losses of up to 88 meters (289 feet) near the centre of the glacier near the terminus, and retreated 471 meters (1,545 feet).

Glaciers above the North Arm of the Kaskawulsh Glacier, Kluane National Park
Up in the land of permanent snow, flying at about 8,600 feet, the surface of the glacier smooths out a lot, but there are lots of massive caves, snow bridges, and pools of the most amazing blue water. Many glaciers flow from these high-altitude Kluane icefields, the largest non-polar icefields in the world.

Permanent snow on the Kluane icefield

Pools of water on the Kluane icefields
In the centre of the next photo, our destination, the Icefield Discovery Base Camp, can be seen. This heated 16×32-foot hut houses washing, cooking and dining facilities for vistors who want to learn about glaciers while living on one for 3 days. Tents are set up around the hut for 2-12 visitors at a time.

Icefield Discovery Base Camp
On the Hubbard Glacier, at 60° 41.00N, 139° 47.13W, at 2,607 meters (8,553 feet) elevation.

Ski plane on the Hubbard Glacier
Tom Bradley with Cathy.

Pilot Tom Bradley and Cathy Small at the Icefield Discovery Base Camp on the Hubbard Glacier
Me and Cathy.

Murray Lundberg and Cathy Small at the Icefield Discovery Base Camp on the Hubbard Glacier
The north-east face of Mount Logan and our ski tracks.

The north-east face of Mount Logan and our ski tracks
Tom kept the engine of the plane running for the half-hour that we were on the glacier – that’s not the place to have a dead battery or any other engine issue. I’d love to have gotten a photo of the plane with Mount Logan in the background, but didn’t question Tom’s request that we not go in front of the plane for safety reasons.


In this vast world of rock and ice, the 5 of us in the plane were probably the only people. It’s a very different feeling than flying at Denali, where you know that there are always lots of other people experiencing it.

Aerial view of Kluane icefields
Avalanches happen constantly on these very steep mountains, which are still growing due to tectonic plate activity.

Mountains above the Kluane icefields
On the climb up to Icefield Discovery Base Camp, we had been high over the Kaskawulsh Glacier, but on the return flight, Tom gave us a much closer look. The medial moraine formed when the North and Central Arms converge is much higher than I thought. From a lower altitude it was obvious how difficult travel across the glacier would be in the summer.

Medial moraine on the Kaskawulsh Glacier
There really are no words to properly describe this world, and the closer look makes that even more true. The wreckage of a Cessna 180 that crashed many years ago can still be seen on the glacier.

A close look at the Kaskawulsh Glacier, Yukon
The variety of colours was quite surprising to me, from the green on some of the slopes to the different colours of rock and gravels in the moraines, speckled with blue water in streams and pools.

A close look at the Kaskawulsh Glacier, Yukon

A close look at the Kaskawulsh Glacier, Yukon
In the centre of this photo, a stream running across the top of the Kaskawulsh Glacier drops into a moulin – they can be extremely deep, possibly right to the bottom of the glacier, which at this point is about 500 meters thick (1,640 feet). It’s hard to judge scale, but I’d guess this moulin to be about 10 feet across.

A moulin on the Kaskawulsh Glacier, Yukon
By the time you get near the toe of the glacier, there’s more gravel visible than ice. From the end of the Slims River West Trail, hikers can climb Observation Mountain, just to the left of the ridge seen in this photo, for incredible views of the Kaskawulsh Glacier.

Near the toe of the Kaskawulsh Glacier
The Kaskawulsh Glacier has drained into two rivers, the Slims and Alsek, for many years, but the channel marked by the arrow is new as of this Spring, and now virtually all the glacier’s outflow goes into the Alsek system. This has resulted in a lowering of the level of Kluane Lake by 10-12 feet.

New channel at the toe of the Kaskawulsh Glacier
The vast Slims River valley is now nearly dry in its upper reaches, and dust storms are getting more common and more impressive.

The vast Slims River valley
The huge alluvial fan (or perhaps a kame delta) of Vulcan Creek. In September 2014, a landslide near the headwaters of Vulcan Creek created a new lake.

The huge alluvial fan (or perhaps a kame delta) of Vulcan Creek, Yukon
Passing over the ghost town of Silver City (a.k.a Kluane). Although privately owned, there are no controls on use, and it’s fairly heavily visited. The red-roofed buildings behind are the Kluane B&B.

Aerial view of Silver City, Yukon
This is the mouth of Silver Creek, which is heavily controlled for a mile or so as it passes under the Alaska Highway. The lack of a regular channel that you see here has done a lot of damage over the years, including to the Silver City ghost town. This is known as a “braided river” and is typical of glacial rivers.

The mouth of Silver Creek, Yukon
On final approach to Silver City at 5:45.

On final approach to Silver City Airport, Yukon

While the creations of Mother Nature were the main star of this experience, our pilot, Tom Bradley, added immensely to it. His passion for mountain and glacier flying is wonderful to share, and his virtually non-stop sharing of his deep knowledge of the area places this flight as the best that Cathy or I have ever made. We’re already talking to him about a longer charter for next season, to fly right around Mount Logan.



Comments

By Skiplane to Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak — 9 Comments

  1. Excellent photos Murray. Did the fly over a few years back but didn’t get a chance to see Mt. Logan. Nor did we have the time to land on the glacier.

  2. WOW.. (can’t think of an appropriate/intelligent description of these pics and the scenery) !!

    Thanks Murray

  3. Pingback: Mud, Dust, and History at Kluane Lake - the ExploreNorth Blog

  4. Amazing! Speaking of the glaciers’ retreat, I have two photos of Athabaska Glacier in Jasper National Park, one taken ~1970 when we visited there when I was a kid, and one taken from approximately the same location last summer when I visited there for the first time since then. The shrinkage is graphic and appalling when you compare the two photos.

  5. I had to go back a second read and look at the pics much more carefully…what a great trip.

    Growing up, my dad had a great coffee table sized book on the Canadian Icefields…it (along w reading “Driftwood Valley” at age 10) sparked a real life-long interest in all things mountainous.

    Splendid! And to have that future expanded return trip to contemplate…wahoo!

    • You and I read “Driftwood Valley” at pretty much the same age. One of the books that helped create the person I am, I believe.

      I’m pretty excited about seeing more of the icefields area – Mount Logan and Hubbard Glacier in particular. Having been to the Hubbard where it ends at the sea a few times, it will be incredible to see it from the top side, especially if there’s a cruise ship at the face of it.

  6. Always wanted to get into that area that Driftwood V was supposedly set in, but Alaska for me is such a huge distraction when I can get there.
    We did a couple of the boat tours from Seward and Whittier AK…could do that every year and not complain even once! Ice, snow, mtns, long views…understand your drive quite well.

    If only I could find that big book again!