The bear necessities
So there you are, in the Yukon, grizzly capital of the world, armed only with a bottle of Chardonnay
Harriet O’Brien is a travel writer and award-winning author. Her first book Forgotten Land, a rediscovery of Burma was published just before she joined The Independent, her second Queen Emma and Vikings, a few years after she left. She was on staff at The Independent during the 1990s and subsequently worked in Canada and then as managing editor at Conde Nast Traveller before going freelance in order to travel more. She mainly covers the UK, Europe and Asia, where she grew up.
Saturday 21 August 1999
Before setting out on this oddly conceived "gourmet rafting trip" in Yukon Territory, bordering Alaska and spanning the Arctic Circle, I could not quite imagine where I was going. In summer I imagined it illumined by the midnight sun; in winter I feared it blanketed in snow and darkness.
It turned out to be a place of mesmerising and, literally, rich beauty. At the turn of the last century the Yukon was the destination for a great stampede of about 100,000 people: rough and ready prospectors desperate to find their fortune. The Klondike Gold Rush ended almost as abruptly as it began when rumours of mineral strikes further over in Alaska resulted in a mass migration. Today, several mines and small gold claims continue to do brisk business but the population of this enormous territory has shrunk to little more than 30,000 people, two thirds of whom live in the province's capital, Whitehorse. That leaves a heck of a lot of room for the Yukon's other inhabitants: the eagles, caribou, moose and bears.
Only the bear component bothered me. I had signed-up for a six-day journey through a small slice of the Yukon's zealously protected Kluane National Park and - together with neighbouring parks in Alaska and British Columbia - this forms the largest protected wilderness area in the world, supporting at least a quarter of the world's grizzly bear population, to say nothing of the numbers of marginally less fearsome black bears.
In the company of 11 other guests and three guides, I was to spend my days floating down the Alsek River as it carves its way through the remote St Elias mountain range, and my nights sleeping under canvas in the bright summer sunlight. And there lay the "yikes" element: there would be just a flimsy membrane between us and the bears whose territory we would be invading.
There's nothing like a little local lore to add to a sense of wonder - and caution. To get acclimatised, I spent a couple of days before the trip exploring the area around our jumping-off point near the town of Haines Junction. Here, numerous permutations of "bear aware" pamphlets seemed to have generated a small publishing industry. Even the grocery store sold cassettes of bear calls and canisters carrying the label "bear spray" (not, it turned out, a handy equivalent to mosquito repellent, but pepper spray to be used in close encounters of a hairy kind). Residents and other travellers were full of macho bear talk: "If you disturb a grizzly and her cubs, you're toast; corner a bear and you've had it," grinned one.
It was at a native Indian centre that I came across more resonant thoughts. A traditional camp of the indigenous Southern Tutchone people has been recreated, with moose-skin tents and woven brush shelters at the Indian Way Venture. How had they coped with bears?
"It wasn't really a problem," I was told. "We lived in harmony with nature, and if a bear did come to the camp we'd try to talk to it gently and let it know that humans and bears shouldn't mix."
Absurdly flakey and idealistic? Not entirely. Understanding how to live in tune with the raw wilderness was certainly a feature of our rafting holiday. This was not a white-water venture - the purpose of the trip was to see, and become part of, an extraordinary landscape.
First off that meant developing an appreciation for our river. During the last century, the lower reaches of the Alsek were dry. The course of the river was blocked by an enormous glacier which formed an effective dam which burst about 150 years ago. We could see the old shore marks way above us as we coasted through the valleys.
These support abundant wildlife: bank swallows; arctic tern; shy ground squirrels and bigger birds and beasts. The small-scale creatures provided almost as much pleasure as the grander elements that stunned us on our third day: the great glacier at Lowell Lake which remains the biggest non-polar icefield in the world, and the enormous icebergs that thunder off it.
Preserving this ineffably beautiful part of the world is a big consideration. As we departed from each campsite our guides ensured that not a scrap of human waste remained - ideally we wouldn't even leave footprints. And as for the bears, well, it turned out that the main concern was not to disturb them. Safety rules were pretty simple: always make a noise so as to let them know you're there - the odds are high that they won't want to meet you. Most of the time this worked (and also explained why so many Canadians have a great capacity for talking: it's a genetically inherited form of self-defence). We saw bears in the distance and came across plenty of huge, alarmingly fresh grizzly paw prints. But we had just the one brief encounter. On our second evening a curious teenage black bear came wandering down to our camp-site. It didn't linger for long: we made unwelcoming noises and, reluctantly, it trundled off.
It was a moment of frisson - and a defining incident for our group. We gelled over a short and, it has to be said, pretty anodyne brush with real wilderness danger. As a group, we'd viewed each other nervously to begin with, noting with relief that there weren't any overtly manic outdoors types.
In fact it transpired that the majority were soft-soapy urbanites from North America including three attorneys from the US; a 74-year-old Texan and his three grown-up sons; a young university graduate from Florida; and a sure-footed photographer from Vancouver who managed, somehow, never to fall into the river despite his antics in search of the ultimate shot.
At the outset of such a venture you can't help wondering why on earth you're doing this: paying good money to get progressively more and more dirty and reveal your worst, most dishevelled self to a group of complete strangers. Are you nuts?
Yet this was no hardship holiday. Granted, we had the minor discomfort of camping but even that was alleviated by such little luxuries as a portable, sit-down loo which was always positioned with a splendidly grand view of the river. And then there was the food factor. There were breakfasts like you wouldn't believe - eggs benedict with asparagus; French toast with bacon and maple syrup. Every evening a minor miracle took place as fresh meat, herbs and vegetables appeared out of cool-boxes carried on the rafts.
And from a simple camp fire came dinners that could put many restaurants to shame: steak barbecued to just the right individual requirement followed by freshly baked chocolate gateau; enchiladas stuffed with chicken, salsa and guacamole. Each night there was always a bottle or so of cool Chardonnay or of Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as a choice of beer, Pepsi and other soft drinks. On one occasion we even sat toasting our day's adventures with margaritas chilled by ice from the glacier.
Six days of fresh air and river life were just enough. We finished our trip just before the Alsek gets ugly and descends in tortuous leaps down Turnback Canyon. But the visual drama wasn't over. A helicopter lifted us back to "civilisation", offering us stupendous views along the way. From the air we looked down on the twists and turns of our river. Then, just as we were about to leave the area way behind us, the pilot made a final swoop to show us two great moose standing in a small clearing - and a large black bear silhouetted against the skyline.
Canadian River Expeditions (PO Box 1023, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada V0N 1BO (001 604 938 6651, e-mail: email@example.com) runs six- and 12-day trips down the Alsek River (as well as other destinations in the Yukon) during the summer.
Prices (including great food, informed nature guidance and helicopter transfer, but excluding a small charge for equipment hire) range from C$1,915 (around pounds 780) for six-day holidays to C$2,850 (about pounds 1,185) for 12-day journeys.
If you prefer to see the area on foot, contact Due North Journeys (42 Wilson Drive, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada Y1A 5R2, 001 867 668 4437. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. ca). Indian Way Ventures, recreating a First Nations camp, is near Champagne on the Whitehorse-Haines Junction road (00 1 403 667 6375). For other information about the area contact the Yukon Tourist Board, PO Box 2703, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada Y1A 2C6 (001 403 667 5340). The nearest airport to the Kluane National Park Reserve is Whitehorse.
The best gateway from the UK is Vancouver; Canada 3000 and Air Transat have the best-value charter flights. Canadian Affair (0171-616 9999) and Bluebird (0990 320000) have flights with both airlines from a variety of UK airports
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