Our annual fall trip was up. Should we go fishing for Cohos again? naaa, we decided, the salmon need a break and so do we - Lets go backpacking in the Tombstones instead!
Both of us had been to Grizzly, Divide, and Talus Lake before
they became more popular (a tent-limit is now in effect) and we were ready to explore the back country a bit more. Studying maps we planned to do a bit of a loop, hiking in along Foxy Creek, then turning south following the Blackstone River before aiming for Syenite Pass; up and over it to the old Flume Intake, then along Tombstone River to Talus and Divide Lake and out via the Klondike Valley/ Tombstone Campground.
Our route research provided mediocre results and we copied an (outdated) map out of W. Lanzs book Along the Dempster. (Few) bits of information suggested 7 nights. So 7 nights we packed for and off we went with our 50-55 lbs backpacks on Aug 25th, 2009.
After driving some 5+ hours from Whitehorse and now motoring up the Dempster Hwy. things got quiet in the truck where the heck were the bl_ _dy colours? We had been looking at nothing but greenish-yellow tree attire -and much faded at that- (compliments of a tiny moth that discovered Yukon a few years ago, stayed like the rest of us, but does not believe in leave no trace!&^[email protected]
#%$#!) However, at around KM 50 the scenery changed dramatically and a fall-medley of bright reds, greens, yellows and white lichen got us excited. It reminded us of something...oh yes, the paint job in R&Ss new house! Anyway, great timing!
That night we got our (free) permits for camping on Talus & Divide Lake. We also left a trip intentions form with the Park Staff, only to learn that they are not (yet) set up for sign in/out and do not initiate overdue rescues
. We were told to arrange it with the RCMP or a friend, which at this point would have meant a 72 km trip back to the next telephone...so please keep that in mind.
The Tombstone Campground was fairly busy and it didnt take long before a German couple agreed to give us a ride to the trail head the next morning. Unfortunately, we overshot it by following Lanzs map to KM 92 and ended up walking back on the Hwy. for 2 km. (It is a horse camp right next to Foxy Creek that you want to be looking for.) At last we were on the trail and a good (horse) trail it was, easy to follow and dry. By the time we reached Auston Pass sporadic sun highlighted the colourful hillsides and after spotting a family of 5 wolves and then hearing them howl we were happily slogging away with a perma-grin on our faces.
To our surprise we were able to pick up the horse trail most of the time through Blackstone Valley, which turned out to be great for camping and spotting caribou. There are many stream crossings, though we were happy to walk right through, boots on nall, something weve learned (on the Dusky Track) in New Zealand. Its really not so bad and a lot faster and safer, especially if you wear gaiters (highly recommended).
We made good time and reached Syenite Lakes a day early. The hike past Hammer Lake is very pretty and the jagged mountain ridges are just a taste of whats to come on the other side of Syenite Pass!!
Day 4 started with a very careful climb over the short but steep boulder pass. It was drizzling a bit and the very slippery rocks became a bit intimidating. Once on top an amazingly serrated ridge blended in and out of the clouds and made for a fabulous mood. A rather easy descend on a much gentler slope leading to a 7m high pingo added to it. What country!
Here the ground was very soft, spongy and wet but the view and a mostly downhill trudge had us look forward to the next camp it said in Lanzs book there were two possible campsites
at the old flume intake (which provided the Klondike dredges with power and water for hydraulic gold mining)...
What we envisioned was no more than a semi-flat 7x7 spot for our tent, but finding as little as that became a real challenge. No flume intake (debris), nor any non-vegetated spots were to be found, even after bush whacking past the confluence and circling for an hour. Eventually we continued hiking east and followed an occasional moose trail along the river high up and down below over many river rocks, trees, brush, more rocks...two possible campsites???!hmm??? We lucked out to find a camp site on a rock outcrop steeply up from the river with a flat spot halfway under a tree and enough dry branches around us to feel very comfy beside a tiny fire.
The spot provided quite the view towards Mt Monolith and Tombstone in the distance and made up for the frustration of the previous hour(s). We dried our clothes, ate lots of carbs, had hot coco with butterscotch schnapps and slumbered like logs. It's when it takes so little and is so simple that life is especially
Little did we know that 8 hours bush-and-alder-whacking and tender-footing-it-over-many-a-slippery-scree-field-slog lay ahead of us the next day. We crossed the Tombstone River early and stayed on the south side (try the other side, it can only be better) TIP: we learned that moose trails are mostly close to the river (but not always).
Lanzs book suggested 6 hours from the Flume to Talus Lake...well, we were very tired and getting cold at that time and pulled up under a boulder at Mt Tombstone. Our GPS showed another 2 miles/2 hrs to go (this section turned out to be slightly less strenuous). Once we reached the lower end of Tombstone Pass we followed a well treaded path which was marked with green flagging tape!
Although it was overcast and slightly drizzling (white mountain tops in AM), we had a great time at both Talus and Divide Lake. Except for 2 fellow hikers arriving late the area was deserted. The new tent platforms are great, however the make-shift kitchen platforms with an ill-fitting tarpaulin thrown over it makes one wonder why bother at all. One cannot stand up nor sit down in it and the wind blows the tarp around making it very crowded even for a very small group. Surely a similar kitchen shelter as found on the 'Chilkoot Trail' would serve the cause better? After all the best way to prevent people from cooking on the tent platforms is to make it a [u]usable</u> space. If it is a matter of cost a call for volunteers could make up for the difference. Speaking of cost...a humungous "all-green" visitor center has been build just before the Tombstone Campground. Unfortunately the road was closed and we couldn't visit, although it was officially opened in August 09.
Weve assumed that the once hard-to-find horse trail through the Klondike Valley is now more used and easier to find and it is so. It is still a bit difficult to pick up the trail once in a while and we stuck to the rule to stick close(r) to the river whenever we lost the trail, which proved ok.
Its a longish very wet slog, but nevertheless its mostly a trail - something that deserves appreciation. It took us 6 hours to hike out, with really good and bad sections alike.
However, we couldnt help thinking about New Zealands trail systems and the way the Department of Conservation has been preserving pristine trails. One way of doing it is to keep people on an unobtrusively MARKED trail/route similar to Grizzly Valley. Thanks to the Tr'ondk Hwch'in people this is a new park and special area that needs special protection. So why let people tread all over the fragile tundra, instead of flagging a designated route?!? Again, this could be done through volunteers if not rangers, who very frequently fly into the camps and hike out. What a great place this is and what a great opportunity to keep an almost ready-for-mining-area as something much more precious in this time and age: a true wilderness. A true wilderness area does not contain ATV tracks, but designates routes for low-impact traveling. People who have an interest to see it will hike it, promote it, and ultimately preserve it for the enjoyment & benefit of all. Over time New Zealand converted its former deer hunting trails into a tramping (hiking) system. It is now a great source of income put back into New Zealand's natural and historic heritage (e.g. conserving and expanding a fantastic hut-to-hut system). We could learn from them. http://www.doc.govt.nz/about-doc/
PS: We didn't encounter any bears (or moose) on the entire trip. We saw lots of moose droppings, but no signs of bear activities whatsover. The one and only fresh pile of bear poo was just past the signs, which are about 1-2 km from the Tombstone Territorial Campground...