The trip to the Tombstone Mountains has been on our “Yukon bucket-list” for a couple of years. Less than an hour after bumping our way down the notorious Dempster Highway we passed the sign welcoming us to Tombstone Territorial Park. (Note: The Dempster is Canada’s one and only all-weather highway that crosses the Arctic Circle. It  is a 640 mile long gravel road that ends near the edge of where North America and the Arctic Ocean meet.)

Other than one trail that limits the number of backpackers, Tombstone Park allows visitors to hike anywhere.  But, once out there, you are on your own. Our first stop was at the  park Interpretive Center to make inquiries about a challenging hike.

The uniformed young woman who helped us was a short, strong, park ranger who looked part warrior and part bike gang member with her nose ring and stubby dredlocks. We made it clear that we liked to get off the beaten trail where we would not likely see people. I saw the flicker of her eyes as she quickly scanned both of us. It was a measuring up type of glance. I don’t know if it was my faded orange, multi-pocketed pants, patched in three loci with silver duct tape or if it was our well-worn hiking boots that prompted her to unfold a topo map and boldly stab a finger on a mountain and series of ridges that she was not familiar with.

“You might try Mt. Boyle,” the park warrior said.  Pausing, she added, “I have not hiked it but it looks interesting and accessible. “But if you climb it,” she smiled,”  you have to stop back here and report to me what you found.” We leaned over the “office use only” topo map, memorized landmarks and headed north on the Dempster Highway to check it out.

We passed critical landmarks and finally slowed to a stop to pull out the binocs to assess the mountain and the shoulders of ridges that might provide us reasonable access. We decided to fix supper here and watch the magic of light play over the mountains. Even though it was mid-August, the slopes around us were already blushing with reds and glowing in golds. We guessed that we were only two weeks from full-on autumnal foliage fireworks.

Up early the next day, we packed water bottles and lunch for refueling ourselves. We  hoped to refill our water bottle as needed from  snowmelt freshets. As usual, in accessing a particular peak, the most frustrating and onerous aspect is the first section of the trek. We had to cross a quarter mile of very soft tundra that was punctuated with countless grass hummocks. With all the high stepping, our thighs were getting more of a warmup than we wanted and we hadn’t begun to climb yet.

We approached a sinuos, thick growth of tall willow. Serpentine stretches of willows usually indicate a stream, so talking loudly to announce our presence to any potential bears, we ducked and wove through the cover.  With a moderate leap, we were across soon out of the willow.

Now we were gaining elevation and the hummocks were behind us and all we had to push through now was a scrabbly hillside of buck brush. Buck brush is the local name  for dwarf birch (Betula nana). These edgey shrubs can grow nearly to my shoulders, but are usually below my waist   a perfect tripping height. Many folks scorn this transition shrub.  It is an apt  gatekeeper for accessing the alpine, but its great escape cover for ptarmigan and other small dwellers of these parts. The foliage of these restraining shrubs tried to hold us back. There fall red colors were not enough to give us pause.

There is a victory of sorts and certainly a surge of well-being when the dwarf birch grows scarcer and scarcer and finally you spy more ground hugging lichens and alpine flora underfoot. Now our greatest barrier became  gravity itself.  The topography here is took on a greater grade of elevation and the bantor between the two of us mostly disappeared with the buckbrush. Talking became laborious and discussion was relegated to short sentences broken by the steady rhythm of louder breathes.

I think of this part of the climb as walking meditation. Concentrate on the breathing. . . big, slow breaths. Occasionally I lifted my gaze to be sure I was picking the most efficient and risk-free route. Nancy claims I am good at this. I find comfort in that honor and feel self important in leading the way.

As I hike upwards I imagined my lungs, heart and leg muscles all working in perfect harmony. It’s moments like this that render me humbled at the marvel of such synchronicity.

Higher we trudged and finally we found a false summit. It’s semi-flat bench offered us a chance to shed our packs, pull out water bottles and a tidbit to eat. The chilled wind urged us to pick up the climb again. Now the column of ragged rock at Boyle’s summit could finally be discerned. At the third false summit, we sat down behind a fold, out of the wind, put on windbreakers and ate our lunch.

We checked in with each other to see how we are feeling. Good. After twenty minutes of lunching and resting, we looked ahead at the route and agreed on it before hoisting the packs again.

The last pitch was a bit dicey but there were enough good footholds and handholds to make our way up to the tip of Boyle. The top was a grass covered pate that was actually large enough to park a car.  Scattered piles of dried Dall sheep droppings gave proof that this was indeed a spot worthy of a lookout.

Here, at the top, the burning pain in the climbing leg muscles and the associated racing heart and big breathing were forgotten.  I almost always feel a giddiness and ecstatic euphoria all rolled into one burst of well-being. My God! Why from up here I can see half way to yonder!  I felt as if I was the pin on which a compass needle balances. And the air, made from the tiny breaths of stoic alpine flora tasted unbelievable! Perches like this, high above the world, with absolutely no human sign in sight, are the kinds of spots that poet Walt Whitman wrote about in his book Leaves of Grass.

 “I inhale great draught of space…

the east and west are mine…

and the north and south are mine…I

am grandeur than I thought…

I did not know I held so much goodness. ”

During our entire trek we discovered no signs of humans.  Not one ATV track in sight. No cell towers and from the top even the Dempster is but a far distant thread.   The only tracks we saw on the climb were moose, Dall sheep, caribou (Hart River herd), and a recent grizzly excavation on an arctic ground squirrel den.

Words are pathetically  inadequate in trying to portray this epic and majestic landscape. In fact with the passing of overhead clouds, the here-and-go sunlight creates a constantly changing kaleidoscope of color and texture. I swear this country could  move the most cold hearted to tears of joy. My happiness index is rarely higher than when I am in the company of summit serenity.

Here, the interplay of sun, wind, water, snow and ice has sculpted mountains and valleys. Diverse habitats from low to high country, from mountain lake to alpine pond, from  meltwater freshet to  rushing river, all give rise to an array of astonishing diversity.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) <> works to create and maintain an interconnected series of parks and wildlife corridors that allow both people and animals to thrive across an international landscape.

In a recent report they mention “enduring features.” The report says, “This includes landforms, bedrock and surface geology, and water bodies—together called “enduring features”. These features are the base upon which Earth’s living skin develops, and where plants and animals grow and evolve.”  I like that marriage of two words. . .endearing features.  These are features that forge emotional bookmarks in my head; those memories that I’m confident of carrying in my pack of life.

After nearly eight hours of climbing and descending we made it back to camp satiated with Mt. Boyle’s offerings. And two days later we returned to the Tombstone Park Interpretive Center where we delightedly shared our findings with an equally delighted mountain warrior wearing dredlocks.

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