Archive for June, 2019

Untrammeled? I Don’t Think So.



Directly behind our Yukon Outpost is the terminus of a steep ridge. We call the lightly poppled prow, “Pulpit Hill.” It commands an amazing view and always provokes utterances of awe.

Immediately below the tip of the ridge is the serpentine, hissing river. Lift your gaze from the dancing water and you encounter spires of spruce trees that Yukon poet, Robert Service, christened “sentinels of silence.” For 180° in front of us their dark expansive breadth gives rise to a serrated silhouette.

Above the forest are distant mountain peaks. To the west, we enjoy picking out the summits of Goat, Twin, Red Ridge, Perkins, Needle and Grizzly. Directly behind us is the namesake for our hamlet, Mount Lorne.

While this mountainous, boreal covered and river riddled countryside wears the colors of wilderness well, much of it is only an illusion of wilderness. We could argue over definitions of wilderness but I am going to refer to the U.S. 1964 Wilderness Act definition:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The Pulpit Hill image I have painted for you appears to be untrammeled. However, I purposely omitted the graveled Annie Lake Road that runs through the spruce and pine forest. Nor did I include the abandoned mining roads that stitch the sides of many of these mountains.Mining is one of the engines that drives the Yukon economy. This territory is rich in copper, lead, zinc and of course, gold. It was here that the famous gold rush of 1897-98 lured tens of thousands of men and women north to stake claims for their own treasure of gold. Only a small percentage cashed in any sort of profit.

After those early years, mining took off and it wasn’t long before the first bulldozers began easily doing the work of many horses and men. Gashing their way up the mountains, those crawling bulldozers gnawed switchback roads to prospect for minerals or access mining sites.

Miners take the richest ore first. When the mine is no longer financially profitable, it closes. Most mines up here last less than ten years. Yet the evidence of this machine trammeling lasts scores of years and likely even centuries.Old wooden timbers frame ominous mine entrances. Rusted mining detritus can still be found scattered about. While the scars of “progress” are an eyesore, the old mining roads provide recreationists an easier means to access some of the nearby mountains.

After less than a half hour drive down the Annie Lake Road, Nancy and I unload our mountain bikes, check our backpacks for rain gear, bear spray, water bottles, lunch and extra clothes for chilly summits. Then we begin the slow, heart-thumping pedal up the old mining road. We ford a creek, then get off our bikes to ascend a steep pitch littered with all sized stones and boulders.

The old dozer trail stops part way up the mountain. We leave our bikes and begin to bushwhack through thick buck brush, willow and spruce. Eventually we wend our way through small copses of alpine fir. We face a stretch of steep scree. These layers of loose, mostly flat rocks can easily slide over each other and give the hiker an unexpected, dangerous ride. We find a Dall sheep trail crossing the scree. Some of these narrow paths have been used by generations of sheep and we have learned to use them to gain elevation. Finally we reach the alpine tundra, textured in miniature flowers, boulders and exposed bedrock and we relish a 360 degree view.

As I age I have more frequent bouts of nihilism. I grumble about the onslaught of civilization on the natural world and the lack of leadership to recognize that without healthy natural systems our ideas of progress are dead. I love the idea of “untrammeled” but wonder if that is just what it is, an idea.

My grumpiness can be intolerable to Nancy and my family. One way to muzzle it, or at least lessen it, is to simply remind me that a carbon spewing truck and an old mining bulldozer have made it possible for me to gain this summit where the view and untainted air put me to my knees unlike anything else.

And to add to the conundrum, I will shoot some summit photos from an amazing small camera built with elements mined from somewhere that was once untrammeled.

A Wild Tune Up


Days before we left Minnesota we had our truck tuned up for the 2,500 mile trek back to the Yukon in northwest Canada. Such a trip requires a smooth running, dependable vehicle.Until we got to the Yukon, I did not realize how much of a tune-up I had needed.

It has been four years since intimately knowing this northern ground. I can barely hold in my joy at being back in the mountains tasting an air so pure that it intoxicates my senses.

My sub-arctic tune up requires moments of astonishment at the minutia and the endless. Here, I allow myself to wonder where we are in the context of being a human and to understand my relationship with the natural world. Here, in this vast wild country, I am a patriot of real, unfettered freedom. Here, I look beyond the familiar trappings of society.

Hiking up in the high alpine, I am mesmerized by grand vistas as well as the world underfoot. With patches of snow receding and days getting longer, plants are astir. I step delicately on this fragile landscape so as not to crush the season’s first party of flowers. Brilliant smudges of purple saxifrage attract my attention as well as that of the over-sized, slow flying bumblebees. Circular, mounded pink mats of moss campion seemingly call out for my attention. These stoic wee flowers tower millimeters off the ground and will get no taller. Here and there I reacquaint myself with wooly lousewort and mountain avens. These two species are taller but still measure in only inches.

My tune up requires that I gaze and wonder about tiny flowers but it also means that I embrace vigilance in a land where grizzly bears roam. Though not likely, I could become a part of the food chain. Having bears around awakens my ancient genetic code of wildness. I suspect the aliveness I feel here is due to the fact that I could have a physical encounter with a being far more powerful than me.

Given that it is early spring, I am not so concerned about bumping into a grizzly this high in the alpine. There is little food up here for the winter hungry bears. Foraging for plants is a grizzly’s primary activity at this time of year so they are more likely to be in the lower, lusher country.

Driving up on the Alaska Highway a few weeks ago, we saw more than 20 bears. All of them were feeding along the wide right-of-way, particularly where dandelions grew. Several times we saw bears stretched out, seemingly wallowing in thick patches of dandelions. Prostrate, the bruins plucked the yellow blooms and stems with their mouths.

A mile upriver from our Outpost, we found an open bench of ground grubbed by a grizzly. The torn earth resembled the workings of a drunken rototiller operator. The bear had been digging the starchy root of bear root (Hedysarum alpinum).

When I stroll through carpets of bright flowers, their tenacity to thrive in extremes combined with their beauty settles sputterings of my soul. And when I walk in bear country fear and humility play a duet in my heart.

Without the perpetual march of human progress and insatiable growth this wild landscape remains, for the time being, speckled with flowers, home to grizzly bears and awash in a sea of silence.

With the final adjustments made, I am nearing a complete tune up.


(Note the grizzly photo shows a bear feasting on dandelions, not bear root. He was feeding less than a mile upriver from the Outpost.)