Kluane National Park is a vast wilderness of ice fields, forests and towering mountain peaks. After spending two weeks paddling the Yukon River, a multi-day hike was in order to take us into the interior of the park. Kluane is home to Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan at 5,959 meters, contains the world’s largest non-polar ice field and has a diverse grizzly bear population.
Our sights are focused on the Slims River Trail West (Ä’äy Chù). We registered at the park office and completed the mandatory wilderness permit process. Questions such as what is your wilderness survival experience? Did we have or would we need a certified national park food bear container? What type of water purifier did we have? What was our emergency backup? All very important to the park staff to distinguish well-prepared hikers from tourists. Upon our return, special emphasis was to perform deregistration and to report all bear sightings including date, time and location. We were approved and issued a pass to venture into the Slims River Trail and were told there is no cell phone coverage and no search parties, should we get lost. Our trip plan is simple. The trail is a 45 kilometres return hike. We were going to hike to an established camp at the 22.5-kilometre point, spend the night and hike to Observation Mountain, a viewing plateau for a glimpse of Kaskawulsh Glacier, the next day. We would return to our camp and spend another night, then we would go back along the same route from whence we came.
We both were excited and well-rested when starting out early in the morning of July 19, 2022. The trail is mostly unmarked, only recognizable by cairns that have been erected by previous hikers. After about three kilometres into the hike, the trail departs from the mining road and we had to undertake our first stream crossing at Sheep Creek. It was to be the easiest crossing of several to be circumvented along the trail.
At the 5.8 kilometre mark, we came to Bullion Creek which is faster and deeper. Alluvial fans made creek crossings a multi-crossing task as the volume of water in the streams depends on the weather, the season and the time of day. Early morning has less volume; late afternoon, after a day of sun-melt snow, has more. Caution needs to be exercised when crossing creeks. The best way to tackle crossing each creek is to wade into the fridged cold waters facing the current as a pair, your partner holds your hips or backpack from behind and the person in front uses hiking poles. Both walk sideways carefully in tandem to the other side. This gives you both stability and support against the strong current. We removed our hiking boots to keep them dry and slipped on our heavy-soled sandals and shuffled across the numbing cold waters to reach the other side using our buddy system.
Past Bullion Creek we came across a large expanse of sand dunes with colourful, highly mineralized mountains towering behind. After the dunes, the trail goes through an area of dry salt flats, where the mud is covered with a crust of white minerals. All very strangely beautiful and new in this vast land of wilderness.
Just after the half way point to our destination, we came across a mother grizzly and her cub. We saw her first before she saw us, and together we shouted to give warnings that we were near. The mother grizzly stood up on her hind legs arched her neck and extended her nose to get a better sense of us. We realized then how much larger a grizzly bear was compared to a black bear. The bear and her cub then proceeded to head off down the same trail we needed to go. Nervous as we were, we thought the best strategy was to circumvent the trail and walk along the river bank until it was safe to get back on the trail. With our bear spray in hand, we sang and spoke loudly approaching every turn and blind hill on the trail, making ourselves known.
After approximately ten hours of hiking including lots of rest to enjoy the views and the diversion off-trail, we eventually reached the camp. The last two kilometers were the most challenging as the terrain became steeper and very narrow. We reached the camp and found it had a designated cooking and food storage area that is several dozen meters away from the assigned areas to erect tents. We obtained our drinking water from the stream near the campground which was running clear. Those wishing to use this as a day camp, do so to explore the area. Others may rest, spend the night and hike out the following day.
On day two, we decided to hike to Observation Mountain with the intention of getting a view of Kaskawulsh Glacier. This day we woke up to clouds but decided to venture out anyway knowing the view could possibly be impeded by clouds, rain and fog.
There is no maintained trail to the summit so the day would involve some route searching. Fellow hikers from camp pointed us in the right direction and off we went with our GPS. We crossed Canada Creek, hiked up the canyon towards Columbia Creek, and finally followed a narrow and steep game trail carved out on the edge of the long hill. The ledge dropped off to the river below. The sights here were remarkable. It was one of the steepest climbs we have ever experienced. Pausing momentarily was the best way to take a breath and enjoy the river and distant hills below. Unfortunately, cloud cover over the summit did not permit us the visual presentation we had hoped for. Turning back, disappointed at not reaching our destination, we pacified ourselves by deciding to fly over the glacier on a local air tour upon our return.
After a restful night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we left early to venture back 22.5 kilometres to the trailhead. The scenery always looks different when traveling in the opposite direction and we noticed things we did see on our trip coming in. We gazed at the snow-capped mountains ahead of us on the opposite of the river. We paid more attention to the river and the way the sunlight seems to illuminate the surface. We noticed human footprints along the bank of the river. It would appear others had hiked along the flat river bank surface to avoid the hilly rocky terrain along the river. We decided to take this alternate path allowing us to have a wide-open view of our surroundings as well as to avoid any surprise future grizzly encounters.
According to local legend, the English name of the river “Slims” refers to a horse that sank and was killed in dangerous “Quick Mud” along the river banks. We kept this in mind walking on the firm drier surface following the footsteps of the others and avoiding the bubbling sandy wet areas. From our orientation given by the park staff, we learned the riverside is a travel corridor for wildlife which was evident by the number of tracks witnessed in the mud. Bear prints, wolves, and a multitude of birds had left their impressions behind. The travel along the river would not take us all the way back to the trailhead so we had to leave the river and head inland to search for cairns again.
With the warmth of the afternoon sun, we were concerned with the volume of water at our crossing at Buillon Creek. When we did arrive at the creek late in the day our concerns were valid. The volume of water was high including a fast current flowing down each tributary. Experience has shown accidents happen with fatigue and exhaustion and after walking close to sixteen kilometres we were not as energetic as we were when we first started. The crossing would mean many multiple times removing our boots to cross the extended alluvial fan. Rather than risk disaster the decision was reached to camp on the shore and cross in low morning volume. This was a decision we did not reach easily. We weighed the pros and cons. First, we were alone in grizzly territory, but the expanse of the alluvial fan gave us great visibility to witness any approaching animals. Second, the wind had picked up and was blowing sand and silt from the surrounding hills which made securing and anchoring the tent difficult on the smooth rock-strewn surface. But there were lots of larger stones to weigh down the tent corners. We spent a restless night with the noise of blowing wind, fine silt collecting in our tent and alert to the possibility of large animals approaching.
At daybreak, the winds had ceased and we crossed the creek with little effort. Once back on the trail we observed fresh bear tracks in the soft earth and started to sing verses of songs to create noise. When we deregistered at the park office, we reported the bear sighting. They told us that because four other parties of hikers had encountered and also reported bears, the park would shut down the trail for several weeks to future hikers. The park must follow certain formula criteria to protect the bear’s exposure to humans: hikers versus bears versus hours in a given time frame. We felt guilty that this closure happened, but understood, after all, we are in the animal’s backyard. The well-being of the bear is a priority in Kluane.
In conclusion, it was an excellent hiking trip into the backcountry of a Canadian national park! We would recommend it to anyone that wants to avoid the crowds of Jasper and Banff further south in British Columbia. Even though there were many challenges the scenery was uniquely beautiful and the experience is one we will never forget.Slim's River Trail Map