We Explore Canada contributor Hans Tammemagi paints a vivid picture of an unforgettable flight in one of Canada’s most striking and beautiful areas, the Saint Elias Mountains.
I’m nervous as we bump onto the dirt runway of Icefields Discovery Tours, who will take us on a flight over the immense icefield of southwest Yukon. While parking beside a rusty 1950 Pontiac pickup, a young man strides briskly to our car. With a dour look, he announces, “Sorry, we can’t fly today. The weather has deteriorated around Mount Logan.”
I’m crestfallen and plead and plead. Finally, the pilot, Tom Bradley relents. “OK, we’ll go for a short flight, staying east of Logan and the storm. But be warned; it will be a bumpy, rough ride.”
The other passengers quickly choose to remain safely on terra firma, whereas I clamber into the back seat of a yellow Helio Super Courier, a four-seater, single-prop plane and strap on the safety belt. I wonder if, perhaps, this is a mistake.
While Tom goes through his safety checklist, I think of how my wife and I started our trip to the Yukon in the territorial capital of Whitehorse and headed west along the long, lonely Alaska Highway. The dark-green spruce forests were dotted with aspen, already turning yellow in August, a reminder that driving snow and short days lurk around the corner. Occasional signs warned of elk and informed us that Fairbanks is a mere 800 kilometres up the road.
Approaching Haines Junction, mountains appeared in the west. My pulse quickened for we’d reached the eastern edge of Kluane National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with some of the most majestic mountains on the planet.
An Unforgettable Yukon Flight
My mind snaps back to the present as we race down the dirt runway and lift off. Fighting my anxiety, I look down and see a braided river feeding into a large lake. The walls of Sheep Mountain loom almost close enough to touch. A dozen Dall mountain sheep are white specks on Red Castle Ridge. Then we are flying into a vast sea of towering mountains encased in snow, ice, and more glaciers than I can count.
Tom flies up, down, and around peaks. We are immersed in a bizarre landscape that is forbidding and menacing, yet heart-achingly beautiful. Rivers of solid ice form long banded ribbons between high mountains, and are riddled with crevasses, everything in muted whites, striking grays, and deep blues. Even buffeted by frequent gusts, the experience is spiritual.
I flip from the left window to the right, snapping photos and trying to imprint the scenes permanently into my memory. Tom keeps up a constant friendly chatter, explaining the unusual landscape, and naming the glaciers and ridges. His voice is crystal clear thanks to the wireless, noise-cancelling headsets. Although we are in an older plane (built-in 1966), it is equipped with modern technology.
Approaching the Saint Elias Mountains
We fly deeper into this empire of mountains and ice, entering the edge of St. Elias Range. Ice and glaciers stretch to the horizon, for this is the largest icefield outside the polar caps. I feel like we’re flying in a Lawren Harris painting.
The sprawling Kaskawulsh Glacier appears in the distance. “This icefield contains about two thousand glaciers,” says Tom, “and by the time we’re home, we’ll have flown over about 200 of them.”
The turbulent weather prevents us from going further west, but momentarily there is a break in the dark turmoil of clouds and we catch a glimpse of Mt. Logan, the giant of the St. Elias Range at 5,959 metres (19,545 feet). It’s an impressive goliath, the highest mountain in Canada, the second highest peak on the continent, and the world’s largest by volume.
Tom describes how legendary pilot, Andy Williams, landed hundreds of times at the High Altitude Physiology Laboratory (closed in 1981), located at an altitude of 5,311 metres (17,425 feet) near the summit of Mount Logan. I shiver just thinking of takeoffs and landings on a steep slope at that altitude.
“My flights service three groups: scientists conducting northern and glacier research; climbers and mountaineers tackling Logan and nearby peaks; and, of course, tourists,” says Tom. “Icefields Discovery Tours is the only one that flies a fixed-wing aircraft and also lands on glaciers. We have been operating the longest,” he adds.
“Because of the weather today, we can’t land at the Icefield Discovery camp, which offers a breathtaking view of the north side of Mount Logan,” he says.
Suddenly the plane bucks, reminding me the St. Elias Range is notorious for its fierce conditions. Moist, turbulent storm systems from the Gulf of Alaska pound these mountains, and Mount Logan’s enormous mass often churns the storms into a fury. I’m grateful, very grateful, for Tom’s skill and experience.
Setting Eyes on Surging Glaciers
We circle away from the nasty weather, although the ride remains bumpy with frequent air pockets and strong gusts. Totally absorbed by the grandness, however, I hardly notice. The visibility remains good, revealing unusual scenery. It’s all steep white peaks and endless glorious glaciers. We don’t see another plane. There are no roads, no power lines, no hiking trails. “This region is so inaccessible that many of the peaks are still un-named,” says Tom.
“Although it all looks static, there is considerable change and movement. My favourites are surging glaciers; there are over 100 in St. Elias Range.” And I’d always thought glaciers inch along slowly! Tom explains that glaciers can move at speeds up to 6 km per year and can travel as far as 11 km.
“We’re just over the Kluane glacier, which is surging, hence its rough and crevassed look,” he says. Glaciers surge, I later learn, because water at the glacier’s base, provides lubrication. Surging glaciers can advance across rivers, causing temporary lakes that can drain suddenly, causing floods.
“That’s the Donjek Glacier down there,” Tom says, pointing to a long river of ice distinctively banded with rocks. “See how small the end of it, the toe, looks. Let’s have a closer look.” He banks the plane, then descends, spiralling downward until we’re almost at ground level.
The once-tiny glacier toe has transformed into a gigantic, 200-foot-high cliff, and is calving enormous slabs of ice, like icebergs. Giant ice encrusted mountains stare down at us.
Back to Kluane Lake
We ascend again. From above, the icefield is colossal yet striking in its fierce loneliness. If ever there was proof of a greater entity, an invincible creator, I am immersed in it.
Eventually, the landscape below changes to barren, rocky peaks, some with razor-sharp ridges, and deep-cleft valleys bottomed by narrow rushing rivers. We pass over a braided estuary, then the enormous Kluane Lake, and finally we bounce along a dirt runway. My brief moment in heaven is over.
Now It’s Time to Experience These Things To Do In Whitehorse, Yukon Territory For Yourself
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Hans’ writing is eclectic including travel, environment, Indigenous culture and things quirky. He has penned 10 books including one national best seller. Hans writes for Canadian Geographic, Westworld, Ensemble, Zoomer, British Columbia magazine, Explore, Northwest Travel, Canada’s History, the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and former adjunct professor, he has a strong affinity for the environment around us. He lives in the Gulf Islands where he enjoys kayaking and photography.