The Mendenhall is a meandering river that flows all winter underneath the ice and, at times in that season, above the ice.
The part flowing out of Taye Lake is a tributary of the Takhini River. The distance from Taye Lake to the Takhini is 30 km at most, but as the Mendenhall bends back and forth on itself through the valley, it is probably four times that length.
Taye Lake is fed by the high mountains of the Sifton Range and beyond, mountains of 7,000 feet. From Taye Lake I once hiked up to one of its peaks, looking out at steep mountains and wide, high valleys to the north.
According to the book, Yukon Places and Names, by Robert Coutts, the river was probably named in 1890 by E.J. Glave after Thomas G. Mendenhall, superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.
Glave, Jack Dalton and several others were hired by Leslie's Illustrated Magazine of New York to explore the interior of Alaska.
In most places the river is around 20 feet wide, making it a perfect thoroughfare, even for dog sleds and snow machines, although there are snags and deadfall.
The people who use it have tried to cut the overhanging trees, but as the banks slowly erode, trees keep falling across and into the river.
My husband and I go on it with snow machines a few times every winter. It is a magical ride, like being in a winding tunnel because of the thick forest of willows, alder and spruce on the banks.
I love exploring every bit of the countryside around me, mostly starting my walks straight out of my back door.
In the first week of March, wanting to explore the river in a place I had never been, I drove to the Mendenhall bridge on the Alaska Highway, close to the Champagne cut-off. It is not really a bridge, but a big culvert beneath the highway.
I left my car at the big parking area on the north side of the highway, east of the river, where there is an abandoned building. There is a path parallel to the highway that leads you down to the river.
It is a lovely spot just to enjoy the river. Due to the culvert, I suppose, there is always a lot of overflow here, and the play of ice and water makes for an interesting sight.
I love the green color of the water on the ice. I have also walked upstream here in the winter and in summer on the high bank on the opposite side of the river.
I crossed the highway to a point where the river forms two channels. The main channel had water flowing over the ice, creating a green ribbon in the white and black landscape.
On the channel I took there had also been recent overflow, with only an inch of snow on the ice. Knowing that, I hadn't brought snowshoes or skis. I still love walking best in any season, as it gives me a greater sense of freedom.
Because of recurrent overflow, the river level is high. Sometimes this creates air between the layers, and at places you can see where the ice has dropped lower again.
As I stepped onto the ice, I saw that it was a coyote highway.
There were many tracks on the river. I didn't actually see any coyotes that day, but on my way back I saw more tracks and fresh yellow stains and scat that had not been there on my way in.
A neighbour, Marc Chouinard, told me that when he came to this country 25-30 years ago, there were few coyotes around. Coyotes are opportunists and follow people around, which could be the reason. Or is it also climate change?
Like the coyotes, I like to follow this corridor. Sometimes their tracks dash onto the bank, making me wonder if they were taking a shortcut, as sometimes the folds in the river almost touch each other.
I decided to keep to the beaten path. This river has fooled me before—even with the sun out, you never quite know which direction you are going. l only had to climb a few times under low hanging trees and over ones that lay right on the river.
There are also trees here and there with burls... big round barrels grown into the trunk.
Away from the river are intermittently open high clay banks. These ridges are sometimes far from the river, but here are no farther than a few hundred yards
I came to a point where a gentle slope directly beside the river led me to such a bank. From their snowed-in trails, I could see that larger animals had made the climb before me. Indeed, on the top of the ridge, I saw frozen bison poop.
The top of the ridge also gave a nice view of the meandering river below and the surrounding mountains. From here I could see beautiful little meadows alongside the river, which couldn't be seen through the thick forest at river level.
I also saw fresh beaver-cut trees, and pools of water in the middle of many of the meadows.
I followed this high trail till the ridge veered off to the east away from the river's path, then descended again.
Knowing now that there were meadows on the opposite side, I followed the river a little farther and then disappeared into the forest, hoping I would come out on such meadow. And I did.
On the first meadow, I sank halfway to my knees in the snow, which made the walking heavy, but not impossible.
As the meadows pulled me on farther and farther, I decided not to retrace my steps. Seeing some light through an opening in the forest, and thinking it might be the river, I headed that way instead.
Alas, it wasn't the river, but yet another meadow, with even deeper snow. This time, I sank in over my knees.
Instead of crossing the open expanse, I fled back into the forest, thick with spindly, prickly little spruce among the bigger trees—once back home, I would have to pick little branches with old man's beard out of my hair.
Still, it was better than trudging through deep snow. Trusting my instincts about where the river could be, it didn't take too long before I was upon it again.
On the way back I stayed with the main channel of the river, somehow. I still don't know how and where these channels come together—a good excuse for another outing to that spot.
And then, close to the highway, I came upon some very old log cabins. How old are they? From around the Gold Rush, or before that? Or perhaps more recent, when the highway was built in '42?
There are always many opportunities for research. Maybe one day I will take a walk through history and find out who build and who lived in those cabins.
Jozien Keijzer is a visual artist, write and avid hiker who lives in the Mendenhall Subdivision.