Sometimes, when you need a refuge, a magical place appears. It was late at night and I was driving to the Tombstone Mountains for the first time. Already on the road for hours, I needed to find a campsite, fast.
I had passed on Pelly Crossing, where one lonely tent perched by the river and a tipped-over garbage can spewed fast-food wrappers across the mud, a likely sign of bears.
While Tatchun Creek – just past Five Finger Rapids, glittering in the sun – showed promise, its last few sites backed onto the highway. I hadn’t come all the way to the Yukon to hear traffic rumbling through my sleep.
Then there was nothing for a long time. I saw the sign for Ethel Lake, with relief, but had to double back after I missed the hidden entrance.
The sign warned of a 24-kilometre drive over a long and winding road, but I didn’t care. According to my map, this was my last chance before the gas station, in Stewart Crossing, opened tomorrow morning.
The rutted road wasn’t too daunting until I’d ridden on my brake for 15 minutes. Past midnight, I could still see to maneuver around half-hidden boulders in the deep sand.
With light flickering through the aspen grove and my dog, Owl, alert, I wondered what waited for us in the woods. Frustrated and exhausted, I caught tantalizing glimpses of the lake as I descended without ever seeming to get nearer. Worse, I’d slowed to a crawl to keep my small car out of trouble.
Finally, at 1 a.m., we arrived at Ethel Lake. The view was breathtaking – a long stretched-out beach facing gorgeous mountains. Children erupted from a wagon train of lawn chairs surrounding a smoky fire, mothers watching them fly. And every campsite was full.
The sign clearly said “No Overnight Camping Unless You Are on a Registered Site”, but I couldn’t turn around and re-negotiate that hill tonight.
Blocking my way, an oversized truck backed up to unload a fishing boat; tanned arms guided it smoothly down into the water.
Parking in front of the cookhouse, I checked for a patch of grass to squeeze my tent onto. A well-worn path beside it made me wonder if animals used it, also, to make their way back into the bush.
Against those hills, I saw my first Yukon sunset – pure yellow and pink painted across a barely dimmed sky.
Down by the dock, a woman removed a large fish from her line. Smiling, she held it up and said, “Breakfast.”
“Do you think anyone would mind if I camped over there?” I asked, pointing to an elbow of sand.
“It’d be okay,” she said, plopping her fish into the pail.
“You haven’t had any bears here?” (I was wondering if they might like the fish, too.)
“Here? No, we haven’t seen any bears here,” and she cast out again.
Owl ran behind me, darting in and out of the water. Our small tent huddled against the shore. I secured the pegs against the rising wind and watched the sun rise, so soon.
The fishing boat made its way out across the lake, men’s voices carrying over the water. “Shouldn’t pitch a tent there.”
But the rain started. Owl and I crept into our shelter with cold and wind. It reminded me of another night in the mountains at Summit Lake, B.C. I had photographed our tent all across Canada, but this one would have to wait until morning.
Muffled against the wind, I heard rustling in the bushes behind us. Turning uneasily in my sleeping bag, there it was again.
Hard to rouse, Owl obediently followed my cautious steps back to the car. Too much gear jammed in to flatten the back seat, I propped my pillow against the door handle. Owl curled in as I hung over the abyss.
Dozing briefly, I heard it again. Peeking through the window, I saw a moose and her young calf. Grabbing my camera might make them bolt or wake Owl … I had to be content to watch.
The rest of the camp had retired.
As the cow sniffed the hazy air, her baby imitated, neck arched like her mother’s. Despite long, spindly legs, she moved with the nascent grace of a ballerina, growing into her body. Instinctively, she followed those tentative steps onto the cookhouse path. Tails twitching, they vanished into the bush like a dream.
By 5 a.m., the rain’s staccato beat against my metal roof conjured mud out of sand.
Dismantling our camp, Owl caught moose scent and sniffed the air excitedly. As I shoved canvas willy-nilly into the car, tent poles stuck out at odd angles like the calf’s knees. Rain nipping at out heels, we turned to confront the road and climb.