Part 2 of 6
I’d been in the Yukon for less than a week when I was dragged on a trek into Kluane National Park. Old hiking hands, Denis and Marshall, were worryingly keen to test my mettle. It was early May and we were going to hike Slims River to Observation Mountain over the long weekend; it was a 70-kilometre round trip.
According to park authorities, we would be the first people in and, if everything went to plan, we’d be the first people out. Like good Yukoners, Denis and Marshall brought all-the-right-gear and copious amounts of booze; like a good Englishman, I carried the copious amounts of booze and brought none-of-the-right-gear.
They were all gaiters and Gortex and I was all jeans and cotton. My boots were so bad that Marshall said his dog wouldn’t even chew them, but I knew they wouldn’t let me die because I was carrying our accommodation and a large bottle of Ballantine’s Whisky.
It was a fantastic hike and although we experienced storm-force winds, rain, sleet and snow, we also had calm days and sunshine. Traces of bears and wolves were everywhere and the landscape was beautiful.
On Day 2, we made it to Observation Mountain and paused on a ridge to take in the breathtaking splendour of the Kaskawulsh Glacier. The silence was suddenly broken by a ferocious scrabbling behind us. We spun on our heels as rocks tumbled from the entrance of a concealed cave. I’d barely grasped my canister of bear spray when a mass of white fur reared from the earth. It threw back its head to reveal a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to the A-Team’s Howling Mad Murdock. The only reason I didn’t bear spray him was because I’d forgotten to remove the safety catch.
“Well, that’s just great!” He shouted in an archaic English accent.
He rolled his eyes, turned his back on us and began clapping his hands, “Everybody out! It’s been ruined! We’re moving on. They ruined it.” A small, chubby man emerged from the same hole; he was wearing a similar fur coat and holding a microphone. To our surprise, rocks and boulders everywhere began to move as 12 people in polar bear fur emerged from the earth and gathered around us. Their equipment ranged from night vision goggles and high-definition cameras to Arctic commando bags.
Their leader was an adventure travel, life survival guide called Ray Cuthbert. The guy with the microphone was Nick from the BBC; he was documenting Ray’s latest expedition. The other 10 were post graduates from Japan.
They were looking for snow leopards. They hadn’t left their hides for the last eight days. Denis explained that there was no such animal in the Yukon, let alone in the Americas. Ray disagreed and used the word elusive; he said he knew from experience that the snow leopard and its cousin, the sabre toothed Arctic leopard, migrate from the Yukon into the Arctic Circle in May with their young.
As we left to return to our base camp, Ray was helping his expedition members into paragliding gear so they could land on the glacier to find a better viewing spot. The BBC reporter watched us go. I had the feeling he wanted to come with us.