A Day on Mount Vanier

Of all the mountains around the Mendenhall subdivision, I had never made it to the most prominent, Mount Vanier.

I can’t see it from my house, but my neighbour Kathi had been looking at it through her living room window for seven years, longing to be on the top.

Finally, in the last week of August, we made it happen.

Earlier that week, Jane had phoned to ask I was interested climbing it. Jane and I go a long way when it comes to hiking up mountains together, so I said, “Of course!”

We planned to leave Thursday evening, so we could get across the river and do a major creek crossing that evening and have all of Friday to actually be on the mountain.

I rushed home after working in Whitehorse on Thursday. At the Mayo road cut-off there was a young hitchhiker.

I stopped and offered him a ride to the Kusawa turn-off. He had been hiking around Kusawa Lake earlier this summer and wanted to spend his last weekend there before returning to Edmonton.

And yes, he had gone up Vanier!

We didn’t actually leave until the next morning. At 8 a.m., four us, plus Jane’s dog Bingo, arrived at where the lake flows into the Takhini River.

Jane had brought a canoe, which we lowered down the bank and paddled across.

It was a fresh and frosty morning, looking to b a gorgeous day.

The kid from Edmonton had told me there were cranberries on the beach on the other side and indeed they were almost ripe. Besides cranberries we found two cans of Coke.

We picked some cranberries and left the Coke for our return.

If you have been to Kusawa Lake, you have most likely seen the not-so-green grass terraces on the other side. I think anybody looks at those with longing. They were a joy to be on.

We followed their course for a bit and there on that big high pasture, on an ancient shoreline, we found ripe juniper berries on the biggest bushes I have ever seen. Juniper bushes lie low to the ground, creeping. These were at least three metres diameter.

All too soon, we had to head east, toward the south side of the mountain. Although the highest point is on the north, we chose to approach it from the south side.

But if you ever hike Vanier approaching from this way, be ready for quite the creek crossing. Jane had warned us about it and had brought extra shoes. Since the bottom didn’t have sharp rocks, I was going to do it barefoot.

Someone asked later if it was cold. Cold? Who thought about cold? We were just glad to make it across without being swept off our feet.

Going toward the lower top on the south side of the mountain, we crossed an old wagon trail. According to Jane it goes a long distance in, somewhere toward Arkel Mountain, I believe.

We followed it until we felt we were right in front of the beautiful ridge that would lead us straight to the top of that southern peak. To find the open ridge we walked through a small aspen forest.

The ridge was fantastic, exactly how a trail to the top should be, dropping down steeply on both sides and leading us higher and higher in the perfect gradient.

From the animal droppings on the ground, we could clearly see that the sheep also like this trail. As we hiked up we helped ourselves to the blueberries and mossberries.

I forget if we went all the way to the end of this ridge, because on our left (north) a great expanse appeared, a beautiful green bowl. It was a secret meadow not visible from below, at least a kilometre in diameter.

We called it the “open secret”… for the way all our secrets should be.

Enjoying the elation of being in the mountains, we hiked on, taking rests not because we had to catch our breath, but because of the beauty of it all—the surrounding mountains and our beloved Kusawa Lake below.

Coming out of the bowl, looking to the mountain on the east, (Jane and I call it Gemini but some call it Saddle Mountain, our little group had split up in two pairs, here in the open, not worried about losing each other in the open.

At one point each pair was peering in a different direction. Antho and I saw sheep to the north; Jane and Kathi saw a flock to the south.

The widflowers were definitely fewer now than in the summer, yet I did come across as stranger, the Phacelia Mollis. Like the botanist who named it, we were struck by the softness of its leaves; hence, mollis.

One flower that was still blooming all over the mountain was the mountain harebell, a lovely single blue bell, seemingly without leaves, just strewn across the rocky ground.

Eventually, we came to a little hanging lake. On this tarn underneath the highest peak, which gives Mount Vanier its distinctive look, we had a lunch of hot soup.

The sun fleeted in and out of the clouds, but I took the glorious opportunity to go for a swim. As is most often in Yukon lakes, this meant just jumping in and out of the water.

Ahhh… then we climbed to the 6,049-foot summit!

At the cairn on top, Kathi attached a Yukon prayer flag (a piece of ticker tape). We also found a jar with a message.

When I opened it, I immediately saw Jane’s name. Her son Pelly had left a message there when they climbed it a few years earlier. She had forgotten all about it.

Jane had been to this highest peak several times, but never had climbed the adjacent peak, slightly lower and to the southwest.

We all were game to do this extra detour. On the way, we came upon a deep chasm in the mountainside, a place that called for more exploring.

But not today. We had a birthday to celebrate. It was Jane’s birthday the day before, so we took out the cake that Kathi baked and decorated it with wooden matches in lieu of candles.

Ahhh… from there on, we started our downhill return.

Entering the lower side of the “open secret”, we side-hilled the ridge on the south side, trying to follow sheep trails.

Jane spotted yet another flock of sheep, and we came upon a ptarmigan that we had already met on the way up. It was starting to turn white for the winter.

Looking down, Antho suggested looking for a better place to cross the creek. We hiked down until we got to that old trail and looked for clues in the vegetation.

The creek lay below an eroded clay bank that was easy to climb down. It was a little wider here, still hard to cross, but better than our earlier crossing.

From there we headed across a flat landscape towards Kusawa Lake. The trees were big and the forest floor open, easy to hike through. No one knew if were following the most direct line, but we were eager to reach the canoe before dark.

We came out right on the grassy terrace along the lake, where I got to have my big treat—one of the abandoned cans of Coke.

Back at the car, we found Jane’s GPS and other little things she had forgotten, lying on the roof, untouched by humans or bears.

We were cold and wet, but happy and content as darkness fell. We arrived home just before midnight, with our loved ones wondering what we were doing so late at night.

But it was all in a day’s work (I mean play)!

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