The history of the Jo-Jo Lake trail goes a long way back, as the people of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations can tell you.
“It’s been a horse trail for hunting forever, since way before my time,” 95-year-old Alex Van Bibber tells me.
According to the highly-respected elder and outdoorsman, there is an outfitter from Kusawa Lake who still takes hunting parties into the surrounding area, and the trail itself is part of an active trapline worked by a Champagne-Aishihik citizen.
Here I will tell a bit of my own history with the trail.
In mid-February, I skied part of it with my friend, Mary.
That particular Monday, it is miserably cold in Whitehorse. At Mendenhall Subdivision it’s even colder, close to minus 30C, but with no wind.
There is birdsong everywhere, and a car driving by on the Alaska Highway two kilometres away sounds much closer because of the cold.
By 10 am we are on our skis, starting out at the 911 sign on the highway.
First the trail leads us through the dark forest. It is cold! We talk a lot about our toes and fingers, but we feel they will be okay.
Emerging from the tall trees we come upon the big open 911 Pond. I love this pond at any season.
We cross the white big expanse, breaking trail through the deep snow, which is harder packed in the middle of the pond, making it easier to ski. At the other side, we connect with a skidoo trail, which makes it easier yet.
When I first moved to Mendenhall, I didn’t even know the pond. Not many people did, although we knew about Jo-Jo Lake, which lies straight south from here, with a prominent peak right beside it on the east side to guide us.
The trail the Champagne-Aishik people use to get to Jo-Jo Lake comes in across the Mendenhall River from Champagne in the west.
It took me and friends years to find a way from Mendenhall, studying maps and looking at the land.
At the south end of the pond we have to cross the Mendenhall River – very winding and hidden in thick spruce. The treetops are packed with cones, the favourite food of the white-winged crossbills that are so abundant in this area.
One day years back, my husband found a little opening in the heavily-treed levee from the pond to the river. Now many people use it.
Most places the levee is wide and interspersed with impassable swamps.
Mary and I ski onto the river and follow its winding route, bordered by overhanging trees that create tunnels laden with snow. It’s a magical path.
At a little meadow on the other side we leave the river. The Mendenhall meadows are like pearls on a string, lying in the forest. We follow a connecting string of them, from one meadow to the next, skiing hard as the cold doesn’t allow us to stand still too long.
When we talk, it is about experiences colder yet, which we survived happily.
At the end we come upon a broad band of willows that is part of the pond creek valley. A narrow winding path is kept open by the people who use it.
We cross pond creek and start to ski along a wide and low canyon with open water, which appears, somehow, to come from Jo-Jo Lake.
As we investigate the open water, we scare off a moose, perhaps, because a moment later we find its fresh tracks.
A little higher, away from water and wind in a sunny opening in the forest we have our lunch. Today we are not attempting to reach the lake by any means. On a good day it’s an eight-hour ski to get there.
We make a small fire close to our feet. In these temperatures, we don’t sit for long.
Taking photos, I feel my fingers begin to freeze and have to dig into my pack for big mittens. I shake my hands and ski hard, to warm them up again. It seems the food in my belly had taken my body heat away from my hands.
My feet stay cold the whole trip, but I make sure I can still wiggle my toes at all times.
We return the same way, now not looking at Jo-Jo Peak but at the mountains to the north. To the west the mountains are clear; to the east they are beautifully veiled in a thin mist.
Finally, around one o’clock all our body parts feel warm. Back in the thick forest, we stop to listen for birdsong. Lots of birdsong.
The white-winged crossbills seem even more plentiful than usual. First we only hear them, and when we move they move ahead of us. When we stand still long enough, though, they finally show themselves.
Maybe because of the great food supply this year, they seem to be having fun, singing, chasing each other and doing acrobatics and fighter-jet moves among the treetops. It’s a delightful ending to our tour.
By the time we reach the car, we feel warm and very happy. Another beautiful day in paradise.