A beautiful day in February – the sun was shining, and a south wind blowing. In February, the sun gains considerable strength and on days like that one can imagine spring.
I grew up on the coast, and if there is one thing I miss, it’s the ocean and going for walks on the beach.
Here in the Yukon, I have the sand at Kusawa Lake in summer, and Kluane Lake waves come close enough for me to imagine the ocean, as I knew it in my childhood. Only the salty air is missing.
But then, right here in my backyard I have my own beach! And on that windy day in February recently, Alice and I set out to snowshoe on my “beach trail”.
Our property lies just below the shoreline of an actually-not-so-ancient glacial lake.
We came upon a higher ridge, with the windswept “beach” below, overlooking the Mendenhall River valley
Where our house is, there is only silty clay soil, but on the higher backside of the property there is sand and gravel and some lovely glacial erratics – rocks left behind by retreating glaciers.
Following the glaciations of the Late Pleistocene epoch, until only about 3,000 years ago, this was a lake: Glacial Lake Champagne.
The highest water level was 772 metres. Indeed, that is exactly the height of Don’s Descent, a little hill just northwest of our property.
We call it Don’s Descent because, with a little bit of clearing, Don turned it into a perfect sledding hill.
Tracking that high water mark of 772 m (on Google Earth), it does follow my beach trail.
Of course, it is actually the other way around. My trail follows the high water mark.
For reasons you can read on the Internet, the water level dropped to 744 m. With the help of Google Earth, I can see that is exactly where a ridge currently exists, where one can look out over the Alaska Highway and the Mendenhall River.
For those unfamiliar with the area, it is at the southwest corner of the FireSmart clearing around the Mendenhall Subdivision.
Going down again, the water level dropped to 714 m – which is the height of the bluff on the south side of the highway. Driving along the highway here, you can see rock outcroppings.
In geological time, 3,000 years is really not far back. Even more amazing; did you know that what is now known as Haines Junction was actually at the bottom of a glacial lake from 1725 to 1850? That’s less than 200 years ago.
But back to last week. As I set off that day with Alice, clouds rolled in and the wind died down.
I had already snowshoed the trail once before this winter, so the snowshoeing was easy.
First we climbed up Don’s Descent, following a stretch of “shoreline” that had small trees on it, dipping through some gullies and the little creek.
We came upon a higher ridge, with the windswept “beach” below, overlooking the Mendenhall River valley.
Here we rested on some of those erratics, big rocks that were obviously dropped there a long time ago by Mother Nature. The snow was windblown and had an ice sheet on it that shone like silver in places.
Here and there the rocky ground was exposed, showing kinnikinnick and saxifrage, the common ground cover on hills and ridges around here.
The next day was more blustery. There were still some dark clouds in the north, but the sun was shining brightly.
I decided to walk over a skidoo trail towards the ridge at the 744 m level. The wind was rustling through the trees. My one and only raven this winter was screeching and playing in the wind.
At times the wind was roaring in the tops of the high poplars, and the spruce trees were bending. As I came closer to the ridge, squalls of snow would blow in my face – just as the salty spray used to blow in my face when I would walk along the ocean side!
At the edge of the ridge, I saw the snow swirling up, sometimes in little whirlwinds. The snow’s crust was beautifully patterned by it.
Animal prints were not indented, but now stood out, as the surrounding snow was blown away. I sat down on an old tree trunk, enjoying it all.
With swirling clouds, the mountaintops across the valley looked spectacular.
Behind me lay the spruce forest, and on the bluff around me the gnarled poplars, that grew up this way due to the wind which comes ceaselessly through the Kusawa Lake valley from the Pacific Coast some 500 km away.