Hiking into the Takhini Salt Flats used to mean parking on the narrow shoulder of the Alaska Highway.
Now, thanks to road improvements around the Takhini River Bridge, there is a little pull-out. So ‘thank you’ to that construction crew.
On a July day, after parking about a kilometre before the bridge, my friend and I walked a little way back into the big dip.
You can get a glimpse of the flats from the highway. When you are lucky, the flats might be white and bright red, but on all days it is a pretty view of scattered little ponds in fields.
The fencing, from when a local outfitter leased it as a horse meadow, has fallen over in one spot, and that’s where I always enter the meadows.
When I first visited the salt flats years ago, I went with Jane and a troop of kids. We walked the long dirt road to the outfitter’s barns, then headed west, hoping to come out by the biggest pond.
We didn’t quite know where we were going, but after years of venturing onto the flats I now know the shortcuts.
This day we started from that dip in the road, climbed through the fence and kept heading north, with the first pond on the east side.
The water was surprisingly low after such a wet summer.
With no water flowing out, evaporation has created a salty environment that provides a unique habitat for wildflowers and the birds that nest here.
Walking along near the shore on a wet day is a muddy business. The white clay sticks to your boots, and you can never get close to the water’s edge unless you like mud baths.
On this trip, we didn’t follow the big meadow on the west, which makes for a lovely walk, but doesn’t take you to the big ponds.
Instead, north of the pond, we followed a natural lane – a horse trail on the east side that took us through a tumble of trees in a sparse poplar forest until we emerged to see the big, desolate ponds ahead.
It is an austere landscape, with light grey mud beaches edged with white salt, dead trees bleached white, but with a beautiful backdrop of Yukon mountains. In past years I would occasionally still see horses there.
The surprise this day was to find the water’s edge trimmed with a long ribbon of bright purple. It seemed to be an algae of some kind. Always something new!
The red colour the flats are famous for is less noticeable here, but more brilliant at the first pond. It is caused by a delicious beach snack, called by different names.
The one I like best is Red Samphire. It is the Salicornia rubra, a succulent little plant that forms a beautiful red carpet when ripe. It is related to spinach, and very healthy.
Here, I also like to nibble on the white base of Triglochin, a poisonous grass-like plant. Poisonous except for its base, which tastes like cilantro.
As we walked toward the middle of the three ponds, shore birds screeched and fled from us. Dead wood lay like white beasts on the shoreline.
Animal prints in the mud suggested that bears, elk and others like to drink the salty water.
On the day we went with the kids, we came out at the far end where, by luck, there was a little stretch of sandy beach. As it was a hot day we decided to go swimming.
With kids, that is not a decision we adults make; they just go in.
The shallow water was warm by Yukon standards. Jane and I, not used to swimming in anything other than the clear cold water of Yukon lakes, wondered about the slight murkiness, which looked like a lovely blue-green from above the ponds.
Jane did get stung softly, and only whispered about to me, not wanting to scare the kids. We couldn’t imagine it was anything more dangerous than a mosquito bite, although those insects are rare on this open landscape.
That year the water was quite a bit higher than this year, and there was no gorgeous purple trim.
Things are always changing; not necessarily a concern, but something to keep our senses alert. There’s always something new to marvel about in the backcountry.