Traveling seventy miles through the Tombstone Mountains from Dawson, we cursed ourselves for not fully appreciating the canoe! Dense alders and willows, postholing in thigh-deep snow, and mosquitoes were the tolls required to get a glimpse of the stunning granite spires for which these mountains are known. Locals in Dawson pointed us toward a route that followed part of the historic, 100-year-old “ditch” that diverted water to the goldfields at Bonanza Creek. This ambitious engineering feat has been compared in scale to the Panama Canal and some of the same steam-powered backhoes were used in the construction of both projects.
With recent warm conditions and accelerated snowmelt, creeks were swollen and much of our route was very wet and muddy. In the low country, we encountered dense brush and muskeg and in the high country, met deep snow, leaving little in between for decent travel. Occasionally we found good caribou and other game trails, but even these had largely turned to gushing streams in the wet conditions. The route we eventually chose, a compromise between negotiating steep terrain and high water levels, led us over two passes and across several icy creeks, one more than waist-deep. We found ourselves punching through soft, deep snow for hour after hour in running shoes, following the tracks of caribou and bears, who travel these passes regularly. Several alpine lakes in the area provide nesting habitat for sea ducks, but these were still ice-covered as we passed. A single White-winged Scoter surfing the whitewater of Little Twelve Mile River may have been biding her time waiting for the late break-up. American Pipits, Snow Buntings, and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches braved the snow to find small patches of exposed tundra and a pair of Golden Eagles greeted us, along with wind and snow showers, at 6000′. Unfortunately, rowing, packrafting, and canoeing left us with tough hands but tender feet and it will take some time to harden up our soles again.
We left the dramatic peaks and expansive views of the Tombstones and hiked down to the Park’s interpretive center, where staff generously held our resupply, left by my parents on their recent visit. We won’t have a rest day here as we’re already cutting into provisions for the next leg and need to keep moving. We’re sending this update on a borrowed internet connection as there is no phone and only limited infrastructure here. As we travel through increasingly small and remote communities, communication will be much more limited.
We’re heading off today on what we anticipate may be one of the most challenging legs of the trip. Our plan is to hike into the Hart River, packraft a section of this, then cross through the Wernecke Mountains to the Little Wind River. From here we hope to paddle to the “big” Wind River and rejoin our route to Fort McPherson, which we did in a bark canoe almost exactly 10 years ago. We have little information about the headwaters of these rivers and hope they will be suitable for packrafting. If not, the hiking will be slow and painful. Even as proposed, we have a long slog through tough terrain ahead of us. We will keep our eyes out for trails and route clues left by caribou, moose, wolves, bears, and other critters who travel through these wild lands.