Canadians call it ‘bear-a-noia’. Fear of walking with bears. I’ve never heard of it. Until now. I’m walking along in the Canadian wilderness, minding my own business, and soaking up the glorious view in front of me. Most views in Canada are glorious, in this case, even more so. The shores of Kathleen Lake on the first three kilometres of the 83km Cottonwood Trail in Kluane National Park is but one of many amazing Yukon hiking trails (more on this in a moment).
Our guide, Brent Liddle, stops and we, a group of six, gather around him. He challenges us to identify any tell-tale signs of bear activity in the area. And he’s not talking Winnie the Pooh, of childhood picture book fame. This has turned into a nature walk of a different kind. The hairs on my arms spring up like a porcupine’s quills.
We look around wildly for signs, thinking (incorrectly it turns out) he means broken twigs or big paw tracks in the ground. But the only wildlife I can recognise is the Black-capped Chickadee bird which lets out a distinctive call. We’re barking up the wrong ‘sighting’ tree.
In a gently mocking tone, Liddle points out the correct indicators: sap oozing from a divot in a tree (where a bear has scratched itself); a pile of berry-spotted manure (the region is a ‘teddy bear’s picnic’ in berry season, he says); and, the most telling of all, claw marks embedded in a tree trunk (yes, the black bear can climb, and grizzlies can too, if not as high).
Bears on a Yukon hiking trail
Liddle continues: with only 250 grizzly bears and 150 black bears in Kluane National Park – that’s one bear per every 20sq km – the chances of bumping into a bear are slim (Liddle should know.
As the Chief Interpreter of Kluane National Park and Reserve for over three decades between 1975 and 2002, his job was to record the entire reserve – 22,000 square kilometres – regarded as the last explored region in North America).
Liddle assures us, “Bears are very shy with good smell but poor eyesight. They act like wild animals which is what you want. You don’t want bears habituated to human behaviour.”
On the other hand, walkers on Canadian trails should get themselves up to speed with bear habits (and the appropriate responses should you ever come across one in the wilderness). Even more so, in the Yukon.
For when it comes to hiking, Yukon hiking trails are among the best in the world. There’s a walk to suit everyone, whether a casual rambler to a hardcore trekker.
Reflecting the popularity of hiking in the Yukon, thousands of kilometres of marked trails criss-cross the territory, ranging from scenic strolls around lakes to challenging scrambles over the St Elias Mountain Range, to historic treks such as the famous Chilkoot Trail.
Think vistas at every turn: glaciers, boulders, mountain ranges. And (in addition to bears), wildlife sightings: Dall sheep, mountain goat, moose and many varieties of birds.
1- Cottonwood Trail
The trail I’m following – is a four to six-day hike that follows an entire loop around the Dalton Range in Kluane National Park, in Yukon’s south-west on the border of Alaska.
Our ‘taster’ walk is a mere six kilometres along a predominantly flat section from the trailhead that runs near Kathleen Lake.
We head out under a stunning canopy of Cottonwood and Aspen poplars (it’s at this point we have our ‘bear aware’ and sign-spotting lesson).
We continue slowly along the narrow track, eventually emerging in a gap at the lake shore. The vista on the Cottonwood Trail is like an art lesson in ‘Perspective 101’.
On the other side of the lake is an extraordinary “V”-shaped valley, comprising the higher dramatic, rugged peaks of the St Elias Mountain Range.
Incredibly, although many know the Rockies, few are aware of St Elias, the highest coastal range in the world, whose crowning glory is Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan (5,959m).
No-one speaks; we are stunned by the vista.
To our left, rises a steep mountainside, awash with rocky shale. It looks as though a giant has poured out a massive bag of coal from above.
Here and there, protruding from the shale are horizontal spruce trees. Liddle explains we’re staring at a rock glacier, a unique landform where both rock and ice move together down a slope (so much so that it pushes over plant life).
Scientists estimate that in 300 years or so, this moving landscape will be in the lake.
It’s time to head back. We return along the same route and return to the trailhead’s car park, a pretty spot overlooking Kathleen Lake.
We pile into a 4×4 and drive along the Alaska Highway, a smooth strip of tarmac.
We’ve gone barely two kilometres when our driver slams on the brakes and pulls the car over abruptly. She points. There, foraging among a bush and fireweed, Yukon’s territorial flower, is a grizzly bear.
I’m both thrilled and terrified. But I’m also secretly relieved to be viewing this massive beast from the safety of a car; I can’t begin to imagine a face-to-face meeting.
But, as we drive along the highway once again, I watch as the cloud-shrouded mountain range comes in and out of view.
I catch glimpses of wildflowers – Arctic Lupine, Northern Goldenrod and River Beauty. And, through the open window, I breathe in the scent of spruce.
Suddenly, I have a strong urge to hike. I now understand the pull of these spectacular Yukon hiking trails. And why nothing keeps a keen walker from tackling them. Least of all a bear.
Hiking in Kluane National Park
2- St. Elias Trail
Perfect for beginners (or those hiking with children), this beautiful 4km long winding trail heads between hillsides and ends at a campsite on the stunning St. Elias Lake, a glacier-fed body of water. This is the place to brace yourselves for skinny dipping.
3- Rock Glacier Trail
This is an easy 30 to 40 minutes self-guided trail with interpretative signs that affords an incredible view of Dezdeash Lake.
The lake is located at the base of the toe of a buried glacier. The walk starts off on a boardwalk and then becomes a trail.
The more adventurous can leave the trail, climb the shale face of the toe and back.
4- Mush Lake Trail
Popular also among mountain bikers, this follows an old mining road for 22km heads through a forested valley into the back-country to beautiful Mush Lake.
Wildflowers are a feature here. The trail to Cottonwood also comes out on this trail. Athletic bikers can do this in a full day, but for walkers, it’s a great three-day trip.
Yukon Hiking at its best
5- Chilkoot Trail
The Chilkoot Trail is Canada’s most (in)famous hiking trail. This extraordinary route is labelled many things, among them, ‘the world’s longest museum’ and the ‘meanest 33 miles (53km) in history’. And with good reason.
After the discovery of gold in 1896 in a tributary of the Yukon’s Klondike River that started the Klondike Gold Rush, around 30,000 men (and women and children), climbed up the Chilkoot Pass, 1,500 ultra-steep steps that had been cut in the snow and ice to reach the summit. It was the start of a gruelling 600-mile journey.
The trail’s terrain was even too hard for pack animals – horses and donkeys were left to die en route.
These days, the walk is like a ‘living history lesson’. Hikers can cover the first 33 miles (53km) of the Chilkoot Trail, from coastal Dyea, Alaska through British Columbia to the headwaters of the Yukon River, a challenging journey that takes between three to five days.
If the trail is extraordinary for its statistics alone — in just 33 miles you gain 3,500ft of elevation – it’s more extraordinary for being a ‘living museum’: tram wheels, boat skeletons, shoes, a piano are just some of the legacies you’ll pass along the way.
Looking for adventures in the Yukon? Try a driving trip in winter. The Yukon is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights and there’s also the longest canoe race in the world here. The Yukon Quest is a bucket list event but beginners can also learn the basics how to be a dog musher or.