Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Haines Road to the Wheaton River Valley Complete

Back in 2003, inspired by the reports of ski traverses in this area, I became enamoured with the idea of a hiking route from the Haines road in BC to the Yukons Wheaton River valley.  

At the time, Google Earth or other such satellite image based route planning aids weren't readily available, so my research was confined to anecdotes, 1:50,000s and ground-truthing various portions of this route.  I had heard of others starting and/or finishing their ski trips at Kelsall lake on the Haines road, but summer experiences in the area had convinced me that the bushwhacking in the vicinity would more miserable than not.  In the end, a route was pieced together from the very headwaters of the Tatshenshini river where it crosses the highway, along the BC side of the Coast range to the headwaters of the Kusawa and Chilkat rivers, to the headwaters of the Takhini river, then to the upper Primrose river (on the maps labelled Silt Lake) finally ending at the Wheaton river in The Yukon.  Its an in-obvious route, deviating from the winter route to avoid glacier travel, yet still staying as high as possible to enjoy the alpine travel and avoid as much bush travel as possible.

In 2003, 4 of us and 3 dogs started up the Wheaton river horse trail in early August to attempt this crossing from the West end.  The upper Wheaton river had a wildfire though it back in the late '90s, and at the time of our trip, the burn was relatively fresh with not much fallen debris.  In 4 days, we made it into the upper reaches of the West fork of the upper Takhini river.  The final day bashing up the Takhini as well as route uncertainty and dwindling food convinced us to retrace our route back to the Wheaton, tails between our legs.  It wasn't a wasted trip however, as much was learned with respect to old animal and horse trails and where best to access them.

The following summer of 2004, Michelle, Malcom Campbell and I were dropped off on the Haines road near where it crosses the Tatshenshini river (more of a creek at this point).  We had incredible weather save for one short storm in the pass from the upper Chilkat river to the upper Takhini.  We made it to the upper Takhini valley in 6 days of glorious, sunny alpine wandering.  Unfortunately, our dog Tua decided to cut her leg open on a sharp Granite sliver while descending down to the upper Takhini, where Michelle (a paramedic) put in 20 stitches.  It was a bad enough injury that we had to carry the dog down the Alder and Willow choked West arm of the Takhini, up the East arm, over the high pass to Silt Lake, and down to Primrose lake in two and one half days to try and get there to meet a floatplane that we knew was bringing in acquaintances to hike in the area.  We literally ran the last kilometre as the plane was landing on the lake.  We managed to catch the back haul to Whitehorse to get the dog to the vet for antibiotics but it cut short the full trip out by two days.

The idea that we didn't actually complete the whole thing rankled, even though we had physically traversed the whole route in different trips, so in July 2013 we drove over to the Haines road to hike it.  Again.  Well, it rained all the way to the Haines pass with the rainfall in the area so heavy, and forecast to remain so, that we turned around and headed home.  The weather did relent after a few days, and to salvage some sort of trip, we flew to Little Duff lake and hiked out to Primrose lake.  Shortly after this trip I had heard about another groups successful traverses of the route earlier that summer.  See Colin Abbotts great write up here .   In subsequent conversations with him, he also hadn't heard of anyone else hiking the route (social media not being as active then as now).  Of note, while they ended up on the same route that we had used previously (its pretty much the only choice), they elected to start at Kelsall lake.  Their images of the vegetation made me glad we had opted for the upper Tat start. They experienced awful weather, but carried on regardless.  But they're tough as nails so that helps.

In the intervening years, I've explored many of the sections of the route on various trips, but I'd yet to have completed it in one push, and while its no Ultima Thule, it still was on the must-do list.

Enter 2021, and a group of us: Mandy McClung, Karen McColl, Michelle and myself, were looking for a good summer trip.  I suggested we do this one.  Or at least try the bastard.  Again.  So once again we sallied forth to the Haines road for a drop off.  This time, with no monsoon-like conditions.  

Day 1:
 Haines road to upper Tatshenshini.  Under lowering skies, we left the road and headed up the Tatshenshini river, which is more of a large creek at the point.  Some Alder/Willow patches near the highway, but mostly nice alpine strolling.  There is a pleasant tarn near the pass at the head of the valley that makes for an idyllic camp.

Alpine lake at head of Tatshenshini

Upper Blanchard river 2021

Day 2:  It rained lightly overnight, but the sky promised better things.  We were soon over the pass and into the upper Blanchard river drainage.  Staying high and right lets you cut the corner and keep your elevation.  Its a stark, recently glaciated landscape with amazing views.  When the weather is good.  You follow a string of lakes heading to the stream that feeds Kelsall lake.  The skies eventually cleared and we made camp in the same spot as we did on our 2004 trip.  It was just as amazing now as it was then, with stunning views of the peaks and glaciers to the West.

Faerie meadow camp 2021


Day 3: An amazing sleep on a flat bed of moss will make even the foggiest morning look better.  Theoretically.  It was socked in with rain in the offing, so we packed up quick and moved off to Little Duff lake.  More walking amongst clear alpine tarns with massive Granite builders littering the landscape.  Lovely campsites abound in this section, but you'd want good weather to truly enjoy it.  It began raining about 10am and stayed that way for the rest of the day.  Fortunately, the clouds and fog stayed high enough that we were able to navigate this section without resorting to the electronics.  We finally rolled into Little Duff lake about 6 pm, tired, wet and ready for camp.  Its a rugged landscape that doesn't lend itself to fast travel.  The final hurdle is having to strip down to wade the creek draining Little Duff.  A 5 star shore side campsite is fine compensation however, and in no time we had the shelters up, dry clothes on and water boiling.

Duff Lake

Day 4:  It poured rain and blew hard all night and well into the morning, so we decided to spend our one discretionary day here, and hopefully get some better/drier weather.  The rain ceased in the late morning although the wind kept at it.  Fortunately, it allowed us to dry almost everything.

Day 5:  The clouds and fog were down on the deck in the morning, but it wasn't raining so off we went.  I was familiar enough with the rest of the route that even with the low cloud, we were able to roll right along, with only a few looks at the GPS to confirm some micro-navigation choices.  We weren't sure what the forecast was to bring, and with the exposed nature of the terrain, we elected to put in a long day and try and cross into the headwaters of the upper Takhini river, West branch.  On the past trips, we had had good weather, and always camped on the Chilkat drainage side of the pass, as the country is stunning.

Headwaters of the Chilkat 2013

From the pass over to the Takhini 2013

Crossing into the Takhini 2013

However, the clouds were down and we just kept rolling along, making really good progress in the rugged terrain.  By late afternoon we had crossed the pass and dropped down to the upper Takhini, making camp around 6pm just before the bush gets really thick, at a lovely gravel knoll we found on a previous trip.

Looking into the West fork of the upper Takhini 2021

Gravel knoll camp 2013
If there is any downside to this trip, the upper Takhini valley, West branch, is it.  Its a great example of the interior side of the Coast range vegetation in action.  Fortunately, its not a long section, and with some good route selection (and luck) you can pick up an animal trail that will take you down paddlers left of the river to where the coniferous forest of Alpine Fir begins, and you can cross with ease to paddlers right and again pick up the old horse trail/animal trail that will take you down to the forks of the upper Takhini.

Embracing the upper Takhini 2013

Old hunting trail upper Takhini 2013

Wading the upper Takhini 2013

Upper Takhini 2013

Its worth noting that while the brush in the upper Takhini is bad, its not a deal-breaker, and is really no worse than a lot of other sub-alpine river valleys in The Yukon.  That being said, avoiding it would make for a much nicer experience overall, and part of this trip was to check out a high alpine pass to the South of the valley that looked like it might offer an alternative to this schwack-fest.  Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate and the mountains were socked in so we elected to once again embrace the bush.  Now, I just have to go back to tie this pass in with the route.

Day 6:  The weather improved overnight, and by breakfast, Blue patches were appearing and soon the cloud cleared out giving us brilliant, sunny warm weather which would continue for the rest of the trip.  We schwacked our way down the valley, and by noon were at the nice camp site situated on granite slabs and Caribou moss covered flats right but the river.  We've stayed at this spot on other trips as its an old hunters camp, and its a delight after the upper valley.

Granite ledge camp, upper Takhini 2013

You soon reach the East fork of the Takhini, and its a boots-off crossing of its 3 channels.  Now this location is where previous knowledge comes in handy.  On our first foray into this valley in 2003, we came in from the East and located the old horse trail from the high side of the East forks valley.  And what a trail it is.  Although its getting overgrown, its in good shape overall, and allows you to switch back your way down (or up).  In places, its like walking on the Chilkoot trail.

East fork horse trail 2021

If you didn't know of its existence, you could have a pretty miserable time bashing your way up the valley.  Colin and co. elected to head up paddlers left/lookers right of the East fork (not knowing of the trails existence) and did find a decent animal trail that got them up high.  They then had to cross the East Takhini in one larger channel.  Again, they're tough.
As you walk up the old horse trail on paddlers right (lookers left), you see all sorts of old axe cuts indicting the origins of this trail.  The trail is an extension of the horse trail that comes up the Watson river to Rose lake, then over to Johns lake and Takhini lake, where it heads either up the Takhini river valley to the forks, or over to Kusawa lake.  Sadly, the old trails are growing over and are soon going to be lost.
There are some great views of waterfalls from clear Granite slabs on the way up.

East fork upper Takhini 2021

Soon, you reach the tree line, and an old hunters spike camp.  Its a nice spot, but a better spot to camp is just above it on a terrace with flat sites and clear water just a short walk into the trees.  The views are kinda good too.

Hunters camp 2021

Day 7:  Another sunny day in the offing so off we went up and over the pass to Silt Lake and the upper Primrose river.  This is yet another stunning part of the coast range with clear tarns, mossy flats and 5 star views.  With good weather, the mountaineering potential here would be fantastic.

North end of Silt Lake 2013 with Primrose beyond

Soon you're dropping off the East side towards the Primrose valley.  You don't want to drop down straight East into the deep, glacially fed creek.  Rather, trend left/North to drop down into the sub-alpine bowl that has clear water and great camp sites.  From here, you follow your nose and pick a line down through the Alpine Fir forest and hit the wide, flat valley of Silt Lake.  Once you get there, the name makes sense, as its a wide, shallow part of the Primrose that is easily wadeable by even the least tall member of any party.  Its tempting to just stay river left and follow it down to where the channels come together, but its much better to just take off your boots and start walking/sloshing out and right to the far end of the cliffs on the other side.  Its pleasant walking on the sand/silt, and never more than knee deep.  From the far, right end you can then put on your boots and start walking through clearings and small meadows on your way to Primrose lake.  Lots of great camping options in this area with more and more human signs reminding you your trip is nearing its completion.  We kept walking and put in a big day to end at the furthest South sand point on Primrose lakes East side.  Its a good spot to camp and you can get a floatplane ride out from here if you so desire.  Sadly, some idiots have decided that cutting down most of the live Alpine Fir here was a good idea, and leaving them to dry out on the ground for firewood.  The busier the backcountry gets, the more fools show up.

Silt lake with Mt Foster to South

Silt lake 2021

Day 8:  Another cracker day.  From here, you have a few choices to make on your route out.  Colin and co. continued down the lake on the old/good horse trail to the cabins (privately owned!), and then climbed up into the pass and headed out to the Bernie creek exploration road.  This is a good option, but I wanted to have another night in the upper Wheaton valley, as its an incredibly beautiful spot.  From our camp, we sidled up though at times heavy Alder and Willow, and gained the alpine.  You could also follow the horse trail down the lake and climb up from down there.  Pick your poison.  Once in the pass, careful sleuthing will reveal the old horse trail that heads off down the Wheaton river.  Again, knowing where it is helps a lot.  It took a bit of finding, what with 17 years having passed since I was last on it, but find it we did and then we flew down into the trees on a great old trail thats is also slowing getting overgrown and unused by everything but the local populace.  You soon cross the upper Wheaton in a lovey, grassy forest grove covered in fragrant Wormwood.  You then enter part of the old burn where the trail is less obvious, but following your by now well-honed sense of trail sleuthing, you soon find it again and cruise down through open forest on a trail you could mountain bike on.  Pick your 5 star camp site in this area, theres heaps of 'em.

Primrose lake 2021

Upper Wheaton horse trail 2021

Upper Wheaton horse trail 2021

Esker camp at the head of the Wheaton

Day 9:  Sunny?  Again?  Well damn, I guess we'll just have to make the best of it.  It was our home day, and we knew Tony would be waiting for us at the upper Wheaton river crossing, so we hit the trail early.  All too soon you lose the old horse trail super highway and then emerge from the forest into the old burn.  In the intervening 17 years since my last foray down the valley on foot (I've packrafted it a few times but that doesn't count) the burn has gotten more blow down and secondary growth, and its nowhere as cruisy going as I remembered it.  The only thing to do is put your head down and go.  The alternative would be heading up and over the usual route in to packraft the upper Wheaton from Bernie creek.  This would allow you to enjoy the lovely upper valley and still avoid the old burn.  I'd recommend this route.  We, however, thrashed our way down to eventually emerge from the burn and onto better trail in old growth forest with some swampy bits.  Soon enough you find yourself cruising through open Pine forest on a fine old trail where you run into a faint ATV trail following down Bernie creek on creek right.  Follow this up to the Bernie creek road even though its going away from where you want to be going.  Trust me.  It was a hot slog down the road to the Wheaton where Tony met us with a cooler of frosty beverages.  AWESOME!!  The journey was over, but it left some great memories.

I hesitate to recommend this route as one of the best backcountry trips in the Yukon simply because its most emphatically NOT a trip for everyone.  Its really tough terrain and while the macro navigation (in good weather) is straightforward, the micro navigation and ones bush schwacking tolerance/ability plays a big part in ones enjoyment of it.  There is lots of boulder hopping/scrambling with plenty of spots to break a limb, and the evacuation locations are few.  Don't attempt this crossing lightly.    We made the trip in 8 travelling days, but thats only because of our previous knowledge of the route.  Obviously a savvy group could go even quicker if that was the goal.  Colin Abbott and company took 9 with no previous knowledge of the route, but they're all tough-as-nails XC ski athletes, so I would think 10 days at least would be a reasonable goal.  Your results may vary.