Our Cessna 205 bumps along the runway before wheels leave the asphalt, banking gently to follow the grey ribbon of pavement below that is the Alaska Highway. Pilot Marie Young turns us away from the signs of civilization and gently nudges the small six-seater to 2,100 metres above the Jarvis River Valley.
Touring by air is one of the most popular — and safe — ways to explore the glaciers and ice-shrouded wilderness of Kluane National Park in the Yukon.
Backpedal a century and consider the alternative.
For the prospectors scrambling north during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1896, the forbidding landscape was a major obstacle to be overcome en route to the gold fields they believed held their fortunes. Many perished or turned back.
Kluane’s mountain landscape is one of the youngest and most geologically active on the continent (experts the peaks are still rising). At these elevations, the snow and ice in every direction is the largest non-polar glaciated area in the world.
This is a landscape you don’t mess with. Everything you do at the icefields of Kluane, you do by plane.
"What I like about this tour is that it’s a big loop, so we don’t pass the same scenery twice," Young says, chatting into her microphone so we are all able to follow in our own headsets.
The way the landscape shape-shifts during the 75-minute Grand Mountain Tour is a seduction of the senses. It begins and ends forest green, but the flight between hops from the dazzling white of 1,000-metre deep glaciers, past the tongues of ancient rivers of ice, over frozen pools tinted electric blue by minerals, skirting rocky cliffs.
"Some of these landmarks have simple names, usually resulting from the experience of early explorers," Young explains. "The valley on the left is called Disappointment Valley. Pioneers went there looking for gold but didn’t find anything."
We pass over the steps of the Staircase Glacier and begin to gain elevation, staying well above the craggy peaks of the St. Elias Mountains, Canada’s highest mountain range. The sky is a sharp blue, scattered with a few clouds keeping the country’s highest peak, Mount Logan, a shrouded mystery.
I’m beginning to feel a light-headed buzz. My nose is pressed against the glass, absorbing a view so vast that it seems like IMAX on steroids.
"Just above 3,000 metres is where we can feel the shortness of oxygen in the air. By law we’re only allowed to stay at this altitude for a half-hour," Young warns.
We stretch out every possible minute, luxuriating in the unreal vista spread out below.
The snowy reaches of Kluane may be all but inaccessible to humans — but that doesn’t mean I won’t be back someday.
NEED TO KNOW
Kluane National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located near Haines Junction in the southwest corner of the Yukon. For travel information, see travelyukon.com.
Sifton Air at Haines Junction offers flightseeing tours. Highlights are the giant Lowell Glacier and Mount Logan, at 5,950 metres it is the highest point in Canada. See yukonairtours.com.
— Alcan Motor Inn is at Haines Junction, close to the park entrance. See alcanmotorinn.com.
— Dalton Trail Lodge (a 45-minute drive from Haines Junction) is renowned for its lake trout, whitefish and grayling fishing on glacial-fed Dezadeash Lake. See daltontrail.com.