Horsepacking Up Grizzly Mountain

Our trip began with what had really brought us to the Yukon: a 4-day horsepacking trip through the Klondike’s wilderness.

Following a busy day of travel (flying from Toronto to Vancouver to Whitehorse), my cousin Nicole and I spent the night at an Airbnb in Whitehorse and got to the ranch early the next morning. There, we met our guides, our fellow trip mates, and most importantly, our horses.

My horse for the trip: Finn! Short but very solid.

The first day we rode about three hours from the ranch to our base camp, where we’d stay for the duration of the trip. In addition to our riding horses, we also had three “pack” horses who carried carefully weighed boxes that held our belongings and food.

Lacey, one of the pack horses, ready to go.

Within the first ten minutes of riding, I was intensely impressed by our horses’ ability to make it through difficult terrain. That first day included bogs, deep mud, hills, and a river crossing. Even more impressive were the pack horses, who did it all while carting around weight, and seemed well practiced at manoeuvring their bodies and packs around thin gaps between trees.

That evening was spent settling into base camp. Most of the gear (tents, cooking dishes, et cetera) was already out there, stored on a high, bear-safe platform. We were definitely in grizzly country; in addition to storing food safely, our guide was armed and we had two dogs on the trip with us to keep an eye – and nose – out for bears.

Resting at camp. You’re watching for bears, right, Nelson?

While one guide cooked dinner for us over the fire, the other guide would hobble the horses in the meadow near camp to graze. “Hobbles” look a bit like horse handcuffs – they prevent the horse from being able to stretch out their legs fully, instead walking in shuffle steps. The purpose of the hobbles is to allow the horses to have the freedom to walk around and eat the fresh grass without worrying that they’ll run away. It seems a bit disconcerting at first, but I was amazed at how unbothered the horses were by the hobbles, and at how quickly they could get around with them on.

Grazing in the meadow.

The evening was sunny but it was a bit colder than I’d anticipated. Our guide told us that it would get close to freezing, and deciding to take proactive measures, I borrowed some horse blankets from them (the type that would normally go under saddles or packs). I piled them over my sleeping bag and was cozy all night.

Our second day was the best of the trip: our camp was set near the base of Grizzly Mountain, and that day, we rode up the mountain.

The horses took us almost all the way up. Near the top, we tied them off on some spindly looking willows, crossed our fingers that they’d still be there when we got back, and hiked the last 200 metres up.

Hiking that last bit really made us appreciate our horses climbing most of the way for us. We didn’t make it to the true summit – there was about 200 metres of scree, or loose rock, in the way that nobody felt like scrambling over. We did get to a beautiful grassy knoll overlooking the valley.

Views from the top. That large body of water in the background is Lake Laberge (as in, “that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge, when I cremated Sam McGee”). The lake’s real name is Laberge, but Robert Service changed the name to rhyme in his poem. Funnily enough, most people now pronounce the lake’s name like Lebarge.

It was a long way back down, again with me being impressed by the horse’s ability. The ground was much softer than I’d thought it would be; in Jasper, the surface level of the mountains was generally hard-packed dirt and rocks. In the Yukon it was far less firm, with the ground being spongy or moss-covered, even at high altitudes. There was a lot of life on the mountain, and often we’d be going downhill through thick willows that sometimes completely obscured the rider in front of you.

Our third day, we did another day ride from our base camp. Instead of going up, we travelled along the base of the valley that wrapped around Grizzly Mountain. It was a beautiful ride with meadows, creek crossings, and – my personal favourite – a golden eagle nest built into the side of a cliff face, with two adult eagles soaring nearby.

Didn’t get a photo of the nest, but here’s our group riding below the cliffs.

The fourth day, we sadly packed up our gear. The pack horses had a much lighter load on the way back, since we’d eaten all the food (and drunk an incredible amount of coffee) by then. We took a long route back to the barn, across the top of several ridge lines with stunning vantage points. Like the other days, we took regular breaks for snacks and coffee.

Before we knew it, and in what felt like the blink of an eye, we were riding across the final field back to the ranch.

Some other miscellaneous highlights from the trip included:

Riding with my cousin, Nicole – though both avid horse riders for many years, we realized that we hadn’t ridden together since we were about twelve.

Realizing that one of our guides, who was originally from Whitehorse, also attended the University of Guelph (we started talking about it after she noticed my UofG hoodie, which I frequently wear when I travel). Not only that, but we’d both been in the Equestrian Club; took lessons through the club at the same barn, with the same riding instructor; and had ridden many of the same horses. The world is big… but you meet cool Guelph people everywhere.

My horse, Finn, who was full of personality and an absolute cuddle bug. Every time I dismounted, he swung his head around looking for cuddles. He received many apple cores and granola bars in return for carrying me safely through all the bogs and up all the hills.

The dogs, Nelson and Kobe. These two normally worked as sled dogs in the winter, and came on the horse trip as our alert system for grizzlies. They were the loveliest, most cuddly dogs, and having them at camp was definitely reassuring.

Nelson. Kobe wasn’t as easy to photograph as he was almost constantly in motion!

It was an amazing time, and a completely new experience for me – though I’ve spent many days in the saddle, I’d never done an overnight trip like this before.

We spent the final evening on the ranch, in a cabin with a wood stove and a porch that overlooked the horse paddock (literal bliss). The weather on the trip, aside from the first day, had been mostly cool and often rained at night. It felt like such a luxury to have a warm, cozy cabin that night.

The next day, our Yukon journey would continue – even farther north….

8 comments

  1. I really like learning about your adventures and the details along the way. Such a fun way to spend your young life. Free and able… I look forward to the next article!

    Liked by 1 person

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