Yukon may indeed be God’s country
Story by Mark Stevens
HAINES JUNCTION, YUKON TERRITORY — Four summers ago I was soaring high above the St. Elias Mountain Range in Kluane National Park in a fixed-wing four-seater plane when I concluded that, first, there might actually be a God and, second, that the views from the plane’s windows were incontrovertible proofs of the existence of said deity.
I had the overwhelming impression that God had chosen the skies above the Lowell Ice Fields to take a metaphysical jackhammer to humanity and declaim: “So you believe in me now?”
On that day, to quote John Gillespie Magee Jr., who penned the poem “High Flight,” we “wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.”
Until today I was convinced that it was an experience never to be replicated, certainly never to be overshadowed. But now, on a February Yukon morning, I’m proven wrong.
Take those self-same vistas that could make a politician cry and blanket them in snow — softening the outlines of spruce and pine on the lower slopes into an impressionist’s painting, spreading out alabaster quilts across the higher reaches like someone’s solicitous mother — and you’ve exponentially upped both the beauty and spirit quotient of that original epiphany.
Ten minutes off the launch pad at Kluane Helicopters and I’m convinced: we are airborne in God’s country. We glide over the Alsek River, serpentine, undulating, cobalt against the sun-glittering snow a thousand feet below; we make for the mountains dead ahead.
Is This the North or Is It Heaven?
The feeling is that of unparalleled freedom. We have truly “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”
No one speaks for a while, though we’ve all got headphones on with a little mike that wraps around one side of your face. The silence is hardly surprising. We’re floating weightlessly on the border of creation. What is there to say?
We fly straight for one steep slope, its crest sharp as a scalpel blade. We clear it with a margin narrow as the hapless Maple Leafs’ chance for a playoff spot.
Clouds skirt our beam; other peaks glide past as if in a procession of the gods themselves. One mountain stands in for Olympus, one for Valhalla, though so many clamour for attention — or would clamour for attention if they were not so overwhelmingly august and monolithic they didn’t need the attention of mere mortals—– that choosing one Hall of the King of Mountains would be like choosing your favourite entrée at a gourmet restaurant.
Now the intercom crackles with questions: “How fast are we going? How high are we? How high are those mountains?”
Now clouds float beneath our whirling blades like sunbathers on air mattresses, shrouding mountain tops in mystery and intrigue. Now the voice of Bill Karman, our pilot, interrupts my reverie.
“Biggest non-polar ice fields in the world,” he says. It is an ice cream sundae 10 miles long, an icing sugar sculpture of light and shadow, of texture. Far below are great icebergs, blue-grey, cerulean, are great mansions, Gothic cathedrals.
And now we descend, almost plummeting. We skirt precipices of blue-veined marbles facades, water-coloured, oil-painted, carved and etched with greater mastery than even Michelangelo could create.
I look out at the cliffs. I take in great breathes of majesty. I ask my own question.
“Do you ever get tired of this?”
And he tilts the helicopter toward the leading edge of the glacier, the very colour of cold if cold could have a colour. And that’s when, skirting these gargantuan monuments, I get my answer.
Silent. Eloquent. A grin and a shake of the head. On my first day here I would have been confused. Today I know the answer.
Defying conventional wisdom, weeks ago my wife and I decided to push the envelope, to give the beaches a miss, to experience a different side of Yukon.
One morning we cheer on the competitors in the Yukon Quest, a one-thousand-mile-long dogsled race, a little exercise that convinces me that no matter how crazy I am for having gone north instead of south, there are plenty of people crazier than me.
We bond with our own inner musher, balancing on the runners of wooden sleds on the shores of Fish Lake. We fire up the engines of a fleet of snowmobiles and get a jolt of adrenaline along with a nature lesson on one exhilarating afternoon. We chase the mushers and the ghosts of prospectors north to Dawson City, we bundle up and sip hot chocolate around a campfire at midnight, waiting in vain for sightings of the elusive Aurora Borealis.
So today Karman’s answer makes sense to me on some limbic level.
The North belongs to us. The winter and the North are one. No, he never gets tired of this.
Now I remove my headphones. I watch the procession of scenery; I listen as we traverse thermals through “footless halls of air.”
It strikes me there should be a soundtrack — octave leaps by violins, overarching melodic lines commandeered by French horns in a John Williams score that’s virtual accompaniment to the symphony of sight set before us.
I feel like the star in an IMAX movie. I feel like crying. I feel like laughing, yelling, bursting into song.
But one feeling dominates, here in the sky high above a range that boasts Canada’s biggest mountain, a park four times bigger than Prince Edward Island.
I feel as if I have “reached out and touched the face of God.”