Fifteen thousand kilometres, scouring the north, taking detours, backroads, getting lost. Over two months, at the bridge of fall, my brother and I drove through some of the most remote areas in North America. We’d travelled together before, shot around Iceland and the British isles, but never like this. Sleeping atop our Jeep, weeks crammed into a tent across the Yukon, you get to know each other. Sometimes thats a notion people overlook, amongst the bustle of everyday you only get to the surface, even of those you love most. Life has a way of setting a screen, blurring the troubles and burying the insecurities.
It took us a week to get to Whitehorse— Yukons capital city— the gateway of the North, a last restock before a whole lot of empty. From there we headed up to one of the most remote highways in the world, the Dempster is all dirt, devoid of emergency services, filled with sporadic river crossings and not much company save a few Semis headed back from the arctic circle. It is also home to Tombstone Territorial Park, an expanse of distinct sub-arctic peaks— often referred to as ‘Patagonia of the North’. We arrived in late September, just as services were shutting down and this barren world readied for winter. On our three-day 60 mile trek to Grizzly lake and beyond, we saw five or six people- not groups, people- it was humbling, awe-inspiring and beautiful. The colours in tombstone are as unique as anywhere in the world. This far north fall is just a blink, a few weeks of change preparing for the long freeze. Rust hues from the shrubs paint the mountain floor, forming their own unique palette, trees are sparse and reserved for low lying valleys. Its a rugged place with strong wind, rapid weather shifts and unpredictable temperatures.
The second night in our tent we cooked some simple grub as storm clouds poured over the ominous peaks. About an hour before sunset we bundled up, listening to hail pound down on our tent. The mercury fell to about -10 fahrenheit that evening— it was 40 or so as we hiked earlier that day. I had a book and my brother had cards, he furiously taught himself to shuffle as I flipped through East of Eden— a Steinbeck classic that had just about nothing to do with the world we found ourselves. After a while he got bored and I got distracted, we started talking about the kinds of things you do trapped in a couple square feet. Im five years older, a number that’s a lot growing up and fairly insignificant once you’ve grown. Despite our similarities, the mess of things in common, we are decidedly different. Where he’s kind and stubborn, I’m blunt and easy-going, its exactly the type of thing that makes us so close. Also the same thing that can make it tricky to relate. Sitting in the tent chatting I realized my brother wasn’t so little anymore, that it wasn’t fair for me to treat him as little anymore. His problems sounded similar, but unique, I realized we could learn a lot from each other- that just meant listening.
After time in the forgotten town of Dawson, some hundred miles from Tombstone— a unique spot caught and lost in the next to last century— we headed south. Thinking off and on about the people we met, talking about their world, listening to good music and better books. Its a testament to true friendship when you can stand some silence together. Headed to Kluane now, a park skirting southern Yukon and pouring over into Alaska (there known as Wrangell-St.Elias) it held all the North American giants not named Denali. An eight or so hour drive— context is important— almost everything up here is five plus hours away, its bigger, broader. We rumbled along until, somewhere in the dark, we pulled over at Kluane lake. After all the miles we had forgotten to fill up, skipping past a few stations, mesmerized by the yellow lines. Gas was really low, too low, but it was two or so in the morning— problems for tomorrow. Kai got a fire started as I set up camp, with the tent popped up I scooped a couple beer from the cooler and noticed the northern lights dancing behind the fire. About an hour later, as we treated ourselves to good food— wolves started to howl— probably to one another, but maybe at the lights. Either way I don’t remember feeling so present, so immersed; listening to the slow rhythm of the shore, watching bands of green dance across the sky, all while the wolves sang.
Early the next morning, not much more than a stones throw from camp, my foot sunk down on the accelerator as the jeep skipped and slowed. We looked at one another, trying to point fingers, as I limped onto the shoulder. A funny thing about the solitude of these long lonely roads is that everyone has been there, sticking a thumb up is more successful here with the few passing strangers than it is with a thousand busy neighbours further south. A guy named Mike, or Mark— I was never very good with names— scooped me up and said he had gas a dozen minutes away. After grabbing a full jerry can, ours was stolen a few nights prior— hopefully buddy needed it more than us— we headed back. Mike, or Mark, was working the roads and happy for a half hour distraction, Kai told him we would buy him a beer if he was heading through Haines Junction anytime soon, he wasn’t but it was the right offer. The can gave us just enough juice to limp into the nearest station. We were arguing about the heat, he was cold and I figured he could solve that with a jacket. After some yelling and swearing I smacked him with my free hand, he thought good and hard about clocking me back, but cooler heads prevailed as he eyed my left hand on the steering wheel. Fights about nothing are pretty common after a month in the same car, they signal some stuff you had buried, this one signalled some stuff that went back a bit further. I still figured he should’ve thrown on a jacket, but then it would’ve just been something else later.
We both got out at the run down gas station, no one was around, probably because we were nowhere— or close to it. I told him to politely get back in the car, he told me to politely go satisfy myself. I was pumping the gas and he was laying into me, staring ahead I started saying some stuff that was pretty far outside the lines, he grabbed me and pinned me against the back window. He’s a big guy, shorter by a couple inches but built a lot like a brick, things escalated pretty quick, a couple swings and misses— before I told him to grab his bags. He did, even though we both knew he couldn’t go anywhere. I tossed the bags back in the trunk and after muttering some more garbage I should’ve kept to myself, we ended up covered in dirt wresting around like a couple angry kids. By now the tank was full, so I replaced the gas cap and we dusted off before climbing back in the front seats, it was his turn to drive. As we pulled out of the lonely station that just got its most action in years, he cranked the heat up to full. I just stared ahead as we drove toward Haines. Without saying much of anything, he pulled into the first place that looked like it might serve decent breakfast, it must have been an hour— or it felt like an hour— I was hungry too. We sauntered in and grabbed a table by the only TV, ordered what ended up being a more than decent breakfast, and started talking about sports. It wasn’t exactly like we were avoiding anything, it was just time to start talking again; wasn’t clear who spoke first, wasn’t tatkind of fight, wasn’t that kind of relationship. Sure we said some brutal stuff, but sometimes brutal stuff needs to be said— true or not— the point isn’t that fighting is good, or even that its necessary, point is that there are worse things than a couple bruises. Whatever came out that morning needed to come out, it did more good on the table than it did locked away.
After breakfast we packed up our gear for an ascent later that afternoon, the Kings Throne, a peak just off the shore of Kathleen Lake. It was a 6 hour climb and we planned on camping at a ridge about halfway, make the summit for sunset and then scoot back to the tent under our headlamps. Most of the 3500 feet was unprotected ridge but none was very technical. After setting up camp we packed the essentials and pushed on, halfway or less we could see clouds moving in, the wind blew strong that afternoon and we figured the system was high enough to roll through. An hour later the snow became thick and it was tough to be optimistic about any view from the top, still we decided to trust our initial observation, knowing we had the requisite gear and that the forecast was in our favour. I got to the summit a little ahead and snow was still falling, almost sideways now, dancing and swirling in the wind. A funny thing happened then, just after Kai climbed up next to me, sun began to shine through gaps in the cloud. After waiting a few minutes the summit cleared entirely, we grabbed our cameras and watched as the lake became visible beneath us, rays of vibrant light shot across Kathleen and the mountains west of us. It was a rare scene, one we probably shouldn’t have seen, one that we probably wouldn’t be lucky enough to see again. Kai started howling, screaming like the wolves beneath us, he turned smiling and I howled along with him. It was great end to a better day. A day filled with some real low lows and some real high, literally high, highs. Those really were the best days though, the days that made you feel a little more, the days filled to the brim with emotions— a whole damn spectrum. I threw my arm around him as we turned our back on that priceless view, we just laughed, wasn’t anything else to do.