Our week living up MONTANA MOUNTAIN monitoring this amazing mountain for the Carcross/Tagish First Nations (CTFN) has been full of surprises and adventures. Towering over Carcross in the Yukon with its 2,205 m (7,234 ft), Montana Mountain is an important landmark for the CTFN. Legends say Game Mother (the woman who lived in the Yukon and gave birth to all the animals) used Montana Mountain peak to hang a hammock for her animal creations before sending them to populate the land. And her creatures are definitely around, living off the mountain’s beautiful pine forests and endless valleys.
In 2006 CTFN took back the mountain from the Canadian Government in its land claim settlement and since then its efforts have been focused in restoring the historic trails, building anew and monitoring this sacred land. Through the Singletrack to Success Project young First Nations have been involved in building an impressive network of mountain bike trails on the lower slopes of Montana Mountain as a mean to reconnect them to their ancestral land and to give them purpose. Their motto? “Building (desti)nations, one trail a time”. Amazing mountain biking by the way!
We are proud to have played a small part in monitoring the tracks and their mountain bikers/vehicle/wildlife traffic. Our base has been a small off-the-grid wooden cabin at the beginning of the Mountain Hero trail, a wonderful challenging mining road with steep climbs and loose, cobbly sections. A side-by-side (or can-am, or dune buggy) has been our loyal companion to explore the tracks.
NICE TO MEET YOU MR. GRIZZLY!
We start off with a leisurely walk down the Lower Telegraph trail as soon as we hit the mountain on a calm Monday evening. Just 15 minutes deep into the forest we hear some branches breaking down the track so we keep advancing to check out if we can finally encounter a moose! Suddenly a big grizzly golden bear comes out the bush only 15/20 metres from us, running in our direction, our reaction is to scream and wave our arms, it sees us and drifts into the bush again. 10 minutes later we`re back at the cabin with our hearth pounding and no breath!
After tonight encounter we sleep tight until next morning at 6am – going up the top of the mountain to monitor wildlife. The trail is pretty rough and takes at least 25 minutes by side-by-side to reach the big bend of the road from where you can see the majestic Montana peak. After a fun ride and many bumps we climb up Sugarloaf Hill half way and sit for almost 2 hours with our binoculars ready at hand – the sun is already up and fills the valley with its light, the air is crispy and we wish we had taken an extra layer. No animals around this morning, we can only hear lots of picas calling each other, a funny combination of a squirrel and a marmot.
THE PEACEFUL BEAR EATING DANDELIONS
Back at the cabin for some rest, we`re heading out other 3 times today to monitor the lower parking for numbers of vehicles and bikers and try out a shorter trail, the Mossy, with our bear spray ready for use. Hiking in the Yukon is both beautiful and pretty intense at the same time – all your senses must be alert to detect any minor sound, any animal trace, any unusual smell – definitely it makes you feel alive. Luckily, only one lady comes up the trail with a bag full of wild rose petals to make some tea. Almost back at our vehicle, sure enough a black bear appears on the road we just walked, peacefully eating dandelions. It knows we`re there but couldn’t care less. Before it gets too close, we start the engine and off we go.
LESSON LEARNT - THE CRAZIEST NIGHT ON A SIDE-BY-SIDE
We will remember this for a long time – our survival skills have been put to a test. On our first evening monitoring session on the mountain top why not wandering a little bit further along the road? A snow-patch is blocking our way, not a big deal we think, it seems pretty icy and compact. Few seconds later our side-by-side is stuck in 50cm deep snow – again, not a big deal, we get some rocks and place them underneath the wheels to get traction, rear gear in place but nothing, the wheels are spinning freely and the side-by-side start sinking and sinking. It`s 10pm, luckily it’s summer and the sun is still high so plenty of time to work on a way to get out of here. We start digging with bare hands, but they freeze in no time – we start using our boots and legs, digging around the vehicle to free it from snow, we find some wooden planks, we place them behind the rear wheels – we keep digging for 2hrs, laying underneath the side-by-side and kicking out snow like crazy dogs. 11.30pm – the sun is setting, it`s getting darker and colder and we have no headtorch. We really don`t want to walk our way back to our cabin, it will take at least 2hrs, part in the middle of the forest and we were told bears are most active towards night time. A hint of desperation starts to set in our mind as soon as we stop and think of other solutions – wheels would keep spinning freely, we have not tried the tow cable yet, but would that really work? That`s our last resort. Just when we are unrolling the cable, a big black shadow moves not far from us – A bear? A moose? I start singing as loud as I can and Fabio joins in as we desperately try to reach a big rock on the side with the cable – luckily the cable is long enough, we start the engine, the side-by-side turns dangerously sideway on the snow wall we created. But yes, we did it after 3.5hrs!! The wheels free themselves and the vehicle is out of the snow in no time!We take the road down to our cabin in the dark, the gasoline is very low, we only see shadows through the forest, I`m holding the bear spray ready to use any time – 25 minutes later we are in the cabin, soaked and frozen but seriously happy!
MOVING BUSHES AND NIGHT SCRATCHING
The Yukon is not for the faint hearted – while we tried our best to relax with a book in the warm sun during our spare time, nature has been busy around us and every single sound made us jumped high in our chairs. We learnt to distinguish in which bush or tree our friends the SQUIRRELS lived so we would not look up every time the branches were moving. We trained our eyes to see through the foliage for BIRDS and PICAS whenever we heard some cracking inside the woods. We even scared away a poor PORCUPINE who decided to eat the plywood base of our cabin – what if it was a BEAR? The scratching was pretty noisy and was not from a small animal. He did visit our cabin another couple of nights but only briefly and around 2am when the sky was darker so we could not properly document with pictures.
ALONG THE OLD MINING TRAILS
It`s impressive how many scars the mining rush left on Montana Mountain between 1904 and 1980 – many trails and roads still follow the old network of mule trails, tramways and wagon roads built to transport silver and other precious mineral off the mountain.Hiking on Montana Mountain has taken us to discover some abandoned old miners’ cabins, rusty tramways to nowhere, and the entrance of pitch black mine tunnels. That`s when we were also scouting for wildlife traces – caribou, moose, bears…. And that`s when we met a beautiful red-fox waiting placidly in front of an abandoned cabin and when we saw busy picas standing up tall on rocks and calling each other, “Hey neighbor! There’re humans around!”.
We`re going to miss your many stories told by the silence and the wind of your peaks!
Gunalchéesh Montana Mountain!