Up in the air at Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory

The plane was waiting at Haines Junction airport.

At the Haines Junction Airport, our 1980 Cessna. Planes sure do have a long lifespan.  I’m glad I didn’t know that we were flightseeing in a plane that pre-dates the personal computer. If only well-maintained computers lasted this long.

The clearing weather presented both a threat (mostly to our wallets) and an opportunity.  As we pulled into Haines Junction, we debated our options.

The circle was nearly complete.  Along with my 13-year-old son, my Alaskan friend Elizabeth and I had traveled from Juneau to Skagway, and over White Pass to Carcross and Whitehorse. Canoed on the Yukon River and soaked in the Takhini hot springs.

Should we venture out to the Kluane-St. Elias Ice Fields — the world’s largest non-polar icefields and the largest protected natural area in the world? The plane was small, the price steep. Plus, after packing so much in already, might we fail to appreciate the awesomeness of the ice fields?

I reminded myself — and explained to my son — that as a living-on-the-edge 20-something, I had emptied my bank account to take a similarly expensive flight to Glacier Bay National Park. Although it’s  possible that I’ll get to Haines Junction again, I had to admit that it’s not likely. Hence, we went for it.

We began our flight over brown green alpine slopes where we could see specks of Dall sheep grazing, but soon began to fly up these glacier rivers into the heart of the Kluane ice fields.

We began our flight over brown green alpine slopes where we could see specks of Dall sheep grazing, but soon began to fly up these glacier rivers into the heart of the St. Elias-Kluane Ice Fields. Below, rivers of ice, trimmed with layer of gray silt.

As the plane buzzed its way deeper into the remote ice fields, the pilot pointed out different peaks, including Mount Kennedy, named for JFK after his assassination, and climbed in 1965 by his brother Robert — the only mountain Robert ever climbed.

robert kennedy photoThe expedition was the first attempt to climb Mount Kennedy. The highly experienced team included Jim Whittaker and Barry Prather, both part of the first American team to climb Mount Everest. Senator Robert Kennedy had been invited to join them, although he had a fear of heights and had never climbed any mountains (not even Mount Washington).  He accepted the invitation, he said, “for personal reasons that seemed compelling” and he “returned with a feeling — apart from exhaustion — of exhilaration and extreme gratification.”  Despite attempts to keep his participation a secret, word leaked out. The climb became a huge media event (for more, see newscast clip and other resources at the bottom of the post).

Robert Kennedy left several JFK mementos on Mount Kennedy, including his watch, a copy of JFK’s first inaugural address, and several PT boat tie clips.

This is either Mount X or Mount Kennedy, named for JFK.  Bobby Kennedy climbed Mount Kennedy (which is a major alpine expedition, not a hike) and left his brother's watch and some other artifacts on Mount Kennedy.

I took this photo near Mount Logan.  I believe it is Mount Kennedy (which is a subpeak of Mount Logan), but am not positive. What I am sure of:  if you find yourself in Haines Junction on a clear day, the flightseeing tour is a not-to-be missed experience.

In his Life magazine article, Kennedy wrote about how impressed he was by the climbers’ measured courage.  The climbers told him that “politics was far more dangerous than climbing.”

A view of Mount Logan, Canada's highest at X feet.  In the distance (but not in this photo), we could also see Mount Elias, the second tallest mountain in the US.

A view of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest at 19,551 feet, which puts it second in line behind Denali in North America.  On the tour, we also glimpsed Mount St. Elias (in Alaska), Glacier Bay, and the Pacific Ocean.

Today, scientists study the ice fields to learn more about climate change. This past summer (2014), bad weather stranded a group of Japanese scientists for two weeks after their pick-up date, at the camp pictured below:

In the heart of the ice fields, Japanese scientists who had been conducting research were stuck on the ice fields two weeks after their departure date due to bad weather. The scientists had just been flown out that morning.

A view of the research camp.  The stranded scientists were picked up earlier on the day of our flightseeing tour. Note the plane tracks on the ice fields.

A "close up" view of the research station. Note that one person is still down there, and hopefully still sane after spending two weeks of waiting out the rain, fog and snow.

A “close up” view of camp. Note that one person was still down there, and hopefully still sane after spending two weeks of waiting out the rain, fog and snow, in very close quarters.

A moulin in the ice field.

A moulin in the ice field. A moulin is a vertical shaft through which water melts and flows to the bottom of the glacier, where it serves as a puddle-like lubricant that facilitates glacial motion. You don’t want to fall into one of these things.

Beautiful puddles.

Beautiful puddles.  Bitterly cold, but they bottom out on the surface of the glacier, unlike the bottomless moulins.

Heading back to Haines Junction, using the glacier as a path.

Heading back to Haines Junction, and following the glacier as a highway.

The plane landed at the Haines Junction airfield like a feather dropping to the ground.  Behind the pilot, one passenger was suffering from the effects of motion sickness (it was messy).   Even so, he was grinning along with the rest of us.  Definitely not too much awesomeness.  How could we go to Kluane National Park and not take a dip in the lake?

After our flight, we camped at Kathleen Lake Campground, a $10 bargain that mentally reduced the cost of the flightseeing tour.  The next morning, we took a dip in the lake, where average summer surface water temperature hovers around 52 degree F (11 C), just a few degrees less than what we are used to, but cold enough to render The Seal speechless.

Heading down the Haines Highway to pick up the ferry in Haines, Alaska, we passed by Dezadeash Lake. Although just a few miles south of Kathleen Lake, Dezadeash is a shallow bath tub known for its warmer temperatures (up to 65 degree F/18 C in summer) and many migratory birds, including Trumpeter swans.

Trumpeter swans on Dezadeash Lake.

Trumpeter swans on Dezadeash Lake.

Links and resources

Kluane Glacier Air Tours operates out of the Haines Junction Airport.

“The Strange History of Mount Kennedy,” by Sean Sullivan at The Clymb.

Our Climb Up Mount Kennedy,” by Robert Kennedy.  Reproductions of images and text from Robert Kennedy’s April 9, 1965 Life magazine account of his climb.

Below, news report Senator Robert Kennedy’s climb up Mount Kennedy.

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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One Response to Up in the air at Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory

  1. Beautiful photos, Dianne.

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