"Hey, there's smoke coming out of the chimney!", I exclaimed to Leanne as we emerged from the rain-soaked bush into a clearing around an old trapper's cabin below Mt. Churchill in BC's northern Rockies.
"Hello!" we shouted out as we approached. A quizzical and muffled "Hello?" drifted back out from between the logs.
"Where'd you come from?" asked the stocky, sunburned man in the doorway, clad only in his long underwear. It was a fair question considering we were smack in the middle of the largest roadless area in all of British Columbia.
"Wyoming", I answered deadpan. "Along the mountains".
"Hah" he exclaimed, moving aside in the doorway so a second man, also wearing only his long underwear, could get a better look at us from inside the cabin.
"No really", I explained, "from Yellowstone beginning last year." And then I proceeded to explain the motivation and symbolic purpose behind the trip.
"Well I'll be...," he began, cutting himself off as he stepped back into the cabin to reach for his hat. He came back to the doorway and stepped into the rain, putting his hat onto his balding head as he shouted out: "I'm gonna put my hat on just so I can take it off to you guys!". And so began our cozy evening playing cards, drinking whiskey and sharing stories with Ivan and Stu, two sheep hunters from Fort St. John. They were the first people we'd seen in 36 days.
Two more days of tough walking and one more swim across the river and we arrived at Mayfield Lake where we'd arranged to meet four friends with three canoes and a floatplane full of food.
"I'm going to enjoy getting blisters on my hands for the next ten days", sighed Leanne as we pushed our loaded canoe into the current of the Gataga River. We sat back smug and relieved while we watched the tangle of fallen trees and mosquito infested swamps drift past the canoe without effort. It was a big shift from the bushwhacking we'd endured over much of the summer.
Over the next week and a half we enjoyed the merits of gravity. Webster, keen to relax, rested atop our gear with his nose propped on the canoe's gunwale, catching the scent of the odd caribou, black bear, wolf, or moose that we sighted along the shore. We ate well, slept restfully, and enjoyed the company of new people to talk with.
After a week, the Gataga flowed into the Kechika and five days later, met with the Liard. Leanne and the others departed, leaving Webster and I to walk the final 120 kilometers to Watson Lake, Yukon along the road.
Four days later I crested the final hill to see a small group of six people gathered at the town's entrance - the mayor of Watson Lake, a newspaper reporter, a TV crew, my sister, and the local hairdresser poised to give me a much needed haircut. The dry yellow aspen leaves rattled on their branches with the falling rain, like a thousand distant hands clapping. Nature, in the end, was offering its congratulation.
"So what does it feel like to finish?", asked the reporters as Webster jumped into the nearest vehicle and curled up on the floor.
There was some relief. Watson Lake marked the end of a trip that had been filled with unknowns, especially this past summer where large sections of bushwhacking, major river crossings, and frequent bear encounters had Leanne and I wondering whether we would make it to the end. But the overwhelming feeling was one of disappointment. A way of life was about to end. The nomadic and adventuresome spirit that had been reawakened in my soul would soon disappear under the veneer of a more normal, predictable and sedentary life.
"Do you feel like you've accomplished what you set out to do when you began in Yellowstone last year?", asked the TV reporter as I struggled with the cork on the champagne bottle. "In your mind have you succeeded?"
The top flew off the bottle with a boom that sent Webster cowering deeper into the car and the mayor running to retrieve the cork. "Success is a difficult thing to measure", I thought to myself.
From the perspective of satisfying my own curiosity, the trip had been a success. Working as a wildlife biologist when I first heard about Y2Y in 1994, the idea had appealed to my sense of what wildlife needed. But, admittedly, the sheer scope of the proposal had brought out my skeptical side. Was it really possible?
The trip has both surprised and inspired me with its answer: in the 188 days that it took to travel from Yellowstone to the Yukon, I saw the tracks, scat, digs and rub trees of grizzly bears or wolverines on all but 31 days (85% of the time). And, of the 188 days, almost half (91) were spent traversing national parks, ecological reserves, and designated roadless and wilderness areas. I've discovered for myself, in a way that few people ever will, that Y2Y is less about restoration than it is about making a plan to maintain what exists today.
"What was the most challenging part of the trip?" asked the mayor.
Memories of swimming frigid rivers in the rain, toiling down bush-choked valleys, lying sick in the tent , and fighting off swarms of mosquitoes played through my mind. But in the end, the evenings I'd spent standing up in front of groups of doubting hunters, ranchers, foresters, miners and Chamber of Commerce representatives had to rank as some of the toughest experiences of the trip.
Although difficult, many of these situations unfolded to be among the most rewarding experiences. To have hunters who'd arrived at the presentation doubtful of Y2Y nod their heads in agreement by the end of the evening was as exhilarating as getting ourselves and our gear safely across a whitewater river. Foresters who had pressed for more information at the end of the slide shows often departed with a shake of the hand and a note of encouragement for what we were trying to achieve. A snowmobiling club had become one of the largest fans of the project, and we regularly had trappers and outfitters ask us to visit them at their homes or join them the next time they went into the bush.
The drizzle let up, the hairdresser was finished and everyone but the local newspaper reporter had drifted away. "What have you learned?" she asked as an afterthought, her notepad and pen already tucked away in her knapsack.
"Patience", I replied without hesitating, thinking back to the time I'd been caught in a violent hailstorm in a canyon near the beginning of the trip, dressed only in shorts, frozen and huddled with Webster shaking between my legs. My hands had frozen shut, the hail pelted my bare skin, and the booming thunder and flashes of lightning roared amongst the limestone walls as though the entire canyon was collapsing around me.
"This is only temporary, this is only temporary" I had chanted to myself as I fought off hypothermia. It had become a mantra that was repeated during an avalanche on the ski section of the trip, while wading through swamps up to our chests this past summer, and while untangling thick bush with our hands so that we could simply take one step forward. Our experiences had proven that with patience and resolve, a bad situation always improved.
"And I guess I learned a lot about scale too", I said to the reporter. I could see her confusion as I uttered the sentence.
"Before I left on this trip, Yellowstone was a place where you drove two days from Banff and the Yukon was a place you flew to in an airplane from Calgary", I explained. "But having walked from Yellowstone to Banff in a few months, and then skied, canoed and walked from Banff to the Yukon in a few more, I better understand how my home valley, the Bow Valley in Banff, is part of a much larger system. I followed valleys rich with wildlife sign from Yellowstone to my home and then from my home north to the Yukon. The extraordinary wolf, lynx and eagle movements that initiated the Y2Y idea almost seven years ago seem much less extraordinary and more plausible to me now."
"Oh", said the reporter, "I hope we don't all have to walk it to make that realization" .
"I hope so too", I answered.
For more information about the Hike and a schedule
of presentations this fall, please visit the, Y2Y
website at www.rockies.ca/y2y