The single engine of our super skywagon hummed evenly–its rhythm much smoother than my heart’s thumping as we flew between mountains, their peaks somewhere above the plane’s wings.
Marie, our pilot, pointed out the right. “Avalanche!”
A small wall of pristine white snow broke away from the steep side of the mountain, cascading down and spreading out like the train of a bride’s dress over the banks lower down.
Our pilot turned her head towards me and smiled, telling us it was the first time this summer that weather conditions had been so perfect for flying like this!
Indeed, my Kluane Glacier Tour flight over Kluane National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yukon, was about as perfect as it gets.
- Kluane is pronounced Kloo-wah-nee and is a Lu’An Mun Southern Tutchone word for “lake with many fish.”
- Kluane Lake is the largest lake in the Yukon, covering about 399 square km.
- Kluane was established as a game reserve in 1942 and a national park and reserve in 1972.
- Kluane was designated part of a regional UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 along with Wrangell-St Elias, Glacier Bay, and Tatshenshini-Alsek (these adjoining sites are located in Alaska and British Columbia).
- This heritage site contains the largest non-polar icefield in the world and examples of some of the world’s longest and most spectacular glaciers.
- The central plateau contains over 200 glaciers.
- Elevations range from 500 m below sea level to 5000 m above.
- Some of the highest mountain peaks in North America are in this area, including Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan.
- Populations of bears, wolves, caribou, Dall sheep and mountain goats that are endangered elsewhere are self regulating here.
While I had an amazing itinerary for my Yukon trip, I had anticipated the Kluane Glacier tour most of all. At first, it seemed doomed. The August weather was cool, damp and cloudy, with banks of clouds and mist.
When we checked in with Sifton Air the afternoon the tour was scheduled, we weren’t able to go up because of the weather. The forecast, staff at Kluane Glacier Tour told us, didn’t even look promising for the next day.
So, off we went to explore Haines Junction and wait and hope.
The next morning still looked about 50-50, but Marie said she’d take us up to have a look. She warned us that we might have to turn around without seeing much, but the other passengers and I were anxious to give it at least a try.
Marie, I soon discovered, was from France. She’d been flying all summer with Sifton Air and said there had been a lot of low cloud and mist, particularly during the week and a half I’d already been in the Yukon.
Luckily for me, the further over Kluane we flew, the bigger and bluer and brighter the sky became. Sunshine covered the mountain peaks. Snow sparkled everywhere. It was spectacular!
I’ve put together a slideshare of photos taken during my flight (the Kluane Lake photo, however, was taken on the ground)–just click below to come along.
I think the most spectacular thing I found in the glaciers was the way the ice was grooved–it looked to me more like a thousand snowmobiles had been racing over the ice with carbides on their skis than something that could just happen naturally. The same grooves were really visible in the ice fields, only even more amplified with deeper gouges cut in the ice from the movement of ice against ice.
I’ve found all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I’ve visited to be impressive, but Kluane stands out even among them for me, which is why my flight over the park ranks as one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited.
Fly Over Kluane
Visit Kluane UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Kluane Glacier Air Tours – http://www.kluaneglacierairtours.com/glaciertours/
- Kluane National Park and Reserve of Canada information – http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/yt/kluane/index.aspx
- Kluane UNESCO World Heritage Site information – http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/72/
This page was last updated June 19, 2018.
More Things to See in the Yukon and Alaska
About the Photo
The photo in the header of this article was taken flying over Kluane National Park in the Yukon, Canada.
Three horses rounded the bend, their feet pounding the dirt in a frantic effort to get ahead. Their jockeys were so close to one another, it seemed their stirrups must surely be touching.
Around me, it was so still and quiet I could almost hear the heavy breathing of the thoroughbreds, their mighty lungs sucking in air as they fought to be victorious.
While I was only watching race horses practice at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on the Finish Line Tour, my heart was racing too. For I wasn’t watching just any thoroughbreds, I was watching three that would run in the Kentucky Derby–the oldest continuously run sporting event in the United States.
About the Kentucky Derby
- The Kentucky Derby first ran in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 17, 1875, and was won by a horse called Aristides, ridden by African American jockey, Oliver Lewis.
- The Kentucky Derby was started by William Clark’s (of the explorer team of Lewis & Clark) grandson, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.
- The Louisville track was named Churchill Downs for John and Henry Churchill, who provided the land.
- Horses running in the Kentucky Derby are three-year-olds.
- While the Kentucky Derby is the longest continuously running event in the United States, both of the other Triple Crown Races started earlier, but missed years: Belmont Stakes started in 1867, and the Preakness Stakes in 1873.
- The three horse races, the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preakness Stakes, were first referred to as the Triple Crown as early as 1923, but the term is commonly credited to sports writer, Charles Hatton, from the Daily Racing Form in 1930. The Triple Crown Trophy wasn’t commissioned until 1950.
- The Kentucky Derby has been the first event in the Triple Crown since 1931.
- Sir Barton was the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 1919.
While I grew up on a farm that eventually became a horse ranch, the Qu’Appelle Appaloosa Ranch or QAR, my interest in horse racing preceded its beginnings. I have one all-time favorite racehorse, the first Canadian horse to ever win the Kentucky Derby, Northern Dancer.
This young stallion won seven of nine starts when he was a two-year-old, so when his new Texan jockey, Bill Shoemaker, got him as a three-year-old, he was already an established winner. Shoemaker, however, decided to ride Hill Rise in the Kentucky Derby, leaving Bill Hartack to become Northern Dancer’s permanent jockey.
I remember the 1964 Run for the Roses (another popular name for the Kentucky Derby) well. It was May 2, 1964–I was as excited as all the other Derby fans as I watched the black and white television count down to race time. Even though he was a small horse, Northern Dancer was still a favorite, running second in the betting only to Hill Rise, the horse Shoemaker had chosen to ride.
Both Hartack and Shoemaker held their horses back at the start of the race, so Mr. Brick set the early pace. But the pace was still fast, with Northern Dancer soon taking the lead and Hill Rise hot on his heels. Like millions of others, I didn’t breathe as the horses galloped closer and closer to the finish line. Northern Dancer was out front, but Hill Rise had longer legs and a pro for a jockey–he was gaining.
Watch the race yourself on this vintage Kentucky Derby recap from 1964:
Kentucky Derby Records
But Northern Dancer had what it took to become a champion–when the race ended this Canadian horse had set a new track record, finishing the Kentucky Derby in two minutes flat. His record stood until 1973, when it was broken by Secretariat at 1:59.40.
Northern Dancer also took the Preakness Stakes, but finished up third in the Belmont, missing the 1964 Triple Crown by a race. However, Northern Dancer had made his mark on the world, and was named the1964 Canadian Athlete of the Year–the first time ever for an animal–over such competition as hockey star, Gordie Howe, and the heavy-weight boxer, George Chuvalo, who was never knocked off his feet.
Not all dreams come true at the Kentucky Derby, however, and this statue of Barbaro is one. Barbara won the Kentucky Derby by six-and-a-half lengths in 2006, but had a catastrophic accident in the Preakness.
He was deemed all right after a false start, but broke his leg in 20 places just out of the Preakness gate by the grandstand. His jockey, Edgar Prado, pulled him gently to a stop and leaned into the horse’s shoulder to help him balance until he could get help.
Veterinarians gave Barbaro surgery, including new technology originally designed for humans. While it seemed to work, Barbaro developed complications that continued to get more severe over the summer and fall. He was euthanized by his owners on January 29, 2007, when they felt the pain was no longer manageable. He was cremated and his remains interred under the statue at the entrance to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum.
The Kentucky Derby Tour and Museum
Tour guide, Miss Angie, took my group on the Barn and Backside Van Touron my visit, which was about two weeks prior to the running of the 2011 Kentucky Derby. The tour took us around the barns area, eventually letting us off to watch the horses practice from a vantage point right beside the track, rather than the stands.
While I was lucky to see horses that were entered in the Derby, there are horses stabled at Churchill Downs through the whole season, so no matter when you visit there will be some racehorses around. Grooms will be bathing them, cold walking them before practice and cooling them out after running. You can be sure you’ll get an insider’s view of what happens in the stables before horses get to the finish line.
I also took the Walking Tour through the Jockeys’ Quarters, Millionaires’ Row, the Press Box and other areas of Churchill Downs’ newly renovated clubhouse, which was available through the museum. Whether you’re as fascinated with the Kentucky Derby as I am or not, you’ll find the Kentucky Derby Museum is full of interesting facts and memorable moments.
It was these memorable moments that put my Kentucky Derby finish line and trackside tour in #16 spot on my Staycation review of great places I’ve visited in years gone by. Some of these moments are, of course, my own memories, however, horse racing has been popular for about as far back as sporting events have been taking place, from the ancient chariot races to the “Sport of Kings,” in European history. Our ancestors won wars with their horses and settled nations with them. Today, we celebrate horses with sporting traditions like the Kentucky Derby.
Visit the Kentucky Derby
- Kentucky Derby Museum and Tours – http://www.derbymuseum.org/tours.html
- Popular horse racing terms – so you can “speak the language” – http://www.runhorse.com/popular_horse_racing_terms.htm
- A summary of the traditions at the Kentucky Derby – http://espn.go.com/horse/TripleCrown02/s/Kentuckytraditions.html