Cottonwood Pass © Parks Canada / S. Donker
A vital aspect of the mandate for Canada’s national parks is to maintain ecological integrity - meaning that the structure and function of the ecosystems are unimpaired by human activity and likely to persist. In Kluane, staff, partners and volunteers monitor the park’s ecosystems to watch for changes. In this way Parks Canada can continually assess the health of Kluane and if possible, take action to fix any issues.
River Beauty Epilobium latifolium © Parks Canada / D. Marois
The climatic overlap of the pacific and arctic air masses over Kluane National Park & Reserve has resulted in one of the greatest diversity of plants and wildlife in northern Canada. A montane forest of white spruce, trembling aspen and balsam poplar covers much of the lower valleys and slopes. Treeline is at 1050 to 1200 m (3,500 to 4,000'), depending upon local conditions. Low-growing or stunted shrubs in the transition zone include: willow, dwarf birch, and alder, which provide protection for the smaller plants. Summers in alpine tundra (generally above 1400 m or 4600') are a flourish of colour, with over 200 varieties of alpine flora.
Kluane National Park & Reserve provides prime habitat for many species of wildlife, particularly Dall sheep, Kluane National Park & Reserve's most abundant large mammal. Visitors often see them foraging on the wind swept slopes of Tachal Dhal in the spring, fall and winter. Mountain goats scramble along rocky cliffs and ledges in the south, and a small herd of caribou occasionally wander through the Duke River area. North America's largest subspecies of moose also range through Kluane National Park & Reserve.
Grizzly bear Ursus arctos © Parks Canada /J. Butterall
Populations of grizzly bears move between alpine meadow and valleys with the passing of the seasons. Black bears, which prefer forested areas, are also common in Kluane National Park & Reserve. Visitors to Kluane National Park & Reserve should remember that bears make their home in the park. We are the visitors. They are the inhabitants.
As well as a transient population of wolves there is also a variety of smaller mammals including: wolverine, muskrat, mink, marmot, red fox, lynx, otter, coyote, beaver, snowshoe hare and arctic ground squirrel.
American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica © Parks Canada
The south-western Yukon has a great diversity of birds. At least 150 species have been observed in Kluane National Park & Reserve, of which 118 nest in the park. On a spring day, sightings could include varied thrushes, yellow-rumped warblers and mountain bluebirds. Kluane National Park & Reserve also provides sanctuary for a variety of birds of prey from the swift flying falcon to the broad soaring wings of bald and golden eagles.
Kokanee salmon Oncorhynchus nerka © Parks Canada
St. Elias Mountains
Kluane National Park & Reserve is dominated by mountains and ice, which make up 82% of the surface area. The St. Elias Mountains, Canada's highest and most massive mountains, have two ranges separated by a narrow trough, the Duke Depression. The Kluane Ranges, a chain of mountains averaging 2500m (8,000') in height, are visible to travellers on the Haines Road or the Alaska Highway. Beyond these guardians of the interior, to the west lie the rugged Icefield Ranges, whose peaks soar into the 5000m (16,000') range. The giants are: Mount Logan (5,959m, 19,545') the highest mountain in Canada and the second highest peak on the continent; Mount St. Elias (5,488m, 18,005'); Mount Lucania (5,231m, 17,162') and many others. Although many of the highest mountains are not visible from any point along the highway, some of the higher peaks can be spotted in the distance from viewpoints near Kathleen Lake or the Donjek River.
Mount Logan (5959 metres) © Parks Canada / S. Donker
Amid these ranges is a legacy of the last Ice Age - one of the world's largest non-polar icefields. Massive quantities of snow continue to accumulate as moist Pacific air moves over the St. Elias Mountains. Valley glaciers such as Naludi (Lowell Glacier), 65 km. long, radiate from the icefields. Glacial movements are often immense and spectacular. In the past, surges of Naludi (Lowell Glacier) have blocked the Alsek River near Goatherd Mountain with a dam of ice. The resulting glacial lakes extended well back to and over the present site of Haines Junction.
Lowell Glacier and Lowell Lake © Parks Canada / J. Butterall
The most recent Lake Alsek is said to have drained around 1850 in two days after the ice dam broke, with a flow rate comparable to that of the Amazon River. Huge gravel current ripples from this outflow, as well as wave-cut lake benches, are visible along the Alsek trail, 10 km north of Haines Junction along the Alaska Highway. The flooding associated with the advances and retreat of Naludi (Lowell Glacier) is the subject of many Southern Tutchone native people's legends and stories.
Looking up the Alsek River. © Parks Canada
Rising in the mountains of Kluane National Park Reserve, its braided upper reaches nestle in a broad valley, providing an oasis for mountain goats, Dall's sheep and other wildlife. Sand dunes and glacial till provide a contrasting environment for the diverse vegetation found here. Downstream, rivers of ice flow into the Alsek's silt-laden waters, calving huge icebergs into the river before it leaves the Park on its journey to the Pacific Ocean on the Alaskan Panhandle.