Klondike Gold

I stood in front of a big, warm fire, Northern Lights twisting through the star-filled sky. Wolves howledsomewhere not far off.

The unfamiliar aroma of searing moose meat filled my sinuses as our steaks sizzled over the open flame. The fire spat into the cold air, orange trails fadinginto the night.

Leo Steiner handed me a slab of meat. No plate, no cutlery, just a hunk of moose. I juggled it for a while, hesitating, then took a bite. I fully expected moose to be tough and gamey, but was pleasantly surprised. Leo, the main man at Klondike Heli, looked around and asked in his Austrian accent,

“Vhat du you think?

“A special place, no?”

My mouth was too full to answer, but as I followed the sweeping motion of his hand across the expanse of brilliant stars, I had to agree.

“The North” is indeed a mystical place.

Klondike Heli is based in the tiny town of Atlin, way up in the northwest corner of British Columbia. But don’t let Klondike’s low-key reputation or out-of-the-way location fool you-this heli op is all about quality with an emphasis on adventure. Klondike flies intimate groups of clients into nooks and crannies of the Chilkoot Range very few people get to see, let alone ride.

Atlin is at the end of a dirt road on the east shore of Atlin Lake, spittin’ distance from both Alaska and the Yukon. Roughly 300 people, 50 dogs, twenty beavers, twelve moose, ten mountain goats, five wolves, and three bears call Atlin home.

Most of the human population survives in one way or another from gold mining. In that respect, things haven’t changed much in the 100 years since gold was first discovered in the area in 1898. The town swelled to approximately 10,000 people at the height of the gold rush, and Atlin has managed to preserve some of the original buildings, as well as the frontier spirit.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Atlin, exploring the Chilkoots by chopper with Karleen Jeffery and Matt Goodwill, a pair of experienced big-mountain riders.

I almost mistook Karleen and Matt for sister and brother when I met them in Vancouver. Matt has a wild blond mane, a red-stubbled face, and a relaxed but strong Nordic stature, while Karleen, with her red hair and mellow demeanor, possesses a casual natural beauty. A Hollywood casting agent might peg them for the roles of King Arthur and Guenevere. The truth is they’d been crowned the reigning King and Queen of the Hill from the last annual extreme contest held in Valdez, Alaska.

The terrain possibilities Klondike Heli offers are almost endless. Even if it hasn’t snowed in weeks, the guides and pilots have no problem finding vast expanses of untracked powder. Not a hard task, considering Klondike has about 30,000 square kilometers of glorious Chilkoot gold country at its disposal. We carved up as much of it as we possibly could.

One day in particular we were up on top of Mount Atlin a half hour before sunrise. The atmosphere slowly filled with a soft glow that shifted from pink to orange as the first rays of direct sunlight hit the summit. Karleen dropped along a ridge that dumped into a wide bowl. Her riding is so fluid that I didn’t register just how hard she was charging until she’d disappeared down 3,000 vertical feet in a matter of seconds.

I joined Karleen at the bottom, and we watched Matt’s long, orange rooster tails dissipate into the young morning light. All in all, not a bad way to start the day.

From there, we headed west to check out a new area. We scoped some amazing lines, but landings were scarce. Continuing west, we came upon a series of steep chutes, so the pilot circled back for a closer look.

The chutes dropped about 4,000 vertical feet, loaded with the kind of terrain that would make any self-respecting snowboarder drool. Karleen and Matt proved no exception. The pilot managed a “toe-in” landing, and the riders climbed out while the heli basically hovered on one skid.

Then I watched from a peak across the valley as Matt and Karrleen had a blast freeriding on terrain so serious, most of us would never be cleared to ride it.

Later on we flew back to some crazy chutes Matt had spotted earlier. They were awash in late afternoon light, just begging to be ridden.

Karleen ripped down a long, technical chute as if it were a stroll in the park. Riding the Chilkoots definitely put her in her element. Matt’s line was tight at the top, and a big slough built up as he worked his way through the hourglass. He instinctively pointed it as soon as possible to avoid the building mass, then aired into a parallel chute. All this without touching past the top of the line, and as with most everything up here, the runs were first descents.

Back in town a little later, we headed down to the Atlin Inn to order a pizza and play some pool. Matt and I took turns getting humiliated on the pool table-Karleen is a shark-then a few brave Atliners couldn’t resist challenging Karleen for the table. They fared no better.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from the folks in Atlin before our trip: I envisioned hard, rugged people with suspicious natures. What I found, however, was the complete opposite-after a few racks, we had party invites and dinner plans with the friendly Atliners we met. So much for those suspicious natures.

The bar closed, and we headed out into the quiet night.

“Looks like it’ll be bluebird again tomorrow,” I said, thinking about the world of possibilities before us.

“Where do you guys want to fly into?”

“I don’t know,” replied Matt.

“Let’s see what’s further south.”

My thoughts drifted to the hearty miners who struck gold in these mountains a hundred years before. I marveled at our own good fortune as we slowly made our way through the stars back to the suite.

Atlin Bound?

For more information on Klondike Heli, dial 1-800-821-4429 and speak to Uschi Scherer, FAX: (604) 905-7637, or e-mail uschi@direct.ca. For European bookings, dial

43-61-32-27588 and speak to Andrea Loidi, or e-mail a.hacker@tirol.com. Remember, Klondike Heli flies out of Canada, and the exchange rate makes it more reasonable than you might think, especially for Americans. Call for up-to-date package prices.

We thoroughly enjoyed our suite at the Brewery Bay Chalets during our visit to Atlin. Call them at (250) 651-0040, or FAX: (250) 651-0041. Ask about the no-frills snowboarder discount.

There are two places to eat in Atlin-the Pine Tree Restaurant and the Atlin Inn. The Pine Tree definitely served up the best food in town, but we sort of adopted the Atlin Inn as our second home during our stay.