Note: It’s been a busy fall but I’ve finally had some time to work on blog posts from our trip in the Yukon and Alaska in August and September. Here is the first instalment.
The morning shift wakes us again. It’s way too early to get up. The little bastards seem to begin their frenzy at first light, chattering with each other. The volume rises as they try to out-do one and other in what is perhaps a way to establish or mark territorial boundaries. Who knows. I don’t care. I just want them to shut up. The chatter rises to a crescendo and stops, only to be followed a few moments later by the dull thuds of cones hitting the ground around our tent. We’ve learned not to camp right under the trees as the cones bouncing off the tent is beyond annoying.
The afternoon shift will take over in a few hours. They will pick up the cones dropped in the early morning. Some get cached in holes or hollows, a food source for the little bastards during the long winter months that are ahead. Other cones get consumed in a kind of rapid dismantling, leaving only little piles of scales. We resolve to find camp sites without trees. A nearly impossible task in this land of trees. We hate the little bastards for waking us up so early. I get out of the tent and begin to make coffee.
We’ve been on the Yukon River nearly a week. Waiting for the espresso maker to produce its black gold, I look out over the river and drink in the solitude. What amazes me most about the Yukon River is that it just rolls along. Not slowly but at a fairly high clip of seven or eight kilometres per hour, much faster where the channel narrows. I marvel at this living, breathing liquid ribbon that never stops. The water just keeps flowing, regardless of the season.
The Yukon begins in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains where the Llewellyn Glacier melts into Atlin Lake, and carves its way for 3,200 km through BC, the Yukon and Alaska to finally empty into the Bering Sea. It’s the longest river in the Yukon and Alaska.
I revive last night’s fire as the espresso maker’s hissing signals my drug is ready, and Jan emerges from the tent to join me for coffee. We arrived in the pouring rain yesterday and we left the tarp up overnight, but this morning the threat of rain seems to be gone. We’re camped in Erickson’s Woodyard, one of many such wood lots all along the river. They were essential in providing the sternwheelers with fuel in 4-foot lengths of cord wood as they ferried supplies and people up and down the river between Whitehorse and Dawson City, the site of one of the biggest gold rushes in North America a little over a century ago. A couple of collapsed cabins on the high bank still remain but not much else. The forest has grown back and absorbed most evidence of the people who once worked and lived here.
The last steamer, the SS Keno, ran the river one final time before I was born, more than five decades ago, and now sits on shore in Dawson, a museum and reminder of the gold rush days that opened up this part of Canada to the rest of the world. Today, there is a different kind of gold rush up here in the form of tourists from all over the world in search of wilderness and solitude, commodities far more valuable than gold, I think.
We had begun our journey in Whitehorse a few days earlier. The upper river, flowing through the territory’s capital, is narrow and fast until it widens into Lake Laberge, a 50-kilometre-long tempest driven into whitecaps by a relentless southwest wind. After stopping for lunch at Upper Laberge, an abandoned village along the east shore, we paddle a few more kilometres but the wind and waves make progress difficult so we look for a place to camp. We finally settle on a narrow beach with enough space between the forest and the water to make a camp.
The next morning, the wind has not abated but we pack up and optimistically head down the lake. We don’t get very far. The wind is across our beam and the waves keep building. After 90 minutes, we’ve only paddled about six kilometres. We land at a well-used camp site in a small bay protected from the wind. We hang out and relax for a few hours before moving on, thinking, hoping, wishing the wind has let up.
As we paddle out of the bay, it quickly becomes apparent it hasn’t. We fight the waves for another hour and call it quits as soon as we find a bit of protection from the wind in a large bay that sweeps around to a headland where waves crash into the rocks. There is just enough space for our tent on the narrow, gravel beach just out of reach of the waves. It’s a gorgeous, sunny afternoon and we are marooned by good weather. I explore our surroundings with my camera.
Amazingly, we have a strong mobile signal in the middle of nowhere and I post one of my a photos on Instagram. Besides passing float planes flying low over the lake, it’s the only other sign of civilization. We are many miles from anywhere. The Klondike Highway runs through the hills on the other side of the lake but we can’t see it 15 km to the west, as the crow flies.
We go to bed early intending to get up at first light, hoping for calmer conditions so we can get off the lake. The morning is pink and gorgeous but the wind seems even worse than the day before. We go back to sleep. A couple of hours later, though, we head out. We have to paddle hard to avoid breaking waves while not venturing too far from shore, yet, far enough to keep away from waves rebounding off the rocks. Eventually, after what feels like an eternity, we get into calmer water, even though the wind has not abated. The weather closes in and it spits rain now and then. But we don’t mind because the waves have diminished and the end of the lake is in sight.
By noon, we have the lake behind us and land at Lower Laberge for lunch. There is another couple here. They are from the Czech Republic on a holiday in the Yukon and Alaska. They’ve been shuttled to the end of the lake by motor boat, saving two or three days of paddling. They don’t have the luxury of time like we do. The rain stops as we explore the remnants of what was once a North West Mounted Police outpost, a telegraph office and a couple of roadhouses where stampeders could spend a night. The remains of the steamer Casca #1 stick up out of the mud along shore. It’s one of many wrecked steamers along the river. The machinery was pulled out of the wreck and put into a new boat. Much of the wood was probably used to build or repair other structures over the years. All that remains now is its keel poking up from the mud, like the backbone of some giant creature.
The sun warms us as we push off down the river. Things are looking up. This fast-flowing and relatively undeveloped section of the Yukon is called the 30 Mile River, named for the distance between Lake Laberge and Hootalinqua at the confluence of the Teslin and Yukon rivers. It is a Canadian Heritage River and thus accorded some protection from development and resource extraction through a management plan drawn up the the Yukon Government and local First Nations. Camp sites have been developed along the 30 Mile to lessen the impact of river travellers.
Many people consider the 30 Mile one of the most beautiful sections of the Yukon River. It is indeed lovely. The river, still relatively small, meanders through the lush boreal landscape in a deep valley. Gliding along with the quick current, we see a moose cow and calf grazing on aquatic plants in the shallows along shore. We’ve lost count of how many bald eagles we have seen. It’s quiet and we are but two little specks floating along in an unimaginably large landscape.
After a couple of hours, we make camp on a small peninsula at one of the developed sites, complete with tables and outhouse – a bit of luxury. We have a great view upstream and we sit in the sun sipping beer as the river continues its relentless pursuit to tidewater. I watch a small stick floating in the eddy created by our peninsula. It reminds me of Paddle in Holling C. Holling’s Paddle to the Sea, made into an Oscar-nominated National Film Board film by Bill Mason. I silently root for the stick as it almost enters the main current but, lacking mass, is pushed back into the eddy many times, each time moving further upstream in the reverse current that finally brings it to the end of the eddy where it is pulled into the main current and moves downstream, quickly disappearing from sight. I wish Paddle a good journey to the sea, hoping the same for ourselves.
Hootalinqua marks the end of 30 Mile and it is where the Teslin River joins the Yukon. During the gold rush years, it became a supply point for mining camps but it was already a well-established trading place for local aboriginal people. Some buildings still remain and an attempt at preserving them has been made. Many paddlers choose to come down the Teslin to the Yukon to avoid crossing Lake Laberge but in doing so they miss the beautiful 30 Mile River.
We have lunch before climbing a rough, steep trail to the ridge above Hootalinqua to get a view of the two river valleys meeting. It’s a hot, sweaty hike on what is only a goat trail on a very steep slope. Half an hour later, we stand in a clearing looking south over the valley. It gives some much-needed perspective of the landscape. The emerald green water of the river, the lush green grasses and the darker green treed slopes are a beautiful sight. Sitting in the canoe in the bottom of the valley, it’s difficult to grasp the imposing grandeur of this land. Distant views only present themselves occasionally when perpendicular valleys join the one we’re travelling in or when the river widens.
Many features along the Yukon were named during the gold rush. There are the woodyards named for their owners and operators. There are names for the places where steamers wrecked or sank, and large bends in the river have names like Klondike Bend, Vanmeter Bend and Big Eddy Bend. In the one called Glacier Gulch Bend we pull in to the shore of an island in a wide section of the river. There are great views of the surrounding landscape and it looks like a sunny prospect until well into the evening. There is a perfectly flat site among the rocks where we make camp. We get out our chairs and sit in the warm sun sipping beer and eating chips. The beauty of canoe trips is we can take some luxury items like beer and canned foods that would otherwise be too heavy to carry when cycling or backpacking.
I’m drawn to cycling and canoeing for the same reasons. Both provide us with independence because they are self-sufficient modes of travel. We carry everything we need and are not tied to any schedule. The canoe is better in some respects as it can be loaded up with supplies for two months for two people. On the bicycle, we can only carry enough for a few days, a week if we pack carefully. Here in the north, where there are few roads, the canoe is a great way to get around because there are plenty of waterways.
The morning dawns with the threat of rain but it holds off until after breakfast. However, by the time we arrive at the Big Salmon River confluence it’s raining and we stop to explore the site in the hope of finding some shelter. The cabins, like most along the river, are in poor condition. Aboriginal people still come here to fish and hunt but no one has lived here for many decades. Among the ruins, there is a newer cabin made of OSB with a metal roof. It’s a perfect shelter from the rain. A few other paddlers come and go but we decide to stay put until the rain lets up a bit.
By late afternoon, the rain stops but it’s only a short respite and not long after we leave Big Salmon, the rain returns. We paddle for two hours in steady rain until we spot Erickson’s woodyard and quickly turn the canoe toward shore. We haul our gear up onto the steep bank high above the river, string up the tarp between some trees and erect the tent. We scrounge around for some kindling to make a fire but everything is wet. Eventually we have enough to start a fire and soon the flames are big enough to take the wet wood that is readily available. The flames warm us as we make dinner and the tarp keeps the rain at bay. By 9 p.m. as the sun begins to set, the rain finally stops and we’re treated to a bit of light breaking through the dark clouds.
It rains through the night but in the morning it’s dry. We have a lazy breakfast, hoping the tent will dry out a bit. Eventually, we break camp and continue downriver. We have a nice rhythm now. The river keeps pushing us along at a steady pace. We average about 10 km per hour without having to put in a lot of effort. It’s a relaxed pace and we don’t feel any desire to rush along. We try to take in as much as we can. The solitude is amazing and the silence almost oppressive. We are not used to quiet. Our lives are filled with sounds and noise. But here, when we stop paddling and just float along, there is almost no sound and there are no internet distractions. I love it.
We stop at Little Salmon. In 1918, influenza wiped out this old aboriginal village and it has not had a year-round population since. A rough road connects Little Salmon to the Campbell Highway and people have come back to the village in recent years, building new cabins and improving access. We go for a short walk. Some people are working on one of the cabins. We keep walking and end up at the cemetery with its many spirit houses. Wandering back, we notice the lack of camping facilities and the vibe is not that welcoming, so we move on. We can occasionally hear a passing vehicle on the highway that now occasionally runs close to the river.
About 25 km downstream from Little Salmon, the river braids into multiple channels around many islands and sand bars, flowing through several horseshoe bends. It’s a convoluted mess of shallows and sand bars as the river constantly changes the landscape, looking for an easier path. We navigate our way through the maze in search of a home for the night. On the inside of one of the horseshoe bends we find a nice spot with a good view across the river and the valley beyond. It’s a well-established camp site with a fire pit and logs for benches. It is a lovely evening in a lovely spot.
On the 20th of August, a week after leaving Whitehorse, we paddle into Carmacks, roughly the half-way point between Whitehorse and Dawson City. We camp at the Coalmine Campground on the edge of town. The hot shower is amazing and our clothes smell fresh again after we do laundry. We hitch a ride into town to shop for provisions for the second leg of our journey to Dawson. We stock up on food, snacks, wine and beer and hire the town’s only taxi to take us back to the campground with our new supply of goodies.
The Coalmine campground has a restaurant known for its burgers. It’s a feeding spot for travellers on the Alaska Highway and they do a booming business. It probably brings in more money than the campground does. As is the case with many of these businesses in the north, it’s for sale. I find out from the owner he and his family have been running it for nine years. I bet it’s a grind to make a living. Business is seasonal, although the restaurant is probably open year-round.
Many paddlers end their trip here and a few more canoes trickle in during the afternoon. We’ve seen most of them along the way here but not everybody. It’s a big river and easy not to meet people. We discover we are the only ones going downriver to Dawson. Our larder is stocked, batteries charged and there is nothing left to do but eat. We have dinner at the restaurant. The burger lives up to its reputation. It’s fantastic. We go to bed feeling full and full of anticipation for the next leg of the journey.