Yukon River Wild!

Yukon River as seen from viewpoint above Dawson City.

It has always been on our list to drive across this vast country to the northwestern reaches of Canada. It came to fruition in May 2022 as we set out for the Yukon Territory with the intent of exploring northern British Columbia also. And explore we did! We drove through breathtaking regions and experienced awe-inspiring moments. In total, we were away for fifteen weeks, two of which were spent paddling on the Yukon River.

After researching various flatwater canoe routes, it was decided to paddle a portion of one of the major watercourses of North America, the Yukon River. Termed the ‘great river’ in Gwich’in, it is 3,190 kilometres in length flowing from the source of northwestern British Columbia, through the Yukon Territory, into Alaska until finally emptying into the Bering Sea.

During trip preparation, we established contact with Mark of Up North Adventures, an outfitter in Whitehorse. Arrangements were made to store our canoe and gear in Whitehorse while we continued to drive northward to Dawson City. We would then fly back to Whitehorse and paddle back to Dawson City to retrieve our car two to three weeks later. We initially intended to start from the source of the Big Salmon River at Quiet Lake. Quiet Lake flows into the Big Salmon River and then continues north to merge with the Yukon River 255 kilometres later. However, our arrival in Whitehorse alerted us to be flexible and relaxed as situations arose that were not within our control. When we arrived, Mark informed us that our arranged shuttle to Quiet Lake (the start of our journey) would not be possible. After a record-breaking accumulation of snowfall in the mountains and a late spring melt, the bridge connecting the access road to Quiet Lake had washed away due to excessive flooding. We gathered around a large lamented map fastened on the wall in Mark’s office to study an alternate route. After much deliberation, we decided to start from Whitehorse and paddle the ionic Yukon River 715 kilometres to Dawson City. While waiting for the high waters to recede, we decided to delay our canoe trip for two weeks and explore Tombstone Territorial Park near Dawson City.

Arriving back in Whitehorse after several weeks, we were eager to start our paddling adventure! Although the water levels were still high and the current strong we felt confident in our ability to navigate the challenges of the river. The Yukon can be paddled by those with a basic skill level, however, with the water flow running swift, good paddling skills are necessary. (The challenge lies with maneuvering the canoe safely to the shoreline in a swift current and departing when leaving land.) With our trusted 16-½ foot carbon kevlar canoe and our gear stowed securely underneath the splash deck, we set out to explore this historic river.

After a late start, our first night’s camp was spent on an island just outside of Whitehorse. The following day we proceeded to Lake Lebarge, which is basically a fifty-kilometre widening of the Yukon River. Normally a windy lake we were greeted with warm temperatures, bright sunny skies, and glassy calm waters. Surrounded by the jutting points of mountain peaks, it has miles of beaches, and numerous bays and is one of the many splendors of the Yukon. On one of those bays is where we set up camp. We retired around nine that night and were alarmed when we woke several hours later by barking and howling. Out of the tent, we arose unnerved by the close proximity of what we presumed to be a large pack of timber wolves signaling their presence. Still very much daylight under the midnight sun, we built a large campfire, not so much for protection from the wolves as they usually avoid us humans, but simply for our own peace of mind. We surmised there was either an event that was happening within the pack itself or they did not like our presence. The wolves howled all through the night and into the next morning. We wearily paddled away from lack of a good night’s sleep.

East Shore of Lake Lebarge.

Exiting Lake Lebarge, the Yukon turned and twisted while the current increased significantly with the narrowing of the river. The river north of Lake Lebarge flows through a broad, generally flat-bottomed valley with scenic white cliffs. The river meanders across the valley floor with numerous sandbars and small islands dotting the channel. With the water levels still very much above normal, we were always on the lookout for high ground – clearings where we could camp or remove ourselves from the canoe to stretch. While moving with such a strong current, campsites are often hard to spot and difficult to access. Often we would zip right past a site with no chance to correct and paddle back against the current, so it was on to the next one, hoping for better success. When we did manage to find a spot it was always a challenge to reach. The river banks were steep and slippery, as the swift-moving water constantly eroded the earth. We had to scramble up these muddy steep embankments, using bushes or exposed tree roots as hand grips. Once on land, we had only a few minutes of peace before the wrath of millions of mosquitoes found us. We made quick work of setting up our large bug shelter to have some reprieve from the mosquitoes that were small, quick, and ferocious!

One of several large group campsites that were flooded by high water levels.
Yukon River north of Lake LeBarge.

The Yukon River is rich in history. Gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1886 setting off a stampede of tens of thousands into the gold-laden creeks near Dawson City. With the influx of people, trade and commerce increased and steamboats travelled the river bringing in supplies and people. We saw relics of lumber mills that were established along the river to provide fuel for the steamers. We saw the skeletal remains of a steamer and trapper’s cabins and read stories of the people that were caught up in the stampede of the gold rush. We followed our map and marvelled at the names of “Keno Bend”, “Shirt Waist Bend” or “Carpenter’s Sough”, all depicting some event in time or tragedy.

Paddling past where the Big Salmon River enters the Yukon River, we thought about what we would have missed had we taken that route. Our daydreaming quickly dissipated as we concentrated on approaching Five Finger Rapids. We had previously scouted out the rapids on our way to Dawson City. There is a hike from the highway that goes to a spectacular viewing platform giving us an idea of what we were up against. The rapids are named for the five channels or fingers that pass through four basalt columns. The right finger is where a paddler must aim the bow to ensure safe passage. We remained nervously silent as both of us listened to the thunderous volume of water passing amongst the series of steep islands carved out of rock. It would not bide well to capsize in the frigid cold waters of the Yukon River. With nervous anticipation, we chose our line of travel and headed toward the right channel. With the current picking up speed quickly, we dug in our paddles keeping a wary eye on the four-foot-high haystacks at the bottom. Staying slightly to the left of the haystacks, we breathed a sigh of relief once we were in the clear. We looked back in awe at the quick and exciting moment of tackling this rapid, one that we normally would never have the nerve to attempt.

Five Finger Rapids from a viewpoint above Yukon River – Carmacks.

While paddling down the watery trail of the Yukon River, we admired the endless wilderness surrounding us. The territory, a mostly semi-arid region of Canada, is sunny and dry. Black spruce, white spruce, and birch forests lined the tops of the banks with endless boreal forests beyond; home to hundreds of animal species and birds. When we were not on the water we hiked in the hills and took pleasure in the abundance of flowering plants. And, beneath the surface of the water, we acknowledged the waterway hosts some of the longest upstream migrating chinook salmon in the world. Salmon will migrate over 2,960 kilometres in freshwater from the Bering Sea to reach their spawning grounds as far as northern British Columbia.

When we approached Fort Selkirk for a planned stop, a forest fire was burning in the mountains of the Pelly River across from the fort. Here the Pelly River merges with the Yukon River and the area is rich in natural resources. The fort is a Heritage Site with preserved exhibits and buildings and is set in a pristine river valley surrounded by mountains. Fort Selkirk has been a trading post for the Hudson Bay Company, and before them, served the Northern Tutchone people as a traditional harvesting and gathering site for thousands of years. With the hazard of forest fires looming, we did not stay long at the fort for fear of getting trapped in what could become a serious threat. When we set off, the rest of the day was spent paddling furiously eager to pass the other four forest fires that were burning high in the hills. Little did we know at the time, we would be paddling in smoke for the remainder of our canoe trip.

Forest fire burning near Fort Selkirk.

The clarity of the Yukon River changed once we met the merger of the White River. The White River is glacier-fed and contains large amounts of suspended sediment from volcanic ash deposits. The ash deposit was formed by two large explosive eruptions that occurred around 850 AD. The Yukon river remained sediment laden from the confluence to its mouth. The sediment was evident in appearance and in sound, as we could hear the particles pinging off the bottom of our canoe. This change in the water condition led us to find small streams from which to source our drinking water.

The White River after merging with the Yukon.
Trees, shrubs and debris washed away from flooded shorelines and islands along the Yukon River.

After paddling for two weeks on the Yukon River we arrived in Dawson City, travelling that last day 140 kilometres to our destination. It only took a mere ten hours to complete – a record day with record swift water pushing us along. Reaching our destination, we felt a sense of accomplishment, grateful to have paddled such a beautiful heritage highway. ‘Larger than Life’ is the motto of the Yukon Territory and larger than life it is indeed!

We published a book called ‘Canoe for Change: A Journey Across Canada’. Read about our canoe trip across Canada that took us from Vancouver, British Columbia on the Pacific Ocean cross-country to Sydney, Nova Scotia on the Atlantic Ocean!

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