Canoeing the Yukon River

Adventure Stats: 

Weather Conditions: Few squalls but other wise good

Miles: 700 miles

Duration: 13 days

High Points: Dawson City,

Low Points: Some bad weather

Team: Richard Harpham, Matthew Harpham, Gordon Ross, Aisling Ni Chuinn 

A MillionThanks: Bending Branches, Paddles, Paramo Clothing, Bamboo Clothing, Leatherman, Garmin, Mountain Fuels, Be Well Expedition Foods, Canadian Affair

Canoeing the Yukon River

The Yukon River is one of the most iconic rivers in Canada and North America and is known for its access to one of the world’s last unspoilt wilderness areas. It has been etched in history with the titanic struggles of the ‘Stampeder’s’ (prospectors) who rushed over the Chilkoot Pass and paddled down the river to stake their claims during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896-1898.  It is a fast flowing river with features including the infamous Five Finger Rapids and Rink Rapids. Although it runs for 1980 miles, the majority of people head down stream from Whitehorse 460 miles downstream to Dawson City. 

There are plenty of local outfitters and guides who can help you plan and achieve your journey but we have been lucky enough to work with the team at Up North Adventures.  UK residents wanting to learn the ropes can get some hints, skills and tuition through Richard and the team at www.canoetrail.co.uk

Turn Left and Just Keep Paddling

Leaving Whitehorse was exciting with our small team including my brother Mathew, Gordon Ross (our photographer for the Ghana Ski Team at the Vancouver Winter Olympics 2010) and friend Aisling Ni Chuinn ready to explore this mighty river. Compared to so many of my previous sea kayaking adventures this was simple, no tides and a moving conveyor belt of water to carry us downstream.  Our first day paddling set the tone with beavers, a massive squall with heavy wind and rain, and then sunshine to warm us at our campsite at Policeman’s Point before tackling Lake Labarge. We took the opportunity to enjoy a well earned glass of whisky as part of an incentive scheme.

Lake Larbarge looms next and is a 33 mile long shallow lake which can whip up large waves in stormy conditions. We felt privileged and delighted to spot our first grizzly of the trip running along the shore and enjoyed the good weather conditions.  The 9 hours days of paddling had become a comfortable routine. Lake Labarge can be tricky with relative shallow waters so you are advised to stay close to shore when stormy and seek shelter.

Experiencing those ‘Indiana Jones’ Moments

One of the incredible elements of paddling the Yukon River is to experience the living and timesless history with old cabins, stern wheelers, old cars and other relics from another time just abandoned in the bush.  Hootalinqua, the old shipyard located on an island provides the opportunity to clamber around the majestic SS Evelyn Norcom, a sternwheeler, that has rested there since 1913.  The only remaining marker visible from the canoe is one of her smoke stacks.  Be aware Hootlinqua is at the confluence of two rivers (the flow is very fast here at almost 9 miles per hour). If you don’t ferry glide early enough you will miss it. 

One of the reasons I do adventures is that there is a real connection with the great outdoors which is truly spiritual. On this adventure we got to canoe for about 30 seconds alongside a young male wolf patrolling along the shoreline of a narrow channel(note we were the ones canoeing) and also spent 10 minutes next to a black bear swimming in the flow. Those moments truly touched us and were a stark contrast from the pace of modern life.  I spent all the time trying to paddle closer to the bear whilst my crew mate was back paddling trying to stay away.

Pelly Crossing is one of the highlights of our trip with the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers at a First Nation Settlement called Fort Selkirk.  It is rich in heritage with the buildings preserved by the hard work of a few locals and interpreters based there to tell you about the history.  Wandering around Dury Stores and the old church was really poignant and moving with much of the history of the pioneering people preserved. We found similar feelings and experiences on many occasions climbing over old Ford cars and heavy prospecting equipment and sternwheelers that had just been abandoned.  Fort Selkirk was home to the Van Bibber Family who contributed so much to the Yukon Archives.  Alex Van Bibber led a 500mile expedition through the Mackensie Mountain Range, which our team plans to repeat in 2015. (Ski to the Edge).

Reaching Dawson City

Paddling and exploring the Five Finger Rapids was one of the highlights of our trip.  The river’s flow is fragmented and diverted by large rocky outcrops that provide fair size wave trains, boils and eddies. River right is the safe passage although as experienced paddlers we confess to spending some time playing and breaking in and out. 

Further downstream, Dawson City is one of those places everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime with wooden sidewalks and mud for roads and also the worst karaoke in the world! We watched in awe as cowboy types sang tunes really badly until a rival took exception and a fight ensued. After a few ‘handbag moments’ one of them would be evicted via the swinging saloon doors.  It also holds so much history of our forefathers with the gold rush, Jack London’s cabin and where poet Robert Service wrote much of his work.

It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,

   It’s the forests where silence has lease;

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

   It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

Taken from the Spell of the Yukon, Robert Service

During the gold rush Dawson was home to over 30,000 people seeking their fortune. There are plenty of places to visit with museums, good food, the old gold dredges and ‘Diamond Tooth Gerties’ music hall and gambling den run by the locals as a community enterprise. We joined in with a story telling night at the local community hall based around first nation traditions.

“Falling Off the Face of the Earth”

Leaving Dawson is said to be like falling off the face of the earth. The speed of the river picks to almost 7 mph and there are less people.  Our next target was Eagle, the border crossing into the USA and a place to restock supplies and get a shower. Beyond Eagle we entered the Charlie Yukon National Reserve and  parked ourselves on the Rock of Ages, a 4000 year old stalagmite in the middle of the river.  We also passed Calico Bluff, a huge limestone and coloured shale escarpment which is stunning and makes this part of the journey worth while. There are also rare and unique birds of prey only found in this part of the world. By now as the weather was warming up we experienced more than our fair share of no-seums and midges. Bug jackets and head nets to the ready.

Our final destination was at Circle Alaska, just South of the Arctic Circle.  By now the Yukon had earned its name Land of the Midnight Sun with almost 24 hour light. We were happy to reach our goal and arrived to find the place deserted and much of it boarded up. We departed Circle, close to the hot springs via a narrow mountain pass road which provided one final bit of excitement with twists and turns and a few scary moments.

Since this trip I have been captivated by the magic of the Yukon and have returned to complete two more adventures which you can find on the website within my adventures and also on social media.

When to go?

The best time to paddle the Yukon River is between end of May, after the ice break up, and early October as things start to cool.  July to August are the worst of the ‘no-seems’ and midges which can be a nuisance and require bug jackets and head nets.

How to get there?

Air North are a friendly airline that fly into Whitehorse with connections from large Canadian cities including Vancouver and Calgary.  From the UK we used Canadian Affair to make the connections who were very helpful especially with our mountain of kit. Pack sensibly without the kitchen sink and remember you can get most things from the local outfitters.

Visa

For the Whitehorse to Dawson City paddle you will need appropriate Visas for Canada. British Passport holders may need a 10 year US Visa for the border crossing into Alaska from Canada at Eagle.

Gear

Up North Adventures based in Whitehorse can provide canoes or kayaks and all the kit you need. You can hire a guide and organize a shuttle back to Whitehorse with them.  Take bug nets and Citronella bug repellant (Be careful as DEET will trash your kit).

Length of Trip

Whitehorse to Dawson City is 460 miles and will typically take 10 – 14  days of paddling. We paddled Whitehorse to Circle, Alaska and needed to organize our own shuttle transport.  Other options include the http://yukon1000.com  canoe race which is run by the lovely Pete Coates and also the www.yukonriverquest.com

Difficulty

Moderate depending on whether you have a guide from an outfitter like Up North and the daily distance you aim to cover. Novice paddlers would benefit from a day’s tuition. The Yukon canoe races are of course full on endurance.

Accommodation

There are some campsites and huts along the route and of course lots of places to wild camp. Campsites are basic, equipped with long drop toilets and fire pits. There are showers at some bigger locations.

Food and Drinks

Canoes and kayaks can carry plenty of kit including your food and rations. Take snacks and food with you and bear barrels to ensure you don’t get unwanted visitors in the night.  Other simple guidelines are to cook away from your camping area and or use paracord or ropes to suspend your food up in the branches.

This story and adventure has been included within editorial for a number of magazines and media outlets including Paddler Magazine, Paramo's catalogue and as a guest blog for Merrell.com

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