Weather Conditions: Rain in Alaska with some sunny spells, good weather in the Yukon. Traversing the Chilkoot Trail in the deep snow proved challenging.
Duration: 10 days
High Points: more whales, the Chilkoot Trail, freedom of the Packarafts, good friends such as Suzanne, Debbie and Mark on the trail. Mendenhall Glacier
Low Points: 12 hour paddling days in packarafts
Team: Richard Harpham, Matthew Harpham
A MillionThanks: Aquabound Paddles, Paramo, Bamboo Clothing, Leatherman, Canadian Affair, Up North Adventures, Above and Beyond Alaska, Mountain Fuels, Garmin, Reed Chillcheater
Juneau to Whitehorse via the Chilkoot Trail
My third expedition to Alaska, Northern Canada and the Yukon was about linking up my two previous expeditions. I had already sea kayaked from Vancouver Island to Glacier bay, Alaska, via Juneau and also canoed 700 miles of the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Circle, Alaska. This left a mere gap of 240 miles including a mountain pass. How hard could it be? This trip would involve sea kayaking from Juneau to Skagway, hiking the infamous Chilkoot Trail (taken by “the Stampeders’ during the Gold Rush in 1896-1898) and then using a small one man raft called a packaraft to paddle over 100 miles from Lake Bennett down to Whitehorse. Back in the day each prospector had to carry one tonne of supplies to be let into Canada which could mean hiking the trail up to 40 times. Many prospectors used the local Chilkoot, Chilkat and Stikine Indian Packers (first nation) for this.
Juneau to Skagway (105 miles)
Arriving back to Juneau was exciting, I had loved it the first time round and now I was heading back with Matthew, my brother. Our plan was ambitious, to travel unsupported carrying kit for all stages of the expedition, albeit we would leave our sea kayaks at Skagway to be picked up by our friends at Above and Beyond Alaska (http://beyondak.com/ ) who had helped us on our previous Inside Passage Trip.
Before leaving Juneau we decided to try out the Packarafts, super lightweight one person rafts built right there in Alaska. We had reconnected with our friends from the park service and also Suzanne Mcgee and decided what better location than the beautiful Mendenhall Glacier. We arrived at the beach there and to the amusement of tourist and locals alike began to inflate our rafts.
At this point my brother made a ‘school boy’ error and opted not to use the small horseshoe seat for the floor of the raft. We paddled towards the main ice floes and Glacier Wall and spent time getting plenty of iconic pictures. During this time my brothers backside started to freeze with prolonged contact with the thin rubber floor of the raft leading to chill blains on his bottom. This was a source of amusement for the rest of the trip. Luckily he did not succumb to a chilly willy!
We were ready to head out onto ‘Favourite Channel’ but with one critical item missing from our kit, white fuel for the stoves, we dodged the prolonged showers and drank coffee trying to source the fuel. Eventually after a few hours, success, so it was time to set out in the rain with heavily laden sea kayaks for Skagway. It was great to be back in the wide-open spaces of the Alaskan waters, with huge mountain ranges, snowy caps and plenty of wildlife. A long with the rain and odd squall, whales also joined us for the rest of the day.
Our destination for the day was a small cabin nestled in Berners Bay. Approaching the cabin it was clear that someone had beaten us to it. It was like a modern day scene from Goldilocks and the 3 bears! “Who’s has been sleeping in my bed”? We were greeted by the high energy that is Kayak Debbie. It turns out we had met on our last trip to Alaska on the Inside Passage in a small inlet. What are the chances? Only in Alaska and the Yukon is the answer. The weather improved and we were treated to glorious sunshine and a sunset to remember as we watched sea birds, eagles and whales traversing Berners Bay. Berners Bay has been the scene of a legal battle over mineral extraction versus protecting the environment. It reminded me of the words of the First Nation boat builder, Ed Carpenter we had met in Bella Bella two years before “What will we tell our children about why we have over consumed the planet?”
Morning and we pushed onwards up the channel towards Haines and then Skagway. More rain but our spirits were high after drying out. We spotted an abandoned lighthouse for lunch and played hide and seek with the local seal colony. Like so much of the marine highways in Canada and Alaska you are accompanied not only by stunning wildlife but also the occasional huge cruise ship carrying up to 10,000 people at one time. We camped the second night on a rocky outcrop way above the rack lines(tidal lines of seaweed and debris) which afforded us a grand view of our journey route.
We were excited at completing phase 1 of the expedition. Arriving at Skagway, an iconic gold rush town, highlighted that age old debate whether ‘size is important’ as we kayaked up next to one of the huge cruise liners. Conclusion we were proud to have got there under human power. We would continue on foot for the next 45 miles over the Chilkoot Trail, the historic gold rush route. We spent a day in Skagway finding out about the history including the boom times, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad (WP&YRR ) through to Carcross.
Hiking the Chilkoot Trail (42 miles)
We were facing a sterner test, hiking over the mountains carrying all out kit including our packarafts to then paddle a further 110 miles down to Whitehorse. I have done some portages in my time but over 40 miles was definitely a challenge. We organized permits for the National Parks (Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park USA and Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site of Canada) as we would be crossing the border into the Yukon Territories. In our planning we had omitted to note the 8-9 mile walk from town to the start of the trail at Dyea. Given our human powered remit we were forced to grit it out. It was tough going and our packs weighed almost 35 kgs with Packarafts, food, paddles, cameras. We were forced to purchase some additional large Sealine bags as our rucksack stitching was failing with the weight.
It was like a tough day in the ‘green gym’ as we huffed and puffed our way up the trail. The initial stages were low level hiking with some interesting marsh areas with walk boards, brush and trees and occasional historic camps and points of interest. We passed Finnegan’s Point and Canyon City heading for a campsite aptly named Pleasant Camp. Many of the campsites were equipped with wall tents and small stoves as well as the favourite Long Drop Toilet. We were using Mountain Fuels drinks to replace nutrients, salts and lost energy and it became like a vampire thirst between each drink. We made slow progress trying to find ways to adapt to the weight and time passed slowly. Kayaking had been so much easier with the kit stowed in our boats. Our forefathers had carried almost 1 tonne of supplies as a pre-requisite of entry into the Yukon and Canada. We adjusted our attitudes and took some ‘toughen up’pills.
Matt woke me to inform we that an animal was in the camp but I was too tired to care. Luckily morning arrived and we began the ritual again, this time with a few aches but otherwise into a routine. It began to get steeper, with more boulder fields and scree and snow also covered parts of the trail as we climbed. We had a break at Sheep Camp before tackling the Scales and the Golden Steps and the final climb before entering the Yukon, Canada. Sat in the snow surrounded by old artifacts and machinery there was an incredible stillness and calm. Like my previous trips to this part of the world, it felt very spiritual and I felt at peace.
The next few hours climbing up the Golden Staircase to the border crossing were arduous to say the least as we kicked steps into the snow on the steep climb. One slip would mean sliding and falling a hundred metres or more on the steepest sections. Our heavy packs, one front and back meant we kept disappearing up to our waists in the soft snow, frustrated and exhausted in equal measure. Reaching the border crossing, signified by a waving Canadian Flag, a small hut and long drop toilet filled us with joy. We broke out the stove and celebrated with a small brew. It was all downhill from here. Resting after our climb we quickly dozed off and luckily awoke quite soon after as we had a fair distance to the next camp. The view down into the Yukon was incredible. We would passed through 2 avalanche zones, one of which had been quite recent. The Yukon side of the pass was easier but now we kept falling through the snow into streams and gullies where the snow had begun to thaw and melt. We made is safely to Happy Camp. Just below the camp was one potential starting point of the Yukon River as the snow melt congregated into a fast flowing river.
We cleared the snow line and followed the swollen river on foot past a series of small lakes until it detoured and crashed into a canyon of whitewater and serious rapids. We rejoined it at Lindeman Lake and shuffled towards the trail head at Bennett by now feeling fatigue in our shoulders and legs. There was a fantastic historic camp settlement at Lindeman City with lots of information and displays. Arriving at the Bennett Lake trail head felt like a great achievement and we were delighted to finally put our rucksacks down. We made camp on the little beach and padded about on the sandy shore feeling content. We explored the old railroad station and church hoping to get a soft drink, but sadly it was all shut up.
Packarafting to Whitehorse (100 Miles)
This part of our plan was a little sketchy, as you might say a work in progress. We had not paddled our packarafts fully laden with kit. We expected flow on the river and lakes but sadly for us we didn’t find any. We did a test run with our kit and confirmed it was like paddling a bath sized jelly. 100 miles didn’t seem such a treat any more but there was little choice. (Packarafts are bombproof and the lightest in the world but not necessary designed for 100 miles in 3 days). We set off the next morning with a slight head wind and about a foot of chop over the grey water. Just keep paddling! One of the highlights of the trip was the (WP&YRR ) train passing us with passengers waving which definitely lightened the mood.
After a 9 hour paddle we made it to the bridge at Carcross. We abandoned our kit on some decking at the end of the lake and went in search of supplies. The snow covered mountains that flanked our route made this another magical place to camp. Morning came quickly, we struck camp and got back on the water. Teeth gritted we paddled on from lake to lake although benefited from sunshine that appeared during the day. Towards the end of the day we entered Marsh Lake, a shallow lake as far as the eye could see. We made camp about 1/3 of the way down it on a grassy spit. The end was in reach, one final day and one final push and we would make Whitehorse.
We woke early stashed our kit in font and behind us in our little rafts and got moving . A couple of hours in, we passed a fishing boat on the lake and chatted to the skipper. “Hey that looks old school in those craft. Where are you going? Dawson City?” “No we did that last year” we replied. It then dawned on us it was Mark from Up North Adventures, the outfitters in Whitehorse who had helped and supported our previous expedition. Only in the Yukon could you be in the middle of nowhere and meet someone you knew and who has now become a good friend.
The end of the lake brought a change of scenery as we entered the river channels and canyons. It also brought another headwind. Head down we battled on cursing the elements. Several miles later we rounded a corner to find Miles Canyon, another treacherous place during the gold rush with strong currents and waves. Now it is more peaceful with the Whitehorse Dam in place. It was pretty special to paddle and float through the canyon. As we paddled past a few locals in speedboats in the Canyon and others jumping into the aquamarine waters enjoying themselves. We were a source of some amusement and comments.
The hydroelectric dam at Whitehorse was just round the corner. We portaged for the final time around the massive concrete structure. Slightly fatigued and not concentrating I loaded my pack onto my back and promptly fell over backwards. I stood up quickly dusted myself down and checked that no one had seen me, in the middle of nowhere! We skirted the dam and re launched into the first real flow we had found coupled with a large wave train. It was going to be a bumpy ride. Clear of the spillway we floated gently down into Whitehorse.
Mission accomplished. It was great to be back in Whitehorse, the gateway to the Yukon and we had succeeded in joining up the pieces of our previous adventures. We caught up with Mark the owner of UpNorth Adventures who commented we only visited in fair weather and we should return in winter to really text ourselves. He told us a story of the Canol Pipeline and challenged us to follow Alex Van Bibbers epic 500 mile adventure through the McKensie Mountains that was completed in 1942. Check out our expedition reccy and planning trips to the Yukon and also our Norway Training sessions under ski adventures.
Despite being a tough trip it is important to realize that paddling the Yukon River, sea kayaking in Alaska and hiking the Chilkoot Trail is accessible to anyone with a little determination. You can do short sections, day paddling trips and guided trips with help from local companies and outfitters.