The Yukon is an iconic river and one that’s lurked in a corner of my consciousness for years. At over 3,000 km it’s the third longest river in North America (after the Mississippi/Missouri and Mackenzie systems) and is synonymous with the Klondike gold rush, poems by Robert Service and novels such as The Call of the Wild by Jack London. It might have stayed on the fringes of my consciousness if my wife Liz hadn’t seen an article I’d been browsing and decided it was somewhere she wanted to visit.
I still couldn’t believe it was really happening when we touched down in mid-August at Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory. We’d had a nine hour flight to Vancouver then a further two hours on a regional connection and were in one of the most sparsely populated places on earth. The Yukon Territory is twice the size of the UK but has a population of less than 40,000 – our home town of Maidenhead has around 70,000.
Over a year earlier we had booked with Canoe North Adventures to join their Yukon expedition. The long months of dreaming and frantic final weeks of packing were over and Liz and I were soon meeting the other members of the team – sixteen in total including three guides: Lin, Maddy and Will – being issued with T-shirts, ball caps and barrels, and being prepared for an 8.00 am start for the minibus journey to the Pelly River where we were to start our paddle.
Despite the early start it still took the best part of the day to reach our get in at Pelly Farm. By the time we’d been paired up with paddling partners and loaded the boats it was late afternoon before we set off on a short shake down paddle to our first night’s camp at a homestead called Stepping Stone. Our hosts that night – Carole and Jim – fed us well from their outdoor pizza oven and we retired to our tents replete and comforted by the fact they had a ‘bear dog’ – a large but friendly animal who, we were assured, would see off any beasts that might come prowling looking for scraps.
We survived the night. It was chill when we awoke but today was an acclimatisation day so no hurry. Maddy and Will prepared coffee and we took the chance to reflect on the adventure ahead in the Stepping Stone chapel before hiking up the hill behind us. The vista was breath-taking, there was no other settlement in sight, just rolling, forested hills, distant mountains and the Pelly and Yukon rivers glistening in their valleys before us. The day was turning into a warm, sunny one as we returned to Stepping Stone for brunch before breaking camp, reloading the boats and setting off for another short paddle to the confluence of the Pelly and Yukon rivers at Fort Selkirk. As we entered the Yukon proper a salmon leapt to welcome us: a large, red Chinook salmon, a King of the Yukon and a foretaste of the wildlife to come.
Fort Selkirk and the First Nations
Fort Selkirk is a major heritage site but without the crowds. A former Hudson’s Bay Company trading post with beautifully preserved timber buildings, the site was all but abandoned after the Yukon Highway bypassed it in the 1950’s and Yukon river traffic died down. The site still has no road access and is managed by the Selkirk First Nation who had a camp there on the weekend we arrived. We were welcomed by children banging drums and invited to join them for traditional ‘hand games’ after dinner. How to describe the hand games? Well, two teams of six kneel facing each other. Each player holds a small stone that can be concealed in a closed hand and the teams take turns to guess which hands their opponents have hidden their stones in. But with six inexperienced players and no conferring plus a set of rules that we really didn’t understand we were on a hiding to nothing. Nonetheless our team came third and were offered the $25 cash prize. No one had told us we were playing for money!
A warm welcome from the First Nation children at Fort Selkirk
The chance to meet and engage with some of Canada’s First Nations people was a real privilege and one new to most of the Canadians who made up the rest of our group. Having declined the cash we left them to their festivities and prepared for our second night ‘under canvas’. The sky was clear and the temperature was dropping.
Barging, bathrooms and Gorp
We awoke to a heavy frost, breakfasted and packed. We had a 60k paddle ahead of us and early morning mist was still hanging over the river as we set off. We paddled for a half hour or so and rafted up – or ‘barged’ as it was described to us. Our eight boats would have looked a big raft on a British river, but here we were tiny, with plenty of room for other boats to pass on either side – if there had been any – and insignificant in the vastness of the Yukon landscape. We were also bowling along quite nicely with just occasional steering strokes from those in the outer boats. The flow on the river was around 8 kph.
After a short barge we resumed paddling and our guides started looking for a suitable place to land for a mid-morning ‘bathroom break’. Even the less experienced in the group soon became adept at breaking out of the current to land. Our stops were generally taken on one of the frequent gravel bars, often at the head of islands where the ladies could go one way and the gents the other. But neither group was allowed to go into the bushes and risk encountering wildlife. Indeed travelling in bear country as we were, we were advised to keep in groups of at least four and to call out with a loud ‘oo-ee’ whenever we were approaching trees or undergrowth to warn any wildlife of our presence.
Relieved, we were soon back to paddling and then into another barge, this time for a Gorp break. We were told this was originally ‘Good Old Raisins and Peanuts’ but with Canoe North the menu has morphed into an amazing range of savoury and sweet snacks – cashews, pretzels, chocolate covered ginger, wine gums and more – all packed in Ziploc bags for sharing. Our mid-morning Gorp barges were to become a highlight of our paddling days.
Gorp breaks were followed by paddling, were followed by a buffet lunch on a gravel bar, were followed by paddling, were followed by another barge, were followed by more paddling before landing to set up our camp for the night. This simple pattern was to govern our days on the river, with one merging into another as the islands and trees, hills and cliffs rolled by.
Not that our days were boring, they were anything but! Barges were times for shared jokes and shared songs and tales told by Lin and our guides of the history of the Yukon. Regular changes of paddling pairs brought new conversation within and between boats. The frequent outbreaks of laughter were coupled with moments of quiet reflection, absorbed by the rhythm of the paddling, soaking up the grandeur of the landscape and, on more occasions than we’d dared hope for, observing wildlife.
Wildlife and wonder
In the early part of the trip, before the confluence with the White River, leaping salmon were a regular sight, and we soon lost count of the Bald Eagles we saw soaring among the cliffs or sitting perched in their tree tops, the squadrons of Sandhill Cranes migrating south, up the river, mergansers splashing and ravens cawing at the banks, and Blue Jays coming to be fed in our camps.
We saw beaver, and beaver-chewed logs everywhere, deer and wild sheep. One evening we were delighted to watch as a cow moose and her calf emerged from a creek alongside our camp, swam the width of the river and stopped to look back at us from the other side. We heard wolves and awoke one morning to see a grey wolf and seven cubs feasting on a salmon on the bank opposite only for a Bald Eagle to swoop and carry the carcass away when they’d seemingly finished. Another morning, as we paddled through mist, we were surrounded by the howling of wolves – an eerie experience – and were then mesmerised by the sight of two black wolves swimming across the river before landing and running across an island in front of us.
We did not however see or hear a bear. At least most of us didn’t. What we heard was an almighty crack just after we’d turned in one night. Will, making a last round of the kitchen area, had set off a bear banger to deter the black shape he’d spotted wading across an inlet towards our camp. It was the closest we had to a bear sighting, but clawed footprints in the soft ground around our camps in the mornings were clear evidence that bears were watching us.
We saw moose, wolves and more!
We were also disturbed on another night by the cry of ‘Northern Lights!’. We were close to the Arctic Circle, it was late in the season and we’d been told that sightings of the Aurora Borealis were a distinct possibility. We weren’t disappointed. We scrambled from our tents to be confronted with a wonderful display, swirling and sweeping in the sky all around us.
Back on the river, the current was swift with only the occasional riffle as we dropped between islands and gravel bars. One of the attractions of the trip was no portages. The main challenge would have been navigating the many different channels or braids as the river meandered across its wide valley alternating between high cliffs and lower wooded areas on each side. But Lin’s experience of guiding on the Yukon goes back some thirty years and she’s seen the river both high and, as it was this year, low.
The many different channels or braids make navigation a challenge
The river was also quiet. We were late in the season and had the river largely to ourselves. There were several days when we saw no other craft and on most of the days when we did, only one or two powerboats including a massive barge slowly (and noisily) powering its way up to service the mining operations still continuing in some of the side creeks and returning at frightening speed a day later. Apart from one solo kayaker who passed our camp one evening it was only on our last few days, which coincided with the Labour Day holiday weekend and as we neared Dawson City, that we saw other paddlers.
All too soon the pattern of our days was broken and Dawson, backed by its distinctive Moosehide Slide, came into view. For 11 days we had journeyed and lived in the wilderness, shared amazing experiences and made new friendships. We’d lived without mobile phones and learned something of the history, geology and wildlife of this remote area. We’d heard the call of the wild and I can’t wait to go back for more.