The far northern reaches of the continent have long been a draw for me and Steve. We’ve been to Alaska and the Yukon to hike, backpack, canoe and sightsee so many times that I’ve lost count. On our very first trip we took the Alaska Marine Highway System (state ferry) from Ketchikan. It was so easy to fly from our home base (at the time) in Seattle to Ketchikan and be transported to a different world. We became so enthralled with the vast wilderness and fascinating history of the Klondike Gold Rush and native culture that we were hooked.
Fully in tourist mode on that first ferry trip we lapped up everything there was to do in the tiny coastal communities we visited. I peered down to a slender trail from our airy perch on the narrow gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railway excursion from Skagway to Lake Bennett. After spotting some movement I exclaimed to Steve, “There are people down there with backpacks on.” That kicked off a multiyear exploration of the Yukon and Alaska that propelled us headlong into backpacking and paddling, honing our wilderness skills. While in the remote town of Whitehorse we rented a canoe for a day trip down the Yukon River. Next thing we knew, we were planning to paddle the 450 mile segment from Whitehorse to Dawson City, a fraction of the length of the 1,980 mile river. We did it after hiking the Chilkoot Trail, taking the train/bus from Lake Bennett to Whitehorse and resupplying for a day before we exchanged our hiking boots for paddles. After that we decided to paddle the Teslin River, which we did this year (2015). We were novices when we started but now that we’ve paddled 750 miles of the river network, I feel like we have the canoeing skills to go just about anywhere. As long as there aren’t wicked rapids.
The following tips will help the first-time or returning visitor to the Yukon in planning the logistics required for a long-distance paddling trip on the Yukon River.
We have always used Up North Adventures. They have a large selection of canoes and they provide all the accessories such as paddles, personal floatation devices, food barrels and dry bags. They do drop-offs and pick-ups at various locations along the river such as Carmacks and Dawson City and their small store is stocked with paddling gear, bear spray and freeze-dried Mountain House food. Another outfitter in town is Kanoe People.
Our favorite guidebooks are those written by Mike Rourke, such as “Yukon River, Marsh Lake to Dawson City” ($24.95-Available from Yukon Books or Mac’s Fireweed Books on Main Street in Whitehorse). This local author has paddled hundreds, if not thousands of miles of rivers in the Yukon and has an extensive series of river guides. He is now assisted by his daughter, Gillian, who is continuing the tradition. Inexplicably, his hand-drawn maps are more clear and easier to interpret than the aerial imagery included in other map sets. He details almost every available campsite and log jam (where firewood can be picked up) on the river.
When to go
The summer season can be short in the Yukon, which freezes in the winter. During early summer months the current can be fast and some lower camps may be inaccessible. The guidebook noted highwater camps. We always planned our trips for August or the last week of July and have experienced weather varying from incessant rain to sunny skies and warm temperatures. Mid-August seems to be better for wildlife viewing.
Though we didn’t have a lot of paddling experience when we started we did have a great deal of backcountry experience. The river is bordered by wilderness for the most part and self-sufficiency is required. There is only one town, Carmacks, at the mid-point, which does have a small but well-stocked grocery store, and the Coal Miner Campground, which has a snack bar. Other than that there are only a couple of places where the river goes near a road and we went several days at a time without seeing another human, depending on the time of year and amount of river traffic there was. We didn’t have any way to communicate with the outside world during the first trips but now we carry a SPOT satellite messenger device, which can summon help in a true emergency and allows us to send pre-set “I’m OK” messages to friends and family. There is no cell service in the wilderness.
The likelihood of seeing a bear is low, though we have seen them several times when the salmon are running. Both brown (grizzly) and black bears may be encountered so it’s essential to keep a clean camp, store food in the barrels and move them away from camp at night, and be bear aware. Refer to the Center for Wildlife Information to learn how to how to respond to a bear encounter. We’ve never felt the need for a firearm but we do carry bear spray. It’s important to remember to bring the bear spray with you when you break for meals or go into the woods to relieve yourself.
We always wear a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD) when in the canoe. We first used the lifejackets provided by the outfitter, then brought our own inflatable PFDs. These vest-style PFDs inflate with the pull of a cord on a small CO2 canister and have a lower profile than traditional, bulky PFDs.
Basic wilderness skills, water safety, knowledge of first aid (including preventing and managing hypothermia) and having a first aid kit are essential. Understand how to use and secure dry bags and be sure to tie everything down in case the canoe overturns accidentally.
Like any backcountry experience, Leave No Trace principles prevail. If you packed it in, pack it out.
If your paddling skills are rusty or non-existent consider taking the half-day “Introduction to Canoeing” course offered by Up North Adventures the day before your voyage. If I had known about this course I would have done it before our first trip. Ask the guides for advice on how to approach the Five Finger Rapids safely (the guidebook recommended using the far right channel, or finger).
Number of days
We took eight days to paddle from Whitehorse to Carmacks, six days from Carmacks to Dawson City (but seven days would have been better) and eight days on the Teslin River to Carmacks. We’d paddle in two-hour increments to prevent stiffness, generally around 9:30-11:30, 12:00-2 and 2:30-4:30. That gave us time to break down and set up camp each day and make additional stops for sites of historic interest. It stays light so late that paddling longer hours would be possible, if desired.
It is possible to eat grocery store food for the entire trip but space is limited in the barrels. We usually eat Mountain House and Packit Gourmet freeze-dried dinners that we bring from home. Commercially packaged backpacking food can be brought into the country but be aware of restrictions on fresh foods from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. I’m never sure what the selection will be like in Whitehorse so I bring what I can and purchase the rest when we’re there. We supplement with fresh foods such as cabbage or broccoli slaw with oil and vinegar dressing, baby carrots, apples and cheese. Lunches vary but might be comprised of tortillas and various fillers. Early in our most recent trip we stuffed tortillas with tuna and fresh coleslaw, then we moved to dehydrated beans (rehydrated the day of use) and string cheese, and finally, when all the fresh food gave out, peanut butter and jelly. Breakfasts were either instant Trader Joe’s oatmeal or granola with freeze-dried fruit and powdered milk. We brought various libations including wine, Crystal Light, hot chocolate and good old Tang. Granola bars, cookies, Jelly bellies and chocolate rounded out the snacks. I’ve written a book, The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning about meal planning for long-distance backpacking trips that is appropriate for paddling trips as well.
We’ve used a variety of backpacking stoves but are currently enamored with our JetBoil Flash. It’s compact as the small fuel canister and other parts fit inside and boils two cups of water on two minutes. The igniter eliminates the need for matches (though we always carry an emergency supply in case the igniter should ever fail).
River water is not safe to drink without purifying so we use a Katadyn Hiker Pro pump filter. For backpacking we usually use a SteriPEN but some of the rivers have glacial silt that we prefer to filter out so it’s not ideal in the Yukon.
The clothing we use is similar to what we would bring backpacking including quick-dry pants, shirts, several pairs of socks, paddling and warm gloves, sun and warm hat, and most importantly, good rain gear (jacket, pants and hat). It can be chilly, especially in windy or rainy storms, so a pair of waterproof socks such as neoprene or Sealskin can be valuable to wear in the canoe. I make sure that even if I get soaked during the day I always have a complete set of dry clothes for nighttime, even if I stay in wet clothes for hours.
On the last trip, I brought a pair of water shoes that could get wet to use in the canoe (Astral Loyak). I brought another pair of shoes to wear in camp. The Astral shoes were great because they flex naturally so when I crouched down in the canoe or changed positions it was almost like I was barefoot.
Up North Adventures has a good gear list with suggested items, which may be requested via email at [email protected].
For shelter we bring our backpacking tent, which has included the Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight and Big Agnes Copper Spur on different trips. A large tarp pre-strung with long cords to tie to trees makes life easier in the evenings as rain is to be expected during any summer month on the Yukon.
The grocery options have been changing and currently the Real Canadian Superstore, a huge, full-service grocery store with many gourmet and specialty items, is the best place to purchase fresh and packaged food for the trip. It is located at 2270-2nd Avenue in Whitehorse.
Getting to Whitehorse
Travel to Whitehorse is not difficult but it’s a long way from many locations. There are daily flights from Vancouver and other Canadian cities on Air North, Air Canada and West Jet. If driving, the Alaska-Canada (ALCAN) Highway passes through Whitehorse and there are roads from Haines and Skagway, Alaska.
Things to know when flying
It’s is not legal to fly with fuel canisters or bear spray, even in checked luggage so those items must be purchased locally. The CO2 gas canisters in the PFDs are approved by US TSA and FAA for carry-on or checked baggage but may not be allowed by individual carriers as a carry-on. Small knives are not allowed by either US or Canadian airlines as carry-on and must be checked.
Staying in Whitehorse
There are many budget hotels and B&Bs in Whitehorse but no five-star hotels. We’ve stayed in several places and found that the Westmark Hotel, though full of cruise-land tours, fits our needs due to its convenient location, clean rooms and access to Main Street and Up North Adventures. It’s also a short block to the MacBride Museum of Yukon History.
Sightseeing in Whitehorse
There are a number of sights to see in between getting outfitted for the trip such as the famous Whitehorse rapids, now tamed by a dam, the MacBride Museum of Yukon History, the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center, the SS Klondike and Takhini Hot Springs. An article details more things to do in Whitehorse: “Yukon Territory is an unmistakable source of Canadian history and a gold mine of family fun”.
Canoeing the Yukon is a magical experience, where wildlife is part of the shifting panorama on the river and the soft light of the Arctic sun has a way of getting under your skin. Relics of the audacious Gold Rush times are everywhere, from rustic cabins being reclaimed by the earth to giant sternwheelers imagining their golden past. Some dreams have faded away but new dreams are born on the river every day. With a little planning the adventure of a lifetime can be had in the far north.
Disclosure of material connection: I received samples of some of these products for testing purposes but would not mention them if they weren’t quality products that I use regularly. They include Big Agnes tent, SPOT, Astral shoes.