“Have a good time, see you at the other end,” said the outfitter cheerily with a wave after wheeling our well-stocked canoe to the riverbank on a dolly.
I gazed at the swift current in the middle of the broad river, which suddenly seemed to be moving faster than it had before, then at the towering clay riverbank topped with stunted spruce trees on the other side, and wondered what I was getting myself into. The water moved silently and unceasingly, careless to the activity of our preparations on the shore.
We fussed over the canoe, tying everything down and making sure everything was there– life jackets, sponge, bucket and paddles. We stuffed our clothing and supplies into large dry bags, and pushed our freeze dried food, fresh fruits and vegetables, and bottles of wine (all too few) into the food barrel. I waited for last minute instructions about government regulations or life-saving tips but the outfitter had turned away and was walking toward the street, whistling happily.
I stepped resolutely into the bow of the canoe making sure not to tip it, glancing back at my husband, Steve, who looked gleeful and carefree as we pushed off from the muddy beach in the middle of the small town of Whitehorse, a town bisected by the Yukon River. I quashed any concerns about not feeling ready and reached for my paddle—it was too late for a panic attack.
We were living one of our dreams, to follow the Klondike Gold Rush path from Alaska to the Yukon, re-tracing the steps of the hardy, or fool-hardy, Argonauts of the late 1800s. This leg of the trip involved paddling 460 miles down the Yukon River in northern Canada, just the two of us. Prior to this our sole paddling experience had been a two-hour guided tour in inflatable kayaks on the Dart River in New Zealand and some quiet afternoons canoeing on Green Lake in Whistler. Fortunately we possessed a great deal of wilderness experience and an abundance of enthusiasm as we set off to explore the relatively uninhabited Yukon.
The amount of bureaucratic red tape required to gain access to many wilderness areas in the U.S. is staggering. Most trails begin with a welcoming sign followed by a lengthy list of what not to do. In contrast, our Yukon River expedition began abruptly without any regulation-laden preface. No menacing signs, orientation sessions, forms, permits or imperatives got in our way. Right away I could tell this was going to be a different kind of backcountry trip.
Here in the Yukon no one asked us if we had any paddling skills, knew where we would be day to day, or what we were doing. Locals are necessarily self-sufficient in the North and they presume that if you need information you’ll ask for it, otherwise the assumption is that you know what you’re doing and can take care of yourself. Off we went, full of energy, and perhaps some trepidation, as we embarked on a journey into the wilderness—true untamed wilderness.
Over the last 15 years Steve and I developed a fascination with the history of Northern settlers, from the ancient crossing of the Bering land bridge that landed the first aboriginal people 20,000 years ago, to the gold seekers a century ago. Both found the freedom of an unpopulated or later, sparsely populated land, and found much to celebrate and curse, for the ample natural resources of the land is tempered, not by excessive regulation, but by harsh living conditions in the long, dark winters. However, in summer, as we were experiencing, the weather is mild and forgiving, allowing exploration in relative comfort.
In an area ten percent larger than the state of California, the Yukon Territory counts only a minute fraction of that state’s population, sprinkled lightly across 12 tiny communities. Though forever changed by the discovery of gold, the landscape does not suffer the pressures of being loved to death like so many of the National Parks in the U.S., partly due to the remoteness of the land, partly due to less developed tourism infrastructure. The Yukon is one of a very few places where one can experience boundless wilderness.
Getting used to the river
With virtually no instructions or regulations forthcoming we pushed off from the bank of the Yukon. Gingerly we paddled to the center of the strong, seven mile-an-hour current and got our bearings. One good thing about the largely roadless Yukon is that we couldn’t get lost on the river. For awhile we could hear comforting sounds of trucks from town trundling in the background, reminding us that civilization was near. Scores of eagles soared overhead, their white heads contrasting with the jet-black ravens that competed for airspace. Broad wings flapped mightily, whipping the still morning air, shrill cries filling the sound waves. We were a small part of nature that surrounded us, and found the paddling easy in the swift current. We hadn’t tipped the canoe. We paddled in a straight line. We progressed down the river. So far so good.
That evening we found an obvious campsite with little trouble and feasted on our fresh food, starting with appetizers of sharp cheese and peppery salami, then supplemented our reconstituted freeze dried meal of Beef Stroganoff with a salad of cabbage, crisp carrots and piquant radishes smothered with ranch dressing, and washed it all down with a glass of Pinot Noir. For dessert we enjoyed a crunchy, sweet apple and a piece of rich, dark chocolate.
After dinner we sorted our gear on the beach and pulled the canoe out of the water so it wouldn’t float away. A gentle rain during the night taught us a valuable lesson, filling the canoe with puddles of water, and after that we turned the canoe over each evening so the interior would stay dry.
The next day, after a filling breakfast of instant oatmeal, a cup of hot tea, orange-flavored Tang, and a slice of salami, we paddled north, toward the Arctic Circle. As signs of civilization receded we noticed fewer houses, then finally none at all. We saw no one and heard nothing but our own voices, the water dripping off our oars and the cries of the eagles. We spoke in hushed tones, our voices sounding unnaturally amplified, as we unconsciously became part of the quiet land. We were alone.
Tumult on the river
“I see the outlet of the lake,” I cried out excitedly, sitting up straighter on my diminutive bench. After slogging through the still waters of Lake Laberge, a very large widening of the river that causes the current to fade to nothing, in a drizzly rain, for 3 very long days we were more than thrilled to see the river again. The mist lifted to display the remains of the SS Evelyn, one of the 250 sternwheelers that used to ply these waters, and we eagerly beached the canoe to explore the area. We poked around the first of many abandoned cabins we would discover along the way, marveling at the small size and rough interior, though outfitted with glass window panes to allow light to penetrate.
After eating a quick lunch of pita bread stuffed with canned chicken and cabbage we piled back in the canoe with renewed vigor, now appreciating the swift current that looked so ominous the first day. We practically flew down the “30 Mile” section, said to be the most beautiful part of the entire river, with crystal clear blue-green water magnifying the pebbles below, fat grayling and arctic char swimming evasively under the boat, and thick stands of spruce lining the banks along the narrowed waterway, so close we could easily cross from bank to bank with a couple of strong paddles.
I lay back on the soft dry-bag filled with my gear and gazed up at the clearing sky, wispy clouds fading to blue. Eagles stood in trees in twos and threes, finding easy meals with the plentiful fish. The weak Northern sun almost felt warm on my face and I dozed. All of a sudden a gust of wind interrupted my reverie and I popped up like a jack in the box.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“The wind is kicking up pretty good swells,” said Steve, gesturing toward the water. I grabbed my paddle, preparing for I knew not what. The river began a series of tight “S” curves, challenging us to find the sweet spot, that place where wind, water and paddle align to propel us forward smoothly. I saw the bow angle toward the right bank and paddled harder to correct the course, to no avail. The water whipped up tiny whitecaps that in the Pacific would be negligible, but seemed to take on considerable significance for our tiny craft.
“Dig in!” Steve said. I dug, but nothing useful happened. The boat started feeling precarious and visions of bodies and clothing scattering across the river propelled me to dig harder. After a tumultuous blur of barked instructions, paddling this way and that,
Steve finally said, “Let ‘er go.”
“What?” I shouted incredulously. Here we were in the fight of our life and we were just going to succumb? I stopped paddling and found myself looking upstream as the canoe found its own sweet spot, going backwards. I twisted and turned to get a look at Steve.
“Now what?” I asked.
“We’re fine,” he said with conviction.
I looked around and found that we were, indeed, going to live. And we hadn’t even dumped the canoe, though we came very close. It wasn’t until days later that he told me how close.
“The water was less than an inch away from flooding the canoe,” he said later, over a glass of wine, far downriver. “It would have been bad,” he said in his dry, laconic style.
It was that early struggle with the river that windy afternoon that taught us the most about the river. As much as we tried to control the forces of nature, our puny efforts were no match. Once we learned to let the boat turn with the force of the wind, we found we could easily right ourselves a little later. We even came to enjoy it, those times when we’d lose our edge and spin around in a circle like a teacup ride at the fair. As long as we stayed far enough from shore that we didn’t get entangled with brush and downed trees we were safe from danger. This gave new meaning to the phrase, “go with the flow” and we learned to do just that, letting the river be the guide.
Stillness and solitude
As we proceeded over the next few days a few rivers joined the Yukon and the character of the river changed. From the narrow confines of the “30 Mile”, the river broadened to become braided with sandbars and tree covered islands. The current slowed and instead of tight turns the curves became more meandering.
Glacial fed rivers dumped their load of chocolate milk colored water, heavy with silt. The fine grains of rock resulting from the grinding action of the glaciers obscured the clarity of the river.
“What’s that sound?” I asked, hearing the hiss of white noise. We had no electronic gear with us. We cocked our heads this way and that, listening closely. Suddenly I remembered a passage from an explorer’s account of the Yukon. “It’s the sound of the glacial silt running under the fiberglass canoe,” I said. We bent down closer to the canoe and marveled at the sound miniscule grains of sand could produce.
By now we were in sync with the river. We learned that the morning rains often gave way to clear skies so we’d just snuggle into our sleeping bags when we heard the pitter- patter of raindrops. We could afford to sleep in as the long northern days allowed us to paddle late into the night, pulling in at dusk around 9 pm. That still gave us enough time to set up camp, fire up the camp stove to boil water for our hot chocolate and re-hydrate our freeze-dried meals. Darkness fell at 11 pm, though not complete darkness, for a faint shadowy light backlit the low hills for a few hours until dawn broke, around 2 am.
One afternoon the sun was out and we were drawn into a side slough, the main current far away on the other side of an island. We weren’t moving fast, but the scenery was compelling, with dead quiet water and a high cliff dotted with swallows nests towering over us on the right.
“Did we see anyone today?” I asked quietly, not wanting to disturb the peaceful scene, but realizing that we hadn’t seen anyone for quite awhile.
“Nope, not for a couple of days,” Steve replied.
I slid into a reverie, warmed by the sun. Neither of us paddled. My thoughts wandered from the confines of the boat down the placid river and on to the Arctic Circle. I contemplated the number of people that might be between me and the North Pole—not many based on the official count of 0.17 persons per square mile. The first night, when I realized how alone we were, I felt a rush of panic, but today, while it gave me pause, I relished the feeling that the river was ours. Not in the sense of ownership, but that, for the moment, we were an integral part of it. I thought of the early explorers, the ones who came across the Bering land bridge. This slough might have looked similar when they first saw it for this land was fairly temperate, even in the last ice age. Much later, in the late 1800’s, the first hardy gold seekers would have floated down this same stretch, seeing the granite domes of the hills and the island in the river, filled with a sense of wonder after leaving their domesticated farms and gritty cities in search of fortune and adventure.
Paddling in circles
One day in the canoe Steve whispered, “Look on the right bank.” Scanning the distance I noticed some movement. Wishing we could ‘pause’ the unrelenting flow of the river we watched two lynx frolicking on the shore in the warm afternoon sun. One lay on his back, paws up in the air, while the other batted mischievously at him and nuzzled his playmate, just like my housecats at home. They, like most other wildlife we saw, never noticed our silent canoe freely slipping by—we were just part of the landscape.
One evening we were greeted by a great spray of water from a beaver tail as we pulled onto a sandbar and were serenaded by the sound of tails slapping long into the night. Our eagle count dropped from dozens in a day to one or two per day, but the venerable raven, held in great esteem by northern aboriginal people, was ubiquitous. Moose tracks criss-crossed the sandy beach. A wolf danced on the beach with his fresh kill, a large herd of mountain goats somehow clung to high, barren cliffs and a fisher stealthily swam to shore off in the distance. Frequent visitors to our campsites included chattering red squirrels and squawking gray jays looking for a handout. Our wildlife count for the day stood at wolf-1, beaver-2, mountain goat-30, human-0.
In many visits to the North we had seen black bears but never a grizzly (also known as the brown bear). We had a healthy respect for the unpredictable nature of these bruins but half-hoped we’d see one, preferably from a safe distance. Steve, spotter extraordinaire, made the sighting, again on the right bank. I grabbed the binoculars and the bulky blond bear came into sharp focus. The hump on his back sent shivers down mine.
I carefully and quietly dipped my paddle into the water with the intention of putting some distance between us and him. Steve took his turn with the binoculars and began paddling as well.
“Shhh,” we said to each other, wanting to prolong our surreptitious viewing. I couldn’t figure out why were spinning around–after so many days paddling together we had mastered synchronizing our strokes. I put in a little more effort to straighten us out but to my dismay we still went in circles.
I looked back at Steve and said, “What are you doing?”
He said, “I’m trying to get a closer look.”
“What?” I asked, “I’m trying to get away from him!” I had been attempting to turn the canoe in one direction, while Steve had been turning it the other, resulting in our merry-go-round.
The bear reared up and crashed into the bushes, his peace, and ours, dispelled, and that’s the last we saw of him. We spun around one more time, then straightened up the canoe and laughed about our different approaches, reflecting our personalities, Steve, ever advancing toward danger, while I tried to establish a small margin of safety.
On our last full day we pulled in earlier than usual to avoid civilization for one more night and savor our last evening on the river. Putting all our learnings to use that day we stopped at a side creek to get clear water, collected our beaver wood from a log jam, paddled expertly from side to side to catch the fastest current, and were rewarded with one of the best campsites of the entire two week trip at Ogilvie Island. I leaped confidently out of the canoe as we angled onto the beach, grabbed the bow line and hauled the canoe in.
“Yeah, there you go. You’re a real river woman now,” said Steve with a smile.
A wide clearing provided ample room for our tent. We quickly set up our kitchen on a makeshift table constructed by previous tenants, laying out the last treats I had saved, including Jiffy-Pop popcorn to bring to life over the fire, and a treasured can of juicy peaches to enjoy with our last supper, Chicken a la King with a side of sliced carrots.
I leaned against the upside-down canoe with our last glass of wine and watched the river flow past, careless to the activity I knew we would find in Dawson City tomorrow. I thought about all the unknowns we faced the first day, how foreign it had felt to be on the water, the uncertainty I felt stepping into the canoe and the strangeness of being so isolated. Without even realizing it we had become one with the river, adapting to its rhythm, two more sojourners flowing downstream, harmonizing peacefully with the natural world.
I thought about the hundreds of miles more that the river still must course before it spread out into countless braids of water streaming into the Bering Sea, free, yet confined to its banks, and what a small speck we were in this vast land. I considered the lessons of mastery and acceptance the river patiently taught me, leading me from my fear of the unknown to the self-reliance I gained. The first day Steve and I were in different places, he jovial and relaxed, while I worried about the unknown. Now we were in sync, as I gained confidence and we learned to work together, and with the river. Letting go of my fears allowed me to embrace the ebb and flow of each day, fully absorbing each experience. A wave of sadness swept over me as the realization sank in that it was over, knowing that river likely had many more lessons to share that couldn’t be rushed, but rather, had to be experienced as circumstances unfolded.
With the sun hanging low in the sky Steve stared across the river to the shore wistfully and casually said, “What about the Teslin River?” and I knew it wasn’t over–we would be back one day.
Originally published as Rolling Down the River-How the Yukon Can Transform a Traveller, p. 16 in Coast and Kayak Magazine (Fall 2012).