Yukon River 2007

Whitehorse to Dawson

Our journey on the Yukon River began next to the Kanoe People’s store in Whitehorse, where we bought some of the supplies and maps we would need on our 460 mile adventure down the river to Dawson.

The Yukon River was the principal means of transportation during the Klondike Gold Rush and over 350 steamships moved people and cargo on the river until the Alcan Highway was completed in 1942. Now that the river is no longer the principle corridor of travel and commerce for the region much of the river and the surrounding area have returned to wilderness, this was our first campsite.

For the most part the Yukon River is flat and friendly but shortly after we left Whitehorse it enters Lake Laberge. We were glad that we had decided to use sea kayaks as Lake Laberge is notorious for sudden strong winds that can build up large waves without warning.

The first nation peoples who lived by the lake the Ta'an Kwäch'än called it Tàa'an Män but European explorers named it Lake Laberge in 1870. The famous writer Robert Service wrote about the lake in his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee, here is our camp on “the marge of Lake Laberge”.

At the lower end of the lake are a few deserted cabins and a campsite where the lake turns back into a river. The captains of steamships who plied the Yukon River referred to this stretch of the river as “The Thirty Mile” and to them this swift, winding section was the most treacherous. Today it is listed on the Canadian Heritage Rivers System and for small craft like ours it’s perhaps the most scenic and fun. Brenda found this old truck in the woods back of camp, no luck getting it started though.

It is September, the river pushes us along at about 6 to 8 knots, as the weather cools and the days get shorter fall colors start to show.

We camped at the abandoned settlement of Hootalinqua where the river widens out after the Thirty Mile section. We met some Austrian canoeist who were on their way to Carmacks and after breakfast joined them in having a look around the abandoned cabins and ruins. Our biggest surprise came on a small island just down from camp, the remains of a large boat that had been abandoned in the forest. Like something out of the movie Fitzcarraldo, we wondered what strange twist of fate had left it here for us to ponder. Later we learned that the Norcom was originally a U.S. registered, wooden-hulled stern wheel steamboat built at St. Michael, Alaska in 1908 and had been brought up out of the river for winter freeze up and to make repairs never to take to the river again.

Now well into fall we enjoyed the fiery colors on the surrounding hills as we floated by.

Ghost on the Yukon River
We had been paddling all day and were planning to camp at the deserted first nation village site of Little Salmon, where the Little Salmon River enters the Yukon. Coming around the bend in the river we could see the grave houses on the top of the hill above the village site and a place to camp below but as soon as we pulled up to the sand bar I got a bad vibe about the place. Bottles and trash were everywhere and I got that feeling of being watched (not in a good way), so I declared we were not staying and without even getting out of the kayak pushed off and headed on down river. The sun was setting fast and for several miles the banks of the river were too steep and would not allow us to get out before we finely found a muddy bank that allowed us to camp for the night. Hurriedly we set up camp and ate in the dark and crawled into our sleeping bags. It was around midnight and we had just about got comfortable and were drifting off when we heard a loud, long, wailing scream over the river just up from our camp. Brenda sat upright and I grabbed for the shotgun, the hairs on the back of our necks stood up on end. It happened again this time louder and just in front of camp. What the hell was that? The third time it was farther down the river, moving faster than any animal or man could move. We did not rest well that night.

It was not until we reached Dawson that we learned the sad fate of the village of Little Salmon. Shortly after the turn of the century the missionaries had asked that they move their village to the other side of the Little Salmon River to be able to build a church and school. The old shaman of the village told the people not to do so, that it would bring bad luck, but move they did, such was the power of the missionaries influence. Within a year the entire village had died from influenza!

Shortly after passing through the town of Carmacks we came to Five Finger Rapids a beautiful area with high rock walls and an arch to be seen as we shot through in the swift current.

For us the rapids were of little concern but back in the day the narrow rock lined Five Finger Rapids were a significant navigational challenge for river boat captains and their crew.

Several days later we arrived at Fort Selkirk on a lovely warm sunny day. Archaeological evidence shows that the site has been in use for at least 8,000 years. The Hudson's Bay Company built a trading post in 1852. Resenting the interference with their traditional trade with interior tribes Chilkat warriors attacked and looted the post that summer, HBC’s trading post wasn’t to be rebuilt until 40 years later. Today many of the town’s buildings have been restored and the Fort Selkirk Historic Site is owned and managed jointly by the Selkirk First Nation and the Yukon Government.

The town’s old buildings were lots of fun to explore including a small museum with information on the history of this unique area.

Down river from Fort Selkirk we passed under these basalt cliffs that were formed by the Selkirk volcanic field, the youngest eruptions within the field are unknown. However, nearby Volcano Mountain produced lava flows that appears to be only a few hundred years old. Volcano Mountain is called Nelrúna in the Northern Tutchone language.

Camping on one of the many sandbar islands in the river has several advantages; they are at the river level and the banks are not so steep, you see more wildlife there and the breeze off the river keeps the bugs down.

Nearing the end of our journey we took a break from moving camp and had a rest day at last, just a lazy morning breakfast of pancakes and fresh picked blueberries. Ahh, this is the life!

Arriving in Dawson at last after 15 days on the Yukon River and looking forward to a good meal and hot shower!

The picturesque town of Dawson still holds on to its turn of the century charm and with the river behind us, we now had time to wander the streets of Dawson and take in its rich history and culture. Some Dawson attractions worth mentioning are the Dawson Museum, Dänojà Zho Cultural Center, Diamond Tooth Gertie's Casino replete with cancan dancers and the historic Downtown Hotel. Ask them for their famous Sour Toe Cocktail, if you dare.

You may also want to take a tour of the steamship Kino and learn about the amazing fleet of boats that transported the early adventurers of the rivers bygone days.

If plan your own adventure on the Yukon River may I also suggest this fascinating book to take along? Klondike- the Last Great Gold Rush 1896-1899 by Pierre Berton is the story of a wild interlude in the epic history of western development set against the beauty and perils of the Yukon.

“The more I see of the country, the less I feel I know about it. There is a saying that after five years in the north every man is an expert; after ten years, a novice”. - Pierre Berton