Paddling canoes for two hundred forty miles on a couple of cold, fast-flowing wilderness rivers in the Yukon Territory of northwestern Canada is a true adventure, by any measure. Twelve of us went there in late July 2008, expecting beautiful scenery, remoteness, and some challenges. Our two-week trip on the Teslin and Yukon Rivers served up an abundance of all three. Although our group consisted of seasoned paddlers, we were reminded that the wilderness North of 60 can be an unforgiving place, even for the experienced and well prepared. We also learned that putting a group, consisting mostly of very competitive individuals, into a wilderness environment for an extended period can result in an abundance of interpersonal tension and strife, especially when some highly stressful events occur.
As the group organizer, I had made two prior Yukon trips canoeing from the headwaters of the Big Salmon River down to the village of Carmacks on the Yukon River. When I announced the 2008 outing, it was my intention to do a repeat of the prior trips, since it would be a familiar route. When I made the trip announcement, which was directed primarily to three Texas paddling groups, I doubted that it would generate much, if any, interest. To my surprise, paddlers from North, Central, East, and South Texas quickly began to respond.
Having organized several multi-day river outings in the past, I had learned to expect a certain amount of frustration caused by people who sign up for outings and then back out. A succession of individuals did this, right up until a few days before we departed for Canada, and their actions caused considerable irritation and extra expense for the others. One of my mistakes was not requiring participants to put up substantial deposits when their names went on the list. Nothing solidifies commitment like money.
For eight months we planned and equipped ourselves to canoe the Big Salmon and Yukon Rivers; however, when we arrived in Whitehorse, our outfitter warned us that the Big Salmon was unusually high and that we should not attempt to run it. A severe winter, combined with a cold, rainy summer, had made conditions on the Big Salmon very hazardous. Therefore, literally at the last minute we decided to switch to the Teslin River, another tributary of the Yukon River. Although the Teslin was also flowing at very high levels, we were told that it would probably be safer since it is much wider and had fewer sharp turns, logjams, and sweepers.
THE TESLIN AND YUKON RIVERS:
The Teslin River drains an area of 13,100 square miles. It begins in northwestern British Columbia, and winter snowmelt from that province and from the southern Yukon Territory flows into the narrow, 80-mile long Teslin Lake. A couple of miles above Johnsons Crossing the lake narrows, and the water pours out of its north end. From that point the river proceeds on its course to the Yukon River confluence, located about 125 miles downstream. Although the Teslin is considered a tributary of the Yukon River, it is actually the larger of the two waterways. This fact is obvious when paddlers reach the confluence of the two rivers at the abandoned village known as Hootalinqua.
We were not able to obtain river gauge data, but local residents told us that the Yukon Territory had been experiencing one of its wettest and coldest summers in decades. As a result, the Teslin was running about three to five feet higher than normal, thus very fast and frigid. The river was several hundred yards wide all the way from Johnsons Crossing to the confluence. For the most part the Teslin is considered to be a flatwater river and is usually rated Class I-II. Due to the higher water levels during our trip, the best-known rapid, Roaring Bull (Class II), was washed out and completely unrecognizable. Even though the Teslin is widely advertised by outfitters and guides as being ideal for beginning and novice canoeists, its dangers should not be underestimated. More about this issue later.
The Yukon River is the most popular canoe/kayak trip in the Territory, but most paddlers start at Whitehorse and then have to traverse thirty miles on Lake Labergea bad idea to my way of thinking. By paddling the Teslin, which joins the Yukon at Hootalinqua, we avoided the dreaded lake but still got to experience more than a hundred miles of the Yukon River. It is very similar to the Teslin, i.e., beautiful, wide, fast, and cold with no significant rapids. Above the village of Carmacks the Robert Campbell Highway joins the Yukon and runs parallel to it for about 30 miles. We could occasionally hear trucks on the highway, but they were less common than we expected.
Even though the waterways of the Yukon Territory were impacted by the influx of people seeking their fortunes in the Klondike Gold Rush and subsequent attempts to settle the area, most of the region has returned to its natural state. Little remains of the passage, habitation, and struggles of those who tried to make their fortunes here. There is something oddly satisfying to see how the tundra moss and other vegetation are slowly and inexorably covering and consuming the ephemera of human activity. The abandoned cabins, villages, mining equipment, sunken ship hulls and dredges, and the remains of paddlewheel steamships are now just fascinating curiosities for canoeists and kayakers to explore and photograph along the way.
Seven of our intrepid paddlers opted to fly to the Yukon Territory. Air Canada is just about the only game in town as far as flights into Whitehorse, and it shows. About half of our people were missing baggage upon arrival, and it required a monumental effort to get the airline to do anything about it. Air Canada had sidelined the bags in Vancouver because of weight limits on the small regional jets that serve Whitehorse. They would not load them on any subsequent Whitehorse-bound planes that were full. Many hours of raising hell were required to get Air Canada to move the bags to Whitehorse.
When booking my flights I discovered that I had made what I believe was a big mistake by using Orbitz.com to book my flights. Not only did they schedule flights that took me thousands of unnecessary miles out of my way, their scheduling caused me to have to fly all night and arrive in Dallas almost a full day later than anyone else in our group.
Five of our paddlers drove up from Texas in two large pickup trucks transporting four canoes, a lot of community gear, their own personal items, and some of the equipment and supplies belonging to those who flew. The ground transportation made a huge difference. It would have been extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to carry enough gear and clothing on commercial airliners for an extended excursion such as this, especially now with the new baggage restrictions.
Kudos and bouquets go to the Riverview Hotel (www.riverviewhotel.ca) in Whitehorse for their excellent rooms and outstanding customer service. The staff was delightfully courteous, friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful. Recently the hotel was extensively refurbished; as a result, the bathrooms were modern, the beds were comfortable, and there were the usual amenities one expects in a moderately priced hotel. The huge plush bath towels were an unexpected luxury.
The hotel is equipped with a fire sprinkler system, and it has a modern laundry room. There is a secure storage area for guests to leave their luggage while on the river. There is no elevator in the two-story building. The restaurant is OK, but there are better ones located nearby. The hotel is centrally located reasonably close to downtown stores, banks, and restaurants. The building overlooks the beautiful Yukon River and is just one block from the outfitter, Kanoe People. A quaint little trolley runs along the river and provides transportation to some of the big box stores located outside the downtown area. Everything in Whitehorse is expensive, but the Riverviews room rates were competitive, and they gave us a special group rate.
SHOPPING IN WHITEHORSE:
Although Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon Territory, it is a very small city of only 23,000 souls. Nevertheless, we were able to do find most of the food, fuel, gear, and supplies that we needed, albeit with some surprises and a few hassles. One of the pleasant surprises was finding a wide array of camping gear and supplies at a tire store (www.canadiantire.ca), of all places.
The most unpleasant shopping experience was at the highly touted Great Canadian Superstore where we sought to purchase our food. Its a huge store, all right, but we encountered poorly stocked shelves, checkout lines with 10-15 customers waiting in them, rental (yes, rental!) shopping carts, a broken glass jar in the checkout lane, a surly cashier, and not a single grocery bag in the entire store for grocery carryout. We heard rumors that the recently opened Wal-Mart store in Whitehorse will be expanded to include a grocery area, and many in our group were of the opinion that the competition will be a good thing.
On Sunday, July 27, 2008, Kanoe Peoples courteous drivers transported us to Johnsons Crossing, about 90 miles east of Whitehorse, at the intersection of the Alaska Highway and South Canol Road. There is a bridge over the Teslin River at this point and easy access to the river located just upstream of the bridge on river left. The river is wide and slow here, so paddlers have a chance to get their boats trimmed out and to limber up their muscles for the long trip ahead of them. After about three miles the river speeds up and proceeds in a northwesterly direction all the way to the Yukon River confluence and beyond to Carmacks.
For 240 miles or so the river route is bordered by wetlands, thick evergreen and aspen forests, and what Yukoners call hills. These hills are actually mountains by any objective measure--some stretching up to heights of 6,000 to 7,000 feet--whose peaks are above the timberline. Many of the higher elevations have snow on them year round. These mountains are unscarred by roads or logging and mining activity, and are almost indescribably beautiful; they are a feast for the eyes that goes on and on.
Our group had two GPS units and both indicated that we traveled about 10% farther than the river distances noted in our guidebook. If the guidebook mileages are correct, then it is quite possible that, on these very wide rivers, we racked up a fair amount of extra mileage moving back and forth across the current; nobody paddles a straight line in moving water.
As one proceeds down the Teslin, which is already very large at Johnsons Crossing, one notices that numerous downriver creeks and rivers augment it. Its speed varies considerably as the river channel alternately widens and narrows. In most stretches of the river we could drift along at three to seven miles per hour without stroking and could achieve more than eleven miles per hour when applying some power to our paddles. Because of the speed and volume of the flow, the water continuously swirled up in vertical eddies which made us expend a lot of effort to keep our canoes pointed downstream. This was quite tiring to those in the shorter solo canoes.
Our take out destination was Coal Mine Campground, a commercial facility located a few miles upstream of the village of Carmacks. Although there is a public campground in Carmacks, we had received warnings from several sources that we should definitely avoid it, lest we become victims of crime there.
There are numerous campsites along the Teslin and Yukon Rivers; in fact, there are quite a few more than indicated in the guidebook. However, they are often hard to spot from the river, so you have to watch very carefully. If you miss one, it will probably be very difficult or impossible to get back upstream to reach. That is also a good reason for you to stay close to the main group when it is time to be searching for the evening campsite.
All camping on these rivers is primitive. At Hootalinqua and Big Salmon Village there are some outhouses, but at all of the other sites we dug a common latrine and used a compact folding toilet and privacy tent. Hootalinqua had a few nice picnic tables. Occasionally we found that previous campers had left a crude homemade table behind for others to use, but most campsites had no tables or any other amenities. All trash must be packed out, so we burned as much as we could and carried the rest with us. There are no potable water sources anywhere, and drinking untreated river water is just dumb, period. See the discussion of filters and purifiers below.
SHARING THE RIVER:
You will undoubtedly see some other paddlers on the rivers, but we encountered far fewer people than we had been led to expect. We exchanged hand waves with a couple of guided groups and a few hunters, but most days we did not see any other humans. Even the motor boaters that we encountered were friendly and courteous. We never had any problems finding campsites.
The entire Yukon Territory is located north of the sixtieth parallel; thus, not surprisingly, chilly weather is the norm, even in July and August. We had one night when the temperature got below freezing, and nighttime lows were generally in the forties. Daytime highs usually managed to reach the sixties by late afternoon, and there were a couple of days when the daytime temperature may have reached seventy degrees. Sunshine was a rare commodity. People in Whitehorse told us that the region had experienced only ten sunny days the whole summer.
For an area that receives only about the same amount of annual precipitation as Tucson, Arizona, it sure seems to rain a lot in the southern Yukon Territory! There were only three 24-hour cycles during our whole two-week trip when it did not rain. However, most of the rainfall was relatively light, occurred at night, and often ended around 7:00 am. On our last day of paddling, however, we had an icy rain coming straight into our faces that lasted for four and a half hours and motivated us to lean into the paddles and get to our takeout destination a day early. We paddled forty-four miles that day in order to get to the Coal Mine Campground above Carmacks where we knew that hot showers, washing machines, and cheeseburgers awaited us.
THE LOGJAM ACCIDENT:
One of our boats was involved in an accident that served as a reminder that even a so-called Class I river can have severe consequences, especially when its location is extremely remote, the water is very cold, the flow is swift, and there are strainers in the current.
The accident occurred in a place where the Teslin River splits around a very large island and where several huge logjams have piled up at its upstream end. The main channel is to the left, and there is a smaller channel going off to the right. The majority of the 6-mph current went to the left, and there was a strong flow passing right through the logjams. The first canoe took the right channel, and one of the tandem canoes attempted to follow it. The left-flowing current proved to be too strong for the tandem paddlers to overcome and they were swept broadside into one of the logjams.
The canoes that were still upstream of the accident scene all reacted to the emergency whistle blasts and attempted to get to the spot and render aid, but most were swept downstream by the swift current racing through the logjam. One boat did succeed in reaching the logjam quickly and provided assistance.
The occupants of the trapped canoe managed to get out of their boat and onto the logjam. Others eventually worked their way back upstream to the logjam where they worked together for over fours in a heroic but futile attempt to save the boat. In spite of their efforts, the canoe pinned, rolled, and hopelessly wrapped around an underwater log. Thankfully, nobody was injured in the incident, and a fair amount of the gear was salvaged, but it was a terrifying experience for the two people in the canoe and a perilous undertaking for everyone who worked so hard in the recovery effort.
When the accident happened, two boaters apparently did not hear the emergency whistle blasts and were unaware that a problem had occurred. By the time they discovered that they were separated from the others, they had gone too far downstream to be able to see what was happening behind them. Later they told me that they waited for a long time and then decided that the main group had probably taken a different route around one of the several islands in the vicinity and had somehow gotten ahead of them. They proceeded downstream, and it took more than a day before the group reunited at the confluence of the Teslin and Yukon Rivers.
Having made several Yukon Territory river trips, I have come to realize that wildlife sightings are much less common than one might expect. There is a lot of legal and illegal hunting, so the animals are understandably wary of humans. We were told that this year (2008), because of the unusually large amounts of water in all of the upland feeder streams and rivers, wildlife had no need to come down to the big rivers.
Wildlife viewing is always better in the predawn and early evening low light conditions, but in July and early August, it never actually gets very dark at sixty-two degrees north latitude. The sun rises early, sets late, and there are several hours of twilight conditions in the hours between sunset and sunrise. None of our group was overly eager to get up at 4:00 A.M. or to venture out into the woods at midnight to try to get a glimpse of animals. We saw enough evidence of bears to discourage most of us from nocturnal forays into the forest.
On these big rivers most of us tended to paddle out in the main current, too far from shore to see small animals and birds in the dense riverside vegetation. With a group as large as ours, there was almost enough conversation or other noise to send critters scurrying back into the bush long before the boats got close to them, assuming they were there in the first place.
Even though the amount of wildlife we saw was disappointing, it was not as if we saw none. One of our sharp-eyed observers compiled the following list of sightings.
THE HELICOPTER CRASH:
On Saturday morning, August 9, we were finishing up our breakfast around 7:00 am and getting ready to be picked up by the shuttle vehicles at Coal Mine Campground, which is located on the Yukon River a couple of miles upstream from Carmacks. We heard a helicopter take off from a private commercial base located a few hundred yards from the campground. As it rose out over the river, it suddenly dropped, crashed into the icy water, and appeared to explode. A canoeist near us happened to be using his camcorder to film the river and captured the entire event on video.
Two paddlers in a tandem boat had departed the campground a few minutes earlier and were very close to the crash site when the plane went down. They made a valiant effort to assist a second helicopter in an attempt to rescue the pilot. Unfortunately, the prop wash from the planes rotors flipped the canoe, and the canoeists were dumped into the frigid, fast-flowing water. They were later pulled from the river and treated for hypothermia at a local medical clinic. The pilot was not so lucky. He perished in the crash, and searchers found his body a week later.
As we left the area in the shuttle vans, we saw ambulances parked along the river, helicopters flying back and forth, and a few motorboats plying the surface of the water. An especially troubling sight was the small group of the pilots family, friends, and coworkers lined up on the riverbank maintaining a sad vigil and hoping against all odds that he would be found alive. The tragedy cast a pall over our group and made for a very somber shuttle trip back to Whitehorse. With memories of the near disaster at the logjam still fresh in all our minds, it was especially poignant.
Being at the scene of the helicopter crash and seeing its tragic aftermath has given me a new perspective on our trip. We had our share of difficulties, such as the accident at the logjam, but they hardly rise above the level of inconvenience when compared with the horrible events that we witnessed at Carmacks that fateful Saturday morning.
I always learn a lot about river gear every time I do a river trip. Here are some impressions and opinions about several items that we used.
Katadyn Base Camp water filter. Because we had to filter all our water, this high capacity filtration system became the standout favorite. It required no pumping and produced large quantities of clean water quickly.
First Need Water Purifier. This unit removes viruses from water, which filters do not do; therefore, it provides a higher level of protection, at least in theory. My First Need unit was very slow; even worse, it had either a defect or a design problem, which made it completely unsatisfactory, in my view. When the pump handle was pulled upward, unfiltered water leaked around the shaft in such a way that there was a constant danger of recontaminating the clean water.
Satellite phone. Knowing that we might need to communicate with the outside world, we rented a satellite phone, but it proved to be useless almost everywhere that we tried to make a call. Our phone used the Globalstar satellite system, which, I have been told, is inferior to the Iridium satellite system. If you are considering renting or buying a satellite phone for use in the Yukon Territory, you should investigate this matter thoroughly before laying out your hard-earned money.
Screened shelter. We used a 14 X 14 screened shelter, which provided a much-needed refuge from mosquitoes and rain showers. It was purchased it at Academy for $59.99, and it gave us about a million bucks worth of comfort!
Canoe seats. Two of our group who used Piragis Bench Comfy Seats gave them high marks for comfort and durability. If you want to pick up a couple of these chairs free, we can provide you the GPS coordinates of the logjam accident; the chairs are probably still tied into the canoe that is wrapped underneath that massive pile of wood. However, if you would prefer to order some new ones, they are available from Piragis Northwoods Company at www.piragis.com.
Shovel and hatchet. Digging latrines in the web of tree roots inside tundra moss is impossible without a sturdy GI shovel and a sharp hatchet. They are available at most camping supply outlets and Army surplus stores.
Sleeping pad. The Cabelas Self-Inflating Air Bed is an excellent choice. It is 4" thick and 25" wide, so it will fit into a large dry bag (See item #51-4507 at cabelas.com). Some of our group used inexpensive air mattresses, but they provide no insulation from the cold ground and can be uncomfortable on chilly nights.
Cold weather sleeping bag. Do not let the calendar fool you; July and August nights are often quite cold in the Yukon. If you are the least bit cold natured, you will probably welcome the warmth of a good down sleeping bag.
Heater Meals. Several of us brought Heater Meals and were quite pleased with them. They provide a tasty, hot meal in about fifteen minutes without the use of a stove. They are available from outlets such as Cabelas, but you will get a better price ordering them direct from www.heatermeals.com.
Camp saw. If you are serious about keeping bears and smaller critters out of your camp, you will need a campfire every night to burn your attractive, aromatic garbage. To provide fuel for those campfires, get yourself a Sven Saw (www.svensaw.com). It is razor sharp and folds up into a small, thin package.
Humans process all of their experiences through their own unique mental filters, and their perceptions become reality. Twelve individuals made this trip, so there are twelve versions of what we saw and experienced. Likewise, every person who went on this trip came back with opinions about every aspect of it (For a different perspective on this trip, read the trip report on www.southwestpaddler.com).
I believe that most, if not all, of our group will look back on this trip and remember the spectacular beauty of the Yukon wilderness that they were so privileged to experience firsthand. They will be proud of coping with the challenges of living in the wild and traveling hundreds of miles on an unknown river. There are so many pleasant little memories of this adventure that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Among them are the great food and drink enjoyed at the restaurants in Whitehorse, the free bicycle shuttle service at the Coal Mine Campground near Carmacks, and the generosity of the many friendly Yukoners whom we met, such as the two hunters who stopped at our campsite and taught us how and where to catch Arctic Grayling. So many good things to remember!
We contracted with Kanoe People (www.kanoepeople.com), the major canoe livery and outfitter in Whitehorse, to provide two shuttle vans and four rental canoes. The proprietors, Scott and Joanne McDougall, are very friendly and helpful. Their rental equipment is top quality, and they have a good inventory of camping and river gear for sale. Kanoe People staff members know the rivers, and Scott spent time with us providing much needed information regarding river conditions and campsite locations.
If you choose to drive, Whitehorse is located on the Alaska Highway. From San Angelo, Texas, it is a 3200-mile trip. Air Canada flies regional jets to Whitehorse, if you prefer to fly.
For information on equipment rental and shuttle costs, contact Kanoe People at www.Kanoepeople.com. They also have trained river guides, if you want to do a guided trip. I would be happy to answer your questions, so feel free to contact me by email (click on user name link at top).
Some of us purchased the Teslin and Yukon River guidebook by Mike Rourke, which is available from various booksellers as well as from Kanoe People. Compared with many river guidebooks that I have used on other trips, I would rate the Rourke book as mediocre at best. The information contained in it is sparse, and the illustrations are primitive. It is printed on poor quality, highly absorbent paper that disintegrates when it comes into contact with even small amounts of water. If you are going to use this guidebook, buy at least two copies well in advance of your trip, treat the pages with a waterproofing product and keep the books in transparent waterproof containers. In addition, as noted above, you should spend time with someone who really knows the river to annotate your books. In spite of its shortcomings, you should buy and use the guidebook. Furthermore, does any wilderness traveler need a reminder to have at least one GPS unit on every trip? Make sure yours is waterproof, as there is no way you are going to keep it dry.