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Yukon Adventures – Days 1-3

This is part one of my blog posting on our trip down the Yukon River. The second part can be found here

I wake, its Christmas day, I wonder why every Christmas Eve since I discovered the wonders of beer I decide to drink unsavoury amounts of the sweet flavoured nectar the night before the big day, trudge downstairs, take some paracetamol in an attempt to shake the headache off in time to be able to gluttonise myself over the next 14-15 hours, and have the usual disapproving shake of the head from mumsy Wilkins.

An hour later and I’m unwrapping my presents, slyly playing the ‘who’s going to be the person to open the last present’ game by hiding a book shaped object underneath the table to bring out an opportune moment after my dad reveals one from down the side of the sofa – his usual ploy.

As I unwrap the present with a sense of satisfaction at winning the game for the 3rd year in a row, I look at the title and read ‘Journeys to take before you die’. With 38 different ideas on adventures and locations to explore in the world, I skim through it and place it to one side wondering if it’s a coffee table paper weight or a tome of knowledge and adventure.

A year later and Han and I are ticking off one of the journeys as we traverse over the Atlas mountains in Morocco making our way down to the Sahara Desert. Four years on from there, and with two years of Vancouverite living under our belt, the book was once again proving to be a bible of inspiration – the ‘canoeing down the Yukon from Whitehorse to Carmacks’ trip was calling out in its geographically prevalent voice; the trip had stuck in my mind from the book those 5 Christmas’s past.

Do we have the time? What about a cruise to Alaska we wanted to do? How much does it cost? What about bears? Coyotes? Cougars? When are we going to fit it in? Were all questions zooming through our minds, and then in a moment of clarity and enlightenment we realised….. “lets just book it”.

Two months later and we found ourselves at Up North Adventures signing forms for bear sprays, canoes, paddles, satellite phones and an array of camping and cooking equipment from pots and pans to axes and saws. The reassuring tones of Bernie, one of the shop assistants who was helping us with all the intricacies and packing procedures, were helping us to smoothly navigate through the multitude of questions we had, but were juxtaposed with some gut feeling that this was a bigger and more dangerous adventure than we were letting ourselves face up-to. I almost felt like a cheat, out of place, somehow pretending to be someone I wasn’t, outwardly being Superman but inside feeling like Clark Kent, but I kept on reassuring myself with three base principles:

  1. This is a common trip to take, especially in summer, and lots of people undertake the expedition.
  2. We’re going down a river – we can’t get lost or go the wrong way.
  3. They’re letting us do it with minimal fuss and no background checks or delving questions.

It was with this mantra that I figured that at the end of the day, its simple paddling, down a river, with some camping thrown in every night. What could possibly go wrong?

We had opted to take the classic route from the fairly populous city of Whitehorse (sporting circa 27000 inhabitants, over 2/3 of the entire population of the territory), located around 60 degrees north in the Yukon Territory of Canada, to Carmacks, a small town of around 3500 people and 350 river kilometres northwards. The route and towns were made famous in the turn of the 20th century when gold was found on the Yukon River and surrounding waterways and the route dramatically opened up as paddle steamers toured the waters between the two towns.

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We packed the canoe with what was soon to become the standardised packing routine; food in two big water proof barrels, clothes in one 60 litre dry bag (green), cooking equipment in another dry bag (blue), followed by camping equipment and some odds and ends in a final bag (yellow). Place the items in the middle of the canoe. Tie up the saw, axe, shovel and spare paddle; carry on the rope through the barrels and dry bags, and tie all this to the canoe. Place the 20litre water barrel behind me at the back; tie the debailer, spare gasoline for the stove and the emergency rope at the front of the canoe in-front of Han, and finish off with a couple of small litre dry bags for day use (with things like camera, couple of snacks, our river bible and sunglasses in).

Before we knew it, we were off. We jumped in the canoe, traversed into the middle of the river, waved a final goodbye to Bernie, and started to paddle. We had both paddled before but only in single canoes and kayaks, and not in a double occupancy open top canoe such as what we were in now. The technique and effortless rhythm that we were seeking would take us a few days to nail down completely with silent unspoken subconscious flow, but we soon learnt to roughly stay in a straight line and adjust and turn as needs be. Although I did have to tactically ask Han a few times if she was “moving any water when she paddled”, we did seem to move faster when she made her strokes, and we slowly progressed down the river.

We had gone over the map earlier on in the morning, and with a 11am set off we had a rough plan of hitting a campsite just before the infamous Lake Laberge on the first day. Depending on weather the lake should then take us around 2 days, giving us 4 more days to meander the Yukon River before hitting Carmacks and our pickup spot early on on the 8th day.

We paddled for 30mins, entered the wilderness backdrop that was to be our visual friend over the next 8 days, said goodbye to any other human being for the same amount of time and started to relax and enjoy the journey. As with all firsts, the first time we saw the iconic bald eagle in the distance the cameras were drawn from their pouches and we steered slowly in the direction gearing up to take photo after photo of a far off bird that we could just make out. We soon realised however that eagle spotting was not to be a problem; on some occasions we floated past the bird a mere 10ft away, or directly under a branch where the eagle was quietly surveying the flowing river, or in one instance, majestically diving towards a group of young ducks to pluck one out of the river for what I could only suppose was a delicious meal of fresh duck seasoned with fresh local herbs, accompanied by fresh mountain water to wash it all down with.

The sun was out, the gentle rippling sound of the paddles slowly and effortlessly entering the river were adding to the acoustics of a far off eagle cry, and the ripple of the water over the shore lines rocks were gently lulling Vicky, our canoe, and Han to sleep. It was soon apparent that Han was fast asleep lying backwards on her makeshift boat bed. I let her snooze for an hour before ‘accidently’ splashing some water by a wayward paddle stroke, where she awoke to wonder where she was and what she was doing (not a lot, I let her know).

The day passed in a visual and relaxing blur – the main historical sites to be found would mostly all be after the lake – so we enjoyed the river, chatting away, enjoying the silence, looking at the map, looking at the scenery, and reading the history behind the names of the turns and bends on the river. We stopped for lunch on a small sand island around 1, and by 5 we were at our campsite. After a surprisingly gentle embarkation we went through another routine that we would soon standardise and streamline and set up camp. Whilst Han got a cup of brew on the go, I went off to ‘be a man’, checking for bear signs and chopping and sawing firewood for the ensuing campfire.

Mentally I had split the trip into two different areas; the river paddling, and then the camping on dry land. Both would have their fun, frolics and near death experiences over the week, but having solid earth underneath my feet allowed me to relax in a different way to the relaxing time on the river – the river I was continually steering and paddling, not necessarily hard physical work, but my mind was always computing, where as once the fire was roaring and the dinner was done, I could switch off the computation and just let things happen at their own pace with no intervention from myself.

Being out on the river for a week without seeing another human; no shops, no drop boxes and no cold storage, meant that food planning was an essential part of the trip. For a couple of days we knew we could get away with some meat products (we had a cooler with ice blocks in to attempt to stave off the warmth for some period of time), so in a surprising dinner for two in the wilderness, we found ourselves having steak with barbeque sweet potatoes with a side of salad greens for our first nights refuelling mission. Sitting at a camp table eating some nice steak, with foil wrapped fire cooked sweet potatoes, with not a sound but the ones that mother nature devises to play, life felt pretty good.

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Wilderness camping in the Yukon though comes with a level of vigilance during clean-up and camping – bears. Bears have such an incredible level of smell, touted as ‘having the best sense of smell of any animal on earth, 10 times stronger than a bloodhounds’ nothing that even remotely smells can be left in your tent during the evening; no toothpaste, no deodorant, no hand sanitizer – nothing. If you spill any food on your top, don’t have it in your tent, if you accidently drop some washing up liquid on your trousers, put them somewhere else; give them nothing in your tent that they’ll be inquisitive about.

With this knowledge on hand, we cleaned our teeth, stashed all our gear, food, toiletries and the like in the barrels and dry bags, and placed them 30-40ft away from our tent. We then got comfy in our little fabric house, turned on our head torches and let the books and tiredness send us to sleep.

We awoke safe and sound the next morning to a bright clear sunny day after getting in a good 10-11 hours sleep. With no bear activity in the night that we could spot, we fired up the gas stove, got a cup of tea on the go, and sorted out some cereal whilst gently packing up. By 10 we were on our way; a little later than planned but we were still new to this canoeing game and knew that we’d want to wake up a little earlier in the future and streamline our packing procedures. But with no particular rush or time bandits on the horizon we started paddling downstream and onto Lake Laberge.

Spanning 50km in length and in parts 5km wide we knew that we’d probably be seeing its waters for the next couple of days to come. As we entered its waters soon after the morning departure the lake looked crystal clear, mirror like in its shining glory with only a whisper of clouds in the sky. We cut the first corner off from the river entrance to the right hand shore and slowly paddled across little coves, past native settlements and high cliff walls and enjoyed the scenery. With less turns and less obvious natural landmarks (other than non-descript over grown hills and tree lined shores) we were finding it a little harder to keep track of our movements on the map, but we knew that as long as we stuck to the right hand shore we’d be going in the correct direction and we’d find somewhere to camp for the night.

It was around this time as Hannah was surveying the surroundings to try and fit the map to our position, or trying to fit our position to the map, whichever worked best, that the lake slowly but noticeably started to get a little rougher. With a 15ft long canoe that sits only around 2ft out of the water, little waves can start to cause big hassles fairly quickly, and we soon found ourselves battling against waves that were causing us a little panic.

As we traversed out of another small cove, the waves that were originally hitting us at 45 degrees from behind, started to hit us side on as we naturally turned our small canoe to steer out of the cove. When one wave really hit us and we wobbled way more than was emotionally stabilising, we decided we should park up to see if the windy waters would clear. We found a suitable shore line that also housed a small abandoned campsite and parked up for 45mins while we had some lunch and thought about how to proceed.

With no real lake canoe experience, no guide book on what to do, when to stop, what was normal and what was dangerous to canoe in, we decided to give it another go – the water had also seemed to die down slightly and I had enough foolish bravado in store that I thought we’d be fine. We started off again but after 10mins it soon became apparent that things had not died down and the waves were just as big, if not bigger, than before. Knowing enough about physics and general canoeing experience, I started to plan a course of action that would zig-zag us up the lake, first hitting the waves square on, piercing into them from the front, before completing a quick turn and riding the waves back in. This would ensure we’d only ever be briefly side on to the waves and theoretically not be in too much danger.

Over the next 20mins we were struggling but succeeding against the elements, and with a continuous verbal diarrhoea of chatter to Han about when to paddle, when to turn, when to push, when to pull I was both talking myself and her into thinking that we were safe.

But the wind was picking up, large white peaks were forming in the middle of the lake, and it soon became apparent that we were in danger out on the waters. The waves were really starting to move us around, the canoe was physically banging against the water as it came down from big waves, and Han and I were both starting to get really scared. The problem in a situation like this though was that you just can’t stop – the shore next to us was more rock wall then soft beach, and there was no way we could pull in to safety; we had to get round the next point at the end of the cove we were in and hope that nicer shores were around the corner.

As we turned the corner after some more daring head on, U-turn paddling, we could see a safe shore ahead with just one more turn to complete. I was vigorously nattering away now in an attempt to calm Han, and inwardly myself, shouting directions through the rain and waves, how well we were doing, how we couldn’t capsize if we hit the waves head on, and we went for it. We hit 3 big waves front on, waited for an opportune moment, and paddled like crazy to turn in time before the next. We were moving but not fast enough and a wave smashed into us. We started to topple over, Han screamed and clung on, I shifted all my body weight over to the other side and held on for dear life. We seemed to hover precariously for a never-ending amount of time before finally the craft righted us and we were turned towards the shore.

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We paddled to the shore and got out, physically shaking with exhaustion, adrenaline and nerves. The boat had about 8 inches of water in, and with the driving rain now coming in more force, we decided the best course of action was to get out the essentials, drain some of the water, get in some shelter and get some food and drink in us.

Sitting underneath a tree for cover and reading through the guide on the route, Han came across this section “Several people have drowned in the lake simply by being careless ….. if the wind picks up and white caps are showing in the middle of the lake – GET OFF THE WATER ….”. That was settled then, we weren’t going back out in that whilst there were even wisps of a white peak to be seen, and we started to set up camp proper. After an hour or two, with some warm food and tent set up, we had both calmed down and could relax into the evening as the fire heated us through and helped us remember exactly what this adventure was about.

In a turn of events, by around 8pm the wind and rain had stopped, the sun had just settled beyond the far shore mountains outlining their peaks and troughs of their jagged shapes in its red and orange hues, and the lake looked once again mirror-like in a picture of extreme natural beauty. A beaver visited and swam past our campsite a few times inspecting the reads and driftwood that floated nearby, before we both had to call it a night. We had been stupid to stay on the lake as long as we had, but I felt that we had been warned, shown and delivered what could happen, and were being rewarded with a new sense of experience and knowledge by the vista. We both slept soundly and comfortably that night.