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Yukon Adventures – Days 4-6

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

We awoke trepidisously in our tent wondering what the lake would bring to the days affair, yesterday’s events quickly coming to the forefront of my mind, but as we peaked out of our 4ft hole, a calm, sunlit day was in force and it looked as though it was here to stay.

Indeed it was, and although we were both a little nervous clambering into our little floating world as we set off around 8am, after 20mins of paddling we were under way gently paddling northwards in and around the coves and admiring the views once again. With over an hours worth of hard paddling and not consulting the map during yesterdays storm however, exact knowledge on our location was proving hard to fathom, and we just couldn’t seem to figure out exactly how far up the lake we had travelled. We knew though that as long as we stayed with the shore on our right, we’d be going in the right direction and eventually, one day, would hit the end of the lake.

Our day 3 on the water was to prove one of our longest as we were keen to make some headway and make up any potentially lost time the day before, and with an early start, a quick stop at lunch and another for a break around 3, we finally ended the day around 5 on a deserted beach having decided to carry on another km or so past the more well trod campsite-esque looking beach earlier.

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This was true wilderness camping; no campsite, no nicely flattened rock ridden earth for a tent, no potential fire pits or areas for storing food, but we both revelled in the fact and enjoyed overcoming all these small obstacles to make a little home-away-from-home on the rock strewn beach. As per protocol we cooked, cleaned, and stored all our food a good 30ft away from our tent. We gently watched the sun go down over another spectacular sunset with mountains, reflective lake and lapping water in our sights and lulled to bed as we both slowly dozed off to a star ridden sky.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, sniff.

I awoke at around 2am to some heavy footfalls outside. My brain awoke and started to process the noises.

Thump, thump, thump …… sniff ……

Bear! I could hear a bear and he had literally stopped metres from the tent.

CRASH!!!

F**K!!!!!!! The bear had just swiped the tent!

“Hey are you alright” asked Han as she awoke thinking I was outside and had just fallen into the tent.

“Shut the hell up, there’s a bear outside” I whispered to her, frozen, terrified, petrified in a scared rigid pose.

We both stayed silent, listening. Wondering. Hoping. My mind was swarming with thoughts from where the bear spray was, to what do if it started to try to come in. After 10 seconds or so, it seemed that our vigilant food storing was paying off, and we heard the bear slowly lumber away as his footsteps died off into the distance. A minute later I moved again, we both agreed it had gone away and tried to sleep.

“Whoosh” said the wind.
“Shit, a bear is running towards the tent” said my brain.

“Splash, ripple, splash ripple” whispered the gently lapping waves
“F**k, a bear is swimming towards our tent” alarmed my synapses.

An so it went for the rest of the night as I dozed in and out of sleep, perceiving every noise to be a bear-related attack just waiting to happen.

At 7am we both woke up to another glorious day and played chicken to who was going to open the door to the tent first. But the bear had obviously long gone, a cautious and nervous breakfast ensued and we packed up and slid into the water enjoying the fact that we were on water and not on land.

With a rough first day on the lake, and a long second day where the map didn’t quite fit the picture we were unsure where we lay on the lake, and how far exactly we had traversed up this mammoth body of water. We figured we had another day canoeing before reaching the end, and set off with a no-water-current-for-the-day frame set in mind. The morning though proved to be spectacular – we had set off early, both not properly sleeping after the bear incident, and whilst the sun was slowly rising over the mountains to our right, slowly but surely enveloping the mountains across the way and moving gradually across the lake, a low lying mist lay hanging over the water. We both paddled on for 30mins in silence, respectful of the beauty and charm that paddling through the misty wilderness bought with it. Later Han would comment, that this was her favourite part of the whole trip.

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An hour after setting off though we made direction to cut across a cove (careful to not stray too far from the shore, but eager to knock off every metre we could from the lake paddling) when we realised that the only way the lake was turning was sharply to our right and into a river shaped object.

Could this be it? Was this the end of the lake? Were we so far off from our initial judgements? Was Hans our map reading so far wrong? All proved spectacularly to be correct as we moored up at a wonderful campsite at the end of the lake, investigating the first of many abandoned ‘creepy cabins’ and machinery, and celebrating that by 8am we were where we thought we would be at 5pm.

The water was moving! We were moving! I wasn’t paddling and we were moving! The scenery came pushing past us at a speed we had only dreamed off previously, we could paddle to both sides of the shore if we so wished, and the water current was gloriously pushing us through the first section of ’30 mile river’. As a ‘Canadian Heritage River’, this stretch of the river is known for its natural beauty and scenery, and ‘considered by many people to be one of the most beautiful stretches of the Yukon River’. We marvelled at the rate at which we were knocking off the twists and bends, whilst also marvelling at the U-turn steep-creeked river, the small harmless rapids, and the natural beauty that seemed to envelope the slopes.

At lunch we rather unceremoniously parked up at a small shoreline where a creek joined the Yukon River, and where our guide book informed us you could take a leisurely walk to a nearby waterfall. ‘Leisurely’ however is very contextual, and when you’re on a stretch of river, walking through forests where people rarely tred, the overgrown ‘pathways’ and ‘tracks’ soon become lost in a maze of trees and shrubs. After 30mins of warily pushing through this wilderness, and with bear encounters still wandering through my over-zealous imagination, we decided to call it a day with no waterfall spotting achieved, but a fun time had nevertheless.

The rest of the day went by in a visual speedy blur as we made our way further North towards our eventual goal of Carmacks, and settling into our paddling routine that was now streamlined and rhythmical. Our campsite for the night was to be an old abandoned settlement by the name of Hootlinqua (a First Nations word to mean ‘running against the mountain’) and where we got our first real taste of the rich yet short lived history that peppers the river from the lake onwards. The campsite lay on a site of an old thriving community that shot up in 1890 where it was first used as a supply point for mining camps and then grew to house more than 100 people by 1900 as it served purposes for the paddle steamers and gold rush stampeders who came through the area. Built, lived in, used, worked and abandoned in only 25 years, the site was dotted with old buildings, as well as intriguing, disused, discarded rusting pieces of metal.

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Something about the relative developed-ness of the campsite alleviated my bear fears somewhat and as we celebrated with the one bottle of wine we bought on the trip, we watched over the river as a moon slowly rose before creeping into bed, tired and happy at the day’s progress.

The next day, our 5th of the trip, was on the now widened Yukon River as the Teslin River joined it’s brother and increased it’s water output somewhat. It was a much psychologically harder day as our vision allowed for greater viewing distances downstream, and the banks seemed to be optically moving slower past our canoe. However, literally around the first bend we moored up at an island and went exploring for the Norcom Paddle Steamer that sits in the middle of the trees, nature slowly taking over the abandoned shipyard.

The small island that we were on was originally a workshop island that was used to repair, fix and upgrade steamers as necessary, and remnants of the old furnace, huge great capstan systems, and the king of the show, an old paddle steamer, were sitting dotted on the relatively small land mass. We spent a good hour looking over the impressive 350 ton 130 feet long steamboat, taking the usual tourist photos and enjoying reading over the history and stories surrounding the area.

As we embarked back on Vicky, the sun was not showing herself in all her glory as much as we had previously been granted, and a cold sharp wind was blowing northwards. Luckily for us it was in the right direction, but it was a hard fought few hours to lunch as we determinedly paddled downstream trying to knock off some of the kilometres whilst the weather was less than pleasing.

As we settled in a nice spot for lunch, we got a fire going, put a cup of tea on the stove, and warmed up somewhat before finally accepting the inevitable, donned extra layers and grittingly paddled onwards and magnetically upwards. We soon lost ourselves in a dreamlike rhythm as our paddles entered, pushed, exited and repeated, and despite the weather we were making good progress. Seemingly warmer when we were paddling than when we rested, we decided to turn the bad weather into a positive and to push on to a longitudely long day, paddling to our longest of the trip so far, finally pulling into a campsite around 6:30pm.

The campsite was situated on an outcrop that used to be an old wood camp; wood camps were dotted up and down the river to feed the hungry steamboats as they churned their way through the fuel pushing passengers up the waterways, and we had a brief look around at the history that dotted the area, peering into creepy dusty fallen-in ‘creepy cabins’ and briefly following disused paths and having a look at the rusted metal machinery.

We soon got our tarps, tent, cooking equipment and fire set up and roaring, and as dusk slowly took over from day, only to be absconded by a tranquil peaceful evening, the wind calmed down and a royal blue and pink hued night time enveloped the campsite. We sat out on a bank, overlooking the river with hot chocolates in hand and let the conversation ebb and flow as needs be. We were happy, we had pushed to a long day, leaving us a relatively 2 short days to follow, and soundlessly drifted off to sleep.

The next day awoke us with a cold sharp bitterness that threatened rain. As we packed up the tent in a rather slow relaxed manner knowing that we had half of yesterday’s distance to cover, and after the usual oatmeal breakfast (that surprisingly was still not overly boring or tasteless), we got moving but it was soon apparent that yesterday had taken its toll on both of us. With slower paddling, and Han struggling to paddle for long stretches at a time, with the weather, although not bitter harsh rain, being cold and dreary, we focused on the job at hand.

New and old burn areas were drastically marked out in quite distinct comparison to the relatively old treed hills either side of us, historical lodges and wood camps dotted the shores, and although we briefly stopped, peered, read up and took in the history and information, we made good progress and by 2:30pm had only a predicted hour left to go to get to our desired camp.

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As we navigated around an island however we got over-confident, and as we decided to take the ‘short-long cut’, we grounded our canoe upon a shallow shaled area. Jumping out into the river to push our boat through the patch was no fun feat, and I was glad to be hanging up my proverbial coat over the fire, stretching my toes over the warming rocks, and settling back with some warming tea by 4pm. The day had been short but in many ways the longest, as we struggled through the first day that had proved to be weather dampening, and some of our spirit was momentarily lost with it as we paddled through the cold, moist air.
Woken up by wind pushing the tent at around 7am, we stayed snuggled in our sleeping bags and looked through at the map to see what was in store for the day. A relatively short stretch remaining, we were aiming to finish at Coal Mine Campsite in Carmacks figuring it was going to take us around 4-5 hours. We reluctantly left our warm little den; once again bear free, ate some energy ridden oats, and for the last time, packed up all the equipment and got moving.

It was soon apparent that the weather however had different plans on how the day was going to turn out. A harsh, bitter, biting southwardly wind was consistently pushing against our faces and our canoe, slowing progress down, both physically and mentally. By lunchtime we were freezing, struggling to stay warm; only hard paddling seemed to be able to stem off the cold, we were drenched through from either hard worked sweat from the inside, or cold bitter rain from the outside. This was not proving to be a fun fuelled last day on the waters.

We momentarily stopped for lunch, but were so cold as soon as we stopped working our muscles, we decided to jump back into Vicky and ‘just get it done’. Ensue 4 more hours of hard worked graft down the river, where for once I didn’t see Han hardly stop paddling in-front of me, and finally the campsite came into view. We pulled into the docking area and waddled up the slope to find the manager. My leg muscles had frozen in place and neither of us could walk properly as we looked like we had wooden splints holding our legs straight, and when the campsite owner saw us she offered us a lodge which we gratefully took.

Knowing we had a job in hand, we decided to once again ‘just get it done’ and instead of warming up somewhat, jumped down to the dock, moved all the equipment 100m or so from the canoe to the lodge, pulled Vicky up the slope, set her upside down to protect her overnight, ran into the electric heated lodge, undressed, threw on all warm clothes and sat by the heater as, over the next hour blood slowly returned to our extremities.

The day had been by far the hardest of the lot. We had paddled for around 6 straight hours non-stop, pushing hard against the wind, rain and waves that were seemingly in protest that they had not taken us down to follow the fates of many other crafts over the years. Nature had not wanted us to have 7 straight days of pleasing weather, but had wanted to show us, and warn us, that September at 60 degrees north can be harsh, dangerous, and extremely hard work. I respected her for that, and can only think what some of the gold rush stampeeders had to go through during winter times without state-of-the-art high tech clothes and equipment could offer and alleviate.

The 7 day tour, that had slowly seeded in my mind 5 years earlier, had blossomed into a full grown adventure. Easy? No. At times gruelling, demanding and damn straight ‘wish-I-wasn’t here’ mind-breaking, but sometimes you need the dark, to understand and respect the light. We had had some amazing scenery and sights, we had experienced what nature can throw at you, be it bears or capsizing waves, had paddled in the glorious morning mists, had traversed fast flowing creeks in the calm cool sun ridden air, drank hot chocolate overlooking beautiful sunsets, warmed ourselves over campfires without a human soul for miles around, and had completed a trip that I was glad to had completed ‘before I die’.