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Written by Andrew McLaughlin
My adventure started on 7th September 2006. After 20 hours and 3 flights I arrived at Whitehorse (pop 23,000), capital of the Yukon Canada, having never flown before. Felix the guide for my trip met me at the airport. We chatted on the way to the hotel about what gear I had brought, stopping on the way to buy some fishing gear. At the hotel I met my paddling partner Reiner who was German and spoke a little bit of English. Felix was also German, did speak English but was a bit rusty as he mainly had Germans on his previous trips. This was going to be interesting trip, as I didn’t speak German. We were up at 6.30 next morning to pack our gear, have breakfast and ring home before meeting Felix at 9.00. After a short delay while I bought some wellies as advised due to the low water temperature we set out on our journey with another party sharing the mini bus. First travelling along the Alaska Highway then after a quick coffee stop we turned onto a gravel road. We arrived at Quiet Lake at about 2.00pm after stopping to drop the other party off. All our gear and two open canoes were off loaded, then the mini bus left.
This was the start of 13 days (220 miles) canoe camping in the Yukon wilderness on the Big Salmon and Yukon Rivers.
I came to be here because Tracy showed me an article in February’s Canoe Focus (BCU magazine) about a trip on the Big Salmon River in 2005 an advert for Windows on the Wild who arranged the trip and they were arranging another trip for this year. Windows on the Wild informed me in July that the trip was cancelled. Three other people had dropped out. I was offered another river trip and dates which I couldn’t do. A week later I was told that my original trip was back on. They contracted Ruby Range Adventure for the trip.
Whilst having lunch Felix showed Renier and myself how to use the GPS and satellite phone, (for emergencies only) and where they were always kept in Felix’s canoe. We then got all the gear, 3 people and 1 dog into 2 canoes. Then it started to rain. The next road access was 12 days downstream.
Renier gave me the choice of which position to paddle in the canoe. I decided to paddle in the rear seat, as I was more experienced. We canoed across Quiet Lake and stopped at the end for a brief look around, than carried on down the river to the first nights camp and lessons on no trace camping in bear country.
The next morning shortly after we set off we stopped to do some fishing. We caught 6 Arctic grayling between us for tea that night.
After crossing two more lakes. (Sandy and Big Salmon Lake) we camped in the grounds of a log cabin which two gentlemen from Bulgaria were using. The following morning was the start of the Big Salmon River. After a short paddle we came across a log jam. We stopped and decided to line the canoes around. Further on we come across another log jam, which this time we pulled the canoes across the bank into a side steam which was just passable through a number of logs.
As we crossed the lakes Renier practised doing draw strokes for when we went down the river. Due to the language problems this didn’t work out correctly all the time.
As we continued canoeing down river we encountered a number of log piles on bends and islands which we had to canoe around with caution. In the faster water we also found logs just below the surface, which in one case nearly had us swimming. Early in the trip we encountered a stretch of fast moving water with a left-hand bend. As we turned to follow the river around the bend we were swept side ways into a log pile with a log sticking out of the pile which ended up between Renier and myself. The only way out of this was to use my hands to manoeuvre the canoe to the end of the log, against the current. After this Renier tended to use draw strokes but not always at the right time, which made steering interesting. Further on the number of logs reduced but there were more rocks to avoid.
The scenery was mostly dense woods and mountains some with snow on, with, conifers and deciduous trees in their autumn glory. Finding space to camp in the woods was not always easy. Some nights we camped on gravel banks.
After about 4 days the showers cleared then we had clear sunny days for most of the time, but cold at night. The thing that struck me was the quiet, with hardly any noise from the wild life or birds.
During the trip we saw Bald and Golden eagles most days. Otters, beavers (who were chopping down trees to get leaves for winter-feed), red squirrels, chip munks and moose. We also heard a coyote one night and a wolf on another occasion. Arctic Grayling and Northern Pike were caught to supplement our supplies.
On the eleventh day the Big Salmon River had one last go at getting us to swim. Just before we joined the Yukon River we entered a fast flowing right-handed bend. At the point where we cut across the river to exit there was a tree stump partly out of the water, with the rest of the tree pointing down stream. To avoid it we had to go further round the bend, and as we turned the current started to push us side-ways into the bank with over hanging trees. I was able to lift a young tree sticking out so I could pass under. At the junction of the two rivers we stopped to look around Big Salmon village (disused). The Yukon River has a faster flow so most of the time we drifted. This was how we spotted a black bear with 2 cubs walking along the bank. The next day we stopped at Little Salmon village which is used as a cultural centre for children. This is where the road starts to meet the river. The day after we arrived at Carmacks and the end of a wonderful journey. We packed up and were driven back to Whitehorse with time to do a bit of sight seeing.
After seeing half a dozen people on the trip, Whitehorse then flying back home was a shock, being amongst all those people again.
Beware I think trips like this could be addictive.
One question I had was how much canoeing experience do I need?
Most of the outfitters in the Yukon web sites rate this trip as needing medium canoeing experience. From my experience you need to be able to handle a fully loaded canoe in moving water, and able to manoeuvre the canoe around objects and bends, sometimes with log piles and or trees 20-30 ft sticking part way across the river. At the time of year I went the water was low and there were a number of gravel bars and under water obstructions, logs and rocks. If going earlier in the year June, July the level is much higher and flowing a lot faster. The part of the Yukon River we travelled down the only danger was falling asleep and missing the scenery. They have small black flies, which bit. Buy the right repellent available out there.