Text & Photography: Frits Meyst
As the roar of the twin outboards disappears in the distance, we are left in total silence on the pebble beach, where the boatman dropped us off. We are on our own now for the next 5 days. Together with Aurelie from France and our river guide Clara from Quebec, I will paddle part of the Yukon River, the last hurdle that the ‘stampeders’ had to take on their way to the Klondike during the 1897 Gold Rush. For us the Upper Lake Laberge campsite is the starting point of the adventure, but for the ‘stampeders’ it was the continuation of a gruelling journey over frozen mountain passes, swamps and waterfalls. When they had survived that, they had to cross Lake Laberge, known for its unexpected storms with monster waves, to finish with a 700 km long paddle over the fast flowing river to Dawson City.
Packing for this trip was a bit chaotic as there was a last minute change of guide and one paddler was a no-show. So now we are standing in the pleasant sunshine looking at the mess we have to sort out and divide over 2 canoes and 3 persons. Clara laughs: “Well normally I do the shopping for my own trips, and now I have no idea what the other guide bought. So I guess we will find out tonight when we start cooking.” Just before we take off, a canoe arrives from the lake with a sun burnt couple on board. It turns out to be a German couple on their first long distance canoe trip, all the way to Dawson. They are tired after 2 long days crossing the lake, staying close to the shore at all times because of the waves. Many ‘stampeders’ got stranded on beaches for days on end waiting for storms to pass, but the Germans were lucky. We say our goodbyes and get on with business
As the photographer I opt to take the single canoe so I have space for the equipment, leaving the girls to the double. Aurelie has never canoed before, so she takes the front with Clara as the rudder. The water is clear as glass and we see bright red salmon swimming upriver to their spawning grounds where they will soon arrive after a journey of thousands of kilometres. It is late afternoon by the time we push off. The moment I hit the water my canoe is caught by the current and off we go. In the second week of September, the landscape is on fire with bright yellows and reds, the most beautiful time of the year to visit the Yukon. Aurelie was a bit anxious when she heard that we were going to cover 268km in 5 days, while she had never touched a paddle, but now that we are moving at a speed of 10km/h it is actually quite relaxing. With a big smile she paddles away in the lead.
After 2 hours the sun disappears behind the trees and it is instantly cold. We turn the canoes with the bow upriver and slowly paddle at a 45 degree angle towards the shore just in time to reach the campsite on a small island. On the Yukon you only have one chance, if you overshoot the landing site, there is no turning back. Carefully dragging the canoes onto the shores and offloading them, we set up camp. The damp cold is now a big factor in our lives and it is important to get a fire going ASAP. “Hurry Frits! I am getting cold here.” says Clara “Get us some wood, because we go from summer to winter in only two weeks here in the Yukon” Armed with the saw, I manage to collect a lot of standing dead wood to get us through the night while the girls start opening the surprise barrels with our dinner. The good thing with canoeing is that weight is not a factor, as long as you don’t have to portage. So as soon as the fire is starting to share some heat, we are entering a scene of Master Chef. On the table lie the contents of 2 barrels of food and with that we have to decide what we are going to cook. But if we choose wrong, we may end up with a missing a vital ingredient for the next dinner. The choice is made, the pork chops are first, and tomorrow is a new day, but not before a live performance by mother nature. The clear frosty night turns the river into steam which gets backlit by the full moon, casting mesmerising shadows over the river. With the warmth of the fire and the comfort of a bottle of wine, that mysteriously found its way into the canoe at the last moment, we enjoy the show and it is 1am by the time we hit the sack.
The next morning a heavy freezing fog hangs like a wet blanket over the campsite. No use getting up! I turn around in my warm sleeping bag for another hour until the sun peeks through the trees and starts its battle do drive out the fog. We step into a steaming decor that could have been used to shoot a Tolkien movie. The Yukon twists and turns like a giant snake through the wilderness. For thousands of years the river was the only way to get somewhere. So with that in mind I keep me canoe tied up at all times when going ashore. Even though there are roads nowadays, it will still be a five day hike through the ‘drunken forest’ to reach one. In the drunken forest the pine trees have never have had the chance to properly root in the permafrost, pure ice that sits only half a meter deep in the ground. With the global warming, the trees fall over and lean like drunks into each other. On the steep banks of the river the trees keel over into the river to be transported downstream. As soon as we reach the confluence of the Teslin and Yukon rivers, the water turns from clear blue to coffee and speeds up one gear.
The abandoned native trading post of Hootalinqua almost marks the end of our day. The log cabins on the site are slowly being reclaimed by nature, but the pans still hang on the wall like the owner left to check his traps and could come home any moment now. We bushwhack our way to the hill overlooking the settlement, where the indians put their loved ones to rest in the graveyard on their sacred land.
As we make our landing, bit farther downriver, we meet the German couple again on Hootalinqua island. They must have passed us in the thick fog this morning, and they certainly overshot the island, as they are still exhausted from paddling 200m against the mighty Yukon after taking the wrong channel. Also known as Shipyard Island, it was a maintenance point for the steamers. Ships that were damaged by running aground were fixed here. The centrepiece of the island is the Evelyn, a paddle-wheeler that was pulled in for repair, but never left. It is amazing to camp in the middle of Gold Rush history.
The night is overcast, so there is no hope of seeing the northern lights, We pass our time around the fire with the German couple, who happily add some of our excess ingredients to their dehydrated outdoor meals. Somebody forgot to tell them it is not the same as hiking. There is nothing to carry on the river. As I spoon through the turkey in honey mustard red wine sauce they are forking through their instant macaroni and cheese dinner. They have planned for 16 days on the river. Clara tells about the Gold Rush. “The territory is so remote that it took a year between the discovery of the gold in the summer of 1896 and the first prospectors to arrive. By the time the main ‘stampede’ arrived, all the claims had been staked. And most of the 30.000 ‘stampeders’ that made it to Dawson in 1998 came too late. In that year more than 7000 vessels passed this island on their way to the gold”.
The following morning I notice some huge footprints not far from the canoes. It looks like our little island has some visitors. “Well we are in bear country, it could be a grizzly or a black bear, but this is exactly the reason why we don’t cook near our tents and keep all the food, including our toothpaste in the bear proof bins.” Explains Clara “ Let’s keep our eyes out for wildlife today.” Sure enough, I spot a bald eagle in a tree. The trick is to not move and let the river take me closer. I put my telephoto lens on and set the exposure manually, then the approach starts. I can see his eyes checking me out, not sure what to do. He is almost close enough for a shot. I wait and then I can feel that he has made up his mind. At 10 meters I start shooting and sure enough he takes off right on top of me. That’s one shot in the box, and more to follow. We will spot many eagles feasting on salmon carcasses this day.
By the end of the trip I have seen my first grizzly bear, even though she was just poking her head out of the bushes before mooning us. We passed numerous log cabins and gold rush era tools, from complete dredges to frying pans, but the one thing I am really hoping for is the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights. The last campsite at Little Salmon village is 2km away from our take out point and we share the last bottle of Shiraz around the campfire, but the lights are off. Eventually we give up and go to sleep. I dream of French girls talking with funny accents, and they keep calling me… “Friiits! Friiits!! Suddenly the zipper of the tent opens. “FRIIIITSSS!!! Ze lights are ere. Queeck!” Shouts Aurelie almost in ecstasy. The green and red glow of the northern lights dance above our campsite and over the river. They are all around us. This is the treat we have been waiting for. It is the river saying goodbye in the most spectacular way.
Your Adventure Starts Here!
The Yukon river is an easy paddle, however due to the remote wilderness I do recommend to take a guide if you are not used to being self sufficient in the wilderness or not experienced with the canoe. Nature Tours of Yukon offers the complete package including guide, food and canoes.
The company also supports independent paddlers with canoe rentals and shuttle services to and from the river and the airport. Best Season: half June to half September Additional info: TravelYukon.com Getting there: We flew with Air North to Whitehorse.