Yukon River

Whitehorse to Dawson July 13-25, 2010
Where do you start to describe an experience that tested me like no other? I don’t know what I expected when I agreed to join Hammer in paddling 750km on the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson? Maybe in the back of my mind I thought I would be idly drifting downriver, a parasol to shield me from the midnight sun in one hand and a G+T in the other! Arriving in Whitehorse and seeing the Yukon River for the first time gave me knots in the pit of my stomach. My only previous canoeing experience was 2 days on the Shoalhaven River as it trickled downstream of Tallowa Dam. Here we had a very cold and fast-flowing river, apart from the 50km stretch across Lake Labarge (where you could easily get in trouble with winds whipping the lake into standing waves), the Yukon moves at between 5-10km per hour. And I thought it was only bears and other big things that could eat you, to worry about? Now I see that there was also the wild and mighty cold river to reckon with. I was well and truly out of my comfort zone – but there was no turning back. Hammer was steady as a rock, he assured me that I will be fine – we had the bear spray and a Swiss army knife for protection! Besides, the first few nights we were camping along lake Labarge and Hammer assured me that bears are relatively rare and there is nothing for them to eat around the Lake. So what do we see after the second night of camping – a bear up on the hill just above where we were camped on the Lake. I have heard Hammer’s story of the bear tearing through the tent while camping on the Yukon River so many times that it made for uneasy sleep. But thankfully this was the only bear we saw in our time on the river – we saw a few moose and lots of Bald Headed eagles and were fortunate to see the endangered Peregrine falcon on the hunt. We had all sorts of weather from glorious blue sunny days to biting cold head winds and rain. The landscape was so awesome and at times it was overwhelming, it made us feel very small and insignificant. The past history of the river is written in the exposed banks that have been cut and eroded by wind and water – towering basalt cliffs created by lava flows clashing with glaciers, a volcanic eruption 1400 years ago that has left a layer of ash just below the surface of the soil. Shades of green I never imagined possible, from the changing colour of the river to the dense spruce and pine forest which carpets much of the surrounding. Vast areas of the forest were burnt in a forest fire 15 years ago and are showing little signs of recovery. Recent history of the river is one of hope and abandonment. So many white settlers arrived – not just during the famous Klondike gold rush – with hope of finding a future and wealth in the new land, only to be defeated and to walk away sometimes leaving their house and all their belongings behind. We stopped at a few such abandoned cabins along the river. The sights of an abandoned shipyard are quite haunting – to see evidence of so much hard work slowly decaying and disappearing into the forest. Arriving in Dawson City, 12 days after we left Whitehorse, I felt victorious. I conquered my fears and revelled in the wilderness where I bumped up against my limitations very quickly but in the end I was enriched for having done it.