Yukon River, Whitehorse to Dawson City, 470 miles. August 14-27, 2011
Pictures: https://picasaweb.google.com/114522522989407753094/YukonRiver2011 Logistics: Scroll down to the bottom of this report. Water level during our trip: 2300 m3/s at station above White River. That is high for August, but average for June/July. Weather: mid-50s and raining the first 7 days, then 60s and clear. We wore drysuits and weren't bothered much by the rain. Party: 2 adults, 13-yr old, 10-yr old. Boats: 2 Clipper Yukon canoes from Kanoe People
Overall: A fantastic river trip with lots of history to explore! The river changes every day, and so does the scenery on this 470 mile journey.
Day 1. We left Seattle at 6am, caught a 11am flight from Vancouver to Whitehorse, YT, arrived at 3pm, and were on the water at 6pm. 12 hours after leaving our house in Seattle, we were paddling down the Yukon. It was definitely surreal. We paddled about 5 miles and made camp. The river here is not particularly wide nor strong. The river was going about 4 mph.
Day 2. We paddled some 20+ miles easily to Lake Laberge. Lake Laberge is very big (34 miles long) and famous for wind and waves. We had a head wind as we entered the lake, and paddled to an abandoned First Nations village on the eastern (paddler's right) shore to look around and rest. There we met Ben, an entertaining 76-yr old fellow who has been spending summers on the river for 30+ years. He took us on a tour of the village and the Great Rivers cabins, a company that had a scheme to have 4-star cabins and clients but ended up 10 million in debt. After a couple hours, the wind turned and we paddled onward to take advantage of the tailwind. Camp 2 was on the eastern shore of the lake.
Day 3. The next day, the rain continued off and on, but the scenery was spectacular. Huge rock cliffs rise out of the lake. It was 25 miles or so to the end of the lake, and we poked forward at 3.5 miles an hour against a headwind. Getting to the end of the lake did not seem like it would happen. The lake felt endless. Then we began to get a tail wind. It picked up and the waves began to grow. We stuck close to shore and just rode the wind and waves. The waves were big (2-3 foot?) but manageable. The big ones had to be ridden down at an angle and I kept an eye over my shoulder to watch the waves coming in. The kids held up their paddles and the spare to catch the wind. We went 7 mph with just steering. It was raining and cold, but we pressed on to reach the end of the lake. We were very happy to see the 30-mile camp and the shelter there!
Day 4. We paddled the 30-mile section from Lake Laberge to the confluence of the Teslin River. The river was high and the hydraulics were quite strong. There were lots of riffles, but nothing hard (I+). The eddy lines were boiling and getting caught in there was disconcerting. I had the bow too heavy at first and the boat was spinning on its nose. I landed and moved weight back and center. Whew, that made this section much more fun. We easily made the 30 miles to the old Hootalinqua village. There are some old buildings there, interpretive signs, an outhouse, and a shelter. It was raining steadily, and we made good use of the shelter again. Though it was raining, we had drysuits, so it didn't matter. We were dry and comfortable.
Day 5. The river doubles in size with the addition of the Teslin water. Shipwreck Island is just downstream of Hootalinqua, and there is a cool old steamer to visit (and a good camp). On this section, we were drifting at about 5 mph and with 1 adult paddling, 7mph was easy. We wanted to average 35 miles per day, and that was easy even with a late 10:30am start each day. We camped around 5-6pm most days. There were many big cut banks in this section, and the scenery is striking. We made a short day and camped above the Big Salmon river at a nice trapper cabin. We stayed in the cabin to avoid putting up the tent for a night. We lazed around a read, ate and made bread. K began reading us 'Cold Comfort Farm' and this was a nightly activity to the end of the trip.
Day 6. We decided to skip the Big Salmon village and make some mileage today. We had seen a lot of old cabins lately and were a bit maxed out on that. We paddled about 40 miles. It felt long (note we had just 1 adult in each boat), and the weather was dark, cold and rainy. We passed Yukon Crossing and poked around the old roadhouse there. We camped past Little Salmon River at a fisherman's camp. The camp was a bit junky, but it was raining and blowing hard. We made a nice camp with our 2 tarps, a table we found, some chairs we found, and some plywood. On day 6, K unexpectedly snapped his paddle in half while ferrying to camp. Thankfully it did not snap while while K was frantically trying to pull away from a sweeper! It was like this Snap! "Sh*t! Jake, PADDLE!" Jake paddles hard and begins spinning the boat around. Jake happened to be using the spare and so K couldn't reach it. "No, PADDLE!" "I AM paddling!!" "No, give me the paddle!" "What?" "Give me the paddle!!!" "What?" "F***!" Eliz. and Karina on the shore: "What on earth are they doing out there?"
Day 7. We paddled to Carmacks. We had been dreaming of the 'well stocked grocery store' for days. The river was now quite a bit wider, and there were not so many cliffs. We paddled through large old burn areas. We saw a couple moose. We arrived fairly early into camp and settled in for a rest. The campground is outside of town, but they have bikes we could borrow to bike into town for dinner. We hit the 'well-stocked store', but in the end, we couldn't decide what to buy so just got some more butter. Dinner was good, but our thoughts were on the river and what we'd face the next day.
Day 8. The dreaded Five Finger Rapids. I'd been worrying about this the whole trip, but I tried to console myself with knowing that few people dump in them. The books all said that if you hug the river-right bank and take the right channel through the center, the rapids are easy and you don't need to scout. There is a big (easy) eddy at the top if you did want to scout. In retrospect, I would have stopped and gotten out to take pictures. But when I got there, I saw that the run was easy and straight-forward and I just wanted to get it over with. At the water level, we did it at (2300 m3/s above White River, which is high for August but average for July), it was easy class II. My daughter and I were so happy when we came through, and we laughed at how much we had worried about it. Rink Rapids are a couple miles below. They are supposedly easier, and we were keen to run them after our success through Five Finger Rapids. However, as I got close, it looked to me that there were huge standing waves all the way across the rapids. The books said you could avoid the rapid by taking the right shore, so I headed that way and looked for an easier way through. K and Jake, in contrast, thought the waves looked fun and headed straight in. We watched as they entered...and then disappeared in the trough. Hmm, maybe we were going to need to fish the boys out! But they appeared back on the crest of the next wave, and K navigated the canoe down at an angle into the next trough, where they disappeared again. He had to navigate a few of these standing waves; they were certainly big enough to swamp the canoe if taken head on. Even taken at an angle, K took on a bit of water. Anyhow, the boys came out unscathed. We skirted to the right, avoiding the rapids altogether, and joined them at the bottom. That evening we had a lovely camp above the river at Merrice Creek.
Day 9. The river was now really wide and full of islands and braiding. The map is quite good and guided us most of the time. The current was about 4.5 mph. We headed down below Minto without stopping and had lunch at a lovely spot called Thom's place. The weather cleared and it was even hot sometimes. We decided to make a long day and push onto Fort Selkirk where we would spend the night and explore. This section is full of braiding and islands. It was a long day and the river was pokey here, but we were rewarded by the fort which is on a bluff overlooking the river and has much to explore. There is also a building for cooking with a wood stove. We cranked up the heat and stayed up late reading and playing cards.
Day 10. We lounged around in the morning and spent a few more hours checking out the fort. It is maintained and restored by the First Nations and Canadian government. It is very well done with lots to see. The fog burned off mid-day and the weather was beautiful. After lunch, we paddled to Selwyn Creek, a short 30 miles away. We saw many bear and moose this day. The river was wide and barges came by a couple times a day. Selwyn camp is a bit small and darkish, but the next camp was a bit too far to go.
Day 11. We paddled another 35 miles along the river. Big river, moose, and bear. Hot weather. We ended at a lovely camp high above the river on RR. We were treated to a beautiful red sunset.
Day 12. We paddled about 5 miles downstream to Kirkman Creek where a family has a bakery. We bought some fresh bread and everyone was excited about french toast for the next morning, as we have had oatmeal for 3 days straight now after the other options ran out. We continued on to the confluence with the White River. We saw bears on and off. The White River comes in from the left. It is huge, really huge. We stopped near the confluence and hiked up to look around. The views are incredible. As we headed down river, the current really picked up. It was about 7 mph and the hydraulics were attention-getting. The river is 3 times wider and it made me a little nervous; not because it was hard, but the river was so big and kind of brooding. The banks are cut and marked with many sweepers, so you cannot land just anywhere. Also the current is ripping along, so landing is harder for that reason too. The forest is dense with trees in this section and there were no marked camps. It took us about an hour of searching to find a so-so camp. We have mosquitoes for the first time. The muddy river was racing just below our little camp.
Day 13. The current slackened a bit and the trees opened up. This section was not so brooding as the White River to Stewart River section. In fact, it was downright pleasant. The river felt calm but it was going at a good clip of about 7 mph. It was still wide, but it was not as spread out as before. At 2:30pm, we found a really lovely camp in a bit of dry woods. We decided to call it a day and enjoy a long last camp on the river. We read, played cards, and I baked some more.
Day 14. Our last day on the river. We had 37 miles to Dawson City, but the river was going fast and it didn't take long. The river is straighter now with rock cliffs. At 5pm, we rolled into Dawson City!
Day 15-16. We spent a day and a half exploring Dawson City. There is much to see and we only saw a small bit. The weather was nice and we had a great time. Too soon, we were at the Dawson airport for the flight to Whitehorse and then onto Vancouver. It was hard to leave, and K and I would rather be back in the canoes heading downstream for Circle.... another summer.
Getting there and back: You can drive 3 days Seattle to Whitehorse or take a 2 hr flight from Vancouver to Whitehorse.... We downloaded a coupon for long-term parking at the Vancouver airport and it was only $130 for 16 days of parking. Flights were about $600 each on Air North for Vancouver-Whitehorse + Dawson-Vancouver. You can get a shuttle by car (12 hrs or so) from Dawson City to Whitehorse, but it wasn't going to be much cheaper than flying. Kanoe People picked us up for free from the Whitehorse airport on our arrival and took us to Canadian Tire to buy white gas. Note: when ordering online on Air North, try ordering 1 person at a time. The price goes up with each person (as the plane fills), and if you pay the price of the x-th person, so you can save $$$ by getting 1 ticket at a time if you have a bigger party. Watch your weight. Vancouver to Whitehorse leg weight limit 100lb/person; Dawson to Whitehorse is 44lb/person. After that you pay overweight charges.
Canoe rental: We rented a couple Clipper Yukon canoes from Kanoe People. All their info is on the web. It was $395(+tax) for 2 weeks plus $75 per canoe to leave them in Dawson City. They rent other equipment too. We rented a food barrel from them, but brought our own pfd's and paddles. Look over your gear carefully. Our food barrel had a big crack that we didn't notice until later. Our canoe was missing some clips and bow and stern lines. We had our own, but if you don't, check your canoe carefully and pick up what you need before you leave.
Map: The book/map 'Marsh Lake to Dawson City' by Michael Rourke is all you need. Kanoe People sells it or you can buy it online. The book is paper, so you will need a good (and big, like 8.5 x 11) map case for it. I printed off instructions from the Yukon Quest website about running the Five Finger Rapids. It has lots of pictures, and I liked having the extra info (though it wasn't really necessary I did read it about 20x before the rapids ;). We also took 'Paddling the Yukon River and it's Tributaries' by Dan Maclean, but that wasn't useful; that's better deciding on a river to take but not so useful on the river. It would have been better to take a book just on the Yukon River history, or say Jack London's books to read in the evening, or some story about the stampeders.
Food/Fuel: We brought all our food from Seattle since we didn't want to pay Whitehorse prices and we dehydrated lots of food. We brought our whisperlite stove and bought a gallon of white gas at the Canadian Tire store on the way from the airport to Kanoe People. The Air North people whined about our fuel bottles, but I said they were empty and cleaned out and they relented. Next time, I'll pack my stove and empty bottles in a airproof bag and not mention them. We tend to pack very light, so we didn't have to pay over-charges for our luggage. The Vancouver-Whitehorse leg had a limit of 100lb each, and the Dawson-Whitehorse leg was 44lb each. You pay extra if you have more than 2 checked bags per person.
Camping: On the Whitehorse to Carmacks sections, there are many camps marked on the map. On the Carmacks to Dawson City section, there are few. And from the White River to Dawson City, there are almost none marked. Many people camp on the sand bars, but they were mud bars for us and the water level went up 6 inches overnight once, so we were not inclined to camp near the water line. Where camps are not marked, you need to look for clearings and old wood camps marked on the map or paddle near shore and look for camps. We did not have to compete with other paddlers for camps, but I think in June/July there are many more paddlers and guided groups, so finding open camps might be harder.
Water: We drank from the river. After White River, the water is really muddy so we let it sit out to settle.
Mosquitoes: We didn't have many at all in mid- to late-August. We used bug spray one night otherwise they just weren't there. I assume they are bad in June/July.
Animals: We had no problem and have not read of paddlers having problems with bears. We did see lots of black bears and maybe one grizzly. Keep a clean camp and do not camp where bears like to feed (next to creeks and in the deltas at confluences). It is also wise to avoid areas heavily used by fishermen due to more fish smells. Do not dump food stuff in the woods near camp; burn it or toss it well out into the river to be carried away (no soap). Do not leave dirty dishes out overnight to attract bears (or other critters). Re sleeping on islands to avoid bears, they are great swimmers; we saw one out-swimming a 7mph current! There are also many moose, and it's wise to avoid areas frequented by them too. You can tell where they hang out from their prints. What you really need to watch out for are the brazen mice. Yes, mice. They will chew up stuff left out (yum, dirty socks) and chew into your dry bags. So don't leave dry bags on the ground and keep food in something mice cannot get into. A food barrel works well. We also have a ActionPaker box that we keep stuff in. Every night, we cleaned our camp and hung everything or otherwise secured it in the ActionPaker box. We did rent bear spray from Kanoe People.
Difficulty: The trip is mostly class I/I+. I have read in books that this suitable for those with little paddling experience, but that seems foolhardy to me. The current is strong and the hydraulics are strong. You'll want a good ferry to get from bank to bank, and know how to spin the boat around to land in a strong current. You'll also want to know how current pushes a boat around, otherwise you'll try to paddle away from something (like a sweeper) at a 45 degree angle and the current will push you right into what you are trying to avoid. Take some moving water classes beforehand to learn to read the river and deal with current. Whitewater skills are not needed; you need basic skills for paddling in a current. Also you'll need to know how to load a boat so that it is stable and is properly trimmed so it maneuvers properly and doesn't spin on its nose. This is fast cold water and no place for a top-heavy or poorly loaded boat.
Lake Laberge is big and prone to winds. Big lakes need to be paddled close to shore. It is very hard to get back into a boat if you flip and you won't be able to swim long in cold water. The lake is prone to tail winds (thankfully) but that also means running waves. You should practice paddling in running waves before trying to paddling them on a trip. They can be tricky and if you mess up, you'll be in trouble. Head to land long before you are in waves you can't handle.
There are two sets of rapids you'll face 25 miles downstream from Carmacks. The Five Finger Rapids is usually class I to II, but can be III in high water. The water was 2300 m3/s (above White River) when we did it, and that is high for August, but typical for June/July. It was easy class II- (1-2 foot waves) we did it. We talked to a couple who did it in 2010 when water was below 2000 m3/s (abv White River) and they said there where hardly riffles. In 2012, they did it again at 3000 (abv White River) and had 2-3 foot waves. Hug the right shore as you come around the bend before the rapids. Then you'll easily be able to line up with the center of the right channel. Don't psyche yourself out for it. Pack the weight low, get on your knees, and keep the boat straight. You'll be through in a couple minutes. Best info I found on Five Finger rapids was on the YukonQuest website: http://www.yukonriverquest.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/fivefinger.pdf Rink Rapids are a couple miles downstream. They can be completely avoided by hugging the right shore. It doesn't look like you can avoid them, but you'll see it's clear when you get all the way right just above them.
We wore drysuits for the whole trip. It was rainy and cold, so we didn't get hot. Especially with the kids, we didn't like the thought of a capsize being a life-threatening event. Fortunately, flipping is unlikely on this river and many neophytes do this trip with no problems. But it is going to be a long hard swim in cold fast water if you do flip. Eddies are few and the current is often ripping along right up to shore.
Sweepers: There were no particular problems with sweepers at the average June/July water levels we did it at. There were sweepers along the banks after the White River, but the river is so huge, they felt far away. You do need to be careful choosing landing spots in this sections. There are logs to be avoided on the shoals in the lower sections. Give them a wide berth and remember that the current is going faster than you can paddle---either use the current to help you move left to right (by ferrying) or plan channels to take very early so you have lots of time to move slowly across. Remember if you are trying to move rightward downstream at an angle to the current, the current is pushing against your boat at an angle and moving you leftward.
Safety stuff: We took a Spot Beacon and sent in locations twice a day to friends. We also had a satellite phone for emergency (rented from BlueCosmo in Seattle). We also carried a GPS to know our location, though we used it mainly to know how fast the current was going. There is no cell coverage whatsoever. In some sections, you could hike to the Alaska highway if needed. Below Minto, we saw a barge twice daily. This trip is frequented by canoeists and you are likely to see parties daily.
Dawson City: There are 2 campgrounds across the river from town. There is a free ferry. The government campground doesn't have showers or laundry. The hostel campground has a wood-fired bathhouse (it's nice). Both have pit toilets. You can get showers, flush toilets and laundry at the RV campground in town. In late-August, the RV campground had drop-in space but it won't in high season. We tucked in next to the RVs at the RV campground. Not scenic, but we wanted to be in town and were too cheap for a hotel. Getting to the airport was $15 per person and had to be arranged at the visitor center. If I had known how expensive that would be, I'd have researched hotel/motels with free shuttle service. Dawson City has loads to see. There are great museums, guided tours of town, fun bars and restaurants, and nice hikes. We had a day and a half and didn't have time to see it all. ATM and 2 full groceries in town. The Trading Post (on Front Str) has camping gear; pretty much everything. The Trading Post has white gas (not sure sure about propane). The hostel also has propane and you can ask the owner about white gas. Loads of hotels; most have internet. I wasn't able to get my US cell phone to work, which was odd since it normally does in Canada.
Carmacks: We stayed at Coal Mine Campground which is river-right above the town. The owners were super friendly and helpful in getting us a spare paddle (after K broke his). Security was good (according to the owners). They had bikes to borrow (for free) for the 15 min bike into town. The grocery store in town has everything; it is not a dinky gas-station store but a regular grocery store. You could definitely restock here if you wanted. The Coal Mine campground has a good burger stand or there is a restaurant in town. I don't recall seeing an ATM. There is a hotel in town with internet.
Whitehorse: Big town/city of 25,000+. Has everything you need: groceries, banks, Canadian Tire (for things like white gas, hardware, tarps, etc), canoeing and outdoor stores. Hotels, rental cars, etc. etc. There are a few places that rent canoes for long and short river trips. These companies will shuttle you wherever. We used Kanoe People, and half the parties we saw came from the them and the other half came from Up North. But search online and compare rates. Get Canadian dollars before you head out on the water. We had to use some US dollars at one point and paid 75c to the $ (vs 90c to the $).
Mileage per day: It seems like most non-racers do this in 10-16 days. YRQ racers take 2 days, hmm. On the river, we did 30-35 miles per day easy with with 1 adult paddling at an easy pace. Sometimes we stopped for lunch for an hour or two and other days we rafted and ate on the water. We stopped a lot to check things out. We pack light though, and we seemed to be going as fast as other parties with 2 adults per canoe.
Packing List: Look on the right nav bar on the home page to see our Yukon River packing list.
yukon_discharge_2011.jpg Water levels during our trip.