Paddling the Yukon River to CarmacksOctober 18, 2016
It was mid-July, we had been going for 16 days and we still have over 600 km to paddle to get to Dawson City. We had finally reached the Yukon River and would not be paddling anymore lakes so we expected to start covering more distance every day, but thinking ahead to how much further we had to paddle could get daunting so we continued to take our trip day by day.
We were excited about this section of river. The “30 Mile River” section of the Yukon is described as the best part of the trip, the best fishing, the most scenic and full of historic sites and buildings to explore. In the interest of taking advantage of the place we stopped at the old Lower Laberge Indian Village. There were the ribs of an old ship, a few old log cabin remains and an old rusty truck that the kids really enjoyed looking at.
Dwane pulled out his fishing rod for the first time to see if he could catch some fish. He caught a Grayling on his second cast which surprised and excited the kids. Watching him fish Molly said “if Dad was a fisherman he’d know how to catch fish”. Her jaw dropped when she saw the fish and exclaimed excitedly “Dad is a fisherman!”
While paddling that afternoon we could hear a thunderstorm building. I was playing with the Go Pro, pointing it at a huge black cloud directly in front of the canoe on the chance we’d get to see some lightning. All of a sudden there was the loudest crack of thunder right above us. I put the camera away in a hurry and grabbed my paddle to help Dwane get the canoe to shore as quickly as possible. Luckily we spotted a campsite just 100 feet downstream from us.
We pulled into shore and Dwane scrambled to get the tarp set up over a picnic table while I grabbed some warm clothes from the canoe. The four corners of the tarp had been secured, but no tarp pole had been found yet when it started to pour rain. It rained so much and so heavily with the wind blowing sideways before it started to hail intensely while lightning flashed and thunder boomed almost constantly overhead. I sat on the ground below the picnic table with the kids in my lap while Dwane held the tarp up, using his left arm as the pole. It was the most intense storm Dwane or I had ever experienced. We were amazed how lucky we were that there had been a campsite right when we needed it and with just enough time to get under cover!
The hard rain eventually ended, but the thunder continued to boom and rumble off in the distance for another hour or so as the storm moved south up Lake Laberge. When the intensity of the storm eased Dwane decided he would try his luck fishing again off the beach by the campsite. In no time he caught a big white fish called an Inconnu. The kids were even more impressed this time and completely absorbed in watching him as he scaled, cleaned and filleted it. Our friendly camp seagull who we named Scully got lucky and cleaned up most of the scraps for us.
The next day we ended up paddling the whole 30 mile river section down to the old village site of Hootalinqua (about 50 km)! It was a slow start to the day. Everyone had been getting tired from the paddle down Lake Laberge so we let the kids sleep in while we relaxed for the morning. Drinking coffee, eating pancakes and slowly packing up camp. On the water I was still taking it slow, taking a few pictures while dragging my hand through the water enjoying the peace and solitude. Pretty soon the kids both fell asleep. Although we wanted to enjoy this section of river and take our time our new strategy is to cover as much distance as we can while the kids nap. We paddled about an hour and a half as the kids slept. It was a beautiful paddle and we covered almost 25 km before the kids woke up. We stopped for lunch where Dwane managed to catch another Grayling and back on the water we watched as the sky darkened and the thunder clouds started building again.
Earlier in the day there had been a lot of gravel banks and potential camps, but this section was mostly grass and mud banks so we could see no good place to wait out a storm. The wind was building, but with the fast river current we figured we could reach the next campsite within an hour. Ten minutes later the thunder was rumbling louder. Some rain, huge raindrops and then it stopped. A few minutes later we could see a wall of pouring rain on the other side of the river, less than 200 feet away. I was mesmerized, I’d never seen such heavy rain, so close yet we weren’t getting wet. There was nowhere good to pull over, but we had no time left so we pulled into the bushes. I carried both kids and the rain gear through the undergrowth to the trees while Dwane secured the boat with two lines as the canoe was still sitting in the strong current.
We got the kids into their rain gear just in time for the heavy rain to hit. Earlier in the day I commented on the black spruce trees, so straight and tall with very short branches. Now sitting under them in the rain I realized how little shelter they offered. We did feel safe from the lightning though, and thankfully it was less intense than the day before. When the hail started Molly thought it was amazing that ice cubes were falling from the sky and happily started eating them. She was even disappointed when the hail turned into rain, but made a game of poking at all the water drops on the ends of the branches. I was amazed how tough the kids were. The storm was just another experience to them. Not only did they not complain, I think they enjoyed it! Thankfully it was another quickly passing storm. The worst was over after 20 minutes, but we sat there a while longer waiting for the rain to stop. Eventually we crawled out from our sitting spot, got back in the canoe and had a short paddle down to our campsite at Hootalinqua.
Hootalinqua is another old settlement with an old telegraph building and few other cabins and artifacts. We all love exploring these old heritage sites. While Dwane and I were listening to Molly tell us a story about something she had found on the floor of a cabin, Chuck managed to pull a piece of furniture onto himself. He called out and we both turned at the same time to see an old dresser falling on him. Dwane got there a moment before me and grabbed the dresser while I grabbed Chuck. A moment of absolute fear for me imagining the worst, but everything turned out okay.
The next day we decided to stay in camp to get the big pile of laundry done and bathe in the river. It feels pretty luxurious to have such a big campsite to ourselves and we had a small protected bay to swim in. By the time we were ready to leave camp we saw the thunder clouds. We quickly unpacked the canoe and got everything under the tarp. It was another hard rain with thunder and lightning, but more comfortable than yesterday in the woods and less scary than two days ago in the strongest storm.
After the storm more people showed up to camp. We made dinner, still considering whether we should paddle on, but the sky didn’t clear off as fast as it did in prior days and some thunder was still heard off in the distance. The thunderstorm finally did clear after dinner, but too late to go anywhere that evening.
The next day we continued our paddle down to the nearby Hootalinqua Island to see the old shipyard and the steamer Evelyn which was abandoned on the island about 100 years ago. Then we had a very nice 15 km paddle before finding ourselves in a recently burnt out area. Initially it was just a few patches and I commented on what a small fire it was. Then it was every tree and on both sides of the river, a huge fire!
Before long we saw our first moose of the trip. We’d seen a lot of moose track so far, but no moose. We had been mostly paddling during the middle of the hot days which is not the best time to see wildlife but today was the first day with complete cloud cover and luckily the kids were quietly eating snacks, not yelling as we approached them. There was a mama moose lying down close to the water and two big calves lying closer to the trees. As we approached they all stood up. The calves quickly ducked into the bushes, but mama moose started eating leaves in plain view. She was so big! It was a quick sighting as the current rushed us past them, but all four of us were enthralled.
The moose had redeemed the burnt area for us temporarily. There were other moments of beauty looking through the trees to the mountains behind and the amazing amounts of fireweed flowers. But it grew tiresome as we went on and everything was burnt, up every mountain and as far as we could see. After 15 km of complete devastation it was so nice to see the green shore and mountains as they came back into view. Unfortunately the intact forest didn’t last as the river flowed back into burnt arears. Here the burn was much older, everything is green, with few standing dead trees, but only very small trees as far as we can see.
A further 12 km paddle downstream into a headwind we finally made it to a beautiful rocky point on the big island in the 4th of July Bend. It was a great open camp by the water’s edge. After three nights we were already tired of developed sites, with their picnic tables, dirty fire pits and being in the trees rather than out in the open by the water. Also after paddling 70 km today we were done!
The following day was the strangest day, the kids behaved so well all day in the canoe! We had fun at camp this morning, it was really such a beautiful campsite. Molly woke up and said she wanted to stay and play more and have another campfire. When we left the kids played happily in their cockpit for two hours, shocking I know! After a lunch break the kids had a huge (2 ½ hour) nap, again shocking. These big naps allow us to paddle more in peace, but it’s a trade-off. As we paddle longer and are more tired by the time we reach camp, the kids are rested up for big evenings of play.
The paddle today was very beautiful. We finally paddled out of the old burn early in the day, then after a couple bends and islands with multiple channels through them the river was fairly straight most of the day. The shore was lined with beautiful mountains with green trees up the sides. After Little Salmon River and the old village site there were power lines cutting across the otherwise beautiful slopes. We could see and hear traffic on the Campbell Highway now that we are approaching the town of Carmacks.
The river was slower today than yesterday and we were paddling into a head wind most of the day. While we did travel 65 km today it took us longer than the 70 km yesterday. We found a camp on a gravel island on a big bend approximately 35 km before Carmacks. While brushing our teeth we were visited by a beaver. After watching him swim back and forth in front of us for a while we realized that he was trying to swim upstream past our camp. We got a good show as he surfaced and looked at us several times only 10 feet away. We also had a shore bird mama whose nest is on the beach close to where we landed. Unfortunately we didn’t notice her until we were unpacked or we wouldn’t have camped so close. The chicks look freshly hatched and when they dried out she took them into the bush a little ways away to be safer.
The next day was a pretty easy paddle to the Coal Mine Campground a couple of kilometers before Carmacks. We got a cabin with big bunk beds. It’s not a place I would recommend, but it’s in the right place for us, a final break before Dawson City and we needed the rest. We also needed to resupply with groceries in Carmacks so it is a mandatory stop.
Molly and I walked the mile to the grocery store the next day. It was a long, slow walk down a highway, with the only interesting part being the bridge over the Yukon River. Luckily we ran into the campground owner at the store and he offered to wait and drive us back. That meant the shop for the final 8 days of our trip was done very hurried, but it would have been a struggle getting all that food and Molly back down the highway on foot.
While we’ve been taking this trip one leg at a time leaving Carmacks means we are committing to go all the way to Dawson City. A commitment to paddle another 400 km through the most remote country we’ve been through yet!
To read about the previous leg of our trip click here.
To read about the next leg of our trip click here.