Canoe trips, Yukon River

Visit to Fort Selkirk

November 26, 2016

Paddling downstream from Carmacks we got back into the wilderness very quickly, thank goodness!  It was a beautiful paddle, with scenic hills surrounding a wide river valley.  We passed some native fishing camps. Many salmon were hanging on the wooden racks in the smoke filled fish house.  It looked so inviting we wished we could drop in for a visit but we felt the pull of this mighty river again. We were heading into what was to be the most remote and challenging part of our journey.

We ran Five Finger Rapids today, a place that has been on our minds since the beginning of our trip. I admit I was very nervous before going through them.  Instead, it turned out to be quite an easy run with Dwane steering a good line down through the middle.  The huge rocks on either side were beautiful and the kids loved it.  “Do it again dad” chimed Molly as soon as we were through.

We saw our first bear of the trip today (on day 24!).  He was a small black bear, maybe 2 years old, on the side of the river.  He ran a bit when he saw our canoe and then sat and watched us as we floated by.  Molly thought it was fun to see a bear, I don’t know what Chuck thought as he just stared and stared in complete silence.

We hoped to camp at the old cable crossing station.  Unfortunately the campsite was far back into the woods with raspberry bushes (bear food) and the loud buzzing of insects all around.  We decided to carry on and found a camp on a small gravel island.  It was a nice open camp, which always feels much safer to us.  No bear is going to pop out of the bush right beside us when we are sitting out on a gravel bar.

The next couple days on the river were a bit of a challenge. With the kids being grumpy and difficult and Dwane struggling with a sore back.  We are finding that rest days at a cabin don’t help.  Chuck especially has a hard time getting back into the routine of the canoe trip. With the kids fighting and a storm brewing off in the distance Dwane spotted a campsite so we stopped to wait it out under the trees.  We set up the tarp but ended up sitting under a big old tree that kept all four of us dry while we ate lunch.  It was the first really big tree we had seen the entire trip.

Over an hour later the heavy rain subsided and we were visited by a solo canoeist.  He was travelling ½ our speed on the river but gets on the water by 6 am every morning so that day he had already paddled the 70 km from Carmacks.  He was an older man (~70 years) from Tasmania Australia, his comment was at his age he needed to do the trip while he could.

Our lunch spot was a nice big campsite, but since we had only paddled 20 km today we decided to carry on. The skies brightened as we loaded the boat and we headed out at 4:30 pm.  We paddled another 25 km. before we reached “Thom’s Cabin – excellent camp” as marked on the map. We decided to set up camp even though other paddlers were already there.  It was our first and only night at a wilderness camp with other people.  We generally like being on our own, however we’d run into John & Ray before so we knew they would be welcoming and the kids seemed to really enjoy their company.  We had a nice evening with a warm campfire and some (very rare) adult only time to end the day.

The following day we had 33 km to paddle to get to Fort Selkirk.  It was a beautiful section of river but we were all really excited to finally arrive on the beach of this historic outpost. We made our way up the bank where we met an extended family of eight adults.  One of the women were from Whitehorse and gave us some home cooked Moose Chili.  I’d never eaten moose before, but I couldn’t turn it down.  I figured if I was ever going to try moose, this was the place to do it!  Not surprisingly the kids weren’t into it, but Dwane and I enjoyed it very much!

We then decided to go or a walk and check out all of the old buildings.  Fort Selkirk was established during the gold rush and although the population has dwindled significantly the town thrived up until the Klondike Highway was built in the 50’s connecting Whitehorse and Dawson City.  The old stage coach road and the steam boat river travel days were over. With the new highway not passing through Fort Selkirk the people living here moved on to Pelly (up the Pelly River from here approx. 1 hour) or Minto (up the Yukon River) or downstream to Dawson City.

Today Fort Selkirk is a very well maintained ghost town, although there is quite a few people who still spend the summer months here fishing, hunting, and restoring the old buildings.  The old buildings are beautiful.  Some of the houses are quite big and there are also lots of outbuildings, two churches, a small school house and a big store.  I especially enjoyed a row of three nice houses with a boardwalk, fences and gates.  You could tell the people that had lived here, cared about their homes.  So far most of the historic cabins we’ve seen along the river have been one room log buildings.  I loved these beautiful old houses and felt like I could have moved right in.


Eating berries




Freda the interpreter surprised us after the tour of the site with a big bag of fresh caught salmon for dinner.  She also encouraged us to stay for a native gathering that was planned for the following day.  A group of eight First Nations men are paddling a dugout cedar canoe from Whitehorse to Dawson City.  It is a replica of the boats that were used in the past when trading between groups was done by canoe travel. They believe a canoe like this has not been paddled on the Yukon River in over a hundred years.  They are drumming their way down the river to awaken the spirits of their ancestors and tell them that they are still here and that they still care for the land.

A dance troop is planning to perform a welcome dance with drumming and singing to welcome the paddlers to Fort Selkirk. Everyone has been preparing for a big feast to celebrate the arrival.  A moose was shot here a few days ago and there will also be plenty of fresh salmon.  Of course we decided to stay.

In the morning Freda took us, along with John and Ray on a tour of all the old buildings.  Freda’s mom was raised at Fort Selkirk, her brother Danny Roberts lived here until he passed away in 2000. He had been named the unofficial mayor of Fort Selkirk.  Freda has now taken over his position and has been the interpreter for the last 11 years. There is also eight First Nations people who live and work here all summer restoring the old buildings.  Come winter they move back to Pelly or head out to their trap lines.

Freda’s step-father Don is just as friendly as her.  He chatted with us for most of the afternoon.  He’s very interesting and full of stories.  He was from Wawa, Manatoulin Island in Ontario but followed the Sharma (spiritual healer) out here not knowing where he was going and eventually met and married his wife Audrey, Freda’s mother.

The dancers arrived all afternoon, one small motor boat was doing trips back and forth to a road access back up the Pelly River.  They were all dressed up in their traditional dress for the celebration.  The kids made friends with one of the youngest boys who showed us how to make “Indian Ice Cream” as Don called it.  The kids collected soap berries and when they stirred them in a cup for a long time they eventually foamed up to about 10 times their original volume.  A little sugar is added and it is then eaten off of the stirring stick.  I thought the taste was quite bitter and I found out afterwards that eating a lot of it cleans out your digestive system so it was a good thing I didn’t eat too much!


Kids collecting soap berries



The locals were all really excited to play a stick gambling game.  We were not told all the rules for the game, and it seemed like you were supposed to figure it out by watching.  First there was a kids’ tournament which Molly and Chuck got to join in.  Next the adults played, locals against campers.  That game ended quite abruptly when the group from Toronto & New York beat the locals to their dismay.

A big tarp was set up in front of the cooking cabin and fires were burning in the outdoor fire pits and in the wood cookstove in the cook shack.  Everyone was busy at some task getting ready for the arrival of the canoe. The weather went back and forth between raining and sunny all afternoon.  When it was raining it was cold and when it was sunny it was hot.  A thunderstorm past by but didn’t hit us thankfully.

The dancers had been told to be ready at 4:30 pm.  By 8 pm the boat was still nowhere in sight and our kids were getting cranky so we decided to feed them peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Chuck soon fell asleep for the night.  It had been a long day for the little guy! At 8:20 pm the boat was finally sighted coming down the river.  There had been several false alarms but with some yelling to round up all the dancers they quickly gathered on the river bank to welcome the canoe.

As the canoe pulled into shore the dancers sang, drummed and danced up on the cliff welcoming them in.  I enjoyed watching the haphazardness of all the kids running into line late.  No child was scolded and no adult was upset.  The local people had travelled here and waited all afternoon in the rain for this moment but no one worried that everything had to be perfect.

The paddlers climbed the stairs to the waiting crowd, happy to have arrived after a long and arduous day.  There are 8 young men paddling, a stern person and three support motor boats.  It is a “healing journey” for them.  It is a very different and more challenging  journey than most of them had ever done.

After the dancing was over they were welcomed into the feast. As soon as everyone was under the tarp a torrential rain started.  It rained so hard the tarp collapsed and the whole campsite area turned into a huge puddle within minutes.  Obviously Molly had to go out and play in the puddles.  The premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynd, who happened to be there that night by chance, called Molly the “puddle stomper”.




The weather finally cleared and everyone gathered in a large circle.  All the paddlers shared their story, why they were on the trip and their experience with it so far.  The main organizer recalled how his motor boat had sunk upon launching right in front of the media in Whitehorse.  The person they had hired to set up camp and cook for them during the trip had quit without notice after the first night so they arrived at their second camp with no tents or food for the night.

Locals, paddlers, dancers and tourists alike all had a memorable night.  Once the speeches wrapped up there were a couple more dances.  Then it was announced that all the dancers had to leave to go back to Pelly. “The kids have to get home, some have hockey camp tomorrow and some have fish camp”.





To read about the previous leg of our trip click here.

To read about the last leg of our trip click here.