After spending 11 days on the dusty Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle and back, I was looking forward to getting back to a bit of civilisation. Dawson City wasn’t really what I had in mind at the time, but it ended up exceeding any expectations I could have ever had.
Playing a significant role in Canada’s gold rush history, Dawson City these days is a living museum and an outpost for travellers heading to or from Alaska. For us, it was to be our base for a few days to prepare for our biggest canoe trip yet.
Paddling the Yukon River
Months before, when Jean Robert first suggested to me that we paddle the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City, I thought it was a great idea until I looked at the map and saw that it was a distance of 740km.
That didn’t sound so fun. Then he reminded me that it was a river, and rivers do tend to flow.
The Yukon isn’t exactly the slowest river either, travelling at an average of 10km/h. To the worst, he proposed, we could sit in the canoe for 7 or 8 hours a day and still make it in around 10 days without even paddling. Now that didn’t sound very hard. I was in.
Preparing to paddle the Yukon River
At this point, you may be wondering why we would be heading into Dawson City to start a Whitehorse to Dawson City canoe trip. Well, what with our rush to get to the Arctic Circle in time for the summer solstice, we didn’t have enough time to fit this trip in on the way up.
So instead, we had to take a shuttle bus from Dawson City back to Whitehorse (with the canoe and all of our gear) to start the trip. I think it actually worked out a lot this way anyway since the van was waiting for us when we finished.
Canada Day in Dawson City
Arriving into Dawson City the day before Canada Day, we rolled into town with what felt like a million other RVs of all shapes and sizes as well as motorcyclists and the human-powered kind.
We took a day off from our trip preparations to celebrate my first Canada Day as a real, true Canadian Permanent Resident.
The morning parade was short and concise, but I think everyone was just in a rush to get to the free BBQ and cake.
Dancehall (or cancan) girls posed with local Mounties while the flag was raised and the National Anthem sung in English, French and the local native language. Later, we watched the Yukon Gold Panning Championships by the river, introduced again with the National Anthem and cancan girls/Mounties combination.
We rounded it all up with the free Parks Canada ‘Greatest Klondiker’ show at the Palace Theatre. We didn’t know it yet, but the whole day was a great representation of the spirit of Dawson City – the joining of gold mining culture with cultural diversity, bound together with northern tenacity and Canadian pride.
Paddling from Dawson City to Whitehorse
Don’t worry; we’ll get back to Dawson later. We actually ended up spending quite a bit of time there, so I’ll save it for another time. Onto the Yukon, our first real river paddling experience. We’ve done a fair bit of lake and ocean canoeing, and a handful of connecting rivers as part of the Sayward Canoe Route last year, but nothing specifically on rivers.
In the North, there are big rivers everywhere you look, and if it’s not a river, it’s probably a really big lake that is actually part of a river. Lake Laberge, for example, is a 50km stretch of water not far on the Yukon River, just north of Whitehorse.
This lake and the Five Finger Rapids (roughly half way to Dawson City) were the only ‘dangers’ we were warned about before starting the trip. Aside from that, we were told to sit back, float and relax. And that we did, for the most part anyway.
Rain, rain, rain
The trip didn’t start well. It rained, a lot, and it was cold. 6 degrees in July cold. Half of my clothes were soaked, while I was wearing the other half all at once. Starting a 730km trip cold and wet is not good. Our weather radio wasn’t helping matters, reporting ’60 per cent chance of rain’ every day for the next six days.
Arriving on Lake Laberge, it was still raining, and we had waves coming from behind us in two different directions. With a lake as big as that, you don’t mess around; we headed for land.
The next day, the water was flat as a pancake (unheard of apparently), and we went for it. Paddling 45km down in eight hours we were exhausted that night, but extremely glad the next morning when gale force winds came in and the lake was impassable by canoe.
Taking advantage of the Midnight Sun
For the rest of the trip, we took it slow and admittedly pretty lazy. Often, we didn’t launch until 1pm, 2pm or even a couple of times, 5pm. With the midnight sun and river current on our side, we could be on the water for as long or as short a time as we liked, no rushing required.
We fished, spotted mountain goats in the hills, explored old cabins on the riverside, enjoyed long evenings by the campfire with wine and freshly baked bread, paddled alongside moose, oh, and ran some rapids (fun for JR, absolutely terrifying for me). We also flipped the canoe once by accident, losing our GPS and an evening drying most of our gear.
Meeting other paddlers on the Yukon River
At times we felt like the only people on the river, not seeing any others for days (it helped that we tended to start and end late), but other days we would see 4, 5 or 6 other groups of canoeists and boaters.
We met some great people (in particular, a group from Ontario who accompanied us on Five Finger Rapids day!), usually at campsites since it was hard to catch up or slow down for others.
A few days into our trip we learned that the Dawson City Music Festival would be starting around about the time we would be arriving at our destination. It felt like everyone else on the river was going except us.
Initially, I was a bit apprehensive as I knew tickets would be way out of our budget, and I don’t like crowds. I gave into Jean Robert’s enthusiasm in the end and we paddled through the night (stopping at midnight and then getting up again at 5am totally counts as ‘through the night’ in my opinion) to get to Dawson in time to secure a campsite for the weekend. It turned out to be a very good decision.
There is so much to say about this trip that I couldn’t possibly fit it in here. We ended up spending two weeks on the river, and writing this, I haven’t even touched on any of the places we stopped along the way, the history or culture of the Yukon River itself, the experience of camping every day for two weeks…
Thinking of videos, we were actually recognised by a fellow camper on our 3rd night on the river; he had watched our Sayward Forest Canoe Circuit on YouTube in research for his own trip. I think that may be the peak of any fame we may ever have!
If you’re reading this, so many thanks to you and your party for sharing food and a warm fire with us, it was very much appreciated after that 45km paddle across Lake Laberge!
Source: Parks Canada, http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/yt/ssklondike/natcul/2/a.aspx?m=1
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada