The spell of the Yukon
by Al Pace and Lin Ward
"I watched the river grow wider, straighter, deeper and stronger. The rapids were exhilarating. Spectacular mountain peaks were all around us. The vastness was overwhelming, humbling. Seeing caribou, moose, dall sheep, eagles and grizzlies was unforgettable.... There were serene moments paddling under the midnight sun....."  
  These were notes Jim Garrow made on our 1997 Yukon Snake River expedition. As guides, we encourage our paddlers to keep a journal. People are transformed by the Yukon. It's a powerful emotional experience. Our wilderness guiding company has, in nine years, introduced 250 paddlers mostly from Southern Ontario to the rugged beauty of the Yukon.

We've seen it change peoples' careers, lifestyles, priorities.... We surmise that being isolated in this pure wilderness leads some to review their lives. Often it seems to create the confidence to make fresh choices.

Got a yen for the Yukon?

For those with a passion for canoeing, and considerable familiarity with Ontario wilderness regions, the Yukon offers awesome alternatives. You will be entering a remote, rugged -- and sometimes unforgiving -- mountainous region with dozens of fantastic canoe routes, ranging from novice to expert. But remember, this is not Ontario. The Yukon offers different risks and, for safe river travel, different considerations are required. These are some things you'll want to know....

When to go? The 'paddling season' is from mid-June to early September. Ideal water levels begin to subside in July. During periods of heavy rainfall, water levels can fluctuate wildly in a matter of hours. For the most part, days will be long and hot, with temperatures in the high 70s & 80s Fahrenheit. Nights will be cool (hopefully), in the mid 50s or 60s. In the last ten years, we have experienced only one rainy summer.

Cold water (it never warms up!) poses the greatest risk to paddlers. While the typical Yukon summer day can be unbearably hot, the waters you paddle are glacier-fed and brutally cold. We insist that, while on the water, high-volume life jackets be worn at all times. For launching and landing canoes, neoprene socks under Tevas R or neoprene booties are an absolute must. Assume that your feet will be wet every day!

Which river is best? Choosing the river that best fits the interest and experience of your group is essential. A book we recommend is Rivers of the Yukon, by Ken Madsen and Graham Wilson. It contains excellent information and brief (often humorous) descriptions of 40 river trips.

There are some exhilarating 'novice' routes...and fantastic trips for real whitewater junkies. Yukon rivers are significantly more tumultuous than those in Ontario. It's wise to scale back your expectations a notch or two. On intermediate and advanced river trips, we recommend you travel with at least two, but preferably three or more canoes.

Which canoe is ideal? For anything more than a novice river trip, werecommend an ABS canoe. We use Old Town Discovery's and Trippers as doseveral of the outfitters themselves. You want a versatile boat (without akeel) that can take some guilt-free pounding.

Portages, far and few between

Don't worry about the hazards of Ontario-like portages -- they just don't exist in the Yukon. Most of the rapids that can't be run can be lined or carried over very short lifts. The longest portage we've encountered in the Yukon is about a mile and a half. There are only a handful of lakes that connect with canoe routes.

But here, rivers flow with incredible speed. Intermediate and advanced (Class II & III) whitewater rivers will always start with a bang. There isn't a lot of warm-up time! The fall line is often dramatic. The water is crystal clear with a tinge of turquoise and the river bottom is gravelly with occasional boulder gardens. But the speed of these rivers can be intimidating and drastically reduce your reaction time.

However, once you're on your way, the rivers -- because they flow out of the ranges and grow in volume -- slow considerably. You can relax and settle into cruise control. Run rapids -- very carefully Ontario rivers are famous for their drops and pools and the occasional 'five mile rapid.' Yukon rivers flow with incredible pace. On 'technical rivers' like the South MacMillan, Snake or The Wolf, the current's speed dictates a cautious approach to running rapids and lining. Ontario rivers set up beautifully for lateral back ferry manoeuvres but in the Yukon, we avoid the back ferry like the plague. Too often, the well-intentioned back ferry fails miserably in the grip of a Yukon river. As a rule, when approaching rapids, we set up well inside, where we can either boat or land scout -- knowing there's a quick and easy exit.

For a long lateral crossing, we recommend a solid front ferry and swing downstream once you hit your 'V'. For shorter lateral moves, use an aggressive diagonal downstream angle and short, fast power strokes. With increased current speed, eddy lines become sharper and less forgiving. Entering and exiting any current demands a low centre of gravity and well braced (kneeling) paddlers -- with an exaggerated downstream lean.

Lurking sweepers a serious hazard

During Spring break-up, Yukon rivers churn up the outside river bank causing extreme erosion, filling the rivers with debris. Log jams and sweepers are hazardous and demand caution. On fast-flowing, blind corners, set up well to the inside to avoid any lurking sweepers hung up on the outside corner.

You could be on your own

Don't assume another group will come drifting along in these remote wilderness regions -- whether you just want to borrow some matches or you've gotten yourselves into some serious trouble. We travel with an SBX-11 emergency radio, the most reliable method of establishing emergencycontact with local hunting and mining camps.

A medical evacuation is a costly proposition. We recommend advanced first aid training and a complete medical kit that goes way beyond band-aids and aspirin. Remember that in a medical emergency, even though you make radio contact, poor weather can delay help for several days.

Drinking gallons of safe water

As in every wilderness region, the Yukon's drinking water quality can be suspect. Giardia is the most common parasite. We filter all drinking water using a Katadyn Expedition ceramic filter. We collect water from the feeder creeks that flow fast and crystal clear into the main channels. Dehydration and nausea can be daily occurrences so we drink gallons of water each day.

"I wear my sunglasses at night"

The most important piece of paddling gear we own are our sunglasses (H2O Optix). The sunlight is intense and exhausting in the Yukon. We usually start the day at about 6 a.m. by putting on our shades and end it around 11 p.m. by taking them off, just before we crash! A high quality pair of sunglasses will help you pick up subtle surface textures that can warn you of a shoal or gravel bar.... Sunglasses are so important that we feel it's prudent to bring a spare pair.

Forest fires are a natural part of the landscape. Fires in the Yukon often burn for weeks or months, at the whim of prevailing winds. If you encounter an active burn area (you'll know by the smoke!), remember that the fire will cool at night and flare up during the heat of the day.

  Article courtesy Voyageur Magazine

E-mail: Tel: (416) 693-5676 Fax: (416) 694-6242 Internet: