“It was the river that fashioned the land, and the river that ground down the gold.
Long before natives or white men saw it, the river was there, flowing for two thousand miles from mountain to seacoast, working its slow sculpture on valley and hillside, nibbling away at the flat tableland heaved up by the earth’s inner turmoils before the dawn of history.”
This is how Pierre Berton describes the Yukon River in the opening passage of Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899. There is a subtle magnificence evoked by these lines. Whether it was on the minds of the stampeders or not, in venturing north along the Yukon one can’t escape the stark juxtaposition of the permanence of the northern wilderness and the fleeting lives of the human individual. In 1897 thousands of people headed north along the waters of the Yukon to scrounge in the frozen geological depths in search of gold. Today, we retrace these footsteps and paddle strokes in search of the often invoked but seldom defined “adventure” that our increasingly urban society so yearns for. While each person inevitably leaves something behind on their quest, the Yukon flows on and each of our marks are absorbed in time like grains of gold dust in the sands of the river. In the great and timeless drama that has played out along its shores since for millennia- battles between life and death, frigid cold and lustrous warmth, hidden gold and evasive adventure- the river flows on.
Our quest for “adventure” was no different than the countless that have come before it- a fleeting mention of somewhere far off and wild, more and more stories catching our attention, and finally the decision to do it ourselves. It began years ago when Elliott stumbled upon some blog or website detailing the Yukon trip of some other modern wanderer. Since then, photos and stories of life and experiences in the Yukon have tantalized us, with no shortage of credit going to Niall Fink for constantly feeding our Wanderlust as we mindlessly scroll through our Facebook feeds and get excited to see what he’s been up to in the Yukon. Finally, at some point, we made the decision to pull the trigger, do the planning, invite some friends, and make it happen.
Whitehorse to Lake Laberge
After our journey by car to Alaska and hiking the Chilkoot Trail, we collected our friends, gear, and all the food we’d need for at least two weeks on the river, and then proceeded to invade the backyard of a friendly local who was instrumental to the success of the planning and preparation of our trip. Early the next morning we had the customary greasy breakfast, picked up a couple extra rental canoes at Kanoe People (who were friendly, fun, fantastic to deal with, and highly recommended), and started to load our boats with the colourful dry bags and big blue barrels that we had filled with everything we thought we needed to be self-sufficient for the next couple of weeks. Philipp and Laura chose the red and white boat (Team Schweiz-Österreich!), Michael and Rebecca took an identical though less cool (because it wasn’t red) Penobscot 174, and Lisa and I were in our own 17 foot Nova Craft Prospector, a classic canoe design that is often christened “the workhorse of the north.” The stampeders would have built their own boats from over the winter on the shores of the headwater lakes, with their flotilla of all shapes and sized piloted by stampeders as green in boat building and paddling as the lumber that was hammered together to make their boats. We were far better off in our modern canoes with modern gear, and couldn’t wait to get on the water.
With our boats loaded and ready to go, we took our first real look at the river that would be our path for the next two weeks. Beneath the sandy cliffs the beautiful blue waters of the river flowed swiftly by- a little too swiftly, in fact, for some of the members of our motley crew of paddlers. Elliott was the only one who had paddled on a river before, and he wasn’t even particularly good at it. Some of the rest had been in a canoe here or there, and for some it was maybe only their second time ever being in one. For those with less experience, the beautiful blue water took on the form of a soulless monster ready to fill our boats with its frigid waters and sweep us and our neon flotsam of dry bags, people, and paddles down under its depths at the soonest opportunity. In reality, once each boat did a wobbly ferry into the main current and started to make its way down river, we all realized it was going to be an a fun unforgettable experience. As soon as we were on the water the stress and commotion of packing, planning, driving, renting, and everything else instantly melted off. We were on the Yukon River, on the way to Dawson, and at this point there was nothing that could go wrong to prevent us from starting our journey.
The first stretch of the Yukon from Whitehorse plunges paddlers into quiet beauty almost instantly as it meanders swiftly around wide bends in its small valley. We saw at least 30 eagles perched in branches along the banks and floating in the breeze as we got ourselves accustomed to the boats and the river. The sun was beating down upon us, a precursor to the days and days of sunshine that awaited us, and the path of the river opened up before us in a blue vista of mountain, sky, and river ahead of us. The river was fast but easy, Laura appreciated Philipp’s strength in the bow of her canoe, Michael and Rebecca soon found their stride (or paddle?), and Lisa and Elliott were just as in sync as ever. They say that finding a good canoe partner is harder than finding a good spouse, but the two of us are lucky enough to have found both in one!
While we tried hard to paddle at a decent pace on that first day, we took some time to stop on shore for lunch, and even rafted together to relax a bit. Although guidebooks said it can take more than a day to reach the first (and in many cases biggest) hurdle of the trip, Lake Laberge, we must have been on a roll, because we found ourselves only a few hours later in the shallow, sandy channels that mark the entrance to Lake Laberge. The ladies decided that this would be as good a time as any to head ashore for a bathroom break, and we were glad we did. What turned out to be a natural place to stop for a pee also turned out to have been a natural place to make a little homestead, and Rebecca discovered the remains of an old log cabin in the woods, the first of many old cabins we’d stumble upon on our journey.
Maps, facts, and more!
The best resource we found to navigate our way down the river was a coil-bound map book for sale just about everywhere in Whitehorse with paddle or camping gear (We forgot the author- please let us know if anybody knows who wrote it!). Elliott wasn’t aware of it and bought a different guidebook online, but it wasn’t really necessary and we ended up using the local guide for the entire trip. It is full of helpful maps, notes on landmarks, and pages upon pages of (mostly) interesting history. Even though anybody could basically paddle down the Yukon with their eyes closed, you should still grab yourself a copy before you hit the river!
The lakes of the Yukon River are known for their wind. We had initially considered paddling by canoe directly from the end of the Chilkoot trail at Lake Bennett, but were dissuaded from doing so by tales of the high winds that one can encounter (not to mention the headache of getting canoes, food, and gear there by train to start the trip). Lake Laberge is no different, and paddlers are cautioned to stick close to shore at all times and get off the lake immediately if winds start picking up.
When we first hit the lake, the water was calm as glass. It was late afternoon, and although we had already paddled for most of the day, we decided this was a rare opportunity that we needed to take advantage of. We paddled on down the east side of the lake, stopped on shore for a nice hot supper break, and paddled on some more. The sun remained high in the sky, reminding us how far north we were, and beating down upon us with the intense heat that one would normally only encounter during mid-afternoon further away to the south.
After a long and hot day, we finally pulled our canoes ashore at about 8pm at a nice little spot that had clearly been used by countless canoe campers before us. We hung what we could of our food, scented items, and kitchen gear, but the sheer weight of our food barrels, each filled with two weeks worth of breakfast, lunch, or supper, made it rather impossible to effectively suspend them above bear-reach in a tree. In the end we had to satisfy ourselves with hanging what we could, and taking the chances with the barrels on the ground- all downwind of our tents, at least, and a decent distance away. We ended up heading to bed rather late, easily past 10:00pm after a very long first day, and watched the sun try to set as we nodded off to sleep.
Always try to be bear-aware
We usually try to follow strict bear protocol by following a few simple steps. Check out one of our other posts to read about what we usually do to make sure bears don’t ruin our fun. In this case we didn’t quite hit it out of the park by not hanging our food barrels, but we just didn’t see any other way around it. Remember, it is not only dangerous and probably pretty crappy to have a bear break into your food, but a fed bear usually ends up as a dead bear if it gets used to getting into human food. Do the bears a favour and try to do everything you can to make sure there’s no way they can get into your stuff.
We awoke the next morning to the sound of wind and waves. Exhausted from the day before, we contented ourselves with a delicious breakfast of bacon and eggs as we waited to see what the rest of the day would bring. Eventually we decided that we would give it a try rather than waiting around all day, waded out into the waves where we could load the boats without the waves smashing them into the shore, hopped in, and hoped for the best. We kept rather close to shore, quartered the waves, and it actually wasn’t that bad! We soon realized that we could even use the wind to our advantage. After lashing our three boats together, we rigged up a simple sail, lined up three paddlers in each of the outside boats, and paddled hard as the teal-blue waters skimmed by beneath us while Michael, Rebecca, and Elliott sang a ridiculous three part harmony to the tune of “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” It may be one of the few times that the song has ever been sung to its completion, and by the end of it we had covered quite a fair amount of Lake Laberge’s 50 windy kilometres.
We stopped at a reasonable time that evening for our second night on the shores of Lake Laberge. Even though we knew we were getting close to the end, we were disappointed after rounding each point to discover that there was another point off in the distance. Eventually we decided to call it a day, and found another nice campsite for the night. The heat of our dinner fire was forced the spoon-wielding cook at least a meter from its flames as the energy of the sun-bleached twigs and logs was released under our furiously bubbling pots of rice and lentils. The sun beat down upon us with its mid-afternoon intensity, sapping our energy from us as we sat, sweating, waiting for supper to be ready. Yet despite how much it drained us, it was a beautiful moment when we sat together in a row, looking out over the lake, and started to contemplate just how special it was to be where we were and enjoy a view that few have the privilege of experiencing on that big, blue, northern lake with nary a cabin or person in sight.
The Thirty Mile
As we were enjoying our breakfast the next morning (red river cereal with cinnamon and dried fruit, along with freshly fried cast iron bannock), a big old porcupine sauntered down the beach towards us, minding his own business, until he eventually looked up and was visibly shocked to find our little entourage in front of him. He turned tail and got out of there as soon as he could, but we took it as a sign that the day was going to be a good one.
After launching our boats we soon reached the end of Lake Laberge and entered a stretch known as the Thirty Mile River, “a swift, clear stream of beautiful blue,” which during the gold rush was “so treacherous that it was lined with wrecks for all of its brief length” (Berton, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899). It is apparently known to be one of the most beautiful sections of the entire Yukon River, and certainly didn’t disappoint. We were also impressed to find the clear signs of a thriving community that once existed at the outlet of Lake Laberge, once with a North-West Mounted Police post, telegraph office, and plenty of other cabins, but today with some old remains and no person in sight.
While we didn’t snap too many photos of the Thirty Mile, it was not because it wasn’t a nice stretch to paddle. Photos simply do a poor job of capturing exactly what it’s like to be on the river, and it’s something best experienced for yourself. As we paddled on throughout the day, it was clear that we were all starting to feel comfortable in our boats and on the river. The challenge of Lake Laberge was behind us and we anticipated nothing but smooth paddling ahead. We were even starting to hone some of our river paddling skills; shortly after checking out the impressive ruins of an old sternwheeler hauled up onto Shipyard Island who knows how many years ago (and who knows how they managed to do it with just a bunch of horses and ropes!), we checked out a potential campsite on one side of the river, decided to leave it, spotted another one directly across the river, and all managed to ferry across the river and only got pushed downstream by a few metres. That campsite was probably one of the best we stumbled upon on the whole trip, and we all got there like pros!
By this time everybody was getting rather used to the camp chores (and there is always something to do around camp), but that evening we got everything done and were all able to sit back and really relax for the first time since we left Whitehorse a few days before. We even took the luxury of making ourselves some hot chocolate, and we all sat around the last embers of the fire enjoying the evening as the next day’s lunch loaf of bread was baking in our heavy-but-handy cast iron pan.
Finding a campsite
One of the best parts about the way we travel, whether by car, foot, or boat, is that we often end up finding places where you can camp for free.
It was remarkably easy to find campsites on the upper part of the Yukon River. Around 4:00pm we would start to keep our eyes open for gaps in the trees and rough trails leading up from the water, which almost invariably were the signs of some sort of campsite somebody had prepared and many others had used. They usually consisted of a ring of rocks for a fire, some cleared areas for tents, and sometimes even a bear pole to hang food from. Best of all, they’re all informal and completely free! The further we got to Dawson, the trickier it became to find camping spots. In part it was because we were too picky and spoiled from some of the awesome sights we found further up the river, and in part because there were fewer natural spots for camping, and the ones that did exist were sometimes already claimed by mining operations, fishing camps, or the odd cabin.
Getting into the Groove
As the Thirty Mile bled into the next stretch of river, we started getting into the groove and losing track of where we were and when we got there, but it didn’t matter. We knew the next major stop was the small centre of Carmacks, and everything in between hardly mattered.
One of the most memorable days was Moose Day. After a delicious pancake breakfast we hit the river. It was a bit windy, but we soon all stopped paddling when somebody spotted the first animal of the day, either a coyote or a wolf, but we couldn’t be quite sure before it ran off. That was a good omen, and soon after we ended up seeing our first moose, a cow together with her calf! As we drifted down the river, paddles out of the water and every effort being made not to make a sound, we were able to watch them for quite a while before they eventually noticed us and slowly left up the bank from the small eddy where they were hanging out and wading in the water. Soon after we saw more moose, and then more! A cow with two calves, another cow with two calves, and then a cow all by herself. Sometimes they were standing in the water in an eddy, and sometimes they were just laying on the bank. Sometimes they would stay put and casually watch us drift by, and sometimes they would get a bit uneasy and decide to leave.
The last moose of the day demonstrated that moose can have big personalities to match their gigantic stature. As we floated around a bend, we heard some splashing as a moose in an eddy lifted its head out of the river and let the water roll off. She was clearly enjoying whatever it was she was doing in the water. When she saw us coming her look of annoyance made clear that we were interrupting her bath, and she certainly didn’t seem to be happy. She dunked her head under the water one last time, appeared to give a sigh, and headed out of the river and up the bank. Just before she was completely out of the water she stopped, turned her bum towards us, and started peeing right at us into the river. She turned her head and looked right at us as she was doing it, as if to say “way to disturb me, jerks!”
While we had our hopes up for a grizzly (but never got a single one in the end!), seeing all of the moose was still an awesome experience. To slowly and quietly drift by such large and majestic animals, only a few metres away in some cases, was a rare treat. It was also a reminder that where we were was still very wild and home to far more animals than people. Except for fish… despite our best efforts, the fishing just wasn’t great. The only fish we managed to land was an arctic grayling caught be Philipp (tasty!). On another occasion Elliott caught his first arctic grayling! With pride he started to take the hook out of the fish’s mouth, when the raft of canoes suddenly scraped over some rocks, jarring the ladies from the reverie of their reading and catching Elliott off guard. Much to everybody’s surprise, the fish took this as a perfect opportunity to make its getaway, and after squirming out of Elliott’s hands it jumped up, made a graceful arc through the air, and landed directly on Laura, escaping back into the river a second later.
Luckily we didn’t really need any fish, as it turned out we had enough food with us for probably an extra week or so. We were eating well, and definitely weren’t going hungry. In fact, it was more often the case that we would over cook and have to force our food down. This was a much different experience than another group of boats we encountered a few times, but which mysteriously disappeared at one point. We bumped into them again in Dawson, and they told us they had run out of food and pushed on to Dawson early because they didn’t have anything to eat. Glad that wasn’t us!
With ample food in our bellies, on we went! We realized that we were actually making good time, and started needing to paddle less and less throughout the day, instead simply tying our boats into a raft, laying back in our boats, and drifting with the current. When we’d get too near to the shore or a hazard in the river the delegated lookout would rouse everybody to attention, we’d paddle frantically to move our sluggish raft in the right direction, and once we were in the clear we would throw down our paddles and get back to napping. Paddle, rest, snack break, paddle, lunch, paddle, break, look for camp, make camp, cook dinner, eat dinner, do dishes, hang out, sleep, cook breakfast, eat breakfast, do dishes, break camp, launch the boats, repeat. Day after day this became our routine, and while there was less spare time than we imagined, it really wasn’t a bad way to live. We aimed for about 60 kilometres a day, and many of them were achieved by simply sitting and drifting, our fishing rods in the water as we enjoyed the heat of the sun.
On this first half of the trip Elliott had a tiny scare one morning. The rest of the paddlers were packing up camp at the cooking area, and Elliott headed back to the tents to start packing up there. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something black moving, and instantly the adrenaline started flowing and the panic drew in his breath. At the same moment, a poor little porcupine noticed Elliott, and likewise, was filled with panic and adrenaline. As fast as he could (which wasn’t terribly fast), the porcupine bolted for the tree beside Elliott’s tent and started to climb it. Elliott, who had recovered a bit by this time, was given the opportunity to simply hang out and watch the little porcupine climb, and called the other paddlers over to check him out as well. It’s the first time he’s ever packed up his tent with a porcupine watching from only a few metres away!
On our sixth day we reached the village of Carmacks, population 493, one of the major put-in/take-out points along the river, and the first time we had been anywhere near ‘civilization’ since we began our trip. The town was named after George Carmack who established a coal mine nearby, the same Carmack who claimed to be the first to discover gold in the Klondike (though this feat is more likely attributable to his friend Skookum Jim Mason).
There’s not much in Carmacks, but we were happy to pig out on burgers and coffee at the Gold Miner Restaurant and stock up on butter, freezies, and a couple of other luxury snacks.
Five Finger Rapids
The only real obstacle on the Yukon River that might cause paddlers any concern are the Five Finger Rapids, so named by the four large rock pillars that create five ‘fingers’ of the river that boats may choose to navigate. During the gold rush they were rather formidable and a number of boats and even lives were lost navigating the rapids. Over time several of the larger rocks were blasted away, and winch systems were even installed to assist large sternwheelers in heading upstream through the rapids. Today, all paddlers are advised to take the far right channel, which apparently isn’t so bad and most people shouldn’t have an issue.
Given that we were all fairly green at river paddling, there was a little bit of apprehension about hitting the rapids. We decided to find camp a few kilometres upriver of the rapids the night before in order to hit the rapids at the beginning of the next day when we were fresh, and when we would have enough time to dry out and warm up in the sun if one of us went for a swim! For whatever reason, however, we just couldn’t seem to find a campsite that evening and inched closer and closer to the rapids. The tension mounted, and we expected to hear their roar after every bend in the river. Once we finally did find a spot, we also spotted another canoe on shore form somebody who seemed to have the same idea we did. Again, we found a spot that was already taken, and again and again! The river was suddenly alive with other parties, and all of them were thwarting our plans!
Eventually we found a very mediocre camp site back in the woods above a very narrow and steep stretch of rocky shore. It wasn’t great, but it would do, and we tried to relax as we prepared ourselves for the next day and what could be the biggest challenge of our trip.
The next morning we had breakfast as usual, packed up camp, and made sure we tied things in extra tight and secure when we loaded our canoes. After what was probably less than an hour we rounded a corner and saw the telltale pillars of stone rising up the river, signalling that the time had finally come to show what we were made of. As we inched closer, Elliott snapped pictures and videos while Lisa berated him to pick up his paddle, forget the camera, and make sure we were well positioned on the far right to set ourselves for passing through the non-deadly rightmost channel.
The roar of the rapids increased the closer we got. We set ourselves up well, aiming for the center of the rightmost channel, gripped our paddles tightly, and paddled forward, hoping for the best. Suddenly, in what seemed like half a second… we were through. Was that it? Really? We had passed fishing boats that made bigger waves than that! Even eddying out just under the rapids was one of the easiest things we had ever done. Under different water conditions it’s likely that the rapids can be more of a challenge, but for us it was a total walk in the park and probably one of the most underwhelming things we’ve ever done.
Much cooler than the rapids was a black bear we spotted just afterwards at the base of a steep gravel slope meeting the river. We paddled up quietly and were only about 20 metres from the bear when he finally realized we were there. Elliott paddled his boat up close to the bear, with Lisa in the front, but in hindsight it was probably a little too close. Lisa, sitting in the front of the canoe, was probably only about 5 metres from the bear at the closest point. The bear didn’t seem to mind too much, but did make some huffing noises after we passed him by, so maybe in the end he wasn’t too happy about it. Lesson learned, and we’ll give the bear more space next time. We also thought “there’s no way a bear would ever attack a big canoe,” but later on in Dawson a Parks Canada employee told us she had been charged in her canoe by big grizzlies on two separate occasions, on one of which she believed the bear really did intend to do them harm if it had caught them. Yikes!
After the rapids we had another 350 kilometres or so to go until Dawson, meaning we were about halfway finished the trip. We continued on as usual- paddle, rest, eat, paddle, check out old cabins, camp, repeat- but the closer we got to Dawson the harder it started to get to find a campsite. The sun also seemed to get more intense, with each day a challenge to stay cool and the five o’clock sun beating down hotter than we had ever imagined.
On one particular evening we had a lot of difficulty finding a campsite and searched from 4:30pm until 7:00pm. Moral was low, people were hungry, the sun was hot, and eventually settled on a low gravel patch in the middle of an island somewhere midstream in the river. We got a fire built as quick as we could, got the beans on it, and Elliott took care of supper while the others set up camp and started to unwind. What we thought was a compromise campsite ended up being one of the best campsites of the whole trip! The little stream running through the camp was a cool and refreshing respite from the heat of the sun, people played in the mud and took baths, the supper that night was particularly tasty, and there may have even been some little gold flecks in the sand (there were commercial gold operations nearby, so why not!?).
The group dynamic, which could have gone either way with the interesting assortment of paddlers on our journey, was as amazing as anybody could have hoped for. Everybody enjoyed themselves, everybody got along, Philipp and Laura were the best canoe and camp buddies they could have hoped for, and everybody was happy! As we sat at our perfect little compromise campsite, we watched the sunset with whiskey, hot chocolate, and the warm feeling of contentment all around.
Losing Time and Finding our Way
Looking at the journal Elliott had with him on the river, it becomes clear that he began losing track of time. Is this entry from day 5 or day 6? Didn’t that happen the day before? Who knows! After only about a week we were so in tune with the rhythm of the river that it stopped mattering. We were happy, content, comfortable with our routine, and having the time of our lives. Pancake breakfasts smothered in maple syrup, fresh bread everyday for lunch, plenty of snacks and breaks, sunshine, friends, happiness, and beautiful scenery all around. We were in paradise and couldn’t have been happier!
The further we paddled, the more braided the river became- there was no longer one clear stream, but rather many islands and many choices as to which channel we should take. It didn’t usually matter too much in the end. Some channels were faster or deeper than others, while some were slow or shallow. We became adept at finding the current, and it was quite noticeable when one boat found it and the others didn’t, as it soon rocketed ahead of the rest (Philipp’s monster power in the bow notwithstanding). The number of deciduous trees appeared to increase, and already some of the leaves were starting to turn yellow in preparation for the Yukon winter.
One of the highlights of the river was our visit to Fort Selkirk, an important historical settlement and a major tourist attraction accessible only by those who brave the river. Once an important trade location, it was all but abandoned in the 1950s once steamboat traffic along the river was replaced by roads to Dawson and elsewhere, effectively replacing the river as the main transportation corridor of the Yukon. Fort Selkirk still has about 40 log structures that are more or less maintained as they were as of the 1950s. Walking through the cabins gives one an appreciation for just how difficult life in the north must have been- tiny and cramped, cold in the dead of winter, excessively simple in provisions and resources, devoid of any imagined romance, yet immensely inspiring to see how people thrived in such hostile conditions.
As if the river decided to remind us of the inherent hostility of the north, deep, dark rain clouds started to roll in as we toured Fort Selkirk, and from this point on the rain was more or less there to stay. It started coming down while we were still at the fort, and we sheltered in an old log cabin that had provided refuge to countless northerners before us. When a break in the rain came, we quickly paddled on, but the clouds soon caught up to us and we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a decent thunderstorm, the rain dumping on us, and the wind blowing us in every direction. Rather than let it make us miserable, we viewed it as a fun change from the intense heat, an addition to our sense of ‘adventure,’ and everybody was as happy as ever. Not knowing exactly what to do, but knowing the one thing you’re not supposed to do in a thunderstorm is be on the water, we pulled over to a small island and waited out the worst of the storm.
When the rain died down a bit we paddled on, made an early camp, and set up a tarp to protect us from the other bouts of rain and wind that came in. Some of the tents leaked, but Elliott had an extra tarp on hand as a preventative measure, and that night we were all still warm and cozy despite the rain outside. When we awoke in the morning the rain was gone for the day, the sun was out, and everybody was happy. We had a late morning, waiting for the sun to dry out all of our clothes strung up on a maze of clothes lines as we sipped our coffee, ate our warm bannock, and were happy to be alive.
The river became increasingly scenic as we paddled onward. There were large rocky cliffs and valleys all along the river, which afforded very interesting scenery to gaze upon as we paddled by. We kept a medium, consistent pace, both in paddling and our general routine. We saw a black bear that hid itself in some bushes as we approached, some sort of small weasel, and plenty of calming vistas all around us.
After the success of our previous low-lying campsite, one evening we opted for another campsite on the shore at the tip of an island with rocky cliffs showing greys, browns, and reds in the foreground, the river drifting by with an interesting green/copper/blue hue to it that wasn’t there before, and purple-blue mountains framing the scene in the background. Philipp and Laura went out in their canoe to have a battle (first one in the water loses), they flipped and Lisa and Elliott practice their T-rescue skills, and we all relaxed with books, a tasty dinner, and mint tea as we watched the sun make its slow retreat behind the cliffs around us.
The rain returned at some point too. It had been on and off for some time, so we were getting used to it, and the memories of the hot, exhausting sun were now far behind us. It rained all day at times. Rain gear and neoprene gloves and socks can make anything possible, even if you feel a little bit soggy for days at a time. Although not entirely pleasant, even a rainy day on the river is better than a sunny day somewhere else, and one we’ll remember forever!
The rain also brought out a moose- the only bull we saw on the whole trip! He had just started swimming across the river when he noticed us, but decided we weren’t too alarming and kept on swimming across at a pretty good pace as we simply sat and watched him swim by.
The closer we got to Dawson, the harder it became to find campsites. On one evening, after searching for a few hours, we came across a campsite that had clearly been home to some Germans at some point in the recent past; they left a flag from the city of Cologne, which we considered a good omen as it is Lisa and Philipp’s mother’s hometown. It also speaks to why there are direct flights from Frankfurt to Whitehorse over the summer- the Germans love it up here, and to be fair, we had a majority of German speakers too!
As we neared Dawson we also saw the last large animal of our trip- a black bear (we think) who was hiding in some bushes up until we were right beside him, just going to show that a good “whoa bear!” is always important when you’re out in the woods. They can be right beside you and you’d hardly ever even know it!
When we finally hit the confluence of the Yukon River and White River, we knew we would be in Dawson the next day. As we watched the milky white waters mix with the darker green waters of the Yukon, we also became aware of our own mixed feelings. As the waters of the Yukon went from light blue to darker blue to green and now to white along the 700 odd kilometres we had paddled, so too did we go from green paddlers on day one, feeling more confident on the blue waters of Lake Laberge, and finding our groove and rhythm the further we paddled down the river. After broadening out bit by bit the river was now rather large, the current quite evident, and we slowly made our way toward what we knew was the bittersweet end of the trip.
On our last morning some of us were awoken by rain, and the others were woken by a test of the bear banger we bought for the trip (it worked). The 70 kilometres from our last campsite to Dawson went quicker than we thought they would, and before long we saw the telltale slope of the moosehide-shaped rockslide on the hill above Dawson. Before we reached our pullout we crossed the cool, clear waters of the Klondike river where it flows into the Yukon, our paddles treading the waters of this famous creek just as so many thousands before us.
Michael had joked that when we pulled into Dawson there would be an old man sitting there in a rocking chair, clad in overalls and plaid, his floppy-brimmed miner’s hat casting shade on his sun burnt face, pipe in hand, and a friendly “welcome to Dawson” whistled through the gaps of his missing teeth upon our arrival. In reality, when we pulled up on shore there was a spry old man darting busily about the shore, fanny pack strapped tight around his wiry frame, smile on his face, and a not-so-whistly but fun and friendly “welcome to Dawson” offered to us in welcome as our boats scraped up on the shore. We had made it! Six people, three seventeen foot canoes, from Whitehorse to Dawson, 730 odd kilometres down the Yukon River, in twelve days. Fourteen or so moose, three or four black bears, two dall sheep, two porcupines, countless eagles, and a couple of fish.
Our journey wasn’t quite over yet, however. Even though most of the stampeders never actually panned for gold, and even though some of them booked passage out of Dawson the second they set foot in it, they spent at least some time there, and we certainly planned to do the same.
At the height of the gold rush Dawson was the largest city west of Winnipeg, the San Francisco of the North, a bizarre boomtown built on a swamp where you could get just about anything you wanted if you had enough money. It had a telephone service, running water, steam heat, electricity, hotels, theatres, three hospitals, and all manner of rich and poor who made the long (and in some, but not all cases, arduous) journey north.
“None of its citizens were ordinary, for almost every one of them knew how to build his own boat or his own cabin out of green lumber, how to handle a dog-team on a narrow trail, how o treat scurvy with spruce-ark tea, how to carry a pack on a tumpline, and how to navigate fast water. Some had more individual accomplishments: there were gamblers ready to bet fifty thousand dollars on the turn of a card, and dance-hall girls willing to be purchased for their weight in gold” (Berton, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899). There are chapters upon chapters of weird, wacky, and utterly unbelievable stories about things that happened in Dawson during the gold rush. One prostitute burned half the town down no less than two times. People won and lost fortunes through card games, hard work, and wild spending. Dance hall girls mined the miners at a dollar a dance, and others laboured for wages simply to save enough to leave again.
Today, Dawson seems to be in a bit of a state of paradox, at least to tourists such as ourselves. Half the buildings are tilting on their permafrost foundations and nearly falling apart, while the other half have been restored (many thanks to Parks Canada) or don’t look so bad. While there are tourists aplenty, there also seems to be a thriving local community. It’s just about as far north as you can get for a city with most services available, but yet food and beer isn’t even that expensive. It’s a city with its own unique feel and character, and one that is best experienced yourself. We highly recommend one of the Parks Canada tours; Sue was literally the absolute best tour guide we have ever had on any tour anywhere in the world, and her interpretation of the city is not to be missed.
After a day touring the city, we prepared ourselves for an evening partaking in two of Dawson’s most notorious activities: taking our turn with the sour toe cocktail, and making a visit to none other than a night at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s.
Knowing that we would soon each be kissing a blackened old human toe (you read that right), we got ourselves a little loosened up back at our campsite with some leftover whiskey and maple syrup (it wasn’t as bad as you’d think). Once we were all ready for a night on the town, we donned our rain jackets, headed across the river on the 24/7 ferry, and went straight to the Downtown hotel to stand in line to join the ranks of the other 82,000 odd people who have each been silly enough to take a shot with a blackened old human toe at the bottom. As the saying goes, “you can drink it fast, you can slow, but your lips must touch the toe,” and each of ours did! It wasn’t really so bad in the end. Highly recommended, in fact!
The story of the sourtoe cocktail
Sue, our Parks Canada tour guide, provided an explanation for just how the sour toe came about. Apparently several years ago, let’s say a couple of decades, a Dawson local was out in the woods when he stumbled across an old cabin. It’s not unusual to stumble upon cabins (and we encountered many along the river ourselves), but it was a bit unusual when he found some severed human toes inside. It’s also apparently not unusual for toes to be amputated up there (“People lose toes all the time!”). The Dawson local brought the toe back to town, thought about what to do with it, and came up with the idea of putting it in a shot. The old goldminers were known as sourdoughs for the bread starters they kept warm throughout the winter, and hence “sour toe” was a natural thing to call this creative cocktail. It started to become somewhat of a Dawson rite of passage, and now over 82,000 people have done it and have had their names entered into a log book. Sue claimed that she was on the same page as Pierre Berton and Pierre Trudeau, which would have been several toes ago. Apparently they’re on about number 18, and while they’ve had some serious issues with theft and swallowing, an Italian who lost some of his toes in a marathon-gone-wrong has offered to donate some of his own amputated toes, possibly ensuring that the tradition won’t end anytime soon!
After we each kissed the toe after downing our glass of Yukon Gold, we headed just down the street to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. While Gertie’s can boast of being Canada’s first licensed gambling hall, it only dates back to 1971. Nonetheless, its three shows a night (each increasingly risqué) are quite fun to watch, its beer is cheap, and some of us even won some money gambling!
After paddling ourselves all that way, indulging in some of Dawson’s slightly more raucous offerings seemed to be just the thing we needed, just as it was for the thousands of others who made the same (though admittedly more difficult) journey 120 years before us. It was the perfect denouement to our journey to the Klondike, and despite the level of kitsch, it was somehow perhaps the closest any of us tourist stampeders ever got to following the footprints and paddle strokes of the actual stampeders who came before us. Wet and weary, travel worn and tired, we let loose Dawson after travelling thousands of kilometres to get there by car, plane, train, foot, and canoe. None of us had much of a goal in mind during the journey aside from getting to Dawson, and once there, none of us quite knew what to do with ourselves aside from letting loose and making the thousands of kilometres worth the effort. Just like the stampeders, our journey to Dawson, to the Klondike, made its mark on each of us, and it’s something none of us will forget for the rest of our lives.