Well, Kara saw Matt and Winchell walking out of the library and asked if one of them was Steve. No, Winchell said, but he knew a Steven.
If you’re looking for random canoeist, look for the guys who look like bums but have $400 rain jackets.
Kara came and picked Steve and I up at a boat ramp where we were camped at and told us she had cold beers and a hot meal for us. We didn’t say no. Matt and Kara Went took us in for a wonderful evening where we somehow managed to fill the empty pits of our stomachs.
The next day we made battle with another ten miles of flooded river to our resupply at Lynx-Track Farm. Again, we were treated to amazing generosity by Doug and Yasmine who held onto our resupply packages. Great people, great food, amazing coffee. The Faro area is indeed the Yukon’s best kept secret.
We cannot begin to express our gratitude.
…But here are some pictures and a recap of what has so far been one humdinger of an adventure. Enjoy!
Of Snow and Floods.
In some form or another, this was the most common response when we told people we would be hiking through the Chilkoot Pass then paddling through the headwaters of the Yukon River in early May. This would mark the beginning of our 2600-mile canoe expedition through Canada’s Territories, and for such long trip that ventures almost entirely above the Sixtieth Parallel, there is a brief window of flowing water, sunlight, and mosquitoes that opens between the eight months of ice that encrusts the region for the rest of the year. That was the usual explanation I gave to why we had decided upon such an early start.
And indeed, it was a little early to start our trip.
Our canoe expedition began as a hike from the Pacific Ocean, right outside of Skagway Alaska. By our second day on trail, we had passed through the costal rainforest, made our way above the treeline, and were snowshowing over an ever-deepening wilderness of snow. This was the famed Chilkoot Trail, but any evidence of a trail was buried beneath many feet of snow. Below the Golden Stairs, the sight where those famous photographs of thousands desperate gold seekers lining up to move over the steep mountain pass were taken, we encountered white out conditions. That night, as we huddled in our tent, the wind picked up and in the morning, with limited visibility (not too limited to see the rubble left by the many avalanches that had scarred the slopes around us) we trekked up the pass.
At the top the wind was screaming at forty to fifty miles-per-hour and almost every bit of rock and earth, save for a few black outcropping, were swallowed in snow. Only a patch shingles from the Canadian Customs and Parks Canada Ranger station poked above the snowdrifts.
Snowshoeing over lakes buried in snow, over a trail that was somewhere between the walls of the ravine, we descended into Canada. We passed camp shelters that were covered in snow. I knew this was a popular hiking trail and became somewhat crowded in the summer, but at this time we had it all to ourselves. It was certainly one of the most magical and challenging beginnings to a canoe trip any of us had experienced.
By the time we reached Carcross, and picked up our canoes and paddling equipment from the outfitter who had shuttled and held onto our gear while we hiked the trail, strange dreams of actually paddling on a canoe trip were running through our heads.
But this was not to be.
While the winter this year was mild, spring was being very relaxed about arriving on schedule. What did this mean for us? It meant that nearly one hundred miles of headwaters to the Yukon River (including Lake Laberge) were covered in rotting ice. Too brittle to walk and drag the canoes over, too thick to paddle through.
Maybe we should have left even earlier. At least then the ice would have been thick enough for us to walk over. As it was, we would have to drag on the shore, chase leads, wade through freezing water, and constantly fall through the ice.
Far northern lakes are always cold, in these conditions they are so cold they burn, and any progress would have been impossible, even deadly, without our Kokatat Expedition Drysuits. Every morning each of us would put on our drysuits and begin the slow and arduous days work of plowing and dragging through the rotting ice. We had various strategies for dealing with this great obstacle of ice and water. The shoreline often provided us with ice that was solid enough to drag over, other times we would try to follow a line of stable ice off shore. Often times we would fall up to our waste, or up to our arms. Without our Kokatat Drysuits, this would have, at best, resulted in a severe case of hypothermia, but with the suits on we mostly laughed, picked our selves up and continued forward. At this point, and for almost everyday in the following weeks, we lived in these Drysuits.
One morning it snowed ten inches.
After we had made our way through Lake Laberge, we came to the open current of the mighty Yukon River. For over two hundred miles and three-and-a-half days we were treated to downstream current and no ice. It was a pleasant break, and simply delightful to actually paddle all day on a canoe trip. What a novel idea! What a pleasant experience!
But all good things have their time and place and, alas, must come to an end. It’s an unfortunate fact that you can’t canoe across the Continental Divide by going down stream the whole way. And so we had to leave the quick and easy miles of the Yukon River and point our bows upstream.
The Pelly River is a major tributary that feeds the Yukon River with the drainage of a vast network of rivers, streams, mountains and wilderness of the eastern Yukon Territory. And boy was it draining. From the first morning we canoed onto the river and slowly began the seemingly endless task of paddling against its current, the river rose. Every evening I would place a stick on the water’s edge and wake to see that same stick covered in an additional four to six inches of water. The brown current of the river, silty from the acres of dirt and earth it daily tore up, carried huge trees and piles of debris down with it. Soon the sand bars and pebbly beaches we had dragged up the first couple of days had been submerged. Then we noticed the tall cut-banks we had often paddled under were filled with water, and soon the shore almost disappeared all together. At one side there was a mighty, relentless river, on the other side a flooded forest that often reached beyond the eye and far beyond the glutted river channels.
We developed a strategy of hugging the shore. Jolting our muscles, tendons and bones against the ever increasing, ever flowing current. Over and over we had to make long and exhausting ferries as we chased after the little bit of slack water that hung in the inside bends of the river. None of us had ever paddled so hard only to average about one-mile per hour. In the morning I would wake up, look at the river (the speed of the river must have calmed in my dreams) and think, “How the hell are we paddling up this thing?”
After three weeks and over two-hundred miles traveling up the Pelly, we are now resting outside of Faro, a small community in the Yukon Territory. Most people here tell us they have never seen the river this high. Across the territories communities have been evacuated, roads washed out. Quite the year for such an expedition. Yet, all four of us feel incredibly privileged to be able to travel in this area. Mountains line the river valley, and the few people we meet are all incredibly generous and hospitable.
In short, after crossing over twenty feet of snow, frozen lakes, and going up a flooded river, all with three of the best traveling companions a guy could ask for, I have had one of the most adventurous and beautiful summers of my life.
And there are still three more months before the adventure is completed.