Fascination Yukon 🏞️
I can’t really tell you why I and many of my countrymen are so fascinated by Alaska and the mighty Yukon river. It is a fact though that German tourists account for the largest share of non-US tourists in the Yukon territory. While for West German’s the books of Jack London like the “Call of the Wild” might have been an inspiration, they hardly could have been in my case being East German. However, I did read all of the Karl May western books (Winnetou etc.) and hope during my trip I can catch up on some of Jack London’s books.
Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well. – Jack London
Be that as it may, the time has now almost come to fly out to Canada to start the biggest expedition of my life yet – a journey from the source lakes of the Yukon river in Canada (Lake Bennett) to Emmonak at the Bering Strait. This 3,000km canoe trip will take close to three month, as I follow the Yukon river initially North-West towards the US border and then West all the way through Alaska.
It’s been coming for a while …
I remember well my train journey to Maastricht in May 2018 where I bought my Ally 15 DR folding canoe after lengthy research and although I already knew at this point that the Yukon would have to wait for another year, as my dad turned 50 that August. Nonetheless, I didn’t waste time and instead started practicing by paddling the river Elbe 650km from Usti nad Labem (CZ) to Hamburg (see here for the blog). I am glad my girlfriend Laura did’t dump me when we got to Hamburg! 👧🏻🇨🇴
It will also not be my first time at the “last frontier” having visited Alaska already three times before including a lake paddling tour on the Kenai peninsula in 2013, hiking the Crow Pass Trail trail in 2011 and twice salmon fishing in 2012/13 with my good friend Walter from the US. In short, the Yukon is more the icing on the cake than just some random idea.
🛰️🛰️🛰️ You can follow my progress starting from 13 June using my inReach GPS tracker on this link https://eur-share.inreach.garmin.com/rocketontour 🛰️🛰️🛰️
[I pay for any messages sent through the device … so please be mindful]
The route: 1,000km in Canada + 2,000km through Alaska
You can find decent descriptions of the individual Yukon sections here though the time in days is very long and assumes either very slow paddling or very short days.
🇨🇦 Lake Bennett – Whitehorse – Carmacks – Dawson – US border (990km)
Different to most rivers, there is no single source of the Yukon river, but a number of source lakes. I will start my journey from Lake Bennett (near Whitehorse) where I will be joined by Harry from Cologne (and his bicycle) – himself on a one year bike journey in New Zealand, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia and now Canada. Laura and I met Harry in Laos where we spent memorable evenings in Luang Prabang and more so in Vang Vieng.
Lake Bennet was the first lake that had a sailable connection to Whitehorse and beyond after gold prospectors climbed the treacherous Chilkoot pass – one of the two routes to Dawson used by the ‘Klondikers’ during the gold rush. We will follow their steps and assemble our canoe in Bennett just as they did. After 4 days and 160km we will reach Whitehorse to get supplies for the journey, drop Harry’s bike (for delivery to Dawson) and check out the capital of the Yukon territory.
After Whitehorse comes a 740km stretch via the only stop Carmack to Dawson that should take about two weeks. We intend to celebrate Canada day here (1 July) and Harry might get off here to continue his own Canada adventure on bike. The Alaskan border (Eagle Village) is still 250km away.
Strong current of upper Yukon helpful
Altogether the first third of the paddling trip should take us about 3 weeks implying about 55km per day including rest / sightseeing days. In Germany, on the Elbe, I did about 40km per day but with only 2-3 kmh current vs. 6-10kmh (unless on lakes) on the upper Yukon that should speed things up. I hope the water levels (~2.5m now), which have been poor early in the season yet have picked up recently, will keep us going!
Longer days also helpful: No darkness in June/July
Owing to the effect of the polar day, there will be 20-21 hours of sunlight around the summer solstice and it won’t get completely dark all day. So you can paddle as long as you feel like, weather permitting that is.
Key challenges in Canada: Winds on lakes, Five Finger Rapids and Rink rapids
Wind on unprotected stretches like lakes can cause significant waves. Lake Laberge (just after Whitehorse) can easily see 3ft+ waves and capsize your canoe. Not great given the freezing water temperatures. Further down the river, about 38km or 4h after Carmacks, you will encounter the only real whitewater on the entire journey. First up are the well known the Five Finger Rapids followed by the less known Rink rapids another 30min downriver. STAY ON THE RIGHT for both. Going central or left can cost your life.
🇺🇸 US border – Across Alaska – Emmonak & Bering Strait (2,020km)
Ideally I/we make it to Eagle for the 4th of July independence day celebrations across the border (and without immigration issues). Given we would only have 2,5days for 250km this is a bit of a stretch though.
On the US side of the Yukon the distance between villages at ~110km on average is much smaller than on the Canadian side (~330km). However, distances remain huge by any measure for a European like me. Villages will also be ever more tiny (think 80 people) and only connected to civilisation by plane (indeed, each village has its own airstrip). I am absolutely looking forward to meet some of the characters living out here!
I expect this stretch to take at least twice as long (7-8 weeks) with only ~40km per day on average, as the current of the Yukon slows and in the last third tidal flows limit how much time you can / want to spend on the river each day. I think paddling against the tide is not advisable (so you wait for high tide and then follow the water to the ocean), as worsening weather including stronger headwinds in the Yukon delta are enough to cope with. From Emmonak I will then fly with my gear ~800km to Alaska’s capital Anchorage in order to connect further.
Key challenges in Alaska: Tides, weather in the Yukon delta & orientation
Tides: The gravitational pull of the moon (and the sun) as well as the centrifugal forces of the earth’ own rotation cause tidal effects. High and low tides occur twice per day and shift about one our from one set of tides to the next. While the tidal range at Emmonak forecast for August 2019 isn’t huge at 1.5ft, paddling uphill is not something I fancy.
Weather effects: As with all of Alaska, the summer is short and the nice weather window of June to August will be exhausted by the time you reach the Bering Strait. Rain or snowfall will return and winds will pick up with gusts as high as 35kmh – a nightmare for any paddler (as usually into your face!).
Orientation can be a problem indeed, as river twists and turns through Alaska. Just paddling on the wrong side of the wide Yukon (500m to 1km+ width are normal towards the delta) or navigating around an island on the wrong side and you miss a village. Hardly a drama, but worth keeping in mind.
Weather window: Why June to August?
There is only a certain period in the year when you can canoe down the river. It starts around May and lasts until September. Come October and Alaska freezes over again. Outside this period (October to April) you better bring ice skates or a sled and warm clothing, as temperatures dip below zero. Even once the rivers are no longer frozen you can’t go right away. Ice bulks up in the lakes and may require you to portage your canoe and gear – who wants that really?