Packing well for an almost three month trip in the middle of nowhere is essential. The plus with a canoe, however, is that you can pack quite a lot – very different to long distance hikers. My Ally 15 DR canoe has 310kg capacity. Net of 170kg for the weight of Harry and myself (the exact composition shall remain our secret 😉), this leaves us with 140kg for gear & food.
Ideally you don’t use all the 310kg allowance as manoeuvring the canoe becomes harder. Last year on the Elbe I think Laura and myself travelled with about 200-220kg combined. It will be more like 300kg on this trip: ~65kg of my gear (45kg ex canoe, but including water, petrol, etc), Harry’s gear (~25kg ex bike, ~40kg incl.), food (~50kg) and our weight (~170kg). To make sure I emailed the manufacturer (Bergans of Norway), who has reassured me that sufficient margin has been put into the 310kg capacity label.
My Gear list for the Yukon Trip: Total 65kg including Canoe
In 2011, just after I completed the Crow Pass trail, I had a few drinks in Darwin’s Theory in Anchorage, AK. Completely enthusiastic about my recent experience, I discussed with a park ranger how it would be to get dropped somewhere in the wild (e.g. with a float plane) and then make your own way back to civilisation while living off the land (fishing, hunting, plants). He looked at me and just said: “Son, do whatever you want but promise me one thing – TAKE YOUR FOOD WITH YOU”. He is obviously right and whoever doesn’t believe me I recommend watching this youtube docu of British Ed Wardle.
How much food do you need?
As a hiker, I usually work off ~3,000 calories per day depending how hard I push. For canoeing, it depends a lot on the conditions. During a relaxed paddle you look at 200 calories per hour (so about 2,000 for a 10h day), but headwinds etc can let you sweat a lot more. Here a handy calculator.
Assuming 3,000 calories similar, you’d need 800g of pasta or 500g of almonds to give you sufficient calories. But not all food is that rich in energy and just pasta for three month isn’t that intriguing either (4,5days hiking on pasta in Sikkim were plenty!). So I plan with roughly ~1kg of food per day to maintain weight and not budget my body-fat reserves.
Some high calorie-to-weight food items
100g tuna in oil
100g kidney beans (dry, = 300g cooked)
100g lentils (dry, = 270g cooked)
100g Huel (emergency food)
What food to buy?
When it comes to food, the key limitation beyond your canoe’s carrying capacity is that you won’t have a fridge on river (even though nights might feel akin to sleeping in a freezer). Resupplying along the route is an option though expensive, patchy (on average only every ~330km on Canadian side, ~110km in Alaska) and with limited selection.
I will opt for food with high calorie to weight ratios, dried and canned food, snacks (lots of time on the canoe) and vegetables that won’t perish quickly (e.g. onion). Meat and other perishable items I will get on the way. In total, I plan to buy ~50kg in Whitehorse.
Shopping list: 50kg of supplies
Items to be caught/bought on the way
Whatever is missing & available
Sweets & Snacks
Olive / sunflower oil
Canned food & Meat
Soups & Sauces
Alaska’s mega vegetables
I have already written about the polar day in Alaska, as the sun never sets around summer solstice. An unexpected side effect of this are ginormous vegetables and fruit that farmers grow in Alaska owing to the extra sun hours. The full records you find here, but just imagine a 16kg broccoli, a 3kg onion or a 668kg pumpkin!!! I will need to find normal sized food or my canoe will sink.
In May to September it never gets completely dark in Dawsin and the sun is out up to 21h per day. Things are different come winter …
Fishing on the Yukon
Every year the Yukon/Alaska experiences the largest salmon run on the planet and is also home to lots of other fish species. You will need to obtain a fishing license for either side of the border (US145 p.a. for non-residents, $25 in Canada p.a.) and watch king salmon regulations in particular (though the King salmon run is already May/June and hence you will likely miss it).
Below is the advice I received from Alaska Department of Fish and Game (Yukon is turbid; best fish in clear tributaries; don’t just rely on fish) and a fish run table. Looks like chum salmon, dolly varden, rainbow trout, greyling, sheefish and whitefish are on the menu.
Fish species in the Yukon
Advice Lisa at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Your request for fishing information has come by me. Sounds like Shane Hertzog has sent information re. your need for a sport fish license while in Alaska. Since you will be starting your float in Canada, you will need to check with the Department of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fisheries-peches/recreational-recreative-eng.html) for fishing license and information while you are floating the Yukon River on the Canadian side.
While floating through Alaska, you will also need to have the latest sport fishing regulations with you in addition to your license, which I’ve attached. The specific regulations for the Yukon River drainage are found on page 21. The mainstem Yukon River receives quite a bit of glacial input and is fairly turbid. Most success capturing fish will be in the numerous clear-water tributaries. Depending on where you are in the drainage, you should be able to target chum salmon. Chances are good that the sport fishery on the mainstem Yukon River will be closed for Chinook (king) salmon and restricted in the tributaries. An “Emergency Order” for this and any other sport fishing restrictions will be posted on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Sport Fish website for the Yukon Drainage Management Area (http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=ByAreaInteriorYukonDrainage.main).
In the clearer water tributaries and/or at the confluences with the mainstem Yukon River you should be able to target “non-salmon” species such as Northern pike, Arctic grayling, and Sheefish (called inconnu in Canada). You can find more information on the seasonal life histories of these species at:http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=animals.main. When I fish, I like to use a casting rod with spin reel and different sizes of pixie depending on what I am targeting (small for Arctic grayling and large for sheefish and N. pike). Northern pike especially seem to like the more tannic sloughs you will encounter on your downriver float. If you like to fly fish, there is lots of information on flies, etc. on the internet and what species you wish to target like to strike. I would make sure you had enough food and not rely on fish as major meals as depending on river conditions and what time and where the fish are in their yearly migrations, they can be hard to catch.
This table indicates when sport fish are present (little fish) or at their peak availability (larger fish) in fresh water in the area of Alaska which encompasses the northwest half of the state. The only highway in this area is the Dalton Highway, running between Prudhoe Bay and Fairbanks. The area includes the communities of Nome, Bethel, Kotzebue, Aniak, Galena, Arctic Village, Barrow and numerous smaller villages.
My mum is always concerned when I disappear into the wild. But how dangerous is the Yukon really? My research suggests two main dangers – a fatal bear attack and capsizing / drowning in the cold river. Long story short, the odds for either are pretty low. You are looking at a 0.04% chance of a fatal bear attack during a 3 month stay (1 in 2,600 people) and 0.004% risk of drowning (4 in 100,000 people). In any case, a lot less than the 1-1.5% chance of not returning from Mt. Lhotse 🍀 🐻 🏊♂️
“In the past five years, three people have been killed by bears in nearby Yellowstone National Park. During that time, 20 million tourists have come through the park. I’m seven times more likely to be struck by lightning than to lose my life to a bear here.”
In Alaska alone live 30,000 brown bears, 100,000 black bears and 4,700 polar bears (vs. c700,000 inhabitants) most of which life outside populated areas. The animals are huge and, when standing, the polar (2.7m), grizzly bears (2.1) and black bear (1.75m) make for a frightening sight.
Deers are 120x more likely to kill you than bears
Bear attacks can happen, but have on average only killed one person p.a. in the states since 1900. In more recent history, that number rises to about two to three p.a. presumably due to higher tourist numbers, back country exploration etc. Alaska accounts for only 30% of bear fatalities, while 70% happen in US mainland & Canada.
In Yellowstone for example, your odds of a bear attack are 1 : 2.7million (per day). Now that increases to 1 : 232,000 per day in the back country or 1 : 2,600 chance for a 3 month trip. That means 0.04% chance of getting fatally attacked – a lot lower than the odds I faced on Lhotse. Looking at the statistics, I better watch out for deer that kills 120 people per year … so should I be afraid of the 950,000 moose that life in Alaska instead?
Individual tragedies: For those of you into the details, there is a wikipedia page on bear related fatalities. There have been 9 reported bear related fatalities in 2010 to 2019 in Alaska & Yukon. The last case in the Yukon in 2018 was sadly a mother with her 10 month old baby who were attacked near their cabin. RIP. 🙏✝️
Preventing bear encounters
Travelling by canoe already reduces the risk of unexpected bear encounters significantly. You see them from the unobstructed view of your boat and you don’t run the risk of say stepping between a bear mum and their cubs. This also gives you an advantage picking your sleeping spot, as you can often pick one of the river islands less accessible for animals.
Key is to manage those things that attract bears – namely your food. Don’t take food into your tent! Not even a snack! Store food at a safe distance from the tent, don’t keep any food rubbish near your tent, store food that smells in airtight containers and hang food up on trees where possible (mind you, bears are excellent climbers). Don’t hang the food above your tent for obvious reasons.
What to do if you encounter a bear?
In any case, should a bear come along the rules of engagement differ by bear (see below). Generally talking to the bear is advisable and making noise to avoid them in the first place. Unfortunately, as a foreigner without gun license I can’t buy a gun for protection. So bear spray will be my only weapon. This pretty effective with 98% of people that were forced to use bear spray escaping unharmed. Just need to have it handy all the time …
Grizzly’s / Brown bears: walking away slowly is ok, playing dead tends to work
Black bears: Don’t walk away and make yourself big. Playing dead won’t work – so fight for your life.
Hypothermia & Drowning: Cold water can be a problem
Even though the Yukon is mainly a grade one river and has only the five finger rapids (grade 2/3) as a challenge, waves can be pretty big (1 meter and more) when it gets windy especially on the lakes like Lake Laberge and closer to the Bering Strait that can capsize your canoe. Even with good life vests this is an issue, as the lakes and the river are damn cold even in summer (as low as 5-7 degrees July and August).
River temperature by month
Still, the odds of drowning are low. On the Canadian side you get about 1 person drowning in the Yukon territory per year while the odds on the Alaskan side are 0.004% (4.3 in 100,000 people). Digging further into the statistics, only ~30% of drowning relate to boating, many involved alcohol, lack of a personal flotation device (life vest) and about half of the dead are locals.
There is a jokeful saying amongst folks on the Yukon river: “Thankfully the paddlers are wearing life vests. It makes finding their bodies so much easier.”
You are significantly more likely to drown in coastal areas in US & Canada, I presume due to strong currents and due to high commercial fishing activity (e.g. king crab fishermen in Alaska are 80x more likely to drown than the average worker making this one of the most dangerous professions in the world).
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.
Huge dimensions – 3,000km on the river = 5x the width of Germany (and 5x the distance I paddled on the Elbe in Summer 2018)
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! 👧🏻🇨🇴
Ally 15 canoe in Usti nad Labem, CZ – the start of our Elbe paddle in summer 2018
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.
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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.
Harry is already equipped with life vest & bear spray
Lake Bennett around year 1900
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!
Water levels Yukon, Dawson station
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?
Around first of May is when river ice begins to break