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.”
Bear attacks: Deers more dangerous than bears!
Some 140,000 bears life in Alaska alone
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).
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).