Paddling into the brief Yukon summer; Half an hour after arriving, the author spots his first bear
Title: Toronto Star
Date:Apr 21, 2012
Publication Type: Daily Newspaper
The Yukon River flows due north through the Territory. This may have come as a surprise to the 'North of 60' (as in degrees latitude) "ad-venture capitalists" who completed the three-year odyssey to join the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898. It was just one of a torrent of discoveries I made when I traveled here to explore the North Country by paddle. I've read enough Jack London to understand I was traversing a mythical landscape, where county-size glaciers pulse and where there are so many alpine peaks, hundreds remain unnamed. I was not expecting, however, to be paddling a canoe across Chadburn Lake within thirty minutes of my Air North 737 landing at the Whitehorse International Airport. But there I sat, fifteen minutes from town, cutting crescents in the verdant water, passing assorted beaver lodges, hoping to approach closely enough to the common loon to capture its red eye and brilliant neck rings with my 300mm lens.
I forgot my avian subject, however, when I spied a black bear sow and her two cubs scampering across the hillside. An hour ago I had been cramped into a 90-seat aircraft, now I was in the middle of a lake, watching a mother bear play "catch me if you can" with her 3-week old twins, who tumbled along, spilling this way and that as, well, one might imagine cubs chasing their mother across a hillside might do.
"Welcome to the Yukon," laughed my guide Paula. After watching the bears and birds beneath infinite late spring sunlight for another two hours, we returned to Whitehorse to rest up for our next aquatic expedition.
Imagine what the Yukon River meant to the 40,000 gold seekers who, in 1898, sailed to Skagway, Alaska with, by Canadian customs law, a year's worth of supplies. The prospectors then hiked the Chilkoot Trail or White Pass to Lake Bennett, headwaters of the Yukon
River, the fifth longest river in North America. Some 800 kilometres of river travel awaited the treasure seekers (after they built their rafts, of course); most eventually arrived to find the Klondike completely staked out. Still, encountering the Yukon must have come as some relief after hauling one tonne of supplies over the pass.
Departing from a convenient Whitehorse dock, I haul a single, small cooler of Chilkoot Lager, crackers and cheese into my kayak and, unlike the infamous queue of '98ers, encounter not one other soul on the river all day. Bald, rounded mountains lounge skyward, capped with the season's white vestiges from winter. Paula and I watch storms coalesce 160 kilometres away; gray opaque sheets of rain unfurl from cumulous mastheads.
The occasional sandbar suggests a perfect beach upon which to lay and let our musings dangle and dive where they will. Alas we drift on until, after five hours of idle float and languid steering, we enter Lake LaBarge, a stage for tempests, prose and the final resting place of the Florence S., a stern-wheel steamer that capsized during a storm in 1900. All 40 passengers and crew were lost.
Propelling our kayaks against a headwind, it's easy to envision abrupt weather changes on the lake. Though the sun shines brightly, we encounter light chop for our final 90-minute paddle to putout. "You've just tasted a spoonful," teases Paula, "you have to enter the Yukon River Quest before you can make any claim to this river."
Paula and her two daughters participated in the 715 km race several years ago, an event she cherishes as the final shared experience before her eldest departed for college. "There's no better paddling race in the world," Paula exclaims, as I hastily check my calendar for next year. "People come from all over the world to race from Whitehorse to Dawson City under the midnight sun. And oh, the party at the finish line, well, you must come back!"
Like all of the world's best races, the Yukon River Quest invites all levels of athletes. In the one-person, competitive kayak, Ontario's Gaetan Plourde set a solo record time of 48 hours, 28 minutes last year. The Yukon's "Paddlers Abreast" women's team finished the course in 51 hours, 56 minutes, also a record. The race starts on June 27th and is so popular registration closes on May 15th.
Waking at 5 a.m., the third jewel of our adventure awaits: white water rafting the Tatshenshini River. Like most north country novices, I begin paddling the "Tat" content to career along an intermediate course, but soon grow rapacious, consuming every drop of white water I can find on the four hour thrill ride of Class II to Class IV rapids. My confidence correlates directly with the expertise of Olivier, our Tatshenshini Expediting guide.
Shooting rapids demands daring and reserve. There are stretches in most rivers to 'go vert' and even take a dip, but placid waters swiftly transform into the River Styx where making it past proves the sole reward. On the Tat, one need not be double-black diamond hardcore to enjoy the Class III or IV white water. One raft among our party mostly got wet from the paddles of rival guides, whereas my raft mates and I took four good dunkings. No one slips out during the tight series of Class IV plunges, including "Two Holes," parallel swirls that send the raft shooting left then right in rapid succession, followed by a final nose dive toward calmer waters.
I again rearrange next summer's schedule to squeeze in the 10-day rafting journey Tatshenshini Expediting runs down the lower Tatshenshini from Dalton Post to Dry Bay, Alaska.
Growing up, the Yukon Territory seemed as remote as the moon. Reading "To Build a Fire" in Grade 7, I was sure snow drifted higher, the temperature shot lower here than anywhere else, the environment was too harsh for human inhabitation. But London's narratives occlude the brilliant days and gloaming nights of summer. And ah, what a glorious summer it is. The sun only yawns, the flowers sprint to blossom and human and ursine characters alike emerge to scamper across the landscape and paddle across the water.
JUST THE FACTS
Air North: Yukon's Airline. 867-668-2228. flyairnorth.com.
Up North Adventures: 867-667-7035. upnorthadventures.com.
Kanoe People: 867-668-4899. kanoepeople.com.
Tatshenshini Expediting: 867-633-2742. tatshenshiniyukon.com.
Yukon River Quest Canoe &Kayak Race: yukonriverquest.com
Crai S. Bower is based in Seattle.
Caption: Illustration: • Whitewater rafting is one the great activities available in the Yukon. Relax - there's lots of gentle water, too. courtesy Tatshenshini Expediting