I finally saw the Yukon when I was in my early 20s. After completing college, I packed my truck and drove north and west with the plans of settling in Alaska. On that journey, I found myself wandering down a trail next to the Yukon River in Whitehorse, Yukon. The Yukon River, flowing fast and deep in the shallow canyon, beckoned travelers to cast off from the shore and follow her waters into the wild. Standing on the shore I gazed downstream and tried to imagine what lay beyond the next bend.
Time flowed on and 20 years later I was found myself standing on the banks of the Yukon. Our friends Bryn and Louis had invited us to join them, their 4-year-old daughter (Aven), and dog (Dash), for a float on the Yukon River from Carmacks to Dawson City. Eager to explore the Yukon we accepted their invitation, packed our gear and drove northeast to the put-in. Yvonne (my wife), Isabelle (4-year-old daughter), our dog (Koven) and I were in a 14′ raft, while Bryn, Louis, Aven and Dash were in an 18’6″ Mackenzie canoe.
This was Bryn and Louis’ third Yukon trip and they had logistics dialed, so my planning had been limited to packing food and boat. Apart from knowing that we were going to take roughly 10 days to float to Dawson City I had zero knowledge of the trip. After casting off in late afternoon we floated downriver. Drifting along next to their canoe which kept pulling with occasional paddle strokes (compared to my continual rowing), I peppered Bryn and Louis for information. We learned that the distance from Carmarcks to Dawson City is 260 river miles and most parties do the trip in canoes and take about 8 days, but since we had children we were going to take around 11 days (to give the children lots of time to play in camp each day).
Bryn and Louis are both geologists and floating along we were treated to a geological discourse about the Yukon. For example, did you know that the Yukon (1,980 miles long) is the third longest river in North America after the Mississippi and Missouri? In terms of discharge (average 224,000cfs), it’s the 5th largest. But that’s the big picture, closer to where we were, at that point the river was only 1/4-mile-wide with an average July discharge of 22,000cfs. Once we reached Dawson City, 260 miles downriver, the river would be a mile wide with a July discharge of 150,000cfs. If we kept going all the way to the mouth (a 90-day journey), the river would be 4 miles wide and 550,000cfs. In other words, the geological and hydrological features of the Yukon were every bit as romanticized and revered as the mythological.
We drifted into the afternoon, but since we had started late we didn’t make it far before the kids started yelling so we parked the boats on an island sandbar after only 10 miles on the water. We ate dinner and crawled into tents to escape a brief rain shower that washed over us. That night as we fell asleep the clouds parted and a rainbow arched across the river.
But what of the others that followed, losing their boats by the score? / Well could we see them and hear them, strung down that desolate shore.
“Ballard of the Cheechako” – Robert Service
The next day was our only day with rapids; the infamous Five Fingers Rapids where the Yukon pours through channels carved between basalt columns. Legend has it that during the gold rush a net was placed just below the rapids to ensnare the corpses that perished in the rapids. Survivors were supposed to stop and dig graves for their dead companions. As we approached the rapids, Bryn and Louis flagged us down and promptly deposited Aven in our boat so it would be on my conscience if I were to flip the boat. Robert Service’s words stood out in my mind (“There was the rage of the rapids, there was the menace of doom”) as we entered the channel and I yelled at everyone to hold on (Koven, sensing my trepidation, crawled off his perch in the stern and slid his head under my arms).
Things have changed since Robert Service, Jack London and thousands of cheechakos fought their way down river. The rapids have been blasted to make them deeper and safer, a viewing platform has been built above the rapids where busloads of tourists gawk as you pass, and modern rubber rafts make the rapids nothing more than a fun wave train. The girls giggled and asked if we could do it again. Even the dog didn’t seem too nervous. We drifted on and into the afternoon before pulling off at an old cabin where we built a fire and caught fish well into the night.
On the third day, we floated past a boat launch and barge station at mile 60 and then we were pulling past the road system and into the wild where we would float for another 190 miles before reaching Dawson City. Drifting away from the reaches of civilization we fell into the rhythm of the river: Up early, coffee and breakfast and then packing up camp; 10-15 mile float followed by long lunch breaks to hike up old roads or fish for grayling and whitefish (or just sit on the beach and watch the kids and dogs jump around in the water); after lunch another 10-15 miles until pulling off for the night. Dinner, campfire and reading and then bed. Rise and repeat.
10 sunny days and 1 day of rain. Temps reached into the 80s, forest fires built on the horizon and an orange haze filled the river valley and on our only rainy day the rainwater tasted like smoke. Our camps ranged from classic Yukon river wooded camps where travelers have beat down dirt platforms near old log cabins, to large open islands with cobblestone beaches and back channels of stagnant warm water and mud that invited children to shed clothes and bathe. One afternoon we explored the old town site of Fort Selkirk – a town, established in 1852, that flourished for a century before being abandoned in the 1950s as river traffic dwindled when people traded steamships for cars.
A third of the way into the trip we float past the Pelly River where the river doubled in volume and changed from a green channel with steep cut banks to a wide, brown and muddy river. Large islands with sandy beaches provided comfortable camps where the kids could run and explore without being eaten by hordes of mosquito (or bear). Paddling meant constantly ferrying from one shore to the other to find the widest and fastest channel through the network of islands. For 3 days, we floated through a canyon with mountains spilling down into the waters on both sides and cliffs of basalt rising out of the water. Moose and bear appeared on rivers edge, but faded back into forests as we neared, sheep clambered on the rock walls above the water and the raucous cackling of peregrine falcons echoed from nests atop rock towers (“The strong life that never knows harness”).
Coming out of the canyon on Day 8 the White River merged with the Yukon; the volume doubled again, the water turned cloudy and the hiss of silt rubbing against the raft filled the silence. The mountains gave way, the landscape opened and the river expanded into a mile-wide network of channels.
After floating 185 miles we passed Split-Up island at the mouth of Stewart Island – the island where Jack London overwintered from December 1887 through May 1898. London staked a claim a few miles north of the island where he got so cold it inspired his classic To Build a Fire. That winter he met a man with a mixed-breed dog who would become an inspiration for Buck in Call of the Wild. Later that winter caught scurvy and lost four of his front teeth. When the ice finally broke, he boarded a steamship and returned to California with $4.50 worth of gold dust in his pocket.
Robert Service followed London in 1900 and settled in Whitehorse where he began writing poems about the tales he heard from miners around town. He moved to Dawson in 1908, 10 years after London and the Klondike Gold Rush had come and gone. Living in a small log cabin in the center of town he collected stories from grizzled miners and wove them into ballads.
London and Service began publishing their works in the early part of the 20th century and their stories were an immediate success, the mythology of the untamed wilderness a message that resonated with readers around the world. My father embraced the stories at a young age, and as an adult he read stories like To Build a Fire, Call of the Wild and White Fang to me and my brothers. Eager to instill the mystic of the Yukon into my daughter’s sub-consciousness, I spent our days pointing out the sights as we floated downriver. Stories were told about the old cabins, animals were pointed out, tracks in the dirt were studied. Through a child’s eyes, the river was a wild land and a doorway to a world far different from the bustle of everyday life.
But age provides perspective and one hundred years later the wild Yukon is very much on the verge of being tamed. At times, you are 70 miles from the Klondike Highway, but the mountains between the Yukon and the highway are crisscrossed with old placer mine roads that lead to the thousands of claims scattered throughout the region. In summer the river comes alive with the people who live near and travel the river. Barges ferry mining equipment and other goods throughout the summer and locals who live along the river frequently travel up and down the river. In June 300+ canoers race from Whitehorse to Dawson, and throughout the summer there is a constant stream of canoes from all over the world reliving the journeys of the gold rush. Most islands and camps have several fire pits and the occasional bit of trash.
The eroding cabins speak of an era and people come and gone, but corporations have moved in to take their place. In 2013 Minto Mine (link to map) was processing 4,000 tons of ore daily, and with addition of a discovery near the existing open pit mine, the mine is estimated to stay open through 2022. Further downriver at Coffee Creek, Goldcorp has submitted a project proposal for developing an open pit and cyanide leach mine. Part of the development plan is a proposed upgrade of the old mining roads plus construction of new portions of road to link Dawson City and Coffee Creek. This will put a highway right into the heart of what is now a region accessible only by boat.
Beyond the Yukon River corridor, other corporations have moved in to stake their claim. Selwyn Chihong Mining Ltd., a Chinese company, has invested almost $500 million in an open-pit zinc mine near Watson Lake. The company is currently developing an access road to the claim. South of Dawson City is the proposed Casino Mine. If approved it would be the biggest mine in Yukon’s history. The dam would be one of the world’s highest dams, and the highest tailings dam. Fears of the mines’ impact on caribou herds and Yukon River’s salmon population has led to stiff opposition from local conservation groups and First Nations. Other projects include the Eagle Gold project, touted to be the largest “shovel-ready” gold mine in Yukon history, Wellgreen, a proposed rare earth metals mine near the boundary of the Kluane National Park, and the Crest Iron Ore Deposit along the Snake River northeast of Dawson City.
I am not immune from the insatiable thirst for rare metals that has gripped our planet. My satellite text messaging and GPS unit (that I wouldn’t dare leave home without) uses gold as a conductor and copper for wiring. The batteries in my headlamp use zinc and the smartphones that hold all the maps for our journey are powered with lithium batteries – an element that is projected to spark mass exploration in the Northwest Territories. Meanwhile the land above the river gets ripped apart and the salmon fisheries and caribou population of the Yukon dwindle. It is a conflict that we all face: how to balance our modern consumptive lifestyle and the impact it has upon wild places, against the need to preserve these places for our children.
On our last day, a few miles south of Dawson City, the river broadens into a mile-wide basin that resembles a lake more than a river. The waters are calm and the weather perfect, so I climb off the captain’s seat and invite my daughter to take the oars. At 4 she can barely hold them in place, but she likes to try. Sitting back, I peel open my Robert Service book and read The Spell of the Yukon as she struggles to pull the boat. Reading through the poem knowing that I will soon be on my way back to work and other things, the famous last lines resonate.
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
Looking up I notice that my daughter has stopped trying to row and is staring off into the distance. I often catch her like this; it is a look that I interpret as mindfulness in the way she disappears into the present. She stares into the distance and I try to see what she is looking at but her gaze seems somewhere between the rock walls lining the shore and the trees fading into the hills. Following her gaze I too become lost in the present. The heaviness of sorrow at the seemingly unstoppable march of progress into this valley weighs upon me, but at the same time I am awed by the yet untouched beauty of the river and forests surrounding me. For a moment, the two conflicting emotions are one, and in that moment, I am filled with peace.
My daughter returns from her place with a shout and drops the oars into the water. I grab them and start pulling us into the final canyon that propels us to the landing in Dawson City where we land the boat and walk into town for lunch. The bank where Robert Service used to work is across the street from where we eat. Jack London’s cabin is around the corner. Tourists flock to the bank and cabin, but I eschew going near them. Instead I walk along the path next to the river and watch the Yukon flow past. 120 years past the Gold Rush, 80 years past my father’s youth and 40 years past mine. My daughter, lost again in the moment, gazes downstream. I gaze with her, the river carrying us from the past and into the future.
Logistically speaking the Whitehorse to Dawson City section of the Yukon is the most straight-forward section you can do. There are rental agencies right in Whitehorse who will rent you a boat and if you plan on floating the entire 450 miles you can launch a few steps from the door. Carmacks to Dawson City requires a little more planning in that you will need to first rent a boat in Whitehorse and transport it to Carmacks. Returning the boat is easy – the rental agencies will let you drop the boat off at a predetermined place and you’ll be on your way. Likewise, there is public transportation for the shuttle.
Canoe Rental: Bryn and Louis have used Kanoe People for the past 2 years. They are located right in Whitehorse next to the Yukon River. They’re knowledgeable and friendly and the store stocks a plethora of canoe specific equipment.
Shuttle: The Husky Bus departs every other day from Dawson City and travels to Carmacks and then Whitehorse. If you are driving your own car I recommend running the shuttle prior to the trip so you don’t have to sit around for a day at the end of the trip.
Boat Choice: Regarding boat choice, for Canadians the canoe is the boat of choice. But Canadians pride themselves on canoeing regardless of river, weather or conditions. A canoe is certainly faster – but with children a raft makes for a pleasant journey with minimal worries about tipping or falling overboard. Note that if you want to raft the entire section from Whitehorse to Dawson City you will need a motor for the 30 miles on Lake Leberge. From Carmacks to Dawson a raft is nice in that you will have zero worries about Five Finger rapid or the heavy currents where the White River merges with the Yukon. My $.02: If you have a raft take a raft. If you don’t have a raft or kids then take a canoe.
Camps: From Carmacks to the confluence with the Pelly River you will need to seek out existing marked camps. Most of these are tent sites next to old cabins in the woods. After the Pelly River confluence, there are ample island camps with gravel and sandy beaches. I marked our camps in the GPS file and in the Google maps file. One thing I’ll note: the section from Pelly River to the White River is superb. Take your time and enjoy it.
Bears: The Yukon is one of those rivers where you need to keep a clean camp but don’t need to do things like lock all your food up in bear barrels and erect a bear fence every night. Be smart and bear aware and you’ll be fine.
Beer: The Canadian government only allows you to carry across 24 cans of beer per person. If you are rafting this is a problem because you will need at least 3 beers / person / night. If you show up at the border with all your beer pre-bought at Costco the border agent might not care, or they might confiscate it and drink it when they’re off duty. I suggest you buy one case at Costco and plan on buying the rest in Whitehorse.
Time: Most people take around 15 days to do the entire Whitehorse to Dawson Section. We took 11 to do half of it. (See my note about beer above.)
Guidebooks: There are two Guidebooks: Mike Rourke’s Yukon River is the most comprehensive and a must-have. Len Webster’s Yukon River Guide is a river-maps style book with full color maps for the entire section. If you are a paper maps kind of person then get Webster’s book. If you have a good GPS with river miles and key points already loaded and you prefer to use a GPS over a book then Webster’s book isn’t needed. Note that Rourke’s book details every single camp along the river whereas Webster only highlights what he considers to be good camps.
Key Reading: The Best of Robert Service: selections include all the classics; great for a short read here and there. The Call of the Wild by Jack London: relive the story as you float by the island where it was conceived. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey: not the Yukon, but a fictional account of the exploration of the Copper River. The fantastical world the characters are thrust into makes for strange dreams when you’re in the wilderness. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: my dog eared and tattered copy of Huck Finn is always in my dry box. I like to thumb through it whenever I “light out for the territory ahead of the rest”.
I’ve embedded my Yukon map above. We also floated Eagle to Circle in 2018 and Whitehorse to Carmacks in 2023. Visit the other pages for details about other sections. Note that I did not include camps for Carmacks to Dawson. Refer to Topo map layers or buy one of the guidebooks for camp details.