Our family summer float for 2023 was a mess of plans. A deep snowpack in Southcentral Alaska, combined with a cold spring meant that local rivers were bankfull at best – and full flood stage in several watersheds. Eventually, after hitting refresh on USGS stream gauges for the better part of a week, we switched plans and opted to float the Yukon from Whitehorse to Carmacks – a section of river that we had not done before.
The great thing about planning a Yukon float in Canada is that you don’t really have to plan. The town of Whitehorse has utilized the proximity and accessibility of the Yukon river to create an industry that supports several businesses and employs dozens. A single phone call can arrange boat rentals and shuttles and all you have to do is show up with food and camping gear and you can shove off from the doorstep of a company and start floating. Options and costs run the gamut from fully guided trips where a guide greets you at the airport and puts you in the boat and presumably brings coffee to you every morning (~$3000), to self-guided where a service rents you a boat (~$300 /week) and can arrange transportation (~$350 but seats up to 9 people). Boaters with their own gear can arrange a shuttle or just float to Carmacks or Dawson and catch a bus back to Whitehorse (~$100 / person for Whitehorse to Dawson). All this is in stark contrast to travel in Alaska where visitors are often forced to rent a car even if it’s going to be parked at a trailhead for a week.
We opted to bring our raft – and because we opted for a raft we also had to bring a motor since floating from Whitehorse to Carmacks requires traversing 31 miles across Lake Laberge. The gear pile continued to balloon while time constraints mounted and in order to make planning easy we just hired a van to haul us back to Whitehorse at the end of the trip (we used Kanoe People whom I highly recommend).
First some stats: From Whitehorse to Dawson total distance is 186 river miles. The trip can be broken into 6 distinct parts:
- Whitehorse to Lake Laberge – 22 miles
- Lake Laberge – 31 miles
- Lake Laberge to Teslin River (“Thirty Mile”) – 30 miles
- Teslin River to Big Salmon River – 33 miles
- Big Salmon to Little Salmon – 36 miles
- Little Salmon to Carmacks – 31 miles
Most people take about 8 days to do the trip. The river itself is Class I with zero riffles. There are a couple places where the current is fast and you need to watch out for the usual dangers like sweepers, but most agree it’s a river that beginners can easily manage. Lake Laberge on the other hand can be hazardous if winds and waves become persistent – thus the crux of the whole trip is crossing of Lake Laberge, which can take anywhere from 6 hours to 3 days due to frequent weather delays. Once you’re across the lake you can easily make up for lost time – so don’t push it (for reference – the record for paddling from Whitehorse to Dawson is 39 hours, 32 minutes and 43 seconds). Better yet – take your time. Lake Laberge is the prettiest section of the trip and you should take several days to explore the shores. Once you’re downstream there is no need to rush. The Thirty Mile section is a Canadian Heritage River and the clear blue waters are stunningly beautiful. Further downstream the old camps and pike sloughs invite pause.
8 days is the minimum. 10 is better. To quote Kevin Fedarko, “if there is a point…it is not to rush but to linger… to float, to drift, savoring the pulse of the river on its odyssey through the canyon, and above all, to postpone the unwelcome and distinctly unpleasant moment when one is forced to reemerge and reenter the world beyond the rim-that is the paramount goal.”
Whitehorse & across Lake Laberge
Unfortunately I didn’t take my own advice. Work conflicts and stuff found a way to push aside our start date and our 10 day trip went to 8 and then 7. We left Anchorage on a Friday afternoon and drove like mad to reach Whitehorse by Saturday midday. A handful of last minute errands in Whitehorse then assembling the boat and finally a late afternoon launch. With the first day not starting until 4pm and a tight schedule, we opted to motor the first 20 miles. 3 1/2 hours later we pulled into the last campsite before Lake Larbarge (mile marker 20) and crashed for the night.
The next day dawned perfectly clear and calm. We packed up and once again began motoring downriver and within 20 minutes we cruised out into the deep blue waters of Lake Laberge. This was the crux of the trip. We needed to motor 30 miles due north to reach the outlet which I estimated would take us about 6 hours. I rarely use my motor and I was apprehensive that something would cause delays. Once I flooded the engine and killed the spark-plug in the middle of Skilak Lake and had to take it apart and rebuild while bobbing around – and I was convinced something similar would happen. Or the winds would kick up and we’d be forced to shelter for a day or more.
But nothing happened. The motor worked just fine and the weather stayed perfect. The winds kicked up briefly and for a minute I thought we’d have to pull over – but they died down quickly and we continued on. All 3 of us took turns steering the boat and we endured the entire traverse in a single day. 36 miles and 7 1/2 hours of motoring at an average speed of 4.5mph (I have a 3.5hp kicker which is small and lightweight – but agonizingly slow).
Against all better judgement we had blown past the most beautiful portion of the trip in mere hours and ended up motoring all the way to Lower Lake Laberge (mile marker 54.5) the well developed campsite at the outlet. That said – we no longer felt stressed that we wouldn’t complete the trip in time and the heaviness of the unknown was lifted. Plus we could pack away the motor for the duration of the trip! We ate dinner by the the lake turned river and drifted off to sleep in the twilight of June.
If I were to do this again I would try and camp half way across the lake where the limestone cliffs come all the way down to the shore. There are several places where you could work your way several hundred feet above the lake to get a clear vantage point. The campsites are plentiful (several have outhouses) and the stillness of the lake is magnificent.
Lake Laberge to Teslin River (“Thirty Mile”)
We were routed out of bed by Trumpeter Swans and a Northern Goshawk. The swans were in the lake near our boat – the goshawk was perched in a tree inches from our vestibule and their combined shrieks made sleep impossible. Up with the birds and eating breakfast and packing. We briefly explored the old building surrounding the camp but the beautiful waters were calling, so we loaded the boat and launched.
The section from Lake Laberge to Teslin River (Thirty Mile) was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1991. This is a Canadian designation for rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.” Once designated the rivers become part of a network of waterways that are cared for by governments, local communities, conservation authorities and local citizens. This program is a similar to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, however the designation has no legislative authority and local jurisdictions and land owners retain management authority and responsibilities. You can learn more about the designation at chrs.ca.
All that said – the Thirty Mile section of the Yukon is absolutely gorgeous. It is a relatively narrow (150-300′) river channel with crystal clear waters. The current is fast (7+mph), the banks are undercut and sand and gravel bluffs jut 300′ above the river. You can see fish darting under the boat and large boulders line river bottom. About the only fault one can have with this section is that it goes by too fast. The current pulls you with hardly any effort on your part and before you know it you’ve floated 25 miles and need to stop before it’s over.
Our day started nice but by mid-day clouds had moved in and we kept adding layers to stay warm. Around noon we came upon a group from Anchorage whom we had previously corresponded with and pulled off to have lunch with them. Then down the river in search of a campsite.
By mid-afternoon it was threatening to rain so we started looking for camps before finally pulling off to a well maintained camp (mile marker 79) complete with outhouses, fire-pits and picnic tables. It started raining towards evening and just before the clouds opened up full blast the party from Anchorage pulled in and all the kids piled onto shore. There were too many of them to kick out – and the kids had attached themselves to Isabelle’s hip, so we made a huge bonfire and roasted marshmallows in the rain.
Teslin River to Big Salmon
The rain stopped sometime during the night and we launched mid morning for the final couple of miles down Thirty Mile to the junction with the Teslin River. The Teslin River was flowing considerably higher than the Yukon and the river immediately doubled in size and changed from the beautiful crystal blue to the thick brown mud that characterizes most of the Yukon. A few hundred feet past the junction we reached “Shipyard Island”. This was a winter storage facility built in 1913 by the British Yukon Navigation Company and it the last remaining example of this type of facility on the whole of the Yukon River. The steamship Evelyn was hauled ashore here in 1913 and it still lies in the woods.
We beached the raft and walked a short distance to find the old steamship in a partial clearing. There is a plank you can carefully crawl up to access the deck of the boat and Isabelle and I scrambled up and walked around checking out the interior and decks. We were delighted to discover that the original boiler was still inside the ship which of course called for a Cremation of Sam McGee reenactment. After a lengthy discussion it was determined that I should climb inside while Isabelle took the photo. Given the entire ship is on the verge of collapse this wasn’t the brightest idea – but the picture came out pretty well and no one was squished, so we called it a success.
The Cremation of Sam McGee
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.’
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
Beyond Shipyard Island the river broadened as it flowed through a valley with 3500′ mountains on either side. Oftentimes we floated past steep cut banks that were several hundred feet high and there was evidence of recent landslides all the way down to the rivers edge. This landscape continued for 25 miles until we finally rowed out into the wide valley where the Big Salmon River joins. Leaving the tight valley we floated into a wide basin where we ferried river right and pulled into a little channel at Big Salmon Village (mile marker 117).
Big Salmon Village was an old native fishing site which became a steamship stop. During the Goldrush it was a North-West Mounted Police station and trading station complete with a telegraph lines. As the Goldrush came to an end and steamship traffic dwindled, most people began to move away leaving only a handful of First Nations people. A few years later the influenza epidemic of 1918-20 decimated the remaining natives and the village has been abandoned since. It is still used as a fishing site in late summer, however it no longer has year round residents. If you walk 15 minutes past the village there is an old graveyard in the woods with a handful of native grave houses. The graves are forgotten, falling apart and slowly fading back into the landscape.
Big Salmon to Little Salmon
Day five was one of those perfect Yukon days. A clear blue sky, no bugs and warm sun. We packed up and set off with the intention of putting in about 25 miles, but the weather called for lounging so we made frequent stops. A few miles of rowing and then a pull off at Walsh Creek. We hiked up the ridge behind camp for a view of the Walsh Creek and the Yukon. Then a couple more miles down to a sandbar where we once again ran into the Anchorage crew. We ate lunch with them and I scrambled up the ridge behind camp to snap pictures of them as they floated away. Then another mile downstream to Fourth of July bend (mile marker 127.5) where we found an exquisite sandbar that we couldn’t pass up.
The sandbar was at most 2′ above the water edge – but there wasn’t a cloud in sight and the forecast wasn’t calling for a drop of rain so we took off our shoes, set up camp sat in the sun while Isabelle repeatedly dunked herself in the water. We drifted off to sleep on a perfect evening. A beaver kept lazily swimming past the raft and a Swainson’s Thrush sang deeply until midnight. I stayed awake as long as possible savoring the night.
Lazily floating again the next day. Where we had rushed for the first part of the trip now we now slowed down, for there is no worse sin than completing a river trip early. The main channel of the Yukon flows at about 7mph and when you’re rowing (or rather, when my wife is rowing) the raft moves downstream at close of 10mph – so covering a lot of ground is easy. We drifted for a few hours in the sun and finally pulled off at Mandanna Creek (mile marker 159.5). This ended up being an exquisite camp due to the hungry pike that eagerly chased every lure we threw into the water. Isabelle pulled one out after another and for dinner we ate friend pike cooked over an open fire.
That night I put a camp chair next to the river and stayed up late reading and watching the river go by. I re-read Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on this trip – a book I’ve read several times over the years. That night I read the chapter where Huck witnesses the murder of his friend Buck. He then works his way back to the river where he finds Jim and casts off back into the Mississippi. The chapter ends with one of Huck’s finest quote: “There warn’t no home like a raft after all. Other place do seem so cramped and smothery – but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”
Little Salmon to Carmacks
Our last day on the river. Most of the time not much is to be said about the last day. It’s equal parts elation and dread; elation that you’ll soon be home, dread that you’ll be off the river. We set off and drifted downriver moving the oars half heartedly until finally coming around the bend and pulling hard into the campground where we piled out of the boat and ate ice cream looking down at the river moving by. Glad to be at the end but not looking forward to leaving. We packed up the boat and caught our shuttle back to Whitehorse and then the drive in reverse and unpacking and already planning the next river.
Resources & Notes
Above is a map I’ve added to a few times over the years. Whenever I do a river trip I trace the route in Google Earth and export the route to waypoints with a filter to place a waypoint every mile. You can do this the low-tech method where you trace the line in Google Earth, generate an elevation profile and manually drop points every mile, or you can use a tool like QGIS to plot the points for you (tutorial here).
I then import that file into Gaia and download the necessary layers on my phone for offline use. I generally download USGS Topo and a Gaia Topo basemap and then cache ESRI imagery for the route. Having access to ESRI imagery is key if the river is braided and you have a larger boat in that you can zoom in and get an idea of the best route with minimal chance of wood or sandbars.
Having all of this allows me to open up my phone and figure out exactly where. It also aids in decision making for camps and travel. For example – if the trip is 186 miles and we have 6 days then we know we need to float ~30 miles per day. A quick check of our location lets me see exactly where we are and how far we have to go that day – and allows me to figure out which camps are near the intended destination. This works pretty well with a boat full of kids who are continually asking “how much further?”.
This map in particular is broken down into the 6 distinct parts for Whitehorse to Carmacks. The 250 mile Carmacks to Dawson section is lumped into a single folder with place names because by the time you reach that section you should have an understanding of how fast you’re going and where you plan to camp for the night. I haven’t floated Dawson to Eagle so section VIII is blank – and once you get to Eagle the mile markers for Eagle to Circle (150 miles) start over at 0.
Our camps are marked for Whitehorse to Carmacks. If you’re using Gaia the standard Gaia Topo basemap has all the camps marked for the Canadian portion of the trip along with most place names (see screenshot to the right).
From Whitehorse to Hootalinqua most of the camps are well maintained and have outhouses or pit toilets. Below Hootalinqua only a few have toilets and the toilets tend to be old shacks that haven’t been maintained in years. Because of this you end up finding a lot of toilet paper in the woods from people who don’t know how to crap in the woods. If you’re with a large party please carry a toilet or at the very least carry a shovel to dig a large pit toilet that you can fill in when you leave. Toilets are required on most river these days – given the traffic on this section of river they should be required for this river as well.
Beyond Carmacks I have not marked our camps. You’ll need to stay at existing camps until you reach White River (use one of the guidebooks or Gaia to figure out camps). Downstream from White River there are huge river bar camps every few miles. For the Eagle to Circle section the banks are frequently stripped clean during the spring floods so finding a suitable camp is easy. Note that just before Circle you’ll want to spend you last night within the park (the gravel bar at mile 133 is an excellent spot with a nice back slough you can explore) since once you leave the park you will find yourself floating past several fish camps and private land.
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. Also note that Webster’s idea of a 5-star camp is generally one with old buildings and stuff to poke around in. Quiet wood camps / sandbars are generally rated 1-star.