Yukon River Canoeing

8 days on the Yukon from Whitehorse to Carmacks

Aug 28, 2016

The shore of Lake Laberge.

I just returned from an eight day excursion on the Yukon River in canoes, camping along the shore every night. This was an excellent follow up to my similar trip canoeing the Green River in Utah last summer. The basic idea was the same: float and paddle downstream on a large river, camping alongside the river every night. The terrain and many of the details were very different than the Green.

Map of the Yukon river.

Our route started in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and flowed downstream (North) to Carmacks. Had more time been available, I would have liked to extend the trip to float onwards to Dawson, but that will need to be another time. The river continues some 3,000 km farther into Alaska and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.

Lake Laberge

Most of the river is moving pretty fast on its own, but there is a 60 km section of the river just at the beginning where the river widens out into a lake with no current. The lake is named Lake Laberge. Despite it accounting for about 20% of the distance, it took our group about half of our time to cross.

The lack of current and slow going is only one issue with the lake. Wind can also pick up and create waves higher than the sides of your boat. These can cause a canoe to be quickly swamped. The waters are cold enough that this is potentially life-threatening, so when the wind picks up, you get to the shore and wait it out. On one of our days, we only had about 3 hours where we could make progress. Some folks wait out storms for days.

Me with awful form on Lake Laberge (my back was killing me). You can see some of the waves lifting up the boat. When the waves got much worse, we would get off the river.

The other downside of the lake is that it offers less solitude. Whitehorse is a starting point for a lot of people, since it has a large airport and there is a dam just upstream. With everyone starting on the same spot and slow progress early on the trip, folks are a bit bunched up until they get off the lake. We had competition for good campsites and could often see another party or two on the lake while paddling. I'd recommend starting the trip during the week to reduce this effect a bit, or pick a different starting point such as Carmacks. On the plus side, we did run into an incredible group from Tennesee in a homemade viking boat.

Past the lake

Lake Laberge was pretty, but very tiring. Once we finally got back on the river though, things improved greatly. Based on our crude estimates, we could float somewhere around 8-10 km / hr with only very rarely paddling for a couple minutes to avoid some river feature or another.

The river had a number of interesting historical areas to explore, more than we had the time for, but we picked a few of them. Probably the most interesting one was an old steamboat, the S.S. Evelyn/Norcom which was resting upon an island, which used to be an old shipyard.

Not Supported.
Not Supported.
Not Supported.
Not Supported.
Not Supported.
Not Supported.

SS Evelyn / Norcom abandoned on shipyard island.

In addition to the steamboat, there were cemeteries, ghost towns, logging camps, log cabins, gold dredges, and probably a lot more that we missed!

The night sky

Due to some strange 'feeling' that a paper thin layer of nylon tenting material was somehow protecting them from grizzly bears, most of my group slept in tents every night. On nights where the weather looked pretty safe, I just rolled out my sleeping bag under the stars and it was glorious.

My mummy bag by the shore, waiting for stars (and me).

Every time I woke up, I got a planetarium-style view of the night sky. It never would get pitch dark due to the summer sun at that latitude, but without city lights it was still quite nice. Even got to see some good shows of Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), though I didn't have the camera equipment necessary to capture them well.

Hand-tripod'ed long exposure of the Northern Lights.

Logistics

If you are interested in this trip, it's very doable for someone with good backcountry camping experience. The canoeing is pretty simple and you can learn quickly. The camping is where all of the complexity comes in, if there is much. One of my group made a different writeup that focused more on logistics than mine which you can check out on his blog: [JeremyShapiro.com]. If you are thinking about this trip and have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email too.