Wet ‘n Wild in the Yukon

My destination is a city just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Immersed in history and lost in an age of gold panning pioneers, there’s no wonder why thousands arrive by motorbike, car or RV every summer to travel to some of the most remote highways in the world. But that’s not why I am going. Nor is it the pot-holed gravel highways that start my journey 400 miles south of the city. There’s a better way to experience the vast wilderness of The Yukon, Northern Canada. So with one friend, two weeks worth of supplies and a canoe, we embarked on our journey along the namesake river, the Yukon.
The river itself runs from Northern Canada into Alaska before entering the Bearing Sea, meandering through vast wilderness and untouched forest. On this two-week trip I encountered just one settlement with a population of 460 people and a single local shop with a selection most British newsagents would be ashamed of. It is a personal exercise of persistence, isolation but most importantly adventure. Northern Canada is not a place that lets you down. Certainly, you might not be able to set up your camp in the mould of Ray Mears or Bear Grylls but it is your surroundings that dominate your thoughts. The trees and mountains are definitely the real deal and the sound of your paddle dipping in and out of the water as wildlife moves all around you is a constant reminder of just how unique this part of the world is.
The first day is special. The anticipation over, you leave behind all forms of contact and prepare to submit yourself to the whims of the monster that is the Yukon river. After leaving the small city of Whitehorse there is no turning back as you find yourself licked up in the moving water and thrown in to the wilderness. While for most this excitement lasts the day and you can revel in the fact that you have finally set off on your adventure, for us it was hastily cut short. After less than two hours, hugging the bank as we rounded a meander, there stood stock still on the waters edge the very symbol which for many epitomises what such a trip is about. Just three meters away from us, following with suspicious eyes, was a grizzly bear. Frozen and holding my breath I stared at the face of one of the most powerful predators in the world and prayed that it would stay where it was. Fortunately it did just that and the river’s flow drifted us away from the danger just as silently as it had thrown us into it. The bear turned and bumbled off in the opposite direction, its shoulders rising and falling as it walked. Not what we wanted on the first day, after the stories told to us on our three-week journey from Vancouver to Whitehorse, seeing a grizzly an hour and a half in was hardly an encounter to settle the nerves.
Event of the day over and hours spent whiled away conversing about anything and everything, the day came to the point of camping. Here, as everything else in the wilderness, you are entirely on your own, with a map containing such annotations as ‘fair campsite’ or ‘good campsite’ you glue your eyes to the river banks and drift along looking for a clearing or grassy space in which you could pitch a tent. You don’t pop money in a box or search for loose change for the pay showers you get out of your canoe, put up your tent, grab the axe and go find some firewood. When it comes to showers you can either strip down the next time the heavens open or take a dip into the glacial waters which reach a maximum of about 3°C each year; the point I’m trying to make is by the end of the two weeks you’ve got a strange confidence that no bear will eat you smelling that bad. The camping can in fact be more challenging than the canoeing, especially as the days exercise means all you want to do is get in your tent, not have to set it up along with making and lighting the fire and cooking the food.
It’s only after that’s all done you can take in the wilderness in all its glory. Tired from the paddling but on a full stomach you can sit back and read a book next to the river knowing the 24-hour sunlight can never fade. This is the North and as the sun never goes down. The day time is not as cold as one might expect when you’re next door to Alaska. I spent the hotter days paddling with my shirt off and trying to stop the cheese from getting as sweaty as I was. There’s no fridge and some things don’t cope with that as well as others. The bread went off after about four days and crackers and jam gets boring after a while, as does endless mornings of powdered milk. Keeping the barrels 100 meters down wind every time you camp means that any time you want anything you’ve got to make a little effort to get it. And I’m a student. I don’t like effort. Equally I don’t like the bears so it’s another price I had to pay.
It may sound like I’m grumbling, but I’m not – it’s just important the hard work aspect is clarified. Its not all easy and some of the things depicted vividly in my mind when I made my plans were unrealistically idyllic. You do have to actually paddle on the river, use the map, set up all your stuff before you can enjoy it and some days it will rain. But hard work and frustrations aside, when you have a day in a good mood and things go right it is incredible. One of the reasons Ray Mears is on TV is because people like to see these mad things but will never actually do them.
Do it. There will be days where you paddle past porcupines, moose, wolves and watch beavers pushing logs through the water balanced perfectly on their noses. I saw endless miles of charred tree remains where forest fires have swept across the wilds. I sat and ate a sandwich while a bald eagle circles round in the sky; it’s not your average two weeks. In many ways it is not actually an experience you can truly convey to anyone else. There are only so many words you can use that mean the same as ‘vastness’ but it seems to be the most unexplored wilderness you can find. It’s throwing you back to the days without cares of form filling and sorting out life: you pay to rent a canoe, buy a big supply of food and then you go. Two weeks with my wallet and phone at the bottom of a dry bag untouched and unused.
There is a lake. That is probably also to be noted. When you saying you’re going to paddle a river you should always check about the lake bit. With normal days of paddling 50 miles, it hits you hard when you reach a 30 mile long lake and find it doesn’t have a current. In fact what it does have is a whole world of issues. It’s a big enough body of water to have it’s own little micro-climate with winds that kick up quickly and make full days paddling very difficult. It took us three days to cross and most of the paddling was done in the still evenings while the day time was spent reading a book on the shore, listening to the waves beating around you. It doesn’t matter where the map says ‘good campsite’ now, if it gets too windy you’ve got to stop which resulted in an afternoon spent looking for a campsite and instead finding fresh bear footprints stamped around a boggy section of shoreline. The grizzly bear on the first day was one of four bears we saw over the two weeks (though black bears don’t look quite as menacing) and seeing them when I was on boggy ground was not what I had in mind. After an hour of towing the canoe along the shore, as my partner sat in it steering away from the bank, we found a more satisfying spot.
The issues of towing a boat through boggy bear land or steering a canoe through the brief section of rapids on the Yukon are what it’s all about. The hard bits, the worrying bits, the scary and tiring bits are the moments you recite with the most excitement and make you feel the most proud. It’s a journey for people that need something that’s not fun to have fun. It’s Northern wilderness beyond what you’ve seen on TV but, most of all, it is pure vastness.


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