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Choosing the mighty Yukon River for your first extended canoe trip may seem a bit ambitious. But knowledgeable canoeists say it's feasible for those with limited experience and a willingness to follow some common-sense safety rules.
"It's the Cadillac of rivers," said Doug Sanvik, who has canoed from Whitehorse to Dawson in Canada's Yukon Territory a half dozen times. The river is flat and moves along at 4 to 5 miles an hour, Sanvik said.
Mark Kissel, who has traveled the Whitehorse-Dawson route twice, called the trip a lazy man's wilderness adventure. "You can sit back and watch the scenery," he said.
For safety, you need to watch the water levels during the early summer because snow-melt and rain can make rapids dangerous, said Scott McDougall of Kanoe People, one of several Whitehorse businesses that rents canoes. Strong winds that occasionally pick up are another safety concern for canoeists crossing Lake Laberge, on the way to Dawson. But overall, it's a very doable river for novices, McDougall said.
Just north of Whitehorse, past Lake Laberge, flows one of the prettiest stretches of river on the planet, said Jeff Brady, publisher of the Skagway News. The Yukon winds around rippled terraced cliffs, which in places tower over the river. Kissel said the chiseled cliffs give the feeling that the river has run through the Yukon for eternity. At this section of the river Brady witnessed a fly-over of Canadian geese that he found incredible.
"There had to be at least 10,000 of them. It was nonstop for several hours," he said.
The Whitehorse-to-Dawson route is 450 miles and typically takes 14 days, said McDougall, who charges $325 (Canadian) per rented canoe for 16 days. There are a couple of places along the route to resupply and canoes can hold enough supplies for two weeks, said Brady. A shorter trip on this route, approximately 200 miles, ends at Carmacks and takes approximately seven days to cover. Generally, companies renting canoes will pick them up in Dawson or Carmacks and canoeists can catch a bus back to Whitehorse, said Brady.
By the mid-1990s, their were growing concerns among residents about the number of canoeists on the river, the amount of garbage being scattered and firearms being discharged, said Alfan Jones, recreation planner with the Yukon Department of Renewable Resources.
In 1997, the government responded to these concerns by doing a survey on the behavior and attitudes of the recreationists. The survey showed 2,125 people, mostly canoeists, used the river. Few of the recreationists expressed a concern about the number of people on the river, nor was there much evidence of firearms being discharged, said Jones. Most users were highly satisfied with their wilderness experience, but many people, especially European travelers, expressed concern about the amount of trash, he said.
Kissel and his wife Teresa made their first Whitehorse-to-Dawson trip in 1984 in a rubber raft and were impressed enough to bring their children on a canoe trip 10 years later.
Concerned about safety, they discussed the type of canoe with outfitters in Whitehorse. With weight loaded low they were never worried about stability. They made sure their two children, Amos and Valerie, ages 9 and 7 at the time, wore life jackets even when camping. The family did a lot of talking about safety. "You can't treat it lightly because the river is cold and it runs fast. If anyone falls in it's a serious situation," said Kissel, who works for the state as an assistant ombudsman.
Kissel said the Yukon trip is a great family vacation.
"Just watching the kids experience something new like that was important, and it's good for a family to be in that kind of situation. We all had chores. The teamwork was really good for us. With no radio or TV, we had to entertain ourselves," Kissel said.
The wilderness along the Yukon River is impressive, but what staggers the imagination is the river's history, said Sanvik. "It's funny, you go out to be alone in the wilderness but people seem to gravitate toward the human mysteries - who was there, why and when," said Sanvik, a natural resource officer with the state.
In the spring of 1898, gold rushers waited with 8,000 boats for the ice to go out on Lake Bennett so they could float down the Yukon to the gold fields near Dawson. They left many mysteries along the banks of the Yukon including complete towns that were abandoned, along with numerous mining sites and cabins.
Kissel was walking though one of the abandoned town sites when he found a 1902 newspaper with headlines about the Boer War ending in South Africa.
"Evidently, they used newspapers for insulation in the buildings," he said. Another paper ran letters to the editor discussing whether brown and black bears were the same species.
Kissel also came across a paddlewheeler that had been pulled up out of the river on to greased timbers to keep it from being crushed by winter ice. "It was never put back in," he said.
Sanvik found the same boat shortly after an early winter snow in late September and crawled up to the wheelhouse. "You could see what they would've seen," he said.
Sanvik's favorite time on the river is September with the fall colors and fewer travelers. It's an incredibly quiet time especially after the migratory birds have left, he said.
"It's like Yukon author Robert Service wrote, 'I've stood at some mighty mouth hollow, plumb full of hush to the brim.' That's what it's like. The only thing you can hear in the morning is a raven as it flies over your tent. 'Waap, Waap, Waap.' And that's all you can hear - that's if you're deaf like me," he said, laughingly heartily.