Yukon Expedition

Juneau man paddles through history on the Yukon

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2003

Michael Crotteau of Juneau has been canoeing since he was a kid growing up in Minnesota. But it wasn't until he took a canoe down a portion of the Yukon River two summers ago that he discovered that floating down rivers was his passion.

"Being in the wild like that, you're really able to take a step back ... and experience the pureness and goodness of what I think God created," said Crotteau.

He's taken two trips down the Yukon: the first from Carmacks to Dawson City and the second this summer from Whitehorse to Minto. He was so inspired by this summer's trip that he plans to write a book on river travel.

"Rivers can teach us so much about life and love," said Crotteau, who works as a hydrologist for the U.S. Forest Service. "I know how rivers respond to certain things, and I think it's analogous to life."

In addition to its spiritual aspect, river travel allows explorers to cover a large distance in a short time, Crotteau said. It also offers great fishing, hiking, photography and the opportunity to relax.

Floating the Yukon is like taking a trip through history, Crotteau added.

"It's so awesome," he said. "The rich history of the Yukon just permeates the air. ... It's not only just a great wilderness adventure."

The Yukon River meanders through the traditional territories of the Tagish, the Southern and Northern Tutchone and the Han peoples. It also traces an important part of the history of white people in the Yukon - the Klondike Gold Rush.

Tens of thousands of people traveled down the Yukon River to Dawson in the late 1800s in search of gold. Those adventurers left their mark along the river, and travelers can explore the history today.

"You usually see some kind of historic building or settlement within every five miles," Crotteau said. "Some are collapsed, but some are in excellent condition."

Crotteau and his traveling partner, Mark Wipfli, who lives in Washington state, took maps and two booklets with them for their voyage down the Yukon.

The first booklet was "Yukon River: Marsh Lake to Dawson City," by Mike Rourke. The second booklet is published by the Tourism Heritage Branch of the Yukon. Called "Yukon River Heritage, an illustrated introduction for river travelers," it gives a kilometer-by-kilometer account of the major historic events that took place on the Yukon River.

"You can just totally follow yourself down the river," Crotteau said.

The travelers brought their own canoe for the trip, and shuttled a car to Minto before starting on the river so they wouldn't have to worry about finding a ride back to Whitehorse.

They spent an average of six to 10 hours a day in their canoe during their 241-mile trip. Except for the crossing of Lake Labarge, a 30-mile-long lake that they crossed in the middle of the night to avoid large waves, the paddling was not strenuous, Crotteau said.

"You could probably get away with taking 5-year-old children on this trip," he said. "It's probably one of the easiest floats in the Yukon."

The paddlers used fishing, mostly for northern pike and grayling, to break up long periods of paddling.

The fish were at times "ravenous," and Crotteau and Wipfli each caught five to 10 fish at one point just north of Lake Labarge.

But the most memorable moments of the trip for Crotteau came after the sun went down. Or, rather, nearly went down.

"The best part of the day was always between about 10 p.m. and midnight," he said. "There were incredible sunsets - two-hour sunsets."

Crotteau hopes to take in more of those sunsets - and to take more photos for his book - next summer, when he plans to canoe the Big Salmon and Bonnet Plume rivers, also in the Yukon.

• Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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