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Yukon River Days Two & Three

I woke early that morning on my island sanctuary facing the village of Atlin. After my dehydrated breakfast and packing and placing everything in my kayak, I set out across the lake in search of Graham Channel, which would take me to Tagish Lake. That morning there was no wind and the sky was a deep blue with only a few scattered clouds. The lake was calm. From a previous trip in 1999, I recalled that a large boulder marks the entrance to Graham Channel. I found that easily after crossing the lake. The water from Lake Atlin surged up the boulder almost washing over the top of it. That was a clear sign that I was in the right place.

Before starting out from the village of Atlin, I had been told that Graham Channel had a series of rough rapids. So, before entering the channel, I checked the sprayskirt, raised the rudder and cinched the deck bag a little tighter. The kayak and I did just fine. In fact, the rapids did not seem to be too difficult. By my estimate, Class I or possibly Class II. Nevertheless, it was not the rapids that gave me a scare, but an encounter with a moose.

As I entered a quiet but fast part of the channel, where it broadened and became shallower near the banks, I saw a moose kneeling in the shallows apparently feeding (I am quite sure that it wasn’t praying). Soon it noticed my approach and gazed steadily at me. Then it rose to all fours and I could see that it was a young moose. It was not content to watch me pass. The moose began to walk toward me in the shallow water. I began to frantically blow my safety whistle in the hope that somehow that would stop the moose. It did not. The critter broke into a trot, still coming in my direction. I found the fastest part of the current and began to churn the water with my paddle all the time making screeching noises with the whistle. As the moose neared me, I screamed that there was not enough room in the kayak for both of us. Advancing, the moose began to make whimpering sounds. I glanced down into the water and was relieved to see that the bottom of the channel had dropped steeply where I was. Even the long legs of the moose were not long enough to allow it to run at me. It began to swim but could not keep up with me. I kept glancing back to see what it was doing and saw that it finally gave up the chase and turned toward the bank.

Just when I thought that I was safe, I came upon a cow moose and her calf. Even though blowing the whistle had not worked earlier, I tried again. I think that the only good thing it did was to alert the animals and give the cow time enough to herd the calf into the shrubs on the bank.

It had taken me 1-1/2 hours to reach the mouth of the channel and about 30 minutes to get through the rapids. The rest of the channel was a wide expanse of water and was calm. That made for easy paddling. I was headed to the cabins of Jim and Marion Brook, whom I had met on my trip in 1999. Jim owns a flight touring business on Golden Arm of Tagish Lake. His place is accessible only by floatplane or by truck in the winter if the lake freezes over. When I pulled up, Jim was working on his plane. His mother, Marion, met me at the hangar. It was good to see them again. While Jim finished working on the engine of the plane, Marion took me to the cabin, made me some coffee and gave me some cookies. When Jim came in, we talked for some time until I had to leave. They invited me to spend the night, but it was still early and I wanted to paddle for six or seven hours. Before leaving, Marion gave me a couple of steaks that I planned to have for breakfast the next morning.

On my first trip down the Yukon in 1999, I developed a routine that I continued to use on this trip. I began to look for a tent site at about 8:00 pm. When I found the "perfect" campsite, I took my can of bear spray and inspected the site looking for bear tracks (I did this while singing in a terrible voice and making lots of noise). If there were bear tracks, I continued on for a while until I found a site with no bear tracks. Next, I started a big fire. Once that was going, I set up my tent and put my gear into it. In the morning, I had my big meal of the day and made a couple of sandwiches for lunch. At around 4:00 pm I stopped and had a light meal and then paddled for another three or four hours. I never cooked in the camp where I stayed for the night unless it was in one of the villages. Due to my precautions, I never had problems with bears in camp either on the first trip or on this trip. As I paddled down the river, I did meet people who had bears come into camp looking for food because the animal had smelled good stuff cooking and had come uninvited to share the bounty of the land.

So, after my breakfast steak, I set out again. The second morning I saw a caribou trotting along the shore of Tagish Lake. Later that day, as I paddled along, I watched a mother black bear walking along the shore trying to keep a couple of cubs in line. She headed up the slope into the forest and emerged a few minutes later by a rock outcropping. The two cubs were some distance behind goofing around, jumping on each other and rolling around in the grass and the bushes. Then they dashed after their mother until they caught her and would then resume the wrestling match. I watched their antics from the safety of the kayak until I lost sight of the threesome. After the bears, but some time later, a beaver swam out from the shore to inspect me. When it was about 20 feet from me, it turned in the same direction that I was going and kept pace with me for a while. When it decided that I would continue down the lake and would not hang around its neighborhood, it slapped its tail and disappeared under the surface of the water.

As I paddled along that day, there were several places where there were snow banks along the shore. Even though it was June, the temperature during the day was not high enough to have melted the snow. A lot of it was in the shadow of the forest but there was also much snow out in the open in the bright sunshine. I could see those snow banks from great distances. At one of those snow banks grazed a cow moose and her calf. I had a small pair of binoculars along and that gave me a chance to get a close-up view of them both without being close up and personal.

By the end of the third day I had reached the village of Tagish. I planned to stop by the marina there to see a couple I had met on the first trip: Dave and Alyssa.

Ray Zvirbulis
Show Low, Arizona