Epic Yukon River Journey Day Five

Sunday, June 11

Day five…there had been no rain since I started from Lake Atlin. The sun is hot and I had to slather on a lot of sunscreen to keep from turning a bright red as I paddled toward Whitehorse.

Before reaching the dam at Whitehorse, there is a mile-long section called One Mile Canyon (Hmmm. Creative minds at work.) where the river is constricted between granite cliffs. There, the water flows quite swiftly as it rushes through the canyon. It is so narrow that a footbridge spans the canyon across the river. The first time I paddled the Yukon, there were tourists on the bridge. When I noticed them pointing their video cameras at me, I was forced to put on a steely-eyed show of bravery and fortitude as I shot through the canyon and under the bridge. Fortunately, this time there were no tourists so I could focus entirely on the task at hand.

At the downstream end of the canyon the river pours into Schwatka Lake, a body of water formed by the creation of the dam. The lake was calm and peaceful. I paddled to the boat ramp where I hoped to find someone to take me around the dam, a distance of about 1-1/2 miles. I sure did not want to portage my kayak and gear. But there was no one there. Since I had time, I just pulled the kayak from the water, sat down and waited for deliverance (whoops, wrong word), for somebody to take me to a point below the dam where I could continue my journey.

After about thirty minutes, a person driving a pickup and pulling a twenty foot flatbed trailer stopped by the side of the road near a set of airplane pontoons. I hurried over and asked if he could take me and my kayak around the dam. He agreed to do so right away. The dog sitting next to him did not voice any objections.

We lifted the kayak and its contents onto the trailer and took off. He accepted my offer of five dollars for the ride and the time. He had come to pick up the pontoons for his plane. As we drove, we talked. His name was Brian. It turned out that he was a good friend of Jim and Marion Brook and was flying out to their place in a few days. When I told Brian how I had met Jim and Marion in 1999 and again just five days ago, he refused to take the money. I even suggested that he could use it to buy some treats for his dog, but Brian still refused to take the money. At that point, I noticed that Brian's dog was giving him some very dirty looks but the man did not notice.

When we got to a point below the dam where I could resume paddling, Brian, my deliverer from a long and arduous portage, helped carry the kayak down a very steep embankment to the river. I thanked him again and again for the ride. The dog turned its nose up in the air because it was still miffed at its owner for a lost bag of treats.

I only paddled a short distance because I wanted to stop at Kanoe People, a place I stopped on my first trip. I got some good information about the river and camping places downstream. Having pulled the kayak out of the river, I walked to a grocery store in downtown Whitehorse to restock my food supply, call my wife and buy more sunscreen. I couldn’t find sunscreen anywhere in the store, so asked one of the store clerks. He looked at me like he had never heard of the stuff. When I told him what sunscreen looks like and what it is supposed to do, he said, "I don't think we carry anything like that. Never heard of it." I tried two other stores in downtown Whitehorse, neither had "anything like that." The person in the last store suggested that I try the pharmacy. I thought to myself, "Do I have to get a prescription for something like that in northern Canada?" Well, the pharmacy had it so I bought a small plastic tube of it for eight dollars.

After wandering around town for a while, I headed back to Kanoe People and my kayak. Along the way I saw two other places that rented and sold canoes and kayaks. They were not there seven years ago. Back at Kanoe People there were many, many people renting kayaks and heading downstream. That was different from my previous trip also. Back then I saw people paddling on the river infrequently. Almost all kayakers and canoeists seem to put in below the dam in Whitehorse and most seem to put in at Kanoe People.

As an aside, Whitehorse did not get its name because somebody had seen a white horse standing majestically on a rocky ridge illumined by a golden, setting sun. During the gold rush days, before the dam was constructed, there were some serious rapids (which had claimed several lives) just below the canyon. The standing waves in the rapids were called "white horses."

Anyway, I pushed off from Kanoe People at 4:00 pm and as I did so I watched several people climb to the roof at the Kanoe People building and leap into the river. Not wanting to have anybody join me in my kayak, I paddled out to the middle of the river rather quickly.

I paddled on leisurely, eating some snacks bought in Whitehorse. A couple in a canoe caught up to and passed me. And so, the leisurely paddle became a race. I could not let them pass me! I leaned into my strokes, caught and passed them. This happened a couple of times. Instead of watching where I was supposed to be going, I concentrated on not allowing them to pass me. Suddenly, I noticed a couple of things simultaneously. There was a bridge across the river where in 1999 there had been none. The second thing was that the paddling had become quite difficult, so difficult in fact, that I was making no forward progress at all. It looked and felt like I was going upstream.

The canoeists had beached and taken the canoe out at a boat ramp. I pulled in next to them and not being proud, asked what river I was on. I, a man, asked for directions from a woman (sorry, guys). She answered, "You are on the Takhini River."

Midnight on the Yukon. ©Ray Zvirbulis
Midnight on the Yukon. ©Ray Zvirbulis
I had left the Yukon because I was so intent on "The Race." She then asked where I was going. Rather than keeping my mouth shut, I told her I was headed for the Bering Sea. She and the man exchanged meaningful glances and looked askance at me and said, "Well, good luck," and probably thought that a person who does not know upstream from downstream should only paddle in the safety of a backyard pool. Then she pointed to the Yukon and said, "See, the Yukon River is clear and green. The Takhini is all silty," while pointing down to the muddy river swirling around my feet.

I was too tired to feel embarrassed, stupid or humiliated. I just walked the kayak out of the mud to a sandbar, got in and let the Takhini take me back out into the Yukon.

Shortly after that incident, I reached the island I was told had good campsites. It is seventeen miles downstream from Whitehorse and is known as (you guessed it) Seventeen Mile Island.

Ray Zvirbulis
Show Low, Arizona