Alaska-Yukon Expedition: On Finishing 450 Miles on the Yukon River

Posted July 3, from Dawson, Yukon Territory

Earlier tonight I pulled into the historic gold rush town of Dawson, which marks the end of my 450-mile float on the Yukon River (starting in Whitehorse) and the beginning of my final leg through the wilds of northern Yukon and northern Alaska back to Kotzebue. I had been somewhat dreading this section since I enjoy traveling via my feet, not via my arms while sitting on my butt, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable week. Here's why:

1. Floating the Yukon was a complete break from my standard backpacking-centric travel style. It was refreshing and re-energizing to get off my feet, read a book (Arctic Exodus by Dick North) and write in my journal, pack fresh fruit and even a blueberry pie, and take daily cat naps and coffee breaks. And that refreshing effect is a positive one: I have 1,700 hard miles left in this trip that I'm more likely to finish if I'm fresh at the start.

2. The Yukon is fast! It usually cranks along at 5 mph, and frequently up to 7 or 8 mph, so I was able to witness a remarkable amount of terrain in a very short period of time, with relatively minimal effort, too. Despite its speed the river has only one technical rapid, Five Fingers, an easy Class II. Probably the most challenging section is the 30-mile Lake Laberge, below Whitehorse, because it's a long flatwater paddle and it's very susceptible to wind-caused waves.

3. The scenery was excellent. The river is normally hemmed in by high slopes or mountains that are covered in aspen, white spruce, and grass steppe. This is a semi-arid environment (think Colorado or Montana) so it's generally not the bug-infested swamp that prevails downstream in places like the Yukon Flats or the river's delta on the Bering Sea. Furthermore, the aesthetics are rarely interrupted by modern civilization. A low-traffic highway parallels the river for just 75 miles out of 450 and there's just one bridge. There are a few inhabitants along the river but they are more likely to be prospectors than owners of second homes.

4. This river is rich with history, physical evidence of which abounds: wrecked steamships, gold dredges, homestead cabins, stagecoach roads, telegraph lines, and old settlements. While floating this river you can't help but become fascinated by the precious metal–gold–that shaped this region.

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5. This trip is pretty easy to plan and do, especially relative to most other trips in this region. I was able to rent a 16-foot kayak from Up North Adventure in Whitehorse, where there are also several supermarkets to pick up supplies; and Mike Rourke's guide book contained all the information I needed. The river demands minimal wilderness skills and conditions in late-June and early-July were excellent: warm, sunny, long days, and surprisingly few bugs.

6. This was the only section of my expedition route where I have had fellow travelers, and their occasional company added an extra dimension to my experience and helped pass time during some of those long stretches in the boat. One notable person I encountered was 18-year-old Brenton Smith, who is floating the entire river from Whitehorse to the Bering Sea this summer. Needless to say that's an impressive undertaking for someone of that age.

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