Canoeing the Canadian Wilderness
August 9, 2018
Words & Photos: Dillon Anthony
The sun rose early that day. In fact, it barely ever seemed to set. Such is the phenomenon of the northern latitudes in the summer.
The previous evening we were shuttled to the far end of Lake Laberge and had a short paddle to reach the mouth of the Yukon River. After a week of preparation in Whitehorse we were ready to start the 435-mile paddle to Dawson City.
We had assembled from all over Canada (with the exception of one Australian) to take part in the Canadian Wilderness Artist Residency, an opportunity to spend time on our own projects and potentially collaborate with others. Our respective artist practices – photography, painting, sculpting, carving, gold- and silver-smithing, dance, art installations, music and sound recording – were as diverse as our own motivations and connections with nature.
The group had a mixed level of paddling experience, but an equal amount of enthusiasm. As we set out, our strokes offered glimpses of the synchronicity we would achieve in the days to come, and the feeling of being in genuine wilderness set in; abandoned cabins, trucks, and wrecked sternwheelers providing the only traces of previous adventurers.
The first few days on the river went swimmingly. Most evenings we camped on small islands, where we were often the sole inhabitants, save for the obvious signs of critters both big and small. Even though we were aware of the presence of wolves, bears, and cats, seeing large paw prints was unnerving. We always cooked a safe distance from our campsite, stored our food in animal-resistant containers, and carried bear spray for our solo trips into the woods.
Fighting the Five Finger Rapids
After a week, we reached the Five Finger Rapids, a grueling test of our paddling expertise. Fortunately, our guides had done an excellent job of preparing us for the challenge. The experience and patience they brought inspired confidence, comfort, and camaraderie. We carried out drills as a group, practicing different strokes and techniques, and began every morning with a stretching routine to help prevent injury.
Our six boats tackled Five Fingers one at a time with a designated safety/rescue boat on either end. All the boats made it through, albeit accumulating a few extra liters of water along the way. The technical challenge of navigating the rapids behind us was amplified by the additional task of cutting across the eddy line and doubling back to dock on the “finger”. It definitely made for a scenic lunch stop.
“The feeling of being in genuine wilderness set in, abandoned cabins, trucks, and wrecked sternwheelers providing the only traces of previous adventurers.”
Discovering Fort Selkirk
One of the biggest highlights of the trip was our time spent at Fort Selkirk. The town is located at the confluence with the Pelly River and was for many years an active trading post for the Northern Tutchone First Nations people. The town has been mostly abandoned since the 50s, but hosts yearly visits and celebrations from the First Nations people living in Pelly Crossing. We were incredibly fortunate and privileged to arrive during one of these celebrations, and were welcomed with open arms. It was a night of music, dancing, and listening to the village elders’ campfire stories. The honesty, openness, and friendliness of the people we met will stay with me forever.
On our first full day off, we set out to explore the town and work on our own artistic pursuits. Although the town was relatively small, it still took about 15 minutes to walk end to end and featured everything from cabins to churches, a school, and a general store. The evening concluded with a group concert in a church that had beautiful acoustics and an amazing history.
“Some days almost every potential campsite had a sign warning of an aggressive bear, which meant an extra-long day of paddling.”
Earning our adventure
Up until this point, the water was either incredibly clear or emerald in color. With the confluence of the White River, the amount of silt had changed drastically. We could literally hear it on the underside of the canoe; it sounded like we were paddling through a river of fountain pop. The river had been our primary source of drinking water (filtered or purified) but the change in water quality led to us to filling up at small streams along the way.
Another challenge of the Yukon River was the distance between possible camping sites. At times it was only 19 miles, other times it was 45 miles. Some days almost every potential campsite had a sign warning of an aggressive bear, which meant an extra-long day of paddling. Add that to battling head winds and dreary weather and it was an adventure that had to be earned.
When we approached Dawson City at the end of our trip, I couldn't help but feel like we’d had a glimpse of what life was like for explorers in the gold rush era. Yes, we had many modern conveniences, but being outside for weeks on end and cooking over an open fire for every meal was an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Every task was an event, any engine noise sounded alien, and the pull of the north was everlasting.