When the DHC-2 Beaver pontoon plane lifts off Lake Laberge and quickly shrinks in the Canadian sky, there’s no avoiding the realization of just how isolated our party, disgorged onto shore, now finds itself, days distant from the nearest town. So attention purposely swivels to our massive pile of gear. First up, we set to the task of unrolling and inflating the rugged standup paddleboards that will be our life support for the next four days.
Guide Stu Knaack provides lessons in Zen and the art of bungee-cord maintenance (hint: use lots), demonstrating the finer points of hooking, stretching, wrestling, and wrapping them to the board’s nose and tail attachments to rig dry bags, air pumps, and food barrels. As we inch the obscenely weighted SUPs toward water’s edge, he rattles off obligatory safety protocols, mostly concerning local wildlife: how to identify wolf tracks, react when a moose drops its ears, and aim bear spray (up the approaching beast’s muzzle). Oh yeah, and actual paddling stuff, too, cautioning us to stay together out on the river, which while predominantly flat, is also wide and plenty swift.
“If you fall in,” calls Knaack, “get out and change all of your clothes as fast as you can manage—hypothermia will set in immediately.”
Luckily, our party of five remains dunk-free while nosing into the Yukon River’s current. At more than 12 feet long, our inflatable boards bear the gear’s weight, and steering and propelling the load doesn’t require heroic exertion. Within seconds, our launch beach retreats from view. We’re here. The boreal Yukon landscape slides by in brilliant golds and greens, contrasting the water’s fluid turquoise. Questions start flying from every direction: Hey, Stu, what’s the volume of this river? Tens of thousands of cubic feet every second; third longest river on the continent. Stu, whose land is this? Government of Yukon Territory. Hey, Stu, how often is this section used? Stu, where are all the people?
Branches rustle on shore. Hey, Stu, what kind of bird is that?
“That,” Knaack barks before collecting himself, “is a duck.”
We bust out laughing at our overeager pounce on the excursion’s unfolding novelty. Sometimes, a wild experience doesn’t need to be so complicated.
WHY YUKON? I’d put that same question to a friend who has paddled around the globe—literally. National Outdoor Leadership School senior instructor Zand Martin took five years to complete a 15,000-mile, human-powered series of expeditions across North America, Europe, Mongolia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East. For superlative, extended river miles, he didn’t hesitate in pointing to Yukon, claiming it as nothing short of the most temperate, wide-open paddling destination on the planet. Alpine scenery streaked with seemingly endless amounts of clear, undammed, steep, and steady rivers—that’s one thing. The lack of bugs, and other humans, is the other.
“It’s a different experience.” That’s how Knaack simply put it as our group’s flights from across the States converged in Whitehorse, the capital city that claims 28,000 of the territory’s 32,000 residents. (For reference, that’s about 3 percent the population of Montana, which is slightly smaller in area.) Beyond offering several craft breweries and Tim Hortons, Yukon’s lone city is a logical launchpad for any ventures farther afield. And though it’s perfectly feasible to start a Yukon River journey from a central city park, we took the puddle-jump Beaver flight to bypass the 30 miles of Lake Laberge flatwater that slow down initial progress heading north out of civilization.
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