Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of stories by readers and Star Tribune staff members about their time in the outdoors.
My thoughts this time of late summer still drift back to my solo canoe voyage two years ago. It was unlike any I’ve taken.
While it began 2,500 miles away from Minnesota near the capital of Canada’s wild Yukon Territory in Whitehorse, the river adventure really started in grade school. I would read Jack London stories about the wild region, and a dream took hold.
Education, military obligation, family and career were priorities, but a fire that first flared in my youth refused to go out. At age 64, I fanned the flame and planned the trip, and a year later I got started.
I have been on more than 50 canoe trips in Minnesota, as far north as northern Ontario and as far west as Montana, but never for more than two weeks. Travel in the Yukon over a month had an epic feel.
I drove for nearly five days to get from my home in Wyoming, Minn., to Whitehorse. I camped every night and had a great time on the road trip. My concern about becoming bored stiff were unfounded, and I truly enjoyed the Alaska Highway, which connects the Lower 48 to Alaska. I met interesting people and saw an abundance of wildlife. And the scenery was more spectacular than I anticipated. Taking a long walk in the evenings often turned into a mini-adventure of its own.
The remote Yukon Territory is famous for the gold rush that took place in 1890. The population of Dawson City — my eventual takeout spot — swelled to 40,000 in one year. Unfortunately, most of the prospectors came up empty-handed and went home broke. Dawson City’s population would decline to 800, where it stands now. As of 2017, there were about 33,000 people living in the entire Yukon spanning 186,000 square miles; 25,000 in Whitehorse. That leaves just 8,000 people scattered over an area that is about the size of our five-state region. Gold mining and prospecting remain the largest industry and are mostly done by small family operations.
Miles and miles
My adventure started on the Teslin River where it begins its trail north from Teslin Lake, crossing under the Alaska Highway. From there I would paddle my 16-foot Old Town Penobscot 125 miles north and west to the confluence with the mighty Yukon River.
Being glacier-fed, the Teslin is clear and icy cold with an abundance of Arctic grayling. The current is sluggish for about 30 miles and then picks up significantly. I ran many rapids, but few were difficult to shoot. One called Bull Roaring Rapids sounded much scarier than it was. None of the rapids was more difficult than Class II, with the most challenging being the Five Finger Rapids.
When I hit the Yukon River downstream, I dug in and continued for Dawson City, where I landed after three weeks and 477 miles on water.
The Teslin River was about 100 yards wide where I started, but by the time I reached Dawson, the river was more than a quarter-mile wide.
Wildlife was plentiful. Moose, Dall sheep, mountain goats and caribou were common, but the most prevalent animals were black bears. I saw about 25 black bears and one grizzly. Most were walking the shore to look for dead salmon, and I spotted three swimming across the river.
I saw mountains in nearly every direction. In the first days of the trip I thought, “It can’t all be this beautiful.” But it was.
I occasionally saw Native people out on the river tending nets from small aluminum boats. Salmon run at this time of year. I saw an elderly woman in an overcoat and dress guarding a rack of drying fish with a pump shotgun. Few of these people even seemed to notice me as I cruised by.
About three days into the trip, I encountered a large group of eight canoes. Sixteen people were eating lunch on a sand bar. It was a scientific expedition from the United Kingdom. They were out for three weeks, but were only going half as far as I was. They asked me if I was alone, and I acknowledged that I was. “You must be very brave,” they said. (Or, I thought, “Very crazy.”) They already had capsized two canoes and were concerned about all of the bears they had seen.
It was midsummer, but most days started chilly. The sun never got very high, but by late morning I was in my shirtsleeves. I often kicked off my boots in the afternoon and paddled along in my stocking feet. There were few cloudy, rainy days during my time in the Yukon. Bugs were seldom bothersome but, then, being from Minnesota I’m used to bugs.
The last 200 miles were relatively easy but were memorable for the wildfires on both sides of the river. I camped on islands to avoid them. Most days, the sky was hazy with smoke.
One evening, a motorized inflatable rubber boat driven by a uniformed man approached my camp. I hadn’t seen anyone for a few days and was eager to meet him. He introduced himself as a game warden, but showed no interest in my fishing license or firearm permit. He said he was on his way to a place where two prospectors had been attacked by a bear. The bear had jumped on their tent in the middle of the night. He explained that they got a little beat up but nothing serious. The warden’s job was to go there and shoot the bear. He mentioned that there had already been around 40 bears killed in Yukon Territory that year for “causing mischief.”
Coincidentally, overnight at 3:30 a.m., a bear walked up to my tent. I quickly blew my marine horn. This small air horn is so loud it would wake the dead. The bear ran off — and still might be running. I decided I would never get back to sleep, and because it was already daylight, I got a very early start to my day.
Dawson City is small town on the Yukon River located where the Klondike River enters as a clear, cold stream. Upon my arrival, I immediately found a good place to camp on the far side of the Yukon River from town. I spent the next two days exploring the area and hiking in the mountains while I waited for my shuttle back to Whitehorse.
Dawson City is built on permafrost, and most of the buildings sit a little off-level. The streets are dirt roads, and the sidewalks are boardwalks. The famous, British-born poet Robert Service lived here and worked for a newspaper for a few years about a century ago. I was able to find his log cabin located on the outskirts of town.
The real highlight was seeing the cabin where Jack London lived for nine months while he looked for gold. A wealthy fan of London’s had it disassembled from its original location on Henderson Creek and had it relocated about 70 miles north in Dawson City. London and his two companions never found gold, and they went back to San Francisco broke, starving and suffering from scurvy. What he did find was the inspiration for several of his most famous books like “Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” and “To Build a Fire.”
This canoe trip was special. I was mostly alone for a month, and it is possible that my biggest discovery was to simply find myself. In the end, as always, I really don’t know what I was looking for, but I always seem to find it.
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