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Our Time Machine is a Canoe

Canoeing the Yukon River: Lake Laberge to Dawson City

by Murray Lundberg

      This article was originally intended as a somewhat academic look at the historic sites along the Yukon River between Lake Laberge and Dawson City. However, I've just returned from what will surely remain one of the most memorable journeys of my life, so I hope that you won't mind the much more personal and wide-ranging account that is being posted (August 22, 1997).

      I've always been amazed that so many people are writing about places that they've never visited, or have just passed through quickly - without absorbing the "sense of place," the aura, they can't possibly do their subject justice, regardless of the quality of their wordsmithing. Although I only have to walk a block from my front door to get a great view of the Yukon River, the initial justification to canoe the 407 miles to Dawson was to immerse myself (figuratively and literally) in this river that's become so important in my life, and to record the historic sites that remain scattered through the wilderness. The decision to make the trip was only made about 6 weeks ago, spurred by the interest that my 13-year-old son Steven has recently shown in the history of the North - when a teenager takes an interest in anything, it's worth an extra effort to encourage it! And, more importantly, the opportunity to spend almost 2 weeks alone with Steven while helping him to accomplish something that he can really be proud of, may never come again.

Lake Laberge, a widening of the Yukon River, with Richthofen Island to the right
  Lake Laberge, with Richthofen Island to the right. This photo was taken about 15 minutes after launching from the Lake Laberge campground.

      A wilderness canoe trip is not for everyone - it requires some canoeing and bush survival skills, and a reasonable level of physical fitness to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone. Obviously, this is particularly important when traveling with your kids. We planned to spend 11 days on the river, and the only re-supply point (or changed-my-mind point!) is at Carmacks, at about the half-way point.

      Steven and I packed all of our gear into a new 17-foot Coleman canoe, which can carry 695 pounds. We packed for an adventure, not an ordeal, and food wasn't scrimped on - no dried stuff, some fresh meat and milk packed in a steel (bearproof) cooler, lots of snacks and desserts.

Lake Laberge, Yukon - the approach of a massive storm
  The approach of a massive storm on Lake Laberge! The contrast between the sunlit beach and the black clouds was right at the extreme range of the film I was using (Kodachrome 64).

      We chose to start at the campground at Lake Laberge to cut down the still-water distance that we'd have to paddle. It was the right decision - while the lake is beautiful, even the 23 miles of it that we saw became monotonous. We wanted a river with old stuff along the banks, and the thought of getting our canoe taken across the lake by a power boat crossed both our minds! We had no schedule to adhere to other than to be in Dawson City on the 9th, so the mileage paddled on the first days wasn't impressive. We set up camp the first night on a gravel point only 15 miles from the campground, and had a marvelous view of massive thunderstorms bearing down on us - it was one of the most violent storms that I've seen in the Yukon, and Steven spent nearly an hour peeking out the door watching it.

Lake Laberge, Yukon, from inside a limestone cave
  Lake Laberge from inside a limestone cave near our first-night campsite, on a beautiful north-facing gravel beach.

      The next morning we resumed our adventure under spectacularly clear skies, and by noon had reached the end of Lake Laberge. As the lake empties into the section of the Yukon River known as the Thirty Mile, the remains of the community of Lower Laberge provide an excellent introduction to life on the river. The North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) provided the first permanent presence here when they opened a detachment in 1899. The location had, however, been a common camping spot through the gold rush, and it's virtually certain to have been the site of seasonal camps for the Southern Tutchone Indians. The community was connected to the winter road between Whitehorse and Dawson, had a telegraph office, and at least 5 roadhouses had been in business by 1905. Now, only the telegraph office and Mounted Police cabin remain, but there are signs of early camps throughout the area.

Lower Laberge was a popular spot to winter sternwheelers, as the ice goes out of the river below that point much earlier than it does on the lake itself. Boats located there in the spring could therefore be loaded with freight brought overland from Whitehorse, and get to Dawson up to a month before their competitors who had to wait for the lake ice to clear. The Dominion Steamboat Line Company, Captain Wallace Langley and the British Yukon Navigation Company (BYN) all had ways at Lower Laberge to pull their steamers out of the water for the winters, and Charles Boutillier applied for land to build ways which would be available for rent to anyone.

The hull wreckage of the sternwheeler 'Casca', Lower Laberge, Yukon River
  The hull wreckage of the sternwheeler Casca at Lower Laberge. Click here to see stills from a 1949 film of a trip down the Yukon River on the Casca.

      The hull wreckage of the 140-foot sternwheeler Casca lies on the bank just above the police cabin. Built in 1898 at Victoria for the Casca Trading & Transportation Company, she operated on the Stikine and Skeena Rivers in northern British Columbia before being sold to a Dawson company in 1902. She was an extremely popular boat, both for passenger comfort and her power when towing barges on upstream runs. In 1905 she was bought by the BYN, a division of the White Pass & Yukon Route. By 1911, the hull was "practically worn out and useless..." so she was totally rebuilt to the point where the resulting vessel is considered to be the Casca (No.2). The old hull was used as a landing barge on the lake for several years, then was probably used as a dock at the point where it sits today.

      The Thirty Mile River is generally considered to be among the finest canoeing rivers on the continent. Thirty miles (48 kilometers) long, it varies from 50-100 yards (or meters) wide, with a current of crystal-clear water running at about 5 miles per hour (8 kmh). There is no road access anywhere along it's length, the closest access being the campground where we put in (or by floatplane at Lower Laberge or Hootalinqua). The Thirty Mile was designated in 1991 as a Canadian Heritage River, and is now protected by both Territorial and federal legislation. I've heard many stories about the river trip, but I really wasn't prepared for the incredible thrill of floating down this beautiful and historic piece of river.

      Although I knew that the rivers were the highway for most of the pioneers, and could tell Steven lots of stories about life then, it wasn't until we had gone a few miles down the river that we were able to start to feel what life was like then. This section of the Yukon River was the most dangerous for the sternwheelers, due to the speed of the current and the narrow, ever-shifting channel. Many of the gravel bars, rocks and bends are named for the boats that were grounded and/or wrecked at those locations, despite an enormous amount of work blasting out rocks and dredging sandbars in the early years. Domville Creek, Tanana Reef, Casca Reef, LaFrance Creek and many others all have stories to tell, sometimes rather humorous, but more often tragic. On July 20, 1900, the iron-hulled Florence S rolled over while rounding a sharp bend too quickly, and the purser, a woman passenger and her baby were all drowned. From the vantage point of the canoe, having just inspected the Casca wreckage, it was easy to envisage piloting a boat up to 200 feet long along this liquid go-cart track! I had brought along Art Knutson's excellent book (Sternwheels on the Yukon) of his days working on the boats, and his explanations of how some of the tight corners were made, and how they would get off gravel bars, added a great deal to this part of the trip for both Steven and I.

The 17 Mile woodyard on the Thirty Mile River, a section of the Yukon River
  The 17 Mile woodyard on the Thirty Mile River. When the steamboats were running on the river, there were dozens of these camps along the river to supply fuelwood.

      Halfway down the Thirty Mile is the 17 Mile Woodyard, the first of many along our route. The ruins of two cabins, several sections of wagons and sleds, and lots of smaller artifacts remain at the site, and give a glimpse into what life would have been like for the men who lived here. In the days when the steamers were running, there were dozens of camps along the river which existed solely to supply the boats with the huge quantities of wood which they consumed. Usually about 20-30 miles part, they stripped large areas of trees to feed the boilers of the steamers, which could use over 2 cords of wood per hour on an upstream run (a cord is a pile 8 feet long, 4 feet high and 4 feet wide). And remember, there were no chains saws when this was being done! Even on a downstream run, the steamers' fuel consumption was impressive - I brought along a photocopy of a trip log from the Yukon Archives, and it shows that the Aksala, on a typical trip, used 61 cords in the 39 hours that it took to run from Whitehorse to Dawson (Ref.: White Pass Records, COR 724).

      The Thirty Mile ends abruptly when the Teslin River joins from the north, doubling the size of the Yukon River. Just past the junction is the ghost village of Hootalinqua. An important seasonal fishing camp for the native people, it became the supply centre for the low-grade gold mining being carried on along the lower Teslin River in the mid 1890s. Due to its important position at the junction of the main stampede route to the Klondike and the secondary "All-Canadian Route" which went up the Stikine River then overland to Teslin Lake, the NWMP built a post here in 1898. Although the permanent population was never more than about a dozen, a telegraph station was built in 1900, and Taylor & Drury had a store in 1901-1902. In 1899, the Keystone View Company published a stereo-view card with photos of "Dan's Cabin", a small but very popular roadhouse at Hootalinqua owned by Dan Snure, a well-liked fellow who remained in the Yukon until his death in 1940. Four buildings remain here, all reasonably intact, and excellent campsites have been provided for river travelers.

      As with all of the other historic structures along the river, however, the buildings at Hootalinqua are all being desecrated by vandals who have a need to record their presence by carving their names into the logs. Significantly, while older autographs are primarily from Yukoners and Alaskans, the more recent ones are almost all Germans and Japanese. The Tourism people have done a great job of instilling the idea that leaving garbage in the wilderness is unacceptable (garbage along the river is virtually non-existent), but now we obviously have to inform visitors that despite the fact that these structures are less than 100 years old (which in terms of European and Asian history is nothing), they are significant to us, and carving pieces out of them is no different than stealing artifacts, or breaking up tombstones in a cemetery. Take only photos and memories, leave no trace of your passing! OK, I'm off my soap-box now.

      The legendary Yukon mosquitoes deserve a mention at this point (no, they didn't carry Steven off!!). Bugs of all kinds can be almost completely avoided by staying on the river. While you will of course want to spend lots of time exploring and hiking, it's best to camp on one of the open gravel bars in the middle of the river - there are lots of them, except at extreme high water. This also lessens the danger of having a bear check out your camp, an important consideration, particularly this year (it's been an extremely bad year for bear encounters). In damp areas, however, the mosquitoes can be very bad, so bring lots of powerful repellent.

      The Thirty Mile River was far too short, but Hootalinqua provided a beautiful transition point to a new section of the river. Tomorrow we start the day exploring the most complete sternwheeler wreck along the Yukon.

Hootalinqua, 1899

The John C. Barr at Hootalinqua, 1899
Mounted Police post to the left, Dan Snure's roadhouse in the centre

As the river widens out at Hootalinqua, it takes on a completely different character - calmer somehow than it had been as the "Thirty Mile" (or was it just the last of my city stress dissipating?). Steven and I pushed the canoe out into the 4-mile-per-hour current, and then totally relaxed so quickly that we very nearly missed one of the most interesting historic sites on the river, Shipyard Island - with a huge ship clearly visible among the trees, it would have been hard to drift past without noticing it, but it took some serious paddling to get to shore!

A surprising amount of mis-information continues to be be published about the 130-foot Evelyn, probably due to confusion caused by the 2 names visible on the bow. She was built by the Bratnober Company in Seattle in 1908 - working for the Upper Tanana Trading Company and then the huge North American Trading & Transportation Company (NAT&T), she supplied the trading posts along the tributaries of the lower Yukon River until 1913 (despite a wreck so serious that a complete new hull had to be built). She was then sold to the Side Steams Navigation Company, who renamed her the Norcom. She may have only worked for 1 more season before being put on the ways at Hootalinqua (in 1918, she was "side-tracked" here, meaning that she would probably not be launched again). Most of her machinery was removed in the 1920s, with the boiler being installed at the Atlin Inn in 1926 to supply power and hot water for a large addition that had been put on the hotel. As we poked around the ruins of the boat, the ways, and the windlasses and other equipment, it began to rain, softly at first, then heavier and heavier. The exploration was cut a bit short as we scrambled to get our rain gear on, and paddled back into the main current.

      It rained quite heavily all day, so we didn't do any shore explorations, but the river itself was always interesting. Having driven to Dawson close to 100 times when I was driving tour buses, I was very surprised by how different the country is along the river, and how often the scenery changes. Although the first 6 or 7 days of the trip were spent in the ecoregion known as the Central Yukon Plateau, the shore varies from high basalt walls to rolling, semi-arid hills to lush valleys.

Unknown cabin ruins along the Yukon River
  Unknown cabin ruins along the river.

      At the abandoned village of Big Salmon, we were very pleased to be able to move into one of the small log cabins so that we could cook dinner out of the rain. The government is conducting a river travelers' survey to help in setting river management policies, and Ken John, the Renewable Resources officer stationed at Big Salmon for that purpose, was very enthusiastic about his job on the river - Steven and I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours swapping stories with him after dinner.

      Just downriver from Big Salmon are 2 small gold dredges which were used in the 1940s - the first one, built by Whitehorse pioneer Laurent Cyr and partner Boyd Gordon, is in reasonably good condition except for being toppled over into the river, and Steven was intrigued by what a couple of guys with energy and ingenuity could put together from mostly scavenged parts from old cars and Cats.

      To see everything along the river would take 11 months, not 11 days, and to tell you about it all would take just about that long - we paddled past a large native cemetery at Little Salmon, past the cliffs of Eagle Bluff (the location of the 1906 explosion of the sternwheeler Columbian which killed 6 people), and past several coal mines dating back to the turn of the century, before arriving at Carmacks, where we grabbed a burger and re-stocked some fresh groceries (there was no ice available, however). I really hate to have to say this, but don't leave anything unattended at the Carmacks campground - you may end up walking to Dawson. We only spent an hour there, and moved downriver to a safe gravel bar to camp.

The Yukon River from the 1902 Whitehorse-Dawson Road at Minto
  The Yukon River from the 1902 Whitehorse-Dawson Road at Minto. Click here for a lengthy article about that historic road. It was quite a climb to get to this point, but it provided a nice break from the canoe as well as being a great view.

      Once the Klondike stampeders had either run, or freighted around Whitehorse Rapids, the major hazards along the river were at Five Fingers and Rink Rapids - now, although a great deal of care needs to be taken while running Five Fingers, they provide more excitement than danger (the bow person is in for a bath, though, so be prepared!)

      There are plenty of superb spots to stretch your legs by hiking into the hills - a magnificent view is provided by climbing up to the easily-visible route of the Whitehorse-Dawson Overland Trail as it traverses Minto Hill (see the photo to the right). The road was constructed in 1902 to improve winter transportation to Dawson. With progress changing the vehicles on the road from horse-drawn sleighs and stagecoaches to tractors, and then to automobiles and trucks, it remained in use until the present highway was built in 1950, and many miles of it are still passable. Just south of Minto Hill, we saw the first wildlife of the trip, with 17 Dall sheep on 2 hills. Shortly after, we drifted within 30 feet of 2 beaver (the closest I'd ever been to a beaver).

      The sight of Fort Selkirk on the high bank in the distance remains one of the trip's highlights for both Steven and I. First established by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1848, it has an aura that goes far beyond any other community in the Territory, due to both the length of its history, and the fact that it was the home of both natives and whites who lived side-by-side generation after generation.

Steven inspects a cozy cabin at Fort Selkirk, along the Yukon River
  Steven inspects a cozy cabin at Fort Selkirk. Trapper Frank Blanchard built it in 1938, and his family used it seasonally for many years.

      Fort Selkirk - what can I say about this magic place in 2 or 3 paragraphs? It really deserves a great deal more attention than I can give it here, so there will be a special article on Fort Selkirk coming later. We spent 21 hours there, and took almost 100 photographs of the 34 buildings and 2 cemeteries - apart from the work crew and support people, the village was ours. On the previous day, dozens of people had arrived, stretching the capacity of the campground to the limit. While we were there, several people paddled by without stopping - while I don't understand why they did it, they have my thanks!

      The Yukon Heritage Branch is doing a superb job of restoration and interpretation at Fort Selkirk. The village maintains a spirit that is virtually unknown in restored ghost towns (or "heritage villages," to use an even phonier term). Crowds and over-restoration quickly scare ghosts away from places like this, but whispers still eminate from the the dark and dusty corners here if you listen carefully. The ancestors of the Selkirk First Nation people lived in this area 11,300 years ago - while their voices are silent in the village, the soldiers, trappers, traders, schoolteachers and children from the past 100 years are still explaining their lives here, with the help of guide Maria Van Bibber, who was born here. While life at Fort Selkirk wasn't always easy, Maria speaks of her home with a deep respect and love that is contagious. She has a large stack of photo albums, with several hundred images from all periods of Fort Selkirk's life, right back to 1894, even before the passing parade of Klondike stampeders signalled the dramatic changes which were to follow.

A fanciful grave surround at Fort Selkirk, along the Yukon River
  A fanciful grave surround at Fort Selkirk.

      We had a hard time leaving Fort Selkirk - there is so much to see. But, there is another 190 miles of river to expore yet. And, there will definitely be a next time...

Once past Fort Selkirk, although the surrounding country is at least as impressive as ever, the trip seemed to be rather anti-climactic. Possibly it's a combination of the increasing amount of traffic on the river and the increasing size of the river itself that weaken the aura that has been so strong up to this point. Certainly there is no shortage of historic sites along the banks, with long-abandoned farms becoming more prevalent among the woodcamps as we get nearer the formerly large markets of Dawson City. The relatively fertile islands were particularly popular spots for combined wood-cutting/farming operations. Little or nothing remains at most of these sites - some have been lost to river erosion, and, due to the increasing ease of transportation as we go downstream, many of the buildings were moved to new locations when the original site was no longer viable. As well, the closer we get to Dawson, the larger the number of old sites that have been taken over by new owners, with new cabins being built, or the ghosts being chased out when the old cabins are rebuilt.

Victoria Rock, along the Yukon River downstream from Fort Selkirk
  Victoria Rock, downriver from Fort Selkirk.

      Near Isaac Creek, 45 miles downriver from Fort Selkirk, we camped on a small island with fairly fresh tracks of a sow black bear and her cub, and the following morning were treated to one of the most fascinating events that I've ever seen in the wild. Four peregrine falcons spent at least 10 minutes "playing" with a little sandpiper, knocking it into the water over and over. They would let their victim fly a hundred feet or so, then knock him into the river again. Finally, when the little bird was totally exhausted, one of the falcons snatched him in mid-air, and took him to the far end of the island, where all 4 falcons argued over what must have been a very small meal.

      The main channel in the river can be rather difficult to follow, even for a canoe, even at extreme high water as it was during our trip. Several times, we skimmed over gravel bars in very surprising spots. At locations like Kirkman's Crossing, the government spent large amounts of money in the early years, dredging channels through the gravel bars for the sternwheelers - in some cases (when the gravel was fairly fine), the boats would use their paddlewheels to dig a channel.

The historic buildings at Stewart Island, Yukon are being claimed by river erosion
  Stewart Island and its historic buildings are rapidly being claimed by the river. The store has already been moved away from the river at least twice.

      Due to heavy rains (most of which missed us), the river was carrying much more silt and debris than normal, but even so, once the water from the White River was added, there was a dramatic difference in the colour (and the sound) of the Yukon River. It looks rather like slowly adding cream to your morning coffee - quite fascinating to watch, and complete mixing of the waters takes several miles. The colour of the White River is the result of a combination of glacial silt, and ash from a volcanic eruption about 1,250 years ago. The ash layer now makes a convenient dating tool for archeologists at sites throughout most of the south and central Yukon.

      Seeing Stewart Island, at the mouth of the large Stewart River, was a shock. We had been warned that the river was reclaiming Stewart City, but it was much more dramatic than I had expected. Canoes and kayaks filled every possible landing spot along the cutbanks, so we weren't able to stop and see what is left, but this appears to have been a particularly bad year - one more like this one, and Stewart City will be but a memory.

The roof of the Stewart Island Hudson's Bay Company store, caught on a sandbar in the Yukon River
  The roof of the residence for the employees of the Stewart Island Hudson's Bay store, caught on a gravel bar.

      The Stewart River was one of the earliest of the Yukon's placer mining areas. Prospectors were probably working on the river by 1880, and in 1885, several fairly rich bars were discovered. Arthur Harper soon set up a post at the mouth of the river to serve these miners, but everybody moved to Fortymile when much richer deposits of gold were discovered there in 1886. The Stewart didn't attract much attention again until the Klondike rush, when a fair-sized town was built, with a sternwheeler dock, a NWMP post, a large warehouse, two hotels, a large number of cabins, and an even larger number of tents - the population may have reached 1,000 over the winter of 1898-1899. Although the boom ended as the rush did, the island maintained a population of between 25 and 50 into the late 1930s. David and Margaret (Peggy) Shand operated a particularly popular roadhouse (which had a huge vegetable and flower garden) until 1918, and many other businesses, including Taylor & Drury and the Hudson's Bay Company, came and left at various times. Several buildings have been moved back from the river's edge in recent years. However, the residence for the employees of the Hudson's Bay Company store, built about 1940, slid into the river this spring, and the roof, still intact, is now lodged on a gravel bar about a mile downstream (see the photo above). Jocelyn Rourke informed me that she and her husband Mike helped move about 5 tons of the Burien family's personal articles and artifacts to safety in Dawson this year, so there is little left on the island now.

Cabin ruins at the Carlisle Creek woodcamp, Yukon River
  Cabin ruins at the Carlisle Creek woodcamp.

      The remains of farming equipment on Ogilvie Island, 22 miles below the Stewart River, give little indication of the former importance of this location. A trading post was set up here in 1891 by Arthur Harper and Joe Ladue to serve the Sixtymile mining district. Three years later, Ladue set up the Yukon's first sawmill here, putting himself in a near-perfect position to capitalize on the Klondike strike in August 1896 - within a month of the Bonanza Creek discovery, Ladue had staked the Dawson townsite and relocated his mill. Several farms operated over the years, but none were very successful - Lewis Cruikshank wrote to the Lands Office in 1918, telling them that he had been there for 20 years, and "the longer I stay the poorer I get." Much of his farm was washed away in 1925, but today, there are still 2 cabins (in poor condition), and implements such as a plow, harrow, harnesses and a steamer chest are scattered through the trees. The hay meadow closest to the cabins is now used as a helicopter landing site and fuel cache.

      Despite the fact that Dawson City was the goal of the trip, I wasn't at all anxious to leave the river, and on the last day, we set up camp in the early afternoon, only 3 miles from town. Steven didn't want to leave the river either, but really wanted to, not so much get to Dawson, but to see Dawson as we come around the last bend in the river. As it turned out, we were both really disappointed in that first glimpse of town from the river - the dyke that was built for flood protection about 10 years ago has totally destroyed Dawson's visual connection with the river -*sigh*.

      Anybody who goes to the Yukon (or Alaska) and doesn't visit Dawson, hasn't really seen the North. Although the town is rapidly being ruined by rampant capitalism, the back streets, the unkempt cemeteries and the goldfields can still tell you stories for as long as you care to listen.

      For both Steven and I, the 11 days spent on the river was an experience far more intense, more positive, and opened more doors, than we had thought possible. We are already discussing which sections of the river to do in more detail next year, and the 300+ photos that I shot will provide us with memory-triggers for decades to come.