Yukon River source to Bering Sea 1995

June 14, 1995 through August 21, 1995.  A 1,950 mile, 69 day paddle by canoe

  • 97 miles Lake Bennett to Whitehorse, Yukon Territories
  • 420 miles Whitehorse to Dawson City, Yukon Territories
  • 318 miles Dawson City to Fort Yukon, Alaska
  • 300 miles Fort Yukon to Tananna, Alaska
  • 330 miles Tananna to Nulato, Alaska
  • 280 miles Nulato to Russian Mission, Alaska
  • 205 miles Russian Mission to Emmonak, Alaska

June 13, 1995 – south end of Lake Bennett, headwaters of Yukon River, British Columbia

I put in at the headwaters of the Yukon River at Lake Bennett today to begin my solo voyage down to the Bering Sea.  The wind and overcast made for cold traveling but I was dressed in wool socks, rubber wading boots, wool pants, T-shirt, long sleeve heavy blue work shirt, heavy lined long sleeve shirt, warm jacket and life vest so I stayed warm.

June 14, 1995 – Lake Bennett, headwaters of Yukon River, British Columbia

Any lake can be risky in a canoe, especially one like glacially carved Lake Bennett with its frigid water, mostly inaccessible shoreline and steep sided north-south orientation  to channel the cold winds. This first day was just such a situation.  Waves were a foot high and eight to ten feet crest to crest, wind was about fifteen miles per our.  It made for a cold, challenging day.

 June 15, 1995 – Lake Bennett, Yukon River, British Columbia

After a very trying day of wind and two and a half to three foot waves I pulled ashore at 6:45 p.m. and was determined to eat a hot, filling meal.  Nothing like cooking over a fire, you put the water on and it boils.  No wasting time.  It’s about as good as putting a blow torch to it.  It takes care of itself.  Not so with camp stoves.

June 18, 1995 – Marsh Lake, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

After stopping at 10:00 p.m., I decided to stay up until midnight and get a photo of the “midnight sun”.  I was not to be disappointed.  It couldn’t have been a better end to the day.  About this time, a beaver that had been paddling back and forth in front of the camp finally walked out of the water some sixty feet away and awkwardly waddled into the woods.  Shortly afterwards it waddled back out of the woods and went on its way.

June 23, 1995 – Lake Laberge, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

As the Yukon River approaches Lake Laberge it fans out with many shoal areas.  Upon entering the lake the west side was nothing but sandbars.  A half mile above Lake Laberge I crossed over to the east side and stopped along a fifteen yard open sandy section of the shore.  It was a good site to view the lake and check out the situation, whether to take the west or east shore, an important decision considering the windy conditions and resulting waves.  The prevailing winds have been westerlies which made the decision easy; I chose the shelter of the west shore.

June 24, 1995 – Lake Laberge, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

While canoeing I approached a grizzly bear walking along the shore that was unaware of my presence.  When I got as close as I dared I whistled, shouted and even banged on the canoe but it didn’t appear to impress it much only eliciting a few casual glances over its shoulder.  It wasn’t until I drew even with it and it caught my scent in a cross wind that it took off into the brush.

June 26, 1995 – “Thirty Mile”, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

I made the right decision yesterday to paddle through until 8:30 p.m. in order to get off Lake Laberge.  This morning when I awoke at the outlet of the Yukon River from Lake Laberge the wind howled out on the lake and whitecaps were rolling in as far as I could see.  Instead I enjoyed the gloriously swift current of a scenic stretch of the river known as Thirty Mile, gravel bedded, bordered by spruce and birch forest, and steep bluffs.  The last of the Yukon River lakes was behind me.

June 26, 1995 – Hootalinqua,Yukon River, Yukon Territory

I glanced to my left and was surprised to see a complete paddle wheeler sitting sixty yards back among the trees.  Wooden beams ran along the shore and a large sign introduced the site as a ship landing to pull the paddle wheelers out of the water prior to winter freeze up to protect them from the ice.  I quickly struggled to gain the shore in the swift current and made it to the only possible spot along the steep and densely forested shore to take out at.

June 26, 1995 – Yukon River above confluence with the Porcupine River, Yukon Territory

Towards the end of a long sixty mile day the sky grew dim from smoke from a nearby forest fire.  It wasn’t long before I found myself in the midst of it.  I found sanctuary on the opposite shore where the Yukon widened with the joining of the Porcupine River.  It was the site of an old fort with few trees and where three other canoeists in two canoes had pulled ashore.  As I beached the canoe the fire reached the opposite shore.

June 27, 1995 -Yukon River below confluence with the Porcupine River, Yukon Territory

During the night the fire jumped the river on both sides of camp and moved on.  Traveling along today with Greg, one of the three canoeists that I camped with last night, we surveyed the burned out forest.  We stepped out of the canoes to inspect but had to keep moving about as I could smell the rubber burning on the bottoms of my shoes from the still smoldering thick duff of the forest floor.  We came upon a squirrel that was chattering up a storm on a burned out tree.  How it survived is a guess.  For the next three hours we passed in and out of burned forest, hot spots, and flare ups.

June 26/27, 1995 – Yukon River, Yukon Territory

Greg and I  came upon a large moose swimming across the river today, a neat encounter.  Traveling by canoe presents many opportunities to encounter wildlife up close.

June 29, 1995 – Five Finger Rapids, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

At Five Finger Rapids Greg and I tightened up everything and then passed uneventfully through along the east shore.  With higher flow perhaps it would be different but along the shoreline it was a rapid only in the sense that the water picked up speed a little.  Out in the center it might have been a different story.  A rapid this size can be very misleading and hard to read from a distance and one can get into serious trouble underestimating its scale.

June 30, 1995 – Fort Selkirk, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

We stopped at Fort Selkirk, site of an old trading post that appears to stretch three quarters of a mile on top of a tall river bank.  It was established in 1852, rebuilt forty years later and abandoned by the mid-1950s.  All of the buildings are well preserved.  I inspected the interiors of several of the log buildings which appeared as if the occupants had just left.  In one I found a 1921 newspaper on a table.

June 30, 1995 – Fort Selkirk, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

A fire crew from Alaska arrived by air at Fort Selkirk dirt air strip shortly after we arrived.  The only other way to reach the fort is by water.  They are apparently the best of the best and were asked by the Canadian government to protect the historic site from the still ongoing regional forest fire that has been burning for weeks.  They created fire breaks and set up pumps in the river and long hoses in preparation. When the defenses are completed tomorrow they will leave to join in fighting the fire and return should the fire advance on Fort Selkirk.

July 4, 1995 – Dawson City, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

I decided to lay over in Dawson City for a few days to celebrate the Fourth of July and my birthday.  I took in two period piece dance shows at Diamond Tooth Gerties complete with a piano, banjo player and can-can girls.  I skipped the gambling tables but not the beer.

July 4-6, 1995- Dawson City, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

The older buildings of Dawson City, which date to the gold rush days at the turn of the century, lean as the result of their heating the permafrost beneath their foundations and causing it to melt.  The foundations of newer buildings are built to insulate them from the permafrost to prevent this problem.

July 6, 1995 –  Dawson City, Yukon River, Yukon Territory

It’s my birthday and I’ve never had such a good time.  It started out by celebrating with a barbeque of steaks and salmon on a home built houseboat with people that I have met while here or along the way down the Yukon:  Joe Bentfield from Germany who built the house boat and has floated it down river from Whitehorse, Jan and Achium also from Germany, Brett and Alan from New Zealand, Oz from England, Regina and Nicole from Switzerland, Phillip from Quebec, and Greg from New England.  Afterwards it was off to Sour Toe Cocktails for everyone.  “You can drink it fast or you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.”  And sometime after midnight, it still being light out, Regina and Nicole returned to the houseboat having somehow managed to garner a five gallon container of ice cream!

July 7, 1995 – Yukon River, Yukon Territory

I’ve been traveling with Greg since June 27th when we sat through the forest fire together with two other young fellows from Quebec.  Regina and Nicole from Switzerland whom we met in Dawson City wanted to experience the Yukon so they joined Greg and I for a three day stretch down the Yukon to Eagle.  This first night Greg and I cooked up a spaghetti dinner over the fire and we all ended up staying up until 2:00 a.m.

July 11, 1995 – Eagle, Yukon River, Alaska

In the land of the midnight sun it is still too light at night to see stars but not for a quiet still night with a full moon.  No mosquitoes.  Saw some moose and large canine tracks, most likely wolf.  Throw in the call of a few loons and it’s perfect.  Does it get any better than this?

July 12, 1995 –  Nation, Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska

Tim and Tova Henry are a few of the last people to live in the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve which stretches one hundred and sixty-five miles along the Yukon River.  Living on the Yukon, Tim advertised for a wife and went to Salt Lake City where he met Tova at a social specifically set up for him to meet single women.  In the early eighties the government purchased the Yukon Charley Rivers’ land, but somehow missed Tim who still holds the deed to his land in this wildlife preserve.

July 16-20, 1995 – Fort Yukon, Yukon River, Alaska

Greg and I traveling together, Jan and Achium traveling together, and Michael arrived at Fort Yukon, eight miles above the Arctic Circle, only a day apart.  We had all met almost a month earlier traveling on the Yukon.  Intense winds kept us at Fort Yukon for four long days.

July 26, 1995 – Yukon River, Alaska

Passed numerous fish camps today, about half abandoned for the season.  Most use water wheel fish traps.  When the salmon swim into the wheel they are lifted out of the water and dumped into a holding box.  I parted ways with Greg at the Alaska pipeline bridge from which he will return home.  It’s the halfway point of the Yukon River and the last road for the last thousand miles to the Bering Sea.  We had left Jan, Achium and Michael several days back.  It’s all solo now.

July 28, 1995 – Tanana, Yukon River, Alaska

Below the confluence of the Yukon River with the Tanana River the Yukon almost doubles its width creating a much different river.  I covered forty-one miles in eight hours in order to reach the town of Tanana in time to pick up supplies and especially mail before the Post Office closed.

July 28, 1995 – Tanana, Yukon River, Alaska

I met Bill White, a Mohawk Indian from New York.  He was on a tractor hauling alfalfa which he grows on fifteen acres for his horse, the only one in town.  He lives on the only high hill in town overlooking the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers and invited me to his home for dinner.  There he showed me his “refrigerator”, a set of shelves lowered by pulleys and a cable through a hole in his floor into the permafrost below.

August 1, 1995 – Nine Mile Point, Yukon River, Alaska

Seven miles above Ruby I was collecting wood to lay down on which to pull my canoe out of the water.  The shore was mostly fist size cobbles and among them I noticed an odd “rock” half buried among the cobbles.  As I uncovered it and picked it up I realized that it was a wooly mammoth tooth, a remarkable find.

August 4, 1995 – Yistletaw, Yukon River, Alaska

Working my way through a slough created by some islands to avoid the wind, I was surprised by the tiny village of Yistletaw with about eight to twelve log cabins. Three fishing boats were parked along the shore and fish were drying above the ten foot bank.  I stopped briefly just to say hello and took a photo of four children who were enthralled with my canoe.

August 4, 1995 – Bishop Island, Yukon River, Alaska

I saw my first wolf today at a distance and was able to observe it for ten minutes with field glasses as it walked around and lay down by the water.  I stopped for the night on Bishop Island about a quarter mile around the bend from Yistletaw.  The Blackflies, the size of gnats or No-see-ums, were so bad today that I had to wear a head net while paddling, but they seemed to be absent here – a welcome relief.

August 6/7, 1995 – Yukon River below Nulato, Alaska

I came upon a passel of salmon drying on racks along the river.  The natives refer to these as dog salmon.  Apparently they are the third run of the season, the Chinook salmon and Silver Salmon already having passed through.  They dry enough fish to feed each of their sled dogs a half salmon per day.

August 10, 1995 – Grayling, Yukon River, Alaska

A rainless day cool day but sometimes I could feel the sun’s heat.  A stiff breeze added to the chill.  It was a beautiful night and the sky cleared totally of clouds.  A wind form the north blew.  I made dinner of Rice-a-roni, asparagus au gratin and tea, and then watched a beautiful full moon rise.  What a treat!

August 15, 1995 – 44 miles above Russian Mission, Yukon River, Alaska

I awoke to an almost clear sky and calm water.  It was cold last night; it must have be in the thirty’s.  I built a large fire to get warm by and had hot chocolate and two cups of Grape-Nuts.  It turned out to be probably the best weather day of the whole trip.  I light westerly died out early and the remainder of the day I was traveling on glass that melted like butter as I passed along.

August 15, 1995 – Russian Mission, Yukon River, Alaska

At 9:15 p.m. I pulled out at Russian Mission and set up the tent along the shore.  Several boys from 9th grade down to 4th grade came down to visit and stayed until midnight.  I shared some salmon with them that I cooked over a fire.  All along the Yukon at every village, youths from as young as six years old on up are up and about on their own well past midnight.

August 16-17, 1995 –  Russian Mission, Yukon River, Alaska

While stopped at Russian Mission I met Frank Grant Funk, who has a placer gold mine nearby.  Frank invited me to see his operation and meet his family, so we flew maybe ten miles to the site in his plane; the only way to get about this country other than the river.  They invited me to stay overnight in a spare cabin and later that day Frank and I flew about seventy miles to Saint Mary’s down river for a social meeting he had.  It was quite something to see the Yukon River and surrounding tundra from the air.

August 19, 1995 – Yukon River, Alaska

The lower Yukon is a wide river increasingly exposed to nearly constant, strong winds as it approached the Bering Sea.  My only possible protection from the wind is hugging the shorelines or taking protected sloughs when available so I have to carefully determine each day’s best route based on the wind direction.  Yesterday I made five and a half miles the first hour, four and a half miles the next hour and fifteen minutes, and it went down hill quickly after that.  At one point it took fifteen minutes to go about two-hundred yards.  The last two hours of the day I only covered two miles.

August 20, 1995 – 46 miles above Emmonak, Yukon River, Alaska

Today was a wet, drizzly day with very poor visibility.  Towards the end of the day, exhausted, wet and cold, I was unable to find anywhere where I could pull the canoe out of the water or pitch a tent.  I couldn’t see the far shore through the mist to see if it would be better and I was getting desperate to stop while it was still light out when I came upon a tent cabin.   No one was there so I decided that I would take advantage of it and it was a good decision.   It apparently is used for shelter while fishing or hunting and has a wooden floor and a pot belly stove.  Wet or not there was plenty of wood around and I got a great fire going that warmed the whole place up.  I wrote a note to leave behind in the morning to the owners apologizing for using the tent without their permission, informing them of the circumstances, and thanking them for its use.

August 21, 1995 – Emmonak, Yukon River delta, Alaska

On my last day as I approached the entrance to the channel in the Yukon River delta leading to Emmonak and the Bering Sea I was heading northwest sheltered from the strong southwest wind by hugging the left shore.  But as I approached the channel the Yukon took a sharp bend to the southwest exposing the entrance of the channel to the wind and waves.  To reach the channel I had to cross the mile wide Yukon and was exposed to the wind roaring like a locomotive up the river from the Bering Sea.  The wind, waves and I met in the crossing.  This last three quarter mile stretch to the entrance of the channel took an hour and left me totally exhausted.  Once in the protection of the channel I had to stop and rest.  A mile and a half further along and I arrived in village of Emmonak, the end of my journey.

August 24, 1995 – Emmonak, Yukon River delta, Alaska

My canoe was returned home via a four engine prop cargo plane similar to a WWII DC 54.  The cost was cheap because it was determined by weight, not size, and the empty canoe only weighed seventy-five pounds.  I flew out days later in a small four seat bush plane to Fairbanks and from there took a commercial flight home.

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